Two years earlier
“You had to entertain this as a possibility—in those deep, dark recesses of your mind that we both know you have.”
Her voice was seductive. Throaty. Deep enough to be intriguing but not so much that it failed to be feminine. It was a wash up his spine, an odd combination of a tortured caress and nails on a chalkboard. Pleasure and pain.
And he had entertained it—a constant thought. A threat, a promise. A sick need, still unfulfilled.
And now, he’d been captured by the serial killer he’d been hunting, held captive…in his own house.
She studied him, a slight frown marring her otherwise placid features. “You’re a tough one. Always were. Covering up all the sins of a lifetime. You’ve got such a gift.” She paused, and when she spoke again, she sounded pleased. “We’re a lot alike.”
He snorted in response, then jabbed her with, “From what I hear, you’re a lot like your mother.”
She didn’t bite, though. “You have mommy issues, Ward?” Jessica trailed a finger lightly across the back of his neck—a lover’s touch—her voice soft, her tone comely. “Tell me all about them.”
She laughed, a sexy, throaty sound. She was so damned pretty, all sunshine and flowers…
To Ward, she smelled like roses on a grave.
“Didn’t Brother tell you all about our mother? I’d think you’d be sick of our stories by now.”
“Never. You’re all so scintillating,” he said dryly.
He was rewarded with the finger across the back of the neck again, but this time she dug her nail in, then showed him the blood she’d drawn. “Don’t be a bitch, because I can definitely be a bigger one.”
He sighed. “Can we get on with this shit?”
She’d caught him so off guard, in the privacy of his own home, his sanctuary.
“You’d think, after Brother found you so easily, that you’d have better security. Because lightning does strike twice. But you knew that already. You learned it so early.” Suddenly, the pinprick at the back of his neck changed everything. He knew she’d do it, knew the drug she’d injected was a hallucinogenic, meant to loosen up any and all inhibitions and keep him completely off balance… it was truth serum.
A life ruiner.
At first, he went in and out of consciousness. When he was able to wake himself up for longer periods of time, he wished he couldn’t.
“Who are you, Ward Thayer?” she mused.
Don’t tell her anything. “Sin eater,” he mumbled.
“Really? How fascinating—tell me everything.”
He was drifting again, back to childhood, the first time he’d seen true evil. It was so nebulous a concept to most, an overreaching theme in literature and in TV shows…just outside of the average person’s reach, and thankfully so.
But it had never been out of his. All he’d had to do was reach out and let it touch him, and he had, over and over. Let it taint him just enough so he could recognize it easily, and so it could recognize him.
The first time Ward encountered evil he was six. And maybe he’d sensed it earlier, the way his grandmother had recognized his innate sensitivity in that area, but his most vivid early memory was of a classmate killing a cat for sport. He recalled the anger in the boy’s face, the unnatural, unprovoked rage as he killed…and then the calm afterward. The blissful smile.
Ward had been playing on the other side of the fence, a silent witness. It had happened so fast that Ward hadn’t gotten a chance to get to his feet, never mind stop the boy.
But watching him, Ward saw the dual nature, the monster behind the innocent face, and, once he’d seen it, there was never any way of unseeing it.
He’d told his school counselor, who hadn’t seemed surprised, but nothing was done until the next year when the boy stabbed a teacher with a fork. By then, Ward had a mental list of the psychopaths he’d met along the way at the fancy schools and churches his family had been attending for a hundred years.
It was a horrible gift to have, but he didn’t know any other way. To watch another person who’d lived with it, with horrible consequences, at first had him wanting nothing to do with Jacoby.
That resolve lasted all of five minutes.
All the same person…and the man Ward loved.
“Stay with me, Ward,” Jessica admonished, because she remained fascinated by his admission and pressed him. “So I confess to you and you can eat my sins?”
“You don’t have a conscience,” Ward pointed out, his voice slurred.
“I don’t think that matters—that’s not part of your deal.” The way she concentrated on him was unnerving. “That doesn’t mean I can’t hand it over to you, force you to carry it.”
You’re a sin eater, Ward, so I’ll make you eat my sins.
The story of his life. He looked her in the eye. “I dare you.”
He hadn’t needed to. His chest felt wet, and he didn’t need to look down to know she was carving letters—words—into his body. Worse, she was forcing her sins into his mind…
“I like to hear them beg for their lives. I usually come as soon as they do—and then I kill them. It makes the orgasm last that much longer. It’s gorgeous.”
She ran a finger down his chest and he fought a shudder of revulsion—or maybe plain fear—and she laughed.
“Don’t worry, baby. I plan on ruining you tonight, but not with my pussy.”
You’re a sin eater, Ward, so I’ll make you eat my sins.
Visitors to Brennan Booth’s house were never a welcome sight. These days, they were downright unnerving, thanks to a random phone call from a man named Jasper, who claimed to be the brother of one of the most famous, active serial killers in both Europe and North America—and a female to boot—who wanted Bren to write the story of his family.
At that point, Bren had gone from a bestselling author able to lead a very private life to a very well-known one when the details of this new book—and the giant contract that came with it—leaked. He was now suddenly living in an odd fishbowl in his new house in Virginia, hemmed in by the FBI and his publisher, not to mention the press and his fans.
It had definitely fucked with his mind and his writing, not to mention his productivity, and he’d moved months earlier in an attempt to stave off some of the stress that his newly public life was giving him. He’d been holed up, taking phone calls from Jasper and trying to put his notes into book form.
So far, it hadn’t worked all that well for him on the productivity end, since nothing he wrote even vaguely resembled a book. He tried to tell himself it was because he was used to writing fiction and this was decidedly not.
Every once in a while, he’d take a look at the number of zeros on his advance check, which was often enough to scare him into doing some actual writing. He’d done so when he’d woken up that morning, which was why he’d gotten off to such a good start, but the man coming up the walkway with a purposeful don’t fuck with me stride promised to ruin that momentum. Bren knew that being in semi-protective custody with the FBI—pretty much against his will, but not his better judgment—left him open to Agent Thayer’s scrutiny. However, the man who approached wasn’t his handler, but he’d been confident enough to drive a noisy Harley right up to the gate and walk to the front door in broad daylight. He looked like a biker, although the flip of the badge held up to the peephole when Bren called through the door after his loud knock was pure agent, and his voice was a deep, rough gravel that announced, “Agent Razwell.”
Bren took his time looking the badge over, just the way Ward had shown him. Ward was paranoid, he’d figured. For good reason. “How can I help you?” he asked finally.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Agent Thayer mentioned you might stop by. Apparently, writing this book is upsetting people at the FBI,” Bren mused before stepping aside to let Razwell into the house…mainly to not draw the attention of his neighbors.
“I’m sure Interpol’s not happy either.” Razwell’s eyes searched his, like he could somehow download the information from Bren’s brain, before he strode inside and walked immediately toward Bren’s office like he had some kind of homing device. “Great place you’ve got here.”
“It is,” he agreed as he followed the man. “But I’m sure you didn’t come here to talk about real estate.”
Razwell smiled. “You’re a psychologist?”
“No—just an author.”
Bren pointed to his own books on the shelves and Razwell moved in order to stare at the shelf of Bren’s books asking, “True crime?”
“No. I’ve actually always written fiction.”
“About serial killers.”
“Yes,” he admitted, falling into interview mode, a result of having been asked this question incessantly. “That’s why this non-fiction fit so well with me. It wasn’t something I sought out, Agent Razwell.”
Razwell nodded seriously. “Call me Jacoby—I’m not big on formality. And sure, I bet this book just fell into your lap.”
“Something like that.” Bren paused, then dealt with one of the elephants in the room. “I haven’t committed a crime.” Not that he hadn’t been accused of that over the past months…
“But you’re writing about an active serial killer. Some might call that aiding and abetting.”
“It’s not my fault Jessica is still out there. Maybe if the FBI spent a little less time interrogating an author and a little more—”
“Don’t fucking finish that sentence,” Jacoby warned, his tone harsh.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Yes,” Jacoby told him, suddenly calm again, even when he added, “Take it seriously.
“I’ll mention it to Ward.”
For just a moment, Jacoby’s expression flashed with an emotion Bren couldn’t quite place and then it went back to being placidly bored. “You think you know what you’re doing?”
“I’ve been writing for a long time.”
Jacoby rolled his eyes. “You’ve also got a death wish.”
“I didn’t realize you knew me so well.”
“Your publisher’s blinded by money. Maybe you are too.”
Bren laughed. “It’s definitely nice to have. I was a starving artist for way too long.”
“So being close to a serial killer’s a joke for you?” Jacoby observed.
“My career isn’t a joke. And I think the book will shed some interesting light on—”
“A killer,” Jacoby finished. “Thing is, the FBI—and Interpol—would appreciate that information your source is giving you.”
“I realize that. But I don’t owe the FBI or Interpol anything.”
“True. But anyone she kills from this point onward is on your head. Your conscience, if you have one.”
“Now you’re calling me a psychopath?” Bren demanded. “Look, I’m writing about Jessica’s early years.”
“With information from a source who claims to be the killer’s brother—and you refuse to provide proof, which means there is none.”
Bren threw his hands up in the air, frazzled and pissed that his day was most likely ruined by Jacoby trying to play the part of Bren’s conscience. “Can you get Ward on the line? Because I’ve already been through this shit.”
“No,” Jacoby said flatly. “I just have a few questions.”
“Like I’ve told Ward a million times, Jasper contacted me. And no, you don’t have my permission to read my notes, as per my lawyer and my publishing company’s legal department, since Jasper is not a killer.”
“You’ve got it all down, don’t you?
“I guess I do. Can you leave now?”
“No,” Jacoby said with a smile.
“You’ve worked on this case, Agent Razwell? Because you seem a little young,” Bren queried.
Jacoby turned to him. “Maybe research will only take you so far. Right now, you’re only talking to someone who’s uncomfortably close to a killer. Maybe you’ll be the next victim, Bren—you ever think of that?” He pointed. “Lock the damned door.”
He closed it. Locked it behind Jacoby and firmly told himself to ignore everything Jacoby had told him if he wanted to earn all the zeros on the paycheck, then promptly called Ward for backup.