The Intended Victim
Book 4 in The Agency
ONCE, SHE GOT AWAY
The body lying on a cold steel slab bears all the hallmarks of the Chicago Butcher. There’s a cruel slash across her throat, deep enough to sever the carotid artery, and a small crescent carved into her right breast. Her delicate features are painfully familiar to Ash Marcel, once a rising star in the Chicago PD. But though the victim resembles his former fiancée, Remi Walsh, he knows it’s not her.
BUT THIS TIME
Though Remi escaped a serial killer five years ago, her father died trying to save her. Grief and guilt caused her to pull away from the man she loved. Now Ash is back in her life, insisting that Remi is still in danger.
IT’S A DEAD END…
Someone is targeting women who look just like Remi. With or without a badge, Ash intends to unmask the Butcher. But the killer isn’t playing games any longer. He’s moving in, ready to finish what he started, and prove there’s nothing more terrifying than a killer’s obsession…
Praise for Pretend You’re Safe
“Alexandra Ivy gives readers a nice balance of romance and suspense in her fast-paced,
—Kat Martin, New York Times bestselling author
“A satisfying mystery . . . Ivy’s clever foreshadowing keeps the tension high throughout this
fast-moving tale, and the romance sizzles.”
“A pulse-raising romantic thriller.”
Read an Excerpt
The sun was still struggling to crest the horizon when Angel Conway entered the small park next to Lake Michigan. Shivering, she hunched herself deeper in her heavy coat. Shit. Was there anywhere in the world colder than Chicago in the winter? She doubted even the North Pole felt as frigid. Especially this morning with the wind whipping the icy droplets from the nearby lake. They stung her face like tiny darts.
Unfortunately, she had no choice but to drag herself out of her bed at such a god-awful hour to brave the cold. It was the same reason she snuck out every Friday morning.
When she came to Chicago, she’d intended to have a clean start. No drugs. No men. Nothing that would screw up her one opportunity to climb out of the sewer she’d made of her life. But after the operation, she’d been give painkillers, and the hunger had been stroked back to life. Within three weeks of her arrival in the city, she was back to the same old habits.
Stomping her feet in an attempt to keep blood flowing to her toes, she scanned the shadowed lot. Where was her john? Usually she was the one running late. She did it deliberately to avoid being turned into a human popsicle. She wanted to arrive at the park, climb into the man’s expensive Jag, do her business, and get her pills. No fuss, no muss.
And no frostbite.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered, rubbing her hands together.
Maybe she should bail. She could sneak out this weekend and find a street dealer. Of course, what little money she had…
Her thoughts were shattered by the sharp snap of a branch. She frowned, glancing over her shoulder at the trees directly behind her. She’d chosen this spot because it gave her an open view of the lot, but at the same time gave her cover in case a cop decided to drive through the park. Now she felt a weird sense of dread crawl over her skin.
She was from the country. She knew the sound of a critter scrambling through the underbrush.
There was someone moving in the darkness. The only question was whether it was an early morning jogger. Or a pervert who was spying on her.
She never considered there might have been a third possibility.
Not until she felt the cold blade press against her throat…
Dr. Ashland Marcel entered his office on the campus of Illinois State University. It was a small, dark space that had one window overlooking the parking lot. An office reserved for a professor who hadn’t yet received his tenure. Not that the cramped space bothered Ash. As much as he enjoyed teaching criminal justice classes, he hadn’t fully committed to spending the rest of his life in an academic setting. Especially after a day like today.
With a grimace, he dropped into his seat behind the cluttered desk. A sigh escaped his lips. It was only noon, but he was grateful he was done teaching his classes for the day.
The students weren’t the only ones looking forward to the end of the semester, he wryly acknowledged. Early December in the midwest meant short, brutally cold days. A bunch of twenty-somethings trapped inside for weeks at a time was never a good thing. His classroom was choking with their pent-up energy.
But it was Friday. And Monday the students started finals. Which meant that in less than seven days he could look forward to a month of peace and quiet.
Pretending he didn’t notice the tiny ache in the center of his heart at thought of spending the holidays alone in his small house, Ash opened his laptop. He needed to get through his email before he could call it a day.
He’d barely fired up the computer when the door to his office was shoved open. He glanced up with a forbidding glare. His students were told on the first day of class that they could come to him during his posted office hours. He’d discovered his first year of teaching that they would follow him into the toilet with questions if he didn’t set firm guidelines.
His annoyance, however, swiftly changed to surprise at the sight of the man dressed in a worn blue suit who stepped through the opening.
Detective Jackson “Jax” Marcel.
At a glance, it was easy to tell the two were brothers. They both had light brown hair that curled around the edges. Ash’s was allowed to grow longer now that he was no longer on the police force, and had fewer strands of gray. And they both had blue eyes. Ash’s were several shades darker, and framed by long, black lashes that had been the bane of his childhood. And they were both tall and slender, with muscles that came from long morning jogs instead of time in the gym.
Ash rose to his feet, his brows arching in surprise. It wasn’t uncommon for his family to visit. The university was only a couple hours from Chicago. But they never just appeared in his office without calling.
Jax stretched his lips into a smile, but it was clearly an effort. “Hey, bro.”
Ash studied his companion. Jax was the oldest of the four Marcel brothers, but since they had all been born within a six-year span they were all close in age. That was perhaps why they’d always been so tight. You messed with one Marcel, you messed with them all.
“What are you doing here?” Ash demanded.
“I need to talk to you.”
“You couldn’t call?”
Jax grimaced. “I preferred to do it face to face.”
Fear curled through the pit of Ash’s stomach. Something had happened. Something bad. He leaned forward, laying his palms flat on the desk.
Jax gave a sharp shake of his head. “The family is fine.”
“Then what’s going on?”
Ash clenched his teeth. His brother’s attempt to delay the bad news was twisting his nerves into a painful knot. “Shit. Just tell me.”
Perhaps realizing that he was doing more harm than good, Jax heaved a harsh sigh.
“It’s Remi Walsh.”
Ash froze. He hadn’t heard the name Remi in five years. Not since he’d packed his bags and walked away from Chicago and the woman who’d promised to be his wife.
“Remi.” His voice sounded oddly hollow. “Is she hurt?”
This time Jax didn’t torture him. He spoke without hesitation.
“Her body arrived in the morgue this morning.”
“No.” The word was wrenched from Ash’s lips as his knees buckled and he collapsed into his chair.
Jax stepped toward the desk, his expression one of pity. “I’m sorry, Ash.”
Ash shook his head. “This has to be a mistake,” he said, meaning every word.
It was a mistake. There was no way in hell that Remi could be dead.
“I wish it was a mistake, bro,” Jax said in sad tones. “But I saw her with my own eyes.”
Ash grimly refused to accept what his brother was telling him. He’d tumbled head over heels in love with Remi from the second she’d strolled into the police station to take her father for lunch. Ash had just made detective and Gage Walsh was his partner. Thankfully, that hadn’t stopped him from asking out Remi. She’d been hesitant at first, clearly unsure she wanted to date someone who worked so closely with her father. But from their first date they’d both known the sensations that sizzled between them were something special.
That’s why he couldn’t accept she was gone.
If something had happened to Remi, he would know. In his heart. In his very soul.
“How long has it been since you last spent time with her?” he challenged his brother.
Jax shrugged. “Five years ago.”
“Exactly. How could you possibly recognize her after so long?”
“Ash.” Jax reached up to run his hand over his face, his shoulders stooped. He looked like he was weary to the bone. “Denying the truth doesn’t change it.”
Anger blasted through Ash. He wanted to vault across the desk and slam his fist into his brother’s face for insisting on the lie. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d given Jax a black eye. Of course, his brother had pounded him back, chipping a tooth and covering him in bruises, but it’d been totally worth it.
Instead, he forced himself to leash his raw emotions.
“It’s official?” he demanded.
Jax gave a slow shake of his head. “Not yet. The medical examiner is overwhelmed as usual. It will be hours before they can run fingerprints, even with me putting pressure on them.”
The anger remained, but it was suddenly threaded with hope. Nothing was official.
The words beat through him, echoing his heavy pulse.
At the same time, he continued to glare at his brother. “Why come here before you’re sure it’s Remi?”
Jax coughed, as if clearing his throat. “I wanted you to be prepared.”
Ash narrowed his gaze. The shock of Jax’s announcement had sent his brain reeling. Which was the only explanation for why he hadn’t noticed his brother’s hands clenching and unclenching. It wasn’t just sympathy that was causing his brother’s unease.
“No. There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said.
Jax glanced toward the window, then down at the scuff marks on his leather shoes. Was he playing for time? Or searching for the right words? “Let’s go for a drink,” he finally suggested.
“Dammit, Jax. This isn’t the time for games,” Ash snapped. “Just tell me.”
Jax’s lips twisted before he forced himself to speak the words he’d clearly hoped to avoid. “She was found with her throat slit.”
Ash surged to his feet, knocking over the chair. It smashed against the wooden floor with a loud bang, but Ash barely notice.
“Was there a mark?” he rasped.
It’d been only a few weeks after he’d started dating Remi that Gage had put together the connection that a rash of dead women was the work of a serial killer. They’d tagged him the Chicago Butcher since it was suspected that he used a butcher’s knife to slice the throats of his victims. Only the cops knew that there had been a hidden calling card left behind by the killer: a small crescent carved onto the women’s right breast. No one knew if it was supposed to be a “c” or a moon or perhaps some unknown symbol. But it was always there.
“Like the others?” he pressed.
Jax nodded. Ash reached into his pocket to pull out his keys. He’d gone from white-hot emotion erupting through him like lava to an ice-cold determination.
The Chicago Butcher had destroyed his life five years ago. If the bastard was back, then Ash was going to track him and kill him. He didn’t care if he had a badge or not.
He tossed his keys to his brother. “Go to my house and pack a bag.”
Jax caught the keys, his brows tugging together. “Ash, there’s nothing you can do.”
“I have to see her,” Ash muttered, not adding his secondary reason for returning to Chicago. His brother was smart. He knew Ash would be hungry for revenge. “She was my fiancée.”
Jax grimaced. “It was all a long time ago.”
Ash snorted. It had been five years, not an eternity. And most of time it felt like it had all happened yesterday. “We both know it doesn’t matter how long ago it was, or you would never have come down here to tell me.”
The older man hunched his shoulders. “I didn’t want you to hear it on the news.”
Ash didn’t believe the excuse for a second. “Pack a bag,” he commanded, reaching down to right his chair. “I’ll be ready by the time you get back.”
“What about your classes?” Jax tried a last-ditch effort to keep Ash away from Chicago.
“Finals are next week.” Ash sat down and reached for the cell phone he’d left on his desk. He might be under thirty, but he held the old-fashioned belief that there was no need for phones in his classroom. Including his own. “I’ll call the Dean and warn him there’s been a family emergency. If I’m not back by Monday, my teaching assistant can proctor the exams.”
“I can go back with you or I’ll drive myself,” Ash interrupted.
“Hell, I don’t want you behind the wheel.” Jax pointed a finger toward Ash. “Don’t move until I get back.”
Ash ignored his brother as he turned and left his office. He not only needed to contact the Dean, but he wanted to make sure that his assistant knew he would be expected to take over his classes if necessary, as well as making his excuses to the dozens of holiday invitations that were waiting in his inbox.
He was just finishing his tasks when his phone pinged with a text telling him that Jax was waiting for him in the parking lot.
Grabbing his laptop and the coat that hung in the corner, he stepped out of the office and closed the door behind him. Then, using the back stairs, he managed to avoid any acquaintances. Right now, he would be incapable of casual chitchat.
Pushing open the door, he stepped out of the building and headed for the nearby parking lot. The sun was shining, but there was a sharp breeze that made him shiver. Like all his brothers he enjoyed being out in the fresh air, either jogging or spending the weekend camping near the river. But with each passing year he found he was less willing to brave icy temperatures.
Soon he’d be spending the long winters sitting in front of a warm fire with a comfy sweater and his favorite slippers.
Shaking away his idiotic thoughts, he stopped next to his brother’s car. Pulling open the door, he slid into the passenger seat and wrapped the seat belt across his body.
“Have you heard anything from medical examiner?” he demanded as his brother put the car in gear and headed out of the lot.
“Not yet.” There was silence as Jax concentrated on negotiating the traffic out of town. It wasn’t until they reached the interstate that Jax glanced toward Ash. “Mom will be happy to have you home for a few days. She complains you never bother to come and see her anymore.”
Ash pressed his lips together. It was that or snapping at his brother that this wasn’t a damned social visit. Eventually, however, he forced his tense muscles to relax. He wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize that Jax was trying to distract him. And that there was no point in brooding on what he was going to discover once they reached Chicago.
“Mom’s too busy planning Nate’s wedding to notice whether I’m around or not,” he managed to say.
Nate was the youngest Marcel brother who’d moved to Oklahoma after leaving the FBI. He had proposed to his neighbor, Ellie Guthrie a few months ago, and since she didn’t have a relationship with her own parents, June Marcel had eagerly stepped in to act as her surrogate mother.
Jax released a short laugh. “She’s been in heaven running around the city to find the perfect flower arrangements and sewing the bridesmaids’ dresses,” he agreed. “The poor woman assumed with four sons she would never get the opportunity to be so involved in all the frou-frou nonsense that comes with a wedding.” Jax set the cruise control and settled back in his seat. “Still, you must have been gone too long if you’ve forgotten Mom’s ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. I remember her baking cupcakes for Ty’s Boy Scout club while helping Nate with his math homework and at the same time making sure I raked every damned leaf in the backyard because I missed curfew.”
Ash’s lips curved into a rueful smile. His mother was a ruthless force of nature who’d occasionally resorted to fear and intimidation to control her four unruly sons. Mostly she’d smothered them in such love that none of them could bear the thought of disappointing her.
“True. She has a gift.” He felt a tiny pang in the center of his heart. It’d been too long since he’d been home. “I could use her in my classroom.”
“Lord, don’t say that. She’ll be waiting next to your desk with a ruler in her hand,” Jax teased.
Another silence filled the car, then Jax cleared his throat, and abruptly asked the question that had no doubt been on his lips for the past five years.
“I never knew what happened between you and Remi.” Jax kept his gaze focused on the road, as if knowing that Ash wouldn’t want him to witness the pain that twisted his features. “One day you were planning your wedding and the next the engagement was over and you were moving away.”
Ash’s breath hissed between his clenched teeth. “The Chicago Butcher happened.”
He expected his brother to drop the issue. His breakup with Remi was something he refused to discuss. His family had always respected his barriers.
But whether he was still trying to keep Ash distracted, or if it was the shock of seeing a woman he believed to be Remi at the morgue, Jax refused to let it go. “You both suffered when she was captured by the Butcher and her father was killed trying to save her,” he pointed out. “I thought it would draw the two of you closer together.”
Ash turned his head to gaze at the frozen fields that lined the road. The memories of that horrifying night were firmly locked in the back of his mind. The frantic phone call from Remi telling her father that she was being followed. Gage Walsh’s stark command that Ash drive Remi’s route in case the killer forced her car off the road on the way home, while he went to his elegant mansion on the North Shore. And then his arrival at the mansion to discover that he was too late. Gage’s blood had been found at his home, but his body had never been discovered. No one knew why the Butcher would have taken it, unless he feared that he’d left evidence on the corpse that he didn’t have time to remove. The killing, after all, wouldn’t have been planned like the females he stalked and murdered. Thank God, Remi had been alive, although she’d been lying unconscious in the kitchen.
But while he wasn’t about to go into the agonizing details, Jax deserved an answer. The older man had been an unwavering source of strength over the past few years. Whether it was to shut down his father’s angry protests when Ash announced that he was leaving the police department, or driving down to the university and getting him cross-eyed drunk when he was feeling isolated and alone.
“After I brought Remi home from the hospital she started to shut me out,” he said in slow, painful tones. “At first I assumed she would get her memories back, and that she would be able to heal from the trauma she’d gone through.”
“But the memories never came back,” Jax murmured.
“No, they never came back.” Ash grimaced. He’d wasted a lot of emotional energy trying to convince Remi to get professional help to retrieve her memories. As if the return of them could somehow heal the growing breach between them. It was only with time and distance he could see that they were struggling with more than the trauma of her being attacked by the Butcher. “But it was the guilt that destroyed our hopes for the future.”
His brother sent him a sharp glance. “Guilt for what?”
Ash gave a sad shake of his head. “Remi felt guilty for her father’s death. She had a crazy idea that if she hadn’t called to say she was being followed, her father would still be alive. And to be honest, it only made it worse that his body was never found. I think a part of her had desperately hoped that he would miraculously return. With each passing day, she blamed herself more and more.”
“And your guilt?” Jax pressed.
“I should never have let Gage go there alone. I was his partner.”
Jax muttered a curse. “His younger partner. Gage was your superior, and it was his call to split up, so you could cover more ground. Just as it was your duty to obey his order.”
Ash shrugged. Easy to say the words, it was much harder to dismiss the gnawing remorse. If only…
Heaving a sigh, he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He’d given Jax the explanation he demanded. He didn’t have the strength to argue whether it made any sense or not.
Ash kept his eyes closed even as the traffic thickened, and they slowed to a mere crawl. He’d driven to the morgue enough times to know exactly when they were pulling into the side parking lot.
Lifting his head, he studied the long, cement block building with two rows of narrow windows. Nothing had changed in the past few years. Maybe the trees lining the street had grown a little taller, and they’d replaced the flags out front. Otherwise it was the same stark structure he remembered.
Jax switched off the engine, turning his head toward Ash. “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
“I have to.” Ash unbuckled the seat belt and pushed open the door before stepping out.
Behind him was the sound of hurried footsteps as Jax rushed to keep up. Not that Ash was going to get far without him. He was no longer a cop, which meant he would have to hang on to the hope that Remi still had him listed as an emergency contact to get past the security.
Much easier to let Jax do his thing.
Quickly at his side, Jax took charge as they entered the building. There were halted twice, but Jax flashed his badge and quickly they were stepping into a harshly lit room that felt ice-cold.
Ash shivered. He hated coming here. Even when it was a part of his job. Now his stomach was twisted so tight it felt like it’d been yanked into knots.
They were led by a technician down a long row of steel racks where bodies wrapped in heavy plastic waited for an official ID. Or perhaps for an autopsy. He’d tried not to really notice what was going on behind the scenes. Now he felt as if he was in a dream as the technician waved for them to stop and Jax wrapped an arm around his shoulders. No, it was more like a nightmare. One that wasn’t going to end if it truly was Remi who was being slid out on a steel slab.
Taking care not to disturb the body any more than necessary, the technician slowly pulled back the plastic cover. Ash made a choked sound as he caught sight of the long black hair that was glossy enough to reflect the overhead light. It was pulled from a pale, beautiful face, just like Remi liked to wear it.
He swayed to the side, leaning heavily against his brother as pain blasted through him. “Christ.”
“Steady,” Jax murmured.
Ash’s gaze absorbed the delicate features. They were so heart-wrenchingly familiar. The slender nose. The high, prominent cheekbones. The dark, perfectly arched brows. The lush lips.
“I didn’t want to believe,” he rasped, his voice coming from a long way away. As if he was falling off a cliff and was waiting to hit the bottom.
Would he die when that happened?
He hoped so.
What would be the point of living in a world without Remi Walsh?
“I’m sorry,” Jax said, his own voice harsh with pain.
Ash’s gaze remained locked on Remi’s lips. It’d been five years but he still remembered their last kiss. He’d just told her that he intended to take a job at the university. Deep inside he’d hoped she would be furious at his decision. He wanted her to fight for their future together. Instead she’d offered a sad smile and leaned forward to brush her mouth over his in silent goodbye.
He’d nearly cried even as he’d savored the taste of her strawberry lip balm…
Ash stilled. Lip balm. Why was there a warning voice whispering at the back of his fuzzy brain? Maybe he was going crazy. What the hell did her lips have to do with anything? He frowned, telling himself to turn away.
He’d done what he came there to do. What was the point of gawking at Remi as if he hoped she would suddenly open her eyes? It was time to go.
But his feet refused to budge. He knew Jax was staring at him in confusion, and that the technician was starting to shift from one foot to another, but still he continued to run his gaze over Remi’s pale face.
Something was nagging at him. But what?
Then his gaze returned to her mouth and he realized what his unconscious mind was trying to tell him.
She was wearing lipstick. A bright red shade. And more than that, there was makeup plastered on her skin and what looked like false lashes stuck to her lids. The harsh lighting had washed everything to a dull shade of ash, which was why he hadn’t noticed it the minute the cover had been pulled back.
“That’s not her,” he breathed.
“Ash.” Jax’s arm tightened around his shoulder. “I know this is tough, but—”
“It’s not her,” Ash interrupted, his heart returning to sluggish life.
How had he been so blind? Remi never wore makeup. Not even when her mother insisted on dragging her to some fancy-ass party. She claimed that it made her skin itch, plus she didn’t feel the need to slap paint on herself to try and impress other people. If they didn’t like her face, then they didn’t have to look at it.
Her down-to-earth attitude was one of the things he’d loved about her.
Of course, as far as he was concerned she was gorgeous. She didn’t need anything artificial to make his palms sweat and his pulse race.
“How can you be sure?” Jax demanded, his voice revealing his fear that Ash had gone over the edge. “Like you said, it’s been five years. She could have changed in that time. Unless there’s something you haven’t told me?”
Ash jutted his chin. He wasn’t going to explain about the makeup. Jax would tell him a woman might very well change her mind about cosmetics as she started to age. Or perhaps she had a boyfriend who wanted her to plaster her face with the gunk. Besides, now that he was looking at the dead woman with his brain and not his heart, he could start to detect physical differences. The nose was just a tad too long. Her brow not quite wide enough. And her jaw too blunt.
“I’m sure.” His voice was strong. Confident. “It’s not her.”
“He’s right.” A new voice cut through the air, echoing eerily through the racks of dead bodies. “I just got the results from the fingerprints back.”
They all turned to watch as Dr. Jack Feldman, one of the city’s top medical examiners, stepped out of the shadows. A short man with salt and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he was wearing a white lab coat that didn’t hide the start of an impressive potbelly. He’d been a good friend of Gage Walsh, and had extended that friendship to Ash when he’d become his partner.
He’d also adored Remi, treating her like she was his own child. It must have been a hideous shock to have a woman who looked so much like her show up in his morgue.
“Feldman,” Ash murmured, stepping away from his brother so he could pull the older man into a rough hug.
They shared a silent moment of tangled emotions, then the doctor slapped him on the back and pulled back to study him with a sympathetic gaze.
“Good to see you, Ash, although not under these circumstances.”
Ash cleared his throat, his attention moving toward the electronic pad clutched in Feldman’s hand. “Did you get an ID?”
Feldman held up a hand before he glanced toward the silent technician.
“I’ll take it from here, Jimmy,” he told the young man. They waited until Jimmy turned and left the room before Feldman led them to a distant corner. His dark eyes rested on Ash’s face. “I shouldn’t be talking to you, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the information one way or another. Plus, you’re one of us, even if you did jump ship for a while. Eventually you’ll come back where you belong.”
They were the words he’d heard from a dozen different lawmen when he’d announced his decision to leave the Chicago Police Department and take a job teaching. And in truth, a part of him had secretly agreed.
Being a detective was in his blood.
He shook away the thought, nodding toward the electronic pad. “Who is she?”
Feldman lifted the pad and touched the screen to call up a file. “Her name is Angel Conway. She’s a twenty-five-year-old white female. Five feet, six inches tall. One hundred thirty pounds.”
Ash frowned. “Is she local?”
“No.” Feldman brushed his finger over the screen. “Her address is Bailey, Illinois. A small town fifty miles south of the city.”
Ash glanced toward Jax who gave a shake of his head. He’d never heard of the town.
“Do you have any other info?”
Feldman was silent as he read through the short report. Ash knew Feldman must have shouted and bullied and called in every favor owed him to get any information so quickly. The Chicago Coroner’s department was notoriously understaffed and overworked. It was only because of their dedicated staff they weren’t completely overwhelmed.
“It looks like she worked at a convience store and has a rap sheet for petty crimes,” Feldman murmured. “Mostly stealing and one count of prostitution.”
Ash tried to process what he was being told. Not easy when his brain was still foggy from the extreme emotions that had battered him. Fear. Shock. Grief. Soul-shaking relief.
He did, however, tuck the information away so he could pull it out later and truly consider what it all meant. “Where did they find her?”
“Jameson Park,” Feldman said.
Ash lifted his brows in surprise. Jameson Park was built along the shores of Lake Michigan, and popular enough to be crowded this time of year despite the frigid weather. Plus it would have a regular patrol officer who would do sweeps through the area.
A dangerous place to do a dump.
“That doesn’t fit the pattern,” he said.
“No. But everything else does,” Feldman told him, turning around the pad so Ash could see the photos taken of Angel Conway’s naked body.
For a second his stomach rolled in protest. It’d been a while since he’d seen death up close and personal. And the violence one person could inflict on another. Then he sucked in a slow, deep breath.
Shutting down his emotions, he studied the picture with a professional attention to detail. He’d learned as a detective it was too easy to get overwhelmed by death. He had to break it down to small, individual pieces to keep himself focused on what was important.
Leaning forward he studied the cut that marred the slender throat. It was thin and smooth and just deep enough to cut through the carotid artery. There were no hesitation marks, and no ragged edges to indicate nerves or anger. It was a precision kill that seemed to be oddly lacking in emotion.
Next his gaze moved to the small wound on the woman’s upper breast. It was carved into a neat crescent shape. This was the one detail they’d never revealed to the public.
“Christ,” he breathed as he straightened. “He’s back.”
Jax reached out to grasp his shoulder. “We can’t jump to conclusions, Ash.”
Ash understood his brother’s warning. There was nothing more dangerous for an investigator than leaping to a conclusion then becoming blind to other possibilities.
But he was no longer a detective, and his gut instinct was screaming that this was the work of the killer who’d destroyed the lives of so many. Including his own.
“There’s more.” Feldman cleared his throat, lowering the pad. “She’s had plastic surgery.”
“Not that unusual,” Jax said, echoing Ash’s own thoughts. “Lots of women, and men for that matter, think they need some nip and tuck.”
Feldman grimaced. “This nip and tuck was for a particular purpose.”
A chill crawled over Ash’s skin. Not the frigid air of the morgue, but something else. Perhaps a premonition. “What purpose?” he forced himself to ask.
“If I had to make a guess, I would say it was to make Angel Conway look like Remi Walsh.”
Remi Walsh was seated at a small table at the back of the youth center. She was a tall, slender woman with long black hair she kept pulled into a braid and green eyes she’d inherited from her mother. Her skin was winter pale and smooth even though she was closer to thirty than twenty. Today she was wearing a pair of jeans and a heavy cable-knit sweater to combat the icy December day.
Across the table sat a fifteen-year-old girl. Julie Stewart had reddish-blonde curls and a round face sprinkled with freckles. She looked like any typical teenager. Young and innocent. But Julie had endured more than most people in her short life. Remi had only gotten an abbreviated version, but she knew that Julie had been bounced from one foster home to another after being taken away from her abusive mother.
Now she was in a stable home that was ensuring that she attended school every day. They also insisted that Julie stop by the youth center after school twice a week to get tutoring.
Remi sat back and tapped her red pen on the table. “Okay. We’ve identified the mistakes. You need to correct them and retype the paper before Monday.”
Julie grimaced as she glanced at the term paper crisscrossed with red marks. It was late on Friday afternoon and the teen was no doubt envisioning a weekend filled with lazy mornings spent in bed and her nights at the mall with her friends. “I’ll try.”
“No,” Remi said in firm tones. “You’ll do it, or you won’t pass your English Comp class and you’ll be taking it again next year. Got it?”
Julie heaved a sigh that indicated she considered herself the most mistreated teen in the world. Still she gave a nod as she grabbed for her backpack and coat. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, rising to her feet and shoving the paper into the backpack. “I got it.”
“Good girl.” Remi watched in silence as Julie pulled on her jacket and headed toward the door. Before she could leave the room, however, Remi called out. “Julie.”
The teen reluctantly halted, clearly eager to on her way. “What now?”
Remi hesitated. She hated to discuss one of her students with another, but she was genuinely worried.
“Have you seen Drew?”
Drew Tyson was a sixteen-year-old boy who’d started coming to the center with Julie a few months ago. Remi suspected that the only reason he agreed to be tutored was for an opportunity to spend time with the pretty girl.
Remi didn’t care why he came. She just wanted the opportunity to help him finish his education. He was too smart to be lost to the usual traps that came along with grinding poverty. Drugs. Crime. Violence. And more often than not, an early death.
Julie paused, obviously trying to think back to the last time she’d seen Drew.
“Not since last Wednesday,” she finally said.
Julie’s heart sank. She’d hoped that Drew had simply decided he was tired of coming to the youth center, but that he was still going to school. “I tried to call his father, but I didn’t get an answer,” she said.
Julie shrugged. “It’s possible his old man is back in jail. Drew told me that he found an empty baggie in his dad’s car. He’s probably using again.”
The words were said in the jaded tones of a teen who’d seen too much in her short years. Her own mother was currently serving time for drugs.
“Where does Drew go when his dad’s in jail?” she asked.
“I think he has an aunt in Minnesota, but he usually stays on the streets.” Julie glanced toward the one window in the room that offered a view of the bus stop in front of the building, making sure she wasn’t about to miss her ride home. “Do you want me to go look for him?”
“No.” Remi gave a sharp shake of her head. The last thing she wanted was Julie putting herself in danger. “I’ll do that.”
Julie ran a disbelieving glance over Remi. “You?”
Remi rolled her eyes. Although she dressed in casual clothes and rarely wore makeup or jewelry, the kids easily sensed that she wasn’t from their neighborhood. It was like a second sense they possessed.
“I’ll see you Monday,” she told the younger girl.
Julie gave a wave and hurried out of the room. She no doubt had big plans for the night. Remi on the other hand…
She sighed as she cleaned off her desk. She didn’t want to think about the empty weekend that stretched ahead of her. It was her own fault, of course. She had friends who’d invited her out to dinner or to the movies. And her mother had mentioned she was hosting yet another gala to raise money for…hell, she couldn’t even remember. Or more likely, she hadn’t been listening.
If she didn’t want to be alone, she shouldn’t have said no to everyone.
With her desk clean, Remi was reaching for her purse when a large man appeared in the doorway.
“Knock, knock,” he said with a smile.
Lamar Hill was a retired NFL player who’d returned to Chicago after he’d been injured. He could easily have retired on his earnings, but instead he’d devoted his time and money to starting this youth center that provided hot meals, clothing, medical care, computer access and tutoring for any kid who walked through the door. In the very back were a few beds that he made available to the homeless adults in the neighborhood. It was a safe place, a beacon of light for people who had very little. Plus it had the bonus of being a cool spot for the older teens to come and spend some time.
Who didn’t want to hang with an NFL player?
Remi tilted back her head. Lamar was over six five with a broad body that moved with surprising grace.
“Hi Lamar, what’s up?” she asked. The man was usually too busy to stop by and chat.
“You have a couple visitors,” he said.
“Now?” Remi wrinkled her nose. On rare occasions she had parents stop by to ask about their child’s progress, or even teachers who brought by missing homework assignments they hoped she could help the students complete. Usually she welcomed their arrival, but it was five o’clock on a Friday and she still had an hour of traffic to battle through. “I was just about to leave.”
“Sorry, but it’s the cops,” he said, his tone more curious than alarmed.
When one of the kids got in trouble, they often offered the names of staff members at the youth center to vouch for them.
“Oh.” Remi had a sudden surge of hope that they were here about Drew. She didn’t want the boy to be in trouble, but at least she would know he was safe. “Okay.”
“Can I send them back?”
Lamar flashed his charming smile before he turned to disappear across the large central room where a dozen volunteers were setting up chairs and heating up the popcorn machine for movie night.
Remi swallowed a yawn and reached into her purse to switch on her cell phone. It was doubtful she’d missed any urgent messages, or even a friend with a last-minute invitation.
The screen glowed to life. Nothing. No missed calls. No messages.
Look at her. Miss Popularity.
Her lips twisted as she shook off her bout of self-pity. It was just the short days and cold weather that were making her feel blue. What she needed was a few days on a beach with a drink that had lots of alcohol and a little umbrella. That would perk her right up.
Maybe after the new year…
Lost in her daydreams of a tropical island drenched in golden sunlight, Remi abruptly jerked her head around at the sound of a familiar voice. “Jax?” she breathed, her gaze sweeping over him as he stepped into the office.
He hadn’t changed much. There might be a little more silver in his hair, a few fine lines fanning from his eyes, but he was still as handsome as ever. And she’d bet good money that he was wearing the same blue suit.
“It’s been a while,” he said with a rueful smile.
Dazed by his appearance, it took Remi a second to even consider why he might be at the youth center. Then an icy fear spread through her. Jax was a homicide detective. This couldn’t be good news. She placed her palms flat on the desk and pushed herself to her feet. “Are you here about Drew?”
He looked puzzled by her question. “No.” He stepped away from the doorway. “Actually, I brought an old friend.”
She released a shaky breath. He wasn’t here about one of her kids. The relief was so overwhelming that she didn’t even wonder who the old friend might be. Or even how Jax had known that she worked at the youth center.
Her distraction meant she was utterly unprepared when the second man stepped into the room. A painful mistake as the ground shifted beneath her feet and her brain froze. Ashland Marcel. Lord have mercy. It’d been five long years since he’d walked away from her, but the time melted away at the sight of his lean face.
How many hours had she spent tracing each chiseled feature? The wide brow. The bold nose and astonishing blue eyes. He was more striking than handsome, but just the sight of him had been enough to make her heart thunder in her chest. And that hard, male body…
She knew every inch.
Remi’s knees went weak and she dropped into her chair. Ash grimaced and hurried around the desk to crouch in front of her.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you,” he said in a low voice, grasping her limp hands in a firm grip.
Remi cleared the lump from her throat. “I’m fine,” she lied.
She wasn’t fine. She felt like she’d just been sideswiped by a speeding freight train.
“I’ll wait for you in the car,” Jax murmured.
Coward, Remi inanely thought, watching as Jax backed out of the room.
“Your hands are freezing,” Ash said, rubbing her fingers between his big palms.
She shivered. But not because she was chilled. The shock was beginning to wear off enough for her to react to his familiar touch.
Christ, it’d been so long. And no one had ever been able to cause those potent sparks of awareness. Just Ash.
“This building is always cold,” she said, forcing herself to pull her hands free.
Her poor brain was already struggling to process Ash’s sudden appearance. She didn’t need his touch adding to her befuddlement.
Thankfully he seemed to sense her need to regain command of her composure. Straightening, he turned to study the wooden shelves that were loaded with books and the five computers set on tables at the back. Everything was basic, but it served its purpose. The kids who came her needed the support of people who cared, not fancy equipment.
Remi allowed her gaze to roam over his broad back that was covered by a silver cashmere sweater that he’d matched with charcoal slacks. She could detect the muscles beneath the soft material, but he looked thinner. As if he’d honed his body to pure bone and sinew.
“Is this your classroom?” he asked, at last breaking the silence.
Remi willed her heart to slow its frantic pace before she answered. “Not really a classroom,” she admitted. “I tutor the kids who come to the center.”
He pivoted back to meet her wary gaze. “That’s what you always wanted to do.”
Her lips twisted. They both knew it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do. She’d gotten her master’s in education with the intention of becoming a full-time teacher who concentrated on at-risk students. She was going to change the world. Instead she was a volunteer at a small center who made a minimal impact on the kids who walked through the door.
Still, she at least was working her way back toward her dreams. She took great pride in her grim determination. “I’m enjoying it, at least for now,” she said with a shrug. “Of course, it’s not like being a college professor.”
He rolled his eyes, shoving his hands in the front pockets of his slacks. “True. You actually make a difference.”
Her breath caught at his soft words. Lord, she’d missed this man over the past five years. She missed sleeping in his arms. And sending him a thousand texts a day just because she saw something that captured her imagination. But what she’d truly missed was his unique ability to make her feel good about herself.
When she was with Ash she felt like she was the smartest, most capable woman ever born. As if she could take on the world and win.
Was it any wonder she’d tumbled head over heels in love with him?
“Thanks,” she breathed.
He cocked his head to the side, studying her with a puzzled gaze. “For what?”
“Not many of my old friends understand why I would waste my degrees volunteering in this place.”
His features softened. They both knew the reason she was there. And the effort it’d taken to get to this point.
“You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone,” he assured her. “Your true friends will support you no matter where you decide to work.”
They shared a long, mutual glance of understanding. The sort of glance that only two people intimately connected could share.
Time ticked past. A second—then ten—passed before the sound of someone walking past her door jerked Remi out of her strange sense of enchantment.
Awkwardly she cleared her throat. The days of lingering gazes was over. She’d made certain of that. Or at least she thought she had.
“I assume you’re in town to spend the holidays with your family?” she asked, belatedly wondering why Ash would be at the youth center.
Pity? Nostalgia? The ghost of Christmas past?
His features hardened, as if her question had reminded him of something unpleasant. “I’m sure we’ll get together while I’m home.”
Remi frowned. She knew that tone. There was something bothering Ash. “What’s going on?”
She half expected him to shrug aside his question. Whatever was going on with him couldn’t have any connection to her. Not after five years apart.
Instead he studied her upturned face with a brooding gaze. “I’m back because I thought you’d been hurt.”
“Me?” She frowned in confusion. “Why would you think that?”
His jaw tightened, his hands curling into fists. As if he was battling the urge to reach out and touch her. “Because there’s a woman who looks just like you in the morgue.”
Remi blinked. “Why were you in the morgue?”
“Jax came to the college and told me that you were there.”
“Oh.” She was surprised by the thought of Jax upsetting Ash before he’d double-checked to see if he’d made a mistake. Even if they were no longer together, she’d once been Ash’s fiancée. Jax had to know that his brother would be devastated by the news. “It wasn’t me.”
“Thank God. For a few hours…” With a fluid movement, Ash was once again bent down by her chair, reaching out to brush his fingers over her hair. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
Her heart picked up speed as the warm scent of his skin teased at her nose. A renegade pang of yearning clutched at her heart.
“I’m sorry you were worried, but as you see, I’m alive and well,” she said, forcing herself to speak in a bright voice. Having Ash so close was bringing back memories she’d put a lot of effort into burying in the back of her mind. “Just a case of mistaken identity.”
His fingers smoothed over her temple and down her cheek. “Maybe not so mistaken.”
Pleasure sizzled through her at his light caress, but Remi grimly concentrated on his strange words. Later she would lie in bed with a glass of wine and recall the feel of his gentle touch. “Excuse me?”
He paused, no doubt considering his words with care. Unlike the rest of the Marcel men, Ash preferred a slow, methodical approach to charging rashly into a situation.
“The medical examiner found indications that the woman had recently undergone cosmetic surgery,” he finally said.
“It was done to make her more closely resemble you.”
Remi jerked, her heart slamming painfully against her ribs. A woman had surgery to look like her? And now she was in the morgue?
No. That was insane.
She gave a sharp shake of her head. “You can’t know that.”
“No, not for sure,” he grudgingly conceded. “But there’s no doubt she had surgery.”
She shrugged. “It was probably just a coincidence. I look like a hundred other women.”
Ash made a strangled sound, his fingers cupping her chin. “Trust me, Remi. You don’t look like any other woman. You are unique. Something I’ve tried to forget.”
She studied his pale face. There was a brittle tension in his expression that warned her he hadn’t told her everything. Not yet.
She hesitated. Did she want to know? Right now her life might be boring, but at least it was peaceful. Something she’d worked hard to achieve. Why risk having that taken away?
The questions whispered through her mind, even as she stiffened her spine. What the hell was wrong with her? She wasn’t a coward. “What’s going on, Ash?”
His thumb rubbed up and down the line of her jaw, a muscle twitching next to his eye.
“Sorry,” he said in a rough voice. “I’m still trying to recover. My nerves are a little raw.”
She held his guarded gaze. “There’s something bothering you besides the fact that this woman looked like me.”
He slowly straightened, his expression bleak. “Yeah, there’s something else.”
Anxiety feathered through her. A depressingly familiar sensation. “Tell me.”
“Her throat was slit,” he admitted, his voice so low she could barely catch the words. “And there was a crescent-shaped wound on her breast.”
Remi’s lips parted, but no air entered her lungs. Had someone wrapped steel bands around her chest? That’s what it felt like. At the same time her brain was churning with a thousand thoughts, all of them so tangled they didn’t make any sense.
Vivid images formed and then shattered then formed again. A memory of her standing in the police station, laughing with her father. His gruff warning to be careful and a kiss on the cheek before she was turning to walk away. The paralyzing fear when she woke in the kitchen of her parents’ house to realize she’d been heavily drugged. The groggy night spent in the hospital, Ash pacing the floor with short, angry steps.
“The Butcher,” she managed to croak.
His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. “Or a copycat,” he suggested.
She shuddered, not believing for a second that this was some copycat. Her father had told her that they specifically withheld the information that the killer left a mark on his victims. Besides, she’d always known that it was just a matter of time.
She had no idea why the Butcher had disappeared from Chicago. Or when exactly he’d be back. But his return had been as inevitable as the rising sun.
Pressing a hand to her stomach, Remi battled back the urge to throw up. “Oh God.”
Ash made a choked sound. Remi didn’t know if was pity or frustration. Probably a combination of the two.
“I didn’t want to scare you, but you need to be careful,” he said.
“I’m always careful,” she assured him. And she was. She had moved into her grandparents’ house in a nice, quiet suburb. Plus, she never left home without a can of pepper spray tucked in her purse.
“Do you have a gun?”
She gave a sharp shake of her head. “No.”
He didn’t try to press her. Remi had never hidden her dislike for guns, despite the fact her father was a cop.
His glance lowered to his feet, as if he didn’t want to look at her when he asked his next question. “I know it’s none of my business, but do you live alone?”
Remi felt a heat creep over her face at his unexpected question. Was she embarrassed to admit that she was still single? Quite likely.
“I have Buddy,” she muttered.
Ash seemed to flinch. “Buddy?”
His gaze slowly lifted. “Is he big?”
Her lips curved into a wry smile. Buddy was a rescue dog that she’d chosen nearly two years ago. He was a mangy mix of breeds, with a goofy smile and mismatched eyes. He was also large and powerful and fiercely protective of her.
Ash frowned, seemingly not satisfied with her answer. “It would still be safer if you moved back home for a while.”
Remi sucked in a sharp breath. She loved her mother. She truly did. But the two of them had never managed to forge a comfortable relationship. Just a few hours together and Liza Harding-Walsh would be driving her nuts.
“I’d rather get a gun,” she told him.
Regret darkened his glorious blue eyes. A regret that was etched on her own soul. “How is your mother?”
Remi released a harsh sigh. “She acts like everything is the same. She stays busy with her charities and society events.” She gave a shake of her head. Her mother’s brittle smile couldn’t disguise the shadows that lurked just below the surface. “But I suspect she is still grieving for my father.”
“We all miss him,” he breathed.
“Yes.” With an abrupt movement, she rose to her feet and crossed the room to grab her coat. Ash’s unexpected arrival had stirred up a hornet’s nest of memories. Not to mention smashing her fragile sense of peace. She needed time to regroup and repair her shredded nerves. Something that would be impossible when Ash was in the same room. “I should get home.” She forced herself to send Ash a meaningless smile. “It was good to see you.”
He grimaced, smart enough to realize that she was done discussing the Chicago Butcher and whether or not she was capable of protecting herself.
“Remi, it wasn’t a fluke that the killer chose a woman who looked just like you,” he said in harsh tones. “Be careful.”
Her mouth went dry as she gave a jerky nod. “I will.”
With a last, lingering glance Ash slowly walked out of the room. Remi watched him go, her courage leaking out of her like a deflating balloon.
She desperately wanted to call him back. The only time she ever felt safe was when Ash was holding her in his arms. But she kept her lips grimly pressed together.
Her father had died trying to protect her from the Chicago Butcher. She wasn’t going to let Ash be the next man she loved to be sacrificed.
Darkness pulses inside me. A heavy, malignant tumor that continues to grow. I’ve cut. And cut and cut and cut. I prune the cancer, but it returns. Why?
I know, although I don’t want to see the truth.
The evil is a part of me.
It has lurked in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to grow and fester, destroying me from the inside out. I should have ended it the moment it sparked in my soul. But I was weak…
My attention is captured by the bloody knife lying on the counter. It needs to be cleaned. Or perhaps tossed in a fire so it can be purged of the contamination. But I hesitate. The tiny red droplets that stain the silver blade remind me of the sensation of sliding the knife through the soft flesh.
It’d happened sooner than I wanted. I had intended to savor my creation for months and months, not just a few paltry weeks. It was meant to leach the pus from a festering wound. But it had been more difficult than I’d anticipated to create the perfect antidote for my illness. I had allowed too much freedom. The cure was tainted and I had no choice but to destroy it. Even worse, I’d been sloppy. Something I’d been so very, very careful to avoid.
Still, the deed was done. And in the end it had been…cathartic.
I shiver as the memory sears through my mind. For those brief seconds, I felt utter harmony with the world. As if a light had combusted inside me to drive away the darkness. Even now I can feel the lingering warmth. I want to cling to the peace for as long as possible.
Reaching out, I run my hand along the edge of the blade. Crimson stains my skin and I open my lips to press my finger against the tip of my tongue. The taste of blood is sharp, and oddly heavy.
Another shiver races through me.
The battle against the darkness continues.
Ash climbed into the passenger seat of his brother’s car and slammed shut the door.
“How is she?” Jax demanded, putting the car in gear and pulling away from the curb.
Gorgeous. Sexy. Heart-wrenchingly vulnerable…
The words whispered through his mind, but he didn’t allow them to pass his lips. Later he would deal with his intense reaction to being near the woman who’d once held his heart in her hands.
“Rattled,” he told his brother.
“Yeah.” Jax gripped the steering wheel, zipping through the backstreets to avoid the worst of the Friday traffic. “So am I.”
“Get in line,” Ash said dryly.
They traveled in silence. Jax concentrating on his driving, while Ash tried to banish the panic that was a heartbeat away. Remi was safe. At least for now. And he’d soon be taking steps to ensure that she was properly protected.
First, however, he needed to get started on his hunt for the Butcher. The sooner the bastard was dead, the sooner Remi could have a normal life.
Almost as if capable of reading his mind, Jax sent him a quick glance. “Do you want me to take you to Mom’s house?”
It was always “Mom’s house.” Never their parents’ house. Or Dad’s. No doubt because it was June Marcel’s domain. She was the heart of the family, and wherever she was, that was home.
Not that his dad had been a bad father. But he’d been consumed by his duties as a cop, and happy to leave the primary caregiving to his wife.
“No.” Ash motioned for his brother to take the next turn. “I need to get my old files.”
Jax followed his directions. “What files?”
“The ones on the Chicago Butcher.”
“You still have them?”
Ash frowned. Did Jax think he would have thrown them away?
Ash parted his lips, only to hesitate. His skills as an investigator were no doubt rusty, but he had faith they would quickly return. And without the rules and regulations that came with his job as a detective, he was free to use whatever means necessary to get information.
Still, he needed to know what leads the police were following and if they found any forensic evidence that might offer a clue to the killer.
“Are you going to include me on this case?” he abruptly demanded.
Jax’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “You realize you no longer carry a badge?”
Ash shrugged. “You can keep me in the loop or I’ll find someone else who will,” he said.
Jax’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t bother to claim that Ash couldn’t find the information he wanted. Even after five years he still had friends on the force. Most of them would be happy to share whatever necessary to help him catch the bastard who’d killed one of their own.
Jax released a low hiss. “You compromise this case and—”
“I have no intention of doing anything that will compromise the case,” Ash interrupted.
“But you’re going to investigate it,” Jax said, his words a statement, not a question.
“Don’t bother to try and stop me,” Ash warned.
Jax sent him a frustrated glare. “Then you have to give me the same promise you demanded of me. You’ll tell me what you discover.” His eyes narrowed. “Everything you discover.”
“Agreed,” Ash said without hesitation.
“Shit,” Jax muttered. “This is a bad idea.”
Ash ignored his brother’s grumbling. It wasn’t the first time, and it most certainly wasn’t going to be the last that Jax was annoyed with him.
“We need to go to the storage unit that was down the street from my old apartment.”
“That’s where you have the files?”
Jax turned onto a main road that would lead to the neighborhood where he’d lived during his time as a detective. It wasn’t fancy, but it had been close to the precinct and it had been cheap enough that he didn’t have to live on ramen noodles.
It was nearly dark by the time they were pulling into a fenced parking lot and Ash hurried into the office. He hadn’t brought his key, which meant he needed the manager. Ten minutes later they were pushing up the roller door and stepping into the long, narrow space.
Ash flipped the switch, blinking as the harsh fluorescent glow seared away the darkness. Beside him Jax drew in a sharp breath.
“Christ, Ash. I wondered why your new apartment seemed so empty when I went to pack you a bag. You haven’t moved in,” he said.
Ash allowed his gaze to skim over the piles of boxes that lined the walls and the heavy furniture that he had stacked at the back. “I’ve been busy.”
“Or maybe it’s not home,” Jax suggested, moving forward to pull open one of the boxes.
Ash refused to consider his brother’s words. “I’ve been there five years.”
“And all you have is a few clothes, three plates, two glasses and a roll of toilet paper. That should tell you something.”
“That you’re a nosy bastard,” Ash groused even as he silently admitted his brother had a point. He clearly needed to rent a moving van and haul his belongings to his house. It was no wonder he’d never felt comfortable.
“True,” Jax agreed without shame, pulling out the bottle of champagne and engraved glass that Ash had bought as a graduation present for Remi. He’d moved away before he could give it to her. “If you want me to get rid of some of this stuff-”
“No,” he growled, moving toward the back of the unit with jerky steps.
“Sorry.” Jax replaced the items and closed the box before he hurried to join Ash.
“I’ll deal with my personal stuff later,” Ash promised, a hint of apology in his voice. He hadn’t meant to snap at his brother. Then he bent down to grab a plastic bin off the floor. “These are my private notes on the Butcher, as well as Gage’s.”
Jax arched his brows. “You didn’t give them to the department after he died?”
Ash shook his head. “They have our official reports. These are mostly filled with our investigations that turned out to be dead ends and interviews with witnesses who we really didn’t trust to tell us the truth.”
There were also the more sensitive inquiries that they’d kept on the down-low. They didn’t want anyone to know that they’d interviewed a lawyer who worked in the district attorney’s office, as well as the son of a prominent businessman. Not when the evidence had led to dead ends. No need to ruin any reputations.
“Why keep them?” Jax demanded.
“At the time I just wanted to hide them away and forget. Now…” Ash allowed his words to trail away.
Ash grimaced, a shiver of disgust spreading through his body. Just holding the container with the files made him feel tainted. As if a portion of the killer’s evil had managed to seep into the files inside.
“I think I knew this day would come,” he said, lifting his head to meet his brother’s somber gaze. “None of us truly thought the Butcher would just stop killing. It was only a matter of time before he returned to Chicago.”
“I never worked the case. Did you believe that the Butcher left the area after Gage died?”
That time was a blur in Ash’s mind. He’d been consumed with grief and guilt, and at the same time he was terrified by the thought the killer was still out there, just waiting for his opportunity to strike again.
“Either that or he’d been incarcerated for some other crime. Serial killers rarely start and stop on a whim,” he said.
Jax furrowed his brow, as if Ash’s words had struck a sudden inspiration. “You know, it’s possible that the Butcher changed his M.O.” He slowly spoke his thoughts out loud. “He had to know that killing a cop would have put him on the radar of every law enforcement agent in the country. I might pull a few of our unsolved cases and give them a second glance.”
Ash blinked. He’d never considered the idea that the Butcher had remained, but changed his method of killing. Sadly, there were enough unsolved murders in Chicago that his victims might have been labeled as a random deaths. “A good idea.”
Jax smiled with wry amusement at the surprise in Ash’s tone. “I might not have a fancy degree, but I’m a kickass cop,” he boasted.
Ash snorted. “I’ll agree to the ass part.”
Jax rolled his eyes. “It’s colder than crap in here. Let’s go.”
Remi pulled into the garage of her bi-level home with green siding and a large bay window. It’d belonged to her grandparents for forty years. When they’d decided to move to Florida, Remi had purchased the house and moved in. The neighborhood had once been an upscale area for the solid, middle-class workers like her grandfather, but over the past few years it’d started to edge toward shabby. Remi didn’t mind. It was a nice, peaceful area where she felt isolated from the hectic bustle of the city.
Entering through the side door that led into the kitchen, Remi was braced when her dog came pounding forward. Buddy possessed an unshakable belief that she wanted to be mauled by a seventy-pound dog as soon as she entered the house.
With a laugh, she bent down to give the mutt a good back scratch, allowing the beast to slobber over her face before she grabbed the leash off a nearby hook.
“Come on, boy,” she said.
Buddy responded with an excited bark, barely allowing her to clip the leash to his collar before he was dragging her through the house to the front door. Remi jogged to keep up, her dark thoughts shattered by the enthusiastic dog.
Not that she could completely turn off her fear that the Butcher had returned to Chicago. Or the lingering shock at seeing Ash. But no matter what happened during her day, Buddy could always lift her mood.
Opening the door, she was careful to ensure she had her pepper spray in her pocket before heading out for their evening walk. The icy night air added a speed to their trip through their neighborhood as they were both anxious to return to the warmth of the house. Once back home, Remi closed and locked the door before leading Buddy into the kitchen. Expecting the dog to rush to his food bowl, Remi’s heart slammed against her chest as he instead barked toward the glass sliding door that led to the back porch.
Trying to tell herself it was a squirrel, or maybe a stray dog, Remi flipped on the outside light. Still, she paused to grab a large knife out of a drawer before she slid open the door. Better safe than sorry, right?
She also waited for Buddy to join her before stepping onto the porch and glancing around. Buddy growled and Remi froze. She strained to see through the darkness. Had there been a shadow moving at the edge of her property?
“Hello?” she called out. “Who’s there?”
There was a loud rustle from the side of her house before a man strolled into the light that pooled around her back porch.
She managed to swallow her primitive scream, feeling like a fool. Doug Gates was a short man with thinning blond hair and a round face. Six months ago, he’d moved into the ranch-style house next door. Since then he’d made a habit of appearing whenever she was outside. Like the Jack in the Box that she had when she was young. She hated how it would suddenly pop up and made her scream.
She pasted a smile to her face, feeling guilty for her less-than-neighborly thoughts. Doug was a perfectly respectable banker with a couple of kids who lived with his ex-wife. He’d been nothing but nice to her.
“No. I thought I saw someone in the yard, but it must have been my imagination playing tricks on me,” she told him, hiding the knife behind her back.
Doug strolled toward her, putting his foot on the first step before he froze at the sound of Buddy’s low growl. He cleared his throat, trying to pretend he wasn’t embarrassed by the dog’s overt dislike. “I wouldn’t be too sure it was your imagination. I thought I saw someone peeking through your front window earlier in the day,” he said. “Do you want me to do a circle of the block and see if there’re any strangers hanging around?”
She shivered, giving a shake of her head. It would be crazy to leap to the conclusion that it was the Butcher. The killer was too skilled to be creeping around her house and peeking through her window. He would have to realize it would attract the attention of her neighbors who were mostly elderly and nosy enough to keep an eye on what was going on around them.
Still, she didn’t want Doug getting himself killed.
“No. I might give the cops a call later,” she assured him.
Doug paused, as if trying to think of some excuse to keep the conversation going. “You could come to my house and give them a call if you feel uneasy being alone.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” She reached down to pat Buddy’s head. “I have a plenty of protection.”
Another awkward pause before Doug cleared his throat. “Well, if you need anything just holler out the window and I’ll come running.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
“I like to be neighborly.”
“Thanks,” Remi muttered, turning to herd Buddy into the kitchen and sliding the door behind her. “Yikes.”
She shuddered, turning the lock before she busied herself with feeding Buddy and then heading into the bathroom to take a hot bath. It’d been a long day. And the night promised to be even longer.
Pulling on a pair of fuzzy PJ bottoms and a faded T-shirt, Remi braided her damp hair. She was on the point of deciding whether she intended to eat dinner or crawl in bed with a good book when there was a knock on her door.
Warily, Remi made her way to the living room. Buddy was already at the door barking, and Remi wished she had circled through the kitchen to get her knife. Instead she held her phone in her hand. She punched in the numbers 9-1-1, her thumb hovering over the call button.
Inching closer to the door, she flipped on the porch light. Then, leaning forward, she peered through the peephole she’d had installed shortly after she’d moved in.
“Ash,” she breathed, her knees going weak at the sight of his finely sculpted face and the dark curls that had been tousled by the breeze.
A part of her wanted to be annoyed by his uninvited arrival. He’d already disrupted her day. Now he was no doubt intending to disrupt her night. A larger part of her, however, was fiercely glad not to be alone.
Clearly the fear that someone had been creeping around the house had freaked her out more than she wanted to acknowledge.
Remi slid back the deadbolt and pulled open the door. Her brows lifted as she took in the boxes he held in his hands.
“What’s going on?”
His gaze skimmed over her casual clothing before moving to Buddy who’d strangely halted his barking. Almost as if he sensed that Ash was a friend. Then he returned his attention to her wary expression. “Can I come in?”
“Come in or move in?” she demanded.
His lips twitched. “I think you’ll be interested in what I brought with me.”
“Fine.” She stepped back, allowing him to walk through the doorway. It was too cold to argue on the front porch. Plus, that sense of relief was still helping to banish the fear that was lodged in the pit of her stomach. She pointed toward the open living room that was filled with furniture chosen for comfort rather than style. “You can use the coffee table for your boxes.”
“Thanks.” With fluid strides, he was moving to lower the boxes on the low table, along with a large backpack. Then he straightened and turned in a slow circle. “This is your grandparents’ house, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, they moved to Florida three years ago.”
“We came here for Thanksgiving when we were dating,” he said. “It looks different.”
She tried hard not to remember how she’d snuggled close to Ash on the couch while her grandparents insisted they sit through hours of home movies. Ash hadn’t complained once and her grandmother had pulled her aside to assure her that Ash Marcel was a “keeper.”
He had been, but that hadn’t kept her from pushing him away.
She swallowed a sigh. “Not really. I pulled up the carpet to expose the hardwood and painted the walls,” she said.
He released a sharp laugh. “It’s a lot more than I’ve done.”
She didn’t want to think about him in his own house. Perhaps he was sharing it with some beautiful professor who hadn’t retreated into a brittle shell.
Remi’s heart twisted and she reached down to lay her hand on Buddy’s head. He was studying Ash with more curiosity than distrust, but she needed his solid comfort.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re here?”
Holding her gaze, Ash slid off his jacket and tossed it into a nearby chair before he settled on the couch. “To bargain with you.”
He patted the cushion next to him. “Have a seat.”
Her heart jerked and skidded before it lurched back to a steady rhythm. She wanted to sit next to him. She wanted to feel the heat of his body seeping through her. And catch the warm scent of his skin.
That was why she deliberately took a chair near the bookshelves that also served as a TV stand.
“Should I be scared?” she asked, keeping her tone deliberately light.
He studied her for a long moment, as if considering his words. “Do you trust me?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
It was true. There was no one in the world that she trusted more than Ash.
Something that might have been satisfaction smoldered in his eyes, but as he leaned forward, his expression was grim.
“I think the Butcher is back in Chicago.”
She wasn’t shocked by his words. She’d had a few hours to absorb the fact that a young woman had turned up in the morgue with her throat slit and the Butcher’s mark on her breast.
“So do I.”
He continued to hold her gaze. “And I think that he’s obsessed with you.”
She frowned. She was willing to accept that the Butcher was back, but she wasn’t convinced that he was obsessed with her personally. Most serial killers chose their prey for a specific purpose. The Butcher had a thing for dark-haired women with green eyes.
“Because he killed a woman who happened to look like me?”
“Because she looked exactly like you.”
She made a sound of impatience. “So what are you saying? Do you think he saw her and mistook her for me?”
His jaw tightened. “I’m not entirely sure. I just know I’m worried.”
A tiny spark of warmth flared to life in the center of her heart. It’d been a long time since she’d felt as if someone cared about her. Really and truly cared.
Her mother loved her, of course, but Liza Harding-Walsh found it difficult to display her emotions.
“I don’t know why he’d be obsessed with me,” she muttered.
“You’re the one who got away,” he said with a blunt simplicity. “His failure has no doubt been festering for the past five years.”
She pressed a hand to her stomach, mentally willing herself not to return to that dark, horrifying night.
“What about your bargain?” she demanded.
“I want to stay here until the Butcher is caught,” he told her, his expression hardening. “Or dead.”
“Here?” It took her a second to process what he was saying. Then her heart started doing that crazy jerking and skidding again. She forced herself to take a deep breath. “Can’t you stay with your mother?”
He gave a dramatic shudder. “Various family members have already started to descend for the holidays and unfortunately they’ll no doubt stay until after Nate’s wedding at the end of next month. They tend to be like roaches who refuse to leave once they’ve invaded the place. Trust me, the house is filled to the rafters.”
“What about one of your brothers? I’m sure they have their own places with spare bedrooms.”
“Then what about a hotel?”
“Too expensive. I’m just a poor teacher.”
She flattened her lips to keep them from curving into a smile. No one could be more charming than Ash Marcel when he put his mind to it. And no matter how hard she might pretend to be indifferent, she inwardly accepted that she was just as susceptible as she’d always been.
With an effort, she squashed the unnerving realization.
“I’m not an idiot. I know you think you need to protect me,” she said.
He shrugged without apology. “I want to make sure you’re safe.”
She glanced toward the large window that overlooked the front yard. “It’s no longer your job.”
She thought she heard his breath hiss between clenched teeth. Was he angered by her words?
“It will always be my job,” he told her in soft tones.
She flinched. “Because of Dad.”
“Because of us,” he insisted.
The soul-deep yearning that she kept firmly locked deep inside her threatened to crack open. She gave a sharp shake of her head. No. Not now.
With an effort, she forced herself to turn and meet his gaze. “I appreciate your concern, Ash, but-”
He interrupted her assurance that she was just fine on her own. “I’m not done.”
She heaved a sigh. He could be as stubborn as a mule. “Okay. What do I get out of letting you stay here?”
He arched a brow, as if puzzled by her question. “I don’t think you understand, Remi. Your reward is having me as a guest.”
She made a choked sound. “Really? And what do you get out of the deal?”
“Your help in tracking down the Butcher.”
She stared at him in genuine surprise. He was asking for her assistance in looking for the killer?
“Are you being serious?” she rasped.
“Never more so.” His voice was somber, assuring her that he truly intended to ask for her help.
“But the last time you wouldn’t even discuss the case with me,” she reminded him.
He lifted his hands. “It was my job. I wasn’t allowed to discuss it with anyone.”
She studied him. He wasn’t giving her the full truth. Ash had never gossiped about private police matters, no matter what the case. But she suspected that her father had been insistent that he keep his mouth shut about the Butcher. The older man had always tried to protect Remi from the ugliness of his job.
“And now?” she pressed.
“Now I’m a private citizen. I can do what the hell I want.”
She stiffened, struck by a sudden fear. “If you’re hoping I remember something from that night, you’re going to be disappointed.”
His eyes darkened to a deep indigo at the mention of her kidnapping. They’d both been scarred by that night.
“I know that you can’t force the memories. Either they’ll return or they won’t,” he said.
She’d braced herself for the predictable sympathy. For months after the kidnapping–and her father’s death–she’d been smothered in pity. Thankfully, Ash seemed to remember just how much she hated it. His voice was brisk, almost indifferent.
She studied him in confusion. “Then how I can help?”
He reached out to touch the boxes he’d stacked on the coffee table. “I brought the notes your father and I made during the investigation. I hope we can go through them together. You might see something we missed.”
She released her breath on a shaky sigh. Until this moment she hadn’t realized how desperate she was for an opportunity to actively search for the Butcher.
For the past five years she’d been treading water, as if she was caught in a quagmire she couldn’t escape. How could she move forward when the past continued to hold her hostage?
Ash was offering her the chance to break free of her prison.
“Yes,” she breathed.
He gave a slow nod, clearly sensing the emotions churning through her. “I also thought we might take a drive tomorrow.”
She took a second to gather her scattered thoughts. She didn’t want Ash regretting his offer to include her in the investigation.
“Drive where?” There. That was a perfectly intelligent question.
“Bailey?” The name didn’t mean anything to her. “Is it a store?”
“No, it’s a little farm town south of here.”
“Why would we go there?”
She sent him an impatient glance. Was he being deliberately vague? “Who’s that?”
“The woman who was killed,” he clarified. “She lived in Bailey.”
Oh. Now she understood. “Is that where she was murdered?”
He shook his head. “No. Her body was found in Jameson Park. The cops believe that’s where she died.”
Remi considered his words. “How did Angel Conway end up in a park in Chicago?”
“I think he took her there.”
Remi’s stomach threatened to revolt as a jagged image of walking through darkness, a sense of evil looming behind her, flickered through her mind before disappearing as swiftly as it formed. She didn’t bother to try and hold on to it. Her memories from the night she was kidnapped were like a shattered window. She might be able to grasp a fragment for a few seconds, but it was impossible to put them back together.
Belatedly realizing that Ash was regarding her with a frown, Remi rose to her feet.
“I’ll get the spare room ready,” she said, her tone brisk.
The last thing she wanted was Ash worried that she couldn’t handle the investigation.
His gaze lingered on her face before he rose to his feet. “Have you had dinner?”
“I’ll order something.” He pulled his phone from the front pocket of his slacks. “Pizza okay?”
“I can cook,” she offered.
Ash flashed a quick smile, no doubt well aware that her cupboards were bare. Her lack of culinary skills had been a running joke between them.
“Pizza it is.”
Jax grimaced as he tossed away the last of his salad and headed out of the kitchenette just down the hall from his office. Getting old sucked. There was a time when he could eat two bacon cheeseburgers, a plate of fries, and polish it off with a slab of cake without putting on a pound. Now he couldn’t walk past a pastry display without his belt tightening.
What he really needed was to return to his morning jogs, he wryly acknowledged. How long had it been since he’d last exercised on a regular basis? A year ago? Two?
He swallowed a sigh. His mother was right. He was too old to be a bachelor. Living alone meant that he didn’t have any reason to stop working at a reasonable hour. No one cared if he was home for dinner, or if he made plans for his weekend. It also meant that he didn’t take care of himself like he should.
Too many takeout meals eaten at work, and not enough time on the treadmill.
He shook his head, dismissing his bout of self-pity. It wouldn’t matter if he had a wife and ten kids waiting for him at home, he wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
The Butcher was back, and if Ash was right and the bastard was hunting Remi Walsh, then Jax’s every waking minute was going to be spent chasing down leads. Eventually one of them would lead him to the killer.
Refusing to contemplate the thought of failure, he rounded the partition wall and came to a sharp halt. His eyes narrowed as he took in the sight of the man who was leaning over his desk, flipping through the tall stack of files.
What the hell?
He moved forward, watching as the man abruptly straightened and whirled to face him.
The detective was a year younger than Jax, although he looked like he was a decade older. He had a big square head with dark hair he kept buzzed next to his skull. His skin was ruddy and sagged near his jaws, giving him the appearance of a bulldog. His body was equally square with a growing paunch that threatened to bust through his white shirt.
“Jax.” The man pushed his hands in his pockets, trying to act as if he hadn’t been nosing through Jax’s desk.
“O’Reilly.” Jax glanced toward his desk. “Are you looking for something?”
O’Reilly folded his arms over his chest. “Just curious.”
“I heard you caught the Jane Doe from the park.”
Jax shrugged. “She’s not a Jane Doe. We have an ID.”
O’Reilly barely listened. Clearly he wasn’t interested in the identity of the murder victim. “The rumor is that you’re claiming it was the work of the Butcher.”
Jax tensed as he felt prickles of unease dance over his skin. O’Reilly wasn’t just being nosy. He was here with a purpose.
“I’m not claiming anything,” Jax said with complete honesty. He wanted to keep a lid on his Butcher theory. The longer he could go without the press breathing down his neck, the better. Unfortunately, he needed to coordinate between several units which meant it was inevitable that gossip would spread. “I’m just working the case.”
“Was her throat slit?” O’Reilly demanded.
“I don’t have the coroner’s report yet.”
O’Reilly glared at him. Something that would have been a lot more intimidating if he wasn’t four inches shorter than Jax.
“Don’t be an ass.”
“The only one being an ass is you, O’Reilly.”
“Just like your brother.”
Jax chuckled at the muttered words. “I take that as a compliment.”
“You shouldn’t,” O’Reilly snapped. “If he’d listened to me, he would still be a detective.”
Jax bristled. He’d never liked the younger detective. He was crude, brash, and overbearing. As far as he knew, O’Reilly didn’t have any friends in the department. “What are you talking about?”
O’Reilly glanced around, as if making sure there was no one close enough to overhear their conversation. “Look, it might be politically incorrect to talk bad about the dead, but Gage Walsh was blinded by his ambition.”
Jax snorted in disbelief. “That’s bullshit.”
“Is it?” The man shrugged. “You know I was his partner?”
Jax had a vague memory of O’Reilly being teamed with Gage for a short time. It’d been several years ago. “So?”
“Walsh wasn’t a bad detective.” O’Reilly turned so he could settle his fat ass on the corner of the desk. “But he was always looking to score a high-profile case.”
“I never heard that about him.”
“It’s not something he spread around, but I think he had political aspirations.” He spoke stiffly. Almost as if he’d practiced the words.
“Gage?” Jax made no effort to disguise his skepticism. “You’re out of your mind. He hated bullshit politics.”
O’Reilly jutted his chin to a stubborn angle. “Maybe it was his wife pushing him. But he drove me nuts with his complaints that we were stuck investigating gangbangers and drug dealers.”
Jax rolled his eyes. “We all get frustrated. Don’t tell me you don’t ever complain.”
“Yeah, but he started exaggerating our reports.”
Jax might not have known Gage Walsh as well as his brother, but he did know that he’d been a damned good detective. And an honest one. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Sometimes he implied our perp was a drug lord or that the case was connected to some government corruption,” O’Reilly said, keeping his accusations vague enough it would be difficult to call him a liar. “When I refused to back up his claims, he dumped me for your brother. He assumed a hotshot Marcel would play his game. And he was right.”
Jax took a quick step forward, barely resisting the urge to punch the jerk in the face. “Be very, very careful of what you say next, O’Reilly,” he warned, his voice lethally soft.
O’Reilly tried to look casual, but Jax didn’t miss the nerve twitching next to his eye. The man knew he was asking for trouble, but still he pressed on.
“I’m not saying Ash was corrupt, but he was eager enough to jump on the bandwagon that there was a serial killer in Chicago.”
“Probably because there was a serial killer in Chicago.”
“We had a spate of women getting their throats slit,” O’Reilly said, his tone indicating he thought it was the women’s fault. “Maybe they were connected and maybe they weren’t. Either way, Walsh and your brother made sure they were the center of attention.”
Jax grimly leashed his flare of fury. There was no one in the Chicago Police Department who had doubted there was a serial killer. Or ever implied they thought Gage or Ash were camera hogs in search of personal fame.
So why was O’Reilly making his wild accusations? Sour grapes? Or something more nefarious?
Suddenly Jax thought back to standing next to his brother in his storage unit. Ash had kept his and Gage’s notes hidden. Did he suspect someone in the department might be overly interested in the case?
Tucking the suspicion in the back of his mind, Jax studied the detective’s ruddy face. “So if your theory is that there was no Butcher, who do you think killed Gage?”
O’Reilly gave a lift of one shoulder. “That daughter of his was obviously unhinged. Who knows what happened that night.”
Abruptly Jax had endured enough. Remi Walsh had been kidnapped, terrorized, and then was plagued with guilt at the death of her father. Now this jackass was implying she was somehow responsible.
“Get away from my desk,” he rasped.
O’Reilly paled, but he took his time backing out of the cubicle. “Stay out of the past, Marcel,” he warned Jax. “You won’t like what you stir up.”
Jax scowled as the detective disappeared from view.
He didn’t know what O’Reilly had hoped to achieve. But he intended to keep a close eye on the man.
A very close eye.