Authors: Ashley Stryker
“I was tied to a headboard,” she began.
Despite his effort to keep it neutral, Thom felt his expression change, hardening around his mouth, as he fought to control his anger. Casually, he transferred his hands from her shoulders to the doorframe. The muscles in his arms flexed as if he might crush the metal of the SUV’s frame with his bare hands. The anger boiled in his guts.
“I was lying on the bed, blindfolded.” She closed her eyes. “He was there. Beside me. His head rested on my shoulder.” Mary gestured feebly at her shoulder, as if the impression of that awful touch reemerged to haunt her.
As much as it sickened and infuriated him, Thom could visualize the scene she described. For someone like Mary, so unaccustomed to the minor evils in life, a major experience like that could unhinge her psyche. Even if he caught this guy, he could only give her justice but he could never erase the experience.
“I don’t know what made me start talking to him. I guess I hoped I could talk my way out of the situation.” Mary stared at her wrists, which still bore the bruises from the bonds that forced her arms uncomfortably over her head. While her attacker could have done anything to her, he chose to cuddle up next to her instead.
Thom closed his eyes and bit back his anger. It could have been worse, he reminded himself. In fact, next time he could guarantee it would be. Predators always escalated their attacks, growing bolder each time. Next time, his victim wouldn’t get off so easily. And if he still stalked Mary, as she claimed, she might star in act two as well.
He needed her to tell him everything, no matter how much the details pained them both. While in his heart, he wanted to comfort her, he couldn’t do his job unless he forced her to relive the memories, one painful step at a time.
Thom gazed at Mary again, focusing on snatching any small detail in her account that might point him in the right direction. “What did you say to him?”
She smiled weakly. “I told him about my cat.” She corrected herself, “I lied to him about my cat. I said he was sick. I spun a whole tale about how no one else could get close to him, because he was so timid. I said no one else could give him his medicine and if I didn’t do it he would die a painful death.”
Thom arched back with surprise. “And he cared?”
Mary shrugged. “I think he might be a bit mentally retarded. He did care very much about Fizgig, although I didn’t tell him his name.” She smoothed her long skirt, a thoughtful gesture, Thom guessed, rather than a nervous one. Mary spotted a weakness in her abductor and exploited it. She’d managed to find leverage in an otherwise powerless situation. Good for her.
“So he let you go.”
Mary bit her lip and nodded.
Lip-biting, he noted. A classic sign of holding something back. He probed, “Just like that?”
She nodded again. Too quickly that time, he thought. Not quite the truth.
“And what was the promise about?” He twirled the button between his fingers. “The promise he sent you this to remind you of.”
Mary half turned from him, pretending to look out the windshield, as if she’d rather avoid that detail. Thom covered her fidgeting hands with his and the smoldering attraction he’d tried to ignore jolted into a fireball that bounced around inside him. As if she felt it too, Mary jumped at his touch.
Finally, she admitted, “I could tell he was softening. He wanted to let me go but he said he couldn’t, even to save my cat, because I would report him to the police. Actually, he said I would ‘tell on him’. That was another clue to his mental state, I think.”
Mary pinched the lightweight cotton skirt between her fingers and nervously twisted it. She tried to scan the street and see if anyone was watching them but Thom filled her field of vision. The usual golden glow of her skin paled to a pearly luminescence. Thom glanced down at Mary’s pleasantly perky chest and estimated her breathing rate at one per second. Too fast. She’d hyperventilate and faint on him in a few seconds if he didn’t get her to calm down.
Thom twirled a silken ribbon of her warm blond hair, which framed her face, around his finger and gave a little tug. “Hey.” Her focus snapped to him. “You’re going to hyperventilate if you aren’t careful. Here,” he pressed her palms to his chest, “match my breaths.”
The ripple of desire that spread through his chest where she touched him coursed lower. Thom caught his breath, then focused on breathing himself before they both passed out. “Better,” he murmured as the ruddy glow returned to her cheeks. “You’re doing good, sweetheart. Just focus on me.”
“Okay,” she nodded.
“Are you ready to continue? What was the promise?”
“I swore I would not tell anyone about him, if only he’d let me go.”
He squeezed her knee. With mild rebuke, he said, “There is more to it than that.”
“How do you know that?” She frowned. “Do you have some built-in lie detector?”
“It’s a cop thing.” Thom offered her a slight grin to ease the tension that had returned. “Actually, you crinkle your nose when you lie.” He stroked a finger down the bridge of her nose playfully.
“I do not,” Mary rubbed her nose.
“So what aren’t you telling me?”
Mary whispered through her shame, “He said my promise wasn’t good enough. He said I had to swear on…” Mary’s voice squeaked. She touched her throat again, fingering the bruise marks beginning to show beneath her makeup. “I’ll never forgive myself.” The words slipped out almost too softly to hear. “I swore…on the lives of…my students.”
Thom stepped back, his hands coming up in a “whoa” gesture. From the bombshell she just dropped on him, his job just escalated from protecting one woman to protecting the entire population of an elementary school. For a police department the size of Stony Bend’s that was a logistical nightmare. Mistaking his shock for rebuke, Mary collapsed in on herself.
“Hey now, don’t fall apart on me.” Thom wrapped his arms around Mary and squeezed her tightly. “You did the right thing.”
She shook her head.
“You did the right thing by saying and doing anything you had to in order to get away from that man and you did the right thing by telling me.” He pushed her back and turned her face up to his so she could see the truth of what he spoke.
“How was betraying my children the right thing?”
“Just trust me. A guy like that doesn’t need an excuse, promise or no. Everyone is in danger as long as he is free.” He searched her almond colored eyes. With the pads of his thumbs, he smoothed away the fresh flow of tears. “You are going to cooperate completely with me now and we are going to catch this lunatic before he can hurt anyone else. Right?”
“No!” She recoiled. “I just told you about the promise so you could understand why I can’t cooperate. So you could understand why you and every other police officer must stay as far away from me as possible.”
“Forget it, Mary!” He snapped, “It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to risk your life, or anyone else’s, on this guy’s word. I’m going to stick to you like glue and I’m going to swarm the area with cops and we are going to hunt this dog down, whether you like it or not.”
“Don’t you think I want him caught? I just can’t endanger the children.”
“News flash! They already are in danger. And since I’m not going to play it your way, you better start playing it mine; otherwise anything that happens will be your fault.”
Mary’s mouth dropped open and she squeaked her shook. “You can’t do that!”
“Lady, I already have.” He stepped back to wave at the patrol car that approached. “And if you don’t cooperate, I’ll arrest you for obstruction of justice.”
While Thom logged a report with the patrolman and dealt with the tow truck to collect her car he kept glancing at Mary, who slumped quietly in the passenger seat of his SUV. By the time Thom straightened out the details and the flatbed tow truck hauled off Mary’s disabled vehicle, a persistent drizzly rain veiled everything in a gossamer gray mist. Soaked to the skin, Thom thanked the patrolman and rushed back to his vehicle.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door against the chilling downpour. “I hope you weren’t too attached to your car. You snapped the rear axle.” She didn’t respond. Even though Mary was dry, she hugged herself and shivered as though she’d been out in the autumn rain instead of him. After he turned the engine over, he cranked up the heat. “It is supposed to rain like this the rest of the day, so we might as well take this time to regroup.”
“Why?” Mary roused from her melancholy silence. “Aren’t you going to look for the kidnapper?”
Thom drove off the lawn and headed across town. “We are looking, Mary. I’ve updated dispatch on the situation. We just don’t have much to go on… yet.”
“Did someone check out the area around the school? Maybe he is still lurking around.”
“I’ve got a team checking the area,” he assured her, “and your house is under surveillance, so don’t worry about Fizgig.”
Mary’s knee bounced nervously. She crossed her arms and stared out her window. “So what do we do now? Just wait?”
“Now we go to my place. You’ll be safe there. I can get some dry clothes and we’ll have a bite to eat. Then you’ll give me a complete statement. No more waffling. No more arguments.”
“I knew this would happen,” Mary mumbled.
“I knew even if I told you about him it wouldn’t make a difference. I broke my promise, put everyone in danger and only managed to make the situation worse.” She punched the leather seat beside her thigh. “Maybe I should leave town.”
“Running away won’t solve anything. As a teacher, you should know that. Besides, honey, you only told me about the threat half an hour ago. Before we do anything else, we have to establish security at the school and alert the teachers and parents of the situation.”
She rubbed her forehead as if to soothe a headache. “What a mess.”
“We have to take defensive action first, to head him off.” He glanced over at her and could see her shutting down on him. Mary wouldn’t look at him. Her body language, the way she curled in the far side of her seat with her knees and shoulders twisted away from him, told him she would soon withdraw her cooperation if she felt it was useless.
“Look,” Thom began, “I promise you he won’t get away and he won’t hurt you again. We have every available flatfoot looking for him and we will catch him. He won’t elude us for long. He’s making too many mistakes.” Thom didn’t admit that releasing Mary had probably been the perpetrator’s biggest mistake. Rule number one for professional criminals, never leave a witness. Professionals were predictable but this guy wasn’t a professional and if Mary was right, he wasn’t even clever. While that should make him easier to locate, it also meant he might resist arrest or try something desperate.
The city smeared past Mary’s rain streaked window. Somewhere out there a monster stalked her. Somehow a perfect stranger had forced his way into her life and her world had disintegrated. She couldn’t go to work. She couldn’t go home. Now her car would end up in a junkyard and she loved that car. She’d worked all through high school to save up for a brand new Firebird but fell short of the goal. The slightly used Subaru had been sensible, affordable and she’d secretly called her white stead Pegasus. As a young woman stepping out into the world for the first time on her own it represented freedom and now, no matter how indirectly, that crazy man had stolen it from her as well.
Beyond those physical loses, Mary missed most the intangible things, like confidence and peace of mind. Had he left anything in her life untouched?
“Don’t close down on me, Mary,” Thom said. He hooked his fingers around her elbow, startling her from her thoughts and sending a spiral of sensation through her. “You’re not alone anymore.”
Mary leaned away from the cold door and huddled up against Thom’s warm side. He slipped his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her to him. His clothes were wet but she didn’t care. Thom was solid and warm and reassuring.
“You know, that was some wild driving you did. If you ever went to Hollywood, you could get a job as a stunt driver.”
Mary snorted but slipped her arm around his stomach and hugged him, soaking up the comfort he offered like an overly dry houseplant absorbing a cup of water. She smiled at that imagery, noticing how her dress soaked up the rainwater from his clothes. When he hugged her to him, Mary nearly moaned her content.
Thom dropped a kiss on top of her head. “We’ll get through this,” he promised.
“Why are you being so nice to me? I deceived you. I hindered your investigation. I put everyone at risk. You should put me in jail, not comfort me.”
“Darling, I can’t stay mad at you. You have a good heart. You just made some bad decisions.”
Mary relaxed against Thom. Everything outside the SUV was a mess but in this moment with Thom, she felt oddly reassured. He seemed to possess some kind of force field around him that made everything all right as long as she held close to him.
Mary wasn’t sure where she expected Thom to live but the run down old shotgun house in the middle of the historical district pseudo-slum certainly hadn’t been it. Evidence of recent repair work, like the unfinished spindles staggered at intervals between their freshly sanded older counterparts on the porch railing and the new screen door that still bore the manufacture’s sticker, rescued the property from complete despondency. After they hurried through the rain to the front porch, Mary jokingly said, “Nice place you have here, Inspector.”
Thom answered seriously, “It will be when I’m done with it.” He unlocked the door and then surveyed the property with a critical eye. “This is the fourth house I’ve bought in this neighborhood. I fix them up and rent them out. I’m a member of the historical society and we have plans to reclaim this grand old neighborhood and restore it to its former glory.”
“Very ambitious.” She smiled up at him.
“I’m an ambitious guy.” His eyes softened. The warmth of his gaze melted her insides and shifted her brain into “befuddled”. When she opened her mouth to utter anything to release the moment, his focus zeroed in on her lips. He leaned closer and her hands automatically rose to rest against his chest. He paused at the gesture, searching her expression for encouragement or rejection. She wasn’t exactly sure why she’d done that, whether to hold him off or pull him in, but now that her hands pressed against the firm wall of his chest she didn’t know how to withdraw them without making the moment more awkward. What she was all too sharply aware of was how solid, how real, Thom felt under her palms. His breath ceased as her fingers flexed to trace the bulge of his muscles. Unsure what to say, she stammered, “You’re wet.”
Thom peeled the shirt off and tossed it over the porch railing.
While he moved, Mary reclaimed her hands. She tucked them behind her back and sandwiched them between her body and the siding next to the front door, just to make sure they didn’t get any ideas and go wondering to Thom’s bare chest.
“Is that better?”
Biting her lower lip, she nodded. For some reason her mind couldn’t formulate a verbal response while it memorized the glistening movements of his muscled chest. Thom obviously worked out to get so cut and Mary leaned back harder to keep her hands from exploring what she couldn’t stop staring at. His badge glittered on his belt, drawing her gaze to his extraordinary physique hidden by his soaked, body-hugging slacks. The gun secured at his hip reminded her of Thom—confident and dangerous.
Thom bent forward, pressing that perfect chest against her, pinning her arms for real. His hands, large but gentle, cupped her face. His eyes fixed on her mouth and he rubbed his thumb across her bottom lip so she would stop biting it. She managed one unsteady breath before Thom bent down and caught her lower lip between his teeth. As he eased back, he let it slip free. “It looked like you were having so much fun,” he purred. “I thought I’d try it.”
He cocked his eyebrow thoughtfully. “Not bad. But let me try something else.”
Thom kissed her soundly. His hands cradled the back of her head and prevented her from slipping away from the intensity of it. His tongue parried past her lips and she surrendered to him. He tasted warm and mellow. Mary hungered for more. Her every breath seemed to come from him, filling her mind with his scent and flavor and texture. Thom’s embrace slipped lower, pressing her breasts into his torso, then lower still framing her hips as they ground into his. When he withdrew, Mary couldn’t inhale for a full second.
“Are you okay?” he asked. His smoldering look tinged with concern.
“What? Yeah, uh-huh.” Mary nodded as if her neck muscles consisted of wet construction paper. “I’m good.”
The rhythm of her breathing returned and she could maintain it almost without conscious effort. Each breath forced her breasts against his chest, sending pulsing vitality through the points of contact and corkscrewing to places lower.