Authors: Karen Fenech
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF KAREN FENECH
is a real page-turner front to back. You won’t be able to put this one down!”
New York Times
bestselling author Kat Martin
“Karen Fenech tells a taut tale with great characters and lots of twists. This is a writer you need to read.”
bestselling author Maureen Child
“Readers will find themselves in the grip of
as this riveting tale plays out.
is a provocative thriller filled with a roller coaster ride that carries the suspense until the last page.”
—Deborah C. Jackson,
Romance Reviews Today
“An excellent read.”
—Donna M. Brown,
: THE PROTECTORS SERIES—BOOK ONE
is romantic suspense at its best!”
bestselling author Maureen Child
“A superbly intricate tale of greed, power, and murder. . . . A suspenseful and believable story that will keep you reading into the wee hours of the morning. Highly recommended!”
—Bestselling author D. B. Henson
ALSO BY KAREN FENECH
: The Protectors Series—Book One
: The Protectors Series—Book Two
: The Protectors Series—Book Three
: The Protectors Series—Book Four
(a Protectors Series novella that takes place between the Protectors books)
Three Short Stories of Suspense: Deadly Thoughts, Secrets, and The Plan
: The Surrender Series—Book One
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Karen Fenech
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Marc J. Cohen
For Andrew, Pamela, and Dave with love
He was here.
FBI Special Agent Paige Carson gripped her service weapon harder and blinked sweat out of her eyes as she moved deeper into the Adirondack Mountains. Thick, wild bushes that she was unable to hold back while clutching her weapon snagged the protective gear she wore over her clothing and scraped the exposed skin on her face.
Fallen leaves, twigs, and branches littered the ground, masking the uneven terrain beneath. She took small steps to keep from tripping and landing on her face, but despite that care, her foot sank beneath a patch of decayed earth.
She stumbled, righted herself. She held her breath, released it in a rush, then took another quick glance at the GPS locator strapped to her wrist.
Not far now.
Every muscle tensed. She moved on.
Her squad leader had told her to wait.
To hell with that.
She’d left her squad members behind to follow her at their ridiculously slow pace and moved ahead on her own. Waiting for the Bureau to dot its i’s and cross its t’s before going in would have been a mistake. She was tired of sitting through meetings. Of sitting on the sidelines. There was no time to waste. The Bureau was already far behind. The suspect had proven to be a step ahead of them time and time again.
Three women had been murdered by the man she was chasing into the mountains now. Forensic testing revealed that the bodies had been buried, then exhumed, before they were found. The FBI, and Paige in particular, had been pursuing him for five months, since she’d joined the Bureau. This may have been Paige’s first case, but she knew what she was doing. Knew that she was right. The man the Bureau was hunting was accomplished—at killing and keeping himself under the radar. This was their first solid lead to his whereabouts. If they missed him this time, they may never get another chance.
That wasn’t the only reason Paige was determined to apprehend him now. She squared her shoulders. She wanted to be the one to bring him in.
be the one to bring him in. By the time her squad arrived, she’d have him in custody. What better way to make a name for herself with the Bureau than to capture a serial killer? Bringing this murderer in would cement her career. Adrenaline and nerves had her skin tingling.
Clouds hung low, promising rain. Despite the chill in the overcast April day, sweat trickled down Paige’s spine. According to the GPS, her destination was just up ahead. Then she saw it. A cabin. Well maintained, with a supply of wood stockpiled neatly to one side. Not a chip in the dusky-blue paint on the covered wraparound porch.
Paige took cover behind a tree, taking in the sight. Smoke curled from the chimney. She could smell meat roasting and something else . . . something sweet. Chocolate. Someone was melting chocolate.
Postcard pretty, buds of wildflowers dotted patches of the land around the cabin. All was quiet, as if even nature was reluctant to disturb such perfection.
The sights and smells gave her pause. Was she at the wrong place? Could the lead be wrong?
It certainly looked like the intel was off. Like this cabin belonged to a nice family. Paige blew out a breath filled with anger and disappointment. She relaxed her stance, lowering her gun hand.
Something stirred the air behind her. The slight breeze felt like a breath on her exposed neck. The fine hairs there prickled. The breeze carried the strong and cloying odor of a floral cologne.
Blood pulsing, Paige sucked in a breath, raised her gun, and was about to swing around to face the person behind her but . . . too late. The barrel of a gun pressed against her temple. The click of the gun being cocked sounded as loud as a bomb.
The gun slid from her temple and along her forehead, raising goose flesh everywhere it touched. When it was centered between her eyes, the man who held the weapon moved out from behind her and faced her.
He wasn’t much taller than her own five-foot-five frame, maybe an inch or two more, with a paunch visible beneath the jacket he wore open over a white button-down shirt. His hair, a white blond, blended with his pasty complexion.
Paige’s heart rate skyrocketed. Her mouth went dry. She needed to say something, to do something to gain control of the situation, but all she could do was stare at the man holding the gun to her head, his stubby, pale fingers wrapped around the butt with a grip that was rock steady.
His eyes, a clear arctic blue, focused on her so intently he had yet to blink. And he was smiling.
Paige opened her mouth to speak, to tell him she was a federal agent, that he was caught, but no words came out. And he had yet to utter a word.
Still, Paige got his message. She was going to die. He was going to kill her, then likely bury her as he had the other women. Were there others besides the three women they knew about? If so, the only consolation in her death would be the possibility that by locating her body via the tracking chip she wore,
federal agents might find other victims.
His eyes widened slightly, lifting skin that had sagged at the corners. His smile grew, showing an overbite and uneven teeth. She could see in his expression that he would kill her now and saw that he would enjoy it. Paige inhaled her last breath.
“Federal agents! Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your back now!”
Paige recognized the voice of her squad leader. Agents swarmed from the tree line, taking up positions all around her and the man holding the gun to her head.
Paige continued to stare into the man’s eyes. His smile didn’t waver. Nor did he break eye contact. For an instant, Paige thought he was going to ignore her squad leader’s command and kill her anyway, but then he dropped his gun at her feet. And winked at her.
One Year Later
He’d winked at her. Agents had run to him, forcing him to his knees, then hauled him away. Paige’s next view of him, the man she’d since come to know as Todd Thames, had been at his murder trial. Now here she was, back in this Manhattan courtroom seated across from Thames again as she gave her accounting of the events that had transpired on that mountain one year ago.
Thames sat at the defendant’s table, and though she kept her gaze on the attorney directing her questioning, she could feel Thames’s eyes on her. Even a year later, those eyes still chilled her.
Every seat in the courtroom was filled. It was standing room only as members of the media, officers of the court and of the law, and the families of the women Thames had murdered took up every available space. All were gathered for this hearing, which had been called in response to a motion made by Thames’s attorney to have Thames’s conviction overturned, a conviction that had entailed the maximum sentence. New York was a death penalty state, and Thames had been sentenced to die.
The state maintained that motion was not valid, and the state’s attorney had pulled out all the stops to resurrect even the tiniest shred of evidence and testimony against Thames, including Paige’s testimony.
There’d been no doubt that Thames was the right man, but there’d been insufficient evidence to gain a lawful conviction. Someone had jumped the gun, or maybe made a mistake, or deliberately decided to enter into evidence an item found in Thames’s cabin that hadn’t been named in the search warrant and had not been openly visible for the prosecution to argue to include it under the plain view doctrine. The item was an earring belonging to one of the women. The unlawful introduction of this evidence had been overlooked during the first trial. But no longer.
Outside, April rain pelted the ground and had soaked the hair and suit jackets of the men and women in the courtroom. Paige took a breath in an effort to steady her vibrating nerves and inhaled the odor of damp clothing.
But that wasn’t all she smelled. Though Thames was several feet from her, she could smell his cologne. It was the same one he’d worn on the mountain. Paige had not forgotten that scent and now fought to keep from gagging.
Paige blinked at the trim female state attorney who’d addressed her. Paige realized that she had stopped speaking. The lawyer’s eyes looked like they were about to bulge out of her head, silently prodding Paige to get on with it.
Paige took a sip from the glass of water at her elbow and summoned all of her internal resources to keep her hand from shaking. She cleared her throat. “And then my squad arrived. Mr. Thames was taken into custody. I had no more dealings with him after that point.”
The Bureau had recovered three bodies. All three had been women in their mid-to-late twenties. In order for the murders to be classified as serial killings, there needed to be at least three victims, found at different times. The way the bodies had turned up had appeared calculated to Paige, not random. Though Paige was not a profiler, she had studied criminal behavior. She believed Thames was a narcissist who craved validation and who had lost patience with law enforcement running in circles and failing to identify him and bring him the recognition he wanted. The bodies had turned up at different public locations within hours of one another, and all the victims had been murdered in the same way. Paige believed Thames had given up the location of the bodies and just enough information to point the Bureau to him—but he hadn’t given them enough information to convict him.
Thames was a medieval history professor, and all three women had been his students at one time. An image of the brutalized women flashed in Paige’s mind. Bodies broken into unnatural angles. Shredded flesh where female body parts had been. Jaws locked in a silent scream. Paige felt the blood leave her face and bowed her head to force a blood rush.
The attorney shot Paige another irate look before facing the judge. “Your Honor, I have no further questions for Agent Carson.”
Judge Tate arched his thick brows and faced Thames’s counsel. “Mr. Willman?”
Thames’s lawyer glanced up from the notepad he’d been writing on and shook his head. “We have no questions for Agent Carson, Your Honor.”
The judge said to Paige, “Agent Carson, you may step down.”
Keeping her eyes forward and off Thames, Paige stepped out of the witness box and strode rapidly down the aisle to the exit door. Flattening both palms against the thick wood door, she pushed hard and charged into the hall. She took her first full breath since entering the courtroom. Her legs went weak, and she braced herself against the nearest beige wall for support.
What she’d left out of her statement was that one year ago, she’d been bold, brash, cocky. So full of herself that she’d believed not only that she knew more than seasoned professionals but also that she was invincible. That morning on the mountain, Thames had shown her just how wrong she was. She’d been powerless against him. And even now, she continued to relive the fear and the helplessness she’d felt when she’d realized she was unable to save herself. Thames was still inside her head.
Paige had checked out of her hotel before coming to the courthouse. With the court appearance behind her, she had no reason to be here, no wish to remain here one moment longer than was absolutely necessary. She retrieved her overcoat and suitcase, then called a car service to take her to the airport. She was headed back to her apartment in Denver.
As she was returning her cell phone to her purse, the door to the courtroom opened, then closed. Paige hunched her shoulders at the soft puff of air that resulted, which felt like Thames’s hot breath on her nape. Her car hadn’t yet arrived, but she left the courthouse and walked into the rain.