Don't Look Back
He rifled through the outdated phone book backwards, eyes closed, stopping randomly on a page. Pressing his middle finger to the paper, he opened his eyes. Ridley, the word under his finger read. Repeating the process, the second name was Myers. Ridley Myers.The name would do for now. There was a type of sea turtle named Ridley, and like a turtle, he hid in the shell of a plain man, migrating great distances, following his instincts.
His instincts to kill.
A hunter, he stalked weakness in the hearts and minds of women. His mother had been the first woman he’d released.
Seconds before she sucked in her last breath, he had pulled off his mask. Although pain and blood loss had stripped the shine from her eyes, he saw the flicker of recognition, the flood of confusion before the world was forever relieved of her weakness.
From her weakness, he had gained strength.
From her death, his true calling was born.
# # #
In Audrey West’s dreams, waking up in Scott Romero’s bed had involved silky negligees, sweaty, tangled sheets, a sleepless night, and perhaps one too many empty bottles of wine.
Reality was a different animal.
Instead of a silk teddy, she wore one of Scott’s old cotton t-shirts. The pillow beside her had not been slept on. Her head throbbed, but not from too much wine. The night had only been sleepless because he’d woken her every hour to ensure she hadn’t slipped into a coma.
Oh, her head! Just the thought of moving made her head pound.
Audrey kept her eyes closed against the early morning sun, while the invisible elf with the jackhammer thumped away on her right temple. Hearing the floorboards squeak, she opened her eyes a fraction. The armchair from the corner of the room was now within reach of the bed. At the window, her best friend and colleague, Scott, stood at an angle to her and gazed out the window. His tie was silk. His shirt, Armani. His slacks she had no idea, but he sure as heck didn’t get that eye-pleasing fit at Wal-Mart.
“Hey, there,” Audrey said, her voice thick from sleep.
Scott turned and a smile replaced his far-away look. “Hey there, yourself.”
He placed his steaming mug on the bedside table and took a seat on the edge of the bed. “How’s the noggin?”
It hurt like hell. “Fine.”
Scott raised a disbelieving brow.
“Really,” she added.
“You’re a lousy liar.”
He turned her head to the side and leaned closer so he could get a better look at her right temple and the suturing he’d done last night. “Not a bad job, if I do say so myself. Maybe my step-mother was right. I should have been a real doctor.”
They were both real doctors. Only their patients had four legs instead of two.
“Although, a visit to the hospital and a plastic surgeon would have been better,” he added.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he raised his hand and silenced her. “I know. I know. You don’t like hospitals.”
She shook her head. “After all the time I spent there after my uncle’s accident, it’ll take something worse than a little thump on the head to get me in one voluntarily.”
“It was more than a little thump. You could’ve been killed.”
“Not this again.”
“Yes. This again!”
He stood, and paced the room before ending up back at the window. “Do me a favor.”
It took all she had to keep the irritation out of her voice. “What’s that?”
“The next time a suicidal client waves a gun around, stay out of the way.”
“So, you’re saying I should’ve let her kill herself?” What in the purple hell had he expected her to do?
He rounded on her. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
Backlit by the window his short blond hair glowed in the light, but his features were shadowed. Scott sucked in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “You should have gone for help.”
“There wasn’t time, Scott! Besides, Ms. Sims wasn’t trying to hurt me. And if I hadn’t taken a nosedive into the bench trying to get to her, I doubt I’d’ve had a scratch on me.” Audrey squeezed her head to keep it from exploding.
The edge of the bed sank under his weight. As if suddenly very tired, he rested his forearms on his knees and hung his head.
“Finished?” Audrey asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Scott remained still for a moment, then he tilted his head and gave her that Romero half smile known to turn a woman’s iron-will to mush. “Not hardly.”
Audrey heaved the spare pillow at his head. He ducked, watching it sail harmlessly past.
But he’d helped her last night when she’d needed it. She owed him that. “I never thanked you for stitching me up,”
He shook his head. “I still don’t know how I let you talk me into it. You could scar.”
She ran a light finger across her right temple. A thin, two-inch ridge of raw skin skirted the edge of her hairline. Scott had buried the sutures beneath the skin. Once the bruising went away, it would hardly be noticeable. Even if she did scar, she didn’t care. A scar would be like a merit badge, marking the end of her old life and the start of the new.
“Not a problem.” She shrugged. “So long as your malpractice insurance is paid up.”
A half laugh escaped him. Then the smile slid from his lips. “You should stay a day or two. Make sure you’re really okay.”
With her head protesting, Audrey rose up on her elbows. “I don’t have any time to spare. I’m leaving today. I’ll call you from the road, let you know I haven’t bled out into my head.”
“Not funny.” Scott ran his hands through his hair, then checked his watch. “I’m due at the hospital at seven.” He brushed a piece of lint off his slacks. “Guess it’s too late to talk you into staying for good, huh?”
“What?” If it hadn’t taken all her strength to sit up, she would have strangled him. “Who’s the one who stood in my kitchen not two weeks ago and told me I should go? ‘This is your last chance to make good on your promise,’ you said. ‘Take a chance on your dream,’ you said. So don’t even—”
“Down, girl,” Scott said, pushing her back into the pillows.
Thank God. Hells-bells clanged in her head.
“Forget I said anything. Why don’t you sleep for a few more hours before you head out? You don’t look so good.”
He patted her leg. She could tell he wanted to say more. But he wasn’t any better at goodbyes than she was.
She’d known him since she was ten and he was fourteen. He was best friends with her brother Matt and another kid from their school, Dan Masters. The rich guy, Scott; the poor guy, Matt; and the jock, Dan. ‘The Snickers’ as they’d been called. A schoolyard take-off on the Three Musketeers, because they were so different seeing them together had seemed almost laughable.
Maybe that’s what had drawn them together, creating a bond so strong only death could break it.
Audrey pushed the raw memory away, blinking the sting from her eyes. As much as she’d tried, she had never been able to love Dan the way he’d wanted her to. Not the way she loved Scott.
She’d guarded her secret for a long time. Long enough to know Scott’s family history. Long enough to know love terrified him. Long enough to watch him hide his true emotions time after time, shying away from one relationship after another for fear one might get serious enough to hurt him.
And long enough to know he would never love her. Not the way she wanted. Needed. She knew from experience one-sided relationships never worked. Audrey suppressed a sigh. Life wasn’t always fair.
As if at a loss for what to say or do next, Scott braced his hands on either side of her head, leaned over and planted a quick kiss on her nose. Like an adult to a child.
That’s it? Smack on the nose? Nice knowing you kid? Was he trying to piss her off? She was leaving. The state. This morning. For good. Or hadn’t he noticed?
With nothing to lose, she snagged hold of his tie as he sat up. “If that’s the best you can do, Romero, it’s no wonder your girlfriends leave you.”
He had always been hard pressed to refuse a challenge, but in all the years she’d known Scott, he’d never given her any indication their relationship would ever be anything but platonic. Except the night of her high school graduation. And in her kitchen two weeks ago when he’d convinced her she should leave.
The look in his eyes was the same now as then. Want, need and hunger.
Nothing would come of a kiss, so she didn’t know why she’d baited him. Maybe her mind was muddled from a mild concussion. Or maybe she was finally thinking clearly. One kiss. That’s all she wanted. Like a lover, not a friend.
Hand over hand she pulled him down by his tie until his lips touched hers. She’d expected tenderness and perhaps affection from him, but she hadn’t expected the explosion from within. It started low in her gut, and then burst apart, sending shards of need ripping through her body like shrapnel.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and tasted the coffee on his tongue, and smelled the spicy scent of aftershave on his cheek. She breathed in deeply as if she could take this part of him with her.
She ran her hands down the muscles along his spine and like cords of steel they remained rigid. As her eyes drifted closed, she tilted back her head in invitation, and felt his determination bend as if her body heat had transformed his will.
His lips traced the line of her jaw and came to rest upon the pounding pulse beneath her ear. Placing her hands on his hips, she guided him on top of her.
He braced his weight on his arms, but she drew him down until his full weight pinned her. She floated. Holding him, kissing him, for the moment set her fears and worries free.
The kiss had been a crazy impulse. One she’d never intended to go this far. But she didn’t wonder if she should stop or if she could stop, because she didn’t want to stop.
# # #
Audrey tasted of sweetness far greater than Scott had remembered. Even his dreams paled to the reality of her. He ran a hand down the length of her side and felt the tremble in her muscles as he slowly drew his hand back up to the swell of her breasts.
She was the staff he measured all other women by. To have her beneath him, to be touching her now…
Stop! He had to stop!
Not possible. Kissing her, caressing her, kept him in denial. While she lay in his arms, he wouldn’t have to face the reality of her leaving. Two weeks ago he’d convinced her to move because he thought it would save her. He never realized it would kill him.
She pulled his shirt free of his waistband, her hands shaking as they inched their way up his chest. This wasn’t the Audrey he knew. One night stands weren’t her style. She was hurt and she was vulnerable. But in her arms he’d lost all sense of control, until his father’s mantra echoed in his head. Love makes even the strongest of men weak.
Scott pulled back. His father was right. Dan, the biggest and strongest of the three of them was dead because of love.
Because of Audrey.
# # #
Lost in his touch and desperate to feel the warmth of his skin on hers, it took a second for Audrey to realize he’d withdrawn. Even before she opened her eyes, she could feel him studying her. She gathered the courage to look at him. He looked away.
Bracing his weight on his arms, he didn’t speak until his breathing had slowed and she felt the pounding of his heart subside. “I can’t do this,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”
Audrey batted away the finger he traced down her cheek and stifled a humorless laugh. God, I’m an idiot. Nothing to lose? How about my self-respect, my dignity? What was I thinking?
Only moments ago, his weight had set her free. Now it confined her. She pushed at his chest. “Get off, you’re crushing me.”
She scrambled out of bed as soon as she was free, tugging the t-shirt down.
She raised a hand in warning. “Don’t.”
He didn’t mean ‘love’ the way it sounded. He’d used the endearment for years. An old joke.
Looked like the joke was on her.
The rapid-fire beeping of his pager broke the awkward silence. He took a ragged breath in and out before snatching the pager off his belt.
Taking full advantage of the distraction, Audrey escaped to the bathroom.
Scott followed moments later and pounded on the door. “Open up.”
At least her anger kept her voice from shaking too much. Keep it together. Nice and easy West.
“Look...I got a 911 from the hospital. I have to go.”
Go! God knows there is nothing here you want! She heard the door creak under his weight as he leaned against it. She imagined him out there scrubbing his hands over his face, wondering what the heck had just happened. Frankly, she wondered herself.
“Stay.” His voice a mere whisper through the door. “Until I get off work. Please stay.”
She jerked the door open, pleased to see him struggle to keep from falling over. Returning to the bedroom, she shoved her toothbrush into her suitcase.
With a dismissive wave of her hand, she brushed him back. “I should get going myself. Don’t want to get stuck in the morning traffic.”
It was Saturday. She must have caught him off guard because he didn’t argue the point.
In the kitchen, she plucked her keys off the counter, then took the time for a deep calming breath before turning around. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t attracted enough. His rejection stung, but at long last she had her answer. There could be nothing between them, and she’d be damned if she would spend the rest of her life wondering ‘what if.’
Nothing like a good dose of humiliation to stiffen the spine.
She managed a weak smile and turned to go as if nothing had happened. Like she hadn’t welcomed the weight of him.
When she got to her new place she would clear a spot on the mantle for her Oscar. She kept her voice light. “Thanks for letting me crash at your place last night. You can mail me anything I’ve left behind. I’ll pay you back.”
“Let me help you.” Scott stepped forward and tried to take the suitcase from her.
“My, aren’t we feeling chivalrous today?” Audrey gripped the handle tighter. “First you stop a fair maiden from indulging in a very compromising situation, and now you want to help me with my luggage.” She batted her eyes and waved her hand like a fan in front of her face. “Be still my heart.”
He stepped back, stunned. Or perhaps relieved.
She left him in the kitchen, glad he couldn’t see her struggle to lift her suitcase into the truck.
# # #
Ridley Myers flopped down on the bed of a Louisiana motel. The mattress sagged and the floral print on the bedspread reeked of mold and stale sex. He didn’t care. It beat the hell out of the backseat of a car any day.
The morning news came on and he tossed the phonebook onto the empty nightstand, picked up the remote, and turned up the volume.
The national report centered on a string of murders running through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. All the women thought to be victims of the same man, the River City Killer.
“River City Killer.” Ridley sneered at the reporter. “Jesus Christ! Is that the best you idiots could come up with?”
Compared to more inspired names like Jack the Ripper, or even the Night Stalker, the River City Killer sounded pathetic. No, it sounded weak.
He hated weakness.
It wasn’t long before the focus of the report shifted to local news and the disappearance of the Louisiana senator’s daughter. The television went fuzzy, and Ridley cranked up the volume even more, ignoring the asshole pounding on the adjacent wall for him to turn it down. No way. It was just getting interesting.
“…although police and the FBI now believe there are other River City Killer victims unaccounted for, they are unwilling to speculate if the disappearance of Senator Guillot’s daughter in New Orleans two days ago may be in any way connected.”
They had no idea, but unlike the others, the senator’s daughter had been a mistake. An impulse.
No hunt—no lasting satisfaction.
Her long blond hair had caught his eye, along with the hot pink bikini top a street artist had painted on her high-saluting breasts. She’d been one in a throng of drunks on Bourbon Street, too blitzed to recognize the danger. Ridley laughed, remembering how she’d sobered when she realized the blood dripping down her chest was her own, and the breath gurgling in her lungs would be her last.
He’d let them find the last few bodies. Kept things interesting. Didn’t matter, though. The F-ucking-BI were thinking too small and were clueless. Ridley laughed again. With the number of women he’d released, there was more than the big picture to see, there was a fucking mural.
Ridley turned on the bedside lamp. Black-rimmed holes dotted the plastic shade as if it had been used to extinguish a chain smoker’s bad habit. Small bits of pure light escaped through the perforations, stabbing the walls with tiny points of brightness.
Ridley’s hand settled around the ice pick beside him, its wooden handle stained dark from blood, its metal shaft a good inch shorter from when he’d first purchased it, thanks to repeated sharpening. He gripped the handle tighter and refused to submit to the boiling need to release another woman until the moment was right.
Not any woman would do this time.
He needed a new kind of hunt.
He needed a challenge.