“You’re giving them too much water. Seriously, Taylor. That is so like you.”
Taylor jumped, the watering can dropping from her suddenly numb fingers onto the floor of her back porch. She knew that voice far too well. James. Damn him. Why wouldn’t he leave her alone? She opened the screen door that led into the house, and then turned, hoping she looked fiercer than she felt.
“Get away from me. You’re trespassing.” She glared at him. “I’m calling the cops.”
Before she could get inside, James pushed into the kitchen behind her, hooking the lock. “You’re my wife. Get your things. It’s time to go home with me. Now!”
There was a time that yell would have spurned her into action, but not anymore. She stared at him—anger replacing the fear. She took two steps, and shoved him backward. “Get out. Now.”
James actually looked hurt. He reached for her, but she stepped away. “I’m sorry I yelled. Come on, baby. I miss you. I know you miss me, too. You’ve had your time away. It’s time to give up this foolishness and do your job taking care of me.” James spread his arms wide. “Our house is much nicer than this crap hole anyway. Look at this mess.”
He pointed to the cupboard where she kept her dishes. The glass door showed the drinking glasses weren’t arranged by size and the small plates weren’t on the same shelf as the large plates. Things he’d always checked and always became angry about.
“It’s not a mess, jackass, and it’s none of your business. This is my house. Get out before I call the police.” She grabbed her cell phone from the table. Her fingers fumbled over the keys as she tried to enter the password to unlock the screen. “We are divorced.”
James clenched his fists before waving one hand toward her. “You will listen to me.”
The expression on his face and the still-fisted hand turned her stomach. He had never hit her, but there was always a first time. Remembering the six years of self-defense classes she’d taken to boost her confidence, she was pretty sure she could adequately defend herself against him. She shook off the fear and focused.
He waved his hand in front of her again. “Do what I say.”
Taylor laughed out of sheer frustration and shock. “That might have worked six years ago when I was too stupid to realize how horrible you are. You’re not a Jedi, James, and I will not go anywhere with you.”
“Where are the flowers I gave you yesterday? In the bedroom?” He wiggled his eyebrows and Taylor wanted to vomit. “Do you remember the flowers I gave you on our wedding night? Our marriage is rock solid, always was. I know I can be difficult sometimes. I understand maybe you needed some time away, but it’s time to get back to what’s important—me.”
“James, I’m not kidding. We have no marriage. We never had a marriage. You were too busy screwing any woman who looked at you twice. Here’s your grandmother’s ring. I don’t want it and I don’t care what you say. Take it and get out.” Taylor placed her cell phone on the table and pulled the family heirloom from her pocket to throw it at him.
She’d had a feeling he wasn’t done following her around even though the police had spoken to him. She’d dug his grandmother’s ring out of her jewelry box after the first time he’d shown up and had carried it with her in the hopes once she gave it back, he’d realize she was serious. Now she could see how ridiculous that thought was. His cheese had definitely slid off the cracker.
He took a step toward her, something evil in his eyes, as the ring clattered to the floor at his feet. Before he could reach for her, he stopped. Horror filled his eyes as blood trickled out of his mouth. The arm of his shirt tore, blood soaking the fabric.
“What is happening?” She took a step toward him, but before she could reach him his body was flung backward against the counter. “James!”
Taylor glanced at the screen door. It was still locked, and she was reasonably sure the front door was locked, too. Could she get help in time? She lunged for her phone, but it slid to the other side of the table before she could reach it.
There was no one and nothing around James to cause the injuries. Nothing to explain how he’d moved or how her phone was now out of reach. Blood splattered against the cabinets, counters, and her shirt as she tried to go to him again. Screaming, she tried a third time. She couldn’t move except to take a single step into the growing pool of blood on the floor. Something seemed to be holding her back, increasing her terror. James’ mouth moved, but no sound came out.
The skin split on his forehead—a gaping hole slowly opening to his neck. The hairs on her arm stood when a low satisfied sigh filled the kitchen. The sigh hadn’t come from James. His eyes were wide, and he gasped for air as an identical wound began on the opposite side. She heard what sounded like chanting, though she didn’t understand the language. Three phrases were repeated over and over. Her stomach turned, her mouth filling with saliva, as she tried to back out of the kitchen. Instead, all she could do was stare at James.
Blood covered his shirt and pants, spilling to the floor. She covered her mouth against another scream, watching his flesh tear and his bowels spill out of his abdomen. Dark laughter echoed through the kitchen when a new stream of blood spurted, then trickled across James’ pale flesh. Pain etched his pale face before his muscles relaxed and his expression went blank.
It was too late to help him now.
Whatever had held her from moving released her. Horrified and confused, she looked back at James’ body as she shoved against the screen door and fumbled with the release. It was still locked. She slammed her full weight against the door and the screen finally wrenched from the frame.
Taylor looked over her shoulder at her house as she finally broke free and raced down the path. She smacked into something solid, landing on her butt in the sand. A big man blocked her path. Scrambling to her feet, she dug her toes into the sand and ran.
A hand grabbed her upper arm before she took a step. Her pulse raced as the self-defense training finally kicked in. She let her weight drop and kicked out with her left foot, catching her assailant in the knee. The grip released enough for her to yank her arm free and she ran toward the neighboring house, the soft sand hampering her escape. She managed to reach the railing of the back porch before he was on her again.
“Stop it. I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice was close to her ear and not as menacing as she would have expected from a cold-blooded invisible killer. Besides, he wasn’t invisible.
Taylor flung her elbow back, catching him hard in the ribs while stomping on his foot. He swore—a curse that would have offended her grandmother—but Taylor didn’t take time to revel in her victory. Getting away from him wasn’t going to be easy. Not letting fear win would be even harder.
He grabbed her, fingers digging into her biceps as his other arm wrapped around her upper body and pinned her against him. In desperation, she kicked and swung, but her blows never connected. He covered her mouth with his hand, cutting off her scream.
She was about to die.
He pulled her hard against his body, locking her limbs to her side. “I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. I’m here to help.”
Taylor snorted, trying to bite him or at least thrust her head into some vulnerable part of his head or neck. She couldn’t move.
“My name is Ben Jones. I heard you scream from the beach. I saw something and I thought you might be in trouble. Listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”
Fat lot of good his promise not to hurt her would do when she ended up bleeding on the floor next to James. She struggled, hoping the bruises left on her body might help solve her murder. He lied. She hadn’t screamed loudly enough to be heard from the beach.
“Listen to me. I don’t know what happened in there, but I know it wasn’t good. I saw someone run out of your house with a bloody knife.” His arms didn’t relax, though his voice had taken on a tone of defeat.
Not like she could answer with his hand over her mouth. She tried again to move her head, any part of her body, fighting the panic at his total control over her movements.
“I’m going to take my hand away. Don’t scream. Don’t bite me. I swear on my mother’s grave I’m not going to hurt you. Understand? Please.” The desperation in the air seemed to double. Taylor couldn’t figure out which of them it came from.
Tears of frustration and fury filled her eyes, making her madder than being held hostage. The promise he’d made on his mother’s grave forced her to listen. So she was a sucker for a good line, but she could sense his sincerity. There was definitely something about the man holding her captive that forced her to listen. Maybe the feeling was bullshit. Despite her earlier panic, she knew he hadn’t killed James—unless he could turn invisible.
No. She was wrong about how James had died. She had to be. The stress of him trying to convince her to come back and stalking her the past few days had caused her to hallucinate or something. There was no way James could have been killed by an invisible entity.
Only she knew there was and her bones chilled at the possibilities. It made her want to vomit.
He relaxed his hold enough for her to nod, slowly pulling his hand away. He kept her body locked against his, warmth and something like familiarity seeping through to thaw her fear. Her back was against his chest and it was wrong that she had to remind herself to focus on the bloody body in her kitchen, not the comforting feel of the stranger.
“What happened in there?”
She couldn’t see his face and wished she could, though she knew he wasn’t invisible. At least not right now.
“He’s dead.” She shook her head, trying to decide if she’d made a mistake in not screaming as soon as he took his hand away.
“Who’s dead?” His arms relaxed a fraction, but she didn’t dare make her move yet.
“James.” Taylor fought the overwhelming urge to sob. Once upon a time, James had been a decent man. Okay. Maybe not. Ever. Still, he hadn’t deserved to die like that.
“Will you show me?” Well, that was it then, wasn’t it? He wanted to take her back inside and murder her, too.
He released her and she turned to face him. Her intuition begged her to trust him, but panic seemed a better friend. His brown eyes were full of compassion, not murder. She forced the fear aside and listened to the more intelligent, and usually correct, part of herself.
“There you go.” He reached for her hand. She allowed him, wondering why she was still here and yet, knowing this man meant her no harm.
“What did you see?” He tugged her with him toward her house.
Fear seized her again, overriding her deeper senses. What was wrong with her? Ben hadn’t seen anyone running away. The killer was probably still in the house.
She took a deep breath and tried to center the erratic thoughts. He wasn’t going to kill her. He hadn’t killed James. Only it was easier to pretend things had happened differently than the terrible laughter she’d heard—easier to pretend than seeing the flesh ripped from James’ body by unseen hands.
“What if he came back? The killer could be in the house.” Taylor pulled against Ben’s grip.
He held her hand tightly as they crammed through the broken screen door. She closed her eyes, hoping the scene had simply been a psychotic hallucination, but the smell of blood was too overwhelming for that to be true. James was still very surely dead.
“Shit.” Ben took a step back and away from the blood pooling on the floor.
Taylor had no words. Ben clearly didn’t want to kill her, so what did he want? To help like he said? She had a hard time believing that. No one was really that good. “I’m going to double-check to make sure the house is clear.”
He pulled a gun from the back of his pants and left the kitchen.
Taylor couldn’t do anything but stare at James’ body until Ben came back.
“There’s no one else here,” Ben said, coming to stand beside her.
Her body shook. “They’re going to think I did this.”
“Did you?” he asked, though not seriously—at least she didn’t think so.
“No.” She met his eyes, hoping he believed her.
“We’re going to have to call the police. Tell me everything that happened first.” He pulled her back through the broken door and onto the porch.
Still unsure, she wavered.
“Listen, I know you didn’t do this. The police aren’t going to be as quick to come to that conclusion. They’ll lock you up until they figure out you didn’t. If they can figure out you didn’t. You’re the logical killer. There isn’t enough other evidence to even begin to question your guilt and you know it. You have blood all over your feet and your shirt—splatter marks, like you delivered the blows.” His words cut her uncertainty to shreds.
“James is, was, my ex-husband.” Why James had tracked her down still bothered her. She hadn’t seen, or spoken to him, for nearly six years. Why had he come back now? Did he really think she’d spent all this time mourning the fantastic state of their short and crappy marriage?
“What happened today? Just now.” He touched her arm. An offer of comfort, and she was pissed that it actually calmed her.
“I was watering the flowers on the back porch. I saw him and freaked. He followed me into the house so fast I didn’t have time to react. He locked the screen door to keep me from leaving. He wanted me to come back. I said no. I went to my room to get his grandmother’s ring. When I came back, he was dead.” She couldn’t tell him she’d watched James’ body being ripped apart by unseen hands.
“You didn’t see anyone?”
“No, but you did. How did his killer get out of the house? The screen door was still locked. I broke it when I ran.” She’d heard something—something indescribable—something that couldn’t possibly be real.
“The front door?”
“Should be locked.”
He went through the house, past James’ bloody body, to check.
Taylor should run. Why didn’t she? He was back before she could make her feet move.
“Locked,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “I unlocked it. Don’t tell the police. At least that could help support your innocence.”
“Why are you so concerned about me? I don’t even know you.” His determination to help her was confusing, but there was something about Ben.
Ben stopped. “I saw the man with the knife. Like I told you. I heard you scream.”
She sighed. “So how did this person you saw get in, and out, of my house?” She knew he hadn’t seen anyone. There’d been no one to see.
“Good question. We need to call the police. The more we wait, the more suspicious you look. And me, too.” He grimaced as he pulled out his phone.
She couldn’t say why she listened to him—why she’d told him as much as she had. She didn’t want to believe anything he said, but a strong sense of trust and purpose nagged her.
Studying his profile as he explained the scene in her kitchen, presumably to the police, she tried to memorize his face—in case her gut feeling was wrong. A long scar near his ear trailed below the collar of his shirt, and she wanted to know how he’d gotten it. If he’d lied more than he already had, she’d know. The internal warning stayed silent. After James, she didn’t know if she trusted her instincts at all. Though, if she were honest, that wasn’t true. She’d known what James was—what he could become. Yet, she’d married him anyway.
Taylor sat on the step, her head down. She was going to jail for murdering her ex-husband. No one would believe her. Her future was over. All the freedom she’d gained when she left James was gone.
* * * *
After hanging up with the police, Ben dialed another number. He needed help if he was going to keep Taylor out of prison for a murder she didn’t commit and try to figure out what vengeful spirit murdered her ex. She hadn’t done this thing. Too bad his opinion wouldn’t matter when the cops got here. Taylor hadn’t moved since she’d dropped to the top step of the back porch. Ben could only imagine what was going on inside her head. Hell, he didn’t have to imagine, since he’d been in her position enough times to know.
He shouldn’t have lied to her. Now he’d have to lie to the police, too. Luckily, he didn’t have a reputation here as anything but Ben Jones, businessman. The police wouldn’t care about what he had to say. Taylor had a dead body in her kitchen. A dead body that, if his vision and gut could still be trusted, had been caused by something sinister.
He could imagine what Taylor would have thought if he’d told her he had a vision about her ex-husband’s murder. His guilt was bad enough. If he hadn’t denied the pain in his head and what he’d seen, he might have gotten here in time to save her from this mess. Why had he thought the visions were never going to come back?
He tried to ignore his resentment. His old life was gone—buried like the souls of the things he’d hunted for so long. He didn’t have the energy to deal with the underworld again. He could walk away. Leave her in the hands of the police, but he wasn’t going to do that. He couldn’t. The vision had been so strong and Taylor’s spirit both in the vision and now touched him in a way he didn’t want to recognize. She needed his help.
Flashing red lights bounced off the dunes and the houses, creating an even more surreal scene. He walked around the side of Taylor’s house to meet the police in the driveway, not wanting to disrupt the murder scene—again—by walking by the body. He was on friendly terms with the police chief, but not friendly enough to make any of this go away or excuse his destruction of the crime scene.
He shook hands with the man, hoping he could keep the lies to the ones already told, and led the way to Taylor still sitting on the back porch. She looked up, the brief glimmer of tears vanishing as they approached. Instead of speaking to her, the chief peered in the back door, pulled back quickly and shook his head.
“Self-defense?” he asked Ben as he reached in his pocket for a pad of paper.
Ben almost said yes, thinking Taylor would have a better time of things considering she’d already gone to the police because of James’ weird behavior. Except James’ death was far too brutal to be accepted and possibly excused as self-defense. He couldn’t put more suspicion on her, or allow anyone to believe she was capable of such violence.
“No.” Taylor shook her head and stood. “He was going to hit me, I think. But he didn’t. I don’t know what happened. I went to my room to get his grandmother’s ring. When I came back, he was like that. Dead.”
Ben’s admiration for her went up a notch at the calm way she answered. Even more so after she underwent questioning that seemed to last forever. Her answers never changed and her voice didn’t waver. The flash of cameras taking pictures of the body continued from inside the house. He wondered how many photographs they’d need to prove Taylor didn’t kill her ex-husband. Finally, the chief closed his notebook and put his hand on her shoulder. His fake sympathy when he clearly thought Taylor was guilty ticked Ben off.
“I’m going to have to ask you to come to the station with me. You’ll need to bring a change of clothes. What you have on is evidence,” he said with a small smile that almost looked like victory to Ben.
Taylor nodded, looking back at Ben with bravery.
“Is it okay if I come along? For support.” He didn’t care what they said, he was going, even if Taylor really didn’t want him to. He couldn’t let her face this alone. Not when he was to blame for her even having to deal with it.
“Absolutely. We need to ask you a few questions, too.” The chief nodded, pointing at the squad car parked in Taylor’s driveway.
He should have expected that.
* * * *
She would soon find out to whom she belonged.
She would find out soon.
His strength had grown. The blood of the bastard who’d tried to take what would never belong to him brought much-needed power. His time was short, his skills weak, or the dead man would have suffered more. Each slice of flesh had increased the potency and control and his will to own her body and soul.
The wait had been too long to seek the life force of the pitiful and spineless living. They made it so easy for him to maintain his existence. After the last one, he realized the world was much smarter than it had been in the beginning, and they continued to evolve quickly. He’d reluctantly accepted his dormancy until the proper time. It was much safer since he was powerless to alter the way things had to be.
Today was a lucky day. He’d achieved his goal of finding her much sooner than predicted. Sooner than he could have dreamed. She didn’t know about him yet. She couldn’t. He’d made sure of that. Time was on his side. If he could attain true freedom before the date of their joining, he would be well prepared for any obstacles her mother had placed in his path. The more strength he gained before it was time to make her his, the better positioned he was to convince her of her one true destiny.
She was the one.
The one who would finally release him—permanently.
* * * *
“Take me home.” Taylor slammed the passenger door.
“You can’t go home.” Ben glanced at her from the driver’s seat of his truck. “The body might be gone, but the police aren’t done searching for evidence and documenting the scene. Didn’t they tell you that?”
“They did.” She buckled her seatbelt, angry at the questions she’d been forced to answer and the fact Ben had his own vehicle to drive away in.
At least he’d had someone to bring it to the police station. Unlike her. The only friend she had in this town was on a cruise ship with a bunch of retirees. She was stuck relying on him. She hated that.
“So if you already know, why do I need to take you home?” He didn’t look at her. She figured he was as ticked at her as she was with herself.
“I’m not stupid. I need to get my car.” Guilt made her try to soften her words. “I’m going to a hotel.”
Not that it was any of his business. She’d only recently convinced her interrogator she’d never met Ben before tonight. And now she was accepting a ride from a man who was, in all truth, a stranger. A stranger who just happened to be on the beach at the same time James was murdered.
She supposed that meant something. Maybe. He’d still lied to her, and for her. He hadn’t seen anyone running out of her house, though she’d told the police she’d heard the screen door break right before she’d found James’ body. There was no point in trying to convince the police of her innocence. They thought she was guilty. At the very least, they thought she’d been driven to kill James. She could see it in their eyes as they insisted on the entire history of their doomed marriage.
“You’re not leaving town, are you?” He stopped at a stop sign, looking over at her with a wide grin.
Taylor’s heart nearly stopped. She’d been too distracted to realize how beautiful this man was. His smile melted her sarcasm and she struggled to keep her breathing normal. She couldn’t answer. Her reaction was inappropriate and probably due to the stress of the day.
Instead, she rubbed her hands down the front of her jeans. Her fingers were numb. She’d been pleased, though not surprised, to see she hadn’t shown up on any government most-wanted databases. She wanted to blame the fingerprinting process and the scrapings they’d taken from under her nails for the lack of sensation, but knew that had nothing to do with it.
Though, the insistence she’d caused the deep scratches on James’ face still pissed her off. She’d acquiesced to the samples without a single manicure comment, knowing the evidence would help to prove she hadn’t murdered James. Her clothes wouldn’t help her case much. James’ blood had covered the jeans, shirt, and bra she’d been forced to hand over. Those bloodstains were damning evidence.
“You’ll be cleared in no time. You’d be locked up now if the cops thought you were guilty. The broken backdoor probably saved your ass.” She hated the way Ben seemed to read her thoughts. This wasn’t the first time he’d done it, and truthfully, it freaked her out. Either she was more transparent than she thought, or he had a gift like the one she was supposed to have, but didn’t.
“I have a problem.” She checked her purse again. “My keys are inside the house.” Damn.
“Where do you want me to take you? Do you need money?” His sympathetic smile almost undid her. She didn’t want company, and yet, she didn’t want to be alone.
“Seaside and no, I’m good,” she said and leaned against the seat. God, she was tired. Her throat hurt from repeating the same answers what seemed like a million times. All she wanted was to curl up and sleep for a week.
If she could even get a room. News traveled fast in this town. She hadn’t lived in her beach house long enough to be considered a resident, not that she ever would, let alone make any friends besides the shop owner who’d convinced her to move here and expand her business. The same person who was living it up on a senior singles cruise to Alaska for the next two weeks. Taylor wouldn’t put it past the tightly knit community to think they were protecting themselves by denying her a room. If she looked at this from outside herself, she’d think she was guilty, too.
Ben reached out and hugged her with one arm, catching her off guard. She wanted to give in to his comfort, to let him hold her for a moment, but she pulled away. He was still a stranger and she didn’t need his help.
Shouldn’t she feel something besides pity and horror for James?
The man she was supposed to love until death was dead. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t loved him for years, if ever. Still, she hadn’t needed anyone else before now—not when she’d finally grown a spine and left James for good, and not when she’d buried both of her parents on the same day.
“So. Tell me about this person you saw running away from my house. The one with the big old bloody knife?” She was tired of the lies. Why was Ben the only one who didn’t question her innocence?
He glanced at her, his expression unreadable. “I’m done telling that story. I swear I must have repeated myself a hundred times tonight.”
“No kidding. Did you get the details right every single time? Because honestly, I don’t think you saw anyone. I know you didn’t see anyone.” At least she’d waited to insist on details until he’d parked in front of the hotel. Now she could see his face and hopefully be able to tell how much of his story was a lie.
“Why don’t you think I saw anyone?” The question was laden with even more questions, a hint of suspicion, and maybe a glimmer of hope. Maybe.
“Because I would have seen him, too.” And not because she thought she’d heard something. Something that made less sense than James being murdered.
He studied her for a minute, his hands opening and closing around the steering wheel. Finally, he blew out a breath.
“You’re in great danger, Taylor Reed.”