Delta Force, Book Three
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Nowhere to Run
Teacher Isabelle Carson is grief-stricken, angry, and scared. Three of her childhood friends have died. The police say they’re suicides, but Isabelle knows they would never, ever take their own lives. Her past binds her to every victim, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before the killer comes after her. Only one man can help her now, the only man she’s ever trusted, the man who saved her so long ago . . .
No Place to Hide
For Grant Kent, Delta Force vet, just being near Isabelle brings back old memories and desires, and stirs longings he’d rather deny. Yet he can’t deny the real terror in her eyes, or resist the thought of holding her again. But even as their friendship begins to blossom into a passionate affair, a killer continues his deadly rampage, and plots his next move, the “suicide” of Isabelle Carson.
Beverly Sinclair had finally done it. After years of working to get her life on track, she finally had a decent job, a great husband, and the smartest, most beautiful baby boy ever born. He was only three weeks old, but she was certain he was destined for great things.
She could hardly wait to show Cory off to her friend Isabelle.
The doorbell rang five minutes early, but that was just like Isabelle. She was never late a day in her life.
Beverly rushed to the door, filled with a proud, maternal excitement she’d never known existed before Cory was born. Isabelle was going to love him.
She swung the heavy wooden door open, wearing a welcoming smile.
A masked man rushed forward, pushing her inside before she had time to react. His weight slammed into her, knocking her against the wall.
Shock jolted through her, making it hard to breathe. A scream formed in her mind, but that was as far as it got. Her lungs heaved, filling with air scented by a faint hint of men’s cologne.
He kicked the door shut behind him with a final, sickening thud.
From the nursery, Beverly heard the squeaky beginnings of her baby’s cry.
She had to get Cory out of the house. Run away.
Panic flooded her body with strength, and she shoved hard against her attacker. She let out a cry of outrage that made her throat burn with its ferocity.
The man rocked back on his heels enough that Beverly was able to slip out of his reach, but her freedom didn’t last long. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her back, catching her before she fell.
She saw a flash of silver out of the corner of her eye and turned toward it, praying it wasn’t a knife even as she brought her arms up to protect herself from a slashing blade. But the man held a small aerosol can in his gloved hand. Something wet and cold hit her face as a sharp medicinal stench filled her nose. Her body crumpled like rag doll, and her captor’s arms tightened around her, keeping her from hitting the hard tile floor.
Beverly tried to move, but her body didn’t respond. She could see and hear perfectly, but nothing else worked. Her arms and legs buzzed for a moment, then went numb. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even twitch.
The man settled her gently to the floor. “We can’t have you bruised,” he said in a clinical tone. “That would ruin everything.”
A thick, suffocating fear settled over Beverly. She had no idea what he meant by that, but it couldn’t be good. Not for her. Not for her baby.
Cory let out an angry wail, giving away his presence in the next room.
Beverly struggled to move something — her arm, her finger — anything.
A hoarse moan floated up from her chest, but it was all she could manage, and even that wasn’t loud enough to be heard in the next room, much less by her neighbors.
The man smoothed her hair away from her face and leaned over her so she could see right into his bright blue eyes. “Everything’s going to be okay. You’ll see. I’m going to take good care of you.”
Helplessness made it hard to breathe, impossible to think.
He left her there, lying on the floor, struggling to make a movement or sound. Only the knowledge that Isabelle would be here at any minute kept her sane. Isabelle would save her.
She heard water running in the bathroom. The antique clock on the wall bonged, telling her it was two. Isabelle would be stepping through the door at any second.
Cory’s cries got louder. Maybe the neighbors would hear him.
Please, let them hear him.
The man came out of the bathroom and hovered over her. It made him look huge. Monstrous. He was a giant black shadow ready to devour her.
“We don’t have much time. Let’s get you out of those clothes.”
Beverly’s heart gave a hard, fearful kick. She struggled not to panic. She had to stay calm for her baby and get him out of this any way she could.
The man picked her up as if she weighed nothing and carried her into the bathroom. The air felt warm and humid, and she heard a drip of water landing in the tub.
A tingling sensation began along the bottom of her feet, and hopeful excitement made her break out in a cold sweat. Maybe whatever he’d done to paralyze her was wearing off.
The man unbuttoned her blouse. “This would be faster without the gloves, but we wouldn’t want to leave any fingerprints behind, would we?”
He stripped the shirt off her body and reached around her to unfasten her bra. A new kind of panic found its way to the surface as Beverly realized that he might be here to rape her.
Then again, if that was all he wanted and he left Cory alone, she’d count herself fortunate.
He continued stripping her clothes away, talking to her in a calm voice. “I have too much work to do. Too many people to help.”
A warm, buzzing sensation worked its way up her legs, and she began to get the feeling back in her hands, too. As much as she wanted to fight him, she remained still, not letting him know that she could move. Surprise was the only advantage she might have, and she didn’t want to give it up.
She still wore her stretchy maternity pants because they were more comfortable, and he slid them and her panties down and off her legs without any trouble. He didn’t even look at her naked body. There was no hint of lust in his eyes, only clinical detachment as he lifted her into the bathtub.
Warm water sloshed around her as he arranged her limp arms along the sides to hold her head up.
Beverly lay there, naked. Helpless. She cringed every time he touched her, barely restraining the urge to jerk away from him.
Cory was screaming his little head off in the next room, and she silently willed him to quiet down. To not draw attention to himself.
Where the hell was Isabelle? She was never late, unlike Beverly, who was late so often her husband had set every clock in the house fifteen minutes fast.
Isabelle wasn’t due for another ten minutes, at least. A lot could happen in ten minutes. Too much.
The man left the bathroom. His heavy footsteps moved down the hall toward her son’s room.
Cory stopped crying. What had he done to her baby?
Beverly panicked and tried to crawl out of the tub. Her limbs thrashed around clumsily, making water spill over the side. She lost her precarious balance and slipped under the water. A scream tore out of her throat and water rushed up her nose, choking her.
She was not going to drown. Not while her son was out there with that maniac.
Her lungs burned as she tried to push her head above water on weak arms. She slipped twice more before she was finally strong enough to break the water and draw in a desperate breath.
She coughed violently, spewing water out of her airway. Her arms shook, but they held her weight, barely. Her body was stronger now, though still wobbly. Whatever he’d sprayed on her was wearing off almost as fast as it had started working. Thank God.
Water ran into her eyes, but she didn’t dare wipe it away and risk falling into the water again. She blinked several times to clear her vision, and when she could see, the sight that greeted her made her blood run cold.
The man was holding her baby, cradling her son in one burly arm while he held a gloved hand around the boy’s throat. The threat was clear. He would kill Cory.
“Stop,” was all he said. It was all he had to say.
Beverly froze, afraid to even blink. “Please don’t hurt him.” Her words came out slurred, but he seemed to understand.
“I don’t want to hurt him. But I will.”
“Just tell me what you want me to do.”
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a bright orange box knife. He set it on the edge of the tub. “You’re going to use this.”
Beverly had no clue what he meant. What did he want her to cut? “Use it on what?”
Her stomach lurched even as her mind tried to grasp onto some sane part of what he was saying. “You’re crazy.”
She couldn’t be certain, but behind the mask, she thought she saw his mouth tighten in anger. His hand went back to her son’s neck. When he spoke, his voice was clipped and harsh. “You will end your suffering before you can inflict any on your child.”
“I’d never hurt my baby.”
“You wouldn’t mean to. Parents never mean to.”
“Please. I don’t understand. Who are you talking about?”
The man’s fingers tightened around Cory’s fragile neck. “Your life or your son’s. Which will it be?”
This made no sense, but as crazy as this man was, he was deadly serious. She had no doubt he’d do what he said and hurt her baby. If she could stall for time…
“Can’t we talk about this? Tell me why you’re doing this.”
“No more talk. We don’t have much time. Isabelle is coming.”
How did he know that? “You can give her my baby. She’ll take good care of him.”
“Enough talk! Do it and I’ll let the child live. Fight me and I’ll end his suffering before it can start. I swear I will.” He gave Cory a small shake and Beverly’s chest squeezed with panic.
Cory’s face turned red and scrunched up as he wound up to let out a cry. He was so beautiful. Tiny and perfect. Beverly loved her husband, but she’d never known love like she had the moment they placed Cory in her arms. It had been overwhelming. Consuming. She would do anything for her baby.
Tears streamed down her face as she picked up the knife. Her weak, wet fingers slipped on the plastic, but she managed to slide the blade open. Sunlight from the window shone along the razor edge.
“Nice and deep,” said the man. “You’ll just float away. Free after all these years.”
Not free. Dead. But her son would live. She had to believe that.
Beverly positioned the blade on her wrist, looked at her baby one more time, and held that image in her mind as she made the first cut.
“Things have been a little… weird here lately. Watch your back, okay?”
Grant Kent always did — it’s how he’d survived nearly a decade in Delta Force — but in the week since hearing Isabelle’s odd message, he hadn’t been able to get those words out of his head. Nor had he been able to forget the way her voice shook when she spoke them.
It was the first time she’d ever called him, and it hadn’t been to catch up on old times. Something was wrong, and Grant had driven three hundred miles out of his way to find out what it was.
His Mustang slid through the quiet residential streets as he searched for the right house. He only hoped that the return address on the Christmas card she’d sent him last year was still good.
It didn’t matter that he was starting a new job tomorrow and had to be in Denver by morning. Nor did it matter that he hadn’t seen Isabelle in fourteen years. What mattered was Isabelle had called him, and although she hadn’t asked him to come, there was something about the slight vibration of fear in her voice that made everything else seem unimportant.
So, here he was, in Springfield, Missouri — the home of bad memories — where he promised himself he’d never go again. All because little Isabelle Carson was afraid and Grant couldn’t let that stand.
He figured he had about two hours to find out what was freaking her out, fix it, and get back on the highway if he was still going to be sitting at David Wolfe’s breakfast table by morning.
Anticipation rolled through him and settled in his chest, making him grin like a fool. After fourteen years in the military, he was out for good now. He could hardly wait to see his friends again and start his new life.
Grant Kent, security consultant. It had a nice ring.
He turned the corner onto Isabelle’s street and found the right house number. The place was old, but well maintained and way too big for one person. Even in the dark, he could see the bright white paint glowing under the porch light. The landscape was tidy, the trees pruned, and even the winter-dead grass managed to look manicured.
Grant pulled into the driveway, hoping this was the right place. She hadn’t left an address in her message, and he was afraid that if he’d called to ask for one, he would have regretted it.
They hadn’t exactly parted under the best of circumstances, and Grant wasn’t going to make it easy on her to push him away, not while there was any chance she was in trouble.
He got out of his car and stretched to ease the tightness in his back. As much as he loved his Mustang, it wasn’t really made for his tall frame, and he hadn’t taken much time to stop and stretch along the drive. He’d been too anxious to get here and have this over with.
Of course, now that he was here, he was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of his decision. He had no idea what he was getting into here, or even if she’d want to see him after so many years.
A cold March wind whipped around his body as he headed for the front door on reluctant feet.
The last time he’d seen Isabelle, she’d been sixteen, sitting in the back of an ambulance hugging her knees. Tears had been streaming down her face as she’d watched the police drive away, with him handcuffed in the back seat of the patrol car.
He wasn’t exactly looking forward to their reunion, but he was man enough to reach out and push the lighted doorbell.
Pleasant chimes filtered through the leaded glass at the top of the door, and a moment later he saw a shadowy movement behind the window. The door opened, and it took Grant a full ten seconds to recognize her as Isabelle Carson. He’d been expecting a larger version of the sixteen-year-old, sickly child he’d last seen, with stringy hair and sallow skin stretched too tightly over frail bones. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the exotic Japanese heritage accenting her American girl-next-door features, he might never have recognized her at all.
Grant had seen a lot of beautiful women, but Isabelle was simply… stunning.
The shock of it silenced him for a moment as he drank her in. She was tall now — easily five-nine — when before she’d only come up to his chest. Beneath her casual clothes were slim, tempting curves made to fit just right in a man’s palm. Her glossy black hair hung straight down her back, but a fringe of bangs drew his attention to her eyes. They were a deep, rich green, like a forest in twilight, canted slightly at an exotic angle.
Those eyes widened, and she stood there in shocked silence, staring at him.
Grant stilled, giving her a moment to adjust to the surprise. He wasn’t sure how much he’d changed since she’d last seen him at seventeen, and he found himself holding his breath, hoping she wouldn’t slam the door in his face.
Grant’s knuckles ached from clenching his fists too tightly. Not a good sign at all for the man who was used to controlling his body rather than the other way around.
On more than one occasion, he’d spent days peering through the scope on his sniper rifle, gathering intel or waiting for a shot, knowing that an enemy patrol could stumble upon his location at any moment, but he’d never been as nervous as he was right now, facing Isabelle again after so many years.
What if she didn’t like him? What if she saw only that angry, belligerent kid he used to be? Or worse, what if she hated him because he was the boy who’d killed their foster father?
Grant stifled the urge to run, to protect himself from whatever bad opinion of him she might have. He wasn’t sure he was man enough to live through her disappointment. But instead of running, he squared his shoulders and stood his ground.
Isabelle blinked several times as if she wasn’t sure she believed what she was seeing. She stood frozen, holding the door open, and he could feel the heat from her brightly lit home sliding over his face as it leaked out into the night sky.
“It’s really great to see you, Isabelle.”
She stood there, just far enough away that she didn’t invade his personal space, but close enough that he could reach out and touch her.
He didn’t. He was too worried how she might react.
Grant tried to smile — normally such an easy thing for a man like him to do with a woman — but no smile would come.
“Grant?” she asked in a confused tone, like maybe she wasn’t sure it was him.
“Hi, Isabelle. Been a long time.” He sounded casual, almost careless.
“What…what are you doing here?”
Not exactly a warm reception, but then again, he hadn’t expected one. Too bad that didn’t make it sting any less. “I got your message. Thought I’d come find out what was going on.”
She glanced past him, looking up and down the street. After years of covert operations, Grant knew that look well. She was expecting trouble.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she told him.
“I probably should have called first before dropping by.”
Again, she didn’t look at him but kept her eyes on the street. “No. I mean you should go. Now.”
If it had been anger or resentment brightening her eyes, Grant would have turned on his heel and marched out of here. But it wasn’t. He saw the faintest flicker of fear cross her face, heard it waver in her voice.
If she expected trouble, then Grant was going to be right here when it showed up.
“Will you please let me in?”
“No. Just go, Grant. Before someone sees you. Please.”
Grant turned and looked at their surroundings. He saw nothing out of place, no signs of anyone watching from the deep shadows surrounding her home. “Who’s going to see me?”
A car turned the corner at the end of the block, its headlights splashing bright swaths of light against the house across the street.
“Get inside.” Isabelle grabbed the front of his shirt and gave him a hard tug.
Grant barely stopped himself from stumbling into her as she pulled him into the house and slammed the door shut. “Get down.” She yanked on his shirt again, tugging it toward the floor.
He ducked even though he had no idea why. He figured he must just be too used to doing whatever the ladies asked. Usually, when they asked him to do odd things, it ended in both him and them having a really good time.
He was pretty sure this was not going to be one of those times.
Through the window, he saw the car drive by without stopping or slowing.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded.
She let go of him and turned to peek out the window. Grant tried not to look at her ass, but he couldn’t help it. She was right there, he was ducking as she’d asked, and everything just aligned so that he had no choice.
Her tight jeans molded to her perfectly, showing off the kind of curves a man never forgot. Her black hair fell to her waist, and it shimmered an instant before she turned back around.
“Why are you here?”
“That message you left worried me. I was on my way to Denver to start a new job, so I thought I’d stop by and make sure you were okay.”
Her slim shoulders sagged a bit in relief. “Denver. That’s hours away. You’ll be safe there.”
Safe? As in, he wouldn’t be safe here? What kind of mess was she in?
Frustration was swiftly eroding Grant’s patience, so he took a deep breath and tried again. “Will you please tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s best if you just leave. There’s no need for you to get involved.”
Grant crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on.”
Her full lips tightened and her eyes narrowed, glowing with a hint of anger. “I didn’t invite you here. You have no business being here. If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”
He shrugged. “Fine. Call them. Maybe they’ll know what’s got you so spooked.”
“I’m not spooked. I’m just being cautious.”
Her mouth clamped shut and she looked away.
Grant had never touched Isabelle before. She’d always seemed so frail, and he was afraid of hurting her, maybe even breaking her.
But she wasn’t breakable anymore. He’d felt the strength of her body as she’d tugged at his shirt. He could see for himself that she was whole and healthy.
No reason not to touch her now.
He put one finger under her chin and forced her to look at him. The pad of his finger grazed her soft flesh, and when her eyes finally met his, they were such a stunning deep green he nearly forgot what he was going to ask her. But that spark of fear was still there, and it helped his brain keep spinning rather than stall out under the power of those exotic eyes of hers. “Why, Isabelle? Why should I leave town? Why are you so afraid?”
She swallowed nervously, and a subtle vibration made her chin wobble for a second before she controlled it by gritting her teeth. “Because people are dying, and I don’t want you to be next.”
Isabelle never should have let the truth slip out, but she’d never been able to resist Grant Kent. Not when she was sixteen, and certainly not now when he was standing right in front of her, so beautiful and big and unexpected. And he was touching her. She’d spent years dreaming about him touching her, and now that he was, she could hardly think straight. Sure, it was just the tip of one finger, but with Grant, that was enough to make any woman’s body heat.
Like she needed any more excitement in her life right now. She had more than enough without adding both ancient history and a years-old crush to the mix.
Grant was bigger than life. Confident, self-assured, gorgeous. He was tall, lean, and graceful, with eyes that glittered gold when he looked at her. His hair was shorter now than it had been during his rebellious youth, and even though winter was only now fading away, there were still sun-bleached streaks running through his hair that caught the light whenever he moved. He had the kind of magnetic appeal that made women flock around him, and Isabelle wasn’t immune to the gravitational pull of his good looks and charm. She never had been.
Isabelle hadn’t understood everything she’d felt for him when she was a girl, but now she knew exactly what those goose bumps meant, as well as the little shiver that ran along her spine when his finger grazed her skin. She was no longer innocent, which also meant that she knew what she had to lose by letting herself become charmed by the potent effect he’d always had on her.
His glittering eyes caught her gaze and held on. There was a fierceness there, a kind of unyielding determination lurking just below that charming exterior. Whatever the army had had him doing for the past fourteen years, she was pretty sure it hadn’t been behind a desk. He had the air of utter competence, complete control.
His eyes moved over her face, and though the finger under her chin hadn’t moved, she still felt as if she’d been caressed by him. “What do you mean, people are dying? Who’s dying?”
No denying it now. Time to switch tactics. “I’m being melodramatic. I was just shocked to see you. That’s all.”
Grant’s jaw hardened, his eyes narrowed in warning. “Bullshit. Tell me everything, and tell me now.”
No. She wasn’t going to cave just because he wanted her to.
She pushed his hand away, breaking the contact between them.
The best way to protect him was to get him out of town, as far away from this place as possible. If she pulled him into this mess, he’d stay, and she couldn’t have his death on her hands. Not after what he’d done to save her fourteen years ago, what he’d risked.
He’d given up his life for her, gone to jail for her. She wouldn’t repay him for his kindness by pulling him into danger — assuming she wasn’t just imagining the whole thing.
Which was entirely possible. No one else believed her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, plastering a bright smile on her face.
“Let me be the judge of that.” His tone came out too demanding, so he softened it with a “please.”
Maybe she should tell him everything. He was former military. If anyone could see a threat, it would be Grant. And if he looked over the evidence she’d gathered and didn’t think there was anything odd, she would at least be able to relax.
“You’re probably going to think I’m crazy.”
“Crazy chicks are hot.”
Isabelle felt the blush warm her cheeks. She hadn’t been a girl for a long time, but one minute with Grant and she was already feeling like a teenager again, insecure and uncertain. The only difference was that back then she hadn’t been able to gain his attention, and now she had every bit of it aimed right at her.
It was more than enough to make any woman squirm.
“Spill it, Isabelle, or I’ll have to show you just how much I learned about interrogation techniques in the military.”
“You don’t scare me.”
A slow, lazy grin lifted his mouth. “That’s only because I’m being very careful not to, honey. I’m still playing nice here. Want me to move on to plan B?”
Yes , a crazy part of her mind screamed — the part that was still sixteen and so infatuated with Grant she couldn’t think straight. Anything he wanted to do to her had to be better than letting him walk away. Again.
But the rest of her, the sane, rational, adult part of her, knew better. She had moved on to bigger and better things in her life. She didn’t need anything from Grant. Not anymore.
“No. That won’t be necessary. Just get in your car and drive off, and I swear I’ll tell you anything you want to know on your cell phone on your way out of town.”
“Not good enough. Start talking.”
Grant had had a powerful presence even as a teen, yet it was nothing compared to the force of will she saw blazing in the man he’d become. He was harder than he had been. More formidable. More irresistible.
“I never should have called you.” Too bad she hadn’t realized it before she’d picked up the phone. All she’d been thinking about was warning him so he’d be safe. She’d never once thought that call would bring him to her doorstep.
“But you did.”
It wasn’t the first mistake she’d made, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. The only thing she could do now was damage control. “Fine. You might as well sit down.”
Grant held out his hand for her to lead the way. She left the foyer and went into the living room. A brightly lit fish tank sat against one wall, its colorful occupants gliding gracefully through the water. A few pieces of art hung here and there, mostly paintings of flowers. The furniture looked comfortable, but it was piled with mountains of superfluous, girly pillows covered in beads and tassels and other shiny bits of fluff he couldn’t name.
Isabelle perched at the far end of the couch, well out of range of any more touching, which was truly a pity. Grant took the hint and cleared away enough pillows that he could sit on the love seat, positioned between her and the front door.
If there really was something outside to be afraid of, it was going to have to get through him first.
Isabelle fidgeted with a pillow, and Grant could see the faintest tremor running through her fingers.
Whatever was scaring her, Grant wanted to find it and kill it. He’d never been sure what it was about Isabelle that brought out these fierce protective instincts in him, but he’d always thought it was simply the fact that she’d been so small and frail.
Apparently, he’d been wrong, because she was neither of those things anymore, yet his irrational urges hadn’t died down over the years.
The knowledge was more than a little unsettling.
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and blurted, “In January, I got two of the Christmas cards I sent returned unopened.”
Grant sat there waiting for the rest of her dark confession. It didn’t come. “Okay. I can tell that it bothered you, but I’m dense, so you’re going to have to fill in the why part for me.”
“I’ve been sending birthday and Christmas cards to every one of the kids that shared a foster home with me since the night you…left.”
Grant felt a little blush creep up his neck at the knowledge that every one of the cards she’d sent him was tucked away safely in a weatherproof bag with all of his other precious belongings. He’d never been able to throw them away. He wasn’t sappy enough to pull them out and reread them or anything. At least not very often.
“In case I haven’t said it before, thank you for that. I always look forward to hearing from you.”
“Thanks. Everyone seemed to enjoy getting my cards, which is why it was odd when those two came back.”
Grant shrugged. “People relocate.”
“That’s what I tried to tell myself, but…”
She shook her head, and some slippery strands of hair slid over her shoulder to graze her smooth cheek. Grant shoved his hands under his thighs to keep from reaching out to brush her hair back into place just so he could feel the slippery weight of it running through his fingers.
He knew what women’s hair felt like. He didn’t need to feel hers, too.
“It just bothered me,” she said. “The cards were to Sam and Linda. Remember them?”
Grant shook his head. He tried not to remember too much about the years in between the time his mom wrapped her car around a tree because she was too drunk to drive, and the time he joined the army. It was best that way. “I was only there a few days. And a lot happened in those few days.”
Sadness tilted the corners of Isabelle’s full mouth. “But if it weren’t for those few days, who knows where I’d be now? You saved me from Lavine.”
Edgar Lavine. It had been years since he’d heard that man’s name, but not a day went by he didn’t think about him — about how much he wished he could kill him all over again for what he’d done to so many children. Slower this time.
Grant didn’t let his anger toward the man show, worried Isabelle might think it was directed at her. Instead, he lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug. “Anyone would have done the same thing.”
“No, they wouldn’t have. There were a lot of anyones around at the time, and no one did a thing to stop what was going on. You did.”
He really didn’t want to talk about Lavine. Not now, not ever. “I guess I don’t remember them. Sorry.”
“I think Sam might have already left Lavine’s place when you came to live with us. Linda was there, though. She would have been about eight at the time.”
A memory sparked in his head from his first day living at Lavine’s. A little blond girl crying in her closet, hugging herself and unwilling to come out.
A lump of revulsion in his throat. No way could he go back to that page in his life. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but as an adult, he was pretty sure that Linda’s behavior had been the first sign he’d had that Edgar Lavine was a sadistic, child molesting bastard.
Finally, after a too-long struggle, Grant was able to speak, though his voice shook. “I remember her.”
“She grew up to be a happy woman. You need to know that. What happened to her was horrible, but she overcame it. She even got married about a year ago.”
“Good for her. I’m glad she’s doing well.”
Isabelle’s gaze fell to the pillow she cradled, but not before Grant saw the sheen of tears she hurriedly blinked away. “She’s not doing well…anymore.”
“What happened?” he asked her, not really wanting to know, and feeling like a coward because of it.
“When her card came back, I called her to make sure she was okay. Her husband told me that she killed herself on Christmas Eve. Overdose.”
Shock slid through Grant, tightening his muscles against the need to reach for her, offering her comfort he wasn’t sure she’d welcome. “Oh, God. I’m sorry, Isabelle.”
She sniffed and straightened her shoulders, though Grant could still see a shadow of grief haunting her eyes. “I’m fine. Really. She and I ended up in different homes after Lavine’s. We weren’t that close. It’s just sad, you know? She was so young. Only twenty-two.”
Grant could barely remember what he was doing ten years ago when he was twenty-two. Raising hell and chasing women whenever he was on leave, no doubt. Same old, same old. He probably still believed he was immortal at that point.
“After finding out about Linda, it took me a while to gather the courage to look up Sam to see why his card also came back. And then when I did start looking, it took me a while to actually find him.”
“So you did find him?”
Isabelle gave a tight nod.
“He’s dead, too,” she said.
This was beginning to sound bad. Like more-than-two-hours-to-fix bad. “How?”
Isabelle pressed her lips together as if willing herself not to speak. Her hands shook harder, but she said nothing.
“How did he die, Isabelle?”
“He killed himself. Gunshot to the head.” Tears sparkled in her eyes again, making them glow a vibrant green. “Then a few weeks ago, my friend Beverly slit her wrists.” She swallowed hard, twice, then cleared her throat. “I found her body. Her baby was in the next room, crying. She was lying in a tub full of blood. The tears on her face were still wet. She was still…warm.”
She pulled in a long breath and let it out slowly. “If I’d been five minutes earlier, maybe I could have saved her. But I wasn’t, and now she’s gone, too.”
Grant couldn’t sit still any longer, not when she was shaking like that, on the verge of tears. He knelt in front of her, took her hands in his, and modulated his voice so it was calm and even. “Tell me what’s going on, honey. I can help you.”
He feared the worst — that those deaths had put the idea of suicide in her head, too. He couldn’t let that happen.
“If you really want to help, then you’ll leave. Right now. I don’t know what’s going on, and I can’t risk you, too.”
“Risk me how?”
She squeezed his hands, though Grant didn’t think she realized she was doing so. “It’s not safe here for you.”
“Why not? You’ve got to help me understand.”
She was silent for a long moment, and then finally, her shoulders slumped in defeat. Her voice was a quiet whisper of sound, but he heard her clearly enough. “I don’t think those people killed themselves. I think they were murdered.”
That news shook Grant to the core, leaving him floundering. He kept his voice and expression carefully neutral, reserving judgment until he had more information. “If you think people are being killed, why didn’t you call me and tell me about this sooner?”
She tried to pull her hands away, but he wouldn’t let her. He held firm, keeping her right there with him, demanding that she give him an answer.
“I called once to warn you. You weren’t available, and I felt weird leaving a message. I figured you’d think I was crazy.”
Grant’s jaw clenched in frustration. How many other times had she tried to contact him when he couldn’t be reached? He should have been there for her — for all of those kids. After all, he was the one who had put them all back out on the street. He should have done a better job of looking out for their welfare, even if he had been just a kid himself.
At least he’d gotten to her now, before it was too late.
“Well, I’m available now. And I’m not going anywhere until I know you’re safe.”
David, his new job, and his new life were just going to have to wait.