The goal is October 31st, but I'm hoping for a little earlier than that. But don't quote me! LOL
Anyway, I figure I might as well give you all a sneak peek of the story, so here you go!
Feel free to let me know what you think!
Alaskan bill-collector Wynne Smith has a problem. Actually, she has two. The first is sexy, six-foot, Deputy US Marshal, Seth Vassar, fresh off the plane from Dallas, Texas and looking for answers to a five year old murder investigation. The by-the-book marshal doesn't take no for an answer any more than Wynne likes to let a puzzle go unsolved.
Which leads to her second problem. A serial killer intent on making Wynne pay for destroying his next work of art.
Now Wynne has to guard her heart against a man she knows is going to leave her while she tries to keep one step ahead of a maniac.
In a game this deadly, her only hope lies In A Lover's Silence.
Three years earlier
Fear etched itself into her face as the last bit of life slipped from her gaze. Immense satisfaction spread along his every nerve; through every vein, as he lowered Elaina Jefferson's body to the floor. The stench of cigarettes, booze, unwashed bodies, and sex saturated the threadbare gold carpet, providing the perfect atmosphere to his artwork. He took his time adjusting her body. He lay her on her left side, face turned toward the rain-spattered windows. The blue neon Weekly Rates sign flashed like perfectly timed lightning through the cheap curtains.
He collected Mitchell's body from the bathroom. The five year old was slight, undernourished due to his mother 's neglect. He placed the boy beside his mother and wrapped Elaina's limp arms around him. It was the first time he'd seen her embrace her child in the six months he'd been fucking her. The pale gold of their hair, hers stringy and matted with blood, the boy's freshly washed and only a shade or two lighter than his mother's, was the only thing marking their relationship.
After arranging the bodies to the specifications of the beast within him, he positioned the few pieces of furniture in the living room around the pair. His audience — for now. He pulled his camera from the small duffle he'd brought with him, and snapped images for his scrap book. First, from one angle, then another.
Elaina's bruised and tear-streaked face filled the frame before he panned out until her son's face could be seen. The smeared make-up and terrified expression made an excellent contrast to Mitchell's peaceful countenance.
The children of his passed lovers were never to blame for their mother's neglect or abuse. He'd always insured they were asleep, courtesy of a healthy dose of cough syrup or allergy medication, before he pierced their heart with his knife. Unlike their mothers', their deaths were merciful.
It was his gift to them. It was only fair. If left alive, the girls and boys would be forced into a foster care system that could be crueler than the situation they'd been raised in. No child deserved that.
Then there was their tendency not to follow directions. He could threaten or scare them into silence, but it wouldn't last. Potential witnesses he didn't need.
Camera lifted, he knelt beside the pair and zoomed in. Finger poised on the button, he frowned at the image in the viewfinder. He stopped and lowered the camera, then adjusted a fold of Mitchell's tee shirt to obscure the tiny amount of blood staining the white cotton. His art had to be perfectly presented. It stayed with the audience longer when there was little visible evidence of the cause of death of the victims.
Excitement rose within him at the thought of the impact his work would have on the person who found the bodies. On the officers called to the scene. Inside his jeans, his cock grew hard, his breath came faster. The beast that drove him to kill purred in triumph.
He snapped a few more pictures, tucked his camera in its case and exited the room. Cleaning or trying to erase any evidence of his presence was unnecessary. The rug hadn't seen a vacuum in at least a year, never mind cleaning agents to remove the stains and odors left by previous residents. The same could be said for the counters and the furniture. A thick layer of dust covered them. Every moment of the forty-eight hours he spent in the room with Elaina he'd been careful to keep his hands sheathed in latex gloves. He didn't remove them until he'd climbed into his car.
A week. Seven days was the longest he'd stay to watch the aftermath of his latest creation.
While she'd been unconscious from a mixture of pain and drugs, he'd cleaned Elaina's apartment the day before so nothing — no hair, no fibers, no fingerprints — could connect him to her. The run down, pay-by-the-week apartment she'd lived in was so transient it wasn't likely anyone living there would know what he looked like. Not even the manager was the same from week to week.
He had a job lined up in Spokane and another in Reno, and then he could begin the next hunt. The beast, tired but satisfied, trundled into the place where he kept it hidden. It curled up to sleep until the next time.
He wasn't sure how long it would wait before waking. Each kill seemed to come closer on the heels of the previous, but the hunt was well-worth the patience required to gain his prey's trust.
Soon, he assured himself. Soon.
"I'm so totally screwed." The temptation to smack her skull onto her desk a few times was overwhelming, but Wynne Smith fought it. She needed to keep her head up so she could watch the progress of the three men following Donna, the collections manager, past the collections floor with its sections of cubicles, and into the office of Elliot White, the owner of the agency.
Over the partition separating their workstations, Wynne's friend, Rita Lang, peered down at her. "What's up? Who are they?"
Wynne figured cowering behind flimsy moveable barriers wouldn't do her any good. She stood up and propped her arm on the wall. She gave a quick wave to the man who carried a cowboy hat.
He dipped his head in return. The beginnings of a grin lifted his lips and amusement flashed in his green-hazel eyes. In her stomach, butterflies fluttered to life and the temptation to curl up against his broad chest had to be pounded into submission.
"You know them?" Rita scurried out of her cubbyhole to join Wynne.
"Not really. The big guy in the suit I don't know, but the smaller suit behind him is a special agent with the FBI. Dex Franklin. The one in the jeans and McCloud coat is Deputy US Marshal, Seth Vassar."
"FBI? Marshal? What have you done? And what's a McCloud coat?"
Wynne laughed and answered the easiest of the questions. "Remember the old TV series with Dennis Weaver? He always wore that suede coat with the sheepskin lining. That's a McCloud coat."
"Ah." Rita's head bobbed up and down, her short red curls bouncing around her face. "So, what did you do?"
"Wynne." Donna's cool summons overrode Rita's question.
Not that Wynne wanted to answer either woman. No. If she had her 'druthers, she'd be out the office's front door and half-way home. But the look on Donna's face and the surprised glance from Amy Wright, the collection agency's paralegal, assured Wynne there was no opportunity for escape.
Grabbing the bottle of Dr. Pepper from her desk, Wynne sighed. "Pray for me, Rita, it's gonna be a hell of a Friday." She didn't wait for a response before crossing the room and following Donna into the owner's office.
Elliot remained in his seat while Seth, Dex, and the other FBI agent rose from their chairs. "Wynne these gentlemen have a few questions for you."
The older agent stepped forward and offered his hand. "Miss Smith, I'm Special Agent Arthur Dillon. I believe you've already met Agent Franklin and Deputy Marshal Vassar."
Wynne shook his hand. "Yes, sir. I met them both yesterday."
She was pretty sure Agent Dillon knew all the particulars of the two separate meetings she'd had, and, based on the glower directed at her by Elliot, she wasn't about to go into details and irritate her employer further.
Amy and Donna took the only two seats left in the room. When no effort was made by Elliot or the other women to retrieve a chair, it was clear to Wynne she'd be leaving the office for the last time tonight. She let a wry grin slip free before she corralled her twisted humor and focused on the situation at hand.
Seth surprised her by bringing his chair to her and taking up a position off to the side, near the door. She held his gaze for the longest moment and felt the reaction in her body. It was the same visceral, deep-down instinctive knowing she'd experienced the night. The same feeling that had hit her square between the eyes when she'd opened her apartment door to him last night.
Uneasy with the sensations, she forced herself to look away from him. That's when Wynne noticed the blinds on the windows of the office had been closed.
"Thank you," she whispered to Seth before she settled onto the seat and waited for the questions to start. She ignored the temptation to glance over her shoulder. Heat rippled down her spine and along her limbs at the thought of his proximity. It had taken hours to shake the sensations after he left her apartment last night. And pushing the memory of his kiss away took even more concentration.
Donna leaned forward, interrupting Wynne's rambling thoughts. "You are working on an account for Alexander Lexington."
"Apparently there may be a chance he's involved in several incidents of identity theft."
Dillon and Franklin's expressions didn't alter. No hint crossed their faces that there was more to their presences than the illegal use of another person's identity. No hint associated with the information she'd compiled that suggested the debtor she'd been skip-tracing might be a killer.
When the agents didn't say anything or go into detail, Wynne followed their lead and kept things vague. "I noticed the different names on the credit bureau report."
Elliot clasped his hands on his desk and asked, "Did you skip trace the account?"
"Yes. There wasn't much to the information." No way was she going to mention that Seth was one of the names on Lexington's contact list. And that the phone call to him was what had kick started her search for more on her debtor.
Dillon spoke up. "Miss Smith, when you spoke to Agent Franklin yesterday about your suspicions regarding Mr. Lexington, it was the break we'd been looking for. The identity thefts he is involved in have resulted in a great deal of damage."
Damage? Murder was now considered damage?
Wynne twisted the cap on her soda bottle open, then closed while holding the older agent's gaze. In his keen brown stare, she could read the warning to focus only on the stolen identities.
Elliot's demand interrupted Wynne before she could ask a question about the possible victims. "You contacted the FBI about a debtor?"
The knot in her gut warned Wynne that trouble was headed her way. Elliot didn't betray it in his posture or his tone, but the way Amy and Donna stiffened in their seats was a clear indication something bad was coming. "I —"
The rub of denim on denim and what sounded almost like a low growl had Wynne turning to confirm that Seth had stepped forward. The very thought sent excitement zinging through her belly. She nipped off the sensation. No reason to believe there was anything remotely personal in Seth's frustration. It could be his Texas upbringing frowned on anyone insulting a lady.
Dex Franklin jumped to her defense as well. "She reported the inconsistencies. If it weren't for the small details she identified, our cyber unit would have spent weeks trying to catch up to him."
The younger agent's eyes darted over her shoulder. Obviously she wasn't the only one aware of Seth's reaction. The tingle of apprehension along the back of her neck kept her on edge, wondering if the Texas lawman would maintain his decorum or let loose if he perceived another insult directed toward her by Elliot.
A glance at her boss and Wynne stifled the urge to shake her head. The man was completely oblivious to the thin line he was treading on. All Elliot seemed interested in was her having given information on a debtor to the authorities.
Wynne shrugged. "It was all in the credit report."
The moment Franklin and Dillon relaxed into their seats, Wynne breathed a bit easier. She wasn't about to make the mistake of looking at Seth again. Doing that only got her mind zipping off into places it simply shouldn't visit.
Dillon smiled and drew her attention back to the conversation. "You did a very thorough job. I have to wonder if perhaps there's more information in the files that you haven't mentioned."
She wasn't about to comment on the copy of Lexington's driver's license that had just been uploaded to the account. Not in front of Elliot, Amy, and Donna. Two copies of it were currently tucked into her tote bag at her desk. "Nothing."
She had every intention of getting those copies to Seth. Later.
Amy spoke up. "Wynne, did you have any more notes to make on the account?"
"Good. Yolanda is making a print out of all the information on the account and gathering the papers the client sent over." Amy stood up and moved past Wynne to hover beside the closed door.
Wynne looked between her, Elliot, Donna, and the two FBI agents. "Why?"
Dillon answered. "We brought a warrant for the papers, Miss Smith. We wanted to keep everything legal and above board. In case anything comes of our investigation."
Amy waited for Elliot's nod before leaving. The noise of the collection floor filled the office's silence then disappeared when Seth shut the door behind her. When she spotted the telling look and slight nod that passed between Elliot and Donna, Wynne stifled a groan.
Shit, this is NOT good. Wynne pushed her unease aside and took a sip of her soda.
Franklin's curious expression drew Wynne's attention. "What made you dig into the credit bureau report?"
He hadn't asked her that the day before when she'd brought the file to the FBI. Then he'd practically patted her on the head and told her not to read so much into a simple coincidence. She didn't hold that against him. The other people she'd mentioned her suspicions to had similar reactions.
"It was the details."
Dillon leaned forward in his seat. "The details?"
Wynne took another sip of soda and nodded. "The different names and social security numbers that listed. They didn't fit."
"How didn't they fit?"
"Like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Or a crossword. A clue here; a shape there. Some things look just a bit off, but the information on Lexington's report was too out of sync."
"And when it didn't look right, you started checking out the information?" Elliot asked.
Donna looked confused. "Why? If you didn't have any leads you should have put the account aside and gone on to the next one."
Her curiosity wouldn't have been hard to figure out if her employers had ever paid attention to the way she worked. "My parents didn't raise me to walk away from a puzzle. There's always a reason for things to be the way they are."
When she noticed the frown on Elliot's face she figured her job was toast anyway, so she kept going. "Take you, Agent Dillon."
He sat up. "Me?"
"Yes. You're ambidextrous, but you favor your left hand over your right."
His face remained blank but one eyebrow twitched and, for an instant, his eyes widened slightly.
She didn't doubt he was surprised, but she answered the question in his gaze. "Your holster is on your left hip with the butt of your Beretta toward the back. You keep your wallet in your left inside jacket pocket, and you have calluses on your right hand. They probably aren't as pronounced as the ones on your left, but I felt them when I shook your hand.
"Agent Franklin used to wear an earring in his left ear — the hole healed up where it was pierced, and sometime in his life he broke his right little finger. It doesn't quite lay straight next to the ring finger.
Dillon asked, "And the details you saw in the credit report — made you think identity theft?"
Wynne felt her cheeks heat. She cleared her throat and reluctantly admitted, "Actually, at first I thought the guy might have been part of the witness protection program or something. Then I thought the US Marshal's office would have corrected any screw ups a relocated person would have made. If he wasn't part of that, then the only other option was stolen identities."
Or the conclusion she'd really come to and explained to Seth when he'd tacked her down the night before.
Nothing like opening your door to a US Marshal from Texas to make a woman wish she'd left well-enough alone.
Donna asked again, "After you'd done the skip tracing and gotten nowhere with finding Lexington, why didn't you just let it go. Suspend the account; leave it alone since it wasn't getting the bill paid?"
Wynne would bet that that was the one thing than annoyed her bosses most. Not that she'd divulged confidential information to law enforcement. No, they were ticked about that, but the fact she was wasting her time trying to find information on a bill that wasn't likely to get paid, that, to the collection agency, was a sin.
Wynne shrugged. Her job was gone, she knew it and they knew it. "It's not how I'm wired. I inherited all the nosy, need-to-know-why genes from my parents. And they encouraged my curiosity. I don't like not knowing why something is the way it is."
Amy returned to the room, sliding in through the door then quickly closing it behind her.
Dillon rose and held his hand out to Wynne. "Well, the Bureau appreciates your determination and we thank you for bringing this to our attention."
Wynne stood up and shook his hand. When the paralegal passed two manila folders she carried to Agent Dillon, Wynne offered, "If there's anything more I can do to help —"
Dillon handed the files to Franklin as the younger agent rose and moved toward the door. "No, Miss Smith, you've done enough. We thank you for your help, but we can handle things from here."
In other words, Wynne interpreted, keep your nose out of things. "I understand."
She reined in her disappointment, but wasn't surprised by the hands-off warning. She allowed herself to finally look at Seth and easily recognized the banked humor glittering in his green eyes.
It was scary how well he seemed to know her after only a single night's acquaintance. Scary and reassuring at the same time. Which only made Wynne's mind spin and her heart hammer in her chest as if she'd just finished a marathon.
After shaking hands with her, Donna, Amy, and Elliot, the three men left, escorted by Amy. Donna moved toward the door, closing it before Wynne could slip back out to her desk.
Wynne gripped her soda tight; forced her expression to remain neutral. "Live call time is almost over, I should get back to my desk."
Elliot leaned back in his chair and glared across the desk at her. "No, Wynne, you need to explain why you would violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act to disclose confidential information to someone other than the debtor."
Beyond the office, through the blinds, Wynne could see the collection floor wind down as the live call time ended and the other collectors prepared to leave. She knew Elliot and Donna wouldn't accept any excuses. She wasn't about to make any. "I didn't feel right leaving the situation as it was."
Donna's heavy sigh and exasperated look weren't unfamiliar to Wynne. She'd butted heads with the collection manager before on accounts similar to Lexington's. "That may be, Wynne, but it isn't your place to report anything to the authorities."
Elliot added his own remonstrations. "Especially accounts that relate to collections."
Wynne was more than aware of the regulations governing debt collections. Based on the look she'd received from Agent Dillon thought, there was no way she could argue that the people whose identities had been stolen wouldn't care about her disclosing information to the FBI.
They were all dead.
And therein lay the crux of her dilemma. She wouldn't have gone to the FBI about Alex Lexington if she hadn't learned that he and the other nine people listed on his credit bureau report were all dead.
Donna and Elliot both watched her, waiting for a response, she assumed. She didn't intend to make one.
After several seconds of tense silence, Donna finally spoke. "We have no choice, Wynne."
Wynne stifled the urge to give an unladylike snort. The company had a choice. She'd argued it before without success. Honesty had her admitting, "If I had to choose, Donna, I'd do it again."
Elliot nodded. "We know. That's why we can't allow you to stay, Wynne."
A glance out onto the collection floor assured her that the exodus was over. The other collectors were all gone. "So, I'm fired?" No big surprise there.
Donna nodded. "Yes. You can come back Monday for your check."
No sense arguing. Wynne asked, "Do you want me to call before I show up?"
Wynne didn't wait for permission to leave.
Thomas Burke, the collections floor supervisor watched her move to her desk. Fortunately, the agency didn't allow very many personal items. If they had, Wynne would never have been able to fit all of her things into the two plastic bags she kept in one of the drawers. Once she'd gathered those items, she grabbed her car keys from her tote bag and slung her purse over one shoulder.
Wynne didn't bother with wishes for a good weekend, she simply walked out of the office and downstairs into the gloom of an early Anchorage evening.
The moment she pushed through the doors at the back of the building she noticed the dark sedan parked beside her dented brown Saab. The other collectors had left, no doubt urged on by Thomas and a desire not to be caught in downtown traffic at five in the evening.
Her calm, cool demeanor vanished the instant Seth thrust open the passenger side door of the sedan. Damn it, he had no right looking so flipping good and dependable after what he'd just cost her. Wynne shoved down the fantasy of handing her things to him and letting him take care of everything. That wasn't the way she lived her life and she sure as hell wasn't going to start depending on some man now. No matter how hot he made her.
She snarled her warning before he could shut the door behind him. "I would suggest you stick your sexy ass back in that car, Vassar. I am not in the mood."
A dark brow arched over his left eye as he halted, the door open beside him.
Seth stepped close to her. "What's wrong?"
Wynne moved around him and unlocked her car. "What's wrong? You for one. Why couldn't you leave things alone?" She shoved her bags across the center console onto the passenger seat then climbed behind the wheel.
His face lost expression, but annoyance snapped in his green eyes. The Texas drawl that had turned her insides to melted butter last night had little effect on her now. "It's my job."
Wynne rolled her eyes and gave him a nasty smile. "Well, thank you very much, Deputy US Marshal Vassar. Your job just cost me mine. Now. Go. Away."
She slammed her door and cranked the engine. She waited long enough for him to retreat back toward the sedan where Agent Franklin sat behind the wheel, before she backed out of the parking space and headed home.