/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Have You Seen Her?

Karen Rose

High Point, North Carolina is gripped with fear as a serial killer is in action. State Bureau of Investigation Agent Steven Thatcher vows to bring down this predator killing children. He knows first hand how parents feel as his preadolescent son Nicky was abducted, but fortunately rescued though six months later mental scars remain on the lad, his dad, and his teenage brother Brad…He takes a break from his obsession when Brad's chemistry teacher Dr. Jenna Marshall asks to see him. Brad's grades have collapsed and Jenna is worried about him. Jenna has other problems with threats from a wealthy father who demands she reinstate his failing son back on the football team. Still she finds she is attracted to Steven, who feels the same way. As they fall in love and he tries to uncover a killer with high level protection, a relationship seems impossible. Not only have both have suffered from previous relationships, his children remain traumatized by the abduction.

Karen Rose

Have You Seen Her?

Copyright © 2004 by Karen Rose Hafer

To the KARENS-Solem and Kosztolnyik-for believing in me and for making dreams come true.

To TERRI BOLYARD-for your openhearted generosity and constant, priceless friendship.

To SARAH and HANNAH-you are the lights of my life.

And as always to my husband MARTIN-for loving me just the way that I am. I love you, too.

Acknowledgments

Dr. Marc Conterato and Kay Conterato for medical advice on this book and for all the wisdom and support they've provided over the years-they are remarkable people and incredible friends.

MARTIN HAFER for his hard-won insight into the mind of evil perpetrators, gained through years of counseling families shattered and broken through insidious crime.

Mary and Mike Koenig and Neil Blunt for their insight into the Catholic faith.

Prologue

Seattle , three years earlier

"I wished they'd fried his murderein' ass," declared the first man bitterly, breaking the silence that had become explosive in its intensity.

Murmurs of heated agreement rippled through the small crowd that had gathered to watch the moving van being loaded. God only knew why they had. There really wasn't anything to see. Sofas, chairs, antiques of all shapes and sizes. Vases that probably cost a year's salary of an average work-ingman. A grand piano. Simply the belongings of an opulent family forced to flee the rage of an incensed community.

And the guards the family had hired to keep the crowds at bay. That was all.

The off-duty cop dressed in old jeans and a Seahawks sweatshirt wasn't sure why he himself was there, standing in the cold Seattle drizzle. Perhaps to prove to himself that the murdering sonofabitch was really leaving town. Perhaps to get one last look at his face before he did.

Perhaps.

But more than likely it was to torture himself over the one who got away. The cruel, demonic, sadistic brute who got away. On a goddamn technicality.

There would be no justice for the grieving community, still in shock. Not today, anyway, he thought.

An elderly woman shook her plastic-rainhat-covered head as the movers loaded more boxes into the unmarked truck. "The chair wouldn't have been good enough, not after what he did."

Another old man squared his once-robust shoulders, staring at the darkened house with contempt. "Shoulda done to him what he done to those poor girls."

His wife made a soft clucking sound in her throat from under the umbrella she held over them both. "But what decent person could they get to do it?"

"How about the girls' fathers?" her husband returned, helpless fury making his voice tremble.

Again murmurs of agreement.

"What I can't believe is that they just let him go," a younger man wearing a Mariners baseball cap said in a bold, angry voice.

"On a technicality," added the first man who had spoken, just as bitterly as before.

On a mistake. An error. A goddamn technicality.

"Cops arrest 'em, damn lawyers let 'em go," said the man sharing the umbrella with his wife.

"Oh, no," said the man in the Mariners cap. "This technicality was the fault of the police. It was all over the front page. The cops fucked up and this monster goes free."

It was true. But he knew it wasn't "cops." It was only one cop.

"Richard," shushed the younger woman at Baseball-cap's side, grabbing his arm. "There's no need to be vulgar."

Richard Baseball-cap shook off the woman's restraining hand. "He rapes and butchers four girls and I'm vulgar?" he declared in loud disbelief. "Don't be an idiot, Sheila."

Sheila looked down at the pavement, her cheeks crimson. "I'm sorry, Richard."

"Yeah, whatever," Richard muttered, looking up at the house. "It just pisses me off that rich people hire rich lawyers and get away with bloody murder."

Agreement again passed through the group and the conversation turned to the inequities of the modern legal system until the movers loaded the last box and sealed the truck's back doors. The truck pulled away to a cacophony of jeers and name-calling that did absolutely no real good at all, unless it made the crowd feel better. But how could it?

Then the small crowd hushed as one of the doors of the three-car garage slid open and a black Mercedes sedan emerged. No one said a word until the Mercedes was upon them, gliding by on the wet street Then Richard Baseball-cap yelled, "Murderer!" and the cry was taken up by the others.

Except for the off-duty cop in old blue jeans and a now-soaked Seahawks sweatshirt who said not a word, even when the Mercedes rolled to a stop next to where he silently stood.

The crowd hushed again as the heavily tinted window rolled down, revealing the face that haunted his dreams, asleep and awake. Cold dark eyes narrowed, filled with unleashed fury. It was subhuman, the face and the eyes and the mouth that curved in a smug smile that he wanted to slice right off the subhuman face. Then the smug mouth spoke. "Go to hell, Davies," it said.

It's no less than I deserve. "I'll meet you there," Davies returned through clenched teeth.

The woman in the Mercedes's front passenger seat murmured something and the subhuman raised the window. The engine gunned and the tires squealed against the wet asphalt as the Mercedes leapt forward, sending up a fine cloud of charred steam that burned his nose.

And off they go, Davies thought. Off to have a life. Unfair. Inequitable. A vicious, sadistic murderer robbed four teenaged girls of their lives and was set free to have a life of his own. For now.

Because soon enough the blood lust would rise up again and more girls would be at the murderer's mercy. More girls would die, because the murdering sonofabitch had no mercy.

More girls would die. But the next time I'll be ready. The next time there would be no technicality. The next time the murdering, sadistic monster would pay.

Neil Davies watched the Mercedes turn the corner at the end of the street and then it was out of view. Next time, he vowed to the four girls. To himself. I'll get him. He'll pay. I promise.

Chapter One

Present Day, Raleigh, North Carolina,

Monday, September 26, 10:00 A.M.

The fact that he'd seen more horrific scenes over the course of his career should have made this one easier to mentally process.

Should have.

It didn't.

Special Agent Steven Thatcher loosened his tie, but it didn't do a thing to help the flow of air to his lungs. It didn't do a thing to change what he'd found in the clearing after the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation received an anonymous tip leading them to this place.

It certainly didn't do a thing to bring the poor dead woman back to life.

So Steven centered the knot of his tie right over the lump in his throat. He stepped forward carefully, earning him a glare from the rookie Forensics had sent because the rookie's boss had picked the week they discovered a gruesome, brutal murder to take a cruise to the Caribbean.

Now, looking at the mangled corpse, heavily scavenged by whatever creatures lived in these woods, Steven couldn't help wishing he were on a boat far from civilization, too.

"Watch your feet," the rookie cautioned from his hands-and-knees position on the grass next to the body, irritation in his voice. Kent Thompson was reputed to be quite good, but Steven would hold his judgment. However, the fact Kent hadn't thrown up yet was a stroke in his favor.

"Thank you for the lesson in crime-scene investigation," Steven replied dryly and Kent's cheeks went redder than chili peppers.

Kent sat back on his heels and looked away. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm frustrated. I've checked this entire area three times. Whoever left her here didn't leave anything else behind."

"Maybe the ME will find something on the body," Steven said.

Kent sighed. "What's left of it." He looked back at the corpse, clinical detachment on his face. But Steven also noted the flicker of controlled compassion in the young man's eyes and was satisfied. Kent would do his job, but still remember the victim. Another stroke in the newbie's favor.

"Sorry, Steven," said a ragged voice behind him and Steven turned to find Agent Harry Grimes taking labored breaths as he slipped a handkerchief in his pocket. Harry's face was pale, although the green tinge had passed along with the Egg McMuffin Harry had downed on his way to the scene.

New to the SBI, Harry had been assigned to Steven for training. Harry showed a lot of promise, except for his very weak stomach. But Steven couldn't blame him too much. He might have lost his own breakfast had he taken the time to eat any. "It's okay, Harry. It happens."

"Have we found anything?" Harry asked.

"Not yet." Steven crouched down next to the body, a pen in his gloved hand. "Nude, no ID or clothing anywhere around. There's enough left of her to know she was female."

"Adolescent female," Kent added and Steven's head shot up.

"What?"

"Adolescent female is my guess," Kent said, pointing to the corpse's torso. "Pierced navel."

Harry's gulp was audible. "How can you tell?"

Kent's mouth quirked up. "You could see if you put your face a bit closer."

"I don't think so," said Harry in a strangled voice.

Steven balanced himself on the balls of his feet, still crouched. "Okay, an adolescent female. She's been here at least a week. We'll need to run a check through missing persons." He gently rolled the body over and felt his heart skip a beat at the same time Harry cursed softly.

"What?" Kent asked, looking from Steven up to Harry and back at Steven. "What?"

A grimness settled over Steven and he pointed his pen at the remains of the young girl's left buttock. "She had a tattoo."

Kent leaned closer, then looked up, still squinting. "Looks like a peace symbol."

Steven looked up at Harry who wore a look of the same grim acknowledgment. "Lorraine Rush," Steven said and Harry nodded.

"Who was Lorraine Rush?" Kent asked.

"Lorraine was reported missing about two weeks ago," Harry said quietly. "Her parents went in to wake her up for school and found her bed slept in but empty."

"No evidence of forced entry," Steven added, looking at the corpse with new concern. "We had to assume she'd run away. Her parents insisted she never would run, that she'd been kidnapped."

"Parents always insist their kids would never run away," Harry said. "You still don't know that she didn't and just met up with some rough character along the way."

Steven could see in his mind's eye the picture of Lorraine as she'd been, the smiling girl in the photograph on the Rushes' fireplace mantel. "She was sixteen. A year younger than my oldest son." Steven let his thoughts briefly linger on his troubled son who'd undergone such a radical change in personality in the last month. But that was another worry. He'd dwell on his very personal problem of Brad when he'd put Lorraine Rush out of his mind. Whenever that would be.

"Damn shame," said Kent.

Steven pushed himself to his feet and stared down at what was left of what had once been a beautiful, vibrant young woman. Pushed back the primal rage at the monster who could take the life of another so brutally. "We'll need to inform her parents." He didn't look forward to that task.

Breaking the tragic news of a loved one's murder should have been easier after all these years.

Should have been.

It wasn't.

Chapter Two

Thursday, September 29, 8:55 A.M.

"How are you, Steven?"

Steven looked up to find his boss, Special Agent in Charge

Lennie Farrell, looking down at him with that troubled expression that made Steven want to groan. When most people said how are you, they meant how are you? but when Lennie Farrell said how are you, it meant they were going to have a chat, which in Steven's case would almost certainly include a discussion of "the incident" from six months before. Which Steven didn't have the emotional energy to go through. Not now.

Not after yet another argument with seventeen-year-old Brad last night over his oldest son's month-old attitude that gave "sullen teenager" new meaning. They'd fought, screamed at each other, and Steven still didn"t know why or who had won.

Not after yet another over-breakfast argument with his aunt Helen over the "nice young woman" she'd lined up for him to meet this weekend. Helen never understood that he was determined to remain a widower for the foreseeable future, at least until all his boys were grown.

Steven pressed his fingertips to his throbbing temple. And especially after trying to hug his youngest son before leaving the house and once again having seven-year-old Nicky push him away. Nicky and "the incident" were inextricably intertwined.

Steven would rather date one of Helen's debutantes than talk about it again.

But Lennie's expression said that's what he'd come to talk about and although Steven had learned from experience that Lennie would not be deterred, he did know his boss could be distracted. So to his boss's how are you, Steven replied, "About like you'd think after looking at pictures of a mutilated, animal-scavenged corpse." He pushed the folder to the edge of his desk.

Lennie took the bait, flipping through the pictures of the body in the clearing, his seasoned cop's face showing no sign of emotion. But he swallowed hard before closing the folder.

"And our suspects?" Lennie asked, his eyes still on the folder cover.

"Not many," Steven said. "Lorraine Rush was a well-liked girl, a cheerleader at High Point High School. Sixteen, no boyfriends her parents knew about. Her friends are stunned."

"And her teachers?'

"Nothing mere either. We've checked her whereabouts every day for three weeks before she was reported missing and nothing stands out. Lorraine was a clean-cut all-Ameri-can girl."

"With a tattoo on her buttock," Lennie said.

Steven shrugged. "She was a teenager, Lennie. They paint and pierce themselves, God knows why. In my day it was dyeing your hair green and sticking safety pins in your nose. We ran a tox screen on what was left and didn't find any evidence of the usual teenage party scene."

"So, in other words, no suspects," Lennie said, frowning.

"Nope."

"And the Forensics report?"

"She was killed there in the clearing. Her blood was found soaked three inches into the soil."

"It's been so dry lately," Lennie murmured. "The ground just drank her up."

Steven eyed his half-drunk coffee with new distaste. "Yeah. Cause of death may have been stabbing, but the ME wouldn't swear to it There just wasn't enough of her body left. She'd been there five days based on the larval state of the maggots that were busy eating what the animals left behind. She was probably raped, although the ME wouldn't swear to that either."

Lennie's mouth tightened. "What will the ME swear to?"

"That she's dead."

Lennie's lip twitched. Once. Through all the horror, they had to find ways to lighten the stress. Humor normally sufficed, as long as they kept it to themselves. But the humor was a trapping, a cover that just hid the horror for a moment or two. Then it was there again, staring them in the face.

Steven sighed and opened the folder. "Kent also found what looks like a new tattoo on the Rush girl's scalp. Whoever killed her shaved her bald and left his mark on her."

Lennie bent down and squinted at the picture. "What is it?"

"Not enough left to say. Kent's investigating. Whoever shaved her head didn't do it there in the clearing or if he did, he's one meticulous sonofabitch. We picked at the grass with tweezers for two days and didn't find a single hair. Nothing," Steven added irritably.

It was Lennie's turn to sigh. "Well, now you've got another place to look."

Steven straightened in his chair. "What are you talking about, Lennie?"

Lennie pulled a folded sheet from his pocket. "We got a call from Sheriff Braden over in Pineville. His sister went in to wake his sixteen-year-old niece for school this morning and-"

Dread settled in the pit of Steven's stomach. Two of them. Two meant the "s" word. Serial killer. "And the girl was gone," he said woodenly.

"Bed slept in, no evidence of forced entry, window left unlocked."

"Could be unrelated," Steven said.

Lennie nodded soberly. "Pray they are. This one's yours. I have to ask if you can handle it."

Irritation bubbled and Steven let just a little of it show. "Of course I can, Lennie. I wish you'd just leave it the hell alone."

Lennie shook his head. "I can't, you know that. I don't want one of my lead agents cracking in the middle of what could turn out to be a high-profile serial murder case. I also don't want you to have to go through another case where children are stolen out of their beds."

Like Nicky had been, six months before when a wife-beating, murdering cop took his littlest boy hostage to make Steven back down. Nicky was returned, physically unharmed, in large part due to the heroics of the cop's abused wife, but his baby had not been the same. Gone was his infectious laughter, the way he'd hugged them for no reason at all. Nicky had allowed no hugs since that day six months ago. He hadn't slept in his own bed, either, and he hadn't slept through the night.

Steven knew this because he sure as hell hadn't slept through the night either.

Lennie broke into his thoughts. "Steven, can you handle this or not?"

Steven looked at the picture of the mutilated body of Lorraine Rush and thought about the newest girl, missing from her bed. These girls deserved justice, above all else. He looked up at Lennie, his smile a mere baring of teeth. "Yes, Lennie. I can handle it."

Lennie handed him the report, concern still evident in his eyes. "Her name is Samantha Eggleston. Her parents are waiting for your call."

Thursday, September 29, 11:00 P.M.

Thunder rolled off to the east. Or was it west? It really didn't matter, he thought, scratching the back of his neck with the flat of the blade. With his very sharp blade. He grinned to himself. One slip would be the end of him. He glanced down at the ground and raised a brow thoughtfully. One slip would be the end of her, too. But never stop with just one slip. Not when he'd gone to so much trouble. Every movement must be planned. And savored. He rolled up his left sleeve, then transferred the blade from one gloved hand to the other and methodically rolled up the right while she watched, her blue eyes wide and terrified.

Terrified was good. Just looking at her lying there tied, and scared-and nude-made his skin tingle with anticipation. She was completely under his control.

It was like… electricity. Pure electricity. And he'd made it. He'd created it. What a rush.

Rush. As in Lorraine Rush. No pun intended. Lorraine had been a good practice run. A good way to return to the game after so long on the sidelines. He'd forgotten just how damn good it felt.

This new one, she hadn't made a sound yet. Well, she was wearing a thick strip of duct tape over her mouth to be perfectly fair. But he'd take the tape off eventually and she would. She'd try not to. She'd bite her lip and cry. But in the end she'd scream her head off. They always did. And it wouldn't make one lousy bit of difference. That was one good thing about Hicksville. There were places you could go and scream bloody murder and nobody would ever hear a single word.

Another roll of thunder rattled the dry ground under his feet and this time he looked up to the night sky, totally annoyed. It could actually rain. How irritating was that? "The best laid plans," he muttered, then had to grin as he punned once again. Laid. That was the operative word. One of ' em anyway. Then the wind changed and his grin faded. Of all the sonofabitch nights to rain.

He crossed his arms over his chest, holding the ten-inch blade out to one side, and frowned. He could just get it over with, but that seemed anticlimactic. He'd planned for quite a while to bag this little doll. She'd been so unsure. "I just don't know," she'd whispered into the phone, trying not to wake her parents and sound breathy at the same time. In his mind he mocked her maidenly refusals. If her parents only knew their little darling was a real little slut, meeting a stranger after they'd gone to sleep. No brainiac here. They'd raised a slut and an idiot.

He closed his eyes and brought the image of another to mind. He could see her face in his mind. So incredibly beautiful, so… pure. He'd have her someday. Soon. But until then… He looked down at the huddled form at his feet. Until then, this one would have to do.

Thunder rolled again. He needed to make up his mind. Either hurry up and finish before the rain closed in or pack her up and store her until the storm passed through. Either way he was taking a chance being out here in the rain. A hard rain would leave the ground soft. Soft ground left footprints and tire prints and cops were pretty good about tracking those kind of clues these days. Damn forensics. No matter. He was as smart as they were. Smarter.

Hell, a baboon was smarter than the cops. If he'd waited until the cops had discovered little Lorraine's body on their own, there wouldn't have been enough left of it to identify.

And he wanted little Lorraine's body identified. He wanted everyone to know. To fear.

Fear me. Your daughters aren't safe even in their own beds. Fear me.

He'd wait, he decided. He'd rushed the last one and it was over too fast. Like an amusement park ride you stand in line for two hours to ride and the damn ride only lasts three and a half minutes. He'd gone longer than three and a half minutes with the last one, for sure. But it was still over too fast. He wouldn't make the same mistake again. It had been his only mistake, he thought, rushing the grand finale. Everything else he'd done to perfection. Not a single thread of evidence left behind. No surprise there. He was thinking much more clearly now.

Carefully he sheathed his blade and slipped it under the front seat of his car, popping the trunk latch on his way back to where she lay, eyes still wide with terror.

"C'mon, sugar," he drawled, scooping her up and tossing her over his shoulder. "Let's go for a ride." He dropped her in the trunk with a loud thud, then patted her bare butt fondly. She whimpered and he nodded. "Don't worry, we'll come back tomorrow. Until then, sit tight and entertain yourself. You could think about me," he suggested brightly. "You do know who I am." She shook her newly bald head hard, denying the inevitable, and he laughed. "Oh, come on, Samantha. You have to know who I am. Don't you watch the news?" He leaned a little closer and whispered, "Don't you have a good imagination?"

Her eyes shut tight, she pulled her nude body into a fetal position, shaking like a leaf. Two tears seeped from her eyes and slid down her cheeks.

He nodded again and slammed down the trunk. "Good girl. I guess you do."

Chapter Three

Friday, September 30, 12:30 P.M.

Twenty-seven down, three to go. And Brad Thatcher's would be one of the three.

You're a coward, Jenna Marshall told herself. Afraid of a sheet of paper. Actually five sheets of paper stapled precisely in the upper left corner. Times the three students whose tests she'd yet to grade. She stared hard at the purple folder containing the ungraded organic chemistry tests.

You're a coward and a procrastinator, she told herself, then sighed quietly. She looked across the scarred old table that dominated the faculty lounge, a wall of haphazardly stacked folders meeting her eye. Casey Ryan was back there somewhere, behind the folders, busily grading the junior English class's thoughtful analyses of Dostoyevsky. Jenna shuddered. Poor kids. Not only did they have to read Crime and Punishment, but they had to write a theme on it, too. She rolled her eyes.

Get to work, Jen. Stop procrastinating and grade Brad's test. She picked up her red pen, stared hard at the purple folder, thought about Brad Thatcher and the test he'd more than likely failed, then desperately looked around for anything else to do. The only other occupant of the faculty lounge was Lucas Bondioli, guidance counselor by day, pro golfer in his dreams. Lucas was intensely focused on sinking a putt into an overturned plastic cup. Lucas tended to become very unhappy when his putting was disturbed so Jenna turned her attention back to Casey.

Casey's hand appeared over the top of the leaning stacks of folders and grabbed another theme paper, sending the stack swaying. Standing, Jenna grabbed the closest stack to avert certain disaster.

"Don't even think about it," Casey snapped, not even looking up from her grading.

"Dammit!" Lucas bit out.

"Just put them back and nobody gets hurt," Casey continued, as if Lucas hadn't spoken.

Jenna looked up in time to see Lucas's putt go wide, winced, meekly put Casey's folders back, and sat down. "Sorry, Lucas."

"It's okay," Lucas responded glumly. "I wasn't going to make it anyway."

"What about me?" Casey demanded from behind the wall of folders.

"I didn't do anything to you," Jenna shot back. "I was just trying to bring some order into chaos." She waved her hand at Casey's leaning stacks. "You are a disorderly person."

"And you are a procrastinator," Lucas said mildly, sitting down next to Jenna.

Casey's hand appeared to grab another theme. "Why are you procrastinating, Jen? That's not like you."

Lucas slid down in his chair. "Because she doesn't want to grade Brad Thatcher's chemistry test, because she knows he probably failed it, and she knows contacting his father about his sudden personality changes is the right thing to do, but she's scared to call any more parents because Rudy Lutz's father cussed her out on Wednesday"-he drew a deep breath- "for failing Rudy in remedial science and getting him suspended from the football team," he finished. And exhaled.

Jenna looked at him in annoyed admiration. "How do you do that?"

Lucas grinned. "I have a wife and four daughters. If I don't talk fast, I'd never get anything out."

Casey's chair scraped against the tile floor and her blond head poked up from behind the paper wall. Five feet tall on her tiptoes, she was only visible from the chin up. "Brad Thatcher failed his chemistry test?" Her brows scrunched, making her look like a profoundly perplexed disembodied elf. "Are we talking about the Brad Thatcher, Wonderboy?"

Jenna looked down at the purple folder, sobering. "Yes, only he's not the same Brad. Not anymore. He got a D on his last test. I'm afraid to grade this one."

"Jenna." Lucas shook his head, taking on the quiet, thoughtful persona that made him a wonderful mentor to new teachers like herself. "Just do it. Then we'll talk about what to do next."

So Jenna grasped her red pen firmly, opened the purple folder, and found Brad's test at the bottom of the thin pile. Her heart sank as she marked an "x" next to every question, feeling hopelessness mount with each one. Brad had been her most promising student. Bright, articulate, a veritable shoo-in for a prestigious scholarship sponsored by a group of Raleigh companies. He'd all but thrown that opportunity away. One more test like this and he'd fail her class, jeopardizing his chances at admission to the top colleges he'd chosen. And she had no idea why. With another sigh she wrote F on the first page, top and center. She looked up to find Lucas and Casey quietly waiting.

"I didn't think I'd ever put an F on anything Brad Thatcher did," Jenna said, putting down her pen. "What's happened to him, Lucas?"

Lucas picked up Brad's test and flipped through the pages, her concern mirrored in his dark eyes. "I don't know, Jen. Sometimes kids have problems with girlfriends. Sometimes their problems are at home. But you're right. 1 never would have expected Brad to change like this."

"You think he's into drugs?" Casey asked soberly, voicing their collective fear.

"We all know it can happen to kids from good homes," Jenna answered, slipping Brad's test back into the purple folder. "I guess I need to call his father, but I'm not looking forward to it, not after breaking the news to Rudy Lutz's dad that his son flunked his last test and is on the bench until he pulls up his grade."

Casey came around the table and half sat against the edge closest to Jenna's chair. "Mr. Lutz let you have it, huh?"

Jenna felt her gut chum just remembering. "I learned some new words during that phone call." She managed a weak grin. "It was certainly educational. I just feel so helpless with Brad, watching him throw his life away like this. There's got to be something I can do."

Casey's eyes narrowed. Quick as a flash her small hand shot out and grabbed Jenna's chin. "There is. You call his parents, offer your support, then you step back, Jen. You aren't the savior of the world. He's not one of your pound puppies you can save from the needle. He's a high school senior with enough brains to make his own choices. There's nothing you can do to force him to make the right ones. That's just a cold reality of life. Understand?"

Casey had always assumed the role of Jenna's protector, ever since their college days at Duke. It was really quite comical as Jenna towered over Casey's petite frame. Mutt and Jeff they'd been called in college and it was a fair description. Jenna tall and dark, Casey small and blond. Casey, the perennial cheerleader and social butterfly; Jenna, much more quiet and reserved. Now, pushing thirty, Casey still played the mama tiger to perfection. Jenna had long since given up trying to dissuade her from it. "Yes, ma'am. You can let go now."

Casey let go, still eyeing her uncertainly. "Let me know how the talk goes with his parents."

Jenna found her list of students' parent or guardian contacts. "Brad only has a father."

"His mother died about four years ago," Lucas offered. "Car wreck."

Casey pushed her mouth into a thoughtful frown. "That alone's enough to impact a kid on top of what he went through last spring with his brother getting kidnapped and all. Look, I need to go. My fourth period's doing Macbeth and I need to set up the cauldron." She made her way to the faculty lounge door, then turned suddenly, her expression intense. "Don't let her get too involved in Brad Thatcher's problems, Lucas. She has a control problem, you know."

Lucas's lips twitched. "I know," he said soberly. "I won't, Casey."

When the door closed, Jenna rolled her eyes. "I have a control problem?"

"Yes, you do," Lucas said affably. "So does she. Are you sure you're not related?"

"Positive. Casey's mother didn't eat her own young." Jenna turned her focus back to the parent contact information. "Brad's dad works for the State Bureau of Investigation. I bet contacting him is going to be difficult."

"Probably."

"He'll probably say he's not available, that he doesn't have time."

"Possibly."

Jenna glared over at him. He just stared back, smiling.

"You are maddening, Lucas."

"Marianne's told me that every day for twenty-five years."

Jenna crossed her arms over her chest and sucked in one side of her cheek. "You know, as a mentor you really suck. Obi Wan told Luke Skywalker what to do."

Lucas's salt-and-pepper mustache quivered. "Listen to the

Force," he said in a deep voice, then raised a challenging brow. "So what will you do, young Jedi?"

Jenna sighed. "I'm going to call his father," she answered irritably. "Then if his dad yells at me like Rudy Lutz's father did, I'll come and cry on your shoulder."

Lucas stood up and patted her head. "My box of Kleenex has your name on it."

It actually did. Dr. Jenna Marshall, Ph.D., written across the box in Lucas's even hand. She smiled, a little sadly. Marianne was lucky to have shared her lifetime with such a kind man.

Her smile faded as inevitably her mind wandered. If only she and Adam had been lucky enough… But they hadn't been. She sat still, trying to remember the days when Adam was healthy, instead remembering those last days of his life she wished she could forget. She stiffened her back and shook her head, as if the memories could be shaken loose that way. Hardly.

She made herself stand up. She only had a few more minutes left on her lunch break and she needed to call Brad Thatcher's father. Today. Before Brad slipped even further away.

Friday, September 30, 2:45 P.M.

Two of them, Steven thought as he watched Kent Thompson comb the grass inside the twenty-square-foot area they'd cordoned off with bright yellow tape.

A second young girl stolen. A second family crushed.

They'd caught a break in the case of Samantha Eggleston's disappearance, thanks to a four-year-old Lab named Pal, his eighty-year-old owner, and Sheriff Braden who'd secured the cnme scene and called the SBI posthaste Steven watched Kent search the ground once again on his hands and knees this time wearing a contraption over his head that made him look halt welder and half German spy, complete with mono cle In Kent's hands were tweezers and carefullv labeled plastic evidence bags Harry Grimes canvassed the outer perimeter next to the woods, just as carefully No one wanted any evidence lost. They might not get another chance to catch their prey

Steven studied the scene with a clinical eye. It was a clearing, identical to the one where they'd found Lorraine Rush, surrounded by the pine trees that had given this suburb ot Raleigh its name Pineville, North Carolina. Soon this pretty little town would be known for a hell of a lot more than its Christmas tree farms. Soon it would be known as the hunting ground for a new serial killer

Lorraine Rush found four days ago. Samantha Eggleston reported missing yesterday morning. Both pretty high school girls. Both missing from their beds in the middle of the night. No sign of forced entry or evidence of an intruder in either case.With the current facts in hand it seemed they were related Steven couldn't afford to think anything else until he proved otherwise

The cleanng was deserted now but something had happened here within the last few hours. There was a patch of flattened grass, roughly five by three, which could have held a body at one point. It didn't now The area to one side of the flattened grass was spattered with blood-presumably from the dog that belonged to the owner of this land, although Kent would thoroughly check to make sure none of the blood was human-belonging to either the missing girl or her abductor. The blood trail went from the cleanng back to the owner's house, about a mile away on the other side of the trees, where the dog had shown up an hour before, stabbed and bleeding

The old man had acted quickly, following the trail of blood from his house to the clearing. The man's old eyes were sharp-he'd noticed the scrap of white that fluttered beneath the graceful limbs of one of the pine trees. It was a pair of women's underwear, size four with delicate little flowers- the same size and pattern worn by Samantha Eggleston. The old man had immediately called the sheriff, who'd immediately called Steven.

Kent sat back on his heels and pushed the monocle up and out of his line of sight. He glanced up briefly "I found a hair," he announced, deeply satisfied "Dark. Very straigh.t"

Steven's pulse spiked and he gingerly approached the area of flattened grass Kent was still inspecting, avoiding the areas that were spattered with blood. Samantha Eggleston's hair was dark but very long and curly. That the single hair belonged to their perp was almost more than he would dare to hope. "Unbelievable I can't believe you found anything in all this mess. "

Kent grinned before lowering the monocle and dropping back down to his hands and knees. "I'm good. "

Steven shook his head "And humble. Don't forget about humble "

"And humble," Kent added, now talking to the ground

"Bullshit," Steven said mildly "Tell me that hair has a follicle and I'll buy that you're good. Otherwise you're just one more geek in a welder's mask."

Kent chuckled "I wish I were a welder I'd probably make a hell of a lot more money."

Steven crossed his arms over his chest "Stick with me, welder-boy Follicle or not?"

Kent's smile dimmed "No. Sorry "

"Dammit," Steven hissed. Without the follicle they'd have no DNA analysis.

"Hold your horses," Kent said patiently. "I still may be able to get you a DNA print."

"How many days?" Steven asked, gritting his teeth.

"Seven to ten." Kent sat back on his heels again. "Where's the dog?"

Steven looked over to one side where the sheriff stood with his arm around the shoulders of the dog's owner. "Probably back at the owner's house. The vet should be on his way to patch him up." He hoped the dog was treatable, for the old man's sake, but the Lab had lost a lot of blood during whatever altercation had occurred here in this clearing. "Why?"

"I want to swab the dog's teeth."

Steven's brows went up. "Why?"

"If the dog bit your perp, there might be some skin cells lodged in his teeth."

Steven reconsidered the young man who'd joined the SBI only a few months before. "Okay, I stand corrected. You are good. I wouldn't have thought to check the dog's teeth."

Kent grinned again. "Can't take credit for that one. Saw it on Law and Order."

Steven rolled his eyes. "Of course. We should bypass the academy and just make all our recruits watch Law and Order reruns."

"It'd save the taxpayers money," Kent said with another chuckle, his eyes glued to the grass.

Steven smiled in spite of himself. He was finding he. Liked the young man's easy manner a whole lot more than Kent's boss's waspish edge. Kent's boss would have normally supervised an investigation of this magnitude, but Diane was currently sunning herself on a cruise ship. It gave Kent a chance to show his stuff and gave the rest of them a much-needed break from Diane. "I'll make sure the vet doesn't do anything that would compromise the dog's teeth."

"Thanks. Tell the old man I won't hurt his dog," Kent added, dropping his head back down to search.

Steven looked over to where Sheriff Braden and the old man stood silently watching on the other side of the yellow tape. "Any more than he's already hurt," Steven murmured. Sheriff Braden's eyes met Steven's and in them. Steven saw a wild mixture of abject anguish and terrified helplessness. Samantha Eggleston was Sheriff Braden's sixteen-year-old niece.

Looking now at Braden's shoulders bowed in grief and terror, Steven felt a connection with the man that went past the polite but inadequate empathy law enforcement felt for the victim, past the kinship for a fellow cop. Steven knew how Braden felt. Knew how Braden's sister felt. Knew how it felt to live with the terror that a madman held your child.

Steven carefully made his way to where Braden and the old farmer stood watching his approach. "We may have something," Steven said and Braden nodded, tight-lipped. "You did a good job in securing the crime scene. Mother Nature helped by holding off the rain," he added when Braden said nothing. Steven wasn't sure Braden could speak and Steven couldn't blame him. Braden had seen the dog's wounds, and undoubtedly his mind was conjuring every possible outcome while his heart broke at the mental picture of his niece at the mercy of a vicious abductor with a knife. Steven reached out and briefly clasped Braden's shoulder, meeting his eyes. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I really do know how you feel."

Braden swallowed hard. Cleared his throat. "Thanks," he managed. Then he straightened his back, lifted his chin, and dropped his arm from the old man's shoulders. "My men are chompin' at the bit for something to do here. Anything you guys need, just name it."

Steven looked over his shoulder. Kent was still on his hands and knees while Harry was searching the woods. "I think the best thing would be to limit the number of feet trampling the crime scene at this point, but they could reassemble the search party. How many acres are here?"

Braden deferred to the old man. "Bud?"

"Three hunnerd and sixty-two," the old man answered without hesitation. His voice was stronger than Steven would have expected given the old man's whole body shook in constant trembles. One gnarled old hand gripped a cane. The other he stuck out in greeting. "Name's Bud Clary. I own this land."

Steven shook the old man's hand. "I wish we were meeting under other circumstances, Mr. Clary. I do have a special request. Your dog, sir."

One gray brow went up. "Pal?" Mr. Clary asked.

" Yessir. We want to check his teeth when the vet is finished sewing him up. There might be some evidence there if Pal bit the person who stabbed him."

"Hope he did," Clary muttered. "Hope he took a chunk outa the sonofabitch."

"Me, too," Steven agreed grimly. "Sheriff, can you tell the vet not to touch Pal's mouth?"

Braden was already moving toward his cruiser. "Will do."

Steven turned back to Mr. Clary. "Do you need to sit down, Mr. Clary?" Steven gestured toward his car. "I have a folding chair in my trunk."

Clary nodded and Steven quickly retrieved the chair and set it up. He'd sat in it next to every stream between Raleigh and William's Sound, fishing for whatever would take his bait. "It might smell a bit fishy," he said as Mr. Clary lowered himself into the chair.

"It's okay, boy," Clary replied, attempting a tired smile. "So do I." He settled himself, then drew a deep breath. "I have Parkinson's and the shakes get worse when I'm stressed." He looked over his shoulder at Kent, still on his hands and knees in the middle of the bloody grass, then back at Steven, his old eyes clear and piercing. "Will you find Samantha, Agent Thatcher?"

Probably not, Steven thought, considering the vicious attack on the dog and the fate of the first victim. Not alive anyway. Still, he forced optimism into his voice. "I hope so, Mr. Clary."

Clary shook his head. "Call me Bud. Callin' me Mr. makes me feel old."

Steven smiled down at the old man. "Bud it is, then." He sobered and watched Bud Clary do the same. "Can you tell me what happened, sir?"

Bud sighed. "Pal's always takin' off after a bird or a rabbit or somethin'. Sometimes he'll be gone for a couple hours at a stretch, so I didn't think anything about it when he took off about ten this mornin'."

"You're sure about the time, sir?"

Bud nodded. "I had to take my wife into town for some sundries. We left about ten and Pal followed us out of the house, then took off after a squirrel." He looked up, the midafternoon sun making his eyes squint. "You need to know where we went in town?"

"Not right now, sir. What time did you get back?"

"It was around twelve-fifteen. Pal was lying on the back porch, bloody and all tore up. The missus saw the trail of blood and right off thought to call the sheriff."

Steven's lips curved at the obvious pride in Bud's voice. "Mrs. Clary's a sharp thinker."

"Always has been," Bud answered with a satisfied nod. He thumbed over his shoulder. "I took the tractor across the field, following the blood trail until I got to the trees, then I walked the rest of the way till I got to this clearing. Took me twenty minutes or so from the house." He shrugged his thin shoul-ders. "Then I hightailed it back and called Sheriff Braden again and I guess he called you."

Then they'd all driven to this clearing, accessing it from an unpaved dirt road that forked off the main highway. Which was how Samantha's abductor had brought her here. And taken her away.

"What exactly did you see when you first got to the clearing?" Steven asked gently.

Bud swallowed. "I knew I'd see some blood-Pal bleedin' like he was. I guess I didn't expect to see so much blood. I got off the tractor to see if there was anything else, then I saw somethin' white when I got closer."

"Samantha's underwear?" They were in an evidence bag, on their way to the lab.

The old man's jaw clenched. "Yeah. Her underthings were off to the side, blown under the limbs of one of those pine trees."

"Did you touch anything, Bud?"

Bud frowned up at him. "No, I did not," he replied indignantly. "I may be old, young man, but I'm far from stupid."

"Sorry. I'm supposed to ask."

Bud settled back into the chair, arms crossed over his chest, slightly mollified. "All right, then."

"When you came close to the bloody area of grass, did you notice anything else?"

Bud nodded, his ire suddenly cooled. "Yeah. The blood was still warm."

Steven's brows came together. "I thought you said you didn't touch anything."

"I didn't. I could smell it. I slaughtered pigs on this farm for fifty years, boy. I know the smell of warm blood."

Steven drew in a breath and let it out. So close. Bud Clary must have stumbled on this clearing less than an hour after Pal was stabbed. At least they could pinpoint the time. Given twenty minutes from his house to the clearing, Bud would have arrived at twelve-thirty-five. That meant Samantha had still been here at eleven-thirty. "That's helpful, Bud." He pulled a business card from his pocket. "If you remember anything else, can you give me a call?"

Soberly Bud took the card. "I will. Please find Samantha, Agent Thatcher. This is a small town. There's not a soul around that doesn't love Samantha Eggleston or her family. She baby-sits my great-grandbabies." Then he bitterly added the phrase Steven heard far too often. "This kind of thing just doesn't happen in Pineville. We're a peaceful town."

Too bad evil people sometimes live in peaceful towns, Steven thought. His job would be so much more uneventful if all the evil people congregated together, killing one another instead of innocent people.

Steven was walking back to the grassy area when his cell phone jangled. One glance at the caller ID told him it was his assistant. "Nancy, what's up?"

Nancy Patterson had been his assistant since he'd been at his post. She'd been secretary to the special agent before him and the one before that. She was a computer whiz with invaluable experience and Steven trusted her as much as he trusted any woman.

"You've had several calls from one of Brad's teachers."

Her tone and his own growing worry over his oldest son made Steven stand straighter. About a month before, almost overnight, Brad had changed from a warm, happy boy to a sullen stranger. Any attempt to breach the wall Brad had built was met with sarcasm and anger. They'd been through teenage rebellion, years before. This was different. And now his teachers were seeing it, too. He forced his heart to calm. "What's wrong?"

"She wouldn't tell me. She insists on speaking with you in person. She's called twice already since lunch. She's very… insistent."

Steven looked around him. They were still gathering evidence and he needed to stay. But his son needed him more. "Did she leave a number where I can call her back?"

"Just the school's main number. The first time she called on her lunch break, the second time between classes. She said she wouldn't be free again until four o'clock."

Steven glanced at his watch. He could just about finish up here and make it to Brad's school by four. "Can you call the school and leave her the message that I'll meet her in the lobby at four?"

"Cutting it a bit close, aren't you, Steven?"

"Story of my life," he responded grimly.

"Steven!" Harry yelled. "Come here!"

Steven looked over to where Harry stood next to the road.

"Nancy, I have to go. Tell Brad's teacher I'll meet her at four o'clock. Call me back if she says no. Oh, and, Nancy? Which teacher is this?"

"Dr. Marshall. She's his chemistry teacher. Steven, are you okay?"

Steven's mouth flattened. "Tell Lennie I'm fine," he said grimly. "I'm not planning to freak out and blow the investigation."

"He doesn't think you will, Steven," Nancy admonished gently, making him feel like a truculent child. '"He's worried about you. So am I."

Steven sighed. 'Tell him I'm fine. But if I feel stressed I'll go to Meg. Okay?" Meg was the staff psychologist who had continually pestered him to meet with her after Nicky. He'd finally gone, just to get the infernal woman off his back. But she'd helped. A bit. Offering to see her at this point should make Lennie Farrell a happy supervisor.

"Okay. I'll call Brad's teacher. Dr. Marshall," she added, reminding him. She knew him well.

"Thanks." Committing the name to memory, Steven slipped the phone into his pocket and carefully made his way to where Harry impatiently waited, holding a syringe in his gloved hand. "Damn," Steven muttered and looked back to the flattened grass, the shape of its perimeter clean. "That would explain no evidence of a struggle."

"We'll get it back to the lab along with the hair." Harry gestured to where Kent was examining the trail of blood leading back to the house. "Kent wants to watch the vet swab the dog's teeth."

Steven sighed. "I just hope we find a lead in a hurry. We're running out of time."

Friday, September 30, 3:50 P.M.

"So, did you call Brad's dad?"

Jenna looked up from cleaning lab tabletops to find Casey standing in the doorway of her classroom. "Kind of. He was out in the field, so I talked to his secretary. He's coming to meet me in"-Jenna checked her watch-"ten minutes."

Casey's brows scrunched. "Out in the field?"

"He's a cop."

"Hmm."

Jenna paused mid-scrub and looked up. Casey looked thoughtful and that was always a dangerous sign. "What?"

Casey smiled and sent a chill down Jenna's spine. "I don't know. Cop, widower. Brad's a pretty good-looking kid, so Dad's got to have some good genes…" She shrugged. "Possibilities."

Jenna shook her head, feeling a familiar tightening behind her eyes. Casey considered finding Jenna a mate one of her personal goals. Jenna walked to where Casey stood, deliberately towering over her. "Don't go there, Casey," she warned. "Promise me you won't do anything stupid."

Casey stared up defiantly. "You're taller today."

Jenna's eyes narrowed. "Because I'm wearing these damn shoes you convinced me would be perfect with this suit. My feet hurt and I don't have time for this right now. Promise. No contact with Mr. Thatcher. That includes telephone, telegraph, fax, sticky note, and smoke signals."

Casey sulked. "I promise. Dammit."

Jenna backed away. "Good." Gathering her papers into her briefcase, Jenna glanced over her shoulder to find Casey looking thoughtful again. Seeing Jenna's stare, Casey brightened.

"I almost forgot. I have a date tomorrow night with Ned and he has a friend. I-"

"No." Jenna cut her off with a shudder. Ned was adolescent on his best behavior, but his friends were worse.

Casey frowned. "Why not?"

"I'm having dinner at Allison's tomorrow night."

Casey made a grumbly sound. "Blow her off. Ned's friend is really cute."

"I can't just cancel on her. She'd be hurt."'

"She has the hide of a rhino," Casey muttered. "You couldn't hurt her with an elephant gun."

Jenna huffed a chuckle. "She's a lot more tender than she looks." Then she remembered the purpose of Allison's dinner and grew serious. "I can't cancel on her. Next week is the eighth of October."

Casey put her small hand on Jenna's arm and squeezed gently. "I know what month it is," she said softly. "That's why I don't want you staying home by yourself. It's been two years since…"

Jenna pulled her arm free, suddenly irritable. "Since Adam died. You can say the word. D-i-e-d. As you've pointed out, it's been two years. I'm over it. I wish everyone else would be, too."

"I don't think you are, but there's nothing I can do about your being stuck in denial."

Jenna shoved her desk drawer closed with far more force than was necessary. "I'm not in denial," she hissed. "Adam's dead. I was there holding his hand when he breathed his last, two years ago October eighth. I am not in denial."

Casey set her lips in a firm line. "You're only thirty. You need to start living your life again."

Jenna drew a careful breath. Counted to ten. Casey meant well. In fact, every one of her friends and family that told her to start living her life again meant well. "I have a very full life, Casey," she said evenly. "I don't need a steady stream of men on my arm to fill it any further."

"No, you don't need a stream of men," Casey agreed quietly. "One would be enough."

Jenna laughed, a hollow sound. "And I suppose you're going to find him for me?"

Casey just looked at her in that way that cut through every defensive layer Jenna possessed. "So how about dinner on Sunday night? Or Monday or Tuesday?"

Jenna sighed. "You're not going to give up, are you?"

Casey's smile was triumphant. "Nope."

"Where are we going?"

"Italian. New place off Capitol. Be there at seven on Sunday?"

Jenna didn't need to check her calendar to know she was free. Sunday nights normally found her in bed by nine with a good suspense novel, her two dogs curled up beside her. Who knew? Maybe this friend of Ned's would provide a pleasant evening of company. "Okay. But I'll drive myself so I can leave when I want to." Jenna glanced at her watch and gri-maced. "Shit. Now I'm late. You go ahead and if you see anyone remotely resembling a parent in the lobby, pass by without a smile or a nod. Understand?"

"Yeah. Spoilsport." Casey started out the door, then turned around, an uncertain expression on her pixie face. "Hey, Jen? Did you say Brad's dad is a cop?"

Something in Casey's face made Jenna's hands still. "Yeah? Why?"

"Ask him if he knows anything about the missing girls."

A feeling of dread settled in the pit of Jenna's stomach. "What missing girls? Last I heard there was only one missing girl-the one from High Point High that they found dead on Tuesday."

"There's another," Casey murmured. "This one from DuVal High. It's been all over the news since last night."

Jenna bit her lip. "I had karate last night and went right to bed when I came home. I didn't see the news. God, Casey, two girls? We need to warn our kids."

"Lucas says he'll make an announcement on Monday telling all the girls to be careful," Casey said. "So ask Brad's dad if he knows anything more, okay? Anything we can do to keep our girls safe."

"I will." Jenna glanced at her watch again. "But I can't if I don't meet him in three minutes. Go on now. I'll call you if I learn anything new."

Now subdued, Jenna checked the lock on the chemical closet, locked the door of her classroom, adjusted the straps of both her purse and her packed-full briefcase, and set out for the front lobby at the fastest pace her high heels would allow.

"Dr. Marshall, can I talk to you?"

Jenna looked over as eleventh-grader Kelly Templeton fell in step beside her as she hurried down the stairs. "If you can run with me, you can."

Kelly hastened her step. "It's about my test. I should get partial credit on four problems."

Kelly Templeton always thought she should get partial credit. Rarely did Jenna agree. "Tell you what, Kelly. You come by Monday morning and we'll talk. Right now, I'm in a rush."

"But Monday morning I have a cheerleading meeting."

"I can talk at lunch on Monday, then. Just not now." She softened her refusal with a smile. "You got a ninety-two, Kelly. How much more partial credit can you expect?"

"Eight more points," Kelly muttered, then tossed her long dark hair over her shoulder. "All right, Dr. Marshall. Monday at lunch." She veered off toward the lockers without a goodbye.

"Kelly?" Jenna called and Kelly looked back, impatience on her young face. "Be careful, okay? Miss Ryan just told me there's a second missing girl."

Kelly's eyes grew large. "Oh, wow. Which school?'"

"DuVal."

Kelly bit her lip. "That's close. I know kids at DuVal." Then a beat later her expression brightened as she shook off the worry as only a teenager could. "See ya, Dr. Marshall."

And watching her flounce away, Jenna turned for the lobby at a quick clip on aching feet, wishing she had a tenth of the sixteen-year-old girl's energy.

"Dr. Marshall, may I speak with you for a moment?"

Jenna skidded to a stop, this time at the sound of the principal's voice, wincing when her ankle wobbled in her damn high heels. Last time she'd go shopping with Casey, she thought irritably, resisting the urge to hop on one foot and massage her ankle. Drawing in a breath to slow her racing pulse, she turned to find Dr. Blackman standing near the office door, his expression grim. Distaste instantly bubbled up at the sight of him. He was an overtly political man and… sleazy.

"I'm late for a parent conference, Dr. Blackman. Can I meet you when I'm finished?" By that point it would be after five on a Friday. Blackman would be long gone by then, sitting on the front bleacher of the football game scheduled to begin in less than an hour.

"This can't wait, Dr. Marshall," he answered, his voice glacial. "Come with me, please." And without waiting for her response, he turned crisply on his heel.

Jenna searched the front lobby. No one resembling a parent waited, so she bit back her annoyance and followed Blackman into his office, hoping whatever was so cata-clysmically important would also be short.

A man waited in Blackman's office, staring out the window with his back to them. He was huge, his shoulders at least two feet wide. A black fedora covered his head, a black overcoat draped over one arm. Jenna raised a brow at the sight of the coat. It was brisk for fall in North Carolina, but the coat was surely overkill. Then he turned and Jenna's heart stopped for the briefest of instants at the expression in his narrowed black eyes, the clench of his square jaw. His very body seemed to vibrate although he stood perfectly still.

He was angry. He was angry with her. And she was sure she'd never met the man before.

Dr. Blackman closed the door. "Dr. Marshall, this is Mr. Lutz. I take it you've met before?"

Oh, God, Jenna thought, her pulse scrambling now. Lutz. The father of the star quarterback of the high school team. The star quarterback who'd be warming the bench until he brought his grade in her science class up to at least a C. It was school policy, she thought a little frantically as her brain reacted to her last conversation with Mr. Lutz. He'd been furious that she'd given his son's last test a failing grade. He'd called her foul names. She'd shaken for a full hour after hanging up the phone. He was staring at her now from beneath the brim of the fedora, his eyes oddly gleaming.

He thinks he's won, Jenna thought, a spurt of anger supplanting the fear. He thinks he's got me cowed. He'll think again. "We've spoken on the telephone, briefly," she said, gratified her voice was cool and steady. Grimly satisfied that at just over six feet tall in her four-inch heels she didn't have to look up to meet the arrogant you-know-what eye to eye. "Mr. Lute's son, Rudy, is in my second period science class." Remedial science, she added mentally, then aloud, "When he chooses to come to class, that is. He is currently failing."

Lutz's dark eyes flashed and his nostrils flared. "My son has been suspended from the team."

"As dictated by school policy," Jenna supplied smoothly. And waited for Blackman to back her.

And waited. The silence became stifling as she and Lutz continued to lock glares.

"Perhaps young Rudy's test could be given another look," Blackman suggested from behind her, his tone artificially mild. "Perhaps his answers might have been… misinterpreted."

Jenna slowly turned her head and stared at Blackman, for a moment too appalled for words. "It was a multiple choice and true-false test," she said coldly. "You know, true or false. A, B, C, or none of the above. Misinterpretation would be difficult especially since Rudy wrote nothing but his name on the paper. He didn't even try to guess. Rudy failed the test, Dr. Blackman. Just like he failed the one before it. He failed because he never comes to class and when he does he sits in the back and flirts." With any girl whose self-esteem is low enough to be impressed, she added to herself, then drew a careful breath. "His grade stands."

Dr. Blackman's thin face became beet red. She noted his trembling hands just before he shoved them in his pockets. "Dr. Marshall, I don't think you fully appreciate the severity of this suspension, to both Rudy and the team."

Oh, for God's sake, she thought, feeling the surface of her skin begin to tingle. "What I appreciate is my responsibility to ensure Mr. Lutz's son gets an education." She turned to Lutz, then felt a spurt of alarm at the cold expression in his eyes. She pushed the alarm away, focusing on the boy, on his future. "I hope you agree that your son's education is more important at this stage of his life than his extracurricular activities."

Lutz's square jaw tightened. He deliberately removed his hat, revealing well-tended dark hair, with the hint of silver at his temples. A distinguished thug, Jenna thought, fighting the shrill warning bells going off in her head. His eyes ran the length of her. His expression was one of cultured disdain, of blatant sexual disrespect. It made Jenna feel as if she were wearing a thong bikini instead of the tailored suit that came modestly to her knees. Again she waited for Blackman to intervene. Again she waited in vain.

Lutz took a step forward and smiled. Chills ran up and down Jenna's arms. It was not a pleasant smile. This was intimidation, in its purest form.

Jenna cleared her throat. "You do agree, don't you, Mr. Lutz?" she asked pleasantly.

Lutz smiled again, a mere banng of teeth. "Miss Marshall-"

"Dr. Marshall," Jenna corrected with a brittle smile. A muscle quivered in his cheek.

"Miss Marshall," he repeated from behind gritted teeth and Jenna lifted one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug.

"Now I see where your son has learned such impressive disrespect," she murmured, not breaking her gaze. Mr. Thug would look away first, because she sure as hell wasn't going to.

Lutz took a step closer, the toes of his black wing tips even with her open-toed sandals. Now she was looking straight up as Lutz had a good five inches on her, even in her heels. "You don't seem to understand who I am, Miss Marshall. I could buy and sell the school like this." He snapped his fingers next to her ear and Jenna managed not to flinch. "I could have you fired like this." He snapped his fingers again, his hand closer this time. "You have caused me a great deal of inconvenience, Miss Marshall. I was conducting an important business meeting in Boston when my son called to tell me he'd been suspended from the team. I had to leave my business unfinished to fly home and reassure my wife that the scout her father arranged to see our son play would indeed see Rudy play."

"The scout will not see him play today." Jenna met his anger with what she hoped was cool firmness, because her heart was knocking like an unbalanced piston. "The scout can see your son play as soon as he brings up his grade in my class." She stepped back and drew a breath. Decided to be the only grown-up in the room. Grace under pressure, her father used to say.

"You may be able to buy and sell this school, Mr. Lutz, but you can't buy and sell me. If money were important to me, I can assure you I wouldn't be here. I am here, however, and I'm here to see children learn. I can't do that without parental support. If we can't find a way to work together for Rudy's benefit, then you'll get the opportunity to attempt to intimidate Rudy's next remedial science teacher next year, when he repeats the class. Good day, sir." Jenna turned and found Dr. Blackman's face pale, mottled with red splotches of rage. She inclined her head, fighting the urge to smack him. "And thank you for your support, Dr. Blackman."

Shouldering her briefcase, Jenna walked out of the office and let the trembles take over.

Chapter Four

Friday, September 30, 4:20 P.M.

"Dammit," Steven muttered, approaching the front of Brad's high school at a fast jog. He was late for his meeting with Dr. Marshall by twenty minutes. He was lucky she'd agreed to stay at all on a Friday afternoon. That she'd stand around waiting for him was a virtual impossibility. If only he hadn't stopped by the Egglestons' house on his way from Pineville. No, he thought, taking the steps in three giant leaps, that had been the right thing to do. Samantha's parents needed to know he was working to find their daughter. They needed the consideration of human contact when he asked if they knew anyone with a propensity to mutilate animals. They'd needed his quiet strength when they fell apart, clinging to each other while silent sobs shook them until Steven wasn't sure they were even aware of his presence anymore. Seeing the Egglestons had been the right thing to do.

But now he was late for an appointment critical to his own son's life. Dammit Someday he'd find a way to juggle it all. Yeah, right.

Steven searched the school lobby, but no one resembling a chemistry teacher waited. She'd probably gone home. Steven sighed, feeling the weariness of the day overtake him. He'd have to call Dr. Marshall on Monday and reschedule. And in the meantime worry himself senseless over what she would have told him about Brad, although Steven wasn't certain it was possible to worry any more than he already was. He knew better than most parents what kids could get involved in these days. He knew better than most how dangerous it was. Too bad his knowledge hadn't saved Brad from whatever had changed his boy to a sullen stranger in four short weeks.

"Couldn't she have waited a lousy twenty minutes?" he muttered, and made his way to the office to leave her a message for Monday, simultaneously turning his body to scan the lobby, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He'd walked a grand total of three steps backward when he slammed into something that cried out and fell to the tiled floor like a brick.

Years of habit had him reaching for his weapon even as he spun around and looked down to find a woman sprawled on the floor, her face hidden behind a curtain of shiny black hair, her lavender skirt hiked high on her thighs, exposing the top edge of silk stockings, the bottom edge of an honest-to-good-ness garter, and a set of legs that seemed to go on forever. He heard the hiss of his own indrawn breath, felt his heart thump hard, his fists clench, felt every drop of blood drain from his head.

Oh, my God, was all he could think. Oh, my God.

Then she looked up and pushed her long hair from her face with both hands, revealing dark blue eyes that snapped with fury and full red lips that frowned with authority. Twin flags of color stained high cheekbones. Mesmerized, he could only stare.

Until she opened her mouth. "You incompetent idiot."

Steven blinked. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. "Excuse me?"

In response she rolled her eyes and blew out an explosive sigh, throwing one arm wide. "Just look at what you've done."

Steven's eyes looked around the school lobby, seeing at least a hundred papers strewn across the lobby floor, her soft leather briefcase turned on its side. Lipstick and pens and keys had dumped out of her purse. Then he saw her massage her ankle and her face tightened, her eyes sliding shut as dismay gave way to pain.

He dropped to one knee. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't see you."

"You weren't looking," she snapped back, her lips quickly returning to a firm line.

"No. No, I wasn't." He laid his fingertips against her ankle and her eyes flew open, alarm mixing with the pain. Quickly he pulled his hand back.

"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, her voice gone low and shaky. She scooted back a foot on her bottom, her eyes dropping to her thighs. Her face flushed dark red. "Shit." She struggled with her skirt, pulling it down to cover most of her thighs.

Damn. Gone were the garters and the tops of the silk stockings. He should feel guilty for having looked, but somehow couldn't find it in him. He did, however, regret that he'd frightened her, on top of knocking her down. He held up a hand meant to soothe. "I didn't mean to scare you, miss. I was just trying to see if you'd broken your ankle." He moved his hand to her ankle, stopping an inch away to look for permission. "Okay?"

She nodded, her eyes now wary, and he went still. This close he could see her eyes weren't blue, but a deep purple. Violet. The combination of violet eyes with her black hair was… striking.

"It's okay," she said, bringing his attention back to the matter at hand. Her ankle. Her potentially broken ankle. She frowned again. "I can sign a waiver if you're worried I'll sue you," she added sarcastically when he still didn't move.

Surprised to feel his lips twitch, Steven made himself look away from her violet eyes and concentrate on her ankle that was already starting to swell. As gently as he could he probed the ankle while watching her response from the corner of his eye. He didn't miss the way her arms folded tightly across her chest, the way her breath caught, the way she bit down on her lips. She was in pain, but her ankle was probably not broken. Gently he placed her foot back on the tiled floor, trying not to notice the way her toenails were painted a soft pink, the way the silk stockings clung to her calves. Trying very hard not to remember she wore honest-to-goodness garters under her modest lavender skirt.

God. How women wore real garters anymore?

He cleared his throat and hoped his voice sounded normal. "I'd say it's just a bad sprain, but you might want to get it looked at," he said, sitting back on his heels, looking away from her legs. He took note of her shoes, both lying off to the side. Black, open-toed, four-inch skinny heels.

Forcefully, he pushed the image of her legs in those heels from his brain, instead going for a tone of mild reproach. "A pair of more sensible shoes might have done a better job at breaking your fall."

Her lips fell open. "Of all the-" Her violet eyes rolled again and she struggled to her knees, smacking his outstretched helping hand out of the way. She stared him in the eye, her hands plunking down on her rounded hips. "You, sir, have one hell of a lot of nerve. You run into me, knock me down, and then have the nerve to criticize my choice of shoes!" She grabbed her purse and started to shove her lipstick, keys, and other sundries back into it. "Like I wanted to buy the damn things anyway," she muttered.

Steven picked up a shiny black compact and she snatched it from his hand with a scowl. "Give me that," she snapped.

"Then why did you?" Steven asked, handing her a plastic bag filled with… He narrowed his eyes and stared. Dog biscuits? These, too, she snatched from his hand and shoved in her purse.

"Why did I what?"

"Why did you buy those shoes if you didn't want them?"

She stopped, her hand on her palm pilot. When she looked up, her dark hair parted Like a waterfall and Steven felt his heart stop. She was smiling. Grinning, even. Frowning, she was striking. But smiling… She was absolutely beautiful. And her smile made his own lips curve up. Warmed him, inside and out.

"My friend talked me into buying them," she answered. She reached for one of the shoes, holding it up for a rueful inspection. "I told her I'd probably fall and break my ankle."

Steven laughed out loud, physically feeling the burden lighten from his shoulders. Not forgotten, not by a long shot, but lighter. For the moment. Suddenly uncomfortable, Steven stood up. Her eyes followed him, not looking away as he found himself wishing she would.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I wasn't watching where I was going and I ran into you as much as you ran into me. You've been very polite and I've been surly. I've had-" She shrugged. "A bit of an intense day. I know that isn't a good excuse, but it's the best one I've got. I hope you'll forgive my bad manners."

Steven cast his eyes around the school's lobby seeing the papers still strewn about. "It's okay. Let me pick up your papers." He could hear the brusque note in his voice and hated it, just as he hated it every time it came out. But it had become a part of him, part of the shield that kept all nonessential peo-ple at bay. Still, he hated the way her violet eyes widened and her dark brows scrunched together, puzzled.

Jenna stayed where she was for a long moment, offensive shoe in her hand. The change in his expression had been abrupt, laughing one moment, then distant the next. She wondered what she'd said. He'd started picking up the strewn papers. As he leaned forward, his golden hair picked up the reflection of the overhead lights, taking on a reddish gleam. He was tall and powerfully built and she found herself mentally comparing him to Mr. Lutz as she set the shoe aside and began gathering papers. Both men were tall, but the similarity ended there. Lutz used his size and physical power to intimidate. The stranger had a gentle touch. After her initial surprise when he'd picked up her foot, she'd felt no fear at all. Lutz's eyes had been cold as ice. This man's were a warm brown and crinkled around the corners when he laughed.

Her hands stilled. Brad Thatcher had dark hair and a slender build. But her student's eyes were brown and crinkled around the corners when he laughed. In fact, Brad's brown eyes and warm smile were a lot like those of the man gathering her scattered papers. She closed her eyes as heat rose in her cheeks and she pressed her hands against her face. Brad's eyes and smile were exactly like this man's. Like father… like son. Oh, Lord, she thought, swallowing the groan that had started in her throat. This man was Brad's father. She'd called him an incompetent idiot. And she'd practically shown him her underwear. Some first impression she'd made.

She looked up, unsurprised when she saw her purple folder in his hands. He was reading a test in the folder, his face a study in helpless, frustrated misery. He looked up and met her eyes and she felt as if she'd taken a rabbit punch to the gut. In his eyes she saw a riot of fear, disappointment, and a weariness that made her heart clench.

"You're Brad's Dr. Marshall," he said quietly.

She nodded. "And you're Special Agent Thatcher."

He slid Brad's test back into the folder. "I'm Brad's father, yes.

"We need to talk, Agent Thatcher."

Friday, September 30, 4:30 P.M.

Leaning one shoulder to the wall, Victor Lutz watched the principal pace the threadbare carpet of his office with growing impatience. "It's quite simple, Dr. Blackman. Overrule her."

Blackman looked up, his scrawny face tight with anxiety. "I can't do that," Blackman said.

Lutz didn't blink. "Why not?"

Blackman paced to the window and, arms crossed, shoulders hunched, looked through the glass to where the Friday night football crowd was beginning to assemble.

Lutz shook his head. Blackman was a fool and Lutz was growing very tired of having to deal with him. He pushed away from the wall. "Blackman."

The principal's head whipped around at the curt address.

"I asked you a question. Why not?"

Blackman swallowed and pushed his glasses up his thin nose. Cleared his throat. "Because technically she's right. Rudy is failing her class. School policy-"

"I don't give a flyin' rat's ass about your school policy," Lutz interrupted with a snarl. "I want Rudy to play. Today."

"I can't do that. Today," Blackman added quickly. "I need time."

"How much time?" Lutz asked, mentally planning to beat the shit out of Rudy for his sheer stupidity. It would have been so easy for him to pass that test. There were ways to manage situations like this. But did his blockhead of a son think? No. He walked into the class, unprepared, and handed in a blank sheet of paper. Idiot. Just like his mother.

"A few weeks."

"Unacceptable," Lutz bit out. "I want Rudy playing next week, Dr. Blackman, or you'll find your plans for the new stadium severely underfunded."

Blackman swallowed. "That stadium is not for my benefit, Mr. Lutz. It's for the school."

"Bullshit." Lutz smiled and watched Blackman's trembles creep up a notch or two. "Your promise to build a new stadium is the only thing keeping your contract negotiations open for next year. You lose your job, you lose everything." He shook his head. "For a man who makes his living administrating, you've done a piss-poor job on your own finances. Here and at home." Blackman's face slackened in shock and Lutz chuckled. "I make my living based on obtaining information and using it most effectively. I know everything about you, down to the color of the boxers covering your pathetic skinny ass." He placed his hat on his head. "You'd be wise to remember that." He held up a finger. "One week. This time next week Rudy is back in the game."

Blackman jerked a nod. "One week."

Satisfied, Lutz took his leave, carefully closing the door behind him.

Friday, September 30, 4:40 P.M.

Steven helped Dr. Marshall to a chair at the worn table that dominated the teachers' lounge and wordlessly pulled up a second chair for her foot. She lifted her foot to the chair, silently grimacing.

"You should ice that ankle," he said.

She met his eyes, visibly smoothing her grimace to a smile, and once again he felt warmth curl around his heart. A man could get used to such a comfort. Unfortunately Steven Thatcher could not be such a man.

"We keep an ice pack in the freezer," she said, gesturing to a refrigerator in the corner.

Easily he found it in the freezer door. Murmuring her thanks, she gestured to an empty chair.

"Please sit, Mr.-I'm sorry. Agent Thatcher."

He shrugged. "It doesn't matter." He sat. And waited.

For a full minute she stared down at her hands before lifting her head. "You saw Brad's test," she said abruptly and Steven could only nod. His voice seemed stuck in his throat. She leaned forward, her expression now earnest. "Brad was in my basic chemistry class last year, Mr. Thatcher. He made it a year I'll never forget. He loved to learn. He was always prepared. He was polite, alert. Now he's not any of those things."

Steven closed his eyes and massaged his temples, a headache pounding behind his eyes. "When did you see him change?"

He felt her fingers close around his wrist and pull his hand from his face. He opened his eyes to find hers narrowed and worried. "Are you okay, Mr. Thatcher? You look pale."

"Just a headache. I'll be fine. It's just stress. Really," he added when she looked unconvinced. "When did you first notice a change in my son?"

She settled in her chair, back to business. "Four weeks ago. When school started in August I was thrilled to have him in my advanced chemistry class this year. Then right after the Labor Day break he was different."

Steven frowned. "Different, how?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Restless at first. He missed simple questions. We had a test the Friday after Labor Day.

He got a D. I was stunned. I thought I'd give it a few weeks, see if he snapped out of it." She shrugged again. "Then today I graded his latest test and he failed it. He's grown more isolated every day. I couldn't wait any longer. I had to call and let you know."

Steven made himself ask the question that had kept him awake most of the nights over the last four weeks. "Dr. Marshall, do you think my son has gotten involved in drugs?"

She pressed her fingertips to her lips and sat quietly for a moment that stretched on and on. He thought she wasn't going to answer at all when she sighed. "Good kids can get involved in drugs, Agent Thatcher." She met his eyes, her gaze sympathetic. "But you knew that already. The truth is I don't know. I hope to heaven he's not, but we can't afford to believe he's not."

Steven watched her bite her lip and felt a strange calm settle around his shoulders. We. She'd said we. He still didn't have the slightest idea what to do about Brad, but knowing this woman shared his frustration and seemed to genuinely care for his son provided a foothold, a place to rest, if only for the few minutes he sat across from her. "Then where do we go from here?"

She smiled, so gently it made his heart clench. "The guidance counselor would be a good place to start. He's a friend of mine and very experienced." She pulled a sheet of paper from her briefcase and wrote a name and phone number. "Call Dr. Bondioli on Monday. He's expecting you."

Steven folded the paper and slid it into his pocket. "You were sure I'd be willing to talk to him."

"Brad's a good kid. Good kids rarely raise themselves."

"Thank you. Believe it or not, I feel just a little better."

Dr. Marshall stood, balanced her weight on one foot, and extended her hand. "I'm glad."

He pushed himself to his feet and shook her hand, feeling a reticence to let go that was foreign to him. He abruptly released her hand. Foreign, unwise, and unwanted. "Thank you for agreeing to see me tonight. How's your ankle?"

She put some weight on it and winced. "Better."

Steven hesitated. "Is there someone you can call to get you home?" His eyes dropped to her left hand, quite of their own volition. No ring. No husband. No way, he thought. Don't go there. But he had. He wondered if his face was as heated as hers had become. Her eyes dropped to her feet.

"No, I'm afraid not," she murmured, almost as if to herself, and he wondered if he'd hurt her feelings. But when she looked up, her smile was firmly back in place. "No significant other. Just my trusty dogs." Briskly she gathered her belongings. "No worries, though. My car's an automatic and my right foot's still good, but I could use some help getting to my car if you don't mind."

"Not at all." He took her briefcase and offered his arm, steeling himself for the warm feel of her touch.

She isn't married. Gritting his teeth, he pushed the thought aside and with it the little spark it lit inside him. He needed to focus on getting her to her car and then getting home to find out what the hell was wrong with his son. That's what he should be focusing on. If he were a good father that's what he'd be focusing on. He must not be, he thought grimly, because what he was focusing on was the way her shoulder barely brushed his as she limped across the tiled lobby floor.

She fit well at his side. She was tall, taller than his wife had been, and the comparison stung as much as the memory. He tried to squelch the memory, to push it down deep where he could pretend it didn't exist, but once begun it continued to roll. There was a time, long ago when the boys were small, when Melissa would nuzzle her cheek to his chest… He'd lower his head, smell her hair… A sharp pain struck him square in the heart. He couldn't allow himself to remember anymore.

Melissa was gone, taking… no, stealing everything comfortable with her. Damn you, Mel, he thought, anger sweeping away the yearning.

Steven straightened so abruptly that Dr. Marshall looked up in surprise, her sudden movement sending her black hair swinging over her shoulder.

"Did I step on your foot?" she asked. He could see she was in pain. Her lips curved, but the smile was for polite show only.

He shook his head. "No."

Her eyes questioned, then dropped back to her feet when it was clear he would say nothing more. Her head lowered and her hair fell forward to hide her face. Quickly she tucked it behind her ear. Coconut. Her hair smelled like coconut. Beaches and suntan lotion. And bikinis. God.

She smelled good. He didn't want to notice it any more than he wanted to notice the curve of her jaw or the straight line of her nose. Or her full lips. Or her legs that went all the way up to her shoulders. He didn't want to notice any of her attributes, but he found them impossible to ignore. He drew an appreciative breath before locking his jaw.

The last thing he needed at this stage of his life was the distraction of a woman. Normally ignoring distracting women was one of the things he did best, much to the dismay of his aunt Helen. But it seemed harder today. Today he was feeling very… vulnerable. He grimaced. Just thinking the word left a bad taste in his mouth. But it was true, be it the emotionally taxing experience with Samantha Eggleston's parents or the fact that his son's life was falling apart and there didn't seem to be anything he could do.

Dr. Marshall paused as he opened the front door of the school for her. Her hand that so gently grasped his arm for support gave a single soft squeeze.

"It will be all right, Mr. Thatcher," she said quietly. "You need to believe that."

He needed to believe that. He almost did. Almost wished he could have someone like her at his side, giving him the same kind of encouragement day in, day out. Almost.

He nodded once. "Do you think you can drive yourself home?"

She tilted her head as if to sharpen her focus and he felt suddenly exposed, as if she could see his most acute fears. He expected more wisdom, but instead she simply answered the question he'd asked. "Yes. As I said before, my right foot's fine and my car's an automatic. I'll be fine."

"If you give me your keys I'll bring your car."

He watched as she fished in her purse, coming up with a set of keys. "It's a red Jag."

He blinked. "You have a Jaguar? On a teacher's salary?"

"I inherited it," she said and pointed to the far corner of the parking lot. "It's over there."

He took the keys from her hand and helped her down the flight of stairs leading from the school. At the bottom she released his arm to grab the iron guardrail. And he felt bereft. He didn't like the feeling.

Distraction. Brad's Dr. Marshall was definitely that. Brad needed to get his act together and fast, both for his own sake and to keep his father from needing to see his teacher again.

Chapter Five

Friday, September 30, 4:45 P.M.

Brad Thatcher sat on the edge of his bed, his head in his hands. He'd failed his chemistry test. He knew it even though he hadn't stayed in class long enough to get his test back. One look at Dr. Marshall's face told him everything he needed to know. He hated disappointing her after everything she'd done for him. He thought of his last test, the way she'd put the test paper on his desk, facedown. He'd always felt sorry for the kids who slipped their test into their backpacks without turning it over to see the grade because they knew they'd flunked. Because they were losers.

Like me, he thought. "God, I'm such a loser," he muttered, dragging his hands down his unshaven face, the stubble making his palms sting. After that first D, his first D ever in his life, Dr. Marshall had asked him to stay after class. She'd asked him what was wrong, what she could do to help. Reminded him if his grades continued to slip he'd lose the scholarship he'd wanted so much.

Slip? He hadn't slipped. He'd dived straight off a damn cliff. He clenched his fists. She should have told him to stop fucking up. She should have smacked him upside the head. But she hadn't. She'd just looked at him, her eyes so sad. She'd been so careful not to make him feel dumb. His head dropped back and he stared at his ceiling. She'd been so nice to him. He'd wanted to blurt it all out, to tell her what had been eating him alive. He still did. She'd understand. She wouldn't pat him on the head and tell him not to fret, that everything would be okay.

But what could she do? What could anyone do?

Brad stood up, paced, then turned to stare at his unmade bed, knowing it was there, hidden between his mattress and box springs, fighting the need to drag it out, just to look at it again.

He'd become… obsessed. Disgusted, he squeezed his eyes shut, made himself turn around, made himself stop looking at the line that separated the mattress from box springs. Tried to stop seeing it in his head. He opened his eyes, chanced a glance in the mirror over his dresser. Shuddered at what he saw. His eyes were red, his hair dirty, uncombed. He hadn't shaved in days.

He was a wreck.

"Brad?"

His nerves crashed and he spun around to find Nicky standing in his doorway, his hand on the doorknob. The kid never knocked. No respect for his privacy, not from anybody in the whole damn house. Rage blazed at the intrusion and he took a step forward.

"What do you want?" he snarled, then immediately regretted his words and his tone when Nicky's eyes widened and his baby brother shrank back, half hiding behind the door. Nicky's lower lip trembled and Brad felt lower than shit. He made himself smile, but Nicky didn't smile back. He stepped forward and Nicky stepped back, not taking his wide brown eyes from Brad's face.

"I'm sorry, Nicky." He reached to ruffle Nicky's red hair and hated himself for Nicky's flinch. His brother was just now getting to the point where he tolerated their touch again. Just now getting over the nightmares of guns and monsters stealing him from his bed. Nicky didn't need any anger, least of all from him.

Brad crouched down until he was level with Nicky's freckled face. He slowly extended his hand and touched the tip of

Nicky's nose. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I was wrong to yell at you."

Nicky nodded. "Aunt Helen says it's time for dinner," he whispered back, too solemnly for a seven-year-old boy, and Brad hated himself again.

He seemed to be doing that a lot lately.

Hating himself. He thought of it again, still hidden between the mattress and box springs. Wishing it weren't there, that he'd never laid eyes on it. Wishing his life was different. Back to the way it was before, but it never would be the same again. It was a hard truth to swallow.

Brad pulled the corners of Nicky's mouth down in an exaggerated frown and found himself smiling at the soft, almost silent giggle that emerged from his baby brother's lips.

Well, they could still smile, he thought.

That was something.

Friday, September 30, 5:00 P.M.

Jenna gripped the railing of the school's front steps, the iron cold against her palm still warm from Steven Thatcher's arm. She watched him walk across the parking lot, his stride long and strong. Even from here she could see the tight fit of his jacket across the breadth of his shoulders and remembered the way those shoulders had sagged as they'd talked about his son, as if the weight of his worry was simply too heavy to bear. Jenna chewed at her lower lip. She'd told him everything would be all right. She hoped she hadn't told the man a lie.

How she wished she could have said, "Oh, no, Mr. Thatcher-there's no way Brad could be involved in drugs!" in a perky little voice that would make the anguish in his eyes disappear. But that wouldn't have been honest. She'd learned a long time ago it was far better to approach a problem with all the facts, even though the facts were often hard to accept when the fear and hurt were fresh. So she'd told him the truth. Good kids can get into trouble. He knew that already. But somehow the truth had seemed to help, making his shoulders relax just a bit.

"Jenna, you're a fool," she muttered. "An optimistic fool."

But she didn't really think that was the case. She hadn't been what anyone could call optimistic in a very long time. No, on some level, she really did believe Brad Thatcher would be all right. Maybe it was just knowing he had a dad that cared so much about him.

That had to be it.

That also had to be the reason for the urge, one she'd just barely managed to fight, to brush her fingertips across Steven Thatcher's brow, to smooth away the deep lines of worry. Because he was a kind father who cared about his son.

Not because he had warm brown eyes that crinkled at the comers when he smiled.

Or because his shoulders were so broad. Or because his upper arm was solid and strong, yet his hands were gentle. Or because his smile over her stupid shoes had simply taken her breath away.

No, she'd had the urge to comfort him because of Brad.

But the other urges were all hers and, quite frankly, surprised the hell out of her. She hadn't felt any stirrings, not even modest ones, since… She sighed, the sound lonely in the quiet night. Not since Adam got sick. Certainly not since he died. See, Casey, she thought. I can say it. Died. D-i-e-d, died. I'm not in denial, for God's sake.

It had been two years since Adam's death, and in that time she hadn't touched a man-not unless you counted that last friend of Casey's boyfriend Ned, the one whose hand she'd needed to firmly remove from her ass.

She tilted her head, considering her reaction should Steven Thatcher try the same thing-she would not be nearly as annoyed. In fact… Just stop, she mentally ordered herself. Just stop that right now.

"Jenna Marshall," she murmured aloud. "Shame on you." She looked out across the parking lot to where Mr. Thatcher stood next to her car, his hands on what probably were very trim hips.

Casey would be amused, both at her noticing Steven Thatcher was indeed a man and at the way she was scolding herself for noticing. Therefore, Casey must never know. That was simple enough. What wasn't as simple was the knowledge her body had emerged from a two-year deep sleep and her hormones were now active again. Well, you are human, she thought. You had to start looking again sometime. Just look, but don't touch.

A cool breeze fluttered and Jenna shivered first, then frowned. Minutes had ticked by as she'd stood here balanced on one foot, woolgathering. Mr. Thatcher should have been here with her car already. In fact, where was he? She lifted herself on her toes and stared off to the edge of the parking lot only to see a gray Volvo station wagon approach, Steven Thatcher at the wheel.

He pulled the car up to the curb next to where she stood, got out, and stood inside the open driver's door with his arms folded across the roof of his car.

"Do you have any enemies?" he demanded with a scowl.

Jenna's heart sank. Adam's XK 150. Then her temper surged. "Only about nine hundred," she answered from behind clenched teeth. Word of Rudy's suspension was out and now she was on the hit list of roughly nine hundred hormon-ally whacked teenagers. She sighed. "How bad is it?"

"Your tires are slashed, all four of them."

Jenna limped a few steps to lean against his passenger door. "Reparable?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so. These aren't just punctures, they're slashes. The tires are ribbons. But that didn't worry me as much as this." He held a sheet of paper across the car's roof. "Don't touch it, except for the corner," he cautioned.

Jenna scanned the page and her heart stilled. " 'Put him back on the team or you'll roo the day you were born, you bitch,'" she read in an unsteady voice, then cleared her throat and looked up at Mr. Thatcher. "They misspelled 'rue,'" she said, simply because she couldn't think of anything else to say.

Mr. Thatcher smiled grimly. "I don't think they were too worried about the school spelling bee. Who'd you flunk off the team?"

Jenna stared back down at the paper in her hand. No one had ever threatened her before. Her anger fizzled, numb fear taking its place. "Rudy Lutz," she murmured.

"The QB?" She looked up in time to see him wince. "You're not from around here are you?"

Jenna's temper simmered. First her car was vandalized, then this person intimated it was all her fault. Any lingering admiration of his soft brown eyes and trim hips went right out the window. "I've lived in North Carolina for more than ten years."

"Then you should know the risks of interfering with high school football in the South."

Jenna saw red. "What I know is that he failed my class and I'm not only within my rights, but my responsibility as a teacher to-to-" She stuttered to a stop when Thatcher held up his hand.

"I didn't mean you shouldn't have failed him." He consid-ered her thoughtfully. "In fact, I'd say you have some real guts to do what no other teacher's probably ever done before."

"Well, thank you," Jenna began, calming again.

Thatcher raised his hand again. "However, you should know that your actions are not without risk. Your car needs all new tires and you've been threatened. You shouldn't park at the far end of the parking lot anymore. And ask someone to walk out with you after school-especially if it's dark outside." He looked around at all the cars in the lot. "I'd better take you home. I don't like the idea of you being here all alone when that crowd breaks at halftime. It could get ugly."

Jenna looked down at the threatening note she still held gingerly by two fingers at the upper corner, as instructed. "It already has." She looked up and her heart skipped a beat at the sincerely caring expression in his brown eyes. Good God, Jenna, she thought, when your hormones wake up, they really wake up. Her throat was suddenly as dry as soda crackers. "I, uh, I hate to keep you from your family."

"My aunt is probably feeding them dinner as we speak and they're used to my odd hours. I'll be home before bath and bedtime for sure."

Jenna drew a breath just as an angry roar came from the direction of the football field. "That didn't sound too cheerful, did it?"

He shook his head. "No." He came around the car and opened the door, taking her briefcase in one hand. He feigned a stagger and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "What are you carrying in here? Bricks?" He put her briefcase in the backseat and pretended to stretch his back.

Jenna smirked as she got in the car. "Yes. I alone have discovered the secret for turning metal into gold bricks. I change a few folding chairs to gold every day in the hopes of early retirement."

He was chuckling when he slid into his seat. "I wouldn't say that too loud. The parents that don't hate you for benching the QB will torment you for your secret." He pulled his door shut with one hand and grabbed his cell phone in the other. "Let's go report the damage to your car and get you home and out of those ridiculous shoes." He winced. "I said that out loud, didn't I?"

Jenna smiled over at him as she buckled her seat belt, comfortable in their banter. "You did. But you're right." She held three fingers in the air, Girl Scout style. "I from here on out promise to put comfort and safety ahead of high fashion."

"My son would ask you to spit in your palm to, seal such a serious covenant."

Jenna raised a brow. "Brad?"

A shadow passed over his face. He put the Volvo wagon in gear and headed to the back corner of the parking lot. "No, not Brad." And just that quickly, the crinkles were gone from the corners of his eyes, replaced by the lines of worry across his forehead.

Friday; September 30, 5:45 P.M.

Necessity truly was the mother of invention.

He stood in the middle of the empty room, viewing the bare walls in the dim glow of the electric lights. Probably not a candidate for a Martha Stewart prize, but it was solid, it had a roof, electricity, running water, and best of all, it was unoccupied. Besides, with a couple of Chinese lanterns, a little paint, a bit of cheery wallpaper, perhaps a throw pillow or two-hell, he could turn this barn into a real little home away from home.

He glanced up at the rafter beams and smiled to himself.

He could truly hone his craft in a place like this. He should have thought of this place sooner. To hell with sacrificing his victims under a starry sky. Starry skies clouded and threatened rain. And then didn't deliver. He scowled. He couldn't believe he'd aborted his plan on a false alarm. Not a single drop. He glanced down at the form at his feet. He'd stored her in the trunk of his car all night long on a goddamn false alarm.

His scowl darkened and he flexed his fist. Only to go back again this morning and be derailed by a damn dog. He'd always hated dogs. He wished he'd chased the mutt and finished him off, but if he'd left her unattended in the woods, someone would have come. That was just his luck.

He mentally took inventory of what he'd so stupidly left behind. One of his hypos was gone from his toolbox and her panties were gone from the pile of clothes he'd quickly thrown in the trunk. Damn. He'd planned to keep her dainties as a souvenir. But noooo, that fucking dog had to come sniffing, then had to play Lassie. Now there were damn cops all over the place. Luckily he'd worn his gloves. He smirked. And he'd been sure to gather all that before exiting stage left. They wouldn't find anything of a more… personal nature he'd left behind.

He scowled again. Damn dog. Spoiled everything. The next time he came across a dog… His scowl melted into a smile as he pictured the scene in his mind. Knives and blood and gore. He nodded, satisfied with the picture. He'd take care of the next dog he met in the manner of Bundy or Dahmer. He'd read about their mutilations. First for practice, then for fun. He'd practiced himself. Often. Of course, he didn't need to practice on animals anymore. He looked down at his feet.

Not when he had the real thing.

He nudged her with his toe, then again when she didn't respond, harder this time. Her eyelids fluttered, opened. Her eyes widened. Her tongue slipped out to wet her lips. He'd taken the tape off-no need for her to wear uncomfortable duct tape over her mouth when they were miles away from everywhere. He smiled down at her.

"Wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable, would we, Sam-mie? That just wouldn't be civilized." He walked across the barn, each step kicking up a cloud of the sawdust that littered the floor. He crouched in front of his toolbox and surveyed the interior with the air of a sommelier choosing the night's fine wine. He chose a syringe, a needle-fully sterilized of course-and a vial. He frowned. He was running low on supplies. He'd need to get more soon.

He stood up and crossed back to where she lay. He drew the precious liquid from the vial and withdrew the needle. He knelt down at her side. "Ready for some more dreams, Sam-mie?"

She struggled, but there really wasn't much she could do under the situation. She went stiff when the needle penetrated her upper arm, then moaned. "No," she whispered, her voice pathetically weak. "Please."

He tilted his head to one side. "But I do please." And he leaned forward to whisper in her ear, the suggestions as horrific as he could conjure. Her reemergence dreams would be… interesting.

"Welcome to the k-zone," he intoned in a deep voice. But she was already too far gone to hear him. He swept the sawdust aside, sat back, and waited for the show to begin.

Chapter Six

Friday, September 30, 6:45 P.M.

Brad's Dr. Marshall had been quiet for most of the ride to her apartment, speaking only to give him the most basic directions. Steven pulled into an empty slot in front of her apartment and turned to study her face. After Raleigh PD took her statement she'd become subdued, as if the import of the threat was finally real. He saw it often. After an incident people tended to behave with excessive bravery or optimism-until the adrenaline wore off and reality sank in. He suspected that's where Dr. Marshall's mind was at this point. Mulling over the possibilities. Who could have written that note? And would they carry through on their threat?

She sat very still, looking down at her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her hair hanging down so that all but the tip of her nose was obscured. Her left hand was bare, as he'd noticed before, but now he noted the thick silver ring she wore on her right thumb. A Celtic design. A man's ring.

He didn't like that. He didn't like that she wore a man's ring or that she worried it. But, of course, it didn't matter what he didn't like as he'd only see her this once.

Only this once.

He didn't like that, either. To his great irritation, he realized he didn't want to leave. Didn't want their time together to come to an end. Hah. As if "they" had "time together." They'd met, talked, and would likely never meet nor talk again. Still, he hesitated. She sat so quietly, staring down at her hands. Miles away. He was almost afraid to break into her thoughts.

He leaned toward her and caught the coconut scent of her hair. Breathed deeply. Then cleared his throat.

"Dr. Marshall?" he said quietly.

Her head jerked up, sending her hair sliding back against her cheeks. Her eyes, wide and startled, met his, blinked, then focused. And her cheeks turned the most becoming shade of rose.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize we were here already." Her eyes dropped to her fingers, busily fidgeting with the silver ring. "I guess I just realized that someone hates me enough to slash my tires and threaten me with hate mail." Her lips quirked up. "Without a spell-checker of course."

He smiled back. "Are you ready to go in?"

She reached to the floorboard for her purse. "Sure. Just give me a second to find my keys." She rummaged for a minute, then stopped and looked back at him, her eyes almost black in the shadow of the Volvo's overhead light, her dark brows bunched. "I think you still have them."

"Oh." Without taking his eyes from hei face, Steven reached in his coat pocket and pulled out her keys. "Here you go."

She took her keys gingerly, not even brushing his hand in the process. And he felt disappointed. Then felt annoyed at feeling disappointed. He sat back firmly in his seat. "You put the card for the towing company in your purse. They said your car would be ready by tomorrow at noon. And don't forget to call the Raleigh PD for their report for your insurance company."

Her expression went blank for just a moment and she blinked. "I'm sorry, my brain just crashed. What was the name of the officer again?"

"You're feeling the aftereffects of an adrenaline high," Steven explained, reaching for a pen and one of his business cards. He scrawled the officer's name on the back. "His name is Al Pullman and he's with the Investigative Division." Steven hesitated, then blurted, "My office number's on the front. Call me if you need anything else."

She took the card, her lower lip clamped between her teeth. "Do you have another card?"

Silently he gave her one and watched as she wrote on the back in neat block letters. She looked up, still biting her lower lip, and he felt the sizzle of lust head straight down along with the urge to bite her lip himself. But that was crazy. Primal and crazy. In a few minutes, he'd be gone, never to see her again.

She held out the card. "I'm not making a… a… pass at you, Mr. Thatcher," she said softly. "Truly. I just wanted you to know I care very much about Brad. If you need to talk, here's my home number and my e-mail address." She gave a little shrug. "He's important to me, too."

He slipped the card into his pocket. "Thank you."

"I guess I'll get out of your hair now. Thanks for everything." She got out and waved.

He watched her limp up the sidewalk. The apartment unit had a floor-to-ceiling window, three stories high, and through it he could see the flights of stairs winding to the top. That meant there was probably no elevator. And she'd written Apartment 3-D on the back of his business card. Third floor. He continued to watch as she limped inside and climbed to the first landing, one plodding step at a time. Then stopped to rest. And slip off her ridiculous shoes.

Steven sighed. He was the cause of her injury, even though her shoes were ridiculous. Sitting here while she navigated the stairs alone went against everything his mother had ever taught him. Open doors, hold umbrellas, pull out chairs and assist those you've maimed. Well, Mom had never said the last one, but she would have, had the occasion come up. Helping would be the gentlemanly thing to do. Helping would also give him one last opportunity to feel her brush against him and to smell the soft fragrance that made him wonder if it was any stronger on her bare skin. He drew a deep breath. Bare skin. That particular picture was one he should put out of his mind that minute. But once there, the picture stubbornly refused to budge. It was a very nice picture.

If he was perfectly honest, he wanted to see her to her door, whatever his motivation. So do it, putz, he told himself. He didn't need to tell himself twice. He was out of his car and at her side by the time she was halfway up the next flight of stairs.

She made a face at his appearance. "Now I'm really going to feel guilty at keeping you from your kids. I'm fine. Go home, Mr. Thatcher."

He took her shoes in his right hand and offered his left arm. "Steven," he said before he realized the correction was coming out of his mouth. Once said, the wall of formality couldn't be rebuilt. Even if he'd wanted to. Which, given the picture still flashing in his mind, he didn't want to.

She took his arm, embarrassed gratitude in her expression. "Jenna. And thanks. You really don't have to." She hopped up a step, leaning on his arm. "But thanks just the same."

By the time they reached her apartment she was flushed and heated and he more so, and very glad he was wearing his suit jacket. It was a good thing he was never seeing her again. His heart couldn't take it.

"Thank you, once again." She smiled and extended her hand. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Steven. Thank you for being there when I needed you."

He took her hand. "Thank you for caring about my son."

Her next words were cut off by a pandemonium of barking. She glanced at her door and gently pulled her hand from his. "I need to go." She gestured at the door. "I have to, um, walk the dog."

"What kind of dogs are they?"

Her eyes darted sideways. "Just one," she said brightly. "Just one dog." She glanced over to her neighbor's door and rolled her eyes. "I'm all right, Mrs. Kasselbaum. No need for concern."

Steven looked to his left, just in time to see the neighbor's door close. "Nosy neighbor?"

She rolled her violet eyes again. "You have no idea." The barking continued and she put her key in the door. "Well, um, thanks again."

Steven raised a brow. She was trying to get rid of him and he thought he knew why. "Your dog get any media attention, Jenna?"

She looked startled. "Why would you say that?"

He shrugged. "Seems to me a two-headed dog would be the toast of the talk-show circuit." He leaned forward. "That's an awful lot of barking for just one canine," he murmured and watched her cheeks color up and her brows snap together in irritation.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," she snapped and opened the door. "Come in and close the door."

He followed her into her apartment, unsurprised to see two identical German shepherds crouched, teeth bared. Their barks had turned to ominous growls.

"I'm fine," she told them. "No bark. Down." Both dogs dropped to their bellies, barking ceased, but eyes still narrowed and wary. "They're trained," she said defensively.

"Impressive."

"They wouldn't hurt a fly."

Steven shook his head. "I don't know about that."

"They're trained to defend. If they perceive me to be in danger…" She shrugged.

He lifted his eyes from the dogs and looked around her living room. It was decorated in warm browns, a large soft-looking sofa dominating one wall. The far wall was covered in a collage of framed photographs. He would have liked to walk over and inspect each one, to learn more about this woman who cared for his son. But the one step he took brought new growls from the defending duo. "Why do you have two dogs trained to defend? And why all the secrecy?"

She limped over to an antique rolltop desk where every piece of paper was tidily filed in the various slots. She opened a drawer and began rummaging. "I'm a woman living alone. I thought it was safer than having a gun. Where is that ace bandage?"

He nodded. "Wise. So why the lie? Why did you say there was only one?"

"Here it is." She pulled out a rolled bandage and sat down on the chair in front of her desk. "Turn around, please."

"Excuse me?"

Her face flushed once again. "You've already seen more of me today than I show at the beach. I want to wrap my ankle and my stocking's in the way. Please, turn around."

Steven's breath caught in his throat even as he turned around obediently. The memory of those long legs with the sheer stockings was enough to suck the air right out of his lungs. He gritted his teeth at the sound of whispering silk, knowing it was sliding across that long expanse of leg. He clenched his hands into hard fists, wishing it were his own hands doing the sliding. He breathed in. Breathed out. It didn't help.

He really shouldn't be here. He should leave. Just a jew more minutes, he promised himself. He cleared his throat. "Why lie about having two dogs?" he asked.

"Because my lease says I can only have one," she answered. "You can turn back around now. I'm decent."

And to his chagrin, she was, her skirt back in place, her fingers nimbly winding the last few inches of bandage around her ankle. "So why do you have two?"

She secured the end of the bandage before looking up with a grimace. "Because I'm a sucker who can't say no to sad eyes and a wet tongue," she replied, her tone wry. "I used to volunteer at the local shelter and one day somebody brought in a very pregnant female shepherd they'd found abandoned. She had a litter of eight pups and I took one." She pointed to the dog on the left. "Jim, shoes." The dog got up and trotted back to the bedroom. "Jean-Luc here was passed over again and again because he had a bad eye, and he was coming up on his time limit." She sighed. "I couldn't let him die-I'd taken care of him from the day he was born. So I brought him home with me." She snapped her fingers. "Jean-Luc, slippers." The other dog got up and followed the path the first had taken. "Jean-Luc's eye cleared up eventually. I'm only supposed to have one dog here, but I'm on the waiting list for some places that allow two." She shrugged guiltily. "So I walk them one at a time and keep hoping everybody will think they're the same dog until I can get into one of the multi-dog apartments." She frowned. "Mrs. Kasselbaum suspects," she said darkly. "She's just the sort to rat on me to the building manager and get me evicted."

Steven shook his head, unable to hold back the smile. "Today little white lies, tomorrow you'll be robbing banks. It's a slippery slope down the path of moral decline, Dr. Marshall."

"Jenna," she corrected and narrowed her eyes warily. "You won't tell, will you? Because if you plan to, I'll have to kill you and feed you to the boys."

Steven shuddered. "No, I promise your landlord won't hear it from me."

She nodded once. "Well, all right then. So long as we're clear. Oh, good, here they come. What took you guys so long?"

To Steven's amazement both dogs came trotting back, one holding a pair of running shoes in his mouth, the other a pair of oversized fuzzy slippers with Tweety Bird's head on the toes. "I wouldn't have believed that if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. They must have spent a lot of time in obedience school."

She grinned and his heart stuttered. '"I tried to teach them to fetch pizza and beer from the fridge, but they kept confiscating the goods en route." She scratched each dog behind the ears in turn.

"But you didn't teach them to defend in obedience school."

She shook her head while slipping her wrapped foot into Tweety Bird. "No, there was a rash of robberies near here when I first moved in so I found a training facility out past Pineville." She looked up from tying her running shoe on the uninjured foot. "I hate guns, so I put the boys to work for their kibble."

Pineeville. Steven glanced at his watch and grimaced as she got up and limped to her coat closet. He still had hours of paperwork to do before bed tonight and he still hadn't talked to Brad.

"So are you ready to stop procrastinating?" she asked from inside the closet.

Steven frowned. "What are you talking about?"

She reappeared, a golf club in one hand. "You've been put-ting off talking to Brad." She followed up the accusation with a smile. "It's okay. I procrastinated myself today, grading his test, then calling you. A bit of apprehension is perfectly normal. I don't mind being a temporary distraction under the circumstances. But it's time to go home, Steven." She picked up a leash from her lamp table and clucked her tongue. One of the duo jumped up and she snapped the leash on the dog's collar. "Good boy." She opened the door and waited for him to follow.

"I am not procrastinating."

She shrugged. "Okay." She looked over her shoulder. "Make sure that door closes behind you."

He closed the door and followed her down the stairs, the dog happily behind at her side. Once at the bottom, she stopped on the sidewalk next to his Volvo.

"I'm not procrastinating," he repeated, a bit more weakly this time. "I don't think."

She smiled again. "Well, it's either that or I'm utterly fascinating and a brilliant conversationalist-and I know that's not true." She hesitated, then lifted her hand to his upper arm and squeezed. "Have courage, Steven."

She was standing close enough that he caught the faint scent of coconuts. Without her ridiculous shoes the top of her head was level with his chin. She'd fit perfectly in his arms. He knew it instinctively. Just as he knew she was wrong about one thing. He did find her utterly fascinating. With her face lifted up, her forehead was inches from his mouth. He looked into her eyes and for a brief moment thought about pressing a kiss to her forehead, then took a mental step back. It was crazy. Sheer lunacy. But he still wanted to.

God knew he didn't get everything he wanted.

"Thank you," he said, his voice husky. "For Brad."

She took a few steps backward, leaning on the golf club, the dog matching her step for step. "Go home, Steven. Take care."

Friday, September 30} 7:30 P.M.

Steven pulled into his driveway and simply sat for a moment, trying to quiet the riot in his mind. He was having a devil of a time focusing on anything. His brain would flip from Brad to Samantha Eggleston to Jenna Marshall's violet eyes and her soft voice telling him to have courage. Then back to Brad and the whole damn slide show would begin again, accompanied by the rhythmic throbbing in his head. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and closed his eyes.

Brad. His son who had changed before his eyes. His son who was the most important person in the world right now. His son who needed him. His son who had responded to every overture in the last month with hostility and a defensive wall Steven had found unscalable.

A knock on his car-door window had him nearly jumping out of his skin. But he had to smile at the little freckled face whose nose was currently smushed against the glass, whose mouth was distorted into a terrible grimace by little fingers. Steven narrowed his eyes, then responded with a horrific face of his own, his eyelids pulled back, every tooth exposed, then stuck out his tongue.

They held their individual poses, each waiting the other out until Nicky folded and pulled back from the window. There had been a long time when Nicky couldn't play. He still rarely laughed and never slept through the night. Steven could only hope soon they'd reach the end of those horrible days, never to return. He climbed from the car and pulled his baby into his arms, hugging him tight. Nicky pushed against him, struggling against the hug and Steven immediately loosened his hold. It had been that way since "the incident" six months ago. Physically unharmed, his son's spirit had been broken. Steven missed Nicky's giggles and spontaneous laughter.

But he missed Nicky's hugs most of all.

Steven hoisted his littlest boy high.

"Sorry, baby."

Nicky pursed his lips. "I'm not a baby."

Steven sighed. "Sorry, I forgot. You keep doing that growing thing, no matter how many times I tell you to stop."

Nicky lifted a brow. "The book didn't work either."

Steven chuckled. It was their favorite parley these days. He'd threaten to stunt Nicky's growth by putting a book on his head and Nicky would grab the heaviest book he could carry. His little arms were growing stronger-last week he'd grabbed the thickest dictionary on Steven's shelf. "I'll just have to get a bigger book."

"Can't. Aren't any bigger in the whole house, Daddy."

'Then we'll have to go to the library." He lifted Nicky to his shoulders and jogged toward the house, bouncing Nicky all the way. "Duck," he said just before they passed through the front door. Inside, Steven drew a deep breath. "Smells good. What was for supper?"

"Pot roast with mashed potatoes." Nicky wiggled until Steven set him on the hardwood floor. "Aunt Helen saved you a plate. She said you were going to get fat from all that fast food."

"And wasn't that just so kind of her," Steven said dryly.

Nicky poked him in the stomach. His still very flat stomach. "She said you'd never be able to catch a pretty wife if you got fat."

Steven rolled his eyes. Catching him a wife was Helen's mission in life. He crouched down and motioned Nicky to come closer. "We guys got to stick together. Warn me true. Does Helen have a new lady lined up?"

Nicky covered his mouth with both hands. And winked.

Steven laughed aloud even as he dreaded this latest battle with his aunt. A tenacious matchmaker, she never gave up. He ruffled Nicky's red hair. "Benedict Arnold."

"Who's that?"

"A traitor." Steven straightened and looked around, seeing neither of his other two sons. "Where are your brothers, honey?"

"Matt's playing video games." His face fell. "Brad's in his room."

Steven looked up the stairs, wishing he knew what to say when he reached the top. "Can you do me a favor, Nicky? Can you tell Aunt Helen I need to take a shower and head back out?"

"But-" Nicky started, then sighed. "Okay, Daddy."

The beleaguered acceptance hurt more than a temper tantrum. He was spending more and more time away from home these days. "Nicky, what do you say we go fishing next weekend?"

His baby's face brightened marginally. "Promise?"

Given the Eggleston case, that might be a hard promise to keep. "I can promise to try."

Nicky looked away. "Okay. I'll go tell Aunt Helen."

Wishing he could make an honest-to-goodness promise that he could keep, Steven watched his youngest drag his feet on the way to the kitchen. Wishing he weren't so bone-tired, he climbed the stairs and knocked on his oldest son's bedroom door. "Brad?"

"What?"

Steven closed his eyes at the belligerent reply. "I need to talk to you, son."

"I don't want to talk to you."

Steven's temper simmered and with an effort he slapped a lid on it. "Tough. You're going to." He pushed open the door and entered, closing the door and leaning back against it. His eyes took a ride around the room, looking for anything that was out of place, not sure what he'd do if he found it. But everything looked normal, with the exception of the unmade bed and his unkempt son sitting against his pillows, his dirty high-tops perched unapologetically on the rumpled blanket. Brad's dark hair was dirty and uncombed, his face heavy with dark stubble, his bloodshot eyes narrowed suspiciously. Clean and kempt, Brad was the spitting image of his mother. At this moment his son looked like an extra from a biker flick.

Steven pulled the chair from Brad's desk and straddled it, resting his chin on the chair's back. Brad's stare had gone from suspicious to hostile. "We need to talk, Brad."

Brad shrugged sarcastically. "Can I stop you?"

"No." He met his son's turbulent gaze and held it until Brad looked away. "What's going on here, Brad?" he asked quietly.

Another shrug. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

Steven swallowed, let his eyes roam the room, taking in the familiar posters from Brad's favorite horror movies. Steven wasn't certain why his son wanted to stare up at Anthony Hopkins sporting a wire muzzle when he woke in the middle of the night, but Brad apparently did. Should he comment on the football that lay idle in the corner, suggest they throw a few? He drew a breath and let it out. No, he'd tried all those things already, in one form or another. He had to confront this head-on and pray for wisdom. And courage. The picture of Jenna Marshall's face filled his mind and this time he held on to it as long as he could. Courage, Steven.

"Dr. Marshall called me today."

Brad's head whipped around, a look of unholy rage lighting his eyes. "She had no right?"

"She had every right. She cares about you. Brad." Suddenly weary beyond measure, Steven closed his eyes. "So do I."

"Yeah, right," came the muttered response.

Steven opened his eyes abruptly to find his son's arms folded tightly across his broadening chest, his face staring straight ahead, his eyes locked on nothing at all. Steven bit the inside of his jaw, fighting the overwhelming urge to cry. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Brad huffed a mirthless chuckle. "It means… yeah… right."

"What's happened to you, son? One month ago you were bright, happy, clean. Now you're failing chemistry, for God's sake! How many other classes are you failing where the teachers haven't called me? Where they don't care enough to stay an hour late on a Friday afternoon to tell me how low my son has dropped?"

Brad said nothing and Steven felt his frustration building.

"Just tell me the truth, Brad. Are you doing drugs?"

Brad stiffened, then deliberately turned only his head to stare coldly. "No."

"And I can believe you?"

One corner of Brad's mouth turned up in a surly parody of a smile. "Obviously not."

Steven jumped to his feet, staring at Brad, incredulity robbing him of any intelligent response. He turned his back and stared at the wall, unable to stand the virulent anger, the dark hatred in his son's eyes. It was as if Brad blamed him. "Why, Brad?" he whispered.

"Why, which?" Brad answered with a sarcastic question of his own.

"Why are you doing this to me, to your brothers? To yourself?" Steven folded his arms across his chest, putting pressure against his heart that felt physically sore. His throat ached, but he managed to contain the emotion, swallowing back the lump he feared would choke him. His son. The fear clawed at his gut. Betrayal ripped so deep it left him numb. "Why?" He could barely hear his own whisper.

Brad simply looked at him, his eyes gone cold. "Because."

Because? Because? What the hell kind of answer was that? Steven waited, his heart pounding in his throat. And then he stepped backward toward the door, because it seemed that was the only answer he was going to get. When his back hit the door he cleared his throat.

"I have to go out again. I have a missing girl in Pineville." Was that a flicker in his son's eyes? Some evidence of compassion? "I don't know when I'll be home. Aunt Helen has a canasta game tomorrow night. I need you to be here with your brothers in case I'm not here. Brad?"

Brad jerked a nod, then leaned back against his pillow and closed his eyes. Steven stood for a moment, watching his oldest son effectively ignore him. Dismissed, he opened Brad's bedroom door, waited until he closed the door on the other side, then let his body sag against the wall.

"What should I do?" he whispered hoarsely, his eyes clenched shut. "Please, God, tell me."

But the voice quietly murmuring in his mind was Jenna Marshall's. Have courage, Steven. If only it were that simple.

Friday, September 30, 7:30 P.M.

Jenna unsnapped the leash from Jim's collar and straightened her back with a sigh. Her ankle throbbed, but at least both dogs were walked for the evening. There was no way she'd have asked Steven Thatcher to do it for her, although he probably would have welcomed the chance to put off going home another fifteen or twenty minutes. She wondered if he'd talked to Brad.

Wondered if there was anything more she could do.

She put the thought out of her mind. Casey was right. There was truly nothing more she could do other than let the parents know. She needed to tell them, then walk away, even if they had broad shoulders, beautiful eyes, muscular biceps, and smelled really good.

Jenna chuckled at herself. "Hormones," she murmured. Jj was a good thing she didn't need to see Steven Thatcher again, she thought. She needed a bit of time to bring all those newly awakened hormones under tight control. "Wouldn't want to do anything stupid," she said to Jean-Luc who sat looking up hopefully.

But Jenna Marshall rarely did anything stupid. "I rarely do anything at all," she said to Jean-Luc, who licked her hand. And tonight would be no exception. Tonight she'd snuggle into the corner of her sofa, alone. And watch old movies, alone. And, if she was lucky, she'd have some leftovers in the fridge she could warm up and eat. Alone.

It was rare for her to indulge in self-pity. So stop it, she told herself. But once rolling, the pity train was hard to brake. Her thoughts ran to Adam, about the days she hadn't been alone. "Great," she muttered aloud. "Now I feel even worse." She eyed Jim and Jean-Luc balefully. "At least you two can't tell me I've grieved long enough and to get on with my life."

A knock at the door sent both dogs into a snarling crouch.

"Setde," Jenna commanded and limped over to the door to peek through the peephole. And sighed. Adam's father stood there, tapping one foot. She opened the door. "Hi, Dad." Having lost her own parents years before, she'd been instantly adopted by Adam's family. She nodded to the pair of eyes peeking from the darkened apartment across the hall. "Hello, Mrs. Kasselbaum."

Mrs. Kasselbaum appeared, her silver hair perfectly coiffed, her housedress perfectly starched-as usual. She patted her hair, then lightly stroked the ever-present pearls around her neck. Jenna often thought this was how Beaver Cleaver's mother would look, forty years later. "Hello, Jenna. Your young man didn't stay very long."

Adam's father raised his bushy brows. "What young man? Where's your car? It's not outside."

"I don't have a young man. Come in, Dad."

Seth Llewellyn turned to Mrs. Kasselbaum with a frown. "What young man? Where's her car?"

Mrs. Kasselbaum leaned forward conspiratorially. "She came home with a man. Tall, clean-cut, very handsome. Blond hair, size forty-eight long, brown eyes. I know nothing about her car."

Jenna rolled her eyes. "Come in, Dad. Good night, Mrs. Kasselbaum."

Seth didn't even glance Jenna's way. "How tall? How handsome?"

Mrs. Kasselbaum looked up, batting her eyelashes. Mrs. Kasselbaum had a thing for Adam's father, a widower for as long as Jenna had known him. "About as tall as you," Mrs. Kasselbaum said coyly and Jenna rolled her eyes. Steven Thatcher, although not her young man, was at least three inches taller than Seth. Maybe four. Mrs. Kasselbaum batted her eyes again, with enough power to take off in flight. "But not as handsome as you."

Seth laughed. "Go on with you, now." He leaned a little closer toward Mrs. Kasselbaum, only encouraging her further. "And how long did he stay?"

Jenna hit her head against the door frame. Several times. The two matchmakers ignored her.

"Sixteen minutes," Mrs. Kasselbaum answered, nodding emphatically.

Seth pursed his lips. "Only sixteen minutes?"

Mrs. Kasselbaum shrugged her thin shoulders and sighed dramatically. "I can only tell what I see." She raised a superior gray brow at Jenna. "She'll have to do the rest by herself."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Jenna said. "Dad, I hurt my ankle and shouldn't be on my feet."

Seth was instantly contrite. "Why didn't you say so, young lady?" He waved a fast good-bye at the disappointed Mrs. Kasselbaum and hurried inside where he put his hands on his hips. "What happened to your ankle? Who was the young man? And where is your car?"

Jenna rolled her eyes again. She loved Adam's family dearly, but sometimes they could be a bit smothering. She limped to the sofa and sat down. "He's not a young man. He's the father of a high school senior so he's got to be-oh, I don't know-forty at least."

Seth winced. "Forty is ancient."

"You know what I mean."

"Does this forty-year-old father of a high school senior have a name?"

"His name is Steven Thatcher. I called him for a conference and when we met he accidentally knocked me down and I twisted my ankle. He felt badly and brought me home."

Seth looked alarmed. "Your car's still in the school parking lot? We shouldn't leave it there over the weekend-I'll drive over and get it." He turned for the door and Jenna cleared her throat.

"Dad, wait." He stopped and turned, his expression expectant. Jenna had hoped not to have to tell them that her car- Adam's car-had been towed. Adam had restored the old 1960 Jag XK 150 as an undergraduate. It had been his pride and joy, even when he'd become way too sick to drive it. Adam had left her the car in his will and although none of Adam's family had disputed it, the well-being of the car was well monitored by the entire Llewellyn clan.

"The car's fine, Dad." He breathed a sigh of relief. "But the tires were slashed today."

His whole body tensed. "How?"

Jenna shrugged. "I flunked one of the kids on the football team. It was childish retaliation." She would keep the threatening note to herself. "Don't worry, I asked the guys that towed the car to replace the tires with the same kind Adam used." It would cost her a fortune, but… Well, it was Adam's car. And hopefully the insurance would cover most of the cost.

Seth sat next to her on the couch. "I'm not worried about the car."

Jenna raised a brow. "You are so full of it."

"Okay," he amended. "I was a little worried about the car."

Jenna nodded. "Just so we're square."

Seth smiled and shook his head. "Such a mouth on you, girl." His smile faltered. "Such grandchildren the two of you would have made."

Jenna's stomach turned upside down. She closed her eyes for a brief moment and reminded herself she was over this. "I'm missing him tonight, Dad," she whispered.

Seth swallowed. "Me, too, Jenna. That's why I came to see you. I always feel a little closer to Adam when I'm with you."

She patted his arm and for the second time that day tried to remember Adam as he'd been when he was healthy. For the second time that day she failed. She pushed herself to her feet, suddenly feeling guilty for having sexual thoughts about Steven Thatcher when she couldn't even remember Adam's face clearly. The guilt was irrational. She knew it in her head. But that made no difference to her heart. There was, of course, one primary solution for guilt. "I was going to have ice cream for dinner. Want some?"

"You really need to have better nutrition, Jenna." Seth stood up. "Butter pecan is my favorite."

"It's Rocky Road."

Seth pushed her hair behind her ear and smiled. Looking into his kind face, so like Adam's, Jenna finally conjured a mental snapshot of a healthy Adam. Somehow that made her feel better, being able to remember the face of the only man she'd ever loved. Seth cleared his throat. "Like I said, Rocky Road is my favorite."

Jenna swallowed hard and leaned her forehead against Seth's shoulder. "I love you, Dad."

Seth's arms came around her, hard and strong. "Love you, too, Jenna." He let go and tilted up her chin. "So tell me about the not-so-young man who's almost as handsome as me. And please don't make me go to Mrs. Kasselbaum for all the details." He leaned forward and whispered, "Don't tell anyone, but that woman is a terrible gossip."

Jenna hiccuped a laugh. "Last one to the kitchen has to eat the top layer with all the ice."

Chapter Seven

Friday, September 30, 8:30 P.M.

"Steven, you need to eat," Helen said from the kitchen doorway.

Steven set his briefcase by the front door and followed his aunt to the kitchen where a single hot plate of food waited. Helen poured herself a cup of coffee and sat in the chair across from him.

"Eat."

A ghost of a smile pulled at his mouth at the barked command. "Yes'm." Dutifully he ate while she watched, her eagle eye trained on every bite he put in his mouth.

"You were late tonight," she observed, her voice gone softer.

He nodded, swallowing. "I had an appointment with one of Brad's teachers."

"Oh, dear."

"Yeah." His fork drew an aimless design in his gravy-laden mashed potatoes. He looked up to find Helen patiently waiting. "He's failing chemistry, Helen. His teacher wanted me to know."

Helen closed her eyes and sighed. "What's happening to our boy, Steven?"

He kneaded his browbone. "I don't know. Jenna recommended I see his guidance counselor."

"And will you?"

"I'll call him first thing Monday morning." He shrugged, feeling utterly helpless and hating the feeling. "I tried to talk to Brad, but he shut me out."

"I know." Helen reached across the table to squeeze his hand and they held on quietly until she asked, "So who is Jenna?"

Steven's fingers tightened on his fork. His face was turning red, he could feel it. He damned the involuntary response that was the curse of redheads and he damned the light that came on in his aunt's matchmaking eyes. He pulled his left hand from Helen's. "Brad's teacher," he muttered, dropping his eyes to his potatoes.

"I see."

"No, you don't see anything, Helen," he ground out. "She is a nice woman who cares about my son. She stayed late on a Friday afternoon to tell me he was failing her class. That's all."

"Okay."

He glanced up to find her expression serene. Chills went down his spine. Extreme measures were called for. "She's married, okay? She's sixty and married with four children." He'd confess the lie whenever he made it back to church.

Helen sighed in resignation. "Do you really have to go back out tonight?" she asked, changing the subject.

Steven thought of the Egglestons. "Yes," he answered. "I do. I should be home before midnight, though. I read Nicky a story and put him to bed already." Which meant tucking his baby into a sleeping bag on the floor. Since being abducted from his bed in the middle of the night six months before, Nicky had refused to sleep in his own bed. The counselors said Nicky would return to his bed in his own time. He wondered what the counselors would say about Brad.

"Then eat your dinner, Steven."

He ate the rest of his dinner in silence, trying to ignore his aunt's watchful stare. Truth be told, he loved her more than any other woman in the world. He could tell her fifty times a day he never planned to marry again and it was like talking to the wind. But Helen loved him and loved all his boys dearly. At the end of every argument it always came back to that.

He cleaned his plate. "Thanks, Helen. That beats dinner out of a sack any day of the week."

"Do you want any more? I made plenty."

Steven stood up and pecked her weathered cheek. "No, ma'am. I wouldn't want to get fat."

Helen had the good grace to look embarrassed before she laughed aloud. "I'm going to have to teach that son of yours when to keep his big mouth shut."

He arched a brow. "You can try." He got to the front door and stopped short. "Shit."

"Steven!" Then she saw it too. "Oh, no. Cindy Lou!" She ran to the door and pulled the hundred-pound sheepdog away from Steven's briefcase. "She didn't mean to, Steven."

With a grimace, Steven fetched a towel from the kitchen and cleaned the dog drool from the handle. "Look at these teeth marks! That dog's a menace."

"She's a sweet dog." Helen's lips twitched. "She just has overactive drool glands."

"So get her a glandectomy." He wiped the bag, then cleaned his hands. "I need to go now."

She followed him to the driveway, the drooling ball of hair from hell in tow. "Drive carefully."

"I always do." He opened the rear passenger door and stopped short again. "Shit," he repeated, this time in a whisper.

"I heard that," Helen said from behind him, then peered around him to peek inside the car. "Whose briefcase is that?"

He could feel his cheeks heating again. "It belongs to Brad's teacher."

Helen was quiet for a half beat. "Jenna?"

Steven rolled his eyes, damning his own slip of the tongue. "Yes, Jenna." He should return it, he thought. He should return it to that comfortable little apartment of hers where she was probably sitting on that soft brown sofa with her two dogs at her feet. She'd be grateful, he thought. She'd smile up at him with those violet eyes. And those full lips. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, but it was too late. His body had already responded to the image his mind had conjured. He pulled her briefcase from the backseat with a harder jerk than necessary.

He put the bag in Helen's arms and she stumbled a little from the unexpected weight. "Put it in my study. I'll return it to her on Sunday."

"But-"

"I need to get to the office." He put his briefcase in the backseat and slammed the car door.

Helen winced. "But-"

He climbed into the front seat, pulling his seat belt on with one motion. "Don't wait up. I'll see you tomorrow." He pulled out of his driveway and chanced a look back in his rearview mirror. Helen stood in the same place, her mouth slightly open, watching him drive away.

Steven grimaced. He probably could have handled that with more finesse. He shifted his body in the car seat, trying to relieve the pressure against his zipper. It was stupid, just plain foolish. Jenna Marshall had a nice pair of legs. That was all. No, that wasn't nearly all. Her breasts were nice, too. His hands gripped the steering wheel, hard. And her rear end. He cracked his window to let in some of the cool night air. And her eyes. And her smile. He shifted in the seat again, the pressure unabated. Okay, he could admit it to himself. She was a tidy little package. He was… attracted to her.

He pulled his car from his subdivision onto the main highway. Be honest, Thatcher. She makes your mouth water. He frowned in the darkness. Be really honest, Thatcher. You want to jump that woman's bones. He shuddered, able to imagine it all too well.

It was just that it had been such a long time. A very, very long time. Maybe he just needed to get it out of his system. A little honest sex, with no expectations for a long-term commitment. No promises made, no regrets when he walked away. Because he would walk away.

He'd almost made himself believe casual sex with Jenna Marshall was a feasible solution to his problems when he remembered the way her eyes softened in compassion over his son, then again over saving a puppy about to be put to sleep. A woman like that was not a candidate for a no-strings sexual relationship. She was just not that kind of woman.

Steven sighed. No more than he was that kind of man.

That's why it had been such a very, very long time since he'd been with a woman.

That's why it would continue to be a very, very long time.

Frustrated and alone, he turned his thoughts to the subject of Samantha Eggleston. Her parents would want an update. Hoping Kent was still in the lab, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket.

Friday, September 30, 11:00 P.M.

"So they lost."

Victor Lutz looked over his mostly empty glass with a sneer. His wife stood in the doorway of his study, dressed for bed in the same nightgown she'd worn every night of their miserable marriage. It wasn't really the same nightgown, but one of ten identical gowns that hung in her closet, magically replicating themselves year after year. It had to be magic. No one in their right mind would buy such an ugly garment on purpose, much less ten of them year after year.

After year after year after year.

On top of being hopelessly stupid, Nora Lutz had absolutely no sense of style. Unlike Rudy's teacher. Not that Miss Marshall had style either, but with a body like that he'd be willing to turn a blind eye to the prim suit. Unfortunately on top of having a great body, she also had guts.

Victor hated women with guts. Guts, brains-they only served to distract women from their sole purpose on this earth. Sex and servitude. In that order. He glared at Nora over his glass. She was a failure on both counts.

"Of course they lost." Idiot. "Rudy sat on the bench the entire goddamn game." He tossed back the last swallow of vodka, stood, and crossed the Aubusson carpet to pour himself another.

Nora pursed her lips, sending deep lines radiating from the corners of her mouth. "I thought you were going to straighten that out with the principal before the game started. Daddy isn't going to be happy about this. He had to pull some strings to get that scout to come watch Rudy."

He hated that mistress-of-the-household tone. She'd learned it from Daddy, the rich sonofabitch.

He tossed back half the glass. The rich sonofabitch whose money bought the Aubusson carpet under Victor's feet, the roof over his head, the business that paid his salary. He eyed the clear liquid in the now half-empty glass. Whose money bought the hundred-dollar-a-bottle vodka that helped Victor drown out the reality of being married to the rich sono-fabitch's tired, ugly, whiny daughter.

Thank God for mistresses and whores, was all he could say. Of course, not out loud. Daddy wouldn't like that. Thank God Daddy didn't really know everything.

Nora crossed her arms over her scrawny bosom and leaned back against the wall with an air of superiority that she liked to remind him was born, not bought. The rich dark hair that had been her only notable attribute would once have blended into the black walnut wood that paneled his office. But she'd started to gray and never lifted a finger to halt the change. She, like Daddy, was a dried-up old prune. "I thought as much," she said curtly. "Big man going to tell the stupid principal how to run his school." She shook her head. "You are so full of hot air, Victor. You make me ill."

"That makes two of us," he muttered into his glass.

"Excuse me?"

Victor looked up and focused his eyes on hers, saying nothing until she paled. There was more than one way to deal with Nora when she got too nasty for her own good. He rarely had to carry through on his threats. She usually backed down before he had to rouse himself into enough of a rage to raise his hand to her. Although the satisfaction at seeing her cowed and silenced was always well worth the effort. After the first time, years ago, he'd waited for Daddy to send a couple of thugs to put him in perpetual traction, but the thugs never came. Not that time, nor the times after. Victor guessed there were some things even Nora didn't tell Daddy. He cleared his throat.

"I said, that makes two of us. I did visit the school today for your information. I might have gotten your son reinstated this afternoon if he hadn't been such a fucking idiot."

Nora frowned. "What do you mean?" she asked, her tone now significantly less belligerent.

"I mean, your idiot son pushed the wrong teacher. He handed in a test on which he'd written only his, name. That and the smirk on his face are making his teacher dig in her heels. I gave the principal a week to fix this."

"And if he doesn't? What then?"

"Then we pull Daddy's funding of Blackman's new stadium."

Nora smoothed her hair away from her face, one of her many nervous gestures. He knew every last one. Every last one drove him nuts. "Not everyone is motivated by money, Victor."

Victor drained his glass. Not motivated by money. Hah. Only a person who'd grown up wanting nothing could actually believe that. "Of course they are. They just don't always know it."

Friday, September 30, I1:55 P.M.

The church's old door handle was cool under Steven's sweating hand. They didn't make handles like this anymore. Doors either, Steven thought, feeling the cool night air on his hot face. Both were vintage 1923, as was the rest of the church. He'd lost track of how long he'd been standing there, telling himself to either go in or go home.

Hours of paperwork hadn't cleared his mind, just served to stave off the worry gnawing at his gut for just a few more hours. He'd left his office and driven around aimlessly, not really surprised when he stopped in the parking lot of the old parish.

His old parish. He'd grown up here, served as an altar boy, been confirmed. Taken his first communion and planned to study the priesthood himself. His grip on the door handle tightened. Then his life had taken a sharp turn after a single night of… What would he call it, looking back now? Certainly not passion. They'd been seventeen in the back of his father's Olds. Passion it certainly was not. Experimentation? It was that. Folly? In many ways it was that as well. Melissa had turned out to be the greatest folly of his life. Brad, on the other hand… He could never call creating his oldest son a folly, no matter how troubled Brad was at the moment.

Conceiving Brad that night in the back of his father's Olds made him change his life path. Gone were plans for the priesthood, which had broken his mother's heart until she'd held her first grandson in her arms. Steven had gone to college, become a cop. He and Melissa had two more beautiful sons. They'd been a happy family for a time. Melissa may have even been happy… for a time.

And look at me now, he thought. Successful career. Disastrous marriage. Unhappy children. A lonely widower. Lonely and… scared.

No, he was terrified. For years after Melissa died he'd held his family together. But now his family was unraveling and he had no clue what to do about it. The idle promise to confess the lie he'd told Helen pricked at him all night, bringing back a host of memories about this place, about the peace he'd always felt here. He tried to remember how long it had been. It hadn't been a watershed moment, but a gradual thing. Week after week he sat in the pew, feeling the priest's eyes on him, his priest's disapproval of what he'd done. Knowing just as clearly there was not one iota he'd change. The cycle of guilt continued until he'd started finding all the reasons he couldn't go to Mass. Then he just stopped going altogether.

So here he stood. "Go in or go home, Thatcher," he said harshly.

God knew he didn't want to go in. Devil of it was, he didn't want to go home even more.

So he yanked at the heavy door and slipped inside. He'd known it would be open. It always was. He hesitated for a moment before pushing himself to the altar. He hesitated even longer before dropping to his knees. Crossing himself.

Opening his heart.

He'd lost track of time, deep inside himself until a noise behind him brought his head up and his hand to the weapon in his holster.

"I wondered when you'd come home, Steven."

Slowly standing, he turned and regarded the man sitting in the pew two rows back. Noted the silver at his temples. He was older now. They both were. They'd been children together, served in this very parish together. Been best friends together. Until four years ago when everything changed.

Four years ago when Melissa died and Steven found himself confessing one of the greatest sins of his life to the only man he knew he could trust to keep it secret. To the man sitting in the pew two rows back whose white collar was a stark contrast to the tanned column of his throat.

Steven swallowed. "Mike."

Mike raised a bushy black brow. "That's Father Mike to you." He smirked. "My son."

Steven felt the smile bending his lips despite the turmoil within him. "Stick it. Father."

Mike shook his head in mock chagrin. "I should order you to say five Hail. Marys for that."

"For 'stick it'?"

"No, for the impolite words you really wanted to say."

Steven met his friend's eyes and both sobered. "I should say a whole lot more than five."

"Why are you here, Steven?" Mike asked softly, his voice carrying in the quiet of the church.

Steven looked away, turned around to focus on the statue of the Madonna and Child. Tried to figure out the answer himself as he gazed on the serene countenances, so at odds with how he felt inside. "I don't know," he finally answered. "I guess I couldn't think of anywhere else to go."

"That's as good an answer as any," Mike said. "I've missed you, Steven. I thought I might see you after the trouble with Nicky last spring. I called… a number of times, but…"

Steven listened as his friend's voice trailed away and Mike wasn't Father Leone anymore, but the best friend of his heart. A friend he'd wounded through neglect. "But I didn't return your calls," Steven finished, dropping his chin to his chest. "I'm sorry, Mike."

"I'm sorry, too. I should have tried harder. I should have come to you."

Steven lifted a shoulder. "I don't know that it would have done any good. You know."

Mike sighed. "I'm sorry about that, too. How are they?"

Steven looked over his shoulder to find Mike in the exact same position. That was one of the things Steven had always admired about his friend-his calm patience that seemed to settle the most anxious parishioner. "I wish I could say they're fine, but they're not. Of the three, Matt is the most normal."

"Matt?" Mike tilted his head. "I find that hard to believe. What happened to Brad?"

The weight suddenly seemed heavier. "I don't know." Steven's shoulders sagged. "I don't know what to do, Mike. Brad changed… overnight."

"People rarely change overnight," Mike observed.

"Brad did," Steven insisted. "And I don't know what I or anybody did to trigger it. I thought it would pass, but…"

"But it's gotten worse."

"I guess you hear this all the time."

"Unfortunately, yes. Sit down, Steven. Please." Mike leaned forward and patted the pew in front of him. "You're making me nervous. You're wound tighter than a spring."

Steven dropped into the pew, sitting sideways and resting his arm along the wooden back. "I met one of Brad's teachers today. He's failing chemistry."

"Ouch."

Steven nodded. "I asked him about it when I got home and he acted like he… hated me," he finished in a shaky whisper. "I don't know what to do." He flinched when Mike covered his hand with his own, but didn't back away. It was so like… old times. Emotion welled up in his throat and Steven swallowed hard to force it down before it became overwhelming. He drew a deep breath and waited until he could speak normally. "Like I said, Matt is the normal one now and Nicky's improving every day." He made himself smile. "Helen's the same as ever."

Mike was quiet for a long time, then squeezed his hand. "So Brad is troubled, Matt is maturing, Nicky is improving, and Helen is the same old Helen. But how are you, my friend?" he asked softly. "How is your life?"

Again emotion pushed up his throat and again Steven shoved it back. "My life is… what it is."

"You can do better than that, Steven," Mike said dryly.

Steven smiled in spite of himself. "It was a bit theatric, wasn't it?"

"A bit." Mike waited, and when Steven said nothing, trudged forward. "And your personal life? Have you changed your mind about taking another wife?"

The corner of Steven's mouth quirked up. "Taking another wife. It sounds so archaic when you say it that way."

"You didn't answer my question, Steven."

"No, I didn't, did I?" Steven squared his shoulders, preparing for the argument he knew was just ahead. "No, I haven't changed my mind. I won't be marrying again. At least not until the boys are grown."

"Nicky won't be grown for ten more years, Steven," Mike said quietly. "That's too long for you to be alone."

Steven narrowed his eyes. "You're alone."

Mike smiled. "That's different and you know it. Besides, I have the Church." Mike lifted a wry brow. "I'd bet it's safe to say you don't even have that."

Steven looked away. "Below the belt, Mike." But he was right. Of course.

"Wherever it does the most good. Ten more years is a long time for you to be alone."

Steven stared at the Madonna and Child, knowing where this conversation was headed. "You said that already."

"And I was right both times. Hasn't Helen found anyone you like?"

Steven jerked his gaze back to where Mike still sat patiently. "What do you know about Helen's matchmaking?"

Mike shrugged. "She and I chat from time to time."

Steven rolled his eyes. "I bet she's confessing all the lies she's told to set me up with every Tania, Dorothy, and Henrietta this side of the Mississippi."

"That would be privileged," Mike informed him archly.

"Yeah, yeah," Steven muttered and Mike grinned, then sobered.

"So tell me, Steven. You haven't met anyone? In four years?"

A face flashed before his eyes. Black hair, violet eyes, kind smile. "No. Yes." Steven closed his eyes. "I don't know," he said miserably.

"I like the 'yes' answer the best."

"You would," Steven muttered.

"What's her name?"

Steven stood up. "This is ridicu-"

"Sit down, Steven." It was a soft roar, a command meant to be obeyed.

Steven sat.

Mike nodded and tilted his head. "So… Her name is…?"

"Jenna." Steven glared over the pew. "If Helen gets a word of this, I swear I'll…"

"It's privileged," Mike said and leaned forward. "And you met her when?"

"Today," Steven snapped and watched Mike's eyes grow round. Looking at his watch Steven added, "Seven and a half hours ago, to be most accurate."

Mike sat back in the pew. "Well, now your visit makes sense. So what do you plan to do about this woman? This… Jenna?"

Steven clenched his jaw. "Nothing."

Mike pursed one side of his mouth. "Oh, please, Steven. You're here. You're troubled." Mike folded his arms across his chest. "Not all women are Melissa, you know."

"I know. But I refuse to expose my kids to any woman until I'm sure she's not."

Mike waved his hand. "And because you can't afford time away from the boys, you don't have the time it would take to get to know a woman well enough to bring her home to the boys. I seem to recall having heard this argument before."

Steven shook his head stubbornly. "I can't… no, I won't put the boys through that again."

"You didn't put them through it the first time, Steven," Mike reminded him. As if he could forget. "You brushed the truth under the rug and let the world believe what you wanted them to believe." Mike frowned, his voice growing stern. "You lied to your children."

Steven squeezed his eyes closed, clenched his fist tight. "1 know. Dammit, don't you think I know?" Then Mike covered Steven's clenched fist with his steady hand and just held it there.

"I know you know, Steven," he said softly. "And I know you believe you did the right thing by the boys by not telling them the truth about Melissa's death."

"I did do the right thing," Steven hissed, feeling it all come back. Four years of hurt he'd so successfully buried came rushing back. Now he remembered why it had been so long since he'd been to church. "What good would it have done them to know she was deserting us? To tell them her lover smashed up her car because he was too drunk to walk, much less drive? That she was hurrying to the airport with her married lover?" He spat the word, knowing no other way to make it sound as bad as it really was. "What good would it have done to tell them she didn't even intend to say good-bye to her own children, that she just left me a note?" He squeezed his eyes tighter and tried to swallow the lump in his throat. "What good would it possibly have done, Mike?" he whispered, his voice shaking. "Tell me. Please, tell me."

Mike sighed heavily. "I don't know, Steven," he murmured. "But I do know that in spite of all you've done to protect your family, it hasn't made any of you any happier."

There was nothing to say to dispute that so Steven said nothing and Mike removed his steadying hand and leaned back in the pew.

"I take it I'm still the only one who knows," Mike said after another minute of quiet.

Steven opened his eyes, then narrowed them. "You are."

"Hmm. So I'm the only person you could come to when you finally realized you've painted yourself in a corner with this ridiculous ban you've put on marriage."

"It's not ridic-"

"Hush, Steven. Save it for yourself because I'm not buying. So tell me about this Jenna."

"There is nothing to tell," Steven insisted through clenched teeth.

"I sincerely doubt that. What's her last name?"

Steven twisted in the pew so he faced forward, his arms pulled tightly across his body. "Marshall," he answered.

"And what does she do?"

"She's a teacher." He threw a sour look over his shoulder. "She's Brad's teacher."

"Oh. Well, now the picture's a bit clearer. I bet she's kind."

"Yes."

"Pretty?"

Steven drew a breath, irritated. "Yes." Let it out. "She's kind and pretty." Anger started to simmer deep inside him. "You want to know the truth, Father Leone? You want to know it all? Every last dark thought in my soul? Okay, fine. I want her. I haven't had sex in four years and I want her."

He exhaled, the burst of temper leaving him drained. "But I can't have her."

"Because you choose not to marry her."

Steven stiffened at the disapproval in Mike's voice. "That is correct, Father."

"You're a fool, Steven Thatcher."

"Why, because I believe in sex within the sanctity of marriage? I thought that would earn me some brownie points," Steven said bitterly.

"It earns you a hair shirt and a flogging strap," Mike snapped back. "If you want to be a martyr, do it in somebody else's church, because I don't want to hear it anymore."

Steven turned back in the pew to find Mike red-faced and visibly trembling. "What does that mean exactly, Father Leone?" he asked coldly.

Mike's chin came up, challenge in his dark eyes. "It means that you have set up a situation that's a no-win for everyone."

"So what do you recommend, Father?"

"If you ask me as Father Leone, I'm not going to recommend anything," Mike said sharply.

Mike was hurt, Steven realized with a shock. He'd always thought Mike impervious to insult, but that was obviously not the case. This man was his best friend. He'd been best man at his wedding, had christened both Matt and Nicky. Softening, he met Mike's flashing eyes and asked, "So what do you recommend, my friend?"

Mike stilled. "Don't swear you'll never marry again, Steven. It's not right for you to be alone. You need help with the boys, someone to support you when life doesn't work out the way you plan."

Steven thought about the support he'd felt just talking to Jenna Marshall. He could easily see her in that role-help-ing with the boys, supporting him. But still… "I don't want her around the boys," he insisted. "They'll get attached to her, and if it doesn't work out…"

Mike nodded thoughtfully. "I can see where that is a legitimate concern. So spend time with her away from the boys. Take her to dinner." He lifted a brow. "Take her to church."

Steven smiled. "Yes, Father."

"But also realize you are putting this woman under an enormous level of scrutiny. That's not fair to her. At some point you will know enough. You need to know in advance what that point is."

Steven was considering that advice when the clock in the old tower chimed. One in the morning. Where had the time gone? He stood up. "I have to get up in a few hours for a meeting at the office." He stuck out his hand. "Thanks, Mike."

Mike looked at his hand a moment, then stood and embraced him over the pew. "I've missed you, Steven. Please don't make me wait so long before I see you again."

"You can come see me. They don't lock you up in here, do they?" Steven asked, going for a jaunty grin that felt forced.

"Only on Thursdays." Mike patted his stomach under the biack robes. "And that's only because Sal's Pizza has an all-you-can-eat special that night." He walked with Steven toward the doors. "What case are you working now that has you meeting so early on a Saturday?"

Steven sighed. "You've heard about the two girls missing from their beds?"

Mike's face tightened. "I have. Their families are part of this parish."

Steven stopped. "You're kidding."

Mike shook his head and looked back toward the altar.

"That's why I was here so late tonight. Samantha Eggle-ston's parents were here most of last night praying for her return. I thought they might come back tonight."

"Can you think of anything the two girls had in common?"

Mike frowned. "I've thought of nothing else since the Egglestons called me yesterday morning. Only that they were both cheerleaders. Both were shy, which surprised me. I always thought cheerleaders were outgoing and confident, but neither of these two were. They went to different schools, really didn't hang out with each other while they were here. I can have their youth pastor call you tomorrow, if you like."

Steven's mind was racing again. "'Please. Thanks, Mike." He started off toward the door, but Mike caught his sleeve.

"I want to help those families any way I can, Steven, but it's hard to hold out hope. Do you think there's a chance we'll get Sammie back? Alive?"

Steven hesitated. "Between you and me, no. But please don't tell her parents that."

"You have my word."

Steven pushed the door open and felt the cold night air on his face again. "Thanks, Mike." He walked out of the church with more to think about than when he'd gone in. But there was a peace as well, one he hadn't felt in a very long time.

He'd focus on Samantha Eggleston and Brad for now, but the idea of exploring a relationship with Jenna Marshall little by little held incredible appeal. Soon, he promised himself. He'd call her up and ask her out to dinner sometime soon.

Chapter Eight

Saturday, October I, 1:45 A.M.

Steven stood at the coffeepot in the corner of the SBI conference room, his arms crossed, his fingers drumming his upper arm impatiently. The coffee dripped in slow motion, just to annoy him. If he pulled the carafe away now he'd have a mess and he still wouldn't have a full cup of coffee.

Which, when he got it, would be his fourth. Helen, bless her heart, had set up the machine in their kitchen to start brewing at six in the morning. She knew his habits well, knew he'd be calling an early-morning status meeting. So the pot at home had taken care of his first three cups.

Hopefully the fourth would actually wake him up. He dragged his palms down his cheeks, wincing when he touched the razor nick on his jaw. His hands had been unsteady this morning. It was a small wonder he hadn't cut his face to ribbons. He hadn't slept all night, worries about Brad in the front of his mind periodically interrupted by thoughts of Brad's teacher that lurked in the back. He wished he could say another night of worrying had miraculously solved the mystery of his son's problem but that was no more true than his hope that the morning light would dispel Jenna Marshall's soft voice that still echoed in his mind. Have courage, Steven. If only it were that easy.

"An IV would be faster."

Steven looked over his shoulder to find Lennie Farrell leaning against the wall behind him, his tie perfectly knotted, not a wrinkle in sight. Special Agent in Charge Lennie Farrell was a Joe Friday cop if there ever was one. His cardboard walk was mimicked by the department, although never with malice. Lennie was a good man. He even laughed when they called him "Joe." As much as Lennie laughed, anyway.

"And probably less painful," Steven responded, looking back at the coffeepot that hadn't speeded its drip one single iota. "'When I finally get my cup, it's going to scald on its way down."

"You could wait for it to cool," Lennie said, his tone wry. "But that wouid require patience."

Steven glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "I am patient."

Lennie pushed away from the wall and walked over to the bulletin board Steven had set up the night before. Photos of both young girls were hung with thumbtacks, smiling yearbook photos provided by their terrified parents. Lennie bent down to look at the photo of the mutilated body of Lorraine Rush, the first victim, then straightened as he drew a deep breath. "Steven, if you are patient, I'm a stand-up comic."

"Your point. This time." Steven grabbed a chair and swung it around so he could straddle it. "What are you doing here this morning? I'd planned to call you with an update at the ninth hole."

Lennie sat down at the table. Heavily. "I got a call from the governor last night."

Steven sighed. In a case with the potential to become such a high profile, it was only a matter of time. "We knew it was coming. Well?"

"He's concerned, of course, and wanted to know what we had. I told him I'd call him after this morning's briefing."

"At least we don't have help from the Feds or the press yet."

Lennie lifted a brow. "Let's try to keep it that way."

"I talked to Kent Thompson last night." Steven pulled a folder from his briefcase, conscious of Lennie watching his every move. Steven knew why and it pissed him off. Lennie was looking for signs of strain. Of stress. Of anything that might suggest Steven was ready to blow a gasket because this was his first abduction case since Nicky. Fe'd felt like a fish in a damn bowl for six months now?nd Lennie's watchful stare wasn't helping matters. He drew a deep breath. "You know Kent, don't you?"

Lennie nodded. "New guy. Works in Diane's department."

"Yeah. Seems like he knows his stuff. Anyway, he was here until midnight last night, doing some lab tests on the material we found in the hypo at the clearing. Said he needed to let the samples sit overnight before running the chromatogra-phy test. He should be here any minute."

"I wish Diane were here," Lennie mused. "This is a big case for a rookie. Maybe I should call in someone from the Charlotte office until Diane gets back from her cruise."

Steven shook his head. "Give the guy a chance, Lennie. Let's see what he's come up with. Coffee's done, finally. Do you want some?"

"Not till Nancy comes. Don't forget I've tasted your coffee."

Steven grimaced. "So have I. Caffeine addictions can be a real bitch."

One corner of Lennie's mouth lifted. "So what time is this meeting scheduled to start, Steven?"

Steven glanced at his watch. "Ten minutes. Everybody will be here."

Within ten minutes the conference room was filled with the team Steven had assembled Thursday morning, a few hours after receiving word of Samantha Eggleston's disappearance. Kent Thompson brought up the rear, carrying an overstuffed folder and looking like he'd slept in his suit. Steven could see Lennie giving him a look that clearly won-dered if he'd made a mistake in not calling for Charlotte reinforcements sooner.

"Sorry," Kent mumbled and took the last empty chair.

Nancy put a cup of coffee in front of the young man who stared at it warily. "Did Steven make this?" Kent asked and Steven rolled his eyes at the chuckles that rippled through the room.

"You're safe, honey," Nancy said and patted Kent's shoulder in her motherly way. "I dumped Steven's pot and made a new one."

"And I called the plumber to repair the corrosion to the pipes," Harry chimed in with a grin.

"Yeah, yeah," Steven muttered. "Are we ready to begin?" Steven asked loudly and the side conversations abruptly ceased. "Thanks." He looked around the table at the team he'd assembled. Seven men and women, including himself. Solid agents, all of them. Kent Thompson was their forensic scientist, Harry Grimes and Sandra Kates his fellow investigating agents, Meg Donnelly would profile the killer they sought, and Nancy Patterson would provide the database support. He'd added Liz Johnson, the assistant DA, to ensure any move they made would stand up in court.

He knew they'd need every drop of talent the group offered to stop this killer before Samantha Eggleston's battered body ended up in a clearing like Lorraine's. "I want to start with results from Forensics, then review the database search of like perps." He raised his eyes across the room to Meg, the staff psychologist. "And then, Meg, I'd like you to give your take on who we're looking for." Steven turned to Kent, hoping that he had something decent to say or Lennie would have a more experienced replacement up from Charlotte before lunchtime. "Showtime, Thompson. Let's see what you've got."

Kent opened his file folder, exposing a two-inch stack of papers. "I have a number of items to cover this morning. Please stop me if I talk too fast," He gave a funny little smile. "I'm a little nervous, but I'm sure I'll get over it." Everyone smiled back in encouragement, including Lennie.

"Let's begin with the underwear Bud Clary found under the tree in the clearing yesterday morning," Kent said and pulled out a photograph showing two magnified hairs. "They were the same size and brand worn by Samantha and I found these two pubic hairs stuck in the cotton fibers. We can compare the DNA to hairs from her brush and epithelial cells from her toothbrush."

"So we at least can put her underwear at the scene," Sandra Kates commented. She was a seasoned agent with a niche expertise in sexual deviants. Steven didn't envy her dreams. His own were bad enough.

Kent nodded. "Exactly. I searched the flattened grassy area for hair from Samantha's head, but found none which I thought a bit odd."

"Why?" Lennie asked, leaning forward slightly in his chair.

"Because Samantha has very long curly hair." Kent pulled another photograph from his stack, one magnified with a microscope. "Here's a blade of grass from the clearing at fifty-ex. See the way the little thorny structures protrude all up and down the blade? It makes the grass like Velcro."

"Which should have pulled at least one or two hairs if she'd been laid on the grass," Steven finished and Kent nodded again.

"Exactly right, especially with how dry the grass is right now."

Steven glanced over at Meg. "He shaved her head? Just like Lorraine Rush."

Meg shrugged. "That would be my guess."

Steven looked back at Kent. "What about the dark hair you found?"

'The hair was clipped at the edge, almost like it had been shaved with a razor or some other kind of blade. It's not Samantha's, I can tell you that. As for DNA, there was no follicle, like I told you yesterday, so I'll need to use mitochon-drial cells for the DNA print instead of cells from the nucleus. It doesn't provide the full range of gene mapping as it only holds genetic material from the mother."

Steven turned to Assistant DA Liz Johnson. "Admissible?"

Liz nodded. "Yes, I've used it before. Not often, but enough."

"What else do you have?" Lennie asked brusquely and Steven knew he was impressed.

Kent's expression hardened. "The hypo had traces of ket-amine."

Steven's shoulders slumped as murmurs ran round the table. "Shit. Are you sure?"

"Unfortunately, yes. I ran the GC three times, which is why I was late this morning. All the peaks match up."

Steven looked to Harry. "Did Latent find anything on the hypo itself?"

Harry shook his head. "Not a print. Bastard wore gloves."

Nancy raised her hand. "I'm out of the loop here. What's ketamine?"

"Close relative of PCP," Sandra answered grimly. "Widely used as an anesthetic, especially with vets. Veterinarians," she specified. "Available from most veterinary supply catalogs."

Meg pushed away from the table and walked to the window. "Legally used, it's an effective replacement for general anesthesia, especially outside of hospital environments."

"Doctors on charity missions to Africa will use it when they're operating out in the field," Kent offered. "It completely immobilizes the patient."

Meg nodded. "That's right. And when used correctly it's quite safe."

"But?" Nancy asked.

"But it's one of the fastest-growing illicit drugs out there today," Steven said grimly. "If you take enough you enter what users call the 'k-zone.' Users have out-of-body experiences. Some even say they witness their own death."

"Our perp uses ketamine to immobilize these girls," Nancy murmured. "Like a date-rape drug."

"Something like that," Meg replied. "But unlike rhohypnol where the victim doesn't remember anything, ketamine users have a detached awareness of their surroundings." She turned to the group. "But the worst part is what they call the reemer-gence dreams. They can be simply horrific."

Steven rubbed the back of his stiffening neck. "Wonderful. Was there anything else, Kent?"

"The dog's teeth were clean. If Pal bit our perp, he didn't bite deep enough to take any flesh. His stab wounds were deep and wide. I took some digital photos before the vet sewed him up."

"Good thinking. Let's compare them to the pictures from Lorraine Rush's autopsy," Steven said, "and let's hope there's something to compare. Also see if they can do any tests for ketamine on Rush's tissue samples. Harry, I want you to focus on finding out where he got the ket."

Harry wrote it in his notebook. "I'll start with the vet supply houses and the local vet clinics."

"Good. Sandra, see if any of your contacts on the street have heard about this."

Sandra nodded. "I've already put out some feelers. I'll see what I can drag in."

Steven turned to Nancy who was busily taking notes of her own. "Nancy, what have you found in your database search?"

Nancy looked up and lifted her half-lensed glasses off the end of her nose. "I checked for perps charged with sexual assault crimes in a one-hundred-mile radius and popped up more names than we can run through in a month. I'll see about doing a cross-ref with ketamine and perhaps we can narrow it a bit."

Steven mentally ticked off the items he planned to cover in this meeting. "I'm going to work the connection between the two girls. I know they went to the same church. I want to know how well they knew one another and how our perp knew them. Finally, Meg, can you paint a picture of what kind of person we're looking for?"

"It's just a top of head sketch," Meg cautioned. "We're assuming he's killed twice. At least. The savagery with which the first girl was brutalized before and after death indicates he's angry. He probably doesn't communicate well, probably holds his anger in. We'll likely find he's killed animals leading up to this. Most certainly he's committed some lesser sexual crimes in the past, again working up to this. By not burying the Rush girl, it seems like he wanted her to be found. Media exposure will make him very satisfied." She stopped and fixed her stare out the window. "I'm wondering how the ketamine factors in. Does he dope them up before he kills them? During? Does he use it to initially immobilize these girls while he's kidnapping them or as an anesthesia to keep them from feeling anything while he's killing them?"

"A considerate serial killer?" Sandra asked skeptically. "That would be one for the books."

"Bundy volunteered at a suicide hotline," Harry said thoughtfully.

"That's not the same thing and you know it," Sandra shot back. "These guys kill for the thrill of seeing another person in pain."

"You mean our guy is abnormal! Perish the thought." Harry recoiled in mock horror and Sandra glared.

Steven lifted his hand. "Boys and girls, please. What else, Meg?"

Meg glanced over her shoulder, then back out the window. "Sandra could very well be right. His use of ketamine could have nothing to do with its anesthetic effect. It could be he's using it for the dream effect. That would indicate a curiosity about psychology or maybe even firsthand experience with some kind of therapy."

"Or he could have a trigger-happy mouse finger," Nancy said, her eyes on her laptop screen. "In the last few minutes I've come across six articles written by chem-heads espousing the awesome trips you can take into the 'k-zone.' Some of these are incredibly well written. It's hard to believe such articulate people are stupid enough to do this drug." She looked up and slid her glasses off her nose. "Sorry, Meg. I didn't mean to interrupt. I was just surprised at the amount of information I was able to get so easily seeing as how I'd never heard of this stuff before."

"It's everywhere, Nancy," Meg murmured. "That's what makes it so scary." Clearing her throat she went on. "I'm also wondering about the timing of this second abduction-it bothers me."

"It's too soon," Sandra supplied.

"It is," Meg agreed. "We found the Rush girl's body five days ago and the autopsy showed she'd been dead less than a week. That's less than two weeks between incidents. Early in their 'career' serial killers may go months or years between incidents. I don't know. Maybe he's done this before-many times that we don't know about-and he's now at the critical escalation point."

Steven sat back in his chair. "But you don't think so."

"No, not really. This feels more…" She tightened one side of her face, struggling for the words. "Immature," she said finally. "Especially given the way he was shaken up by the dog yesterday morning. Leaving behind the hypo was… unprofessional at best."

"An amateur," Harry said wryly and Meg smiled.

"For lack of a better word, yes." She shrugged wearily. "Summing up, if I had to guess his age I have to say he was younger and I'll bet we find he's well educated. He's probably white, since serial killers tend not to cross ethnic lines. That's all I can offer until 1 have more information."

Steven closed his notebook and stood up. It wasn't much. But it was the best they had at the moment. "Then let's go get some more information."

Saturday, October I, 12:30 P.M.

Helen Barnett had been staring at the leather briefcase on her kitchen table for close to half an hour, debating whether she should unzip the front panel in the hope that Brad's chemistry teacher had stored a phone number inside so she could return the briefcase.

Such a stuffed briefcase meant this teacher had brought home a lot of work that, Helen was willing to bet, a busy teacher would be needing to get to earlier than Sunday afternoon.

Jenna. Helen liked the sound of the name. It was pretty without being simpering. Helen knew by now that Steven hated simpering women. Unfortunately Helen wasn't sure what kind of women Steven didn't hate.

It just wasn't natural for a young man Steven's age, with half his life ahead of him, to insist on staying lonely. He was handsome, had a charming disposition when he wanted to, and rarely left his dirty socks on the floor. He didn't snore, usually put the lid down, was financially comfortable, and had three beautiful sons-who needed a mother.

It wasn't natural for those three boys to grow up without a mother when it was so unnecessary. Steven could have had his pick of pretty young things who would have adored his boys. Helen ought to know. She'd handpicked the pretty young things herself.

"But no," she muttered, staring hard at the briefcase, annoyed she was so tempted to snoop. Snooping was what desperate people did. Desperate was what Helen Barnett had become.

She'd agreed to come and live with Steven four years ago when Melissa took such an untimely death, leaving her poor boys motherless. At the time, Helen was sure within a few years Steven would have remarried and she, Helen, would have been on her merry way, resuming the life she'd dropped without a second thought.

Now, four years later, Helen desperately wanted her old life back. She wanted to play canasta whenever the mood struck, every night if she wanted. Without having to get a baby-sitter. She wanted to go on cruises with her friends with a week's notice. She wanted to go on a safari to Africa for a month. Maybe even get a gentleman friend of her own. A woman had needs, too, after all. But until Steven got a wife, none of that could happen. Nicky needed someone here all the time. He was just a baby, after all. And he'd been through so much. And Brad? God only knew what was wrong with that boy, but Helen knew sooner or later he'd come around. So Helen wanted Steven to get himself a wife. For the boys. For Steven. For her own sanity.

And this Jenna was the first woman Steven had even appeared to be interested in. Maybe if Helen asked this Jenna to dinner, gave them a chance to get to know each other better… And for that she'd need Jenna's phone number. Which was likely in the briefcase.

"So are you going to open it or not?" a squeaky voice said behind her.

Helen gasped, her hand flying to cover her heart, which, her doctor assured her, was as strong as an ox. Slowly she turned to find Matt lounging against the microwave, an insolent grin on his face, looking just like Steven at thirteen. Brad looked like their mother, but Matt and Nicky were Steven all over again, red hair, freckles, and a smile to make girls swoon. Matt's hair had started to lighten to that strawberry blond color Helen so loved on Steven. In a few years the girls would be lining up outside Matt's door. Hopefully by then the boys would have a real mother with a stick to beat off the undeserving girls. Only the best for her boys, the middle one of whom was a real sneak.

"How long have you been standing there?" Helen demanded, her eyes narrowing.

Matt just grinned wider. "Long enough. Yenta."

Helen bit back a grin of her own. Insolent pup, using Fiddler against her at his age. "I am not matchmaking." Not yet, she thought, and not without a phone number. "How did you know?"

Matt shrugged. "I was listening last night when you and Dad were talking about Brad."

"Eavesdropping? Matthew Thatcher, I'm shocked," Helen said, deadpan.

"It's the best way to get information around here. Besides, how could I resist when you're saying something bad about Mr. Perfect?"

Helen frowned. "I can't believe you're taking pleasure in whatever's wrong with your brother," she said severely. "I thought I raised you better than that."

His face fell and he looked down at his feet. "Man, you know how to take all the fun out of life." He looked up, ducking his head like the little boy he used to be, when, just yesterday? How had he grown so tall and so old… so fast? "Look, I'm not happy that Brad's in trouble, but I am happy you're not yelling at me for a change."

She put on her imperious face. "News flash, Matthew. I'm a versatile woman, capable of multitasking. I can yell at two boys at the same time."

"Now you tell me," he mumbled, then she watched his expression slide from sullen to sly.

"What?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.

Matt leaned forward. "I also heard Dad call Brad's teacher by her first name last night. Very interesting. You want to know what she looks like?"

Helen bit her lip. The boy was incorrigible. Utterly. It was one of the things she loved most about him. "Your dad said she was sixty."

Matt cracked out a laugh. "And you believed him?"

Helen stiffened her back. "Of course not." She tilted her head to one side and crossed her arms over her chest. "You have a picture?"

Matt pressed the lever on the microwave, popping open the door and exposing a bound book sitting on the glass turntable.

Helen glanced up to find his brown eyes dancing. "Brad's yearbook?"

"I'm surprised at you, Aunt Bea. I thought you would have already thought of this yourself."

"I'm old. Cut me some slack. And don't call me Aunt Bea." Helen reached for the book only to have Matt grab it first. She sighed. "What do you want?"

"Lemon meringue, apple, and pumpkin."

"And pumpkin?"

"She's a looker. Aunt Bea."

"Okay. And pumpkin. You're going to get fat."

"I am a thirteen-year-old growing boy. I won't get fat. Oh, and I want ice cream with the apple pie. Vanilla "

"You're pushing me, boy. Give it."

Matt handed over the yearbook. "Page forty-two."

Helen flipped to the page and stopped short. "Oh, my goodness."

Matt looked over her shoulder and let out a low wolf whistle. "Yeah, mama."

Helen looked up and over her shoulder with a glare. "Matthew!"

He grinned. "Come on, Aunt Bea. I'm thirteen. If I didn't drool a little you'd say I was sick and take me to Doc Theopo-lis for a shot."

Helen considered and conceded. "Okay, you have a point. This time." She dropped her eyes back down to the photo where a tall, black-haired woman and ten lab-coated teenagers held a test tube in each hand and beamed sunny smiles. "If she's sixty, I want to know what she's been cooking up in her lab to keep her face so smooth. She's beautiful."

"Great legs, too."

"Matthew!"

"Oh, like I'm the first guy to say that. I'll bet every one of those six guys in the science club joined for 'academic stimulation." " He punctuated the air.

"Matthew!" Helen choked on the laugh she tried to stifle. "Please. That is a picture I don't need in my head. Okay, fine. She's pretty and obviously very smart."

"Probably too smart for Dad."

"Probably," Helen agreed. "But maybe she won't figure that out until it's too late."

"So are you going to open the briefcase or not?"

Helen shook her head. "It's an invasion of privacy. It would be wrong." Matt shrugged nonchalantly, putting Helen on instant guard. "What do you have, young man?"

"A business card." He grinned. "With her address and phone number."

"Hand it over."

Matt sulked. "I was going to hold out for turkey with trimmings."

"If it's good enough, I'll throw in the turkey for free."

"I love you, Aunt Bea."

"Shut up, Matt."

He grinned. "Check the back."

Helen turned it over and read Jenna's address and phone number. "She has good penmanship."

"And great legs. Hey," he added at her impatient sigh, "at least I stayed at her legs."

"And this is supposed to please me? Don't answer that. Where did you find this card? Or do I not want to hear the answer to that either?"

"In Dad's suit pocket. I was looking for loose change to support my arcade habit."

"Uh-huh. Okay, so I guess the ball's in my court now."

"So you'll call her and invite her for dinner?"

"Was my plan so transparent?"

"Predictable, at least."

Helen looked up at him, suddenly suspicious. "Why are you helping me?"

Matt pulled a glossy brochure from his pocket. "I found this under the cushion on the couch. When I was looking for-"

"Loose change to support your arcade habit," Helen finished and took the brochure from his hands. "Africa, the Dark Continent," she read. "I was wondering where I'd left this."

"And I overheard you talking to your friend Sylvia."

"Quite the little spy, aren't we?" Helen asked, not sure whether to be annoyed or repentant.

"I didn't mean to," he defended himself. "You were right here in the kitchen and I got hungry. I didn't sneak or anything. Anyway, I heard you tell her you couldn't go on the safari because no one could watch the kids for that long. I started to think about all the cool places you went before you came here and…" He let the thought trail off with an awkward shrug.

Repentant it would be. "You know I love you guys," she said, relieved when he nodded.

"You just want to have fun. I can buy that." He gently yanked a hank of her hair. "You know you'll have to get a buzz cut when you go to Africa or the tsetse flies will make nests in your hair."

"I'll have to take my chances," Helen returned dryly. "You want mashed potatoes or Stove Top with that turkey tomorrow?"

Mart's eyes lit up. "Which is easier?"

"Which do you think?"

"Then you know which 1 want." He took the yearbook and sauntered out of the kitchen.

Helen watched him go, wanting to swat his sauntering behind and marveling at his growing maturity at the same time. She'd done a good job raising these boys if she did say so herself. And Brad would come around. "Mashed potatoes, turkey, three pies, and repentance," she said aloud to no one at all. "This Jenna better be worth the trouble."

Saturday, October I, 2:30 P.M.

Marvin Eggleston surged to his feet, pushing back from his kitchen table so hard the chair fell to the floor with a clatter that made his trembling wife jump in her chair. "So you're telling me you are no closer to finding my daughter than you were two fucking days ago!" he exploded. He leaned on the table, balancing on the knuckles of his clenched fists, his face inches from Steven's. "What the hell have you been doing, sitting with your thumbs stuck up your asses?"

Steven smelled whiskey on the man's breath and said nothing. Eggleston was a grieving father. Steven would have preferred to see the man sober, though, if for no other reason than to answer the questions he needed to ask. But everyone dealt with grief and terror differendy. While Marvin Eggleston blustered, his petite wife sat quietly crying.

Anna Eggleston grabbed her husband's arm, holding on for dear life. Her face was haggard, her eyes haunted. Beyond pale, her skin had a translucence, the look of being stretched too thin over her bones that came from forty-eight hours of constant fear and tears. Her voice shook when she spoke and Steven's pity grew. "Marvin, please. Serena will hear you." Steven was grateful Mrs. Eggleston's mother had taken four-year-old Serena upstairs when he arrived. No child needed to see her parents so wildly grieving. More tears welled in Anna's eyes and spilled to her cheeks, unchecked. "You're not helping. Please, sit down." She turned to Steven. "I'm sorry. It's just that we've had no sleep." She bowed her head, her shoulders shaking as a new wave of sobs took over. "We can't sleep. He has my baby," she whispered, her hand still clutching her husband's arm.

Steven placed his hand over hers, feeling the chill of her skin. "It's all right, Mrs. Eggleston. I truly understand. You don't have to apologize to me." He placed his other hand on Marvin's arm, creating a circle, connecting them. "Mr. Eggle-ston, if I knew where your daughter was, believe me, she'd be with you right now. I know it doesn't help, but we're doing everything we can."

Eggleston slumped, his chin dropping to his chest. "God, I can't believe this," he whispered. "I feel so damn helpless." He looked up and in his eyes Steven recognized the desperate terror he himself felt when that bastard Winters held Nicky.

"Yesterday, the young one from your office…" Eggleston shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. "The one that took the cast of Sammie's footprint outside her w indow."

"Agent Thompson?"

Eggleston nodded, not breaking eye contact. "Yes, he's the one. He said it had happened to you. That someone had stolen your child out of his bed."

Steven wasn't sure whether to thank Kent or curse him to eternal perdition. "That's true."

Anna looked up, her face streaked and puffy. "But you got your son back."

Steven nodded. "I did, yes."

She bit her lip. "Was he… all right? After you got him back?"

Steven knew what she was asking. Was his baby molested? Was his baby normal? Was his family normal? The answer to every one of those questions was a resounding no. "The man that abducted my son didn't physically hurt him, if that's what you mean, Mrs. Eggleston. But no, my son is not all right. He has nightmares. He refuses to sleep in his own bed. His schoolwork suffers. He doesn't hug anyone and hasn't since that day."

The Egglestons absorbed this information. Finally Marvin Eggleston drew a deep breath. "So even if we get her back, she won't be our daughter anymore, will she?" he asked gruffly.

Steven carefully avoided the "if." These parents were grasping at straws, trying to hold on to hope. "She'd need counseling. You all will."

Anna blinked, sending fresh tears down her stained cheeks. "You did?"

Steven nodded. "I did." He squeezed Anna's hand and Marvin's arm, then let go and sat back in his chair. "I need to ask you all some more questions. Some of them may sound the same as questions I asked yesterday and the day before. Please don't become frustrated with this process, though. Sometimes you remember tidbits today that you didn't think about yesterday."

"And those tidbits could help you find our Sammie," Anna said, very faintly.

"They might."

Marvin Eggleston pulled his chair forward and collapsed into it. "Then ask."

"Please understand I am in no way blaming your daughter for what happened," Steven began. Marvin held out his hand and Anna placed hers in his, the gesture so trusting that Steven found himself wishing he had someone to lean on. Jenna. Steven let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding and focused on his notebook. "Can you tell me about Samantha's friends?"

"She was popular," Anna said. "She had lots of friends."

"Did she date?"

Anna shook her head. "She had a boyfriend, but they broke up about six weeks ago."

"What happened?"

Anna lifted a shoulder wearily. "They're sixteen. Nothing lasts forever when you're sixteen."

"Why did they break up, Mrs. Eggleston?"

Anna clearly hesitated and Marvin turned to fully face her. "What, Anna? What happened that you two didn't tell me?"

Anna sighed. "He dropped her for another girl."

Steven watched Marvin's fist deliberately clench and release. "You didn't approve of the boy I take it?" Steven asked and Marvin tightened his jaw.

"No, I didn't. He was a fast boy."

Anna laid her hand on Marvin's arm again, this time gently. "And she said 'no,' Marvin. That's why he dumped her for another girl."

Marvin swallowed hard. "She cried for a week over that sorry piece of shit."

Steven cleared his throat and Marvin looked up, his eyes filled with tears. The sight shook Steven soundly. "Does the sorry piece of shit have a name?" he asked carefully.

"Gerald Porter," Anna said, stroking her husband's arm as Steven scratched the name on his notepad. "She didn't want you to know because she knew you' d give him a piece of your mind."

"And I would have, too," Marvin muttered.

"And she would have been embarrassed," Anna murmured. "She wanted to keep her dignity at school. To hold her head high and pretend Gerald hadn't hurt her so badly."

"So she may have been vulnerable in that respect," Steven said thoughtfully.

"What do you mean by that?" Marvin demanded.

"Not that Samantha did anything wrong, Mr. Eggleston," Steven reminded him and Marvin's body relaxed a notch or two. "Just that if she'd been abandoned by the sorry Gerald, then maybe she would have been more readily accepting of someone new. Who would she have confided in?"

"My wife," Marvin said.

"JoLynn Murphy," Anna said at the same time. "I know you think my relationship with Samantha is that close, Marvin, but it isn't. She doesn't tell me everything."

"She loves you," Marvin said, desperately.

"Of course she does," Anna murmured, stroking his arm. "She loves you, too. But I was a sixteen-year-old girl once and I didn't tell my mother everything." She looked over at Steven. "I also understand that you found no evidence of forced entry into the house or her bedroom. Wherever she is, she started out, at least, of her own free will."

It was true, Steven thought. No forced entry and Saman-tha's perfectly formed shoe print outside her window. What could he say? "If not her own free will, at least on her own two feet. JoLynn says she hasn't talked with Samantha in over a week. Did she have any other friends?"

Anna closed her eyes, thinking. "Pamela Droggins," she said finally. "And Emily Robinson. They're all on the cheer-leading squad together." She opened her eyes. "And Wanda Pritchard. They knew each other from the drama club. I don't think I gave you Wanda's name the other day."

Steven smiled at her. "No, ma'am, you didn't. Thank you for trying so hard to remember. Now, do you happen to know the name of the girl that Gerald Porter dumped her for?"

Anna shook her head. "No, she wouldn't tell me that. All she would say is that the new girl 'put out.'" She curled her lip distastefully. "Sammie said she was a low-class slut."

Steven looked at his notepad. He had names of one new friend and a sorry piece of shit and an unnamed low-class slut. Progress. He stood up and slid his pen in his pocket. "I want to thank you for your time," he said. "I know how difficult a time this is for your family."

"Agent Thatcher, wait." Anna looked at her husband. ''Marvin, CNN called this morning when you were out with Serena. They want an interview."

Steven's heart sank. The last thing he wanted was to give their perp any more media coverage than he'd already received. If Samantha was still alive, it could force him to kill her. If she was dead, the surge of publicity could incite him to do it again.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Marvin demanded.

"I wanted to hear what Agent Thatcher had to say first," Anna answered. "I'd say we have nothing to lose by talking to them."

"Mrs. Eggleston, I don't think that's a good idea at this point."

Marvin Eggleston looked at Steven with challenge in his eyes. "If you're truly doing all you can, then you won't mind the public seeing you do it."

"That's not it at all. Our team psychologist believes whoever took Samantha may have done it to call attention to himself. If you talk to the media, he will have what he wants."

Anna Eggleston pursed her lips and Steven knew he had underestimated her influence on the couple's decisions. For all his high-volume bluster, Marvin wasn't the decision-maker. Anna was.

"I will consider your position, Agent Thatcher," was all she said.

"I need to talk with the names you've given me," Steven said evenly, controlling his frustration. "Please don't go to the media. In my experience, that would be the wrong thing to do."

"I understand, Agent Thatcher," she said quietly. "I understand."

So did Steven, all too well. He understood she was a desperate mother willing to do anything to get her child back and that even though she'd given him her full cooperation in his investigation this desperate mother needed to feel she was doing something. Something, anything was better than the helpless waiting.

He also understood he'd be seeing the Egglestons on the never-ending CNN loop before midnight. Dammit.

Chapter Nine

Saturday, October I, 6:00 P.M.

Jenna stopped at the base of the steps leading to Allison's house, her ankle throbbing from the trek up the steep driveway. Her feet didn't move, even though the foot in the sock was becoming chilled. Shivering, she admitted to herself just how much she'd been dreading this dinner.

Adam's memorial dinner. On the week before the second anniversary of his "passing." She'd never heard the Llewellyns say "dead." They said "passing." Talk about being in denial, especially Allison. But even as she dreaded it, she could never bring herself to tell Allison "no." This dinner was a family tradition, and the Llewellyns were her family.

So move, Jenna. Get up those stairs and get this dinner over with.

But still her feet didn't move. The dread of how it would be overpowered family traditions.

Jenna knew exactly how it would be-exactly as it had been the year before. Allison would set her table with her Noritake china and Waterford crystal. The table would be set for six, although they'd be only five-Allison and her husband Garrett, Charlie, Seth. And herself, sitting next to the chair Adam had always occupied. His now-empty chair. They'd sit and join hands and Garrett would say his solemn grace.

And that would be the first bad moment-having to reach across Adam's place setting to grasp Seth's hand. It was such a physical reminder that Adam was no longer there.

Like she could ever forget. But somehow reaching across his not-to-be-used butter plate made it worse. It was stupid, she knew, but true. The next bad moment would come when they all toasted him. Jenna couldn't even remember what she'd said last year. She had no idea what she'd say this year. The very thought made her nauseous.

Lifting her foot to take the first step, Jenna felt her stomach do a cartwheel so strong she swung around and sat instead. From here she could see Adam's car at the curb. The shop had done a good job finding the old-style tires on short notice, but it had cost her. She'd paid the bill, grateful she had the car to bring tonight. The last thing she wanted was to add anxiety over Adam's car to the family angst on memorial dinner night.

She heard the door open behind her and caught the jingle of bangles-Allison's daughter Charlie-along with a whiff of what was to be dinner. It would be Adam's favorite meal, just like last year. That was another part of the family tradition, preparing the deceased's favorite meal at their memorial dinner. They remembered Adam's mother with liver and onions, Adam with sloppy joes from a can. On top of being the tiniest bit eccentric, the Llewellyns had terrible taste in food.

The bangles jingled louder until eleven-year- old Charlie dropped down to sit on the step beside her. She crossed her arms, creating another jingle from the bracelets that hung from both wrists. "Hi, Aunt Jenna," she said in a dramatically melancholy voice. Charlie had called her Aunt Jenna from the time she was six years old and Jenna wasn't about to ask her to stop.

"Why so glum?" Jenna asked, knowing Charlie needed no real reason. She was a pre-teen girl and that said it all.

"I hate sloppy joes," Charlie grumbled. "Why did Uncle Adam pick that for his favorite?"

Jenna looked down with a fond smile. "You don't know?"

Charlie puckered her lips. "If I knew I wouldn't be asking, would I?"

Jenna ruffled her short hair. "Sarcastic little brat," she said affectionately. "Your uncle picked sloppy joes because your mom's such a terrible cook he figured it was the only thing she couldn't totally ruin." Jenna leaned close and whispered, "He liked spicy Chinese food the best." A memory hit, so clearly it took her breath. The tiny apartment they'd shared after grad school, Adam, hale and hearty, sitting in their bed with a carryout carton in one hand and chopsticks in the other, wearing only his glasses and a broad smile at something she'd said. She remembered thinking she'd be happy with nothing else as long as she had him.

Charlie brought her back to reality with an amused chuckle and the memory slipped away like a wave going back to the sea. Wait, Jenna wanted to scream, but knew it was a fruitless waste of energy. Adam was gone. She no longer had him. And she'd learned to be happy anyway. She had.

"He really said that about my mom's cooking?"

Jenna swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "Really."

"And I thought I was the only one."

She swallowed again, willing away the emotion that threatened to overwhelm. "You're not." She pulled herself to her feet. "But this means a lot to your mom, so let's go."

Saturday, October I, 7:00 P.M.

"You wanted to see me, Dad?"

Victor Lutz looked up from the ledgers he'd been reviewing. Rudy stood in the doorway of his home office, the breadth of his shoulders completely filling the opening. His son was a handsome boy. Dark hair, bronze skin, strong jaw. Got his looks from his side of the family, thank God. "Yes, Rudy, come in and sit down. Did I also hear your friends out in the hall?"

Rudy sat down in one of the rich wine leather chairs and slid into a slouch. "Yeah, we're going down to the Y to lift weights." He winked. "Gotta keep my throwing arm in shape for next week."

"Yes. That's a good idea. Rudy, we need to talk about this problem at the school."

Rudy's smile faded. "I thought you fixed it."

"Blackman promised you'd play next week. But I'm not certain he'll keep his word."

Rudy was frowning by this time. "What are we going to dor?" Victor shrugged. "Depends how highly your teacher values her principles."

Rudy's expression went blank and Victor sighed. Got his looks from his side but unfortunately Rudy's brains came straight from Nora. God help the boy if he ever lost football, because he sure as hell wasn't going anywhere on the force of his intellect.

"Whaddya mean, Dad?"

"Let's be direct, Rudy. I heard her tires got slashed yesterday."

Rudy sat up straighter in the chair. "Now I had nothin' to do with that," he said quickly. "The boys, they did it all on their own. Kinda like a show of support."

"Of course. That's the 'kinda' thing that may make her change her mind-and your grade."

Rudy's eyes went narrow. "You mean, it's cool?"

"It's cool, Rudy. She's a teacher, for God's sake. How much can she realistically afford to replace? Tell your friends to keep it up, and you stay as far away from them as possible. Tell them to just keep it discreet." He leaned back in his chair with a frown. "You do understand discreet?"

Rudy gracefully rose to his feet, white teeth flashing against his tanned face in a bold grin. "It means don't get caught."

"Exactly." Victor watched his son amble toward the door, the picture of a cocky boy with the world by the tail. "Rudy?"

Rudy paused at the door, his hand on the knob. "What now?" he asked, his expression a familiar mix of teenaged sarcasm and boredom.

"Don't mention this to your mother or Josh." Nora was so unpredictable, it was hard to tell how she'd react to such a plan. Josh, well, he was predictable all right. Predictably slow-witted. Left on his own, Josh would probably lead police right to Rudy and his friends with the tire-slicing knife still in their hands. No one could believe Rudy and Josh were brothers. That they were fraternal twins was a detail Rudy would never even have to bother to deny should it ever come up. It never would, if Victor had anything to do about it. Josh had the misfortune to take his brains and his looks and his athletic capability from Nora's side of the family. Josh had once shown promise as having some measure of intelligence, but even that seemed to evaporate at the onset of puberty. Now he had trouble remembering his own name most days. It was better to keep him away from anything of any importance whatsoever.

r

Rudy rolled his eyes in disgust. "Like I'd let that retard anywhere near me. I don't think so." But when he pulled open the door, Josh stumbled in, red-faced and stuttering an apology.

Victor tightened his fists on top of his desk. Well, fuck. He might as well have had Nora in the room, too, because Josh would go straight to her when this conversation was over. Unless Josh somehow became locked in the root cellar… for the rest of his life. The idea unfortunately was only a fantasy-a recurring fantasy with immeasurable appeal. "Well, Josh? What do you want?"

Josh straightened and tried for dignity. And of course failed. "It's wrong," he said, haltingly. "She's a nice lady, Dr. Marshall."

Rudy snorted. "So nice she's ruining my chances to be recruited by that college scout."

To Victor's surprise, Josh met his eyes with a full stare. "Rudy failed. He should have to follow the rules like everybody else." Then grunted in pain when Rudy shoved him up against the door frame, one strong hand around Josh's throat, lifting Josh an inch off the ground.

"I don't follow the same rules, turd," Rudy ground out. "Remember that, if you can."

Josh gasped for air and Victor said mildly, "Let him go, Rudy."

Rudy abruptly stepped back, threw Josh a baleful glare, then stalked from the room. Josh sagged back against the door frame, huffing and puffing.

"Don't be stupid, Josh," Victor said softly and went back to his ledgers.

Saturday, October I, 9:30 P.M.

Steven closed the door to Interview Two behind him and came to a stop next to ADA Liz Johnson who looked like she'd been thoroughly enjoying herself. "Sorry I had to drag you all the way down here for nothing, Liz," he said and she grinned.

"Don't be sorry. Watching you finesse the sorry piece of shit Gerald Porter was worth my gas money. I think the real fireworks will happen when the Porters get young Gerald home tonight."

Steven leaned against the glass, on the other side of which Mr. Porter was ominously promising the sorry piece of shit Gerald that he'd pay for his sins.

"Too bad the only thing we can really get him for is carrying an illegal ID," he said glumly. "The bar where I found him conveniently hadn't noticed their sixteen-year-old patron was carrying the ID of a forty-five-year-old Hispanic man."

Liz patted his shoulder as she had on countless occasions before. "Well, Mrs. Porter seems to have been a mite put off by the fact Gerald dumped Samantha because she wouldn't sleep with him. I think he'll be sufficiently punished."

"But I wanted a murder suspect," Steven grumbled. "Not a candidate for asshole of the year."

"You'll get one, honey. Come on, I'll buy you a beer."

Steven smiled and pecked her cheek. "You're a good woman, Liz. Why hasn't some man snatched you up?"

Liz shrugged into her jacket. "Well for starters, I don't have a fairy god-aunt like Helen to handpick me a man. And for finishers, I work too damn much."

Steven sighed. "Let's make that two beers."

Saturday, October I, 10:30 P.M.

"Good boy." Jenna slipped the leash off Jim's collar and patted him on the head, grateful she could finally sit down. Her ankle throbbed, her head ached, and her stomach burned. Damn memorial dinners with sloppy joes from a can. She eased her body into the sofa and sighed as her tense muscles relaxed. A hot tub would be better, but that would mean getting up.

The phone jingled and Jenna glared at it. II it was Allison… But on the off chance it was only a telemarketer trying to put himself through college she made her voice pleasant.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Jen, how did it go?" It was Casey and she was yelling over the din of a noisy band.

"Okay, I guess. My bottle of Turns is all gone."

Casey chuckled. "Poor baby. So what feast did Allison serve tonight?"

Jenna winced, her stomach remembering all too well. "Sloppy joes. It's a family tradition."

Casey made a rude noise. "That family is weird, Jen. They're like the Munsters and Charlie's the only normal one, like… what was her name again? The blond one?"

Jenna smiled, accustomed to Casey's quicksilver topic shifts. "Marilyn."

"Oh, yeah. Well, now that Allison's dinner is done, why don't you come down to Jazzie's? The band is gieat."

"Can't. My foot is killing me."

"What happened to your foot?" Casey shouted above the din.

Knowing Casey would hear about her tires soon enough, Jenna told her the story, as briefly as possible, again keeping the threatening note to herself. Casey would have a conniption over that. "Steven brought me home and that was all there was to it," she finished.

"Steven?" Casey asked and Jenna felt her face heat. "Who's Steven?"

"Nobody," Jenna said, but it was too late. Casey would never let it go. "He's Brad's father."

"Hmm."

"What does that mean, hmm?" Jenna gritted, her jaw clenching.

"It means nothing."

"It was nothing," Jenna insisted, but the denial sounded pathetic even to her own ears.

"Just like your Steven is nobody," Casey added, her tone one of patronizing amusement.

Your Steven. Too bad the name conjured the face. Too bad it was such a very nice face. "Go back to your band, Casey," Jenna growled.

Casey laughed out loud. "Whatever you say, Jen. I'll be by tonight after my date and you can tell me all about it."

"That's all there was," Jenna spat, frustrated. "Besides, later tonight I'm going to be up to my chin in a tub of hot water. Then I'm going to bed. I'll see you on Monday."

"Monday? Don't you need my truck for hospice day? Don't tell me you've forgotten?"

Jenna groaned. "I did." She and Jim volunteered one Sunday a month at the hospice where Adam had spent his last weeks. Jim was a certified therapy dog and wagged his tail to spread joy. Jenna worked a little harder, reading aloud, relieving weary family members who needed a few hours to themselves, hugging them when the fatigue and grief became too much to bear. It was her way of turning Adam's death into something positive. But every hospice day she had to borrow

Casey's truck since Jim was a tight fit inside Adam's XK 150. "Can't you bring the truck by tomorrow?"

"Oh, I could, but then I'd miss hearing the rest of the story. I'll be by tonight."

"There is no more story. "

"I'll bring a pint of Rocky Road."

Jenna sighed. Casey never gave up. "I won't open the door for under a gallon."

"I've got a key."

"Dammit."

Casey chuckled. "See you later, Jen."

Jenna hung up the phone, settled back into the cushions when the phone rang again. Casey. "What did you forget?" Jenna asked sourly, then sat up straighter at the silence. "Um, hello?"

"Hello," a female voice said uneasily. "May I speak to Dr. Jenna Marshall?"

"This is she." Oh, crap. She'd been rude to a complete stranger.

"Dr. Marshall, this is Brad Thatcher's aunt. Great-aunt actually. I hope it's not too late to call."

"Of course not, Mrs.-I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."

"It's Helen Barnett. I tried to call earlier, but kept getting your machine. I have your briefcase."

"My briefcase?" Jenna asked blankly, then it came flooding back. Steven putting her briefcase in the backseat, the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed, how sweet and supportive he was when he helped her file the police report. The way his arm had felt against her when he helped her up the stairs to her apartment.

"Oh, dear," Mrs. Barnett said, jerking Jenna from her reverie. "This is your briefcase, isn't it?"

"Oh… oh, yes, ma'am, it's mine. I'm sorry, it's just been a long day. I'd completely forgotten about leaving my briefcase in Mr. Thatcher's car. Can 1 come pick it up tomorrow?"

"Why, certainly, dear. Steven would have brought it to you himself, but he's in the middle of a major investigation and it's got him preoccupied, I'm afraid. He's been gone all weekend."

"I know he's a busy man, Mrs. Barnett. If you'll give me directions, I'll swing by and pick it up tomorrow afternoon." She and Jim could go by after they finished at the hospice.

"It's Miss Barnett, actually. Would you mind coming by between five and six?"

She'd be done at the hospice by four-thirty. "That'll work. Thank you. I'll be by tomorrow."

Jenna hung up and stared at the phone for a long minute, acutely aware of the disappointment she felt that one, Steven wasn't bringing her briefcase by himself and two, he'd be gone on his major investigation when she went to his house to pick it up tomorrow. Both were ridiculous, she knew.

But still she was disappointed. Why ever for, she had no clue.

You do so know, Jenna, the little voice inside her whispered. She hated that voice. It was so snide. But usually right.

Casey's teasing has me thinking things that just aren't true.

Whatever you say, Jenna.

"Shut up," she snapped aloud and Jim and Jean-Luc looked up, instantly aware. "Not you," she added and looked at her watch. It would be a good two hours before Casey arrived with the Rocky Road, but she was pretty sure she and Seth had left some in the carton from last night. It would have to do until Casey arrived with the reinforcements.

Saturday, October I, 10:45 P.M.

"Why didn't you ask her to dinner?" Matt asked when Helen hung up the phone.

"It didn't seem right," Helen answered. "I trust my intuition on this."

"I think you just chickened out," Matt taunted. "Aunt Bea."

"I don't chicken out," Helen maintained with hauteur. Then she scowled. "And stop calling me Aunt Bea. Leave me alone. I have potatoes to peel for tomorrow."

Matt dropped a kiss on her cheek. "Mash 'em so thick you can stand a knife in 'em."

"I know how you like your mashed potatoes, young man." Helen took her peeler from the drawer and shook it at his grinning face. "I've been doing it for four years. Four long years."

"I'll have to ask Brad's teacher if she can make really thick mashed potatoes," Matt said thoughtfully. "I think it's a critical criteria."

Helen swatted him with a hand towel. "Don't even think about it. You make one false move tomorrow and I'll take this potato peeler to your behind."

"You're a scary woman, Aunt Bea."

"'And don't you forget it, boy."

Chapter Ten

Sunday, October 2, 9:00 A.M.

Jenna stumbled out of her bedroom, the smell of freshly brewed coffee drawing her to the kitchen like a magical lode-stone. Casey must be awake, she thought. She'd arrived late the night before and stayed over, just like the old days in the Duke dorm.

Cradling the hot cup between her palms, she walked back to her spare bedroom where Casey lay in bed watching TV, Jim curled up at her feet and Jean-Luc with his head on her pillow.

"What do you want for breakfast?" Jenna asked through a jaw-breaking yawn.

"Sshh!" Casey hissed and it was then Jenna noticed how pale Casey had become.

Alarmed, Jenna sat on the edge of the bed, pushing Jean-Luc aside. "What is it?"

"The police are talking about the second missing girl," Casey murmured.

"Oh, no," Jenna whispered as the weeping parents implored whoever had stolen their daughter to bring her home. "Those poor parents."

Casey said nothing, but the coffee cup she held in her hands trembled. Jenna put Casey's cup on the nightstand and listened to the reporter solemnly finish with a reminder of the first kidnapped girl, whose body had been discovered a few days before, butchered beyond recognition.

"Raleigh law enforcement gave a press conference this morning, but refused to make any comments or speculations at the time," said the reporter. Then the scene switched to the press conference and Jenna drew a startled breath. Steven Thatcher stood on the podium, looking impossibly handsome as he faced a barrage of questions from the media.

"What?" Casey asked. "Who is that?"

"Sshh," Jenna hissed, not taking her eyes from the screen.

"-no comments at this time," Steven was saying.

"Do we have a serial killer stalking young women?" a reporter shouted and Jenna watched Steven's jaw tighten.

"We are not speculating at this time," Steven returned evenly.

"Do you believe the abduction of Samantha Eggleston is related to the murder of Lorraine Rush?" another reporter insisted. Bulbs flashed and Steven frowned.

"We are investigating any and all leads. We can't afford to rule out that possibility at this time." Again he tightened his jaw as if clenching his teeth. He looked exhausted.

Jenna was worried about him and annoyed with the media at the same time. The scene switched back to the CNN anchor. Then there was silence as Casey hit the mute button on the remote. Neither of them said a word for a full minute.

Casey wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Dammit, Jen. What if we do have a serial killer out there? That's two girls in the last two weeks. What if one of our girls is next?"

Jenna squeezed Casey's hand. "I don't know. But I do know that if Steven's on the job, he'll make sure everything's being done that can be done."

"Steven?" Casey asked cautiously. "As in Brad's dad? That guy was Brad's dad?"

Jenna abruptly stood, making both dogs look up expectantly. "Yes. Agent Steven Thatcher. Brad's dad."

Casey's eyes instantly focused. "Okay," was all she said.

Perfunctory responses from Casey were never a good thing. "What does that mean?"

Casey shrugged. "It means okay."

"Your okays never just mean okay."

Casey retrieved her coffee cup from the nightstand and took a sip. "Jen, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," she said wryly, then raised a brow. "Isn't it?"

The mental image was too powerful to ignore. "What is that supposed to mean?" Jenna demanded, feeling her cheeks flush.

Casey blinked. "You're blushing!"

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are." She shrugged again. "But it's no matter. You'll probably never see him again."

"I'm going to his house today," Jenna blurted before she could stop herself.

Casey's blue eyes grew round as saucers. "Hello."

"But it's not what you think," Jenna added hastily.

"Of course not."

"It's not," Jenna insisted.

"Whatever you say," Casey said mildly.

"His aunt called last night and asked me to come to pick up my briefcase. So I'm going to pick up my briefcase." She set her lips together. "Nothing more. He probably won't even be there."

Casey sobered, her eyes flicking back to the television. "If he is there, ask him about the girls."

Seattle, Washington, Sunday, October 2,

10:30 A.M. Eastern Time (7:30 A.M. Pacific)

Seattle Detective Neil Davies came home from work, bypassed the piles of newspapers and dirty, sweaty laundry, and went straight to his kitchen for a beer. It wasn't even break-fast time, but somewhere in the world the sun was setting over the yardarm. That had been his old man's way of justifying alcohol at any hour of the day.

He'd no sooner popped the top when the phone rang. He'd given up hoping it would be Tracey. She'd gotten on with her life. He gave a mirthless chuckle. He guessed he couldn't blame her. It was hard for a woman to live with a man haunted by the ghosts of four dead teenaged girls.

"Yeah?" he barked into the phone.

"It's Barrow." His old partner from the West Precinct. "Turn on CNN."

Immediately Neil grabbed the remote and turned on the TV.

"Do you see?" Barrow asked tersely.

"Sshh," Neil hissed and blindly set the untouched beer on the counter. It was a small town in North Carolina. Two girls missing from their beds. Cheerleaders. One found butchered in a clearing, her head shaved. Terrified parents. Mystified police. He felt a strange settling in his gut, a hum sizzling along his skin. "It's him." Neil was sure of it. "William Parker."

"Maybe," said Barrow, guarded as usual. "You thought the guy in California was him and the guy in New York, too. So what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to Pineville, North Carolina. Wherever that is."

"Outside Raleigh," Barrow said. "And once you've arrived there, what will you do?"

"I don't know," Neil answered grimly. "Maybe get rid of some ghosts. Maybe get on with my life. I'd settle for a decent night's sleep."

Barrow sighed. "You know you can call me if you need me."

Neil almost smiled. "I know."

Raleigh, North Carolina,

Sunday, October 2, 10:30 A.M. Eastern Time

"Incompetent bastards," he muttered, turning away from the CNN report to examine his most recent photographic handiwork. Having his own darkroom really gave him the freedom to experiment with color and angle and lighting. Lorraine's body looked even more gruesome in black and white. But, he was still partial to color. All that blood… It just didn't get justice in black and white.

"And this was the scene at the headquarters of North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation early this morning," said the reporter, a woman with short, flippy hair.

He frowned. He hated short, flippy hair. Women should have long hair. He pulled out his most recent photo of her. She was perfect. She'd never get her hair cut like a man. In fact, if he were king of the world, all women would be required to grow their hair long and all scissors would be illegal. He smirked, looking at his head shot of bald little Samantha Eggleston. Except for his scissors of course.

But then, intelligent men weren't subject to the same rules that bound other men. It was fact.

"We will confirm we have a second girl reported missing."

He jerked his eyes up from his photographs and scowled at the talking face on the screen. Special Agent Steven Thatcher, read the caption below the man's face. Special agent. Hah.

Thatcher knew nothing he didn't want him to know. Special Agent Thatcher never would have found poor Lorraine had it not been for his anonymous tip. Thatcher couldn't even find a body if he found a neon sign blinking "body, body, body." Idiots. All of them.

He tilted his head, staring at the flickering visage of Special Agent Steven Thatcher.

"So you think you're hot stuff, huh, Special Agent Thatcher? You ain't seen nothin' yet."

The question was-what was the most effective means to up the ante?

Sunday, October 2, 4:45 P.M.

This is really stupid, Jenna thought, bringing Casey's Ford Explorer to a stop in front of the Thatcher home. Nevertheless she pulled her visor mirror down to check her makeup. Of course it was fine. She'd just freshened it up in the Hardee's parking lot three blocks back. She looked over at Jim in the passenger seat. "You have the bridge, Captain."

The Volvo wasn't in the driveway, so Steven was probably still out in the field. Or the car could be in the garage and he could be inside. Her heart fluttered and she cursed it. It didn't matter if he was here or not. She'd only be staying for a minute. Just long enough to get her briefcase.

She looked the house up and down as she calmly walked up the sidewalk even though the butterflies were doing the polka in her stomach. It was a nice house, really nice. Jenna was a little surprised how nice. She hadn't realized special agents of the SBI made such a good living. It was much nicer than the house in which she'd grown up, a place where loud voices and negativity were the rule. A place she rarely thought about.

She rang the bell and the door was opened by a woman with gray hair. "Come in, Dr. Marshall," she wercomed and yanked Jenna inside where a tantalizing aroma tormented her nose.

"Uh, thank you." Jenna looked around, noting the darkened room off to the right, a study perhaps. Jenna strained her peripheral vision to spy inside, but the room appeared empty. Mentally cursing Casey and berating her own suggestibility, she yanked her gaze back to the woman.

"Let me take your coat," Miss Barnett was saying and Jenna shook her head.

"No, really, I can't stay. I'll just get my briefcase and be out of your hair."

"It's all right," said a young boy, walking down the stairs. Jenna looked up to find a younger version of Steven coming toward her. "Aunt Helen won't have all that hair much longer anyway." He came to stand next to his aunt and tugged at her gray hair. "Tsetse flies, you know."

Jenna shook her head again, this time a little wary. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Neither does Matthew," Miss Barnett said and glared up at him. "This is Brad's younger brother, Matt." She shooed him. "Go… do something useful."

"I could test the turkey," Matt said helpfully. He shot Jenna an engaging grin that had her smiling back. "We wouldn't want to serve an underdone turkey. Family might get worms."

Jenna coughed, trying to hold back a laugh.

"It's done, Matthew," Miss Barnett said, her tone lowering. "The button popped."

"Then I could take Dr. Marshall's coat."

"No, I'm just leaving."

Matt had her jacket off her shoulders before she could blink twice. "Don't be silly. I'd like to get to know Brad's teacher and I'm sure my aunt would as well. Don't you, Aunt Helen?"

Jenna was certain she saw the older woman's lips twitch. "Absolutely." She looked down at Jenna's socked foot. "I heard you took a spill on Friday."

"Just a little one. I'll be fine in a few days. Is Brad here?"

Miss Barnett frowned and glanced over her shoulder up the stairs. "Upstairs somewhere. He and Steven had a bit of a disagreement this morning."

Jenna grimaced. "Oh."

"He's grounded for life," Matt said cheerfully and Jenna had to truly fight to keep her sober grimace from becoming a snicker. It really wasn't funny, Brad's troubles, but obviously there was sibling rivalry at play.

Jenna couldn't help but feel at ease with the two that seemed a bit eccentric. Like the Llewellyns. Except, judging from the wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen, the Thatchers had better food.

Miss Barnett steered her toward the living room. "Come and sit, Dr. Marshall."

And before Jenna could refuse again, she was seated on a high-backed sofa with Miss Barnett at her side and a small ottoman under her left foot. "For circulation," Matt said and Jenna laughed.

"Can I get you some tea, Dr. Marshall?" Miss Barnett inserted. "Or cola?"

"No, ma'am, I really can't stay."

"Nonsense," Miss Barnett insisted. "Dr. Marshall, may I call you Jenna?"

Jenna blinked. "Yes, of course."

The older lady beamed. "Good, good." She patted Jenna's hand. "And you can call me Helen. I have a huge turkey in the oven. Wouldn't you like to stay for dinner?"

Turkey. After last night's sloppy joes a home-cooked turkey dinner sounded just short of heavenly. And her stomach was growling. And if she stayed longer Steven just might come home and she could see him one last time. But she was Brad's teacher. Having dinner at his house could be considered playing favorites. It might even be against the rules. She'd run it by Lucas in the morning. "I'm sorry, Helen. I'd love to, I really would, but I really need to go." She heard a canine whine from a room beyond the kitchen and remembered poor Jim still out in Casey's truck. "I have my dog out in the truck. He really shouldn't stay alone long."

"Well, bring him in," Helen said brightly. "He can play with Cindy Lou."

Jenna raised a brow. "Cindy Lou? What kind of dog is she? A poodle?"

"I wish," Helen muttered. "No, she's an Old English and she's very friendly. I'm sure Matthew wouldn't mind getting your dog from your truck." She stood up and dusted her palms on her slacks. "Now I simply will not take no for an answer. My nephew must have inconvenienced you this weekend by knocking you down and hurting your ankle. The least we can do is feed you."

The turkey did smell delightful. And she realized she really wanted to stay. "Okay, but I'll get Jim from the truck. He does better with strangers when he's been properly introduced."

Jenna led Jim in through the Thatchers' front door and was greeted by a small boy with a head of carrot red hair and more freckles than his round cheeks could handle. Jenna stopped and Jim automatically halted at her side. "Hello, I'm Jenna and your aunt asked me to dinner."

The little boy looked up, his eyes carefully blank, and she remembered the newspaper accounts of the abduction of Brad's youngest brother the spring before. This would be the child, she thought, and her heart squeezed with compassion at what he'd gone through. And was still going through, if his blank eyes were any indication. Jenna made herself smile. "And you must be Nicky."

Nicky stared at her warily for so long that Jenna felt her face begin to twitch. Then he dropped his eyes to Jim. "Is that your dog?"

Jenna knelt on one knee and put her arm around Jim. Now she was at eye level with Nicky. "His name is Jim. Do you want to pet him?"

Nicky shuffled forward and tentatively put out his hand. "He looks like a wolf."

"He's a German shepherd and big for his age." Jenna bent down and locked eyes with Jim, earning her a lick on her nose. '"I can see where you might think he's a wolf, but he's really a baby."

Nicky softly stroked Jim's head. "How old is he?"

"Almost two." She leaned closer and dropped her voice. "You want to know a secret?"

Nicky nodded, too seriously for a little boy, and Jenna's heart clenched again. "Jim has a brother named Jean-Luc. They're identical twins."

Nicky's brown eyes widened. "Really?"

"Really." She glanced up to see Helen watching with intense interest. Apparently Nicky's conversation was not an everyday occurrence. The thought made her feel a little warmer inside. "Do you have a dog?"

Nicky nodded, visibly relaxing a bit. "Her name is Cindy Lou. I got to name her."

Jenna raised her brows. "Let me guess. Cindy Lou Who who was not quite two?"

Nicky nodded again, still way too solemn for a small boy. He couldn't be more than seven.

"The Grinch was my favorite book when I was your age. Especially at Christmas."

Nicky scratched behind Jim's ears. "My daddy doesn't like Cindy Lou very much."

Jenna blinked, startled. Steven had seemed to like her dogs a great deal. "Why not?"

Nicky's mouth wobbled uncertainly, then one corner lifted in an almost smile. "She likes to chew things. Usually Daddy's things. Last week she chewed two shoes."

"And I bet they weren't matching shoes either."

Nicky's mouth curved up. "Nope. One sneaker and one church shoe."

Jenna chuckled. "Well, I guess that would explain your daddy's feelings, huh? I'd have a problem with Jim if he destroyed two pairs of my shoes."

Nicky reached out and tugged Jim's tunic. "Why does he wear this?"

"Jim's a therapy dog. He and I go to visit sick people and Jim helps them feel better."

Nicky's red brows scrunched together. "How can a dog make sick people better?"

Jenna watched him scratching Jim's ears and remembering his ordeal, carefully considered her answer. "Have you ever been afraid, Nicky?"

Nicky's hand went still on Jim's head. Nicky stood frozen and somehow sensing the importance, Jim didn't move a muscle.

Jenna quietly drew a breath. "Well, sometimes sick people are afraid. They're afraid because maybe they hurt, or maybe the doctor is about to poke them with needles. When they pat Jim's head, it helps them forget about being afraid for a little while. And that makes them feel better."

After what seemed like an eternity, Nicky began scratching Jim's head again. "Then he must be a very nice dog."

Jenna let out the breath she held. "He is. Would you mind if I let him off his lead?"

Nicky shook his head. "No, let him go. I'll take him to meet Cindy Lou."

Jenna stood up, watching Jim obediently follow Nicky through the kitchen. She turned to find Helen's eyes glistening and Matt's teasing expression replaced with a seriousness that approached Nicky's. This entire family was hurting, she realized. She cleared her throat, forcing emotion back down. "Jim's well trained. He won't hurt Nicky."

Helen blinked, then brushed the moisture from her face without shame. "I don't doubt that, Jenna." Her eyes brightened. "Come to the kitchen and tell me about therapy dogs while I carve the turkey." She threw a meaningful glance toward Matt. "I will be carving the turkey, Matt, with a very sharp instrument. I do not recommend trying to steal a taste."

Matt grinned, shaking off his seriousness. "But I'm very fast."

Helen shrugged. "As long as you don't feel you need those fingers. Come along, Jenna."

"Wait."

Jenna stopped in her tracks and looked up the stairs. Brad stood at the top, his hand massaging the back of his neck, his face grizzled with at least two days' beard. He descended the stairs with a shuffling step and came to a stop in front of her.

"Dr. Marshall."

Jenna studied him up close, seeing the dark circles under his red-rimmed eyes. "Brad." she said softly. "I was hoping I'd see you. I left my briefcase in your dad's car Friday when he gave me a ride home after school."

He looked down at her feet, then back up, his eyes alert and discerning despite the dark circles. "What happened to your car?"

Jenna lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. "Somebody vandalized it. Slashed the tires."

His brown eyes flashed and his jaw hardened. "Rudy Lutz. Lousy scum."

She shrugged again. "Maybe. But it's already fixed." She smiled at him, as gently as she could. "How are you, Brad? I missed you in class on Friday."

He looked away. "I couldn't stay." His voice was harsh with what sounded like self-rebuke and Jenna's heart softened.

She squeezed his shoulder. "We can talk about it on Monday."

Brad turned his head in the direction Nicky had gone. "I heard you talk to my brother."

"He's a cute little boy."

"Yeah." Brad turned back and met her eyes directly and again Jenna felt his misery, a palpable pressure against her heart. "He doesn't talk often. Thank you."

Jenna swallowed, wishing she could take both boys into her arms for a hug. "Hey, I heard there was turkey for dinner. Are you as hungry as I am?"

Brad looked back to the kitchen where Nicky was earnestly introducing Jim to an enormous gray ball of fluff. No hint of a smile touched his lips. "I could eat."

Jenna made her own lips curve even though she felt more like crying. "Then let's go before Matt 'tastes' all the white meat."

Chapter Eleven

Sunday, October 2, 6:13 P.M.

Steven pulled into his driveway, kicking himself for being late for a family dinner, when his eyes narrowed at the old Ford Explorer parked in front of his house. Company. A spurt of anger flared. That old sneak. Helen lured him home with the promise of a family dinnei, turkey with all the trimmings, only to really set him up with a blind date. He ground his teeth. After dealing with the press all day, he was not in the mood to be blatantly disobeyed by a meddling old woman. He'd told Helen again and again to stop her matchmaking. Today was the day she'd listen.

He got out of the car and slammed the door hard. Helen's matchmaking would be a total failure without half the match-him to be precise. He'd pass on the "family" dinner and barricade himself in his study. He had enough work to keep him busy for the rest of the night, easily. But the aroma that met his nose when he opened the front door made him quickly amend his plan. He drew an appreciative breath. As infuriating as she could be, Helen was a damn good cook and he was starving. He'd make himself a plate, then barricade himself in his study. A man had needs after all.

Food. Turkey. And sex. Jenna Marshall.

Not necessarily in that order, he thought bitterly. He couldn't even say her picture "flashed" in his mind, because it had been there all damn day. Through his team meeting this morning, the hellish impromptu press conference-she'd been there. Black hair, violet eyes, and all those curves… God. He had more important things to worry about. Saman-tha Eggleston. Brad. Nicky.

Yet still, Jenna stayed in his mind. Fantasy and memory switching back and forth until he thought he was going to scream. Jenna offering comfort with her eyes wide and hopeful. Sexy as hell sprawled on the floor of the school lobby, her skirt hiked high above the tops of those silk stockings. Naked in his bed, panting and crying his name as she came around him. He shuddered from the sheer force of the fantasy. God.

Jenna sitting at his dining-room table.

Steven stopped in the archway and blinked. This was neither fantasy nor memory. Jenna Marshall sat at his dining-room table. Eating his turkey. Sitting between his youngest sons while his aunt looked on in beaming approval.

Jenna Marshall, party to his aunt's schemes.

He'd been set up. By Helen. By Jenna herself. While he'd been kicking himself for having entirely normal fantasies, she'd been scheming with Helen. He felt doubly betrayed. Unholy fury, pent up all day, simmered and burst forth.

"What the hell is going on here?" he asked, his voice menacingly quiet to his own ears.

The buzz of conversation instantly ceased and every head looked up. He watched Jenna slowly put her fork on her plate. She said nothing, just looked up at him with those eyes of hers. But unlike Friday, they weren't full of compassion, but reproach.

Which made him even angrier. On the edge of his vision he saw Helen rise to her feet.

"You were late. We started without you," Helen said coldly.

"I can see that," he gritted from behind clenched teeth.

"And we have a guest," Helen added, her voice dropping to sheer ice.

Steven matched her tone, not taking his eyes from Jenna's face, which had gone still as stone. "I can see that too. I also remember telling you I didn't want any company this weekend and I especially didn't want another of your damn blind dates. I didn't know the two of you knew each other, Helen. What exactly are you doing here, Dr. Marshall?" he added, his voice deceptively mild.

"We didn't know each other until today," Helen said, balling her fists at her sides. "And I didn't know my nephew could be so rude."

Jenna stood up abruptly. "I think I should be going now." She looked over at Helen. "May I have my briefcase now?"

Briefcase. Steven drew a breath and felt his fury fizzle into a tiny wisp of smoke. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He'd stepped in it. Royally. "You came to get your briefcase."

"She left it in your car, Daddy," Nicky offered soberly and Steven opened his eyes to see his youngest sidle a little closer to Jenna who stood still as a marble statue. He could see she was angry, unspeakably so, but she controlled herself to a hair. "Aunt Helen called her to come get it." Nicky frowned. "So she did."

Steven's gut turned over. She'd come to get her briefcase. Dammit. He shot Helen a helpless look. Helen returned it with scorn and looked back to Jenna, her expression softening.

"But you haven't finished your dinner," she said to Jenna.

Jenna met Steven's eyes and he felt an inch tall. "I've had enough, thank you."

Nicky tugged on her sleeve. "But, Jenna, you promised to help me teach Cindy Lou to sit."

Jenna bent down and schooled her features into a gentle smile. "So I did. Well, I tell you what. If it's okay with your dad I'll come by next weekend and you and I can take Cindy Lou to the park for her first lesson. How does that sound?"

Nicky frowned. "But I wanted to start now. Please?"

Jenna ran her finger down Nicky's nose and tapped the freckled end. "But you don't always get everything you want. Besides, once I get my briefcase, I have to go home and grade papers."

"Can you leave Jim here?" Nicky asked plaintively and Steven closed his eyes, his heart sinking. He could have predicted this. Nicky had already formed an attachment thanks to Helen's meddling. An attachment that would bring nothing but grief and disappointment. And who could blame his boy? Who wouldn't develop an attachment to a woman like Jenna Marshall in a single meeting? God only knew he himself had.

"No, Nicky, I can't," she said. "If I left Jim here, Jean-Luc would be lonely. You wouldn't want that to happen would you?"

Steven opened his eyes to find Nicky slowly wagging his head back and forth. "I guess not." Nicky's face brightened a shade. "Can you stay for dessert? Aunt Helen made three kinds of pies."

"Three pies? Goodness." Jenna shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not, darlin'. I have to go now." She straightened and angled a look at Brad. "Tomorrow? I'll see you in class?"

Brad jerked a single nod, which Jenna apparently took as assent.

"My briefcase, Helen? Please? And, Matt, my jacket, if you don't mind. Jim, get your leash."

With a sigh Helen left the room. With a disgusted glare aimed in Steven's direction, Matt followed her. Jim the dog had already padded away, Nicky in close pursuit. Brad stood and turned a dark scowl on his unshaven face. "Good work, Dad," he sneered. "Ruined yet another family dinner." He turned to Jenna. "Please excuse my father's rude behavior, Dr. Marshall. And feel free to take home some leftovers. I'm not having any more. I've lost my appetite."

Steven locked his jaw as Brad turned on his heel and raised his hand in a sarcastic salute. He waited until Brad was gone, leaving just the two of them and a table overflowing with turkey and stuffing. Brad was right. He'd ruined dinner and had been insufferably rude. "Jenna, I-"

She held up her hand, stopping him midsentence. "That's not necessary, Mr. Thatcher."

Ouch. So they were back to formalities. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Her eyes blazed with the same fire he'd seen when he knocked her down in the school lobby. "It's not me you should be apologizing to, but the boys and Helen. That was inexcusable."

"I'd like to explain."

She shook her head. "I don't want to hear it." Helen appeared with her briefcase and Steven stepped forward to help her carry the heavy monstrosity, but she grabbed it from Helen's hand with what could only be called a polite snarl. "I'll carry it myself," she snapped at him, then drew a breath and turned back to Helen. "Thank you for your hospitality. I'm sorry I have to run."

"I understand," Helen murmured and together Steven and his aunt watched Jenna limp to her Explorer, briefcase slung over one bowing shoulder, Jim at her heels. When she'd driven away, Helen looked at Steven with contempt. "You idiot," she whispered and left him standing alone.

Seattle, Washington, Sunday, October 2,

9:00 P.M. Eastern Time (6:00 P.M. Pacific)

"I hope you know what you're doing," Barrow said, slowing down for a pedestrian pulling a set of suitcases through the airport crosswalk.

"I plan to make it up as I go along," Neil replied dryly. "Unless you have a better idea."

Barrow glanced over at him before pulling mto an open space at the departures curb. "You could forget about all this and get on with your life. Maybe get Tracey back and settle down with a couple kids and grow too much zucchini in the backyard of a house in the suburbs."

Neil just looked at him and Barrow sighed and added, "Or you could go do what you think you have to do. Just be careful and don't do anything stupid."

"Like flying across the country on the off-chance it's the same guy?"

Barrow nodded. "Hold your temper until you have real evidence. Even if it is the same guy."

Neil frowned. "I had real evidence last time."

Barrow shrugged. "The judge said we didn't."

"The judge-" Neil bit off what he really thought of the judge. "I'll be good. I promise."

"I don't see why you can't investigate this from here. The Parkers couldn't have just dropped off the face of the earth."

"For all intents, they did." Neil should know. He'd spent every waking hour after the moving truck pulled away from the curb three years before trying to figure out where the Parkers had run. Where they'd started their new life, leaving anguish behind here in Seattle. "If you're rich enough, you can buy nearly anything, including a new start. I have to prove to myself it isn't Parker."

Barrow sighed heavily. "So when are you coming home, Neil?"

"When I'm finished, I guess. I had some vacation coming, so I took a few weeks off." Actually, he had more than a few weeks accrued. He hadn't taken a day off in almost three years.

If his LT hadn't allowed the leave, Neil had already planned to resign, which both Barrow and his LT would have classified as "stupid," but was consistent with how much he believed in what he was doing. Three years ago he'd made a promise to four dead girls who were denied justice due to a technicality, an error on the part of the Seattle police. His error.

Those four girls would get justice if it was the last thing he did.

"Take care, Neil," said Barrow and Neil forced a grin.

"Always do. Thanks for the ride."

Neil climbed from the car, his hanging bag swung over his shoulder, the handle of the locked case holding his service re-volver clenched in his right fist. "Carolina, here I come," he murmured. "If you're William Parker, watch out. You won't get away again."

Raleigh, North Carolina,

Sunday, October 2, 9:00 P.M. Eastern Time

He'd been frozen out, Steven thought, staring at the little peephole in Jenna's front door. By his aunt, his children, and now by the woman whose forgiveness he needed to secure before he'd be able to sleep another wink. He knocked again. "Jenna, please open the door. I know you're in there." He leaned his forehead against the cold steel. "Please let me explain." What he intended to say, he had no idea. He just knew he had to make this one thing right. If only this one thing.

He'd tried to let the whole situation just die down. He'd fixed himself a plate of turkey, which tasted like sawdust. But he'd eaten it, if for no other reason than to have some sense of normalcy. Then he'd looked up to find Nicky staring at him with those solemn brown eyes. "You shouldn't have yelled, Daddy," Nicky said. "She's a nice lady and she didn't know Aunt Helen invited her over on purpose." He'd raised both carrot-colored brows, his face looking so much older than seven. "You need to apologize, Daddy." Wiser than seven, too.

And if that weren't chastisement enough, Matt took his turn, extolling Jenna's virtues and frowning at his father as though he were mud. Helen was ignoring him and he didn't even try to talk to Brad. So he'd left, gotten in his car, and driven with no destination in mind, but was totally unsurprised to look up and find himself sitting in front of her apartment.

"Jenna, I saw you through your window. I won't stop knocking until you open the door."

"I'll call the police," she said through the door.

"I am the police," he reminded her. "'Please."

"She's a stubborn one," a voice said behind him and he turned to find himself the subject of octogenarian scrutiny from a six-inch opening of the neighbor's front door. "I'm Mrs. Kasselbaum."

Ah, he thought. The nosy neighbor. Perhaps she might be an ally. He extended his hand. "I'm Special Agent Steven Thatcher of the State Bureau of Investigation," he said and watched her eyes go round as saucers. Antique saucers.

A gnarled arthritic hand appeared from the six-inch opening and shook his hand with a strong grip. "Is our Jenna in some kind of trouble?" she asked, dropping her voice to a loud whisper.

"No, ma'am. I got myself in trouble. I said something I shouldn't have and now she won't let me apologize. Do you have any suggestions?"

She pursed her lips, then said, "I've got a key." And it was Steven's turn to widen his eyes.

"You do? Jenna gave you one?"

Her expression fell. "No," she admitted. "The tenant before traveled a lot and I watered his plants and fed his cat. The landlord never changes the locks between tenants."

That had to be a violation of some kind, Steven thought and filed it away along with the intent to put a new lock on Jenna's door as soon as possible. "I couldn't use a key. Do you have any other suggestions?" He leaned closer. "She and I had a bit of a… spat. You know how it is."

She nodded. "My Harvey and I would have our spats from time to time. God rest his soul."

'"I'm sorry, ma'am."

Mrs. Kasselbaum shrugged matter-of-factly. "He was ninety-two. We had a May-December marriage, you see." She batted her eyes and Steven bit back a grin. What a cutie-pie she was.

"Well, I really want to apologize to Jenna " He sighed sadly. "She and I promised we'd never let the sun go down on our wrath."

Mrs. Kasselbaum nodded at the biblical reference as Steven suspected she would. "Sensible. My Harvey and I had the same arrangement. Step aside, young man." Steven did and Mrs. Kasselbaum fully emerged from her apartment to knock briskly on Jenna's door. "Jenna Marshall, open this door this instant." Silence met their ears and she sighed. "I don't want to do this, but you leave me no choice. I'll call the landlord and tell him about the other dog."

The door snapped open and Steven had to grab Mrs. Kasselbaum to keep her from falling through. Jenna stood there, arms crossed over her breasts, a German shepherd flanking her on either side, her face full of righteous indignation. She was magnificent, he thought, his mouth watering at the sight of her. She glared down at the old lady. "You wouldn't."

Mrs. Kasselbaum looked up defiantly. "Will you let this boy apologize?"

Jenna looked at Steven who gave her his best innocent look. She snorted. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Come in and get it over with." She bent down to stare Mrs. Kasselbaum square in the eye as Steven slipped in the door. "If Seth gets wind of this…"

Mrs. Kasselbaum straightened her body indignantly. "I'm not a gossip, young woman."

"No, not you," Jenna answered sarcastically. "So, when you do tell him, tell him I am not romantically involved, nor do I have any intention of romantic involvement." She straightened and shut the door hard, but didn't turn around to look at him. After an uncomfortable pause, her shoulders sagged and he clenched his fists at his sides to keep from turning her to face him. "Okay, Agent Thatcher," she said -softly and he winced at the hurt in her voice. "You're sorry, you won't ever do it again. You've apologized. Now you can go."

He blew out a pent-up breath. "Jenna, please. I need to do something right today. My children aren't speaking to me."

She turned slowly and in her eyes he saw not anger, but grave disappointment. "As well they shouldn't. And not because of me."

Steven narrowed his eyes. That sounded like a rebuke. "Then why?"

"Steven, how many evenings have you been home this week?"

Now he knew where this was going. "You must already know if you ask the question," he answered tightly.

She just looked at him for a long moment, then limped to sit at her dining-room table where all her folders lay spread out. She patted the table. "Sit. Please."

She'd said please. So he sat.

"This isn't any of my business," she began.

"No, it really isn't."

She smiled and only God knew why that put him at ease. But it did. "I'm going to tell you anyway. You owe me, since you were rude to me today."

"You were rude to me on Friday," he countered. "So we should be even."

She raised a brow. "But you've already accepted my apology for that. Nice try, but no deal. While we were waiting for you to come home, I talked to your boys. Nicky told me you're never home. Matt said you'd offered to take him to a movie festival this weekend, but you got busy and forgot. And tonight, you're late again-and for a family dinner."

She was right, he knew. Still it annoyed him to have her say it aloud. "And you are an expert on children, Dr. Marshall?"

"No," she said softly. "But I am an expert on the fragility of time. It passes, Steven. You can't stop it. You always think you're going to have another day to make things right, to say the things you should have said, to do the things you should have done. But sometimes time and life don't cooperate and another day never comes." She blinked, her eyes dry even though his had filled. "You know this, Steven. You almost lost Nicky last year. So why do you hide from your children? They love you."

Restless, Steven pushed to his feet and paced to the sliding-glass door that led to her balcony. She was right. He'd almost lost Nicky last year. So why did he work so much? Was he hiding from his children? He rubbed the stiff spot on the back of his neck. He'd deal with that after he dealt with this. "I came to apologize, Jenna. I'm sorry I became angry. I had a very bad day and thought my aunt had set me up on another one of her blind dates. I… I thought you were party to it. I'm sorry. I hope you'll forgive my rudeness as Brad so accurately labeled it."

"Accepted."

Steven wheeled around. "Accepted? Just like that?"

Jenna lifted one corner of her mouth in a wry smile. "Why not? You accepted mine on Friday as I recall. And I said you were an idiot."

"An incompetent idiot."

Jenna rolled her eyes. "Thank you for refreshing my memory. We seem to have gotten off to awkward starts both times we've met, Agent Thatcher. Perhaps we could begin again."

Steven rolled his shoulders, feeling the weight roll away. He approached, holding out his hand, feeling the grin split his face. "I'm Steven. I'm glad to meet you."

She took his hand and looked up, shyly he thought. "I'm Jenna. Would you like a drink?"

He looked down into her eyes and felt his heart turn over in his chest. Her lips moved but it was a few seconds before the whispered word sank in.

"Steven?"

He realized he still held her hand and hastily let it go. "Um, yeah. A drink would be great."

But she didn't get up. She just sat there staring up at him with those wide violet eyes and full red lips and the fantasy flashed right back. Her naked body in his bed, her black hair spread on his pillow, her violet eyes dazed with passion, her full lips moaning his name.

Her eyes dropped and when she lifted her eyes again he saw not compassion or ire or reproach, but heat. Want. Raw lust. Shuddering, Steven clenched his fists to keep from reaching out and cradling her face in his hands and finding out how soft her lips really were. "What's happening here?" she whispered.

I want you. Steven forced himself not to look lower than her face. Forced himself not to look down to her round breasts gently molded by the soft black sweater or to the tight jeans that showed off every curve. God, I really want you. He cleared his throat and lied. "I don't know."

She wet her lips and Steven's forehead broke out in a cold sweat. He needed to leave. Fast. Before he did something he was sure to regret. "I need to go." His voice was thick and hoarse. "I'll… I'll call you."

She nodded. "Okay," she murmured.

He made it to her front door when he stopped, his hand on the doorknob. He tried to ignore the throbbing of his body. It was no use. It was all he could do to stay where he stood and not go back and grind his mouth against hers until he found some relief from whatever madness wouldn't let him go.

"Your neighbors have keys to your apartment," he rasped out, feeling the words drag against his dry throat "You should change your deadbolt. As soon as possible."

"Okay," she murmured.

Steven chanced a look back and immediately wished that he had not. She sat where he had left her, looking straight ahead at the wall, her expression stricken. Guilty. A thread of her conversation with her neighbor popped into the forefront of his mind, pricking at his tenuous composure. "Who is Seth, Jenna?" he asked.

She didn't move a muscle. "My fiance's father."

Fiance. Steven physically staggered backward against her front door. "You're engaged?"

Her head turned and he could see her face had grown pale. "My late fiance. Adam died two years ago." Her lips twisted bitterly. "Two years ago next Saturday."

Now he understood her comment on the fragility of life. "I'm sorry, Jenna."

"Thank you," she whispered.

Steven shook himself into motion. "I'll replace your lock."

"Okay," she murmured.

"Matt has a soccer game tomorrow. It'll be Tuesday before I can come back."

She nodded. "Okay."

"Dinner?" The invitation was out of his mouth before he realized. But it was too late to back out now. Father Mike would be only too pleased.

For a moment he thought she'd say no. Half of him wished she would. The other half wanted her to say yes with a yearning that threatened to rip him in two. Then she nodded and his heart started beating again. "Okay."

Sunday, October 2, 10:00 P.M.

Casey found her in the same position an hour later.

"What are you doing here?" Casey thundered, letting herself in with her key. "I thought you were dead on the highway. In my truck! Why didn't you call me if you weren't coming?"

Jenna blinked. Casey stood in her living room, fists on her hips. "What are you talking about, Casey?"

"Dinner? New Italian place on Capitol? Cute friend of Ned's?" Casey crossed the room and tapped Jenna's head. "Ring any bells in there?"

Jenna sighed. "I'm sorry. I forgot." She pushed away from the table and rolled her shoulders. "Damn, I'm stiff. Serves me right for sitting here feeling sorry for myself. I'm starving. Do you want something to eat?"

Casey followed her into the kitchen. "Were you not listening to anything I said? I ate. New Italian place on Capitol." She poked Jenna's arm. "Without you."

Jenna opened the freezer door and frowned. "You didn't bring the Rocky Road last night like you promised. Now I'm out."

"I forgot." Casey peered under Jenna's arm. "Hey, there's some vanilla back there."

Jenna just looked at her. Vanilla wasn't even worth the trouble. She wasn't even sure how it got in her freezer.

Casey looked worried. "What's wrong, Jen? And why were you feeling sorry for yourself?"

Jenna stared into the freezer. She closed her eyes, feeling the cold air bathe her hot face. "Casey, have you ever cheated on Ned?"

Casey choked. "What? Where the hell did that come from?"

Jenna closed the freezer door. "Well?" she asked, urgency making her voice shake. She looked over her shoulder to Casey's guilty face.

"No." Casey stepped back and shifted her weight to one foot. Her eye twitched. "Not exactly."

"Not exactly?" Jenna asked, knowing she sounded hysterical and not able to help herself. "What exactly is not exactly? You either cheat or you don't. It's like being not exactly pregnant." She pulled herself to an abrupt stop. Casey's mouth hung open in shock. Jenna blew out a controlled breath and hit her forehead against the freezer door. "I am so totally insane."

"Jen?" Casey asked in a tiny voice. "Do you have something you want to get off your chest?"

"I am insane."

"You said that already." She squeezed Jenna's arm. "You can't seriously expect me to believe you cheated on Adam. You barely left his side the whole year after he was diagnosed."

"Not then. Now. Tonight."

Casey tilted her head, puzzled and tentative. "Tonight?"

Jenna spun and flopped back against the refrigerator. "He was here."

Casey frowned. "What are you talking about? Who was here?"

"Steven Thatcher," Jenna snapped.

Casey's brows shot up. "Oh." Her eyes darted back toward Jenna's bedroom. "You aren't trying to tell me that you… and he…? Jenna!"

Jenna limped back to the table. "For God's sake, Casey, of course not.'"

"Then I am confused. How did you cheat? Specifically now, Jenna. I need details."

"Steven was here. Long story." She massaged her temples. "He held my hand."

Casey was staring at her as if she were a french fry short of a happy meal. "And?"

Jenna closed her eyes, remembering the heat all over again. The almost-painful tingle that started at her fingertips and shot straight down to her core. "He looked at me." And she'd felt helpless to look away. She didn't want to look away. He'd wanted her. And God help her, she'd wanted him. She would have willingly kissed a man she'd barely met. And then what?

Jenna looked over to find Casey staring, her blue eyes rife with concern. Jenna looked away. "I held his hand and he looked at me and I think I would have done anything he asked. Anything."

Casey gently grabbed Jenna's chin and brought her face around. "And?"

"I wanted to… you know… just holding his hand, Case." Jenna looked into her best friend's eyes and made herself say the awful truth. "And I never felt that way with Adam. Never," she whispered.

Chapter Twelve

Monday, October 3, 1:35 A.M.

"Jenna," Casey called from the doorway of the faculty lounge, "wait up."

Jenna stopped, her head still pounding from sheer fury at listening to Blackman's lecture a second time, practically commanding her to give "young Rudy" a passing grade.

Casey caught up, huffing and puffing. "'Where's the fire, Marshall? Slow down. You've got twenty minutes till the first bell. Besides, doesn't that hurt your ankle, walking that fast?"

"Yes, but the throbbing in my ankle takes my mind off the throbbing in my head," Jenna answered curtly. "Keep up, Thumbelina," she added, her voice as sour as her disposition. "I'm in a really pissy mood this morning."

"No shit," Casey muttered, then was blessedly silent until they stopped in front of Jenna's closed classroom door. Casey leaned against a locker and looked up, her eyes worried and her forehead covered in a sheen of perspiration. "Look, Jen, I don't mind a morning run, but you could at least have let me change into my cleats." She stood on one foot and rubbed her ankle. "What's gotten into you this morning?"

"Nothing." Jenna dug in her purse, looking for the keys to her classroom. "I just didn't get much sleep last night and Blackman hit me with a guilt trip this morning about Rudy Lutz's grade."

"That's what I wanted to discuss," Casey said with an emphatic nod.

Jenna pulled the bag of dog biscuits from her purse and handed them to Casey. "What, Rudy Lutz's grade? I didn't know you had the pleasure of his highness's presence in your class this year. Anyway, I don't want to talk about that in the middle of the hallway. Where are my keys?"

Casey pursed her lips. "Not Rudy. I wanted to talk about why you couldn't sleep last night."

"I don't want to talk about that, either. Especially not here. Go away, Casey." She shoved her hand in her purse again and muttered a curse when something sharp poked her finger. She brought out a metal nail file and put it in Casey's outstretched palm. "Don't tell me I left my keys in Blackman's office. I don't want to go back there. Dammit to hell."

"Really, Jen. I've been thinking about Adam and… you know."

Jenna glanced up, totally annoyed. "What part of not here don't you understand?" she snarled.

Casey lowered her voice to a whisper. "Listen, Jen, you shouldn't even try to remember how things were between you and Adam. I don't even think you have rational memories of how he was before, so I'll remember for you. You were perfectly satisfied. You told me so."

Jenna went still. "I did?"

Casey's curls bobbed in a hard nod. "You did. I swear it." She grinned. "It was the night we were trying to discover the best recipe for Long Island Iced Tea. You gave all kinds of juicy details."

Jenna dropped her eyes to her purse, suddenly feeling worse even though she hadn't believed it possible. She remembered the night of the Long Island Iced Tea marathon. She remembered the juicy details and that she truly had been satisfied. That was the problem. What she'd felt just holding Steven Thatcher's hand had nothing to do with satisfaction.

It was greed. Pure, unadulterated craving. Throw-common-sense-to-the-wind desire. It was as different from any previous experience as… As Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road to store-brand vanilla. She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. Adam deserved a hell of a lot more than being store-brand vanilla. She felt like a dirty traitor even letting the comparison form in her mind. Her hand closed on her keys and she breathed a sigh of relief. "Here they are," she said thickly. "Casey, don't you have someplace to be?"

"Of course. I probably have thirty-two panting tenth graders looking for the dirty parts in the Lady Chatterley's Lover I left on my desk." She smirked. "They'll be surprised when they find out it's only the cover of Lady Chatterley on a copy of The Iliad." Her brows snapped together. "What?"

Jenna's body had gone still with dread. When she put her key to the lock, the door creaked open. It was already unlocked. With her fingertips she gave it a tiny push. "Holy shit," Casey swore on a shocked hiss. "Jenna!" Jenna was speechless. Her beautiful classroom was a shambles. Vandalized. A disaster area. She found her voice. "Call Blackman. Let's see what he says about his golden boy now."

Monday, October 3, 9:30 A.M.

The red-eye from Seattle had been uneventful. Neil landed in Newark at six in the morning where he'd reset his watch to Eastern time, grabbed a three-dollar bagel and a two-dollar cup of coffee. Then he'd changed planes and landed in Raleigh two hours later and five bucks poorer.

"Would you like a smoking or nonsmoking room, sir?" the man behind the motel counter asked politely and Neil wanted to scream "Smoking!" but didn't.

"Nonsmoking," he made himself say. He'd quit ten years ago, but there didn't pass a day that didn't have him fighting the craving. Especially stressful days, which was pretty much every day of his life. He signed the ledger and took the key.

The room was nondescript and mostly clean. He dropped his overnight bag on the bed, then pulled out an envelope. He drew out four photos and laid them on the dresser, edge to edge.

Four young girls. He didn't need to look at the neatly typed labels on the back of each photograph to remember their names. Laura Resnick. Trudy Valentine. Emily Barry. Gina Capetti. All sixteen years old. All cheerleaders. All brunettes.

All dead.

He studied each photo, seeing the girls as they'd been before meeting William Parker. Beautiful, vibrant smiles. Eyes shining with anticipation over their bright futures.

He didn't need to look at the "after" photos. He still saw their faces every time he closed his eyes. But he looked anyway, their eyes wide-open, blank, staring upward. Their heads shaved bald.

The photos blurred before his eyes, the smug smile and cold eyes of William Parker materializing in his mind, uninvited. The fatigue was catching up with him. He'd lie down for a little while, get over the jet lag. Then he'd find William Parker. It was time to honor his promise.

Monday, October 3, 12:15 P.M.

"Jenna, what is this word?"

Jenna tossed the putty knife to the lab table where some creative individual had superglued all of her glassware to the tabletop. She walked over to where Casey stood looking up at the spray-painted Periodic Table with a quizzical expression. Jenna looked up, squinted, and tilted her head.

"I don't know. But here"-Jenna pointed to the chart- "some Einstein connected the Fe in Iron, the U in Uranium, and the C in Cadmium. They missed the K, so I'd only give them partial credit."

"But you'd have to give them an A for coming up with a new swearword," Lucas said, sweeping up piles of broken glass. "Feuc. It sounds old-Englishy, like it could have come out of Beowulf."

Casey reached up and yanked one comer of the ruined ten-foot-wide Periodic Table from the wall. "So tell me again why Blackman didn't call the cops?"

"Because there's no indication of who did this," Jenna said, mimicking Blackman's nasal tone. She sighed. "At least there wasn't a threatening note this time."

Casey and Lucas stopped what they were doing. "What threatening note?" they said together.

Jenna bit her lip. "I didn't mean to say that. Must be the cleaning fluid making me dizzy."

Lucas dropped the broom, walked over, and grabbed her chin. "What threatening note, Jen?"

Jenna winced. "The one that was on my car windshield on Friday afternoon."

"Was there text included, or did they just make all those comic-strip cursing characters, like ampersands and asterisks?"' Casey asked, tongue in cheek.

Jenna sighed again. "It said, 'Put him back on the team or you'll rue the day you were born.'"

Lucas squeezed her chin. "What else?"

She rolled her eyes. " 'You bitch,'" she added. "They misspelled 'rue.' That's it, I swear. I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to worry. Steven gave it to the police and they took it in for prints, but Officer Pullman called me this morning and told me they didn't get a single print."

"Who's Officer Pullman?" Casey said.

"He took the report," Jenna said.

Lucas's eyebrows had shot to the top of his forehead. "Who's Steven?"

Jenna closed her eyes, feeling her cheeks heat. "He's Brad Thatcher's father."

"He's Rocky Road," Casey added slyly. "Yum. yum."

Lucas frowned at Casey. "Yum, yum?"

"Hey, I just call ' em like I see 'em," Casey said. "He looked pretty good to me on CNN."

"Hmm," Lucas mused. "So you're on a first-name basis with a parent. Interesting."

Jenna opened one eye. "Is it illegal?" She almost hoped it was, so she could have a decent excuse for canceling dinner on Tuesday night, which by turns she'd been dreading and anticipating with a furor that scared her.

"No. No. Perhaps a bit sticky, but a young Jedi like yourself can navigate." He let go of her chin and patted her head. "I have every confidence in you."

"Gee, thanks, Obi Wan," Jenna grumbled and went back to scraping glue from the tabletop.

Lucas looked at Casey. "She almost sounds like she wants it to be against the rules."

Casey looked disgusted. "She does. She-"

"Casey!" Jenna looked up in alarm. "Shut up."

Lucas looked hurt. "I thought I was one of the girls."

Casey leaned toward him and whispered, "Hormones. Approach with caution."

Lucas shot her a sympathetic glance. "What's wrong, honey?"

"Nothing. Lucas, it's really nothing."

Casey pulled the rest of the Periodic Table from the wall and scampered backward to keep from being covered when it fell. "It's not nothing. She's convinced she's being untrue to Adam's memory because she drools over Steven Thatcher."

Jenna scowled. "Last time I ever tell you anything."

"Hmm. Seems to me the situations are very different," Lucas said. "Adam and this Steven."

Jenna narrowed her eyes. "If you want to be one of the girls, you might as well jump in. Don't tell me it's different because Adam was sick. We had a very healthy sex life. I never drooled."

Lucas shrugged. "You women always blame men for your lack of orgasm."

Jenna choked while Casey laughed so hard she turned red.

Lucas, however, remained totally serious. "Seems to me, you're the one who's changed, Jen. I remember when Marianne turned thirty. Rowl," he growled in his throat and Jenna laughed too.

"You're impossible, Lucas."

"That's what Marianne used to say. Now she just says, 'Yes, yes, yes!'"

Casey held her stomach, still chortling. "Stop, Lucas, you're hurting me."

"I think Jenna's increased sex drive is all her fault. The real tragedy is that Adam died before she fully matured." He backed up, then turned, startled. "Kelly. How long have you been there?"

Kelly Templeton's eyes were wide. "From yes, yes, yes. You said we could talk extra-credit on my test during lunch, Dr. Marshall."

Jenna covered her eyes, mortified. "Kelly, just go, and don't mention a word of this. Please."

"Eight points partial credit on my test?" Kelly asked, her tone smug.

Jenna frowned and peeked through her fingers. "I don't give unearned grades."

Kelly pursed her lips, then smiled. "Yes, yes, yes. I could make quite a cheer out of that."

Jenna sucked in a breath. "That's extortion."

Lucas chuckled. "Sounds like free commerce to me."

Jenna glared at Lucas, then considered Kelly. "Tell you what. I'll give you the opportunity for eight points extra credit on the next test. It'll all come out in the wash."

"Make it twelve points and you have a deal," said Kelly with confidence.

Jenna stuck out her hand. "Deal. Now go away. And never say yes to me again."

Kelly laughed as she turned for the door. "I never thought I'd be looking forward to thirty."

Casey sucked in both cheeks. "Whoa, that girl has a future."

Jenna shook her head. "As what I don't want to know."

"But the important thing is, will you partake of Rocky Road?" Casey wanted to know.

Jenna considered it. Maybe Adam had been Rocky Road all the time, but her taste buds were just too dull to appreciate him. Maybe she wasn't such a louse after all, just a slow bloomer.

Casey plunked her fists on her hips. "Well?"

Jenna sighed. "Maybe a taste. Just to see how it goes."

Casey patted her arm. "Good girl." Then she winked at Lucas. "I've never known Jenna to stop at one bite of Rocky Road."

Lucas chuckled and picked up his broom. "Some things are not made for moderation."

Monday, October 3, 12:45 P.M.

The Pineville Public Library looked like something out of colonial times. Neil just hoped they had Internet access. He needed to track down the Parker family. One Parker in particular.

He found the fifty-something librarian sitting at her desk, her hands neatly folded. Her nameplate said Miss Wells. "What can I do for you today?" she asked pleasantly.

"I'm visiting and I need Internet access. Can I use one of your computers for a few hours?"

"Of course you may," she said and he realized she'd corrected his grammar, probably through reflex. She stood and gestured him to follow, leading him to a large table with eight desktop computers. "Take your pick. They do have software that blocks access to certain sites."

Neil felt his lips twitch. "I'm not looking for porn, ma'am."

Miss Wells's face heated to the color of cherries. "I never… I mean…" she stuttered. "Well, please just take one. I'll sign you in. What is your name, please?"

"Neil Davies. D-a-v-i-e-s. It sounds like Davis so everyone forgets the e."

She gave a professional little nod. "Very well, Mr. Davies. Can I get you anything else?"

"How about local newspapers from the last two weeks?"

He watched her pleasant expression change. Harden. Her mouth thinned to a straight line. "Of course. I'm sure you'll find all the little tidbits you're so hungry for." She looked away. "Parasites."

"Excuse me?" Neil asked.

"Reporters," Miss Wells spat. She looked back, her eyes flashing. "We can't turn around anymore without running into one. Turning a tragedy into copy. Go right ahead," she added bitterly. "You won't be the only one."

"I'm not-" Neil started to say, then stopped. Perhaps being a reporter would be a decent cover. "I'm not going to write a story on the missing girls," he said earnestly and watched her eyes go from angry to merely suspicious. "I'm doing a piece on local families," he added, inspired.

Miss Wells nodded uncertainly. It didn't really matter if she believed him or not. The papers were public record, but he did prefer to be on good terms with the librarian.

"Very well," she finally said. "They're in the back room. I'll be right back."

Twenty minutes later, Miss Wells brought him a stack of the Pineville Courier. "We have the paper copies going back two months," she said. "Beyond that you'll be squinting at microfiche."

"Understood," Neil said, his fingers itching to begin. "Thank you."

Three hours later he was deep into the microfiche and still hadn't found the face he sought. Another man might have given up by now. Another man who didn't see the faces of four innocent girls crying for justice every time he closed his eyes. He blinked hard and gritted his teeth.

William Parker was in here somewhere. He knew it. He just had to find one picture. One.

Miss Wells sat in the seat next to him. "Perhaps if you told me what you're looking for," she murmured in her librarian voice. "I'd be happy to help you."

I'm looking for a monster, he wanted to say. But, of course, did not. Instead he made his mouth smile ruefully and said, "Thanks anyway, but I think this is an 'I'll know it when I see it' situation."

"Very well. But you might want to take a break. You're starting to develop a twitch."

A twi-itch, he thought with amusement. Only in the South could a one-syllable word become so elongated. Neil stretched. "That's a good idea, Miss Wells. I'll walk around your library."

She stood up with him and pointed to the far wall. "The high school has put together a collection of pictures of local events. Maybe you'll find what you're looking for there."

He wouldn't, he knew. But his back ached and his eyeballs felt like they'd been carved out with a melon-baller. He definitely needed a break.

Miss Wells resumed her post at the front desk and Neil walked to the far wall she'd indicated. The high school stu-dents had done a good job, capturing a number of different aspects of local life including agriculture-a dried tobacco leaf; commerce-an aerial view of the Research Triangle; society-the first high school dance of the season; and of course sports. He bent forward and stared at the photos gathered in collage fashion. And froze.

There, amid photos of farmers, white-collar professionals, babies and senior citizens, students, parents and teachers, was the one picture he was looking for. The only face that mattered.

William Parker. Smiling. It was the smile Neil had last seen from the window of a black Mercedes sedan on a cold drizzling day in Seattle. It was the smile he'd seen every day from across the courtroom where Parker sat at the defendant's table, tie knotted impeccably, hair neatly combed, eyes defiant. It was the smug, self-satisfied smile that had made Neil want to rip his face in two.

That still made Neil want to rip his face in two.

Gathering his wits, Neil walked back to the computer and brought up a search engine, typed in a few words and got the result he was looking for the first time out. It was amazing how simple a search was when you knew who you were looking for.

Then he cleaned up his area, thanked Miss Wells for her help, and left the Pineville Public Library, his gut churning in the absolute certainty that he had found William Parker and in the absolute belief beyond a shadow of a doubt that Parker was actively murdering once again.

The problem was, he had not a single shred of proof.

So go get some.

Monday, October 3, 5:15 P.M.

Steven pulled his Volvo into the very last parking place. Well, technically it wasn't a parking place, he thought, taking a fleeting backward glance as he jogged toward the soccer fields. It was a grassy area next to the Porta-John next to a sign that said NO PARKING. Technically he was in violation of the law. He was fifteen minutes late for his son's soccer game. The first one in which Matt started. First string.

Technically he'd royally screwed up.

"Don't miss it, Dad, okay?" Matt had asked quietly this morning over breakfast.

"Not for the world," he'd answered. Matt looked unconvinced, making Steven promise himself he wouldn't be late.

Well, damn. He was late. But he was here. He stopped at the sidelines where a group of parents stood cheering. "What's the score?" he asked one of the parents.

"Thatcher!" The man gave him a broad grin and a slap on the back. "Haven't seen you around in ages. Our boys are up one to nothing."

Oh, God, please don't let it have been Matt who scored. Please don't let me have missed that. Steven forced a smile. "Who scored the goal?"

The man drew up like a peacock. "Mine did." Steven breathed a sigh of relief. "But yours assisted," he added and Steven felt his heart sink.

He'd missed Mart's first assist. One game was all Matt had asked and he'd already missed the most important play.

Steven could see compassion flicker across the other dad's face. "I got it on video," he said kindly. "I can rewind it to show you at halftime."

"Thanks," Steven said, feeling his stomach pitch, knowing Matt must have looked for him, knowing his middle son must have been disappointed that his father hadn't been there to cheer.

He'd been late tonight for a very good reason. Kent had called with the results of the ketamine analysis of Lorraine Rush's body. Positive. So now they knew what they'd suspected. The same person was responsible for the abduction of both girls.

They had a serial killer on their hands.

And he'd missed his middle son's big play. L ife sucked.

Have courage, Steven.

Steven easily found Matt among the running boys, his bright red head standing out like a torch. He waited until Matt looked his way and gave a tentative wave, afraid of the look of scorn Matt would probably give back. But his son surprised him. Matt's face broke into a huge grin and he waved back and pointed to the goal.

"I assisted," he shouted.

Steven felt his face break into a relieved grin. "I know," he shouted back. And then the ref blew the whistle resuming play and Matt turned back into the fray. Without taking his eyes from the dancing torch in knee pads, Steven reached in his pocket and turned off his phone. It was the first time the phone had been turned off since he'd bought the damn thing. It's about time, he thought.

He'd watched a full ten minutes of play before he heard the voice behind him. "Excuse me."

Steven looked over his shoulder to find a tall dark man in a denim jacket standing behind him. The man needed a shave and a new pair of shoelaces on his beat-up Nikes.

"I'm kind of occupied here," Steven said kindly. "Trying to watch the game, you know."

"It won't take long," the stranger said. "I want to talk to you about Lorraine Rush and Samantha Eggleston."

Steven huffed out a frustrated sigh. "No comment."

"But-"

Steven turned, keeping one eye on the field. "Look, you can call SBI headquarters and get a statement from the PR guys, but it won't be any different than what I've been telling you press guys all along. No comment. We have highly trained resources on this case. We'll let you know when we have something. Until then, no comment." A huge cheer went up and he turned his attention back to the field just in time to see Matt kick the ball into the goal.

"Yes!" Steven screamed at the top of his lungs, jumping a foot in the air and easily drowning out video-dad. And when Matt looked over this time, Steven gave his grinning son the thumbs-up. "Look, buddy," he said to the stranger behind him, "I have to get back to the game."

But when he glanced back over his shoulder, the stranger was gone. His eyes narrowing, Steven spied a teal Dodge Neon exiting the fields, now a hundred yards away. His hackles raised, Steven gave his attention back to the team who was high-fiving his son.

He pushed the feeling of trepidation to the side and moved closer to the field boundary line.

"Great goal, Matt!" he shouted.

Matt looked over, his face flushed with exertion and excitement. And his smile said it all.

Monday, October 3, 5:30 P.M.

"It's not like you've got a serial killer running around or anything," Neil muttered under his breath as he drove away, unimpressed with his first impression of Special Agent Steven Thatcher.

The leader of the investigation. The guy who didn't have anything better to do than watch a group of kids play soccer. Wonderful. These girls didn't have a fucking chance.

It would have to be up to him.

Grinding his teeth, Neil drove to the address he'd etched in his brain. He pulled his rental car two houses down and… spied. It was a nice house, he thought. Almost as nice as the house they'd owned in Seattle. He wondered if they still had the grand piano and the vases worth a year's salary. He wondered if they still had all the paintings and antiques.

He wondered if they were able to sleep at night. Knowing what they'd done.

He hoped not, because he sure as hell couldn't. He wondered if he'd see William Parker coming and going. He wondered what he'd say, what he'd do when he saw the man whose smug smile had haunted him for three years.

He knew what he wouldn't do. He wouldn't do anything stupid. And he sure as hell wouldn't do anything to allow some fucking defense attorney to have any evidence he gathered thrown out of court on a technicality.

This time he'd do it by the book. This time he'd do it right.

Chapter Thirteen

Tuesday, October 4, 8:03 A.M.

"Good morning," Steven said, quelling the muttered conversation around the table. Everyone was edgy this morning. Harry and Sandra were squabbling, Kent looked like he could use a fresh suit, Meg stood looking out the window, and Nancy was fussing over everyone, something she did a lot more when she was stressed. Nancy was like Helen without the matchmaking, he thought and looked up with gratitude as she refilled his coffee cup. "Thanks."

Nancy gave him her motherly smile and moved on to fill the next empty cup.

"So where are we?" Steven asked his team. "Sandra?"

Sandra shook her head. "None of my contacts on the street have a clue. I did, however, get three very interesting proposals, but none of them looked like relationship material so I said no."

Steven's lips twitched as he took the report Harry pushed across the table. "What, you want stability and morality? Get your head out of the clouds, Sandra."

"Hell, who wants stability? I'd just settle for a guy who wasn't on parole for something too sick for the prime-time news."

"You need to get out of the gutter, Sandra," Nancy clucked. "Find yourself a nice accountant."

Steven rolled his eyes. So much for Nancy not matchmaking. You don't need a matchmaker anymore, he thought. You're having dinner with Jenna tonight.

Drawing on every ounce of discipline he possessed, he put Jenna and her big violet, passion-dazed eyes out of his mind and looked down at Harry's report. "The ketamine supply," he said.

Harry nodded. "Got back answers from all but two of the vet supply houses I queried on ketamine orders and deliveries. Only a few new customers in a hundred-mile radius and none with any irregular ordering patterns. No one has any unaccounted-for ket."

Steven scanned the list. "When do you expect answers from the other two supply houses?"

"I'll call 'em again today, Steven."

Steven gave him back the list. "Keep it up, Harry. I want to know how our boy got the stuff."

"I'd still like to know what he's using it for," Meg said softly from her spot by the window. "There are a lot of ways to immobilize a victim. Why ketamine?"

"I guess we'll find out when we find him," Steven said grimly. "Nancy?"

She shook her head from where she stood by the coffeepot. "I didn't get any hits on the like perps when I cross-referenced against the ketamine," she said. "Lots of crack, pot, and heroin, but no ket."

Steven sighed. "I didn't think you would. And other than the fact the two girls were members of the same parish and were both cheerleaders, I can't find any other areas of commonality. The Rushes didn't even go to church that frequently. Samantha was there last week, but Lorraine hadn't been to church in months." He pinched the bridge of his nose, annoyed the headache was already there. "I've retraced their known steps, talked to all their friends, but nothing matches."

"What about the cheerleading angle?" Sandra asked. "They would have competed against each other, gone to cheerleading camps together."

Harry looked at her, delighted. "Don't tell me you were a high school cheerleader?"

Sandra's expression went sour. "Don't go there, Harry. It was part of my misspent youth. I'm sure if I dug hard enough I'd find a few things you'd prefer were left alone."

Harry was undaunted. "Did you wear a little skirt and smile and everything?"

Sandra narrowed her eyes at him, then looked back at Steven. "You want me to check the cheerleading circles?"

Steven threw a warning glance at Harry who was still chuckling. "Beat the bushes, Sandra, see what you find. Kent? What about you?"

"Only that we found ketamine in Rush's tissue samples. But you knew that yesterday."

Steven's mind blinked back to yesterday and he remembered the man at the soccer match. The press. He suppressed a shudder at the thought. "Let's keep going, folks, we'll turn up something. And please, don't anyone talk to the press. Unfortunately that little jewel belongs to me."

Tuesday, October 4, 9:00 A.M.

"Well, you're early," Miss Wells said as she unlocked the library door.

Neil had been up since four A.M. pacing the floor of his tiny hotel room until he'd thought he would go insane. "I need to use your computer again."

"Well, help yourself," Miss Wells said. "Let me know if you need anything."

"I will," he promised. He sat down at one of the computers, brought up a search engine, and typed "Steven Thatcher and SBI." Then sat back to learn about the man who held the safety of Raleigh's young girls in his hands.

Tuesday; October 4, 5:00 P.M.

Jenna carefully closed the door of Adam's car, then walked around the car and stared at the gas cap, rage making her body clench and tremble. The twenty-minute drive from school had taken sixty as Adam's car bucked and kicked and sputtered and threatened to leave her stranded. And with every buck, every kick, every sputter, every minute that went by she got madder and madder.

She could take vandalism in her classroom two days in a row. She could even take slashed tires, because they hadn't touched what was important. Adam's car itself.

But this time they had. Hopefully it was only water in the gas tank, something she could fix with a bottle of STP. And if it wasn't… she didn't know what she'd do, but it would be very bad.

Adam's car. His pride and joy he'd lovingly restored with his own hands. She could see him in her mind's eye, running his hands over the car's curves, and suddenly realized the memories of Adam's hands on his car and his hands on her were intermeshed. But instead of making her feel soft and tender inside, the realization made her even angrier.

Stupid juvenile delinquents whose parents hadn't bothered to teach them right from wrong. Idiotic kids who had no respect for other people's property. Who would do anything that was a means to their end. Who she couldn't touch because she couldn't prove they had anything to do with anything. She'd call Officer Pullman. He'd dust for prints and probably wouldn't find any that didn't belong to her or Casey. There was nothing, nothing she could do.

Her nails dug into her hands and she wanted to hit something. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so close to the edge of violence. Yes, she could. It had been the day she'd realized Adam was really going to die and there wasn't a damn thing she could do to stop it. That was the day she'd run for miles and still felt the murderous rage burning inside her, so she'd called a friend, Mark. Adam's best friend to be exact. Mark was also her sensei, her karate master. They'd sparred and kicked and thrown each other to the mat until all the rage was gone. He'd understood her pain and her rage and let her work it out.

She'd call Mark now. It'd been almost a week since her last workout and she was due.

Tuesday, October 4, 6:30 P.M.

Rudy slumped down in the leather chair across from his desk. "You wanted to see me?"

Victor Lutz frowned. "I called Blackman today to make sure you'd be playing this week."

Rudy looked worried. "I will, won't I?"

Victor wanted to slap Rudy's perfect teeth to the other side of his head. "Probably not."

Rudy shot up in the chair. "Why? I thought you said Blackman was fixing it."

"Apparently that was before your friends destroyed about five thousand dollars of school property. You're lucky Blackmail's afraid of me or you'd all be in jail, dammit," he hissed. "What the hell were you doing?

Rudy looked affronted. "I didn't do anything. The guys did. Just like you said to do."

Victor slapped the desk. "I said, target the teacher's belongings, not school property, you idiot!"

Rudy's face blanked and Victor once again cursed Nora's stupid genes. The boy had the IQ of a damn turnip. Victor leaned across his desk, hoping his face showed every ounce of frustration he was feeling. "Her belongings means things that belong to her. Like her tires. Like the little clay figures she keeps on the balcony of her apartment." His lips thinned. "Like her dog."

Rudy's eyes widened. "You've been to her place?"

"I've driven by. That's all. Now tell your stupid, brainless friends to stop vandalizing school property or you'll all be off the team."

Rudy raised a brow. "Kenny dumped water in her gas tank this afternoon."

Victor nodded. "That's closer. Too easily reparable, but closer. Now leave me alone and go make sure your friends understand what they need to do."

Dismissing his son, Victor resumed work on his ledgers when a pained cry split the air. Josh stood in the hall doubled over, his arms crossed over his gut. Rudy stood over him, flexing his fingers.

"He was listening. Again," Rudy muttered.

"Leave her alone," Josh moaned. "Dr. Marshall never hurt you."

Victor looked away. "Don't hit your brother, Rudy. You might damage your throwing hand."

Tuesday, October 4, 6:45 PM.

"She's not still mad at you, is she?"

Steven jumped, startled that Mrs. Kasselbaum had gotten the drop on him. He'd been deep in thought, standing in front of Jenna's door. Wondering how she'd look, how he'd get them past the awkwardness of their last meeting when he'd come so close to jerking her to her feet and-

"Well, is she?" Mrs. Kasselbaum demanded.

Steven turned to find the neighbor's door open the expected six inches. "No, ma'am." He showed her the plastic bag he held in his hand. "I just came to put a new deadbolt on her door. It bothered me that she didn't know exactly who had keys to her apartment."

Mrs… Kasselbaum opened the door a few more inches and nodded once in approval. "That's very wise. I'll make sure I get a key when you're finished. But she's not home right now."

Steven stared. "What do you mean she's not home? Her car's out in the parking lot."

"Car trouble," Mrs. Kasselbaum confided in a lowered voice. "I heard her telling the man she left with that she barely made it home from school. Something about water in the gas line."

Rudy and his friends struck once again, Steven thought grimly. He'd heard about the vandalism in her classroom from Matt, who'd heard it from a soccer buddy, who'd heard it from his older brother who apparently shared the general opinion that Dr. Marshall was "hot."

Wait a minute. "What man she left with?" he asked sharply. "Was it Seth?"

Mrs. Kasselbaum shook her head, an unmistakable gleam in her old eyes. "Oh, no. This was one of her karate friends. Young, very nice-looking. A Marine with a tattoo on his right arm. He's a black belt, too. I always feel safe when Jenna leaves with him."

Steven tried to force back the jealousy that clawed at his gut. The thought of Jenna with another man made him want to punch the other guy's lights out, black belt or no. A ridiculous reaction considering he'd known the woman less than a week. She was free to see whomever she pleased. She was her own woman.

No she's not. She's mine.

The thought came from nowhere, shocking him with its clarity and force. He shook his head hard, trying to clear it from his brain. Totally inappropriate reaction. Looking for some diversion, he stared down at Mrs. Kasselbaum. "How do you know he has a tattoo on his right arm?"

Mrs. Kasselbaum batted her eyes. "I asked him to show it to me. Mercy, but that man has a wonderful body." She fanned her face. "Made me wish I was twenty years younger."

Under other circumstances Steven might have smiled at the flirtatious Mrs. Kasselbaum, but he couldn't make his lips curve even the slightest bit. He was too angry. And hurt, if he'd admit it. She'd forgotten about their dinner and gone off with some Marine with a tattoo. So much for whatever electricity passed between them Sunday night. His temper simmered. So much for her so-called integrity. He clenched his jaw. So much for her being different than other women. He looked down to find Mrs. Kasselbaum looking up with alarm and realized his face must have shown every spark of anger he'd been feeling.

He forced a smile for Mrs. Kasselbaum's benefit. "I need to be going."

Mrs. Kasselbaum's face fell. "Oh, no, dear boy, please don't leave. That karate man doesn't mean a thing to her, I know. He's-"

Anger bubbled up and overflowed and he could feel his cheeks heating. Pity was the one thing he absolutely couldn't stand. "It's okay, Mrs. Kasselbaum," Steven said stiffly. "She just forgot. Just tell her I came by and give her this deadbolt if you don't mind."

Just then the lobby door blew open. Steven looked over the railing at the black-haired, white-clad, sandal-footed figure rushing in, waving to a car at the curb. She looked up, her hair sliding away from her face. Even from three floors up Steven could see her eyes widen and her jaw drop.

Aware of Mrs. Kasselbaum watching every move, he waited to see how Jenna would try to explain. What lies she would concoct.

Jenna closed her eyes and quietly blew out a breath, all the anxiety she'd worked out of her system returning with a vengeance. She'd forgotten about him.

After agonizing all day about what she'd wear, what he'd do, how she'd respond… Heat throbbed through her body, completely overriding the chill of the night. And she'd forgotten about him. She opened her eyes and lifted her gaze to where he stood, arms crossed tightly, staring down at her. Even from three floors down she could see he was angry.

She scrunched her brows together, searching his face. More angry than he has a right to be over a missed dinner, she thought, puzzled. Then Mrs. Kasselbaum appeared at his side looking decidedly guilty herself and it all became crystal clear.

Old biddy, she grimaced and started up the stairs two at a time, wincing every time her left foot took her weight. She'd wrapped it, but the pummeling she'd given poor Mark had made it throb almost as badly as when she first fell down. When she'd made it to her front door she threw a disgusted glance at Mrs. Kasselbaum who dropped her eyes to the floor.

"As you can see. I'm home safely, Mrs. Kasselbaum. You can go back to your stories now."

Mrs. Kasselbaum looked up, bristling. "I was watching the evening news. Not stories."

"Whatever. You've caused enough trouble." Jenna raised a brow. "Don't you agree?"

"I tried to tell him the karate man didn't mean anything."

Jenna bit her tongue. Old biddy. "Mrs. Kasselbaum. Please." Finding her key, she opened her front door to where Jim and Jean-Luc sat obediently, bodies quivering, awaiting her slightest command. If only the whole world could be like dogs, she thought. Life would certainly be

simpler. Then she looked back to where Steven Thatcher still stood and her heart did a slow roll in her chest. Simpler perhaps, but not nearly as interesting. He still had his arms crossed over his chest. A plastic bag with the name of a local hardware store dangled from one of his big hands.

"Come in, Steven. Please."

Steven hesitated, looked over to where Mrs. Kasselbaum nodded vigorously, then back to where Jenna stood still.

She had said please. So he followed her into her apartment.

She shut her door and gestured to the dogs who in turn stood, nuzzled her hand, and went off to curl up on their dog beds in the corner. She met his eyes soberly.

"I'm sorry," she began without preamble. "Once again I've been rude."

His anger began to fizzle. "We never agreed on a time." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm early."

Her lips curved up. "Maybe you are. Can I explain what happened? It's not what you think."

"What do you think I think?" he countered.

She didn't look away and his anger fizzled a little more. "That I was off with someone else when I'd said I would go to dinner with you. That I'm unreliable and undependable and quite possibly a liar." She lifted a brow. "Am I close?"

Steven nodded. "Close," he admitted.

Jenna sighed. "Mrs. Kasselbaum told you she saw me leave with another man, right?"

"With a gorgeous body."

Jenna laughed softly. "I'm sure his wife thinks so."

"He's married?" Steven didn't know whether to be relieved or horrified.

"Very much so. I was a bridesmaid in their wedding." She walked over to the wall she'd covered with photo-graphs and plucked one off. "Mark and Susan. Mark was my late fiance's best friend. Our group of friends used to have so much fun," she said wistfully. "I don't see most of the old group anymore. But Mark is my sensei. My karate master," she added, "so I see him a few times a week." She took the snapshot and slipped it back on its nail on the wall.

When she turned around, a frown wrinkled her forehead. She paced by him to stare out the picture window to the parking lot below. "I've had a couple more bad days at school. Nothing too serious. Just a string of pranks. But tonight they did something to A-to my car. I was so… mad." She paced back, stopping to look up, concern in her eyes this time. "I'm glad none of those boys was around because I might have done something I'd truly be sorry for. I was so angry I needed to hit something. So I called Mark. I'd missed my workout on Saturday because of my ankle, so he picked me up for a sparring session."

Steven relaxed. "Did you win?"

Her mouth curved. "Against Mark? Of course not. But I got in my fair share and that's what I needed. I'm sorry I was late and forgot to call you."

"You wouldn't have gotten me anyway. I was out all day."

They each drew a breath and laughed awkwardly. Then the laughter pattered away, leaving the two of them staring at each other. Steven watched her eyes widen and dilate, her cheeks blush rose and her pulse flutter once again at the hollow of her throat. And once again his body responded, his erection hard and full against his zipper. She blinked then, the tip of her tongue stealing out to moisten her bottom lip and he bit back both the groan and the urge to let his own tongue follow the path hers had taken.

Jenna cleared her throat. "So… is my apology ac-cepted?" she asked, her voice barely more than a breathy murmur and he clenched his jaw.

She really wants this.

Steven, wait.

Shit. He hated when his conscience was right. Knowing it was for the best, he forced a grin and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Of course."

Jenna blinked. She'd been sure he was about to lean forward and kiss her. She'd all but lifted herself on her toes to meet him halfway. "Just like that?" she asked, feeling more than just a little bit vexed by his abrupt change of tone.

He nodded cheerfully and she wanted to smack him. "Just like that," he said. "But you do realize that it's now two to one. I'll have to apologize to even the score."

"I can think of a good one right now," Jenna muttered under her breath.

He frowned and leaned an inch closer, close enough for her to smell his aftershave. He smelled really good. "What did you say?" he asked.

That you smell really good and why didn't you kiss me? her brain shouted. "Nothing." She plucked at the sleeve of her gi. "Look, I can be ready in fifteen minutes, if you still want to go to dinner."

She watched his nostrils flare and his cheeks darken. His brown eyes went from placid to smoldering in one hard beat of her heart. So he was interested after all. "I still want to go to dinner," he said and a shiver teased down her back at the sudden huskiness of his voice.

Mesmerized, she could only look up into his face. "Then I'll… just… go…" The words trailed off and she licked her dry lips but her feet still hadn't moved an inch. His eyes had grown even more intense and now a muscle ticked in his jaw. He swallowed and drew his hand from his pocket. Lifted it to her face and gently pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. Brushed a fleeting caress against her cheek before burying his hand back in his pocket, leaving her cheek tingling.

She took a step back although what she really wanted was to jump up and wrap herself around his body.

"Take your time," he murmured and she all but groaned. "I'll wait."

Steven held his body rigid as he watched her back away. Releasing his pent-up breath did nothing to release the tension that wound him tighter than a spring.

She'd nearly set him on fire with a look and a few breathy words. Imagining what she'd be like writhing under him while he lost himself in her body…

He lifted his eyes to find two German shepherds regarding him with twin wary stares. Carefully he approached them, both to distract himself and to begin building a relationship with Jenna's animals. If this worked out he'd be seeing a lot of them.

He held out his hand and the one on the right sniffed him, then licked his fingers. The one on the left, not to be outdone, jumped up and licked his face. He guessed he was in. "Down, boy," he told the dog, whichever one it was, and amazingly it obeyed. He pulled at the dog's tag and frowned. "Captain," he read. He pulled the other's tag and found it said the same thing. "How come neither of you has a tag with your real names?" he asked them. Both dogs sat and wagged their tails. Apparently their training did not extend to articulation. "Well, at least you don't drool."

Steven took a look around him. Jenna kept a clean apartment, her taste running to rustic comfort. Her walls, however, were quite a different story. Nearly every square inch of wall space was covered and, as he discovered by taking a slow three-sixty turn, dedicated to a theme. One wall was covered in framed photographs, ranging in size from ten-by-thirteen portraits to snapshots. Another wall held awards and diplomas. The wall in her dining room was visually intriguing, bearing an assortment of colorfully painted masks. But the photo wall held the most appeal as he hoped it would provide some insight into the real Jenna Marshall.

She was, he discovered as he went from one photo to the next, a woman of diverse interests. There was the karate, of course. There were a half-dozen pictures of her teammates all lined up, sparring or board breaking. But she'd also played softball and volleyball, too. In fact, he saw, stooping down to see some photos closer to the floor, she'd coached a team of girls, a dozen grinning eight-year-olds wearing T-shirts from a local real estate office and proudly gathered around an impressive-looking trophy. And her volunteer efforts didn't stop there. He found five photos, one for each of the last five years, of Jenna with her arm around a kid under the sign proclaiming the Special Olympics. Admiration warmed him even as he heard the death knell of any last hope for a fleeting, no-strings affair.

She was a nice woman. A woman who formed attachments, supporting the same charities year atter year. She was just too nice. Too nice to even think of proposing a no-strings relationship.

Steven stopped short at the next snapshot. And she fished. Damn. He leaned forward, squinting. The fish she proudly held up for the camera was a good sight bigger than anything he'd ever pulled in. She was a nice woman who fished and who was kind to children and puppies.

And who made him think of hot, sweaty sex every time he laid eyes on her. Who at this very moment was in the shower. He squeezed his eyes closed, able to imagine only all too well. He had to make this stop. It was ridiculous, not to mention humiliating, acting like a randy sixteen-year-old. He rapidly searched for a photo with a more… deflating theme.

And found it. Jenna in the arms of another man, standing in front of a Christmas tree. Her late fiance, Steven supposed. He was a tall man with tousled dark hair and black wire-rimmed glasses. Kind of like a grown-up version of Harry Potter. Younger than she was now, Jenna looked up at the man with such unadulterated joy, Steven felt both jealous and wistful. To have a woman look up at him with such happiness in her eyes was something he'd never known, but that he'd always wanted. Something he'd never had, not even during the good years with Melissa.

He lifted the picture from the wall and brought it close enough to see the couple holding hands. The man held Jenna's hand up to the camera, showing off a modest diamond ring. The man wore a Celtic band on his right hand- the same ring Jenna now wore on her thumb. Another spear of jealousy pricked, followed closely by shame. He resented the ring on her thumb. But her fiance was dead, unavailable. How low was he to feel jealous of a dead man?

Apparently pretty damn low.

"That was Adam."

Steven jerked guiltily, turning to find Jenna standing a few feet behind him. She'd done something with her hair, braided it up so that it looked old-fashioned and sexy at the same time-and left her neck completely bare. She'd changed into a simple black dress with tiny little buttons that ran throat to hem, sleeveless so that it showed off the definition in her arms. And unfortunately so long that it hid most of her incredible legs. Her stocking-clad legs. He wouldn't let his mind dwell on the fact that she was probably wearing real stockings with garters under that dress, instead, forcing his eyes to her feet on which she wore a pair of flats.

"No skyscraper heels tonight?" he asked, smiling.

She shook her head. "I seem to recall making a scout's honor promise, even though I didn't spit in my palm." She made a face. "That's just too gross."

They stared at each other for a long moment, then Steven cleared his throat, holding out the picture. I'm sorry. I got curious."

She picked up the photo. Steven watched her face for any sign of residual passion, but she just smiled a little and wiped the dust from the glass with her fingertips. "This was Adam."

"Your fiance."

"Um-hmm."

"You loved him." The words were out before he knew they were coming.

Her head snapped up, her violet eyes surprised. "Of course. He was a good man."

Steven felt his cheeks heat. "That's good to hear. I'm glad." Although a part of him wasn't and he wanted to squash that childish part like a bug. "Do you mind my asking what he died of?"

She met his eyes briefly before returning the photo to its nail on the wall. "Not at all. I've become something of a champion for the cause, although most men cringe to hear it. Adam died of testicular cancer." Steven winced and Jenna raised a knowing brow. "I told you that would be your reaction. But as the father of three boys, you have a responsibility for their health."

Steven felt his cheeks grow even warmer. He was fairly certain that testicles weren't on the list of approved first-date conversation. "1 suppose so."

"Did you know that testicular cancer strikes young men between eighteen and thirty-five?"

He didn't. "No."

"And did you know that if caught early it is very easily treated?"

He didn't know that either. "No. So, Adam's wasn't caught early?"

Jenna's eyes flashed. "No, it wasn't, because he was too damn proud or scared to go to the doctor. His was an unusually fast-growing variety, but it still would have been treatable if they'd caught it earlier. But by the time he went to the doctor it had spread to his brain. We had ten months after that. Ten damn months." She looked away and he could see her fighting for control. Finally she looked back, her eyes no longer turbulent, but not serene, either. "I'm sorry, Steven. It's a bit of a sore spot with me. I've tried to get the school to do more active education, but they refuse to corral the boys into a room and talk to them. I've brought pamphlets, but not a single boy wants to be seen taking one."

"I can kind of understand that," Steven said thoughtfully, taking another look at the woman standing before him. He could now add crusader to the growing list of her attributes. "Doesn't make it right, but I can understand it."

One side of her mouth tilted up. "Most men do. If you think of a way to get around it, let me know. I've got a box full of pamphlets in my closet, just waiting to be read. But enough about that. I'm starving." She pulled a jacket from the closet and shrugged into it. "Ready when you are."

He opened the door and breathed appreciatively when she passed through. She'd washed her hair with the coconut shampoo again and once again his mind ran through the connections-coconuts, suntan oil, beaches, bikinis. He let the door slam and said the first light-headed thing that came to his mind. "I'm up by two apologies now."

"No you're not," she returned and looked up into his face and grinned. "You apologized for your nosiness in there when you poked into my pictures. You're still only up by one."

Steven laughed out loud, the sound echoing in the empty apartment stairwell. "Jenna, you are incorrigible."

She nodded. "Thank you. I try very hard."

Chapter Fourteen

Tuesday, October 4, 8:00 P.M.

The ride to the restaurant had been completed in what Jenna could only call contemplative silence. She wished she understood why he'd pulled back from the kiss in her apartment. He clearly wanted it as much as she had. He'd asked if she'd loved Adam. She wondered if he still loved the wife he'd lost, the mother of his sons.

She wished she knew what was going on inside his head. She sure as hell knew what was going on inside of hers. And if his thoughts were anywhere near as confused and… erotic as hers, well, this would certainly be an interesting evening. Wherever it led.

At the moment it was leading to dinner. He'd chosen the new Italian place on Capitol, ironically enough. Jenna took the chair he held for her, then met his eyes as he pulled his own chair to the table. His beautiful brown eyes that made her heart beat faster. That made her want to leap over the table, straddle him where he sat, and take the kiss from which he'd backed away.

Oh, for God's sake, Jen. Get it together here. You are not having sex with that man in this restaurant. So say something before he thinks you've lost your damn mind.

So she said, "This is nice. I haven't been here before."

"Neither have I, but one of my coworkers just raved about it last week." He ran his long fingers over the white paper covering the tablecloth, then pointed over to another table where some children were decorating their own white paper with crayons provided by the restaurant. "Looks like they provide pre-meal entertainment."

Jenna smiled at him simply because it felt right to do. "Nicky would like that, I think."

"I don't know," he said, his gaze still fixed on the giggling children. His shoulders sagged. "Nicky doesn't seem to enjoy much of anything anymore."

"I don't know about that, Steven. He got very excited about training Cindy Lou."

Steven looked back at her, his brow raised in dubious question. "You think you can train that blubbering, drooling pile of hair?"

"That eats your shoes?"

He grimaced. "Dumb dog."

"Nicky loves her."

His face softened. "Yeah, he does. It's the only reason she stays. So can you train Cindy Lou?"

Jenna grinned at him. "I don't think so. She's kind of a dumb dog."

And that made him smile. Which took her breath away. Which must have shown on her face because he got that same look that he'd had in her apartment right before he didn't kiss her. Once again she steeled herself against the overwhelming compulsion to jump the table and wrap her legs around his slim hips.

"Hi! My name is Amy and I'll be your server. How are you folks tonight?"

Jenna jerked her gaze up to the pretty young waitress who was bending over their table, entirely too close to Steven, writing her name upside down on the white paper with a handful of crayons.

Unfamiliar jealousy surged until she looked back at Steven and found his eyes fixed on her own face. He didn't even seem to notice the waitress was there. Just kept looking at her as if she were the only person in the room. As it maybe he was thinking about coming over the table for her.

As if maybe he wanted that kiss after all. The throbbing became a painful ache.

"We're… um… fine," Jenna managed, the inside of her mouth as dry as cotton. "Just fine."

"Well, good," Amy said cheerfully, and Jenna just wished the girl would go away. "Can I tell you about our specials this evening?"

Steven shook his head, his eyes still locked on hers, dark and intense. "I'll just have spaghetti," he said and held the menu up for Amy to take away. He'd never even opened it.

He just kept staring.

Jenna swallowed hard. Oh, Lord.

"Oh," said Amy, nonplussed. "With tomato or meat sauce?"

"Tomato. Jenna?"

Looking at the menu would mean looking away from his eyes which at the moment seemed impossible. "The same," Jenna murmured and handed the waitress her menu.

"Can I get you some wine?" Amy persisted.

Steven tightened his jaw and huffed an impatient sigh. "Jenna?"

"None for me, please." No way was she adding alcohol to what felt like a fire ready to consume her from the inside out. "Just water."

"The same."

Then Amy was gone, leaving a few crayons on the table and the two of them quite alone. Unable to bear the intensity any longer, Jenna looked away, fixing her eyes on the bright white paper covering the table that was becoming wet as condensation dripped from her water glass.

Wet and dripping. Somehow the visual didn't help.

After a few beats, Steven broke the silence. "I didn't tell you that you looked very nice tonight," he said quietly. "I guess I'm out of practice."

Pleasure coursed through her at the simple words. "Thank you." She looked up to see that whatever spell had held him seemed to be broken. Gone was the intensity that had turned his brown eyes almost black. Disappointment mingled with relief. "Thank you."

He tilted his head to one side and frowned a little. "Mrs. Kasselbaum told me about the water in your gas lines. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she reassured him. "I've been doing what you said and parking close to the school and having someone walk me out after closing."

"Good. I heard about the vandalism in your class. Have they confronted the Lutz boy or any of his friends?"

"No, and I don't think they're going to." She lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. "Principal Blackman says we can't prove who did anything. They're trying to force my hand, but they'll find out I'm tougher than I look." She took a thoughtful look at him across the table. "What about you? How's your big case going?"

His face tightened. "Not well."

"I'm sorry. I saw you on CNN on Sunday morning. You looked… tired."

"I was. I still am. But we don't have anything definite to go on right now even though we're all pulling double shifts. It's small consolation for the Egglestons," he added bitterly, looking away.

Wanting to comfort him, she reached across the table to cover his hand with hers. The action was a reflexive one, a friend supporting a friend, but the feel of her skin on his was anything but friendly. The back of his hand was warm, rough, the reddish gold hairs coarse. Her palm… tingled. But her response was out of place at the moment so she swallowed it back. "I know you're doing all you can," she said softly.

His eyes snapped back to hers, then dropped to her hand resting on his. Suddenly feeling awkward she started to pull away, but he caught her, twining his fingers with hers and for a moment she could only stare at the sight. Her fingers and his. Together. It had been a long time since she'd held hands with a man. She hadn't realized until now just how much she'd missed it.

"Thank you," he said and she looked up to find him focused on her once again. And once again her heart raced. She opened her mouth to say something, but then his cell phone shrilled.

Jenna jumped while Steven swore. He pulled his phone from his pocket with one hand, still holding her hand with the other. "Thatcher," he barked, listened, then grew grim. Still one-handed he finished the call and dropped his phone back into his pocket.

"What's wrong?" Jenna asked.

"I have to go," he answered. "I'm sorry, but 1 have to go to the Egglestons' house. I can drop you off at your apartment on the way."

She stood up when he did because he still held her hand. "Will you be long?" she asked.

"I don't know. Why?"

Concern for him edged out the tingle of his hand on hers, the nearness of his body. "You need to eat, Steven. If you'd like I can make us something at my place after you're finished."

He looked down at her, worry in his eyes. "You don't mind?"

"Of course not."

He motioned to Amy the waitress who came hurrying over. "Cancel the order. We need to go." He let go of her hand only long enough to draw a bill from his wallet for the waitress's trouble. He tossed the money on the table, took her hand again, and led her to his car.

Tuesday, October 4, 8:45 P.M.

Sheriff Braden, Anna Eggleston's brother, met them at the Egglestons' front door and looked at Jenna, a question in his eyes.

"She's with me," Steven said. With me, his mind echoed and he liked the sound of it. Too damn much.

"I can wait in the car," Jenna offered and Braden shook his head.

"That's not necessary, ma'am. It's getting cold outside. Please make yourself comfortable." Braden gestured to a sofa covered with dainty little flowers, then turned to Steven. "Thanks for coming here to the house, Agent Thatcher. Anna didn't want to take Serena into the station."

Serena. Samantha's little sister. Steven's brain jogged to life. Four years old. The Egglestons had kept their youngest daughter far away from the investigation, shielding their baby from the ugliness of the situation, a response Steven certainly understood. But tonight Serena had burst into hysterical tears and her parents had been able to glean only that their littlest daughter knew something she should tell the police. What had the little girl heard that night? What did she know?

"Where is she?"

"In the kitchen." Braden looked at him helplessly. "She's just a baby, Thatcher."

Steven grasped Braden's upper arm and squeezed. "I know. Let's see what we can get without making this any worse than it is."

There was a crowd around the kitchen table Marvin and Anna Eggleston sat on either side of Serena, creating a human protective wall around their daughter. Serena herself sat quietly, her little round face streaked with tears. She was a beautiful child, with large blue eyes and dark, dark hair that fell in damp baby ringlets around her shoulders.

Steven looked from the Egglestons huddled around their daughter to the older woman that sat on Anna's left. Anna's and Sheriff Braden's mother. Mrs. Braden looked at him defiantly, as if daring him to harm her granddaughter. Then someone stepped from the shadows of the back door.

Mike Leone looked at him with worry in his eyes.

Of course this family had called their priest. Of course it would be Mike.

Steven quickly looked back to the table where Serena stared up at him, her blue eyes huge and teary and terrified. He smiled as he sat down. "Hi, Serena. My name is Agent Thatcher."

The little girl sniffled. "I know."

Steven leaned forward, pressing his forearms into the table. "Serena, honey, can you tell me why I'm here?" he asked gently.

Serena's lips quivered. "Because I've been bad," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Now, Serena," he said softly, "there's nothing you did that could be that bad. The bad person is whoever took your sister. Samantha didn't do anything wrong and neither did you."

Serena was clearly unconvinced. Her lower lip thrust out and her delicate eyebrows bunched. But she said nothing.

"Serena, tell the officer what you heard," Anna said, her voice a shaky tremble. "Please."

Serena looked up at her mother, who forced a smile. Then she looked up at her father who put his arm around her tiny shoulders.

"It's okay, honey." Marvin said. "You're not in trouble. Just tell Mr. Thatcher what you know."

Serena turned her dark blue eyes to Steven and he smiled again, even more gently than before.

"See, honey? Your mom and dad aren't mad." Serena's lip quivered and Steven understood. At four years old, of course Serena would interpret her family's wild grief and anger to be her fault. It was normal. "Honey, I need you to listen to me. Can you do that?"

Serena nodded. "Yes, sir."

Steven ducked his head closer. "Good. Now I know you're a big girl, and a smart one. I want you to think about your friends. Do you have a best friend?"

Serena blinked, confusion in her eyes at the unexpected question. She nodded uncertainly.

"What's your best friend's name?"

"Carrie." Serena looked down, then back up. "We play dolls and video games."

"Good. You know who was my best friend when I was your age?" Serena shook her head and Steven winked at her. "Father Mike."

Her blue eyes grew round in disbelief. "Priests don't have friends."

From the corner of his eye Steven saw Mike hide a smile behind his hand. "No, it's true," Steven insisted. "When Fa-ther Mike was a little boy we'd catch frogs in the creek behind the elementary school down the street from the church."

"I'll go to the elementary school next year," Serena declared proudly, then narrowed her eyes. "If you and Father Mike were friends, how come you're not a priest, too?"

Again Steven glanced at Mike from the corner of his eye. "Busted," Mike mouthed silently.

"Well, I thought about it, but then I decided to be a policeman instead. What do you think priests and policemen have in common, Serena?"

She thought a moment, chewing on her lower lip. "They help people," she decided.

Steven nodded. "That's exactly right. See, I knew you were a smart girl."

"I can count to twenty," Serena said with a decisive nod, then shook her head in disgust. "Carrie can only count to ten."

"Well, I'm sure Carrie will catch up soon."

"I don't know." She shook her head and her damp ringlets bounced. "She can only make it to level one on Sonic Two."

Steven was well acquainted with Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game character who, although capable of racing at sonic speeds, looked absolutely nothing like a hedgehog. Sonic was one of Nicky's favorites. Had been anyway.

"So you're pretty good at Sonic?" Steven asked and Serena nodded hard. "You practice a lot?"

Serena's face abrupjly changed. She looked down at the table and said nothing.

And Steven thought he knew what had happened.

"Serena, are you allowed to play video games at night when you're supposed to be in bed?"

Serena stared hard at the table and shook her head. Marvin Eggleston opened his mouth to say something, but Mike stepped forward and put a restraining hand on the man's shoulder.

"But you were up playing Sonic the night Sammie disappeared, weren't you, honey?" Steven asked quietly.

Serena said nothing. Made not a single move.

Steven leaned closer and laid his fingertips against the little girl's cheek and she looked up, misery in her eyes. She blinked and fat tears rolled down her rosy cheeks. Steven felt his heart clench. What the public never seemed to realize is that crime happened to people. It wasn't sensational, it wasn't thrilling. Crime happened to people, to families, tore them apart. Made little four-year-old girls feel responsible and afraid. Made them cry.

He softened his voice. "Serena, honey, this is important. You will not get into trouble for playing video games. But, sweetheart, you need to tell me what you heard that night."

Her lips trembled and more tears flowed. "Sammie was on the phone," she whispered.

"Did she know you were there?"

Serena shook her head. "No."

"Do you know who Sammie was talking to, Serena?"

Again she shook her head. "No, sir."

Impatience simmered and he clapped a tight lid on it. "Did it sound like she was talking to one of her friends? JoLynn or Wanda, maybe?"

"No, sir."

Steven leaned closer still. "Was it a boy, honey?"

Serena looked up at him, her eyes filled with guilt. "Yes, sir," she whispered.

Anticipation sizzled across his skin. They were on to something. "Did she say his name?"

"No, sir."

"What were they talking about, Serena?"

She looked down at the table. "Kissing and stuff."

Steven glanced up to find Marvin's face pale and his body trembling. Silently, Steven shook his head, then hooked his finger under Serena's chin and gently tipped up her face.

"What else, honey?"

Serena stared up at him and again his heart clenched at the misery he saw there. She was just a baby. No child should know this kind of devastation. "She didn't want to go," Serena whispered and Marvin and Anna looked sick.

"What do you mean, she didn't want to go? Go where, Serena?"

Serena lifted one thin shoulder. "To meet him. She kept saying, 'I don't know.' She knew Mommy and Daddy would be really mad." Tears rolled again. "But she finally said yes."

Anna swayed and her mother put her arm around her for support.

"Serena, I need you to think very hard," Steven said, his voice barely a whisper. "Did Sammie mention where she was meeting him?"

Serena nodded. "Behind the McDonald's."

Steven forced his voice to be very calm. His gut told him Serena was on the verge of remembering something critical. "Did she say which one?"

She frowned. "Behind the railroad tracks? I don't know." She looked up at her father, panicked. "I'm sorry, Daddy."

"It's okay, pumpkin," Marvin managed in an even voice and Steven respected him for the effort. His father's heart had to be shattering, visualizing what happened at the McDonald's behind the railroad tracks. "You're doing just… great." His voice broke on the last word and Mike put both hands on Marvin's shoulders. The big man managed a smile of encouragement for Serena, but his throat worked viciously as he struggled not to cry.

Steven touched Serena's hand lightly and she looked back at him. "Your daddy's absolutely right, Serena. You are doing fabulously. Now, can you remember anything else?"'

Her feathery brows scrunched as she concentrated. Then she looked up sharply and Steven knew this was what he'd been waiting for. "Sammie told him he played a good game."

Steven tried not to let his excitement show. "Did she say what kind of game?"

"No." Her lower lip quivered again as more tears fell. "I'm sorry."

Steven cupped the child's face in his palm and gently wiped her tears with his thumb. "You did all the right things, Serena. You're a smart girl, and a brave one. Telling me took a lot of courage."

"Will Sammie come home now?" she asked and Steven heard Anna muffle a sob.

Serena was a smart child. He had no idea what her parents had told her, but he'd be damned if he'd tell this child anything other than the truth. "I don't know, honey. All us policemen are trying our hardest to find her."

Her eyes filled again. "I should have told before. If I'd told before you could find her faster."

Mike put his hand on Serena's shoulder. She looked up, biting her lower lip, and Steven felt his heart lurch. For the rest of her life this poor child would live with unearned guilt caused by a sadistic bastard that thrived on the misery and fear of others. Mike smoothed a lock of tear-drenched hair from Serena's cheek. "Serena, you know I would never lie to you, don't you?"

She nodded. "You're not allowed."

Mike smiled ruefully. "That's true. So I want you to believe me when I say there is nothing you could have done to make them find Serena faster. God is with her, wherever she is."

Serena nodded, then buried her face in Marvin's shoulder and Steven pushed back from the table. The little girl had been through quite enough tonight. He stood up and leaned over the table, brushing his palm over the little girl's dark curls.

Jenna's children would look like Serena Eggleston, he thought, then physically jolted from the unexpectedness of the idea. Where had that come from? he thought, almost panicked.

He cleared his throat and met Anna Eggleston's eyes as he said to Serena, "You were wonderful. Serena. Your mommy and daddy are very proud of you."

Anna jerked a nod, then put her amis around Serena and together she and Marvin held on to the daughter they had left.

Steven looked at Anna's mother and the sheriff. Mrs. Braden was crying and Sheriff Braden looked like he was fighting not to. "She did great," Steven said quietly. "I'm going to send a team over to the McDonald's to see what we can find first thing in the morning."'

Mrs. Braden bristled. "Why not now?" she demanded in a hushed whisper. "What's wrong with right now?"

Sheriff Braden put his arms around his mother's shoulders. "It's not a good idea to investigate a crime scene at night. Mom," he told her. "They might miss something, or worse, destroy it because it's too dark to see."

"I will make sure the area is roped off, Mrs. Braden." Steven assured her. "And I'll make sure nobody goes near it until dawn."

Mrs. Braden jerked a nod, looking very much like her daughter as she did so. "Thank you," she said, her voice hoarse.

You're welcome seemed incredibly inadequaic. "We're doing everything we can, Mrs. Braden."

Her eyes filled. "I know." Then she stifled a sob ind turned to bury her face against the starched fabric of her son's uniform. Sheriff Braden looked at Steven, and once again he saw helpless misery.

Steven squeezed Braden's shoulder. "I'll see myself out."

"I'll walk with you," Mike said behind him, then added to Braden, "I'll be right back."

Mike paused in the darkened hallway just outside the kitchen. "You did great, Steven," he said, and Steven heard pride in his old friend's voice. "That little girl was terrified, but you made it as easy as you could." He forced a grin and threw his arm around Steven's shoulders in a clumsy hug. "Y'done good, boy."

"Thanks." Steven looked back at the kitchen with a frown, then back at Mike. "You know Sammie's probably dead by now," he murmured.

Mike swallowed and his forced grin disappeared. "I know. So do they."

Steven sighed. "I need to go." He stepped from the darkened hallway into the light of the living room where Jenna stood next to the sofa covered in dainty little flowers, quietly waiting. The tortured look on her face told him she'd heard every word.

Beside him Mike stopped and Steven found his friend's face lit with a genuine smile. "Well, hello!" Mike drawled and Steven's face heated. "Do you plan to introduce us?"

"There are some times I wish you weren't a priest," Steven muttered.

"Steven, Steven, Steven," Mike said, quiet humor in his voice. "Five Hail Marys for just thinking what you just didn't say." He stepped forward, his hand outstretched. "I'm Father Mike Leone, an old friend of Steven's. You must be Jenna."

She shook Mike's hand. "That's right. But, um, Steven didn't mention you."

Mike laughed softly. "No, I don't suppose he would. It's very, very nice to meet you, Jenna Marshall." He held on to her hand, still smiling broadly.

Jenna frowned a little. "It's nice to meet you, too, Father Leone."

"Father Mike is fine. Yes, I've known Steven since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. Oh, the stories I could tell. Where do you want me to begin? Pick a year, any year."

Steven gritted his teeth. You wouldn't, he wanted to say. Of course he would, came the reply from his more pragmatic self.

Jenna glanced over at Steven with a look that seemed to say don't worry, then back at Mike with a raised brow as she discreetly disengaged her hand. "Well, I'm not Catholic, but what I would like to know is why all priests seem to be named Father Mike."

Steven felt a rush of appreciation. She'd felt his discomfort, but instead of exploiting it, she turned the focus to Mike.

"Probably because our mothers knew we'd be as heavenly as the archangel Michael himself," Mike declared reverently, looking up at the ceiling.

Jenna snorted in a delicate, ladylike way. "Your mothers had their hands full with little boys bringing home frogs from the creek in back of the school down the street from the church."

Mike looked impressed. "Wow, good memory."

"She has a Ph.D.," Steven replied, as if that explained everything. "Well, we need to be going. I have a lot of work to do."

Jenna frowned again. "You have dinner to eat," she said firmly and Steven didn't miss the satisfied gleam in Mike's eye. Meddling old fart. He'd have to make it six Hail Marys.

Mike looked back at the Egglestons' kitchen door, sobering. "I have to be getting back to the Egglestons. It was nice to meet you, Jenna. Make sure he takes care of himself, okay?"

She nodded. "I'll try, Father."

And Steven got the feeling she really meant it.

Tuesday, October 4, 10:45 P.M.

She'd put a frozen pizza in the oven. The aroma met Steven's nose as he closed her front door behind him for the second time. He patted the head of whichever dog he'd just walked and looked longingly at the soft brown sofa. He'd bet a week's pay he'd fall asleep as soon as he sat down on it.

He was bone-tired. It had been one hell of a long day.

The area behind McDonald's near the railroad tracks was sealed off, a patrol car assigned to assure no one further contaminated the scene. Steven honestly didn't believe they'd find anything in an open area after five days, but stranger things had happened.

There was almost no chance they'd find Samantha Eggle-ston alive. He could only hope they found her dead, so at least they could find any clues the sick bastard might have left behind.

The killer had left nothing behind at the clearing where they'd found Lorraine Rush. No hairs, no footprints. Nothing but an eviscerated body. And a fresh tattoo, half of which had been scavenged as the body lay out in the open, unprotected. The picture of Lorraine's mutilated body flashed in his mind and he wanted to close his eyes, but knew it would only make the picture clearer. More ghastly. More real. He shivered, suddenly cold.

Jenna stuck her head out from the kitchen, her smile a beacon in the darkness of his thoughts. "Supper's in the oven. Do you want something to drink?"

He stood still, just enjoying the warmth of her smile, which faltered when she saw his face. Sobering, she came all the way out of the kitchen. "Are you all right, Steven? You look like you've seen-" She broke off abruptly.

"A ghost?" he asked, a sardonic edge to his voice, remembering the expression Melissa's face would take when he came home late, tired, his mind full of images. Vile, inescapable images of what one Homo sapiens could do to another. At first Melissa's smile of welcome would falter, just like Jenna's had. Then, after one too many late nights, Melissa stopped smiling. Then came the frowning, followed by the sneering. Melissa hadn't had what it took to be the wife of a cop. He looked at Jenna's pensive expression. Maybe no woman did.

"Something like that." Jenna tilted her head. "What's wrong?"

Jenna watched his face change from tortured to carefully blank, watched the light in his eyes shut off, just as if he'd flipped off a switch. "Just the day catching up to me," he answered, then added abruptly, "Do you have any scotch?"

Jenna nodded, studying his face. He looked so incredibly tired. Worried. Consumed. She wanted to walk straight up to him and put her arms around him and just hold him until whatever images haunted him went away, but something told her that he wouldn't accept her concern at this moment. There was a sharpness to him, an edginess that went way beyond simple weariness. An anger, deep and intense. He reminded her of a caged cat even though he hadn't moved a muscle.

"Neat or on the rocks?" she asked.

"Neat," he answered and bent down to scratch Jean-Luc behind the ears. Jean-Luc responded by flipping to his back, presenting his belly for more scratching.

"Coming right up." She went back to the kitchen.

"Jenna, why do both your dogs have the same name tag?" he asked. He looked up when she approached him with his filled glass. "And why do both tags say 'Captain'?"

"You don't watch much television, do you'" Jenna responded, holding out his drink.

"Not anymore." He absently swished the scotch in the glass. "I used to enjoy old movies."

Jenna stowed that common interest away for a different day. "But not sci-fi?"

He looked appalled. "God, no."

Jenna chuckled. "Then I won't even ask if you're a Star Trek fan."

His mouth tipped up. "I admit I have watched a few reruns. I remember a green lady…"

Jenna tried to look severe. "The makeup artists must have used a year's supply of green paint on that woman," she said. "She showed an awful lot of green skin."

His smile went just a shade naughty and her heart skipped a beat. "Yeah," was all he said.

She hugged herself to keep from throwing her arms around him and narrowed her eyes in mock ire. "Forget about the green lady and think about the captain."

His brows bunched as he thought. "Jim, wasn't it?"

Jim perked up his ears.

"And, Next Generation!"

Steven shrugged.

"Counselor Troy, skintight uniforms?" she prompted and he grinned again.

"Matt really likes her," he said and she wanted to punch him.

"And her captain's name is…?"

He snapped his fingers and both dogs sat up. He looked impressed. "That was pretty good."

"You should see what they do when I pop the bubble wrap at Christmas," she said wryly and he threw back his head and laughed. And once again took her breath away.

"The bald guy was the second captain, right? He must have been Jean-Luc."

Jean-Luc nuzzled his hand and Steven stroked the dog's soft muzzle. "Sucker guess," she said, her voice coming out a little huskier than she'd expected and he chuckled, making her feel ridiculously clever for having made him laugh. For making the worry go away for just a little while.

"So much for the power of my honed deductive reasoning," he said mildly, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He cast his eyes aside, scanning the items covering her walls, and once again she felt the switch go click. He was gone again. She felt dismissed and wasn't sure if she should be taking it personally or not.

Maybe all cops did that. She wondered if he did that at home, llicking the switch, cutting off his kids. Then again, maybe it was just her. He'd been throwing mixed signals all night, by turns hot-she swallowed, remembering the restaurant-then… nothing. So maybe it was just her.

He was standing poised on the balls of his feet, hands in pockets, eyes looking everywhere but at her. She waited for him to "come back" or whatever it was he did when he flicked the switch back on, but there was only awkward silence.

She cleared her throat. "Can I take your coat, Steven?"

His eyes glanced toward her, then away again. "Sure. Thanks." He shrugged out of the tweed jacket and she wanted to groan. Yards of muscles stretched and moved and flexed under his crisp white shirt. Take off your shirt, too, was on the tip of her tongue.

She bit her tongue. Don't be stupid, Jenna. She hung his jacket on the back of a dining-room chair and returned to the kitchen without another word.

She hoped he'd follow her, but instead he released the clasp on his holster and draped it over his coat before wandering over to the wall where she kept her diplomas and awards. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers. Camel trousers that clung to the nicest ass she'd ever seen.

'"Duke for your bachelor's and UNC for your doctorate." he observed from the dining room. "And Maryland for your master's degree. Why did you go all the way up there for your master's?"

"My dad." The memory of her father put a chill on the heat. "My dad was sick and we lived in Maryland," she said, still remembering the day she got the call to come home. It was the worst day of her life. At the time. "He had a stroke shortly after I left for Duke. I wanted to come home then, but he wouldn't hear of it." She looked over her shoulder to find him still staring at the diploma, his hands still in his pockets. "I had a scholarship and Dad didn't want me to lose the opportunity. He had another stroke right before graduation, so one of my profs pulled some strings and I was able to get into Maryland's master's program at College Park at the last minute."

"What happened to him?" Steven asked, his voice softer, the edginess gone.

"He died before Christmas that year," she answered.

"I'm sorry," he said, and after a moment turned back to the frames cluttering her wall.

In the past she'd gone more for a tasteful print here and there, but when she'd moved into this apartment, days after Adam's death, the empty walls had mocked her. Cluttering the walls had made the place seem a little less empty. A little less… dead. At a minimum it provided distraction when she thought she would lose her mind from the loneliness. 'Thank you."

"Who's Charlie?" Steven asked. He was looking at a certificate Charlie had made for her birthday the year Adam was sick and no one had known what to say. But then-eight-year-old Charlotte Anne had managed where all the grown-ups failed. To the world's greatest aunt, she'd penned in purple crayon. I love you.

"My niece. Well, actually she's Adam's niece, but I'm still very close with his family. She's eleven. She made that for me when Adam was sick."

"So it's priceless," he said, and her heart clenched a little knowing he understood. He took a few steps to where her mounted patent awards hung. "You have patents," he said with surprise, changing the subject. He bent closer to read the fine print. "What did you do to get them?"

"Pharmaceutical research." She donned oven mitts and took the pizza out of the oven. "In a previous life," she added. Bending over, she searched her lower cupboard for a pizza cutter in the box of utensils she never used.

"I know it's down here somewhere," she muttered, clanging pots and pans. "Steven, this pizza is half supreme and half pepperoni," she said to the inside of the cupboard. "Which do you want?"

No answer met her ears. She put her hand on the pizza wheel and straightened, turning at the same time. "Stev-?"

The second syllable of his name evaporated from her tongue. He stood in the open doorway of the kitchen, filling it with the breadth of his shoulders. His chest heaved inside the starched white shirt as if every breath took superhuman effort.

Oh, my God.

He was… interested.

That look of his could melt solid steel. That look made her heart pound, her nipples hard, made every ounce of sensation pool between her thighs. One throbbing, aching mass of sensation.

He took a step forward and she met him halfway, taking the leap she'd wanted all evening, throwing her body against his, feeling every incredible inch of him pressed against her.

It was incredible. But it wasn't enough.

Then he was kissing her, finally kissing her, and she whimpered. His hands pulled her closer to him. His lips were hot and hard against her mouth.

Incredible, but not enough.

In one movement she opened her mouth beneath the pressure of his and slid her hands up his chest and around his neck. The oven mitt dropped to the floor behind him and she vaguely heard the clang of the pizza wheel against the linoleum as he thrust his tongue inside her mouth, seeking, finding a mate as she again met him halfway. Her fingers threaded through his hair, pulling him closer, still closer. Her tongue tangling with his. Exploring. Learning. Harder. Deeper.

Still not enough. More. More. More. The chant throbbed in time with the ache at her core and she lifted on her toes to get closer. Closer to the hard ridge that held the promise of satisfaction.

Not close enough.

Then his hands took a rapid slide down her back to flatten against her butt and pull her up into him. A wild little cry escaped from her throat and he ripped his mouth away to look down. His eyes dark and intense, pupils dilated, nostrils flared as he struggled to breathe.

He wants me.

I want him.

"Please." The single syllable was rusty, ripped from her throat. She had no idea what she was asking for, had no thought beyond more. More something. Anything. Anything was better than this terrible unmet need, the cavern that only he could fill.

In answer he took her mouth again, hotter, harder, and in two big steps backed her against the refrigerator, pressing hard between her thighs. Against the place that throbbed and wept for him. She thrust back, as hard as she could, leaning into the refrigerator for leverage.

It was a strangely erotic mix of sensations. Cold, hard machine at her back, hot, hard man at her front. Hard big hands against her, kneading, pulling her closer. Then one of his big hands freed its hold on her butt, and she wriggled against him in protest, making him groan, so deep she could feel the vibrations rattle against her breasts. But a moment later the groan was hers as he covered her breast with his hand.

But not enough. Not nearly enough.

His other hand left her butt, but instead of claiming the other breast that felt like it would burst, he pulled at her dress, straining the buttons. Some released. The others made a clatter as they rained to the floor. She pressed her head back against the refrigerator as his mouth moved from her bruised lips down her throat and his hands fumbled with the front clasp on her bra.

Yes. Please.

If she said the words aloud, she didn't hear them over the panting. Hers. His.

With a curse he gave another yank, tearing the delicate lace and her breasts fell free. Into his hands. And into his mouth.

The strangled cry was hers as he sucked, lashing the nipple with his tongue. All feeling clenched between her thighs and she felt her body tighten with need. Greed.

Oh, my God.

She was almost there and he hadn't even touched her yet. There. Hadn't slid his hand up her thigh and into the fragile lace panties that were now soaked with wanting him. Hadn't pressed his thumb against her clitoris or slid his finger up inside her. She was almost there and he hadn't done any of those things.

Not yet. Please.

Please.

More. More. More.

She looked down, the sight of his golden head at her breast more erotic than anything she'd ever seen. "Please," she whispered. "Steven."

He pulled back far enough to look up, his lips wet, his eyes almost black. Without saying a word he took the other breast in his mouth and his hand fell to her hip, ran down her thigh as she bent her knee, trying to get closer, her legs wider.

Closer.

His hand pushed at her dress, up her stocking to the bare inch of thigh between her garter and her soaked panties. Then his palm was on bare skin, cupping her ass and she cried out.

His hand froze on her butt and he pulled back from her breast, his eyes taking in the sight of her bare breasts, wet and swollen from his suckling mouth.

Then they lifted to her eyes and Jenna felt her body go cold in an instant.

He was angry.

His jaw clenched until a muscle in his cheek spasmed. He pulled his hand away and pushed at her thigh, straightening her leg, pulling her dress back in place.

"No," he ground out from behind clenched teeth and stepped away, leaving her trembling against the refrigerator, her legs barely supporting her weight, her breasts wet and cold.

Her senses frozen.

She said nothing as he marched into the dining room and grabbed his holster and coat from the back of the chair with jerky movements.

She flinched at the sound of the slamming front door.

Then unable to stand a moment longer on legs that felt like jelly, she pressed her back against the cold refrigerator and slid to the floor.

Chapter Fifteen

Wednesday, October 5, 12:15 AM.

"Now let me get this straight," Mike said, refilling Steven's empty jelly jar with iced tea he'd pulled from the refrigerator in the rectory. Steven scowled at the refrigerator. He'd never be able to look at a refrigerator the same way again.

Dammit all to hell.

"You kissed her," Mike said, sitting across from him and propping his chin on his folded hands. It was a very priestlike pose and should have completely quieted the lust that still throbbed in Steven's veins.

Should have.

Didn't.

"She kissed you back, maybe did a few things that you probably won't confess." He lifted a black, bushy brow. "Am I on target?"

You shouldn't have touched her, Thatcher, Steven thought fiercely. Shouldn't have laid a hand on her. Shouldn't have turned from the wall. Should've kept your eyes on her diplomas and patents and "I love you, Aunt Jenna " certificates.

But, nooo. He just had to look over into the kitchen. Had to watch her bend over looking for that damn pizza wheel. The sight of her black dress stretching over her incredible round ass… something had simply snapped, letting all the pent-up frustration come rushing out.

I shouldn't have touched her. But he had.

And it had been more incredible than he'd imagined. Dammit, he was still imagining.

So, was he angry he'd kissed her? Hell, yes. Was he angry she'd kissed him back?

She'd done a helluva lot more than kiss him back. But the fault was squarely his own. He'd started it. And dammit, he'd finished it, too. And with such sensitivity and regard for her feelings.

Thatcher, you are a dickhead.

Furious with himself and with Mike for being so right, Steven drained his glass and set it back on the table. Hard. Mike picked up the glass and checked the bottom to make sure it wasn't broken, which just made Steven angrier. "Yes," Steven hissed. "Right on target, as usual, Father Leone."

"Don't break my glassware," Mike cautioned. "Mrs. Hen-nesey gave me blackberry jam in that one and if I don't return the glass, I don't get any more jam."

"Dammit, Mike," Steven gritted and Mike pursed his lips.

"Mrs. Hennesey makes very good jam. And please don't swear." His lips twitched. "My son."

Steven just glared and Mike laughed. "I don't see the problem, Steven. She's beautiful. And she seems to like you, which I personally don't understand, but a basic understanding of women is unfortunately not taught at seminary. She has to be smart to have a Ph.D., although book learning does not necessarily equate to wisdom, which goes back to my not understanding why she likes you. She seems compassionate and articulate and has a sense of humor. She wanted to take care of you, for heaven's sake." He shrugged. "So you let things get out of hand tonight. Understandable, I suppose. Just don't let it happen again."

Steven looked away, focusing on the rosary that hung on the wall, wishing it would have the deflating effect he needed it to have. He'd been rock-hard since he'd stormed out of Jenna's apartment, an hour before, leaving her standing there shocked and openmouthed.

And bare-breasted. God, she was beautiful. Beautiful and passionate and… Mine, mine, mine.

His body throbbed painfully and he knew it was nothing less than he deserved.

Steven blew out a frustrated breath. "You just don't understand."

Mike spread his hands out wide, palms forward. "So enlighten me. Explain to me why you're so upset that a smart, pretty woman desires you. I may not have a Ph.D., but I do have wisdom, which, incidentally, was taught at seminary. Too bad you didn't go. Looks like a good dose of wisdom is what you need right now." He folded his hands and resettled his chin. "I'm listening. Go ahead. Explain."

Explain. How? How could he explain when he didn't even understand it himself? When he didn't understand why he was so angry. Why he'd left Jenna standing alone without a single word of explanation. She probably hated him by now and would never see him again, so he may have solved his problem by default.

Not a particularly cheering thought.

"I don't know, Mike." Steven slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes. "It's just too much. Too fast.'"

"Meaning your relationship with Miss Marshall isn't molding itself into the little space you've made for it." Mike gestured with his hands, forming a box in the air. "'Not a tidy package. Can't put on the lid because it's a lousy fit. No ribbons or bows." Mike frowned. "You, Steven Thaicher, are a stupid control freak."

Steven's eyes flew open. "I am not a control freak."

"But you'll admit to stupid?"

Steven ground his teeth. "Yes."

"Well, that's some progress I suppose," Mike said thoughtfully. "You want my opinion?"

Steven narrowed his eyes. "1 dnn't know "

Mike shrugged. "Tough beans, you came here, tore me away from Sports Center, so you'll listen to what I have to say."

Steven folded his arms across his chest. "Okay," he said, his agreement sounding belligerent even to his own ears. He sounded like one of the boys, for God's sake.

Mike rolled his eyes. "And I can see from your body language how much you value my opinion. No matter. As for Miss Marshall. You like her." He lifted a brow. "You really like her."

Steven rolled his eyes and felt his cheeks heat. "Thank you, Dr. Watson. Now tell me who killed Professor Plum in the study?"

Mike grinned. "Miss Peacock with the rope because she caught him cheating with Miss Scarlet in the study but that's not important now. Pay attention, Steven. You like her. A lot. She likes you. A lot. You want to get to know her better, so you ask her out to dinner. Just dinner, nothing else. You plan to work your way up to a physical relationship only a little at a time, because as soon as it gets physical, the floodgates open because it's been four years, and then you have to marry her. But you can't marry her until you prove to yourself that she's not another Melissa, but all this proving takes time. I bet you laid out a timetable that allowed you to kiss her when? Next month? On the fifteenth?"

"This month," Steven muttered, then looked away. "On the fifteenth."

Mike's laughter boomed. "Control freak. You always have been." Mike reached across the table and patted the table in front of Steven. "Look at me, Steven. I'm your best friend. I care about you." Steven looked at him and felt his heart squeeze. Gone was the laughter in Mike's dark eyes, replaced by a caring so fundamental…

"I'm listening."

Mike nodded. "Good. It's about time. Lose the timetable, Steven. Let life happen as it happens. Stop trying to make everything happen to your specification. Enjoy your life. Your children. The possibility of a woman who can complete you."

Steven swallowed. "It sounds like you're telling me to marry her tonight."

Mike sighed. "You know that's not true. Your problem… well, one of your many problems," he amended, "is that you only see life in black and white. Good, evil. Right, wrong."

"I have to. That's my job." Steven glared. "I thought it was yours, too."

Mike shook his head. "That's the point, Steven. Life is not black or white. One or two. Yes or no. On or off. Nothing is safe. Nothing is guaranteed. Only the essence of life itself is on or off. You either wake up in the morning or you don't. You're breathing or you're not. I feel sorry for you."

Steven felt his gut tighten. "'Why?"

"You've forgotten what love is about. You are so afraid of losing it that you push it away."

Steven's eyes widened. "I do not."

"Yes. You do. Melissa left you, hurt your ego, made you choose to lie to your children, so you set up every possible barrier to avoid being hurt again. It's not abnormal, Steven. It's human nature. But it won't make you happy."

Steven picked up Mrs. Hennesey's jamjar and swished the melting ice around and around. "I don't even remember what that feels like," he murmured.

Mike sat back in his chair. "What? Being happy?"

Steven met his eyes and nodded. "Yeah."

Mike thinned his lips. "Then get off your butt and do something about it. You have a chance for happiness stanng you in the face."

Steven sighed. "Your point. This time."

Mike looked amused. "My point every time, but sometimes I let you think it's yours."

Steven took an ice cube from the jam jar and tossed it in Mike's face. "You're so full of it." He ducked when Mike returned the lob, then sobered. "I don't know if she'll see me again. I left kind of abruptly tonight."

"Call her. The worst thing she can do is tell you what you deserve to hear."

Steven didn't have a thing to say to that, so he stood up and shrugged into his coat. "I'll give you a call."

Mike walked him to the door. "Steven, how close are you coming to catching the monster who stole our girls?"

Steven shook his head. "How close are you to taking a wife?"

Mike sighed. "I thought so. I'll pray."

"We're going to check out the McDonald's, but I doubt we'll find anything. It's been too long."

"If only Serena had come forward sooner," Mike said sadly.

"Pray for her, too, Mike. She's got a hard row ahead of her for the next eighty years or so."

Wednesday, October 5, 5:45 A.M.

They'd found out where he'd met Samantha. Dear, sweet Samantha. How pretty she'd been.

He frowned thoughtfully. Until he'd shaved her head. Women were decidedly unattractive without hair. Just one more way men were different from women he supposed, sipping coffee from the McDonald's cup he'd just picked up at the drive-through. Men could get away with being bald.

Women just looked revolting.

He considered the two uniformed policemen standing next to the bright yellow police tape. They were bent over the tape, looking into the grass. The sun was just coming up and the police car had been there all night, guarding the "crime scene."

Hell, it was no crime scene. Not there anyway. True, Samantha Eggleston had met him there, but no crime had been committed. She'd voluntarily climbed into the car with him.

Little slut. She'd deserved what she'd gotten. His only regret was that she'd… expired… before he was completely finished.

Next time. He'd do all he'd planned next time. With the next one.

He took another sip of coffee and grimaced. He hated coffee, but he hadn't wanted to call attention to himself by getting a Coke at six A.M. For now he was just another guy enjoying his cup of joe as the sun came up. Just another guy planning the next girl he'd lure from her bed. He hadn't yet figured out who she'd be, but he had a short list.

He watched as another car drove up. Out hopped Detective Steven Thatcher, resident Columbo. Hah. The man couldn't find his way out of a paper bag. Thatcher hadn't even found Samantha's body yet. He'd have to make another anonymous phone call to the police before the critters did to Samantha what they'd done to poor Lorraine.

Shame, that. The critters had eaten half of the perfectly good tattoo he'd applied himself.

Thatcher strode over to the two uniformed cops and began pointing. The cops nodded and Thatcher stood back, arms crossed over his chest as another, younger man in a trenchcoat approached and ducked under the yellow tape, a black bag under his arm.

He wasn't terribly worried. There would be no physical evidence linking him to this place. The cops might find Samantha's hair or some such, but nothing from him.

He'd been careful.

He'd been smart.

Next time he'd be even smarter.

Wednesday, October 5, 7:40 A.M.

"Now let me get this straight," Casey said, her lips turned down in a frown as they hurried from the parking lot to the school. "You were making him dinner and he was being boring and then all of a sudden he became Mr. Frantic Hands? And then he left you in the lurch?"

Jenna nodded. She still felt numb. "He just…" She shrugged inside her jacket. "Walked away."

Casey pushed the door open and led the way in. "How rude."

Jenna's lips quirked up at the understatement. "That would be one word for it," she returned dryly. "I had a few others in mind."

Casey snickered. "Go, girl."

"But I of course didn't think of them until after he'd gone."

"Typical," Casey agreed, then muttered, "Look out, fearless leader at two o'clock."

Blackman. She couldn't take another brow-beating over Rudy Lutz this morning. "Maybe he didn't see me," Jenna whispered. But then he turned, met her eyes, and started walking toward her. "Shit. As if my life isn't already filled with too much fun." She stopped walking, Casey paused beside her as Blackman approached, his step faster than normal.

"Dr. Marshall," he said tightly and Jenna saw his mouth frown under his prim mustache.

"Dr. Blackman," she returned. She certainly wouldn't make it any easier for him.

"There's been another incident in your classroom."

Jenna sucked in her cheeks. "Now why does that not surprise me, Dr. Blackman?" she asked.

Blackman glared a moment. "This time it's worse, Dr. Marshall."

Jenna just looked at him. "How can it be worse? They've painted graffiti on every blackboard, white board, and blank wall, spray-painted my periodic table and my posters, and super-glued all the Erlenmeyer flasks to my lab tables. They've slashed my tires and poured water down my gas tank. What more can they possibly do?"

"Come with me," was all he said before turning on his heel and walking crisply up the stairs.

Jenna exchanged looks with Casey and followed him.

Five or six of her students gathered around her classroom door, held back by Lucas who looked angry enough to… Jenna stared at him, her gut twisting. Mad enough to kill, as the saying went.

"What is it, Lucas?" she murmured.

"Don't touch anything." Lucas growled, then lifted his arm to let her through. Then held her shoulders to keep her upright.

"Oh, God." Immediate terror clutched her heart. "Lucas." The last was little more than a whimper. She lifted her hand to her mouth and… stared. Up.

To where the carcass of… something… swung from a rope tied to a hook mounted in the ceiling tiles, a grotesque piflata.

Swinging.

Swinging.

It was almost hypnotic.

She felt Casey's arm go around her waist as she swallowed back the breakfast that threatened to choke her. "What is it?" Jenna whispered, unable to tear her eyes from the horrific sight. The room swayed and Casey's arm tightened.

"Come on, honey," Casey murmured. "Let's get you out of here."

She let Casey turn her body around, but her eyes remained fixed to whatever the poor animal- had been, her head craned like an owl's until her body ran into Lucas's. She turned her gaze then, lifting it to Lucas's familiar black eyes. Focusing on them while the swaying room came to a gradual halt. He took her chin firmly between his thumb and forefinger.

"You will not pass that boy," he whispered fiercely through clenched teeth. "No matter what Blackman says. You will not let them win."

Jenna shook her head, numb. "No, no I won't." She twisted, looking back at the swinging carcass over her shoulder. "Lucas-"

He grasped her chin again, making her look at him. "I'll set your classes up in the auditorium today. The kids can have study time until we clean this up." He turned to Blackman who looked decidedly grim. "Keith, you will call the police this time, or I will call them myself." He narrowed his eyes. "Then I'll call the press."

"I will call the police," Blackman responded evenly. "No need for threats, Lucas."

"And you will bring disciplinary action against Rudy Lutz and his friends." Lucas's mouth twisted around the word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.

"If the police find evidence of those responsible, I will take appropriate action."

Jenna didn't blink. "That's a big if, Dr. Blackman. What happens when these boys take the game a notch higher?"

He flinched. "I don't believe they'll take it that far," he said thinly and Jenna felt her cork pop.

Pop and fly.

She took a step toward him, pulling free of Casey's steadying arm. "'You don't believe," she said, her voice a low growl. "You don't believe?" Anger surged, blessed and raw, erasing the numbness, leaving fire in its place. She advanced another step, fists on her hips, staring down at him from atop her heels. He looked up, defiantly. Disbelievingly she shook her head. "Are you a fucking moron, Blackman?" she demanded and ignored how his mouth dropped open like a hooked fish. She pressed the tip of her finger to his scrawny chest. "Do you honestly believe these… these animals will stop on their own?" She jabbed. "Are you that unbelievably stupid?"

Blackman closed his mouth, pursed his lips. "You're out of line. Dr. Marshall. I'll forgive it this time because I understand you've had a shock, but-"

Red lights flashed in front of her eyes. "Didn't you listen to anything I said! I said they won't stop. They'll continue. Next time somebody will get hurt instead of that poor animal, whatever it was." She flung her arm backward blindly, pointing to the swinging carcass. "And then what will you say, Blackman? Sorry? Forgive me? But we won the fucking championship?" Her voice rose until the last word was delivered in close to a screech.

Lucas grabbed her arm and lowered it to her side. "This is not the time, Jen. Don't worry. I'll make sure he does the right thing."

Blackman regarded the three of them, Jenna from her towering position and Lucas and Casey flanking her from behind. "We'll speak more on this topic later. I'll go and call the authorities."

"Call Al Pullman, Investigative Division," Jenna said, her voice trembling. "He's the one who wrote the report on my tires."

"If he's available," Blackman said crisply and turned on his heel.

"Blackman." Jenna again felt steadying hands on her shoulders. Lucas's. And a hand smoothing her back. Casey's. Blackman stopped, but didn't turn around. "Call Pullman. I'll know if you don't."

Blackman slowly turned his body, his face one big scowl. "Is that a threat, Dr. Marshall?"

Jenna stared, unmoving, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the swinging carcass. "No. That is."

Something flickered in his eyes and he looked over her shoulder at the… thing… before turning and leaving the room. Jenna took a breath and looked into the hallway, once again seeing the students gathered around, all thirty of them by this time.

She'd forgotten all about them. Shit.

She closed her eyes. They'd heard her call the principal a fucking moron. That was most probably against the rules in the teacher handbook. But he was a fucking moron. That really should come as no surprise to any of these kids.

But still… She'd said it. Out loud. She opened her eyes and looked around the group. Thirty pairs of concerned eyes looked back. No recriminations, no glee. Just concern.

No one said anything for a long moment. Then a pale Kelly Templeton said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Marshall. This isn't how the rest of us feel."

Murmurs of agreement rippled through the group and Lucas moved into the hall, herding the group toward the stairs. "Let's go, people. Let's give Dr. Marshall a chance to gather herself. You all get a break today. Miss Ryan, I'll get someone to cover your class this period so you can stay with Dr. Marshall until the police come." He took the lead, and one by one each teen followed him until the only one left was Josh Lutz. Josh, Rudy's quiet brother who sat on the back row of her first period class every day and took assiduous notes. Josh, who hadn't been able to meet her eyes since the vandalism had begun. Josh, whose face was paler than Kelly's had been. He looked down at his shoes, then back up. In his eyes she saw guilt mixed with mortification.

"I'm sorry, too, Dr. Marshall," he said quietly. "I wish there was something I could do."

Jenna made herself smile and tried not to wonder what life must be like for a gentle boy like Josh living with thugs like Rudy and their father. "Thanks, Josh. Just knowing you feel that way makes a difference."

He looked like he would say something more, then changed his mind. Shouldering his backpack, he set off in a loping jog to catch up with the class.

Casey tugged at her waist. "Come on, Jen. Let's go wait for Officer Pullman."

Jenna took one look back and wished she hadn't, knowing for a long time she'd see that poor creature whenever she closed her eyes.

Wednesday, October 5, 9:15 A.M.

Brad crept out of his bedroom. The coast was finally clear. Helen had gone shopping. Matt and Nicky were at school. His father wasn't home and hadn't been since the morning before.

Brad stopped by his father's bedroom door and looked in, his lips curling in contempt. His father hadn't come home last night. His lips thinned. His father had taken Dr. Marshall to dinner.

Dinner. What a joke. His father hadn't come home last night. Didn't take a Ph.D. to figure that one out. He'd thought more of Dr. Marshall than that. But his father… At this point he didn't know if there was anything his father wasn't capable of doing. Of saying. Anger pricked at him and he welcomed it. Nicky was up again last night, as he was every night, but his father was nowhere to be seen. Unavailable to soothe a little boy to sleep.

Because he was catting around. Selfishly seeing to his own needs while his children went without. No, not money, not food. Not any of those material things. But they went without just the same. Nicky and Matt especially.

He himself… He didn't need Special Agent Steven Thatcher. Not anymore. He-

The front door slammed and a few seconds later he was staring at his father across a ten-foot expanse of second-floor hallway carpet. Might as well have been a damn ocean.

His father narrowed his eyes. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm skipping school," he answered evenly. "I won't ask you what you're doing here as it's obvious you didn't sleep in your bed last night and those were the same clothes you wore yesterday. I have to assume your dinner with Dr. Marshall took a very long time."

He watched his father's eyes flash. "Brad, you cross the line. I was at work all night long."

Brad chuckled. Mirthlessly. "You must be getting old, Dad. I didn't think any guy referred to it as 'work.' Although I have to say about five hundred guys at Roosevelt would have loved to have been 'working' with you last night."

His father took a step forward, then another, until they were nose to nose. His father's eyes bored into him and a muscle twitched in his cheek. Brad's glance darted down to see fists at his father's sides and it occurred to him that he'd gone a step too far.

"How dare you?" his father hissed and Brad dismissed the small frisson of alarm that sizzled down his back. His father was a big man. Bigger than he was. But his father wouldn't hit him. And if he did, he'd just hit him back. That's what he'd do. And God help the old man because he had a lot of anger stored up. That would go a fair distance in closing the size gap.

"I call ' em like I see 'em," Brad said, preparing for the first blow.

That of course never came. Because on top of being a damn liar, his father was a coward.

"You can think what you like about me, Brad. But when you demean a woman like Jenna Marshall, you cross the line. I've tried to understand how to help you, but you've just shown me you're beyond my help. No son of mine would ever say anything like that about any woman."

"Then I guess I'm no son of yours,'" Brad said, making his voice cold, steady. Steady.

His father's chest heaved. Once, twice. "Get your books, you're going to school."

"No, I'm not."

His father took another step and towered over him and Brad felt another spear of fear.

"Yes, you will. Because I am your father and I say you will go to school. Get. Your. Books."

Brad took a step back. Fuming. Furious. Yeah, he'd get his books. He'd even go to school. Then he'd get the hell out of this house and everything that went with it.

He looked at his father and smiled. "Yes, sir.'"

Chapter Sixteen

Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 A.M.

"Anything?" Lennie asked.

Steven stared at the untouched paperwork on his desk, still ripped up from his fight with Brad. / handled that badly, he thought.

"Steven?"

Steven dragged his eyes up to Lennie's worried face. Steven pulled his brain to the topic at hand. Two girls. One dead, one missing. Lennie had a right to be worried. They didn't have shit.

Steven threw his pen on his desk. "We found a tire print that could have come from Samantha's bike, but the kids use that area as a stunt park, so there's a better than even chance that it didn't."

"So we have nothing."

"Pretty much." He handed Lennie a sheet of paper from his desk. "We brainstormed this morning on who could have been the ballplayer Serena overheard Sammie mention."

"All of these games were played the day Samantha disappeared?"

"Up to four days prior. Nancy has a bigger list of games for the week prior, but we figured it would have been within a few days."

Lennie scanned the page, then lowered it enough to see Steven over the top. "You've included pro games on this list."

"An adult sports figure with a yen for young girls would have an easy time attracting them."

"Pro games, college games, high school games… church leagues? That's just sick, Steven."

"But necessary."'

With a sigh Lennie laid the paper on the desk. "That's why it's sick. How will you narrow down this list? You've got over a hundred games and each one will have twenty-plus participants."

"We eliminated college teams that played nontelevised away games. As for the pros, the only televised or home game in the last four days was hockey. The Hurricanes played last Wednesday."

"I know," Lennie said. "I had sixth row seats. Nearly caught a puck in my teeth."

"Which would have ruined your dazzling smile and ended your modeling career," Steven returned sarcastically and Lennie's lips curved. "Harry and Sandra are getting team rosters," Steven continued, "and Nancy's running background checks. We'll look for anybody with a prior."

"This will take weeks," Lennie said heavily.

"It can't." Steven's fists clenched on top of his desk. "Meg thinks he'll strike again soon."

Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 A.M.

"Do you have to do that?" Casey asked irritably as Jenna paced the length of the teachers' lounge for the hundredth time. "You're making me crazy."

Jenna shot her a hostile look. "Forgive me if I' in a bit preoccupied. It's not like the police are upstairs in my classroom or anything. How can you sit and grade papers like nothing happened?"

Casey scrawled a grade on the top of one theme paper and plucked another from the pile that didn't seem to diminish over time. "Because if I don't get these Crime and Punishment themes graded by tomorrow, I can't get my quarter grades in early and I can't take off Friday. And if I can't take off Friday, Ned will be going to Myrtle Beach all by himself while my new bikini and I stay home." She looked up with a sideways grin. "And that's not gonna happen."

Friday. Jenna's brain kicked back into gear. It was a teacher in-service day where faculty prepared report cards and students got a day off. All in all, a really raw deal all the way around. "You still want to borrow my car for the trip?"

"Of course. Ned's salivating over it already."

Jenna winced. The thought of Ned driving Adam's car was not a pleasant one.

Casey's smile was wry. "Don't worry, Jenna. I'll drive." She frowned. "Unless you don't want me to take Adam's car. I know how attached you are to it."

Attached to a car of all things. It should be silly, a grown woman attached to a car. But Jenna remembered the raw fury she'd felt the night before when Rudy and his friends tampered with the gas tank. Of course she was attached. It had been Adam's. Still, it was just a car, she told herself. A grownup toy to be enjoyed. Life was too short after all.

"Don't be silly," she said and watched Casey's frown relax. 'Take the car and have fun. Besides, if you've got it, Rudy and his friends can't touch it, right? I need your truck this weekend anyway. I promised to take Steven's son Nicky to the park to teach his sheepdog how to sit."

Casey's frown snapped back into place. "You're going to entertain his son after last night?"

Jenna shrugged. What had Steven really done? When the steam cleared, what had he done? He'd kissed her and touched her and set her body on fire. Very nicely, she should add. Then he'd stopped. There really hadn't been a whole lot more to it than that. He'd made no promises, taken nothing she hadn't freely offered. Canceling on Nicky would be a hundred times worse because she had promised. "I made a promise to Nicky and that really has nothing to do with Steven."

She expected Casey to make some witty retort, but there was quiet at the table where Casey sat staring down at the theme paper she was grading, her pixie face troubled.

"What's wrong, Case?"

Casey glanced up, then back down at the paper. "This is the first unique theme I've read."

Jenna lifted her brows. "And that's a problem… why?"

Casey bit at her lip. "Because this student seems to identify with the story's main character a little too much."

Jenna rewound her brain. She'd been forced to read Crime and Punishment in high school, too.

"Wait a minute. Didn't the main character in Crime and Punishment kill an old woman?"

Casey nodded, still staring down at the theme with a troubled frown. "Because she annoyed him and because he wanted to know what it felt like to take another life."

Now frowning herself, Jenna walked over to where Casey sat. "Which kid is this?"

"Dr. Marshall?" Officer Pullman asked from the doorway and both Jenna and Casey whipped their heads around to see him.

"What did you find?" Jenna asked.

Pullman pulled a chair from the table. "Sit down, Dr. Marshall."

Her nerves jangled. "I'd really rather stand if you don't mind."

"Listen to the nice man with the shiny badge, Jen," Casey commanded sharply. "Sit your ass down in the chair." Casey looked over at Pullman with a sour grimace. "She's been driving me nuts with the pacing ever since you arrived."

Pullman's lips twitched as Jenna flopped into the chair he provided. He took the chair next to her and brought out his little notepad. "Well, the animal hanging from your ceiling was a possum at one time. It was most likely a roadkill somebody picked up from the side of the road this morning."

Relief shot through her. At least no one had purposely tortured the poor animal. "Did you find any evidence of who did this?"

Pullman shook his head, much as Jenna had expected him to. "Looks like whoever did this wore gloves. But it also looks like this isn't the only trouble you've had since your tires got slashed. I couldn't help but notice the artwork on your walls. I take it the QB hasn't brought up his grade?"

Jenna scowled. "The QB is waiting for me to fold."

"The QB will be waiting a good long time," Casey added darkly.

Pullman flipped his notepad closed. "Well, we dusted for prints, but I doubt we'll get anything concrete. You've just got too many people going in and out of your classroom." He stood up and looked down. "I'll tell you the same thing that I told you Friday night. Watch your back."

Wednesday, October 5, 3:45 P.M.

Harry threw his notebook on the conference-room table and dropped into the chair directly across from Steven's, disgust all over his face. Sandra took the chair next to Harry, looking tired.

"We've been checking perps with sex priors all day," Harry complained. "I need to bathe."

Sandra looked over at him with amused sympathy. Sex perps were her niche forte. One hell of a niche forte, Steven thought. Give him murderers any damn day of the week. "Don't worry, Harry," she said, "you'll develop a Teflon coating after a while. All the slime will just roll off."

Nancy rubbed her forehead with one hand while sliding her half-glasses off her nose with the other. "How long will that take? To develop the Teflon coating, I mean.''

Sandra shrugged. "Five or six years."

Steven watched them all from his own chair. "But how about the vics, Sandra? How long before you develop a Teflon coating so that they don't stick in your mind?"

Sandra's face sobered. "Never."

Steven sighed. "Me either." He looked around. "Has anyone seen Kent or Meg?"

"Meg said she had an appointment," Nancy said. "Haven't seen Kent since this morning."

"Here I am," said Kent, huffing a little bit. He plopped into a chair. "Sorry I'm late."

"Well, let's get started, folks. Thanks for coming back this afternoon. We've got news."

"From the McDonald's search this morning?" Sandra asked, leaning forward.

"I wish," Steven replied grimly. He placed a sheet of paper on the center of the table. "Look."

His team gathered around the paper he'd already had analyzed six ways to Tuesday. "No prints, no identifying marks," he told them. "Just rather general directions on where to find Samantha Eggleston. It was dropped off with the mail this afternoon. I got it an hour ago."

"In the mail?" Harry asked sharply.

Steven shook his head. "Nope, just with it. No utilization of the U.S. Postal Service."

"Good," said Harry.

"I agree," said Steven. If their killer had used the U.S. Postal Service or even a fax they would have found themselves tangled ass-deep in Feds. "It's a printed sheet-came off a standard laser jet printer, just like the one in our office."

"And hundreds of other offices," Sandra muttered.

" 'Find her before it's too late. If you can,'" Nancy read and looked up at Steven. "Too late for what, I wonder."

"I wondered the same thing," Steven said. "Either she's still alive, or-"

"Or she's dead and he wants us to find her before the animals do," Harry finished grimly.

"This is nowhere near the two other clearings," Sandra commented. "Is there a pattern? Like that nutcase who bombed mailboxes picking cities that made a happy face on the map?"

Steven winced. He hadn't considered that. He'd ask Meg if a map pattern like that matched the profile she'd created of their killer. "I marked them on the map. No pattern yet that I can see."

"But we only have three points," Harry said.

"Let's pray we don't have four," Steven returned. "I've sent some state uniforms over to secure the site and informed the local town sheriff. He's going to meet us there. He says the indicated area is huge, so we've got a long night ahead of us. Harry, I'd like you to come with me."

Harry sighed. "I'll grab some barf bags."

Steven almost smiled. "Sandra and Nancy, keep plugging away at the list of ballplayers."

"We've contacted ten of the players with priors so far," Sandra said. "They've all got alibis for Thursday night and the night Lorraine went missing."

"Keep going. When you've exhausted the list of priors, start in on the gentle folk." Steven looked over at Kent who hadn't taken his eyes from the note. "What, Kent?"

Kent glanced up, then reglued his eyes to the paper. "This, right here." He pointed to a small mark in the lower left corner of the page.

"I saw that," Steven said. "It's some kind of design. Why, does it mean something to you?"

Kent nodded and tilted his head to one side, taking in the design from a different angle. "This side of it, right here. This looks like it might match the tattoo on Lorraine Rush's scalp."

"The one that was mostly gone," Harry said thinly and Kent looked up with a nod.

"That's the one."

Steven got up and stood behind Kent, looking over the young man's shoulder. He squinted, trying to focus. "How can you tell, Kent? There wasn't a hell of a lot left of that tattoo."

"I had the ME take some photos and I had them blown up. Posted them above my desk and I've been looking at them every chance I get. I'm pretty sure, Steven. This is the mark." Kent turned in his chair so that he could meet Steven's eyes and once again Steven was impressed with the intelligence mixed with compassion he saw there. "And when you find Samantha's body-if you find it before it's scavenged-I'll bet you find this mark on her scalp, too."

Steven blew out a breath. "It'll be dark soon. Kent, come with me and Harry. If we find something I want you to be able to start on the scene before dark. Nancy, run that mark through your database. I want to know where it came from. Sandra, I guess you have enough perps to question so that if Nancy takes a break to run this design you won't be twiddling your thumbs."

"Unfortunately, I have plenty to do," Sandra said dryly and again Steven almost smiled.

"Then let's go, folks. Everyone be on call."

Everybody moved but Sandra who remained seated. As the room cleared, her face clouded and Steven felt his gut twist. Twist more, anyway. She had something to say she didn't want the rest of the team to know. Yet. Steven watched her look anywhere but at him. What Sandra had to say would be personal, then.

His mind went to Brad, God help him, and for the first time he admitted that whatever was troubling his son could be more than emotional. It could be illegal.

But not like this. He looked up to the bulletin board where he'd pinned the photo of Lorraine Rush's body. He refused to believe whatever was troubling Brad could be anything like this.

When it was just the two of them, Sandra picked up her notebook and moved to the seat right next to him. "You want it sugar-coated or straight?" she asked.

"Just spit it out, Sandra," he said, his voice coming out harsher than he intended.

"Okay. When I looked at all the games that were played in the week before the disappearance and crossed it with people who had access to both victims one possibility popped up."

Steven swallowed. Brad didn't know either girl. Did he? Steven realized he hadn't even asked himself the question. But why would he? he asked himself defensively. "Who?"

Sandra sighed. "Father Mike Leone."

Shocked, Steven could only stare. "No."

Sandra shrugged. "I'm sorry, Steven, but it lines up. Both girls were part of his parish. And there'd been some kind of church league tag football game the weekend before. I asked Anna Eggleston if Samantha was involved and she said that Samantha didn't normally go to those games, but that last weekend she did because it was a special game. Father Leone was there."

The twisting in Steven's gut became full nausea. "He was there. He didn't play a good game."

Sandra looked as ripped up as he felt. "It was one of those special games, Steven. Old versus young. The priests and church faculty played the church's teen team. Father Leone played. And I understand from a few other teens who were there that he did play a pretty good game."

Steven looked away, not sure how to manage this latest stress. "Does Harry know you were looking at Father Leone?"

Sandra shook her head. "No. I thought you should know first. I asked everyone so that no one would know what I was really asking. If he's innocent-"

"You could ruin one of the best men that ever lived," Steven finished bitterly.

Sandra laid her hand on his arm. "I know, Steven," she said quietly. "But if he's guilty…"

"He's not," Steven insisted. "I know this man. He's simply not capable."

"But you'll let me investigate, won't you?" Sandra asked, just as quietly.

Steven fixed his eyes on the photos of Lorraine Rush. Before, beautiful and vibrant. After… Someone had done this to her, had robbed a vibrant girl of her very life. Violently. It wasn't Mike. Steven knew it deep down. But he also knew he had a responsibility to Lorraine and Samantha and their families. And crazy as it sounded, Mike would agree.

"Yes," he whispered, then cleared his throat. "Don't do anything without coming to me first."

Wednesday, October 5, 5:30 P.M.

Helen set the casserole dish on the table. Tuna casserole. One of the boys' favorites and one of the easiest things to make. She hated it worse than liver, but two outa three wasn't bad.

"Boys!" she yelled up the stairs. "Dinner!"

Footsteps pounded on the stairs and Matt appeared and plopped in his chair.

"I'm starving, Aunt Bea."

"You're always starving, Matthew. That's hardly earth-shattering news." She turned toward the open doorway. "Brad! Nicholas!"

"I'm here," Nicky said and slid into his chair. "Y' don't hafta yell."

"Sorry," Helen said, appropriately chastised. "Where's Brad?"

"Probably sulking in his room," Matt said cheerfully. "He's grounded for life, after all."

Helen frowned at him. "Your brother is not grounded for life. It's only for a week."

"Might as well be for life," Matt said, shoveling casserole on his plate.

"And you would know," Helen said dryly. "You, who have experienced the joys and woes of grounding for many weeks of your own life."

"Yep," Matt said, just as cheerfully, digging into his plate with a fork. "But not this week. I'm golden," he added, his mouth full.

"Put down the fork and go tell your brother it's time for dinner."

"Golly gee whiz, Aunt Bea," Matt whined and Helen lost control of her mouth and smiled.

"Go," she said, popping him on the head with her oven mitt. "Now."

Muttering, Matt complied and Helen turned to Nicky. "Well, how was your day, Nicky?"

Nicky shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

"Anything special happen?"

"No, ma'am." He looked up and brightened and Helen felt a tug at her heart. "This weekend Jenna said she'd take me and Cindy Lou to the park to teach her to sit."

"I remember," said Helen and told herself to call Jenna and remind her of her promise. There was no way she'd let Nicky become disappointed if she could help it. "Where are your brothers?" she demanded, craning her neck to see around the corner.

She heard footsteps on the stairs, heavier this time, and Matt reappeared, his freckles standing out against his pale face. "I found this on Brad's bed," he said, quietly holding out a note.

Helen scanned it and felt her heart stop. "Oh, Lord God. Your brother's run away."

Chapter Seventeen

Wednesday, October 5, 6:00 P.M.

It got dark too damn early. Well, technically it got dark the same time as it had the night before, Steven thought, but the night before they hadn't mobilized twenty cops, forty-odd volunteers, and a canine cadaver unit to search for what in all likelihood was a very dead teenaged girl.

"There's two hundred acres of wooded land inside the circle you drew," said the local sheriff, a big burly man named Rogers. Rogers tapped the map they'd laid out across the hood of Steven's car. "It'll take us three days to cover that much ground, even with the dogs. You sure you boys can't narrow the field a little bit?"

"We could call the killer and say pretty please, can you give us better directions," Harry said sarcastically. Sheriff Rogers glared and opened his mouth to say something uplifting, no doubt.

"Harry," Steven cautioned.

Harry made a face. "I'm sorry. I interviewed sex perverts all day and I'm no company for decent people."

Sheriff Rogers relaxed. "Who said I was decent people?" he asked kindly. "It would help if you boys could get a chopper in here. You could see the clearings, assumin' that's where he's put her."

"That's where he put the last one, and where he probably intended to put this one last Friday," Harry said. "Except he was interrupted by the old man's dog." He looked over at Kent who was staring at the map. "How is the dog, by the way?"

Kent looked up and pushed his glasses up his nose. "He'll pull through."

"You've been keeping tabs on the dog?" Steven asked, surprised.

"He's been keeping tabs on the lady vet that sewed up the dog," Harry corrected with a smirk and Steven watched Kent's cheeks redden. "Cute little thing, she is," Harry added with a sly wink and Kent's cheeks went even darker.

"Back off, Harry," Steven said mildly, although the tone of his voice belied the turbulence inside him. Harry's careless comment sent his brain flying to the mental picture of Jenna he couldn't erase from his mind. Was she okay? He'd planned to call her this evening, to see if he could stop by and discuss the night before… Heat spread through him despite the chill in the air. Just as heat had spread through him each time he thought her name. This was ridiculous.

So why couldn't he make it stop and concentrate? On his job? On Brad? On anything other than the kaleidoscope of emotions she made him feel? From undeniable want to a guilt that gnawed at him every time he remembered the hurt look on her face when he walked away last night.

He had to fix that. Make her bewildered hurt look go away. His mind flashed to the belligerent contempt he'd seen in Brad's eyes this morning. He had to make that go away, too.

Dammit, he had to fix something in his life.

He forced himself to focus on the map spread out on the hood of his car. Rogers was indeed correct. There was no way they'd search the entire area on foot in anything less than three days. "I'll call in a chopper at first light tomorrow morning," Steven said. "For now"-he pointed at the lower left corner of the circle on the map-"we keep searching here. Everybody's got flashlights. I've got a spotlight in my trunk, so when we find her, we can light up the area. We can at least keep the animals away until morning." He set his jaw. "If she's here, we need to find her."

"Before every wild animal in the forest does," Kent said.

Harry grimaced. "I-"

Steven's cell phone jangled and he pulled it from his pocket and checked the caller ID, motioning Harry toward the woods at the same time. "Check on those volunteers, Harry. I don't want them trampling anything important." He put the phone to his ear. "Hey, Helen. This really isn't a good time. Can I call you back later?"

"No, Steven," Helen said, her voice shaking. "This is important."

Dread had him standing straighten "What? What's happened?"

"Brad's run away."

Steven sagged back against his car. "How do you know?"

"He left a note."

Like mother, like son. Another goddamned note. "Did he say where he was going?"

"No, no he didn't." Her voice wobbled and he knew she was crying. "Steven, I need you here."

He looked around and made a decision. Harry was ready for an increase in responsibility. And even if Harry wasn't, he'd have to become ready pretty damn quick. "I'll be home in half an hour."

Wednesday, October 5, 6:30 P.M.

Wednesday was meat loaf night at the Llewellyn house. Allison's meat loaf recipe had belonged to her mother. The dear, departed Mrs. Llewellyn must have been a god-awful cook too.

Jenna looked down at the generous helping of meat loaf topped with ketchup and felt her stomach roll. It looked a little too much like… dead possum readkill. She swallowed hard and heard a snicker to her right.

Charlie nudged her. "Possum pie," she whispered with a grin.

Jenna swallowed again and frowned. "How do you know about that?"

"I heard about it from kids at school." She lifted a shoulder philosophically. "You know how gossip is. It was all the talk in the cafeteria." She grinned again, wider this time, the light from the chandelier glinting off her braces. "Especially since today the cafeteria ladies made goulash."

Jenna grimaced and pushed her plate away. "That's it. I'm done."

Allison frowned from across the table. "You haven't even started yet."

"I'm sorry, Allison. I just don't have a lot of appetite today." Jenna nudged Charlie less than gently when the little girl snickered again. "Shut up, Charlie," she gritted through clenched teeth.

Allison looked from Jenna to her daughter suspiciously, then set into her own meat loaf with fervor. "I suppose that's understandable, under the circumstances."

Jenna looked at Charlie who shook her head and shrugged. "What circumstances?"

"Well, Saturday, of course," said Allison impatiently, then true horror flooded her face when Jenna made no show of understanding. "You've forgotten about Adam? Jenna, how could you?"

Saturday. October eighth. The day of Adam's "passing." Jenna closed her eyes as guilt layered over all the other emotions churning in her gut. How could she, indeed'' But somehow between the revulsion at the gift left swinging from her ceiling, frustration at all the antics of Rudy and his friends and Blackman's unwillingness to stop them, combined with a healthy shot of sexual frustration over Steven… she'd forgotten.

She heard the sound of Allison's fork clattering against her plate.

"I think it's just disgraceful," Allison said, anger tightening her voice.

"Allie," Seth started, but Allison cut him off.

"Disgraceful, Dad," Allison repeated with disgust. "Let-ting that man… that policeman she's only known a week- not even a week! Coming to her apartment, staying until midnight last night. She's let him make her forget about the man she was supposed to marry! I call that disgraceful."

Jenna's eyes flew open and immediately fixed on Seth's face. He looked very guilty.

"Mrs. Kasselbaum," Jenna said darkly. She could see the chain of events clearly now and it pissed her off. Temper flared and she was just too damn tired to clamp a lid on it.

"You know what a gossip she is," Seth said weakly.

"I know what a gossip you are," Jenna shot back, anger making her tongue loose, not caring when he flinched and hurt filled his eyes. She turned to Allison, fury making her body tremble. "And, Allison, even though it is absolutely none of your business, I made the man dinner last night."

Allison's lips thinned in disapproval. "At midnight?"

Jenna lurched to her feet, her palms narrowly missing her plate of meat loaf as she slapped them down on the table. "Yes, at midnight. As you so noted, he is a policeman. He got called to a case, so I made him dinner later so he wouldn't go hungry. Although if we'd screwed like weasels on Mrs. Kas-selbaum's welcome mat it wouldn't have been any of your damn business."

Allison's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Charlie's eyes widened. Garrett looked like he'd swallowed his fork.

"Jenna," Seth started and Jenna held up her hand to stop him.

"I'm not finished. You say you want me to get on with my life. But the first chance I get, I'm disgraceful," she sputtered, then pointed her finger at Seth. "I am tired of your gossip and meddling." She turned her finger to Allison. "I am tired of your bossiness." She felt a sob building in her chest and fruitlessly battled it. "And I am tired of your damn Wednesday meat loaf." Leaving the table in stunned silence, she rushed out, managing to grab her purse as she barreled through the front door and down the steep driveway. She held off the tears until she got to Adam's car.

No, not Adam's car. Adam was dead. D-e-a-d, dead. Two years ago this Saturday. This was not Adam's car. This is my car. "My car," she gritted aloud. My car. My life. Her hands shook as she tried to put the key in the lock and the sob broke free. She leaned her forehead against the car and felt the waves of emotion crash in her head and the tears come. And come. And come.

My life. My totally out of control life.

A hand gently pulled the key from her fist and turned her body into his. Jenna felt Seth's arms wrap around her shoulders and his head pushing her cheek into his shoulder. And she cried.

Seth held her as she cried, rocking her, stroking her hair as her own father would have done. She cried over Adam, over the boys at school, over Steven. She even cried over the stupid meat loaf. And when her tears were spent, Seth held her a little longer, still stroking her hair.

"I understand you've had a rather taxing week, young lady," he said gently and she nodded, her cheek still pressed to his shoulder.

"My life sucks," she moaned and he chuckled. For some reason that made her feel better.

"You know, you've made me work pretty hard this week," he said and she pulled back to look at him. He pulled a cotton hankie from his pocket and she took it, mopping her wet face.

She sniffled. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, you told me about the tires and your ankle. But the rest I had to find out from Mrs. Kasselbaum and-" He closed his mouth. "And others," he added.

Her eyes narrowed. "What others?" she asked suspiciously.

His white brows lifted. "1 don't disclose my sources," he said loftily, then he sobered. "Why didn't you tell us about the problems at school, Jenna?" he asked. "The vandalism to your classroom. The water in your gas tank. The possum. We're your family. Why didn't you tell us?"

Jenna dropped her eyes. "I didn't want to worry you."

"So instead you keep it all in until you explode all over Allison's meat loaf?" he asked, a smile in his voice, and her lips quivered.

"That was bad of me," she admitted. "You are a meddling gossip and Allison is bossy, but I shouldn't have let it come out like that. I'm sorry, Dad."

"Accepted." Then he grinned. "But I didn't hear an apology about the meat loaf."

"I couldn't pull that one off with a straight face," Jenna returned, her own grin wobbly.

"Come on back, Jenna. You have a family that's worried about you." He lifted her chin so that she looked up the driveway to where Allison, Garrett, and Charlie stood watching intently.

So she climbed the driveway to the people that cared about her. They were her family. Despite their eccentricities and terrible food.

"I'm sorry, Jenna," said Allison and Jenna felt tears well again. Allison had been crying, too.

"I'm sorry I called you bossy," Jenna said and hugged Allison tightly.

"What about the meat loaf?" Charlie asked and Jenna hic-cuped a laugh.

"Shut up, Charlotte Anne," Jenna and Allison said in unison, then they both laughed and Jenna felt true peace for the first time in days.

And then, of course, the phone rang. Garrett answered it, his expression puzzled. "Yes, she's here." He cupped the phone. "Jenna, it's for you. It's a Father Leone and he says it's urgent."

The peace fizzled abruptly as she listened to Father Mike ask her to meet him at his parish.

Wednesday, October 5, 7:30 P.M.

"Where are we going?" Jenna asked after she'd strapped herself into Father Mike's car.

"Out past Shotwell Crossing," he answered, turning out of the rectory driveway. "We should just beat Steven and Brad there."

"So let me get this straight," Jenna said, holding up her hand. "Brad runs away." She ticked off one finger. "So Helen calls Steven who, thankfully, agrees to leave his job and come home." She ticked off another finger.

"So you've noticed Steven's propensity to work," Father Mike said, looking straight ahead.

"I've noticed Steven hides from his kids. I don't know why." Jenna studied Father Mike's profile. His perfect poker face. "And you're not going to tell me, are you? Even though you know."

"No."

Jenna sighed. "Okay, fine. So moving right along, Steven starts for home, but on his way Helen calls him back and tells him Brad's grandmother on his mother's side has called and Brad is there." She ticked off a third finger.

"Right so far."

"So Steven gets mad, surprise, surprise, and decides he'll go get Brad and teach him a lesson by, of all things, making him volunteer in the search for this missing teenager." She ticked off a fourth finger and frowned. "What is the man thinking?"

"That Brad needs to grow up and stop throwing childish tantrums," Father Mike responded.

"Hell of a way to grow up," Jenna said, then bit her tongue. "Sorry, Father. I just don't believe searching for a girl who's likely a corpse is the best way to effect maturity."

"And on that we agree," Father Mike said, maneuvering his car onto the highway.

"So wrapping things up"-she ticked off her thumb- "Helen gets upset and calls you. She tries to call me, thinking I have some magic wand I can wave to make Steven behave, and though I'm not home somehow she manages to figure out where I am. I still want to know how she tracked me down. And what possessed her to believe he'll listen to a blessed thing I have to say."

"He, Steven, or he, Brad?"

"Either. Both."

Father Mike glanced over. "Did you learn more than counting when you got your Ph.D.?"

Jenna smiled. "They taught me lots of stuff, but frankly, none of it of any great use lately."

"Your parents must be proud."

Jenna raised a brow. "If that's your way of inquiring into my past, you don't have to be so clever. I'll tell you what you want to know if you tell me how Helen tracked me down."

Father Mike grinned. "Fair enough. Where did you grow up?"

"Maryland suburbs outside D.C. Lower middle class. My dad worked for the government."

"Doing what?"

"Don't know."

Father Mike looked over in surprise. "What do you mean, you don't know?"

"I mean I don't know. Dad worked for the Department of Defense. He took an oath of silence or something. I know what building he worked in, but that was all."

"That must have made for an interesting childhood."

Jenna pursed her lips. "You could say that."

"So what about your mother?"

Jenna carefully considered her response. The man was a priest after all. "She didn't take an oath of silence." she finally answered.

"Hmm, I see," Father Mike said. "A tad dominant? Demanding?"

"A tad," Jenna said dryly.

"Made you an overachiever?"

Jenna didn't have to think back. She could hear her mother's voice in her mind as clearly as Father Mike's. Demanding straight A's, saying her classes were too easy when she brought home perfect report cards. Critical. Always critical. "I was the valedictorian in high school, graduated top two percent from Duke, magna cum laude from Maryland, and with honors from UNC."

"And your mama never said she was proud of you."

Jenna was annoyed to feel a lump in her throat. She didn't like to think about her mother, much less feel wistful that she'd never gained her mother's approval. "No."

"And you were your daddy's girl?"

"Down to my Mary Janes."

"Which you could see your face in."

Jenna smiled ruefully. "If she weren't dearly deceased, I'd swear you'd met my mother."

"I've met enough mothers like her. And fathers too. Any brothers or sisters?"

"None that I know of," Jenna replied cheerfully. "Just little old me."

"Little old you that goes on to get a bunch of degrees, then goes to work teaching high school kids." He looked thoughtful. "I have to admit I haven't figured that one out yet."

Jenna shrugged. "No secret. I met a man in the doctoral program at UNC. Fell in love, got engaged. The two of us went to work doing pharmaceutical research. Then he got sick and died. I'd taken leave to care for him, but afterward, I didn't want to go back to research. It reminded me too much of him. My best friend is an English teacher at Roosevelt High and knew they needed another science teacher. Presto, chango, and voila! I am now a science teacher."

"Who flunks quarterbacks."

Jenna's lips thinned. "Yep, that's me."

"And reaches out to bright kids that flunk chemistry."

Jenna softened. "Yep, that's me, too."

"Well, I'd say that was the reason Helen thought Brad would listen to you. I think you know why she thought Steven would listen to you."

Jenna thought of Steven's face as he walked away the night before, so angry. And only God knew why. Her eyes narrowed. Or maybe Steven's priest. "Shows how much you know," she muttered. "Exactly how much do you know?"

"Nothing," Father Mike replied. But she saw his jaw tighten.

"That's what I thought," Jenna said, then shrugged. "So how did Helen track me down?"

"You'd be much easier to find if you had a cell phone," Father Mike replied.

"No welching, Father. I kept my end of the bargain. How did she track me down?"

"Ready to count on your fingers again?" he asked with a grin. "Okay. Matt's best friend on his soccer team has a big brother at Roosevelt who has… noticed you. From afar of course."

Jenna felt her cheeks heat. She was aware of the stares of the adolescent boys, which was one of the reasons she always wore business suits-to be as unsexy as possible. That didn't extend to her underwear, though, which was the only place she could be truly feminine. Which nobody knew about. Except Steven. She cleared her throat. "Of course."

"Matt's friend's big brother told Helen your best friend was Miss Ryan, the English teacher."

"But Casey's unlisted."

"This is true. But enter Steven's trusty assistant Nancy, add one simple search of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and presto, chango, voila! Miss Ryan tells us you routinely have Wednesday meat loaf with your former fiance's family, who, incidentally, she finds 'totally weird.'" He punctuated the air. "Her words, not mine."

"It's a fair cop," Jenna said. "Except I didn't have meat loaf tonight."

"What did you have?"

"Nothing." To her surprise her stomach growled. "And I'm starving.'"

"Well, we're coming up to our exit and they have one of every fast-food joint there is. What's your pleasure, Dr. Marshall?"

The answer was simple. "Anything that doesn't look like possum roadkill."

Father Mike choked on a laugh. "I don't want to know. Truly do not want to know. You do realize that you've just eliminated nine out of ten of the fast-food places on the pike."

Jenna looked at the upcoming throng of neon arches and crowns. "At this point I'd be satisfied with loaves and fishes."

Father Mike grinned. "I like you, Jenna. I have no idea what you see in Steven, but I know what he sees in you.

There's a fish place about a mile from here that looks like a dump but has good fish and buttermilk biscuits to go." "Then lead the way, good Father. My treat."

Wednesday, October 5, 8:00 P.M.

If looks could kill, they'd both be dead, Steven thought grimly, pulling the Volvo alongside Harry's Toyota. Brad sat sullenly staring ahead.

"Unbuckle and get out," Steven said, jerking at his own seat belt.

"Or what?" Brad asked, his voice sharp as a knife. "Or you'll lock me up?"

Steven twisted in his seat to study Brad's profile. The profile of a total stranger. "Do I have to? Do I have to lock you up to keep you from running away again?"

Brad turned to look at him, defiance in his eyes. "I'll be eighteen in four months."

Steven clenched his teeth. "I know when your birthday is, Brad."

Brad looked away. "Yeah, I guess you do," he muttered.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Steven asked sharply.

Once again his son met his eyes and this time Steven saw contempt mixed with the defiance. "Just that you should know my birthday. It's nine months to the day of your senior prom."

Steven felt the blood drain from his face. "Your mother and I never made any secret of the… circumstances of your… conception. You were free to figure it out from the day you learned how to add and subtract."

Brad's smile twisted. "The circumstances of my concep-tion. I like that. Very good, Dad." He looked out the window. "You are such a damn hypocrite."

"Don't take that tone with me, Brad." Steven drew a breath and counted to ten. In Latin. Backward. "I don't know what your problem has been this last month or who the hell you think you are, but I have news for you, son. I am your father. And I will continue to be your father in the four months until you reach the sacred age of eighteen. And I demand respect for no other reason than I am your father."

"Yeah, you brought me into this world, you can take me out," Brad said bitterly.

"I have never, never said that to you," Steven gritted. "In your seventeen years I have never, never laid a hand on you. Although at this moment, the idea holds considerable appeal.'" He reached over Brad, pulled the door handle, and pushed the door open, letting in the cool night air. "Now get your defiant ass out of this car or I may give in to my desire to whip the shit out of you."

"Why, so I can participate in the family business?" Brad asked with a sneer and Steven saw red.

"No, son. I don't need your help. I don't even want your help. What I do want is for you to take a look over there." Steven pointed at twenty bobbing lights in the distance. "Do you know what those volunteers are doing?"

"Looking for a body."

"Dammit, Brad, no. They are not looking for just a body. They are looking for a human person. They are giving of themselves. And that's something I haven't seen you do in weeks. Do you know who they're looking for? Do you even care?"

Brad's defiance faltered and Steven watched his son swallow hard. "A sixteen-year-old girl."

"Yes. A girl whose parents loved her. Who for some reason nobody may ever know left the safety of her bed in the mid-die of the night to find something. Excitement maybe. Who knows? Instead, we're looking for her with cadaver dogs, Brad. Do you know what that means?"

Brad swallowed again. "That she's probably dead."

Steven nodded, his heart in his throat. "So you get the Kewpie doll. I am sick and tired of watching you mope around. I am sick and tired of you not bathing or shaving or studying, but most of all I'm sick and tired of what you've done to our family."

Brad's jaw clenched. "What I've done to our family?" he asked softly, then laughed and the sound sent chills down Steven's spine. "You have one hell of a lot of nerve, Dad." He got out of the car. "I'll help those men search, because I want to. Not because I give a damn about you."

Clutching at the steering wheel, Steven watched his oldest son walk away, tall and slender. In every physical way totally the same as he'd been two months ago. In every other way, a total stranger. Brad reported to Sheriff Rogers who, after glancing over at Steven for an okay, handed him a flashlight and walkie-talkie and pointed him to the woods.

Steven closed his eyes and shuddered out a breath. Then breathed in again and knew he was hallucinating. Her perfume. As real as if she was sitting next to him.

"Steven."

His eyes flew open. She was sitting next to him. Dressed in a conservative suit with her hair down around her shoulders. Instantly he remembered the last time he'd seen her, not twenty-four hours before. The heat, the greed that hadn't yet subsided. It had been embers all day, embers that now fanned into a full-fledged flame. His body responded. Of course. His hands clenched the steering wheel harder to keep from grabbing her where she sat.

"What are you doing here?" he asked slowly, carefully.

She blinked those violet eyes, moistened her full red lips, tucked a stray lock of black hair behind her ear. "To be honest, I'm not really sure. But your aunt and your priest believe I have some influence over your logic, which at the moment seems very flawed."

His aunt. He should have known.

His priest. Who Sandra was investigating at this very moment for possible murder.

God, his life really, truly sucked.

He shifted, stretching out his arm along the top of the steering wheel so he could see her face. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said, the smoothness of his voice at odds with the temper he felt simmering inside, "but I have every confidence you will fill me in."

Jenna sighed. "Steven, when did you see your first dead body. On the job, that is?"

It was his turn to blink. It was not the question he'd expected. "My second day. It was a suicide. Guy ate his gun."

She winced. "And you still can see the picture in your mind," she said softly.

He could, as clearly as if it were before him at that moment. He could see it and smell it and taste it. Death. The terrible sight, stench, taste of death. He'd woken in a cold sweat for weeks.

"How you discipline your son is nobody's business but your own," she said and gingerly laid her fingertips on his arm. His muscles clenched and quivered at her touch. "But what would happen if Brad actually stumbles on that young girl's body? The first girl was stabbed, wasn't she?"

Steven nodded, the idiocy of his actions closing in. "Viciously."

Jenna swallowed hard. "Do you expect to find this girl stabbed as well?"

"Yes."

"Then is that an image you want in your son's mind for the rest of his life?"

Steven looked away. Dammit, she was right. He'd been totally wrong. He hated to be wrong.

"I'll go now," she murmured. "Should I take Brad with me?"

He jerked a nod and watched as she gracefully slipped from the seat and nodded to Mike, who'd been standing in the shadows. She hesitated, then leaned into the opening of the door. The dome lamp threw her face into shadow, but even in the muted light he could see the concern in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Steven."

Once he'd welcomed her concern, but tonight it was a bitter pill.

"Just go," he said, his voice raspy. "Please, just leave me alone."

When she was gone, when she'd climbed into the car with Mike and Brad, he pulled himself out of the Volvo and approached Harry who'd been silently watching the entire exchange. "Well," Steven asked, silently daring Harry to say anything remotely funny or personal, "where are we?"

Harry looked subdued. "Same place as before. Nothing. We did chase away a reporter."

Steven's hackles went up. "Big guy? Dark hair, late thirties, denim jacket, teal Dodge Neon?"

Harry's eyes widened. "That's him."

"I don't suppose you got his license number."

"Actually, I did." Harry rattled it off. "I'll have Nancy run a check. Who is he?"

"I don't know," Steven said. "But I have a feeling that sooner or later I'm going to find out."

Chapter Eighteen

Thursday, October 6, 1:30 AM.

It was getting cold. He hated that about winters here. Too damn cold. He jacked up the heat in his car. His clock said it was one-thirty. She should be here any minute. Little miss rah-rah.

Her name was Alev Rahrooh. She was Indian, from India. He normally liked white girls, but he'd been attracted by all that long, dark hair. It would look good in his collection. Besides, she was the only one available tonight. Available and willing to sneak out of her house and meet him.

Here. He looked across the street at the golden arches gleaming in the night. Thatcher hadn't found anything behind the McDonald's, just like he'd known. He'd been careful. He'd been smart.

So here he sat not a hundred feet from where he'd nabbed pretty Samantha. If Thatcher ever figured it out he'd be kicking himself. Right under his fucking nose.

His pulse jumped at the shadow approaching. Oh, goodie. Here she came. Alev walked. No bike. That was good. Meant he didn't have to dispose of the bike afterward. He smoothed back his hair and pulled his collar up around his face, then leaned over and opened the door.

"Hi," he said. "Hop on in."

She slid in and pulled the door shut behind her. "I can't stay long," she said. Shyly. How cute. "My mom and dad can't know I'm gone."

They might have a cow, he thought, then laughed inside his head at his own joke. Hindus. Cow. Good one. Outwardly, though, he was silent. Waiting, saying nothing, just waiting for the moment she'd figure it out. That was one of the best parts. When they figured it out. And then, of course, it was way too late.

Alev was a lot slower on the draw than Sammie had been. Finally she peered closer into the darkness on his side of the car. "What-?"

Bingo! Her eyes grew wide and he could easily see the whites of her eyes against the darkness of her skin. "No! You're not-" He had to hand it to her. She tried to struggle. Actually tried to scratch his face with her fingernails, but pretty little Alev was no match for his strength. He grabbed her wrists in one hand and with the other covered her nose and mouth with the surgical mask he'd prepared with such care.

She continued to struggle, her head pitching back and forth, trying to escape the mask. He simply pressed harder against her face, patiently waiting until she drew a desperate breath.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…

Then she crumpled, gasping. Then she was still.

He pulled the surgical mask away and carefully folded it to keep the powder she hadn't inhaled from going all over his car seat. Wouldn't want to make a mess, after all.

He drove away. The night was still very, very young. He patted Alev's cheek. So was she.

Thursday, October 6, 5:45 A.M.

Sheriff Rogers put a large brown bag and a thermos on the hood of Steven's car. "My wife made nut bread," he said. "And coffee. Help yourself."

Steven looked at the burly man with as much of a smile as he could muster on the fifteen minutes' sleep he'd had the night before. "Thanks, Sheriff," he said. "It smells great."

Rogers settled himself against the car and looked toward the horizon where the sun would start peeking up sometime in the next fifteen minutes. "Your boy get home all right last night?"

Steven felt his face heat and busied himself by pouring coffee into one of the foam cups provided by the thoughtful Mrs. Rogers. "Yeah. Thanks."

"I got a kid that age," Rogers said, still studying the horizon intently. "Pain in the ass."

"I know the feeling," Steven returned dryly.

"Wife keeps tellin' me he'll come around." Rogers's tone said he was clearly unconvinced.

"Women are optimistic souls," Steven said.

Rogers glanced over at him with a grimace. "Good thing they make good nut bread."

Steven's mouth quirked up. "How long have the two of you been married?"

"Twenty-five years next summer. And yourself?"

Steven took a large gulp of coffee, wincing as it scalded his throat. "I'm not married."

Rogers's brows went up in surprise. "Then who-" He looked away. "Sorry, not my business."

It really wasn't, but for some reason Steven didn't seem to mind. "It's okay. Truth is, I'm really not sure myself."

Rogers looked as if he were digesting this information along with his nut bread. "She seemed like a nice woman."

Steven took another gulp of coffee, this time knowing full well how much it would burn on its way down. Maybe it was a form of self-punishment, Mike's hair shirt and flogging strap, as it were. "Yes, she is. She really is."

Rogers chewed his nut bread contemplatively. "Nice women who look that good in Wall Street business suits don't come along every day."

Sheriff Rogers appeared to be a master of understatement. "No, I don't suppose they do."

Rogers pushed himself away from the car, brushing the crumbs off his broad barrel chest. "My boys should be gettin' here any minute, now. I'll get the radios ready."

"Thanks, Sheriff," Steven murmured, looking up at the still-dark sky where the chopper would appear to take aerial photos as soon as day broke so that they could get on with their search for Samantha Eggleston. Trying to wipe from his mind the picture of Jenna's concerned face, her Wall Street business suit, and the sound of her voice whispering, "Have courage." Knowing he'd ultimately be unsuccessful. Jenna Marshall was in his mind to stay.

And his heart? She'd insinuated herself there, too. Down deep he knew it was true. What other woman would care enough to intercede on his behalf with Brad after being treated so callously? He'd left her Tuesday night without a word. And still she cared. Steven blew out a sigh.

So did he.

Thursday, October 6, 6:15 A.M.

Neil readjusted his body to fit inside the tiny Dodge Neon.

What had he been thinking, renting a soup can this small? He'd been trying to stretch his budget, that's what he'd been thinking. His salary had been sufficient when pooled with Tracey's. But without Tracey's salary and with the alimony… He shook his head and blindly reached for the cup of coffee that was growing cold in the cup holder. That alimony was a real kicker.

But, just like every time he thought of his ex-wife, he couldn't seem to dredge up any emotion other than regret. No malice, no hatred. She was a nice woman who just couldn't seem to deal with the fact her husband was a jerk obsessed with a mistake that had cost four young girls and their families justice. She couldn't deal with his sleeplessness, the dreams when he did manage to sleep. She couldn't deal with the fact that the man she'd married was changing before her very eyes.

So she left. It was really very simple. He couldn't say he blamed her. He couldn't say he even really missed her and he supposed that's why he felt no hatred or rage. Just regret.

Barrow never understood that. A loyal friend, Barrow usually had a few choice things to say about Tracey's lack of loyalty, but Neil could never find it in himself to agree. Then Barrow would make that harrumping noise of his and say, "Well, at least you two didn't have any kids."

Neil would always say, "Yeah, you're right." And he believed that. He'd make a lousy father with the hours and the "Parker obsession" as Tracey called it. So it was good he didn't have kids. He'd never really regretted that part. Not really.

Well, maybe sometimes. He would have enjoyed watching his kid play baseball. Or soccer. His mind went back to Monday night, to the look on Thatcher's face when his son made that goal. Thatcher was a good dad. Made his kids' soccer games. Cheered from the sidelines.

But it distracted Thatcher from his job. Neil thought about last night, when from his hiding spot in the trees he'd watched Thatcher leave the search area to get his kid, watched him hand the kid over to the woman with the long black hair. A different kid. Another distraction. He thought about the articles he'd read about the abduction of Thatcher's little boy and wondered if Thatcher worried it would happen again. Neil knew he couldn't live that way, always worrying if his kids were at risk. That would be the biggest distraction of all. So it was good he and Tracey hadn't had any kids. Thatcher would probably be a better cop if he didn't have any either.

A light came on in the Parkers' upstairs window. That would be Mrs. Parker's bedroom. Running true to style, she had her own room, just like she'd had in Seattle. He wondered if Mr. Parker was also running true to style. Back in Seattle, Parker kept a mistress in a posh apartment around the corner from his downtown office building. Convenient for the sono-fabitch.

Another light came on, then another as the household roused itself for the day.

Neil shifted in the tiny little seat and prepared to wait. He'd wait until William emerged, then follow him again. Sooner or later William would choose his next victim. He'd have to leave his house to meet her. And Neil would be ready.

At that point, he'd call Thatcher and give him the damn road map showing him where to find his killer. There'd be an arrest and news media and fanfare. Thatcher might even get a promotion.

Neil smiled without feeling an ounce of mirth. Who knew? Maybe that's how he got the last one. Maybe they'd promote Thatcher to a desk job where he could go home to his kids and the woman with the long black hair every night at five.

And leave the real investigating to the guys who weren't so distracted.

Neil sipped at the coffee, now stone-cold. Although, he thought, watching the Parkers' downstairs lights come on one at a time, he wouldn't mind the distraction of Thatcher's woman. He frowned. With his binoculars he'd seen her face. She had a classic beauty, haunting somehow. For a moment he'd been simply mesmerized. And when he'd closed his eyes that night in the privacy of his hotel room, it was her face he'd seen. It had been a relief, a comfort, for it was the first time in a very long time he'd dreamed of someone other than the teenaged girls William Parker had robbed of life. Instead he'd dreamed of her, of Thatcher's woman. He could still see her face in his mind, even now as he sat, fully awake and waiting for Parker.

Neil sat up abruptly when the front door opened, then slumped back when Mrs. Parker appeared in a worn robe to grab the newspaper from the front porch. If today was like all the other days, William would be coming out any minute for his morning run.

Neil put the coffee cup aside. He could use a run himself. Sitting in this soup can was giving him a cramp in his ass. He-He jumped at the bright light shining in his face, followed by a knock on the car window.

"Sir, please step out of the car. Keep your hands where we can see them."

And he knew even before he turned around that this was not the way to start the day. "Shit," he muttered.

Thursday, October 6, 7:45 A.M.

Jenna paused, her hand trembling on her classroom door. "I'm afraid to look," she said.

"I'll look," said Lucas and pushed open the door. "No pinatas, at least," he said and Jenna peeked around him.

"No new graffiti," Jenna added.

"Check your desk," Casey cautioned, coming up from behind. "Maybe they booby-trapped the drawer or something."

But a thorough check showed no new activity through the night.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Jenna motioned to the students who'd been gathering at the door. "Come on in, guys. Let's learn some chemistry."

They filed in, each looking like they expected a nasty surprise to catch them unaware.

The muted sounds of scraping chairs and settling bodies was interrupted by Kelly Templeton. "Dr. Marshall, can we talk about the extra credit points on this quiz from Tuesday?"

Jenna rolled her eyes at the look of suppressed humor in the girl's eyes. At least it wasn't extortion this time. "Yes, Kelly, we can. Bring your paper on up and we'll take a look."

She watched her students' faces as Lucas and Casey took their leave. Most of the kids still wore the look of tentative caution, except for Kelly who smirked.

And Josh Lutz who looked very troubled. Troubled and torn. On one hand he looked to be on the verge of spilling his guts, but on the other, he looked ready to run at his first opportunity.

Jenna kept an eye on Josh, intending to talk to him when class was over, but when the bell rang he slipped away. She wondered what he knew. She wondered what he'd tell. She wondered, not for the first time, what went on behind the closed doors of the Lutz household.

Thursday, October 6, 9:45 A.M.

Steven glared at Assistant DA Liz Johnson as he walked into the reception area of Raleigh's first district. "This better be important." He'd come as soon as she'd called, once again leaving Harry point man at the search scene.

"What, were you actually doing the speed limit?" Liz asked sourly.

Steven grinned at her. "I can't afford any tickets on a cop's salary."

Liz grinned back like the old friend she was. "Like I can afford any on mine?" She sobered. "We're going to Interview Two," she said. "Lieutenant Chambers called me as soon as they brought the guy in. It seems he had some fascinating reading material Chambers thought we should see."

"Has he said anything yet?" Steven asked, falling into step beside her.

Liz shook her head. "Nope. He insists on talking to you. Who is this guy?"

"He's been hanging around," Steven answered. "I saw him at my son's soccer game Monday night and Harry said he was at the search scene last night. Looking for me. To!d Harry he was a reporter. Harry was going to ask Nancy to run plates on him this morning."

They came to a stop in front of Interview Two where Lieutenant Chambers stood frowning at the glass. On the other side sat the dark-haired man from Matt's game, arms crossed over his chest. Chambers acknowledged them with a curt nod, handing Liz a thin folder.

"One of my patrol units picked him up this morning. A resident on Hook Street called with a complaint that this guy had been loitering there for a few days."

Liz took a thoughtful look at the stranger. "So they shine their light inside his car and find his photo collection in plain view." She handed the folder to Steven. "Four mutilated corpses."

Steven glanced through the photos. "Before and after," he murmured, looking at the pictures of the girls before they'd become mutilated corpses. "Pretty girls." He turned the pic-tures over to look at the names neatly printed on the back of each one. "Did you run these names?" he asked.

Chambers nodded. "All murdered in Seattle three years ago. All sixteen years old. All cheerleaders."

Steven sighed. "Damn. And his hair's just about the same shade as the hair we found in the clearing last Friday."

"So's mine," Liz said, her tone pointed. "That doesn't prove anything."

So's Mike's, Steven thought, then cursed himself. But that didn't prove anything either. There was absolutely no way Mike was involved. Mike had seen his son home without incident. Steven felt the prick of guilt. He knew because he'd called Helen to make sure Brad was all right. Mike had ensured Jenna got home safe and sound. The prick of guilt jabbed deeper. Steven knew that because he'd called Jenna's home number last night well after midnight, just to hear her answer sleepily. Just to know she'd gotten home all right. Hell of a friend you are, Thatcher.

He cleared his throat. "Lieutenant, did you get a rundown on the Seattle case? Was anyone arrested for those murders?"

"I've got a call in to the commander of the precinct that handled the case, but it's still early in Seattle. We checked the Internet archives of the local Seattle papers in the meantime. They say they arrested a William Parker, but there was no record of a conviction. We didn't touch this guy except to escort him in for questioning. We did see a rental car agreement out in plain view, so we looked at that. According to the rental contract he's Neil Davies of Seattle, Washington."

"When did he sign the contract?" Liz asked.

"Monday morning."

"Of this week?" Steven asked.

"Yep. So he wasn't here when either girl was abducted. Or he hadn't rented his car by that point," Chambers amended.

Steven looked at the man sitting in the chair inside the in-terview room. His face was hard, as if he were angry. But more than angry. More like he was poised to explode any minute. "Was he carrying any other ID, Lieutenant?"

"No. Said his wallet was in the gym bag in the backseat."

"And was it?" Liz asked.

"Haven't looked yet. We wanted to wait for you to make sure we didn't break any new search and seizure laws we hadn't heard about yet," Chambers grumbled and Liz scowled.

Steven smiled at Chambers's sarcasm. "Did you find anything else in his car?" he asked.

"Just the gym bag," Chambers answered. "We wanted to wait for Liz before we checked the trunk. My boys didn't want any trouble down the line."

"Well, we'll take a look after we've chatted with Mr. Davies," Steven said, then gestured to Liz. "Shall we?"

The man looked up when Steven and Liz entered the room, but made no move to rise.

Steven looked at him, tilting his head in an exaggerated fashion. "You were looking for me?"

The man's dark eyes narrowed. "I was looking for the detective in charge, yes."

Steven refused to be ruffled by the challenge in the man's voice. "Then you were looking for me. I'm Special Agent Steven Thatcher."

"Hmm," the man said sarcastically. "North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. Glad to see you could take a break from soccer games and the runaway roundup to take an interest in this case."

"I try to squeeze in an hour or two between golf and fishing," Steven said dryly, pushing back his temper. He pointed to Liz. "She's Assistant DA Johnson. So now that we've performed the social niceties and you know who we are, why don't you tell us who you are?"

"You have my ID."

"We have your rental car contract and your photo album." Steven dropped the folder on the table. The pictures slid out, the "after" pictures on top. Davies didn't flinch. Not one little bit.

Cold bastard, Steven thought. It was hard not to flinch at those pictures. "Your rental car contract says you're Neil Davies. From Seattle. As"-he pointed a careless finger at the pictures-"were these girls, surprisingly enough. So how long have you been in Raleigh, Mr. Davies?"

"It's pronounced Davis. Welsh name. Silent e. Since Monday morning."

"So says your rental car contact."

"So says my flight itinerary."

Steven pulled a chair from the table and sat down. "What line of work are you in, Mr. Davies?"

Davies sneered. "Are you truly as big an idiot as you appear to be?"

Steven blinked. Whatever this man's problem, he'd made it very personal. "I don't know who peed in your Wheaties today, but I don't think I like you, sir."

Davies bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. "Feeling's mutual. Did you run my ID?"

Steven shrugged. "I don't know. I just got here. Had to cut my doubles game short." He stood up and walked over to the window and tapped on it. "Let's take a look at the bag, Lieutenant."

Chambers brought it in and dropped it on the table with a thud that echoed off the cheaply painted walls. "There you go-"

Steven pulled on a pair of plastic gloves before unzipping the bag and reaching in. "One pair of socks. One pair of running shoes." His brows went up. "One gun."

"Registered," Davies snapped. "If your computers are modern enough to check."

"They are," Steven said softly. He really, really didn't like this guy. "And one wallet." He opened the wallet with Liz looking over his shoulder. "Neil Davies. Good driver's license picture." He looked up at Liz. "Mine has me looking like a biker dude or a serial killer."

Liz smiled.

Davies rolled his eyes. "There's another wallet in there."

"Okay," Steven said, game. In went his hand and out came another wallet, and… he blinked.

"Terrific," Liz muttered.

"I'll be damned," Chambers said.

Slowly Steven opened up the wallet to reveal Davies's shiny detective shield. Seattle Police Department. Annoyance bubbled up and he didn't bother to push it back, especially when he saw the smirk on Davies's face. "And you'd planned to mention this when?" Steven asked, tossing Davies's shield to the table.

"When you asked," Davies said smoothly. "I tried to talk to you Monday night, but you were too busy cheering the home team."

Steven sat down again and stretched his legs out in front of him, feeling his cheeks heat and his temper boil. He bit back the words he really wanted to say. "Well, I can't help but notice you're a little out of your jurisdiction, what is it-Detective?" Davies nodded and Steven nodded back. "We also couldn't help but notice you carry pictures of other people's children in a folder, but you don't carry the normal complement of smiling children's portraits in your wallet."

"1 don't have any children," Davies said, just as smoothly, but Steven detected resentment.

"Well, that's a shame. I happen to love mine. Because of soccer games and despite runaway roundups. Now, let's talk about these photos and the purpose for your visit to our fair town. I take it you suspect there's a link between your cheerleaders and ours."

Davies inclined his head, not quite a nod. "I do."

"So who was William Parker?"

Davies smirked. "So you do have a computer."

"We do."

Davies uncrossed his arms for the first time since Steven and Liz had arrived. He leaned forward and pushed the photos apart with one finger, lining up all the "after" pictures edge to edge. "William Parker did this."

'Then why isn't he in a Washington state prison?" Liz asked and Steven saw the first real emotion other than anger or sarcasm pass across Davies's face. It was pain.

"Because the SPD fucked up," Davies said, looking at the pictures as if imprinting them on his memory, although Steven suspected they already were. "Evidence wasn't handled correctly and the defense attorney petitioned it thrown out." He shrugged listlessly. "A judge agreed."

"You were primary?" Steven asked quietly, all posturing gone from the question.

Davies flicked a glance his way before returning to the pictures. "Yes, I was."

"And you want justice this time," Liz finished.

"Yes, I do."

Steven picked up one of the pictures by its corner, respectfully. "I have one of these. By noon I'll probably have two. The psychologist on my team believes he'll be on number three before the end of the week."

"He's escalated," Neil murmured.

"So how do I keep my bulletin board from being covered with pictures like these?" Steven asked. "You wouldn't have come across the country if you hadn't believed William Parker was here. Where is he?"

Davies took the picture from Steven's hands, just as respectfully. "Under your noses."

"I don't know any William Parkers." He looked at Chambers. "I assumed you ran a list."

Chambers nodded. "I did. We have ten William Parkers in the Raleigh-Durham area. Knowing a little more about him would be a big help," he added wryly.

Davies huffed a mirthless chuckle. "You know him, all right, but not as William Rudolf Parker." He reached into the pocket of the shirt he wore beneath his sweater and drew out another picture, this one a snapshot. "Here he is." He tossed the snapshot on the table where it landed on top of the photographs of the four mutilated corpses.

Steven's heart stopped as the face in the snapshot registered.

"Holy Mother of God," Chambers breathed. "Kid in a freaking candy store."

"Who is he?" Liz asked with a frown.

"You know him," Davies said to Steven. "Don't you?"

Steven's heart kicked back into motion. Into overdrive. He picked up the picture, his hand trembling. The face in the snapshot was younger, but he recognized the dark eyes, the surly mouth that even then wore a smug smile. He looked up at Davies and swallowed. "Yes, I do. And you're right, I don't know him as William Parker." He looked up at Liz. "This is Rudy Lutz. He's the quarterback at my son's high school." And the one directing all the malice against Jenna, he added to himself, a shiver of fear racing down his spine.

Liz sat down hard. "Shit," she said.

Thursday, October 6, 11:00 A.M.

After an hour they were able to pretty much piece together the checkered history of Rudy Lutz, a.k.a. William Rudolf Parker. The evidence the SPD had gathered had been strong. Davies swore no mistakes had been made. But something went wrong just the same.

"So his first victim was his girlfriend," Liz said thoughtfully.

"So much for puppy love," said Chambers, looking at the photo with distaste. The girl had been strangled, sexually assaulted, then stabbed. Repeatedly. "What a sick bastard. And he was only fifteen at the time?"

"He went for older women," Davies said dryly. "And apparently they went for him. Every girl he murdered met him away from her house so there was never any evidence of forced entry."

Liz pushed the folder away. "How'd you catch him, Neil?"

Davies's cheeks darkened under the black stubble of his beard. "After we found the last victim, a kid called in and said he'd heard Parker in the locker room the week before boasting that he'd fucked her."

"Gina Capetti," Liz said quietly.

Davies's lip curled and again Steven saw pain in the man's eyes. "We had forensic evidence from Laura Resnick, his first victim. Semen sample. We brought Parker in, he had an alibi, but it wasn't airtight. We found witnesses who'd seen him with Gina Capetti and were willing to testify. Judge ordered him to give a blood sample. DNA matched the semen found in Laura Resnick's body. We arrested him, but because he was fifteen, they let him be tried in family court."

Steven frowned. "Four vicious premeditated murders and he goes to family court?"

Davies shrugged. "He had a very… lenient judge."

"So you go to family court, what happens?" Lieutenant Chambers asked.

"Everything's set up, then the defense moves to have the semen evidence stricken."

"Because?" Liz prompted.

Davies's lips thinned. "Because they said the evidence had been stored inappropriately."

Nobody asked how or by whom. It didn't really matter at this stage.

"And without the semen evidence you had no case," Liz finished.

"We couldn't tie him to Laura Resnick, the first victim, so the whole case crumbled like a house of cards. Parker walks away, free as a bird. His whole record is sealed. But the community knew what he'd done. His parents had tried to keep his name out of the press, but it just wasn't going to happen. Crowds gathered, some threw bottles, most just picketed. Parker Senior's import business suffered. Nobody wanted to do business with the father of a monster like William. Senior had to declare Chapter Eleven, sell the house. They moved away, then just disappeared."

"It's hard for a whole family to just disappear," Liz observed.

"Mrs. Parker's father is a multimillionaire."

They all nodded, well aware of the power of cold, hard American cash.

"Lutz is the maiden name of Mrs. Parker's paternal grandmother." Davies looked frustrated. "I thought for a while they might have left the country. Gone to Switzerland or France."

"Not if they wanted their son to play football," Steven returned and Davies nodded.

"As I recall, that's what Parker Senior was maddest about," Davies reused. "He didn't care that four girls were dead. That every bit of evidence pointed to his son. He cared that William wouldn't get to play high school football and get picked up by the college scouts."

Steven sighed. "So his parents take him out of Seattle, then pop up as new residents to Raleigh-Durham, erase a year from Rudy's age, and have 'fourteen '-year-old Rudy start high school all over again with a whole new set of girls to choose from," he said, punctuating the word in the air.

Lieutenant Chambers huffed his disapproval. "Like I said, kid in a freakin' candy store."

Liz rubbed her forehead. "You all do realize that none of this is proof Rudy had anything to do with Lorraine or Samantha."

"Not yet," Steven said grimly. "But now we have some place to look."

At that moment a uniformed officer came in with a note. "Agent Thatcher? Your admin assistant has been trying to get in touch with you all morning. She says it's urgent."

Steven looked at his cell phone, frowning. It was on, but the signal bars were down to one.

"You won't get any reception this deep in the building," Chambers said. "Pain in the ass."

Steven pointed to a phone in the corner of the room. "But that one works."

"If I remembered to pay the bill," Chambers said sarcastically.

Steven placed the call, listened to Nancy, then turned to the group with a sense of grim despair. "They found Samantha."

"In better shape than Lorraine?" Liz asked.

No one even assumed she'd still be alive. Correctly so.

"Marginally." Steven rubbed the back of his neck. "But that was the good news."

No one said anything, every one of the faces ____________________ knew what was coming.

"The bad news is that now we have a victim number three."

"Oh, God," Liz murmured.

"Who?" Chambers demanded.

Davies looked grim.

"Her name is Alev Rahrooh," Steven said. "Sixteen. Cheerleader. Went to yet a different high school. No sign of forced entry. Davies, I'll want to confirm your story with your LT in Seattle. Procedure of course."

Davies raised a brow. "Of course."

"Then we'll need to choose which site to see first. Door number two or door number three."

Chapter Nineteen

Thursday, October 6, 4:15 P.M.

Casey stowed her overnight bag in the XK 150's tiny trunk and slammed it closed. "I feel nervous about leaving you right now. I can cancel my trip if you want me to stay."

Jenna dangled her car keys from one finger "I'll be fine. Tell her, Lucas. I'll be fine."

"She'll be fine," Lucas echoed obediently and Casey stuck her tongue out at him.

"Polly Parrott will say what you tell him. I say I have a bad feeling about this."

____________________ shrugged. "The way I see it, if you've got the car, ____________________ it."

Casey pointed to the hood. "Your Jaguar thingy is missing."

The hood ornament. Adam had looked for a long time to find just the right one to complete his restoration. "It was gone yesterday morning before I left for school. I called Officer Pullman to report that, too." That the school hellions had invaded her home parking lot still left her blood cold. "Casey, go on now or you'll get stuck in rush-hour traffic."

They frowned at each other until Casey huffed a disgusted sigh. "Oh, all right." They traded keys and Casey got in the car, still looking worried. "Call me if you need me."

As she drove away, Lucas asked quietly, "How are you, Jen? I know yesterday was a shock."

"I'm fine. Really," she insisted when he looked unconvinced. "Although I am wondering why they took a day off. No problems in my classroom all day today."

"Maybe the surveillance camera deterred them."

Jenna's eyes widened. "You put up a camera? Where? When?"

"In the far corner of your classroom where you'll catch anyone coming in the door. Yesterday, after we'd gotten rid of your pinata. I've ordered a few outside models we can mount to the light posts here in the parking lot." He looked annoyed. "And you're welcome."

Jenna rolled her eyes. "Thank you, but you might have told me. Now I have to worry if anyone saw me picking my nose or straightening my nylons."

Lucas's teeth flashed in a grin. "I could sell either of those on video and get rich quick."

She smacked him in the arm. "Take that back or I'll tell Marianne."

"She'll just be mad she didn't get a starring role. You know what an exhibitionist Marianne is."

"No, I don't," Jenna answered primly, then met his eyes, sobering. "Thanks, Lucas."

He tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "You're welcome. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Do not go into the school by yourself. Wait for me and I'll walk you to your classroom."

She swallowed hard. "Do you think they'll stop?"

His face darkened. "Is Rudy playing this weekend?"

"No," she whispered, shaking her head.

"Then they won't stop. That's why I put the camera in. I want hard evidence we can use to expel those juvenile delinquents and I'm tired of waiting for Blackman to be a man and do it himself."

"Thanks, Lucas. Go home and make dirty videos with your wife. This is Thursday, so I get to kick the crap out of who-ever's unlucky enough to be my sparring partner tonight."

"I hope whoever is unlucky enough to be your sparring partner is wearing a heavy-duty cup."

"Stainless steel even." And she laughed out loud at his predictable wince. "Good night, Lucas."

Thursday, October 6, 6:25 P.M.

Steven sat alone in the conference room, staring at the board. A map held pushpins indicating the clearings where Lorraine's and Samantha's bodies had been found, the houses where the three missing girls had lived, the schools they'd attended. The churches in which they'd worshiped.

Mike's parish held only two pins. Steven had been relieved to push a third pin marking the location of a small house where the Rahroohs gathered to worship with other Hindu friends. Even if Davies hadn't surfaced with his picture of

Parker, Sandra's theory would have been put to rest. Mike hadn't known Alev Rahrooh. Thank God, he thought, tacking three new photos to the board.

Samantha Eggleston's body. Stabbed fifteen times, blade placement making a pattern very similar to the new tattoo on her bald scalp. Which Kent predicted they would find.

Alev Rahrooh, bright and smiling in her cheerleader picture. A copy of her picture, actually. Her parents hadn't wanted to give the original to Steven. It was the only recent photo they had, that they'd been able to afford. They'd given it only after Steven promised he would personally ensure its safekeeping. The original lay in an envelope on his desk. He'd return it to the Rahroohs tonight.

And finally, the third photo, Rudy Lutz, a.k.a. William Rudolf Parker.

"His hair color is similar to the sample from the Clary clearing," Sandra said from the doorway.

"Not good enough according to Liz," Steven said, turning to look at her. "We'll need a hell of a lot more to be able to support bringing him in, especially since we're not even supposed to know his sealed record exists. What's new, Sandra?"

Sandra didn't come any closer than the doorway. "Not a lot. Where's your new friend?"

"Davies? He's in a visitor's cubicle, making some calls back to the West Coast." He paused and asked again, "So what's new, Sandra?"

She looked up at the ceiling. "I checked into the… individual we discussed yesterday."

"And?"

She met his eyes. "And you were right. The night Lorraine went missing he was with twenty-five other priests at a seminar on church finances."

"And the night Samantha Eggleston was taken?"

"Giving last sacraments at Wake Medical Center. I'm sorry, Steven. I needed to check."

"I guess I should be grateful for death and taxes," Mike said dryly from behind Sandra and she jumped, turning red up to her hairline. Awkwardly, she turned to face him.

"Father Leone. I'm sorry. I didn't know you knew I was asking about you."

Mike gestured to the table. "These things tend to get out. After you?"

Sandra shook her head. "I was just leaving. I've got to get home to my kids." Still dismayed, Sandra looked from Steven to Mike. "Father, I tried to be discreet. I hope I haven't made any trouble for you."

Mike sat down. "Nothing I can't manage," he said, but his eyes didn't back up his words.

Sandra nodded stiffly and left, closing the door behind her.

"I was in the neighborhood," Mike said softly when she'd gone. "I hope I'm not intruding."

"No. Of course not." Steven took the tack out of Rudy's picture and slipped the photo into a folder. Mike was innocent, but Steven still needed to run a clean investigation, which meant keeping all leads confined to his team. "What brings you to my neighborhood?"

Mike regarded him soberly. "The Egglestons asked me to bless Samantha's body but the ME said he wasn't finished with her yet. We'll have to wait until her body's released."

Weariness hit Steven square in the chest and with it a sadness that was a palpable ache. "I don't want to imagine what her parents are going through," he said, joining Mike at the table. "But I am."

"You feel it for all of them, don't you? The sadness I see in your eyes right now."

Steven pinched the bridge of his nose He'd had a headache all day. "I do. I don't want to. I try not to. But every name in every folder that comes across my desk is a person that belongs to somebody's family. It never seems to end. So, how bad is it, Mike?"

Mike looked away. "How bad is what?"

Steven leaned forward to catch Mike's eye. "How badly did we tarnish your reputation?"

"I'll live. I have a few people calling me, asking if it's true. More are calling the bishop's office to ask if it's true. I'm not blaming you, Steven."

Steven sighed. "Good. But you know I would have done it anyway."

"I know. It's what makes you a good cop."

"That's special agent to you," Steven said, his heart momentarily lightened by the praise.

"That's why I came by," Mike said quietly. "To tell you I would have been angry if you hadn't checked me out. I want the man who killed those girls, Steven. I want him to…" Mike's voice wobbled and he stopped. Cleared his throat. "I want him to suffer for what he did." He closed his eyes. "I never saw Lorraine's body, but I glimpsed Samantha's on the ME's table. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live." He opened his eyes and in them Steven saw anguish. "I have never felt such hate," he whispered. "I want whoever did this to suffer like Sammie suffered. Worse."

Like Alev's suffering right now, Steven thought, then pushed the thought from his mind. "I don't know that there is much worse, Mike."

"How do you stand it?"

"Like you stand all the suffering you see. One day at a time. Sometimes an hour at a time."

Mike stood up, tugged on his robes. "Well, I need to go. It's Thursday. All-you-can-eat night at Sal's Pizza. You want to join me for a slice or two or twelve? The beer's cold."

Steven smiled wearily up at his best friend, grateful to have him. "Will you believe me if I say I'd like nothing better? But I'd like to get home tonight. I haven't seen Nicky since Monday night and I still haven't squared things with Brad."

Something flickered in Mike's eyes at the mention of Brad.

"What?" Steven asked, hearing alarm bells ring in his head. "What do you know?"

Mike shook his head. "Go talk to your son, Steven. He needs you."

Steven watched as he left the room, then turned back to the board to look at the photo of Samantha Eggleston's mutilated body. She'd needed him, too. Just like Alev needed him now. Pretty soon he'd have to install one of those number machines like they had at the deli counter.

He had to make it stop. He had to catch whoever was doing this. God willing it was Rudy Lutz and they just had to make sure they knew where he went, what he did. That would be the only way they'd save Alev. And the countless other girls Rudy Lutz had yet to victimize.

And there were his own kids, Steven thought. I have to fix my kids. Hell, he had to see his kids.

And there was the small matter of Jenna Marshall. At this point, he just hoped she'd still speak to him when he finally got time to apologize. Whenever that would be.

Thursday, October 6, 7:30 P.M.

"You're not concentrating tonight, Jen."

Jenna picked herself off the floor and pulled at her gi. She looked up at her sensei who stared down at her disapprovingly. "I'm sorry, Mark. I've got a lot on my mind."

"Well, leave it outside. Your concerns have no place on the sparring mat. You'll get hurt."

Jenna rubbed her sore hip. "I already am. You caught me good."

"I caught you napping," Mark snapped. "You're supposed to be demonstrating technique, not volunteering to be the first-aid dummy."

Jenna looked at the rest of the students lined up behind them. Mark was right. She owed more to the students than she'd been giving tonight. Classroom vandalism, juvenile delinquents, Brad and Steven Thatcher aside. "Point taken." She held herself rigid. "I'm ready now."

Mark shook his head, his frown softening from frustrated to worried. "No, you're not. We'll try again later." He motioned to a boy standing at the end of the line. "Bill, you're up. Take five, Jen."

Chastised, Jenna walked to the water cooler and aimlessly she watched cars drive by until one pulled into their parking lot. Her stomach clenched. Lucas's car. No. Whatever it was… Just, no.

Dread made her immobile. She could only stand and watch as Lucas made his way across the parking lot, his normally bronzed face whiter than her gi. He pushed the door open and stood silently before her, his throat working frantically.

"Casey," he whispered and Jenna felt the room tilt. Blindly she lowered herself into a chair.

Lucas cleared his throat. "She lost control of your car and went off an embankment."

Bile rose in her throat, choking her. "She's… alive?"

He nodded. "Barely. Come with me."

Thursday, October 6, 8:45 P.M.

Steven and Davies's follow-up visit to the Rahroohs yielded nothing new. Their telephone records had shown a phone call at nine p.m. the night before. Mr. Rahrooh remembered taking the call. Tears ran down his face as he told them he almost had told the boy, no, it was too late to talk to his daughter. Past house rules for receiving phone calls. But she'd looked so eager. "So beautiful," he'd sobbed, completely breaking down, and Steven and Davies took their leave.

Steven buckled himself into the Volvo. "I'm done for the day," he said, completely drained.

Davies set his eyes on a point outside the car window. "Me, too. I'll need a ride back to the motel. You guys still have my rental car in the impound lot."

Steven chuckled. One very tired chuckle. "Sorry about that."

"Well, at least I can say I know how it feels to be on the other side of the mirror. I guess I'm glad the Parkers' neighbor took her civic duty so responsibly. I just wish she'd done it on Parker."

Steven steered in the direction of Davies's motel. "Speaking of which, how did Rudy get out of his house last night to meet Alev? She was in bed when her mother checked on her at eleven. What time were you watching the Lutzes' house?'"

"After I left the search site last night I went back to my hotel room for a few hours sleep. I got to Parker's house about eleven. William got dropped off by some friends at about eleven-thirty-so I know he was home when Alev was still safe in her bed. I took a break around one or so to fill my coffee thermos and get a burrito from the all-night convenience store. Got back around one-thirty."

"So he had a half hour to get out of the house."

"Yeah, that's how I figured it. Damn coffee addiction," Davies said bitterly. "If I'd kept my station maybe that girl would be in her own bed tonight instead of where Parker's got her."

"And maybe if Mrs. Hitler had claimed a headache on the right night, Adolf would never have been born," Steven responded. "You can't change it."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Davies muttered. "Doesn't make it any easier, though."

"No, it doesn't." The car got quiet as Steven mulled over the day. It was almost Nicky's bedtime. He punched the numbers into his cell phone and smiled when Nicky answered.

"Hey, Daddy."

"Hey, baby. How are you?"

"Fine." There was a beat of silence, then an upbeat, "Aunt Helen made pudding for dessert."

"Chocolate?"

"Tapioca."

"Mmmm. Did you save me any?"

Nicky giggled softly. "No, on account of you getting fat."

Steven smiled. If that was the shtick Nicky wanted to harp on, he'd go along for the ride. As long as he could hear his baby giggle. "I am not getting fat."

"Well, Aunt Helen says we've got to keep you fit so you can catch Jenna."

Steven coughed. "She said that?"

"Yessir. So when y'gonna catch her?"

Steven was speechless. "Honey, I don't know that I will." He skillfully guided the conversation elsewhere. "I do know, though, that I love you and wish I were home to kiss you good night."

"Will you see Jenna tonight, Daddy?"

So much for his skill. In more ways than one. He thought about the last two times he'd seen her. He'd be lucky if she ever wanted to see him again. "Probably not, honey. Good night, baby."

"Night, Daddy."

Steven punched END and rolled his eyes. He was going to tape Helen's mouth shut. But she'd probably find some other way to meddle. Sign language or semaphore or something. He'd slipped his phone in his pocket when it jangled. "Thatcher," he answered.

"Thatcher, this is Al Pullman. Investigative Division?"

Steven sat up straighter. "Yeah, sure, you took Dr. Marshall's statement on her slashed tires. Did you catch the boys that did it?'" He could only hope. It would give them a way to get Rudy in for a DNA sample if he got arrested.

Hey. That was an angle.

"No," said Pullman, bringing him back. "But Dr. Marshall's had another incident with her car. I thought you might want to know since… well, since you two seemed… involved."

The hackles on Steven's neck had already started to rise. "What's happened?"

"Her car was vandalized again, but this time they cut her brake line."

Steven's heart jolted, as if struck by lightning. Then raced. "Is she hurt?"

"No, but her friend is. She'd let the friend borrow the car for a weekend outing. Her friend lost control going around a curve and went off the embankment. She's in critical condition."

Steven had to make himself think. Talk. Drive.

Think. She was okay. Jenna was okay. Alive. "Where is her friend?"

"Wake Medical Center," Pullman said. "Dr. Marshall is there with her. I didn't tell Dr. Marshall about the brakes yet. I thought you might want to."

"Thanks, Al. I will. I have an emergency," he said to Davies. "I'll drive you to your motel when I'm done at the hospital."

Chapter Twenty

Thursday, October 6, 9:10 P.M.

Lucas leaned back into the sofa in the surgical waiting room. "I feel so helpless," he murmured. "When are her parents going to get here?"

Jenna looked across the room at Casey's boyfriend, Ned, who was standing in front of the television in the corner, a completely vacant look on his face. "Ned said their flight gets in at eleven or so. I offered to go pick them up at the airport, but he insisted on doing it himself."

Jenna stared at the man she'd previously thought to be adolescent and insensitive. And he may have been in the past, but he wasn't tonight. Ned had taken charge of the situation, signing forms, doing everything Casey needed him to do. But right now Ned's face was blank.

"He's gone into screen saver mode, I think," she murmured, memories of Adam rushing back. All those hours waiting in hospitals just like this one. Sometimes the mind simply couldn't function past the stress anymore. "I've been there."

Lucas took her hand and entwined their fingers. "I guess you have, honey."

A wave of reality unexpectedly bowled into her, leaving her shaky. Blinking away tears, she laid her head on Lucas's shoulder. "She might die, Lucas."

Lucas put his arm around her. "Sshh. Don't think it, Jen."

"I can't help it," she whispered. She's all I have left. "I couldn't stand to lose her, too."

Lucas said nothing, just pulled her closer and laid his cheek on top of her head.

A woman in green scrubs appeared in the doorway. "Casey Ryan's family? I'm Dr. Neuss."

Jenna and Lucas jumped up. Ned turned from the television, slowly, and Jenna saw the look in his eyes she instantly recognized. He truly loves her, she thought. And he believes she will die.

Lucas stepped forward. "We're her friends. Her family's on their way from out of state."

Ned stumbled toward them, looking nauseous. "Is she…?"

The woman smiled kindly, but wearily. "She's alive."

Jenna felt her body sag, grateful for Lucas's strong arm. "Thank God."

The woman's expression became more businesslike. "She's alive right now. She came through the surgery, but not well. She lost a lot of blood. She has trauma to her head where her skull hit the steering wheel on impact." She looked from Jenna to Ned. "The air bag in her car didn't deploy?"

Jenna's stomach heaved. "It was a classic car," she heard herself whisper. "It didn't have an air bag." Oh, God, came the irrational yet very real realization. This is my fault.

Dr. Neuss looked philosophical. "Well, it might have prevented some of the damage, but then again, who knows? The car rolled down an embankment, so there is quite a bit the air bag wouldn't have protected her from. We had to intubate her during surgery. That means she's not breathing on her own right now," she added, again kindly. "She's a fighter, your friend. We had to resuscitate her twice, but she fought like a…"

"Like a mama tiger," Jenna whispered. The tears were coming and she didn't even try to stop them. "Oh, Casey."

"Like a mama tiger," Dr. Neuss repeated, then squeezed Jenna's arm. "Will you be okay?"

Jenna nodded. "I'm fine. I'll be fine." The words were rote. She may even have believed them.

Dr. Neuss slipped her hands in the pockets of her scrubs. "Well, she's stable for now. The next twenty-four to forty-eight hours will be critical."

"Can we see her?" Ned murmured.

Dr. Neuss shook her head. "She'll be in recovery for a few more hours. Once we get her a bed in ICU, one of the nurses will let you see her on a very limited basis."

"I understand," Ned murmured, but looking at his face, Jenna wondered if he really did.

"I'm on call tonight," Dr. Neuss finished. "Call if you have any questions. And try to get some sleep. The next few days will require you all to be strong."

The doctor walked away leaving them in silence.

Then a sob broke free. Ned's. Standing upright, the man just seemed to crumble inside. Without a thought, Jenna wrapped her arms around him and held him like Casey had held her all the times Adam's illness had become too much to bear. It only seemed right she support Ned now. She held on, rocking him, smoothing his hair, letting him cry. It helped, giving comfort to another. Gave her something to do, kept her own fear from choking her to death.

"Jenna," Lucas said urgently.

Jenna looked up and her eyes widened. There, not ten feet away, stood a pale Steven Thatcher next to a man she'd never seen before. A sense of relief coursed through her. Why? Just because he was here? Yes, just because he's here. He came.

Then Steven looked at Ned in her arms and his brown eyes flashed in-what? Anger? It sure as hell better not be, she thought. She hadn't done anything this time. Hurt? Unwarranted. Jealousy? Not acceptable considering she'd done nothing more than try to be Steven's friend.

Or more.

She cleared her throat as he turned to walk away while the mystery man remained planted in place, his dark eyes narrowed and alert.

"Steven, wait," she called and watched him stop. "Just wait." She turned Ned toward the chairs and gently, pushed him into one and looked at his ravaged face. "I'll be right back. Do you want some water or anything?"

"Do you have any scotch?" Ned asked, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Scratch that, I've got to go to the airport for her folks in an hour. Water would be good."

"Have you eaten anything?" she asked and he grimaced.

"I don't think that's a good idea right now. Just water." Ned opened his eyes and met Jenna's even gaze. "Thanks, Jen. I know what you think of me, and I guess most of it's been true, but-"

Jenna put her fingers over his mouth. "No, Ned. You're here for Casey and that's enough for me. I'll go get your water. Lucas, you'll stay here with him?"

And with Lucas's nod she turned to find Steven still waiting, his expression more humble.

"Casey's boyfriend," Jenna said, looking up at him.

"How is she?" Steven murmured. His hands opened and closed like he wanted to touch her. She wished he would. She really, really wished he would.

Jenna shrugged. "Touch and go. Next forty-eight hours will tell." She closed her eyes. "If only she'd been in her own car. The air bag would have deployed and she'd be okay right now."

Steven looked at her, feeling a burst of relief that she was standing here on her own two feet. Alive. She could have been the one in critical condition right now. But she wasn't. She was alive. Wearing her karate gi and a pair of sandals, her face worn from worry, but she was alive. He needed to touch her, to prove to himself she was solid flesh and bone.

He just needed to touch her. But after the last time, would she let him?

It didn't matter. His hand was lifting to her cheek on its own. Then she turned her face into his palm and that was all he needed. He pulled her into his arms and she came willingly, sliding her arms around his waist beneath his jacket. He pressed a kiss to her temple and she shuddered.

He shuddered right along with her, but for a very different reason. Her best friend was clinging to life because somebody tried to kill her. Over a damn football game. How would she feel when she found out her life was worth less than a damn football game to Lutz and his hoodlum friends? And what if Davies was right and Lutz was capable of so much more? Anger clawed at his gut, but he kept his voice, his touch, gentle. He smoothed a hand over her shiny hair and lifted her chin so he could see her face. He brushed his thumb across her lower lip. "I came as soon as I heard."

Her dark brows snapped together, creating worry lines in her forehead he wanted to kiss away. "How did you know?"

This wasn't the time to tell her she'd been the target, Steven thought. He'd tell her when he got her alone. Where she could curse and cry in private. "The police called me," he said softly, still touching her face, still convincing himself she was okay. "You know how the rumor mill is. You visit me at a search site and half the force knows we're…" He shrugged. "Whatever we are."

She searched his face and his heart stumbled. "What are we?" she whispered.

You're mine, his mind answered. Mine, mine, mine. But he drew a breath and murmured instead, "I want to find out if you're still willing."

She blinked her violet eyes, then nodded. "I am."

A new wave of relief practically cut him at the knees. "Then will you wait for me here? I want to take you home, but I need to give someone a ride first. I'll be back to get you in an hour. Hour and a half, tops."

Jenna looked over his shoulder to where Davies still stood. "Who is he?"

Davies stepped forward, his hand outstretched. "I'm Detective Neil Davies. I'm working with Agent Thatcher on a case."

Steven looked at Davies and wanted to frown. There was a light in Davies's eyes, a light Steven recognized and didn't like one iota. It was the light that came on in a man's eyes when he saw a woman that he wanted. Steven was sure the same look had come into his eyes when he'd first seen Jenna.

Jenna pulled her arms from around his waist to shake Davies's hand, leaving Steven feeling bereft. And pissed at Davies. He'd let Davies on his professional turf because he knew the mind of their killer, but… But stay away from my woman.

"It's good to meet you, Detective," she said, giving him one of her beautiful smiles, and Steven felt irrational jealousy simmer. "I'm Jenna. I'm glad Steven has some support on this case. I know it's been consuming his time." She turned back to Steven with a sigh. "Thanks for offering to take me home tonight, but I think I'll stay here."

"No, she won't."

Surprise on her face, she turned around to where an older man stood, looking determined. She frowned at him. "Yes, I will, Lucas."

The man named Lucas shook his head stubbornly. "You heard what the doctor said. We can't see her till she's stable. You might as well get some rest so you'll be strong tomorrow."

"He makes sense, Jenna," Steven said quietly.

Jenna sighed. "His logic is solid, this once. I'll wait for you here, Steven."

She's as beautiful up close as she was through binoculars, Neil thought. As beautiful as she'd been in his dreams. And now, having seen her up close, having heard the smoothness of her voice, he knew he'd never get Jenna Marshall out of his mind.

"So who is she?" Neil demanded without preamble as he and Thatcher pulled out of the parking garage ten minutes later. Thatcher had been wearing a self-satisfied smile since Jenna had promised to wait for him and Neil wanted to wipe it from Thatcher's face with a ferocity that shocked him.

Thatcher glanced over at him, his smile becoming a hard frown. "She's my son's teacher." Thatcher was no idiot, Neil mused. He knew another man on the hunt.

"Just your son's teacher?"

Thatcher clenched his teeth. "And my…"

If Thatcher didn't know, Neil figured Jenna Marshall was not his woman after all. "Friend, girlfriend, lover, betrothed?" he asked sardonically.

A muscle twitched in Thatcher's jaw. "Yes to one and two, not yet to three and four."

"I see."

"Make sure you do," Steven said with false mildness. It must be the way Southern men posture, Neil thought and was not impressed.

They were quiet for several miles until Thatcher said harshly, "That accident was no accident."

Neil turned in his seat, giving Thatcher his full attention. "What do you mean?"

"Jenna flunked one of the football players last week, suspending him from the team. The ballplayer and his friends have been making her life a living hell for the last week, slashing her tires, vandalizing her classroom. That call earlier was from the Raleigh PD. Her brakes were cut."

A new fury burned inside him. "Then Jenna was the target and her friend was just in the wrong place, wrong time."

"Yeah." Thatcher's voice shook when he said the word. "I'll tell her when I pick her up later. Oh, and three guesses as to who the football player is."

Neil shot upright in the seat. "No fucking way."

"Yes fucking way. Our own Rudy Lutz."

His heart began to race. Close. They were close. "Can you prove he's done the vandalism?"

"None of it so far," Thatcher said tightly. "We could bring him in for questioning, but we don't have enough to hold him. Certainly not enough to arrest him at this point. His father's fancy lawyers would have anything we gathered tossed out of court."

"But if we could arrest him-"

"We could get our own DNA sample to compare to the hair we found at the clearing." Thatcher nodded. "Yeah, I thought of that already."

"So what next?" Neil asked, practically vibrating, charged up and ready to pounce.

"See if we can't more closely link Rudy to the trouble at the school or Jenna's car tonight. Stay back for now, Davies. Let's let the locals do their job and see where we come out."

Neil bit his cheek. "I'll stay back for now." From Parker, he thought, but not from Jenna.

Thursday, October 6, 11:30 P.M.

"What do you know that you're not telling me?" Jenna asked when they'd stopped in front of her apartment. "You're too quiet. Too something. I don't know. Tell me what you know."

Steven braced himself. "Your brakes were cut, Jenna. Casey's accident was no accident."

Her face drained of all color leaving her white and trembling. "No," she whispered. "They wouldn't." He said nothing, but took her hand and let her squeeze the life out of his. She leaned back, her eyes shut, her lips a strange fluorescent purple in the glare of the parking lot lights. "I thought it, in the waiting room, but didn't want to believe it was true," she said, her voice harsh. "But it is." She clenched her teeth. "Steven, I need to run an errand. Will you drive me?"

"Where?" Steven asked warily.

"Just drive, please. I'll tell you where."

Thursday, October 6, 11:50 P.M.

After twenty minutes Steven stopped, looking up at their destination in a combination of disbelief and a strange feeling of karma. "This isn't a good idea, Jenna."

Her lips were set in mutinous determination. "You don't have to go in. I, however, do."

He guessed she did. He watched for a moment as she got out of the Volvo and marched up to the front door of the house, the whiteness of her karate gi making her look like she glowed in the dark. He caught up with her as she rang the doorbell.

Nobody answered. The house was dark.

"I think they're all asleep," he said mildly.

"Then let them wake up" she gritted and leaned into the doorbell, creating one continuous chime they could hear through the expensive stained-glass door.

Finally a light came on. The door opened revealing a tired-looking woman in a flannel nightgown. A god-awful ugly flannel nightgown. "What is this about?" she asked imperiously.

Jenna pushed the door open and stalked in, leaving the woman agape. "Mrs. Lutz, I'm Dr. Marshall and I want to talk to you and your husband. You might as well cooperate, unless you want to call the police. Then we'll have a nice conversation about what a saintly son you have."

Mrs. Lutz paled. "Get out."

Jenna stood her ground, nose to nose with Mrs. Lutz. "I will not. I will talk to you and your husband. Now."

"Nora, what's going on?"

Steven looked up to see Mr. Lutz coming down the stairs, tucking his shirt into his slacks. Jenna waited until he got to the base of the stairs before speaking.

"I have had enough of your terror tactics," she said coldly and Lutz had the nerve to look bored. Big mistake, Steven thought.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Miss Marshall."

Jenna advanced until she was toe to toe with the hulking man and Steven poised himself to drag her away before it became physically confrontational. "It's Dr. Marshall, you sniveling little man," she said and Steven bit back a grin.

"Nora, call the police," Lutz said calmly.

"Go ahead, call the police," Jenna returned, now as calm as Lutz. On the surface only, Steven knew. "Call Al Pullman of the Investigative Division. I'm sure he'd like to talk with you."

Lutz scowled. "Get out. Miss Marshall."

"I will," she said evenly, "but not until I've said what I came to say. You think you're clever. You think I'll give your son a grade he did not earn. But you're wrong. Not only will I ensure your son never graduates from my school, I will not rest until he's behind bars for what he's done."

Steven watched Lutz but didn't see a single flicker of fear. Either Davies was wrong and Rudy was not the infamous William Parker or Lutz was good. Steven preferred to believe the sonofabitch was good. Really good. But ultimately not good enough.

Lutz said nothing and Jenna shook her head in disbelief. "A few spray-painted epithets I can take. Slashed tires and water in my gas tank I can take. I can even take the dead possum your son hung in my classroom yesterday morning."

Steven straightened. He hadn't heard about that. Animal mutilation was inextricably linked to serial killers. Almost all of them had killed animals at one time or another.

"But," Jenna was continuing, "attempted murder I cannot take. Neither will the police."

Lutz raised a brow. "You're delusional."

Jenna's jaw went rigid. "No, I'm not delusional. I'm alive. But I may not have been and now my best friend's lying in ICU because she drove my car this afternoon. My brakes were cut today, Mr. Lutz. That is not adolescent vandalism. That is no longer a misdemeanor. That is a felony."

Lutz did pale at that. "What are you talking about?"

"I suggest you ask your son." Jenna turned away, then turned back for one more exchange. "One more thing, Mr. Lutz. You'd better be praying my friend pulls through or the charge will be murder. And that doesn't sit well with college scouts."

She turned on her heel and walked out the door. Steven followed her quietly, still mulling over the look of shock on Lutz's face. Of two things Steven was fairly certain. Lutz hadn't known about the brakes nor did he care for the idea of his son being charged with felony murder. Go figure.

Chapter Twenty-one

Friday, October 1, 12:30 A.M.

Jenna didn't say a word until they were in her apartment with the door closed.

"Son of a bitch,'' she muttered, jerking at the belt on her gi. Her fingers stilled and her shoulders sagged. "Dammit," she whispered and his heart sagged, too. A wave of tenderness washed over him, and with it, a fierce need to protect her.

"Here, let me," Steven said softly and went to work on the knot in her brown belt. He slipped the belt from around her waist and draped it over the soft arm of her sofa. Then he slipped the gi from her shoulders and laid it on top of the belt, leaving her in T-shirt and the gi bottoms.

And a bra, he thought, tenderness sliding over to make way for lust. He tried not to think about it. "Turn around," he ordered, his voice husky in the quiet of her apartment. She obeyed and he massaged her shoulders, trying not to let her soft groan distract him from his relatively innocent task.

To make her feel good. To take away her stress. Be honest. To get your hands on her again.

"That feels good," she said thickly, dropping her chin to her chest. He pushed her ponytail to one side and went to work on her neck. Tried to ignore the urge to kiss it. Tried to ignore the throbbing of his body. His erection was nothing new. He'd been stiff as a board since she'd given Lutz a piece of her mind. She'd been magnificent. But this was different. This was more.

He gave in and dipped his head, brushing his lips across the back of her neck, her sigh making his heart beat faster. Slipped his left arm around her, bracketing the underside of her breasts while his right hand massaged the long, lean line of her spine. Felt her heart beating hard against his arm. Felt her settle her incredible ass against his groin. He fought the urge to thrust, to bury himself deep inside her. He moved his arm, over and around so that her breast fell into his hand.

She drew a breath and he didn't move. Neither did she. "Jenna," he whispered.

"What?" she whispered back.

I want you, his brain screamed. I want to come inside you and pound and pound until everything else in the universe goes away. "I want to kiss you."

She was quiet a moment, then drew another deep breath, pressing her breast into his hand, her nipple as hard as a diamond against his palm. "On one condition."

"Which is?" he breathed, ready to grant her anything.

"That you don't run away again," she whispered and he groaned.