(the Mindhunters series, Book 1)

(ISBN: 9781426892196)

Chapter One

The cold, hard tile of the ladies’ room wall felt good against her cheek as Maggie attempted to regroup. Pushing up from the floor, she brushed off the seat of her pants and straightened her blouse, performing a mental body scan. Breathing back to normal. Pulse slowing.

Good news—she was going to survive.

Of course, she always did. If only her brain could believe it.

Knowing she had to get back, Maggie blotted her face with a wet paper towel and tossed it into the trash on her way out.

Her director shot her a look of concern as she strode into the radio station’s production booth. Tall, lanky and in his mid-twenties, David Talbot had been her right-hand man since Chicago Great Lakes University had asked her to start a talk show nine months ago. A communications student, David had jumped at the chance to work here. With raised eyebrows, he silently asked, Are you okay?

With a nod of reassurance, she returned to her desk. Her portion of the studio was the sound booth, a small room just past David’s area, separated by a wall of glass through which they could see each other. As David cued her, she took a sip of water with a hint of lime before speaking into the microphone in front of her.

“Welcome back to Live with Levine. I’m Dr. Margaret Levine.” Her wilted confidence bloomed again as she pulled her theoretical therapist’s cloak around her. “I’ve got Dan from downtown Chicago on the line with me. Before the commercial break, Dan, you were telling us about your personal tragedy. Your wife was recently shot and killed during a mugging.”

“Yes.” The man’s voice clogged with tears. “I don’t know what I’ll do without her.”

“It sounds like you really miss her.” Maggie’s heart tore for him as a flash of her brother’s smiling face hit her in the chest like a battering ram. Her breathing hitched and her pulse rate picked up as the image was quickly replaced with one of Brad lying in a pool of blood.

“Tell us about your wife,” Maggie prompted gently, focusing on her breathing. As Dan from downtown talked through his tears about his wife of five years, she struggled against the urge to flee and curl up in that bathroom stall again. The details of Dan’s tragedy were so similar to hers. She couldn’t help but think about it, and the remembered images threatened to overwhelm her.

Especially today, of all days.

“Thank you, Dan, for sharing your story with us. It takes a lot of courage to face each day as you have.” She knew that firsthand. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Check in with us and let us know how you’re doing, okay?”

The man drew in a shaky breath and blew it out. “Okay. Thanks for listening, Dr. Levine.”

“Anytime.” She looked at the board in front of her, lit up with lights, each one representing a person who needed a listening ear, and picked the next one in the queue. It had already been a long night in the city of Chicago, and still there were people who needed to tell their stories.

Maggie glanced at the computer screen, skimming David’s notes on the caller. “Hello, Frantically Frustrated, how can we help tonight?”

A woman’s voice answered. “My mother-in-law is insane.”

Maggie’s lips twitched. Now here was something that wouldn’t make her think of her brother. Or panic attacks. “How so?”

“She wants to move in with us. And that would totally make me insane.” Through the glass partition, Maggie saw David chuckling.

“And what does your husband say about this?”

The caller sighed. “Nothing. He refuses to worry about it. And he won’t, until she shows up on our doorstep with luggage in hand.” There was a slight pause. “I’ve been dreaming about giving him an ultimatum. Her or me.”

“It’s the Fourth of July, so I’d expect a few fireworks tonight, but be careful. Don’t say things you can’t take back.”

“I wouldn’t actually confront him. I can’t even talk to him about it.”

“Can’t or won’t? Don’t be afraid. Try just sitting down and talking to him first. Calmly. Tell him how you feel. What you fear.”

There was a pause on the other end, but Maggie didn’t rush in to fill the silence. Waiting a person out usually paid off despite the moments of dead air. When the woman spoke again, her voice was subdued. “I’m afraid he’ll close himself off from me. Or, worse, choose his mother.”

“That’s good. Name your fear, decide to face it head-on, and it can’t control you. But you’ll never know what your husband’s thinking if you don’t ask. Let him in. He can’t read your mind. I’m sure if you talk to him, he’ll see how important this is to you. Communication is power. Your fear is eating away at that power. Don’t let fear win.”

She glanced at the clock on the wall, noting it was two minutes until midnight. Almost Tuesday. Her shift at WGLU was almost over. “I see our time has just about drawn to a close.” Through the glass, David held up one long finger and pointed toward her computer screen. She selected the one he’d highlighted for her. “But we have time for one more quick call.”

At least, she hoped it was quick. She was eager to get home to Sigmund and curl up with him and a good book before sinking into a few precious hours of sleep. Too soon, the holiday break would be over and it would be time to return to the university to teach her summer-school psych classes. The new session began on Thursday.

Maggie pushed the blinking button. “Hello,” she said in a husky voice—the one the station manager threatened to trademark. “You’re on live with Dr. Margaret Levine. What’s your question?”

A familiar low chuckle filled her ears. One side of her mouth quirked upward in a half smile of recognition. The night just got more interesting. And perhaps more tedious. She never knew what this man was going to say.

She sat forward in her chair. “Happy Fourth of July, Owen. It’s been a while.” A few weeks, anyway. That was a long time to go between calls from Owen. He wasn’t a stranger, but he could be strange. There was something about him, something that mocked the world and its general populace. An inflated sense of superiority she found amusing.

And he was usually good for some excellent banter.

“I’ve been around, listening. You missed me.” The words weren’t a question and were deep with intimacy, as if it were only the two of them and not most of the university and half of Chicago listening.

Maggie rubbed her arms against a sudden chill. She had her boundaries, and she wouldn’t let this man cross them. She reminded herself that she was in a radio booth, probably miles away from her caller. He couldn’t even see her. Didn’t know what she looked like. But then, she didn’t know him from David either. She wouldn’t know if she passed him on the street.

“What can I help you with tonight?”

Another chuckle filled her ears. “You’ve got it backward. It is I who can help you.” His pretentious tone grated. She ignored the stab of annoyance she felt at the thought he might be mocking her. Owen had a tendency to get preachy, which was not the object of her show.

“Help me? Regarding what, exactly?” Mentally, she reviewed the night’s conversations.

“What you said about fear, and being afraid. It was wrong.”

She raised an eyebrow as he chuckled again. Her temper, too often annoyingly consistent with the stereotype about redheads, flared at his condescending tone, but the psychiatrist in her controlled it. After all, she preferred to think of her hair as auburn. Drawing on her clinical demeanor, and adding a healthy dose of curiosity, she continued. “By all means, enlighten us.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he mimicked in a singsong voice. “I can’t believe you’re telling the public that. Fear is what makes our blood pump through our bodies. It doesn’t take away our power. It is power.”

“Well, fear is often accompanied by an adrenaline rush and can make you experience things differently,” she acknowledged. “It’s the fight-or-flight response preparing our bodies to face something or someone down or to flee. But fear can also paralyze us and make us reluctant to face things.” She knew that all too well.

“Everything, every action every person takes is related to fear.” The tempo of his voice picked up in his excitement. “We can’t live without it. It’s what makes our blood flow. It’s what motivates us in everything. Anxiety, for instance—”

This time, Maggie forced a chuckle, wincing when it came out sounding nervous. “Oh, come now, Owen. Anxiety can be thought of as a type of fear, but it doesn’t make the world go round. We’d all be a bunch of neurotics.”

Her gaze went to the clock. The show was almost over. She balked at him going down this road with her on the air, especially in the final two minutes, when she couldn’t delve deeper. She didn’t want to leave her audience on an awkward or confusing note. It would be irresponsible.

“And yet—” Owen’s voice took on a condescending ring “—people are anxious because they are afraid. And rightly so.” He sounded quite proud of himself.

“Some would say that’s just nature, not fear. That we’re wired to thrive on stressors of various kinds.”

“We’re animals at heart, Maggie.” He switched to her nickname with such ease, prickles of alarm crept across the back of her neck. Callers respectfully called her Dr. Levine, or Dr. Margaret. Only friends and family called her Maggie. It was one of those boundaries she’d so carefully erected and maintained. “And animals thrive on fear, not anxiety. That’s what makes predators so powerful. They sense the fear in their prey. They use it.”

“You sound like a scientist.” Maggie covered her unease with another husky laugh as David signaled her to wrap things up. Something about the way Owen’s voice had turned cold and hard when he spoke of predators set off alarm bells in her head, and her instincts were usually right.

Well, they used to be.

“Don’t mock me,” Owen snapped, his voice no longer simply hard but solid and cutting as a diamond. Maggie’s chilled blood turned downright icy. “You think you know everything, but you have much to learn. Perhaps I could teach you a thing or two. I’ve dedicated years to this subject, Maggie, and I know it’s one that’s close to your heart.”

What did he know?

A hard knot of pain formed behind her breastbone, pushing until she felt as if her heart might be expanding in her chest. The notes written on the papers in front of her blurred and swam.

Not now. Please, not again. Maybe she shouldn’t have stopped taking the anxiety medication. But she’d been doing so much better, before today.

“I’m an avid student of the human psyche.” Owen laughed, but it was no less frightening.

Through the window that separated her small room from the production booth, David cast her a worried look. She shook her head, signaling him that she would handle it, even as she felt a shiver rack her body. She gritted her teeth against it, forcing a deep breath, focusing on things that were real. The pounding of her pulse at her temple. The tightness of her neck from her rigid posture. The almost miniscule electronic whir of equipment and an open mic. The lingering acid taste of the soda she’d had with dinner, combined with the taste of fear.

I am in control.

“Interesting theory, Owen.” She forced her clenched teeth to relax enough to get the words out. She pushed the button to take him off the air before he could say anything more. “But that’s all the time we have left tonight. Join me, Dr. Margaret Levine, tomorrow night where my focus will be depression. In the meantime, treat yourselves gently.”

After her signature sign-off message, Maggie removed the headphones and sat back in her chair, uncertain her shaky legs would carry her to the break room across the hall. David rushed in with his usual long strides, running his fingers over the top of his buzz-cut dark hair. As a graduate communications student doing his internship at the station, he worked sixty hours a week, thriving on caffeine and nicotine. It was no wonder he was skinny as a flagpole. But he was sharp. And right now, he was excited.

“Owen again. I thought he’d be a good way to end the show, but man, I’m sorry. That guy’s missing some cookies from his jar, isn’t he? He sure knows how to get our listeners stirred up, though. After that show on personality disorders, we had more people calling in to respond to his comments than ever before.” David paced the small room. Two steps were all he could manage before he ran out of space and had to pivot. “I should ask Sharon to come in tomorrow and help man the phones.”

The station’s undergraduate intern, Sharon Moss, worked about twenty hours a week. A vibrant, hard-working girl, she enjoyed working on Live with Levine. More important, David clearly liked her and relished an excuse to be with her.

Maggie bit down hard on her bottom lip, resisting the urge to rub the growing ache in her chest. When her breath hitched in smaller and smaller increments, she knew this wasn’t going away soon. First, Dan’s mention of his wife dying by a violent hand, and now Owen’s tirade about fear.

Twice in one night, after months of nothing.

But then, this was no ordinary night. Today was the first anniversary of Brad’s death.

I am in control, I am in control, she chanted to herself. But it was obvious to her she was not in control.

“Excuse me.” She suddenly pushed up from her chair and walked as quickly as she could to the bathroom down the hall. Trying to suck a decent breath of air into her frozen lungs, she stumbled into the first stall. She slammed the door closed and slumped against it, then sank to the floor and rested her head against the wall. Again, the coolness seemed to help. After suffering from similar episodes for the past twelve months, she knew what to expect. And what helped.

The shaking took over then, and she chanted her mantra through gritted teeth until she felt her color return, her pulse slow.

I am in control. She’d say it until she believed it.

Oh God, Brad. What I wouldn’t give to speak to you today. And every day for a full lifetime.

A knock came at the ladies’ room door, followed by David’s hesitant voice as he slowly pushed it open a crack. “Maggie? You okay?”

She pulled herself up from the floor and was grateful when her legs supported her. “Yeah. Just a stomach bug or something. I’ll be right out.”

After splashing water on her face and holding a cool paper towel to the back of her neck, she examined the damage. Eyes dilated. Cheeks flushed. But nobody but a doctor would recognize the symptoms. Or they would mistake them for some passing ailment.

“Fake it ’til you make it,” she muttered to herself.

She balled up the paper towel, then tossed it with more force than necessary into the trash bin. Angry now that she’d allowed herself to become upset again, she embraced the increased adrenaline. The sooner she could wrap things up at work, the sooner she could get home to familiar, safe surroundings. To Sigmund, whose purring would soothe her fears.

Fear. Anxiety. The very words had her wanting to sink to the floor again. Of all the things she’d said in the past hour, why would Owen pick that as a point of contention? Did he know about her panic attacks, or had he just followed the news last summer, like everyone else within a hundred-mile radius of Chicago, and made an educated guess?

She found David waiting for her in the break room, concern etched in his forehead. “You’re sick? Why didn’t you take the night off? We could have played a tape of an old show.”

She shrugged and attempted a smile. It came off weak, she knew. “It kind of hit me at the end. I’m fine now.”

He looked closer, but she turned to the fridge to grab a can of juice. Adopting a lighter tone, she strived for normalcy. “Got any plans?”

“For tonight?”

“It is the Fourth of July in the big city. Even past midnight, there’s got to be a party somewhere.”

After a shrug, he seemed to decide she was back to her usual self and smiled. “I didn’t, but now I think I’ll give Sharon a call and fill her in. She’s usually up late.”

“Gives you an excuse to talk to her.” His crush on the girl was evident to everyone within fifty feet of the pair. She wondered if Sharon knew that he flushed bright red all the way to his ears whenever anyone so much as mentioned her name.

God, sometimes she felt so old. When was the last time she’d had that zing of new love? College? That had been years ago. At thirty-three, she’d given up feeling that kind of electric connection again.

Brad had been in love. Her younger brother had even talked engagement to his long-time girlfriend before… Well, it was best not to go down that road now. Not unless she wanted to spend some more quality time in the ladies’ room tonight, slumped against the wall.

David grinned. “Exactly. We could use her help anyway, right? If Owen calls back, we’ll have a big show on our hands tomorrow night, just like last time. We’ll be golden.”

She frowned. “Not everyone was happy about his opinions last time.”

“Yeah, he set off several nights of angry response calls, not to mention the letters.”

That he’d upset people was putting it mildly. In fact, his discussion about personality disorders had almost sparked an all-out war of words with her listeners. And Owen had clearly enjoyed it. She’d responded to every one of the calls and letters.

“But Steveroni was happy,” David added.

Since he was turned away, pulling his usual post-show energy drink from the fridge, David missed her eye roll. The station manager, Steve Marconi, was not her concern. Technically, he was her boss, and therefore should be important to her, but she’d lost respect about the twelfth time he’d “bumped” into her. The not-so-innocent brushes of his hand were usually followed by an invitation to “dinner.” She couldn’t get much clearer than no, other than maybe hell, no. But she strived for professionalism and she couldn’t let herself say that to him. She was not interested in making Steveroni happy.

“Maybe we can encourage Owen to call again, maybe even more frequently.” David popped the top to his drink and took a gulp. He paced the room as he had before, excitement reddening his cheeks so that the freckles that dotted them almost disappeared. “I’d bet we can increase listener numbers by double, maybe triple.” Maggie blanched. Seeing her negative reaction, David hurried on. “I’m not saying you don’t already have a large audience. You’ve become the most popular radio personality in Chicago.” He misunderstood her scowl, and continued to press his point. “I’ve heard Steveroni grumble that you would leave if some other, non-university station offered you more money.” That was news to her. “It’s only that if you had a regular verbal exchange with Owen, more people might tune in.”

She didn’t want the popularity. She’d rather be an unknown. But she wanted to help people, and her radio show was the best way she knew how while still protecting her…boundaries.

“I mean, he loves to talk with you. He can be a jerk about it, but your topics seem to challenge him. He almost can’t resist calling in to argue.”

Maggie cocked her head. “And you want to create a stalker out of him.”

It was David’s turn to blanch. “No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Oh God, Doc, is that what you thought?” He shook his head adamantly as one finger picked at the tab at the top of his drink. “I would never encourage that.”

“And yet that’s exactly the characteristics I hear in Owen.” She rubbed her arms to ward off another sudden chill, then rose. “Look, let’s just let things lie for now, shall we?”

Shamefaced and deflated, he nodded solemnly. “Whatever you say.”

Maggie felt as if she’d kicked a puppy for licking her face. Kicked him hard, with steel-toed boots. David was always supportive, always upbeat and a great production director. He was also filled with the naive idealism of untested youth.

She sighed. “I said for now. We’ll talk about it later.”

He tossed a glance back over his shoulder, his mouth curved upward. “Okay. Let me close up shop and I’ll walk you to your car.”

It was their usual routine, but tonight Maggie welcomed the company more than other nights. Entering the dimly lit parking lot in the wee hours of the morning was always a bit scary, but after her odd conversation with Owen, she wouldn’t leave anything, especially her safety, to chance. The lot was on campus but on the edge, and a dark, weed-choked empty lot bordered it on one side. There were bushes over there large enough for a grown man to hide behind.

“All set,” David said fifteen minutes later, poking his head into the break room where Maggie was reviewing her notes for tomorrow’s show. Depression was always a topic that hit home with a lot of people. She tried to touch on it every couple months.

After gathering her things in the soft leather tote her family had given her when she graduated from med school, she went with David down two flights of stairs to the ground floor, then out the double glass doors. Her heels clicked on the pavement, and she wished she’d thought to change into running shoes. Just in case.

A sudden boom made her jump, but the streak of red and white that lit up the sky was innocent enough. Someone in a nearby neighborhood was doing some late celebrating of the nation’s birthday. It was now July fifth, but the sound of Black Cats pop-popping in the distance told her more than one person was planning to continue celebrating.

David, apparently unaware of her nerves, sent her a smile as they reached her car. She’d parked in her usual spot, not too far from the front doors—as close as she could get—and under the dim orange light of the parking lamp. The light was hazy, the air thick with the humidity that proclaimed a summer storm was in the making. They needed the rain after the heat wave that had seized hold of Chicago the past few weeks. But the heat kept burning off the clouds.

Not wanting David to think she was totally paranoid, Maggie resisted the urge to look under her car. Instead, she hurried to unlock the door to her old, practical Volvo while help was still nearby. Closing herself in, she locked the doors and rolled down the window, smiling in relief at her companion. “Have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Sure thing.” He turned to leave, but hesitated and turned back to her. “And don’t worry, Doc. What happened before will never happen again.”

Maggie ignored the prickles that stabbed her skin at the thought of the past. Why did he have to bring that up now? She sucked a breath through her nose and blew it out through her mouth. “I know.”

“I mean, what are the chances? That was a one-in-a-million type thing.”

There was a time she wouldn’t have thought it could have happened at all. She’d been young and foolish and had believed if she was good to people, they’d be good to her. Nearly a year later, she was all too aware of the lengths a person could go to if pushed.

“Good night, David.” She tried to soften the stern tone with a tight smile.

He thumped the roof of the car with his knuckles. “Good night.”

As he walked away, she immediately checked the back seat to be sure nobody was hiding there and turned the key in the ignition. All before David got too far away. He could still hear her shouts for help at this distance, if need be. Or, there was always the panic button on the car alarm she’d had installed. Thankfully, however, everything was okay. She was alone.

Within minutes on the drive home, her grip relaxed and her knuckles regained their pink color. She’d chosen the shortest of her three routes home today. She usually varied her route a bit. But short was best today. She longed to be home, behind familiar, solid walls and the protection of a state-of-the-art home security system.

Pulling into the two-car garage of her modest home in Wilmette, a pleasant older suburb a short drive from the university, she closed the garage door behind her. She sat, watching it descend in the rearview mirror before getting out of the car.

“Here, kitty,” she called as she entered the house and flipped on a light. She moved to the wall, quickly punching in the code to rearm the security system.

Sigmund usually met her in the hallway between the garage and the rest of the house, skidding down the polished wood floor before recovering his dignity and weaving between her legs. The chubby orange-striped cat, who reminded her of Garfield except for his shorter hair, could move impressively fast for an overweight beast. But tonight there was no sign of him.

Maggie switched on another light in the kitchen, dropping her bag on the countertop. The warm glow of the lights soothed her shattered nerves.

“I’m home, baby.” She tossed her keys down next to her satchel before moving back into the hall. Maybe the cat was napping on her bed. Still, he usually met her at the door, wanting his dinner. He’d adapted to her late hours months ago.

“Are you hungry?” Making her way toward the living room, she paused in midstep, an acrid smell burning her nostrils. And not the lingering scent of the dinner she’d cooked before she’d left for work that evening.

Wet copper. Warm pennies.

She stopped at the archway into the living room and flipped on another light. Her hand flew to her mouth. Dark smears violated her pristine cream-colored living room walls. The smears formed letters, the same letters over and over again. F. E. A. R. Splashed and dripping across the long wall over the couch. Letters six inches or three feet, cursive or block. The four-letter word was written repeatedly across the living room in various styles and sizes. But all in blood.

Only when her bottom hit the hardwood floor did Maggie realize she’d lost the strength in her legs. Her eyes swiveled down the hall to the alarm, noting the red light that marked it as armed. It had been armed when she walked in, too, hadn’t it? Yes, she clearly remembered the red light being on when she’d punched in her code. Was the intruder still in the house? And how had he gotten in to begin with?

And, dear God, where had all of that blood come from?

“Sigmund!” she called past vocal cords strung tight with fear. The sound of panic in her voice had her breath coming in short bursts for the third time this evening. Damn it. She should have taken a pill after the last time. She carried one with her at all times, just in case. But she’d foolishly thought she could control it. On this, of all days.

“Sigmund!” she called again, but it was more of a pathetic croak as she couldn’t muster enough air into her aching chest. Whimpering, she slid backward until her spine hit the wall, then hugged her knees to her chest. A large ball of orange fur bolted from somewhere in the back of the house, skirted the edge of the living room and leaped into her arms. Maggie gasped in relief, then ran her fingers through Sigmund’s fur, holding on for dear life as her muscles shook, fighting for control.

The harsh ringing of the phone jolted through her. Holding Sigmund to her chest with one arm, she crawled her way to the phone in the kitchen, unwilling to trust her legs to support her. Jerking the cord to pull the phone down from its cradle, she ducked to avoid it hitting her head. With a shaking hand, she managed to bring the receiver to her ear.

“Hello?” It was barely a whisper as she gasped for air.

“Maggie,” the cheerful voice said. Owen’s voice. “You got home safe, I see.” He chuckled as her grip tightened on the phone. “And by now, you’ve learned tonight’s lesson.”

“Lesson?” She was pleased that her voice sounded stronger. Stronger, but not strong enough.

“About fear, of course. Did I scare you, Maggie? I believe I did,” he said when she didn’t answer. “I proved my point. But then, I knew you’d be an apt pupil. After all, you earned the highest marks in all of your classes in medical school.”

“Why did you do this?” The man was insane.

Again, Owen’s voice flipped from thrilled to threatening in the space of a stuttering heartbeat. “There is only fear. All other emotions are born of fear. You have to understand that before we move on to your next lesson.”

The click of the receiver hummed in her ear for a long time before she loosened her hold enough to let go. Even then, it felt like an eternity passed before the grip of her panic lessened enough for her to act.

The next lesson, Owen had said. And he’d apparently appointed her teacher’s pet.

July Fourth was Ethan Townsend’s least favorite day, and it was finally over. As his red-rimmed eyes bypassed his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, they found confirmation that it was indeed well past midnight—nearly two in the morning, actually, according to the clock high above the bottles of liquor that lined the wall. He tipped the final drops of Scotch down his throat and welcomed the burn as he silently toasted a welcome to July fifth.

He wasn’t unpatriotic. It was just that the day everyone else in America was consuming vast quantities of beer and apple pie and setting off small explosives to celebrate the birth of the nation, Ethan was recalling fireworks of his own. And the life that had been lost three years ago because of them.

The bartender announced last call, which was a joke because Ethan and only one other customer, who’d nursed his drink for a good hour now, were in the godforsaken place. It was a dive, but it had what he needed on the one night a year he truly needed it. Solitude and alcohol.

His gaze rose to the mirror, again skipping over his own image and resting on that of the man in the corner, whose eyes were on him. Apparently interpreting the eye contact as an invitation, the man stood and wove his way unsteadily around empty chairs and tables to join him. It seemed his precious solitude was about to come to an end.

“I knew it.” The man’s breath stank of stale beer and cigarettes as his beady eyes peered at him. His jowls shook as he nodded vigorously. “You’re that guy. The one from the TV a couple years back. The one that got that little girl killed.”

Grief twisted Ethan’s gut. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”

“No,” he insisted, stabbing a finger at him through the suddenly charged air. The bartender watched them warily from the other end of the bar. “It was all over the news for weeks. You are that guy.”

Ethan’s jaw, stubbled with a day’s growth of beard, slid to the side. Of all the rotten luck… His hair was longer than three years ago, skimming the collar of his shirt, and his eyes were red with exhaustion, yet this guy recognized him. Fuck. He didn’t want to explain or make excuses. Not to a stranger. He couldn’t even explain it away to himself. And there were no excuses.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t kill anyone.” He felt the lie fall from his lips like lead. The thump of it echoed in his head as it settled in his stomach. “It wasn’t my finger on the trigger.”

“Yeah, but,” the guy began, taking a step toward him, his finger still pointed accusingly.

Ethan’s hand clenched around his glass. If the man touched him, so help him God…

Probably sensing trouble, the bartender brought his tab then, and Ethan quickly signed, rising off his barstool as he did so. At six feet, he was a good six inches taller than the other guy. And a good thirty pounds heavier. Thirty pounds of muscle. The fight wouldn’t be fair, and this guy wasn’t worth a visit to jail.

“’Night,” he said to the man, interrupting his attempts to bring up the past. On steady legs he walked out and crossed several blocks at a brisk pace, trying to clear his mind. Attempting to muddy it with liquor had obviously not helped. Maybe focusing on something else would.

But a sweet face continuously thwarted him. Innocent, trusting brown eyes. Tendrils of soft blond hair curling around cheeks still plump with youth—cheeks spattered with blood.

Cursing, Ethan picked up the pace. His cell phone rang. Not many people would call him at two in the morning. He knew better than to ignore this call. “Yeah?”

“We’re meeting. Seven in the morning.”

“I’ll be there.” The other person hung up just as abruptly.

Ethan turned down another street. Downtown Chicago at night wasn’t the wisest choice for a stroll, but he was itching for a fight. For release. For something that would take his mind off a baby-doll face and enormous, sightless eyes.

A meeting at the Society would provide that. In the meantime, however, God help anyone who came across his path tonight.


Copyright © 2009-2018 by Anne Marie Becker. All Rights Reserved.

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