A low, groaning whimper turned his head toward the corner of the dimly lit room. Huddled in a ball on the soiled mattress, his latest disappointment rocked to and fro, an empty shell of what she’d once been.
There wasn’t a single sign of the woman who’d caught his attention two short weeks ago. Sallow and brittle, her skin sagged off her petite frame, and her eyes, previously a radiant blue, had long since dimmed into a vacant stare. How in the hell could he have ever confused His Heart’s beauty with the creature cowering in front of him?
This brought him to an even dozen. Twelve failures. Twelve imposters who’d believed they could mask the gritty dirt beneath their shiny façades. Twelve women of whom he’d disposed, and who’d driven his goal further from reach.
That goal: to re-create the pure, magical connection that he’d experienced with His Heart.
“You shouldn’t have pretended.” Fueled by a flash of white-hot rage, he grasped the heavy chain by his feet and yanked. The pathetic form attached to the other end jolted three inches closer. “You shouldn’t have pretended to be something you’re not.”
“I’m s-sorry.” Each feeble attempt to claw her way back into her corner gouged the plastic ties on her wrists deeper into her flesh. “Please let me go.”
He tugged again, gaining another two inches. This time, her body melted into a puddle on the floor, every ounce of defiance, gone. Finally. Two long days of prolonged stubbornness, and they were nearly finished.
He dropped the chain and stalked to the powder-blue dress carefully hanging on the rack, ready to be used in then phase. Slowly, he trailed his fingers over the silken material, and closed his eyes. So soft. So pure.
Just like His Heart.
She’d faced adversity and had come out on top, was as strong as She was beautiful. She was resilient. She was his, no matter how much time passed or how much distance separated them.
With the image of Her in his mind, forgiveness swept through him, and with it, a wave of calm. He turned back to the shackled specimen on the floor. “In Her name, I will mend you and gift you a second chance…”
Hope flickered across the woman’s face as she mistook his words. They always did.
Deep in the recesses of his pocket, his fingers bumped against the syringe that he’d carefully filled less than a half hour ago. Its pale yellow liquid bubbled as he rolled it against the pads of his fingers. The imposter’s eyes locked on to the two-inch needle, and in one final display of defiance, she screamed.
No one would hear her. No one would come to her rescue. And once his slate was wiped clean, he’d start over. Next time, he’d get it right. Or he’d simply try again.
Chin up. Shoulders back. Breathe. Do not puke on the crime scene.
At her last position running the Washington, DC crime lab, Zoey Wright had never needed a peppy mantra. There wasn’t much that was nausea-inducing about Petri dishes and microfibers. But thirty minutes into her first on-site homicide and she’d already hit an even two dozen mental replays.
Repetition wasn’t working.
Lieutenant Mason side-eyed her as they shouldered their way through a thick crowd of onlookers. “You look like you’re going to blow any second, kid. If you need to go around the corner and stick your finger down your throat, do it now. But you damn well better not contaminate my crime scene.”
“I’m good.” Zoey breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth.
The sixty-year-old police veteran lifted his bushy white eyebrows. “So good that you’re the exact shade of green my wife made me paint our kitchen last week? Don’t kid a kidder, Wright. If it gets too much for you, go take a breather. No one will think any less of you.”
If she let an acute case of nerves derail years of hard work and her position as DC’s only civilian crime scene investigator, she’d think less of herself. Not to mention the ammunition it would provide her hotshot detective brother in his quest to get her to return to the lab—if she’d told Cade about her job switch-a-roo in the first place.
She’d given herself until next week to break the news, but this assignment bumped the deadline up to tonight. As head of the Special Crimes Task Force Cade could—and would—turn the corner at any second.
Zoey cursed the ill-timed bacon maple doughnut that she’d inhaled on the ride from the station to M Street and spotted her brother’s truck among the squad cars and unmarked police vehicles lining both sides of the street. At one in the morning, most family-run businesses had long since closed, which meant the gathering crowd had come from the dance club down the block. Anyone who lived, worked, or played in the District during the last six months knew a police turnout of this magnitude meant one thing.
“Do you have any words of wisdom to lay on me before we get there?” Zoey tugged their collection cart behind her, giving it a little extra oomph when it lodged into a crater-sized crack.
“Yep. Don’t inhale food fifteen minutes before being called to a homicide.”
Zoey’s glare fired off a small chuckle. She took the good-natured barb and followed the older man to the yellow police tape that cordoned off the alley from the rest of the world.
“You make sure everyone stayed out of our scene, Reed?” Mason stopped in front of the officer stationed at the mouth of the alley.
“Only ones who’ve been down that way besides your people is the guy who called it in. He’s giving his statement to Detective Wright now,” Officer Scott Reed mentioned her brother.
Zoey swung her gaze around, expecting Cade to pop up at any second. When he didn’t show, she released a small sigh of relief…until Mason ducked beneath the rope, leaving her alone with Reed. She’d barely cleared the tape when Scott stepped into her path. His tall frame and wrestler’s build made him impossible to ignore, as did the gaze he skimmed over her body. It slid over her three times before his mouth lifted into a grin he probably thought sexy.
She considered it creepy.
Scott shifted a little closer. “You’re all over the place these days, aren’t you? I tried calling you a few times after our date. I even left a couple messages.”
“Really? Huh.” Zoey pushed her glasses back onto her nose, a nervous habit she’d acquired in grade school. “I’ve been having problems with my phone holding voicemails hostage. I’m looking into another model.”
And another phone number. That “date” had been the worst she’d ever been on—and thanks to a romance app and one too many blind setups, she’d been on a handful of doozies.
“Maybe we can catch up tonight when this circus is all over. What do you say? You. Me. We can grab a bottle of wine and head back to my place…or yours. I’m not particular.” Scott flashed her a suggestive wink. “We can have fun at either place.”
Zoey barely suppressed a disgusted grunt. “Sorry, but I’m going to be here for a while. You know how thorough Mason likes to be. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Okay, sure. Maybe next time.”
Unless they stepped into the Twilight Zone, there wouldn’t be a next time. Someone’s family member wouldn’t make it home for another dinner or pose for this year’s holiday card. One life ended meant dozens—and more—would never be the same, and he stood there, sensing an opportunity to fill a few empty hours—and her pants.
Before Scott made another play, she hustled over to where the lieutenant waited.
Mason chuckled as she approached. “Finalize your plans?”
“Thanks for the save. You could’ve thrown me a life jacket, a T-bone, or something…but no, you practically fed me to the wolves…er, wolf.”
“Figured you’d gotten yourself into that mess all alone and that you’d get yourself out. But I can’t deny being curious how the hell that happened. I always thought you were the smart Wright sibling.”
“It happened because I hadn’t been on a date in far longer than I’m admitting aloud. It was one time, and I barely made it out of my apartment before I realized I’d made a mistake. Trust me, it’s not going to happen again. I’ve proclaimed a moratorium on romance. It’s career first from this point on.”
“What did Romeo do to make you see the error of your ways?”
“Ogled the rear end of my sixty-year-old neighbor before we’d even made it to the car. Then the waitress’s legs at the restaurant. And I don’t want to know what went through his mind when he stared at the boobs of the barely-legal ticket-taker at the movies.”
“What an ass.” Mason snorted.
“Not going to disagree with you.”
At five foot three, Zoey didn’t possess the lithe body of a runway model, and her B cup had more wiggle room than she’d like. Girl-next-door cute. That’s how one coworker had described her eclectic style to another. It wasn’t a term with which every twenty-seven-year-old woman wanted to be linked, but it didn’t bother her enough to give up her vintage Monkees T-shirts either.
Zoey fidgeted with her shirt collar. As it did whenever she contemplated wearing something more revealing than neck-high cotton, the healed scar over her breastbone itched.
Those six inches of puckered skin definitely weren’t cute.
Their debut appearance came with her first open-heart surgery when she was mere days old. A rerun surgery before her first birthday darkened them. Following a third operation at the age of seven, the scar widened, and then after puberty hit and she had her fourth, it thickened.
Last year’s emergent heart valve replacement brought her open-heart surgery grand total to a whopping five. Five times her chest had been cracked open. Five layers of gnarled, angry scar tissue loitered between her breasts, a physical reminder she’d skipped pajama parties and Spin the Bottle, and went straight to responsibility-laden adulthood.
Number five had been her wake-up call because some born with Tetralogy of Fallot didn’t get a sixth chance. Shedding the crime lab’s cold isolation and joining scene investigation was the first step in redefining life on her own terms. Having lost his son a few years ago to a chronic illness, Mason got that, and had been a big reason why she’d stepped so far out of her comfort zone.
But the calm, laid-back man who’d taken a chance on her wasn’t in that alley. The second they reached the site, he started barking orders. Crime scene techs bustled around the perimeter, not willing to incur his wrath for being too slow—or worse, sloppy.
Within the hour, the small four-flapped tent set off to the left would be filled with detectives and forensic scientists, all members of the task force who couldn’t do their job until Zoey and Mason finished theirs.
She pulled the collection cart away from pedestrian foot traffic and kicked the wheel lock into position. On her right, a generator hummed to life. Overhead lights blinked once before flooding the entire alley into pseudo-daylight.
Zoey’s lungs froze.
Having worked the string of homicides for the last six months in the lab, she thought she’d be okay, but pictures and written reports had nothing on the dark reality that rooted her feet to the ground.
Laid out on a pristine white blanket, as if her killer had wanted to make her comfortable, was the young victim. Her sleek blond hair had been meticulously brushed and fanned out over her shoulders; the wounds on her wrists, carefully bandaged.
The killer staged her resting place like he’d done the others—far enough from people so as to avoid detection himself, close enough for the woman to be discovered quickly.
“Wright.” Mason’s voice ripped Zoey from her trance. He watched her carefully, no annoyance or judgment on his face. Only concern. “You okay?”
Zoey forced her returning midnight snack back down her throat and let out a slow breath. “Yeah. It took me by surprise. I’m sorry.”
“Hell, you don’t need to apologize. When shit like this stops making your stomach roll it’s time to get the fuck out…pardon my language.”
“Do you apologize to all your trainees for swearing?”
“Not a damn one.”
“Then don’t start with me. Tonight, I’m the newbie grunt. Put me to work.”
Mason didn’t need to be told twice. He tilted his head in a slight nod and then immediately snapped orders. In the field, she wasn’t Detective Cade Wright’s little sister. She was the woman who’d hopefully replace Mason as lead CSI when he retired in a few years.
“You know the drill.” Mason tossed her a Tyvek suit and gestured to the far right corner. “We start outside and work our way in. You photograph, drop a placard when needed, and log. Watch where you’re stepping. Once that’s all done, we’ll start back at square one and begin the collection. Questions?”
“Not a one.” Zoey shook her head.
Mason threw a fierce glare to the hovering technicians. “If any of you even think about doing something helpful, don’t. Unless Wright or I give you the okay to breathe, you hold your breath. If you can’t follow that simple rule, get off my scene now. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” a chorus of affirmations sounded around them.
Zoey secured her hair into a low ponytail, and after tugging her suit over her shorts and T-shirt, she donned her plastic booties. Satisfied she looked enough like a condom and wouldn’t bring any contaminants into the crime scene, she grabbed her camera and got to work.
Picture. Placard. Log. Move onward. With her camera in hand, Zoey lost herself in the methodical pattern of canvassing and documenting, repetitive movements that never ceased to put her mind at ease. Before long, she stood two feet away from the victim.
Zoey counted to a long, drawn-out ten, then forced herself to examine the reason DCPD informally dubbed the monster responsible the Beltway Cupid Killer.
Its top curves barely peeked out above the blue dress’s sweetheart neckline, but it was there—a perfectly symmetrical heart carved into the flesh over the victim’s sternum. Even without the medical examiner’s report, she knew it would be the lone disfigurement other than bruised wrists and a single needle mark.
“I am so sorry this happened to you.” Zoey battled welling tears.
Around her own age, or maybe a few years younger, the woman could’ve been a teacher or a nurse, maybe a college student from down the block like the last three victims had been.
No matter who she’d been in her life, she didn’t deserve to have her hopes and dreams cut short. This was the difficult part of the job. There was no rewinding time and stepping in before someone got hurt.
There was only picking up the pieces and praying that one of those fragments helped put a loved one’s mind at ease. Mason crouched on the other side. “I always come in hoping to God that it’s not another one.”
Zoey chiseled her dry tongue off the roof of her mouth. “I didn’t come across a purse or an ID. Did you?”
“Nah. Didn’t expect to since he didn’t leave them behind at the other scenes. The bastard’s nothing if not predictable. We’ll find out who she is and make sure to notify next of kin.” The sky rumbled off in the distance. Mason glanced up and cursed. “That storm’s coming in fast. We need to get this entire scene covered because I’ll be damned if I’m going let a single strand of evidence wash away.”
“I’ll go get the tents,” Zoey volunteered.
She backtracked toward the safe zone, careful not to disturb anything in the process. Less than five seconds into the arduous task of tugging off her protective gear, a familiar tingle formed at the base of her neck.
The strange, shiver-like phenomenon occurred whenever Knox Steele stood in close proximity, a sad reminder of the embarrassing level of interest she had for Cade’s best friend. But it wasn’t possible. Knox hadn’t stepped foot in DC in years—over two, to be exact.
“You’re a little far from the lab, aren’t you, angel? You get lost?”
Zoey’s hand stalled on her zipper.
That voice. The impossible became reality because Knox Steele’s low, husky baritone couldn’t be replicated—except by the Knox who visited in her dreams.
Zoey turned on reflex, and came face-to-face with the man himself. Sexily rumpled, Knox’s dark hair curled over his ears as if he’d rolled out of bed a few minutes ago. Heavily worn blue jeans hung off his trim waist, and a leather jacket and dark cotton tee emphasized his broad chest and even wider shoulders.
Her heart stumbled into a double-time beat, and warmth rushed to her cheeks—and all points south. Under normal circumstances, she’d be ecstatic to realize her feminine parts hadn’t dried up and turned to dust. But there wasn’t anything normal about Knox’s presence, or the way his alert focus conjured life into her usually dormant libido.
Standing less than three feet away from her teenage fantasy, she’d never been more aware of the fact that with her Tyvek suit zipped to her chin and the hood pulled over her limp blond hair, she could’ve played the principal part in a live-action sex ed presentation. Knox, all six foot three inches of him, looked as if he’d stepped straight off the pages of Bad Boy Weekly.
She bumped her glasses onto the bridge of her nose even though they hadn’t yet fallen, and forcefully put her attention back to shedding her suit. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
“You sure about that? This doesn’t look like the crime lab—or your bed. Does Cade know you’re here?”
“Are you sure about where you are? In case your cell doesn’t have a map app, you’re in DC. Thought you should know since you’ve made it your life’s mission to avoid this place like the plague.”
The muscle in Knox’s jaw ticked wildly. If he’d been someone else, she’d apologize for hitting a nerve. Not with him. A former US Army Ranger like her brother, he could take that and a lot more.
“Hey, Wright!” Mason’s voice shouted, garnering her attention. The older police officer pointed to the sky. “Put a little hustle into it!”
Saved by the grumpy lieutenant.
Without another word, or a glance at Knox, Zoey deposited her suit into a large collection bag—in case any crucial evidence managed to stick on to her person—and handed it over to the tech to put with the others. Walking back toward the CSI van, she fumed. Unlike the rest of his brothers, Knox hadn’t returned home after his discharge two years ago. He’d wiped his hands clean of everyone, not even gifting them an occasional I’m-Not-Dead text. And now he was going to stand there, naughty smirk in place, and make comments about her life decisions?
No thank you.
The Zoey Knox had known two long years ago would’ve been tucked into her bed, sound asleep, with her cat, Snuggles, curled next to her pillow. But last year, she vowed that if her bum heart kept throwing obstacles into her daily routine, the least she could do was enjoy life in between the chaos.
Her heart worked fine now, nearly all textbook characteristics of Tetralogy of Fallot resolved. Things that had at one time been a trial were now second nature. She even maintained a healthy exercise routine, and because of her once-a-week self-defense class, could almost throw larger assailants over her shoulder and onto the mats.
But that was something he wouldn’t have known because he hadn’t been around.
Cue mic drop.
Zoey possessed a strength she’d never known before—and yet after one prolonged glance from the eldest Steele brother, breathing ceased being an automatic physical response.
She needed distance to pull her head back on straight.
She needed time to collect her thoughts—and keep down her food.
She needed Knox Steele messing up her life like she needed another hole in her heart.