My brother believes he made me a killer. The truth is, I’ve always been different. I can smile while sliding a knife between your ribs—and not feel a moment of regret.
A man like me shouldn’t have a family. But the minute I opened my eyes from a coma and saw her, I knew I’d forever be tied to her. A nurse who nurtures life. A mother.
I’ve stalked her for two years, unable to stop but refusing to give in to the need to have her. To love her. Until the night her daughter is taken. I’ll light up the world to get Leah’s child back to her.
And then I’ll walk away for good. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because I know how she’ll look at me after seeing who I truly am.
She’ll see the murderer inside me. And God help me, but she’ll be right.
Brown sugar and butter melted on my tongue, bringing a groan to my lips as I waited in the gloomy garage. Abby’s oatmeal molasses cookies. The vague memories of my mother baking when Levi, Eli, and I were children didn’t include the flavors of finished cookies, but if the memories were heaven, oatmeal molasses cookies would have to be in there somewhere.
I took another bite.
I’d popped the last bit into my mouth when I caught sight of her. Fulton County Memorial needed actual fucking lighting in here to keep their employees safe, but even in the dim light I knew it was Leah coming out of the elevator onto the third floor of the parking garage. My Leah. Everything inside me stood up and took notice, like a live wire buzzing through my veins. Lighting up every nook and cranny of my body. That’s what she did to me every. Damn. Time.
Shifting to ease the suddenly tight stretch of denim across my dick, I picked up another cookie. Leah walked toward an old Toyota Camry with a booster seat in the back. A reliable car for a woman who didn’t make much despite her long hours and compassion. Compassionate people rarely earned what they deserved; it was the bastards like me that got ahead in this world. I waited for her to pull toward the down ramp, just out of sight, then shoved the rest of the cookie in my mouth, cranked my nondescript SUV, and followed.
Atlanta traffic was a bitch any time of day, but trying to get out of town in the evening... She’d have no chance to lose me, even if she knew I was behind her. Gridlock had us inching our way south, and from the way she rode her brakes, I knew she was as impatient as I to escape it. For far different reasons, but still. Her reason had blonde hair identical to hers, shades of yellow, caramel, and brown mingling together to provide a rich depth that made my fingers itch to touch it. Brown eyes just like hers too.
The child was six, I knew that. I knew her name and everything important about her, just like I did her mother. Not that either of them would ever know.
This far back, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of those brown eyes in the rearview mirror. I wished I could. Every time I fucking saw her, I ached to stare into those eyes. They’d mesmerized me from the first moment I looked into them, drugged and disoriented from the coma, but Leah’s dark eyes had stared down at me, grounded me, settled the fear in my gut.
There was nothing to settle the fear now, because that fear was reality—I’d never look into those eyes again. I would ache for her until I died, but I wouldn’t give in. Leah and her child deserved a lot more in this life than a man with blood on his hands.
My cell rang as we exited the freeway at Union City. Leah’s car headed west while I debated answering. I knew who was calling, and I knew he wouldn’t be happy with me. He never was lately. Not that I gave a rat’s ass, but I had no desire to waste time arguing.
I finally pressed the button on the console and answered. “Yeah?”
“Did the intel on our target pan out?”
No hi, how are ya? or even how’s it hanging, bro? Levi was all business except on the rare occasions that his girlfriend, Abby, could trick him out of it. He’d raised me since I was ten, so I was used to it.
“It panned out,” I told him. Butch Clarkson was definitely an abusive asshole. I didn’t know who’d put a hit out on him, but he deserved everything he’d had coming his way. His wife was currently in a long-term care facility from a “fall down the stairs” that hadn’t been an accident after all.
“Fine. Eli will start tracking his movements so we can—”
The silence that followed my words was heavy. Tense. Angry. And didn’t faze me in the slightest.
“Why shouldn’t I bother, Remi?”
“Because I took care of it.” Clarkson would never throw another woman down the stairs. His associates wouldn’t care, but I did.
Curses filtered through the speakers of the SUV. I barely paid attention, more interested in the little red Camry slowing ahead to turn into a neighborhood that was showing its age. The houses were a long commute from her work, smaller, with a bit more yard than new construction, but solid. Leah chose wisely, on a lot of things.
“I don’t trust promises from men like you.”
“Why the fuck would you do a job without full intel and without backup?” Levi growled, pulling me back from memories I should’ve buried a long time ago. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
The thought didn’t bother me as much as it should have—a warning sign in my business. I brushed it off with a mental shrug. “I saw an opportunity and I took it. I knew all I needed to know.”
“What I know is you have a fucking death wish. You’re taking too many chances, Remi. You know better than that. I taught you better than that.”
You taught me a lot of things, big brother. Unfortunately lessons couldn’t make you feel when all you wanted was to stop feeling.
I slowed, taking the same turn Leah had taken, far enough behind that she wouldn’t notice. When she left the main road that bisected the neighborhood, I turned off my headlights and followed.
“This has got to stop, Remi.”
Levi’s words jerked me out of the fantasy of belonging in this little neighborhood with a woman and a little girl who deserved far better than me. He was right, too; he had no idea how right.
“You’re risking too much and you know it. I can’t lose you, brother. Either you rein it in or—”
My words were deadly quiet. I could feel Levi’s shock in the silence after them, knew he understood what I was saying—there was nothing he could do to stop me. I worked with my brothers because I wanted to, not because it was necessary.
The silence ticked by with the passing of car after car parked in front of each square of idealized domesticity. Levi finally spoke.
“Look, I love you; you know that. I even understand where you are coming from.”
Because he knew about Leah. Or rather, about a woman; he didn’t know her identity.
His voice went from gruff to dark and deadly, much as mine had been moments before. “But Remi, if you don’t curb yourself, if you put Eli and Abby in danger, I will take care of business, don’t you doubt it. I won’t want to, but I will.”
I didn’t doubt it one bit. Levi would storm through hell to keep his woman safe. I knew because I felt the same. “Noted.”
I clicked to end the call before either one of us could say something we really would regret—or before Levi could. I’d gone far beyond regret even before I took care of Mr. Wife Beater Clarkson.
Leah had parked in the driveway of a small gray house with weathered white trim. I pulled into a spot in front of a house catty-corner to hers, at just the right angle that I could see her fumbling to gather her things and get out of her car. I could see her walking up the sidewalk, her curves pulling my gaze down her body as she moved. I could see her sidestep to avoid the crack at the turn in the pavement just before the steps up to her porch. I didn’t need to see any of it—I had watched her so many times that I knew each move by heart—yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
And because I was watching, because I knew her body language better than my own, I saw the moment she hesitated outside the front entrance. Saw her keys fall from her hand to patter on the concrete before she yanked on the screen door.
Something wasn’t right.
I was out of my car and crossing the street, heart pounding to the rhythm of my running feet, without a moment’s hesitation. Leah’s name escaped my lips over and over again, a mantra against the jacked-up fear I couldn’t escape, no matter how irrational. It had been a single moment, one fleeting glimpse, but something inside me—instinct, paranoia, I didn’t know what—said this wasn’t irrational at all.
Put me in front of a gun with a round in the chamber and a finger on the trigger and my breath wouldn’t even hitch. But Leah in danger? There was plenty of hitching. And swearing. And pleading with whatever spirit ruled the universe to keep her safe when I saw the broken-off knob on her screen door and the deep white gouges scarring the inner door’s wood.
Someone had broken in—with Leah’s child inside.
Inside, chaos reigned though the room was empty. Furniture was out of place—the couch cushions split open, the coffee table overturned, the TV on its back as if its cabinet had been shoved. Toys and books and throw pillows were scattered among glass from a broken lamp and a tea cup and plate shattered into pieces. Every drawer, every door was open as if someone had been searching for something.
I took it all in with one sweeping glance as I struggled toward the kitchen to the left. “Leah!”
The kitchen was empty as well, the destruction in the front room repeated here. A tornado had torn through the house, but still, I saw no sign of the people who lived here.
Until a startled scream came from one of the back rooms.
I cursed, stretching my long legs as far as they would go, taking the hallway like a sprinter with the finish line in sight. I hit the back bedroom in time to see Leah kneeling beside an older woman on the floor next to a heavy dresser. The angle of the woman’s neck told me all I needed to know, but Leah couldn’t read the story—one shaking hand was reaching to find a pulse.
I snatched her back before her fingers could make contact.