She was out there.
He knew it.
Although the link was not complete,
he was certain he would locate her.
Standing beside the car, I viewed the house impassively, arms wrapped tightly around my chest in a self-protective stance. I wasn’t aware of the posture I’d adopted but Ash noticed, wrapping his arm around my shoulders in a comforting gesture.
“I know it’s not much,” he began hesitantly.
“It’ll be fine,” I reassured him quietly. A narrow fronted two story in a sad state of disrepair, the faded blue cladding was in dire need of a coat of paint and the shingles needed replacing. Despite its ramshackle appearance, the structure appeared to be sound, a heavy lock and deadbolt visible on the front door.
As if reading my thoughts, Ash motioned towards the windows. “They’re all secured, Finn. Bolts on every window, deadbolts on every door. There’s an alarm system installed, which connects straight to the Sherriff’s Office in town.”
For a few minutes, I studied the house and Ash scrutinized me discreetly, apparently sensing the tension, which rolled from me in waves. It was tangible evidence of the stress I’d endured, apprehension I couldn’t hide from one of my dearest friends.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” he offered. Following Ash up the stairs, I stood back as he unlocked the solid front door and ushered me inside. The interior of the house was unexpected, the living room spotless and filled with contemporary furniture, a fawn leather sofa and two matching armchairs. Oak bookcases stood on either side of a picture window, a breathtaking view of the crashing Atlantic beyond. Fresh drapes hung at the windows and the walls had been recently painted, leaving a slight odor of paint fumes still perceptible. On the right of the hall, a dining room with elegant beech furniture led to a shabby kitchen. Although the benches were worn and the cupboards chipped, the kitchen was functional. Beyond that an enclosed sunroom led to a dilapidated terrace, which Ash assured me was sturdy enough despite its ramshackle appearance.
He guided me upstairs, where the master bedroom was comfortably furnished, and the bathroom was obviously newly renovated, with fresh tiling, paint, and fittings. The other two bedrooms were filled with paint cans, piles of wooden flooring, and the flotsam and jetsam of renovating an old home.
“The place was collapsing when I inherited it from my grandparents.” Ash rubbed a thumb across his jaw thoughtfully as he surveyed the master bedroom. “I had contractors replace the bathroom and do some structural repairs. The rest is a work in progress, when I can score a spare weekend to fly up here.”
I glanced at him, a quick appraisal catching the uncertainty in his eyes. I hurried to reassure him. “It’s great, Ash. Perfect.”
Ash rubbed his fingers through his hair, eyeing me doubtfully. “Stay here as long as you want, Finn. I don’t get up here often and the place sits empty most of the time. You’ll be safe here.” His brown eyes were troubled, fine lines creasing his brow. “The security system will ensure nobody gets in.”
He caught the glimmer of anxiety in my eyes before I dropped a veil of composure over my features. “I appreciate it,” I said softly.
Ash cursed under his breath, I knew he hated seeing me like this. We’d grown up together and had become more like siblings than just friends. Ash, my brother Bryan and I lived on the same street as kids, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Ash and Bryan initially loathed one another, but when a minor disagreement resulted in a fistfight over a juvenile dispute, it was me who had waded in to referee. A four-year-old kid staring down two fourteen-year-old boys. It was a turning point for Ash and Bryan, turning mutual loathing into a deep friendship, which spanned two decades.
Even now, I had trouble recalling why they disliked one another in the first place. There’d been cultural differences, with Ash coming from Japanese American stock and Bryan and myself being purely Irish American. They made incongruous friends from the beginning, Ash was dark skinned with jet-black hair and chocolate brown eyes; Bryan freckled and blessed with the sky blue eyes and flaming red hair synonymous with an Irish background. Luckily, for me, I’d missed that particular legacy.
As kids, Ash and Bryan had a similar height and build, but when they turned fifteen the similarities ended abruptly as Bryan reached a soaring height of six feet three inches, whilst Ash was disappointed with his full height of just a touch over five ten. Despite their physical differences, both men shared an equal ability to attract women, with them both having handsome features and well-muscled bodies, honed through hours of physical exercise.
Their friendship continued throughout high school and college, before they joined the police academy together. Cementing their friendship as they worked their way up the ranks, their promotion to Detective was simultaneous. Their paths diversified from that point, Ash moved into Homicide as Bryan drifted into the harsh world of undercover work with the Vice Squad. For months, he would disappear into the seediest areas of Chicago, immersing himself in the underbelly of the windy city.
A familiar ache twisted my gut when I thought about Bryan, and I glanced surreptitiously at Ash, saw my pain mirrored in his expression. It was an agony he felt deeply, the loss of a friend who’d been like a brother. I winced uncomfortably, wrapping my arms more tightly around my chest. It was a gesture commonplace nowadays, an attempt at holding my fragile psyche together.
The sound of a car horn broke the stillness and I drew in a ragged breath, the sound making me jump. Nowadays I hated noises that were out of the ordinary, unexpected events, both of which combined to shatter my fragile nerves. Ash grinned and tugged my hand gently, catching it in his. “Don’t worry, I know who it is.” He led me downstairs and out to the porch, where two cars had pulled into the drive behind Ash’s Chevy Equinox.
“Hey guys.” Shep stretched as he stepped from the car, his muscular arms tensing. His dark wavy hair blew across his face when the sea breeze caught it, framing his striking features. “Jesus, Ash. Could you have chosen anywhere further away from Chicago?” Shep drew me into a friendly embrace, kissing my cheek and ruffling my hair. “How you doing, kitten?” he questioned.
“I’m okay,” I muttered.
“No you’re not,” Shep countered mildly. “But you will be, Finn.” He offered me an affectionate smile and ruffled my hair once more, as though I was still a child. “You will be.”
It was a struggle not to cry with relief when my best friend, Shelby, clambered from the second car, along with her boyfriend Taylor Deveraux. Shelby dashed forward, incredibly graceful in stilettos and gripped me in a tight hug, holding me for a long time as I fought to control the tears which threatened to flow. When I regained some composure, I stared at her incredulously. “What are you doing here?”
Shelby glanced at the old house and didn’t bother to hide the disdain in her light blue eyes. “When Ash insisted on bringing you here, I had to come and make sure it was okay. We flew in with Shep to Boston, hired cars there.” She wrinkled her nose delicately as she surveyed the crumbling exterior. “It’s not the Hilton, that’s for sure.”
Even as I reprimanded her, I couldn’t help but grin. “Shelby, don’t be rude. It’s okay.”
Shelby raised her eyebrows. “It’s the ass end of the world, that’s what it is.” She glanced at Ash, who was watching her with a bemused smirk. They’d known each other for years, since Shelby and I met at grade school and Ash was very used to Shelby’s acerbic personality and blunt approach. “How long are you going to make her stay here in Hicksville, U.S.A.?”
I didn’t fail to notice the glance Ash and Shep exchanged, or the worried frown that crossed Shep’s forehead before he swiftly smoothed it away. “Until I’m positive she’s safe,” Ash announced decisively. “Now quit your bitching, Shelby. Massachusetts is not a backwater.”
Shelby gripped my arm firmly and guided me towards the house, leaving the bemused men in her wake. “I’ll be the judge of that.”
Shelby toured the house from top to bottom, while Ash and Taylor trailed into the house with boxes from the back of Shelby’s car. “I brought everything I thought you’d need while you’re staying here,” she announced, as she descended the staircase. “Some of your books, clothes, a few of your favorite DVD’s.” She reached the hallway and directed Ash and Taylor where to put the boxes. “Things to make you feel more at home.” She placed her hands on her denim-clad hips and glared at Ash. “Honestly, Ash, couldn’t you have put her in one of those… what are they called? Safe houses?”
Ash dropped a box to the floor and straightened up. “Nope. It’s better if Finn is miles away from Chicago, somewhere only the four of us know about.”
A long silence hung between the group and I swallowed deeply, trying to stave off the panic, which threatened to overwhelm me. It was an emotion I’d never dealt with until recently, one which I’d found was exceedingly difficult to control. I rubbed a hand across the top of my chest, a flutter of unease welling deep in my stomach.
“Shelby, she’s gonna be safer here,” Ash declared firmly. “Now tell me how many more God-damned boxes of stuff you’ve hauled up here? You must have paid a fortune for fucking excess baggage.” The tenor of his voice made it plain the discussion was over, and although a flash of irritation appeared on Shelby’s delicate features, she swallowed it back with a visible effort.
A scrabble of noise on the wooden porch caught my attention and Shep appeared in the doorway, leading what appeared to be an enormous black dog. “Finn, this is Rebel.”
The animal stared with alert blue eyes, cocking one ear as he appraised me silently.
“Rebel,” I repeated vacantly. Rebel was extremely large, bigger than any dog I’d ever seen before. With long pointed ears, shaggy black fur and a scary set of fangs, Rebel also looked like he would happily attack without a seconds thought.
Shep grinned. “Rebel belongs to a friend of mine. He’s gonna stay with you here at the house.”
I eyed Rebel hesitantly. I’d never owned a dog and this one looked intimidating. Rebel scrutinized me meticulously, suggesting he wasn’t much impressed about staying either.
“Shep, we didn’t talk about this. I don’t think it’s a great idea…” Ash said, hands resting on his hips as he eyed the dog warily. “Is that even a dog?”
“Nope, he’s a wolf. And it’s gonna be easy. Rebel will hang around and keep an eye on Finn. All she has to do is feed him once a day, make sure he has clean water, and let him outside when he needs to go. It’s simple,” Shep announced. “I’m staying tonight, so I’ll have time to teach Finn the commands she’ll need to know.”
“Commands?” I questioned sharply.
“Sure.” Shep rubbed his hand across the wolf’s ears and Rebel lifted his muzzle, rubbing his head against Shep’s khaki clad hip appreciatively. “Rebel will protect you, Finn. You give him the command and he’ll rip anything apart which tries to get near you.”
Slumping onto the couch, I shook my head in disbelief. “Shep, I can’t do this!” I threw my hands in the air helplessly, appealing to Shep for understanding. “I don’t know what to do with a dog, let alone a wolf!”
Shep released his grip on the leash and Rebel approached, bounding across the room, and sliding to an abrupt stop in front of my knee. He barked loudly and dropped his huge head onto my denim-clad leg, watching me intently as he rubbed his muzzle against my thigh.
Leaning against the doorjamb Shep laughed, the sound echoing through the room. “You might not think much of Rebel, but he apparently likes you okay.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I brushed my hair thoroughly, releasing the tangles from the day. It wasn’t exceptionally late, but I’d pleaded exhaustion, needing to escape the concerned looks and constant security discussions going on downstairs.
I dropped the hairbrush onto the bedside table with a sigh and pulled the covers back, slipping between the cool cotton sheets, and settling against the plump pillows. Sounds of the ocean crashing into the shore were easily distinguishable from here, a reminder of how far I was from home. In twenty-four years, I’d never left Illinois and now here I was, halfway across the country in a strange house, a strange town, a strange state. For the hundredth time, I wondered if this was the great idea Ash seemed to think it was.
Lying on my back, I gazed at the ceiling, tracing the ornate patterns in the plaster with my eyes, as I made a determined attempt to unwind. Ash and Shep meant well and my safety was of paramount importance to them; nevertheless, the constant reminders of how secure I would be in Cape Washington were suffocating. It was an unrelenting reminder of how life had turned upside down, why Bryan was dead. Squeezing my eyes shut I breathed deeply, willing the tears away. There had been a million tears shed in the past nine weeks, enough to fill an ocean and yet they continued to fall every time I thought of my brother. He’d been my protector, my friend, and losing him had been to lose a part of my soul.
Somewhere out there was the person they were protecting me from. The man who’d murdered my only brother, wanted to kill me. Ash thought his plan was foolproof; to bring me out here, far away from the murderer’s territory, on face value seemed a feasible proposal. Other than the four people downstairs, nobody would know where I was. Despite Ash’s confidence, nagging doubts continued to surface persistently, leaving me to wonder whether Ash’s plan could truly succeed. The killer was known for his superior cunning, an uncanny ability to stalk his prey and capture them. Was it possible that Ash and Shep could outsmart him?
Scraping noises alerted me to a presence outside the bedroom door and I held my breath. I hated being nervous like this. Being conscious of every movement, frightened by strange sounds was foreign to me. I’d never been jumpy, always had confidence enough to take care of myself. Now I was jumping at shadows, frightened of the dark and I hated it. For weeks I’d slept with the light on, needing the little measure of security, which kept the shadows at bay. It made me feel so foolish to need a night light, yet turning it off led to a wave of panic and breaking out in a cold sweat. Darkness was an enemy, a reminder of the helplessness I’d endured while I was held captive.
The scraping occurred for a second time, followed by a low whine and I rolled my eyes skyward with annoyance. Rebel. The wolf insisted on following me wherever I went, much to Shep’s amusement. Pushing back the covers, I slipped from the bed, padding barefoot across the floor to open the door and shoosh the dog away. Before the opportunity to shoosh presented itself, Rebel slipped through the narrow gap and made his way into the room, settling on the throw rug. With a contented grunt, he lay his head on his paws and shut his eyes.
“Now just hang on a minute…” I began, eyeing the wolf with uncertainty. Shep was evidently out of his mind, thinking I should keep a wolf here. He was a wild animal and had no business being in a house, let alone a bedroom.
Rebel lifted his head and gazed at me for a moment, as though waiting for an argument. When none was forthcoming, he laid his head back on his paws and shut his eyes again.
With an exasperated sigh, I watched the animal suspiciously. He seemed friendly, but the attack thing had me spooked. We’d never had a dog when we were kids and by no means had I harbored thoughts of a pet wolf. Particularly one who insisted on lying beside the bed. He appeared to be fond of me now, yet his opinion could easily change in the middle of the night. For a brief moment, I considered asking Shep to come get him, and then vetoed the idea. Shep would only laugh and tell me I was being ridiculous.
Stepping gingerly past Rebel I settled into bed, watching the wolf cautiously. Evidently, he wasn’t stressed in the slightest, curled up comfortably and soundly asleep. For a few seconds I wished I were he.
The steady hum of conversation was distinguishable from downstairs, punctuated occasionally by bursts of laughter. Shelby was enjoying herself, despite being stuck in ‘Hicksville’, as she’d christened the place. Personally, I found I quite liked it. After living in Chicago all my life, this was pleasurably quiet in comparison. With the waves rolling into shore and no traffic sounds, it was peaceful and soothing.
Shelby was a city girl at heart, born in Chicago and would undoubtedly live there all her life. The sights and sounds of inner city living were an integral part of who she was, what she loved. She was far more cosmopolitan than I’d ever be and considered Chicago the most beautiful city on earth. In school, she’d been the popular girl, fashionable, top of the class, and extremely intelligent. I’d been the bohemian type who was more interested in the arts, a free spirit who chose my own path and didn’t seek to pursue the trends everyone else followed. Despite our differences, we became close friends, spending most of our teenage years living in each other’s pockets. Every weekend would find Shelby staying at our house or I would stay at hers. When Shelby’s family went on holidays, I was invited to join them and in turn, Shelby would spend hours at our house, learning to bake with my Mom and joining us on annual camping trips.
Shelby was interested in men long before I discovered them, and had made it her life’s goal to find a partner for me. Her frustration increased incrementally as I rejected her many efforts over the years. It was commonplace to find me agreeing to one date, and then ditching them shortly thereafter. Whatever I was searching for, he hadn’t been found in the selection of men Shelby thrust towards me frequently. There was no doubt I would like a man in my life – sadly, not one of the possibilities Shelby threw my way was the right one.
For Shelby it was as fundamental as learning the alphabet – she adored men and dated prolifically. Her relationship with Taylor had lasted six months to date, a new record. They were extremely happy and by far the most attractive couple I’d ever seen. Shelby was tall and slender, elegant and classically beautiful. With long blond hair and flawless porcelain skin, she could have modeled if she’d chosen to pursue it, but corporate law was her obsession and a career in which she excelled. Shelby and Taylor met at a Christmas function – Taylor was a firefighter, who’d been moonlighting as a bartender at the event. They clicked immediately and Taylor’s calm serenity was the perfect foil to Shelby’s spirited personality. Taylor was African American, a solid six feet two inches tall with closely cropped hair and a plethora of finely defined muscle. They made a dramatic couple with Shelby’s fair complexion and Taylor’s whipped chocolate skin tone.
Satisfied that I wasn’t in danger of Rebel imminently attacking, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling again. It would be nice to have a man in my life – someone who cherished me, someone to share life with and love. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, thanks to Shelby’s continual meddling I’d dated extensively. All of the men I’d dated had been nice, but they’d never had the magical spark I sought.
With a sigh, I closed my eyes, clasping my hands together over my waist. What was I doing? Why was this in my thoughts, when I had bigger issues to deal with?
Honesty forced me to confront the reason for the subject being on my mind. He was sitting downstairs in the living room.
Known as Shep to his friends, Caleb was thirty-nine years old. He was six feet three inches of finely defined muscle, with a strong square jaw line and a superb set of dimples. His eyes were brilliant green, his olive skin tanned, his hair dark and shoulder length. He’d developed a friendship with Bryan six years ago and I’d found him incredibly attractive from the very first instant I set eyes on him.
And he was so far out of my league; we could be living on different planets.
Rolling back on my side, I pondered why I was so besotted with Shep – besides the obvious physical attraction – which was reason enough for infatuation. He was fun to spend time with, had a deep husky laugh and he delighted in any adventures that came his way. He lived life to the full, treated his friends with respect, and looked after his family. From what I knew, he had parents who adored him, two brothers who’d been blessed with the same stunning looks, and a younger sister he enjoyed teasing mercilessly. He was brilliant at his chosen career, running a private security company, which was well established and greatly respected. In fact, he was outstanding at everything he did. From the outset, I’d labeled him unobtainable and our relationship had always been friends with the common denominator of Bryan. When I met him, I was eighteen years old, he was thirty-three, and he’d treated me like a baby sister, which had never changed.
Our social circles saw us occasionally attending the same functions and Shep always arrived with a gorgeous girl on his arm. Women trailed after him like bees to honey and he was never short of a willing date. Rumors over the years suggested he was a passionately sexual man, his prowess in the bedroom reaching legendary proportions. Both Shelby and Bryan had intimated this fact from time to time and I had no doubt it was true. The man was like an Adonis and women no doubt fell over themselves to get into his bed.
I’d never admitted to anyone how I felt, not even Shelby. It was obvious I wasn’t his type.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unattractive. Standing five feet six inches in bare feet, my figure is curvaceous. Full breasts, slender waist, and curvy hips. Curvier than I would like, but hey, you can’t have everything. My auburn hair is long and thick, running halfway down my back in gentle waves. My skin is rosy and my eyes are blue, surrounded by naturally long dark lashes. Mom tells me how pretty I am, but naturally, she’s biased. I would never be classified as beautiful, not like the women Shep dated. He clearly had a ‘type’ – tall and slender, lean hips and petite breasts, exotic features, long blonde hair carefully styled – he’d dated dozens of them.
The sense of relief was tangible when I thought of Mom, knowing she was free from worry about my situation. Relocating to Cape Washington wasn’t an issue, because there was nobody to miss me. Mom was settled in the nursing home, and she wouldn’t recall if I’d been to visit. My father lived in Wisconsin with his new (much younger) wife and kids and I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. Dad was busy raising his new family and our relationship had reduced to intermittent phone calls. An assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins wouldn’t be concerned if they didn’t hear from me for months. Most of them were Dad’s relatives and had little to do with us since Mom and Dad’s divorce.
And Bryan was gone, leaving a gaping hole in my heart and my life.
Refusing to dwell on Bryan’s death, I returned to musing about Shep. It was utterly hopeless to think of him this way. He thought of me as a kid sister, nothing more. He was protective because he’d been Bryan’s friend and naturally worried about my safety. He’d never shown any sexual interest, other than the occasional compliment or a little harmless teasing. And why would he? Shep went for exotic women, sexy and bordering on supermodel material.
There was nothing particularly striking about me. The most exceptional thing I’d done was to ditch college and take my own path, creating a career as a freelance sculptor. I’d created my own business; ‘Finn’s Fripperies’ and sold my unique pieces to a boutique gift store in Chicago. I had a group of loyal friends, I’d never travelled far from Chicago, never been in any trouble. Occasionally drinking too much and smoking the odd joint were hardly signs of an edgy lifestyle. I had a few piercings and a tattoo. My life could be considered mundane.
Until recently, anyway. My life had taken a steep divergence from average the day I’d been kidnapped by the Chicago Heart Ripper.