“I’m going to get you out of here.” He stared at the woman before him and knew that her wide, terrified gaze was going to haunt him forever. FBI Special Agent Elijah Cross put down his gun and grabbed for the knife that he kept strapped to his ankle.
She whimpered when he brought up the knife.
“It’s okay.” His voice was low, barely a breath. Elijah’s gut instincts had taken him into the house. He’d gone in without a warrant, without backup—yes, dammit, he’d broken the rules, but Elijah knew exactly how long the bastard he was after kept his victims alive, and he’d known that Penelope Kostas had nearly run out of time.
“I’m just going to cut the ropes. I will not hurt you,” he swore. “I’m FBI. You can trust me.”
He’d burst into the room moments before, and he’d found her tied up, bound with her arms high above her head and the rope around her wrists attached to a damn hook that had come out of the ceiling.
Penelope Kostas had been missing for forty-seven hours and thirty minutes. According to the killer’s timeline—the timeline he’d used for two other victims—she’d only had thirty more minutes to live.
I wasn’t going to let another woman die on my watch.
He used his knife to saw through the rope. When the hemp broke free, a gasp rose to her lips as her arms fell.
“Yeah, I know it hurts like hell…” He’d be willing to bet that she’d been trapped in that position for most of her captivity. Her shoulders and arms had to be screaming. “I’m going to get you help.”
Something creaked in the house below. A stair? An old floor-board?
He immediately jerked and spun around, bringing the knife up.
The knife? Screw that. He switched it for his gun and took a step forward.
“No…” A husky, broken sound.
Elijah looked back at her.
“D-don’t…leave me…” Raspy. Weak. He knew she’d probably broken her voice screaming for help. But as isolated as this house had been, there was no way that anyone would’ve heard her cries.
“I think he’s downstairs,” Elijah told her softly. “I need to stop him.” Arrest him. Throw him in a cell and make sure that he never hurt another woman ever again.
Penelope’s lips were cracked, and a dark bruise traced over the delicate curve of her jaw. She took a step toward him.
Her legs immediately gave way beneath her.
Shit. Elijah surged toward her. He scooped her up and lifted her into his arms.
“D-don’t…” Penelope said again. Her right hand grabbed for his shirt front. He saw that the ropes had cut deeply into her raw, bloody wrist.
He looked into her eyes. The greenest eyes he’d ever seen. Eyes that were dazed with horror and pain but also showed her hope. His heart slammed hard in his chest as he gazed into those unforgettable eyes. She was trusting him. She thought he’d save her.
“I won’t leave you.” He had to get her the hell out of there. Elijah quickly reevaluated. He’d get her out, then deal with the freak he was after. Elijah had called in his location before he went into the house. Backup was on the way.
Priority one…Penelope. He would get her to safety.
Then he’d hunt.
Unless…unless the perp was already back in the house. Unless that creak hadn’t been the old place settling. Unless it had been him, setting his trap.
“We’re getting out,” he told her. “Now.” His grip tightened on her. Elijah carried her out of that room. The scent of gasoline filled the house. A trap, ready to blow, just as the other two locations had been. Elijah reached the top of the staircase. Looked down—
A figure in black waited at the foot of the stairs. Black boots, black pants, black sweatshirt. Black ski mask. His ski-mask-covered head tilted back as he looked up at Elijah and Penelope, and the bastard shook his head. He slowly lifted his hand. It looked as if he was holding a phone.
He pressed a button on the phone.
Then he turned and ran right out of the open doorway.
Elijah didn’t wait for the explosion that he knew would be coming. The explosions and the fire that always came with this twisted freak. He lunged down the stairs, holding as tightly to Penelope as he could.
He’d promised to get her out.
When the first bomb exploded, he was half-way down the stairs. Fire ripped through the side of the house, and it caught gasoline that had been spilled everywhere—the place ignited.
Penelope was breathing. One of the EMTs had shoved a mask over her face, and she was gulping in that sweet oxygen as fast as she could.
“You’re safe now,” the EMT told her.
But Penelope didn’t believe that. She wasn’t safe. He’d run away. The freak who’d taken her had gotten away from the scene, and now she was staring around her in horror as she realized that the house she’d been inside—it was burning. Bright flames that licked greedily at the sky. She’d been in that house just moments before.
Until he had carried her out. The FBI agent with the blond hair and hard gaze. The man who—
He crouched in front of her. Gave her a slightly crooked smile. “Didn’t give you my name earlier.”
She breathed in and out.
“I’m Elijah Cross.”
“I’ve been looking for you, Penelope Kostas.”
Blue lights swirled behind him. Sirens were screaming. Firefighters struggled to pull long hoses off their trucks as they raced toward the burning house.
But she ignored all of that chaos. Just stared at Elijah. If he hadn’t been there, she would have died in that house. He’d carried her down the stairs. Leapt through the flames.
Never let her go.
She wanted to speak to him. To thank him, but even without the mask, she knew her voice wasn’t working quite right. Probably from all the screaming she’d done.
She liked Elijah’s smile. Liked the way it lightened his dark eyes and softened his hard face.
“We need to get her to the hospital,” the EMT said.
Elijah nodded. Rose. She was near the back of the ambulance, and Penelope knew they were going to load her inside. Take her away from Elijah.
But he’s the only one who makes me feel safe.
And she hadn’t even thanked him.
“I’ll see you soon, Penelope,” Elijah promised her.
Her hand flew out. Caught his.
He gave a little start of surprise. Glanced down at their hands.
She squeezed his fingers. Thank you.
Then she slowly let him go.
“Does she know?” Elijah stopped just outside of the hospital room and glanced at his partner, Izaak Jones. Until just a few moments ago, Izaak had been in the room with her, assigned to protect Penelope because there was no way the FBI was going to take any chances with her security.
“Know that the creep who abducted her and tried to kill her is in the wind?” Izaak rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Haven’t exactly got around to mentioning that part to her yet. You’re the big hero to her. I thought it might be better if it came from you.”
What-the-hell-ever. Elijah knew the truth—Izaak just hated delivering bad news. He always saved that shit for Elijah. Let him do the dirty work.
Izaak’s nose wrinkled. “You didn’t think about showering first?”
He had showered, twice, but he still smelled like smoke and flames. Elijah shot a glare at his partner—and friend—and turned toward the closed door.
“You did the right thing.” Izaak’s voice was low. “Doesn’t matter what the boss says—if you hadn’t gone in there, she would be dead.”
“But if I’d waited a few more minutes, I would have seen him arriving. I could have gotten the jump on him first.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he would have seen you and triggered the house to blow before you could get in there and bring her out alive.” Izaak’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. “The vic made it out alive. That’s a win.”
But it wouldn’t be a win if the perp took another vic. If she didn’t make it out.
“We’re gonna get him,” Izaak assured him. “And Penelope is the key. Get her to talk to you. You can get leads. We can find him.”
He pushed open the door. Stepped inside the too bright and white hospital room. Penelope sat in the bed. Her wrists had been bandaged. Her eyes—that emerald stare hit him like a punch to the gut. Still that startling green. A green that hardly seemed real because it was so intense and deep.
She wore one of those rough hospital gowns, and her long hair hung around her shoulders. Penelope Kostas. Twenty-five. An event planner in Atlanta. Beautiful. Smart. Successful.
“Did…you catch him?” she rasped.
Shit. He wished Izaak had delivered this bit of news. He hated it when he had to see pain sweep into someone’s eyes. Especially her eyes. “No. He got away.”
She blinked. For a moment, he thought she might cry. Penelope swallowed. Lifted her chin. Her fingers fisted around the covers in front of her. “How…” It seemed to take all of her strength to speak. “Do we…catch him?”
Damn. For a moment, he could only stare at her. That hadn’t been the response he expected, but it was sure as hell one he admired. And he moved closer to her, drawn, pulled, and said, “We start by you telling me everything that happened. Everything that you remember about him. Every single detail.”
Her voice was the sweetest fucking music he’d ever heard. He put the phone closer to his ear even as he automatically glanced at the bedside table. One-oh-five a.m. “Trouble sleeping, sweet—uh, Penelope?” Shit. He’d almost screwed up. Almost called her sweetheart. He wasn’t supposed to do that shit.
“The house is so quiet.”
He knew her family had finally left town. Gone back to D.C. They’d surrounded her for days, a protective bubble, but they’d had their own lives, and eventually, they’d had to return to them. Elijah cleared his throat. “Quiet isn’t always a bad thing.” He rolled onto his back. Stared up at the ceiling. “The quiet can be good. Soothing.”
“The quiet makes me think too much.”
Yeah, he bet it did. He knew Penelope had started seeing a counselor to help her work through the trauma of her abduction. He’d recommended the counselor to her. Someone he knew had helped other vics.
“I shouldn’t have called you.” Her words rushed out. “You might, um, you might be—”
“I told you before—you can call me anytime.” Vics had called him before. Sometimes, they just needed a point of contact. Someone to talk with when the dark closed in.
“But it’s so late. And you might…” Penelope trailed off. “You might be with someone.”
He stretched out in the big, empty bed. “Yeah, that’s a no. If you’re trying to ask if you just interrupted me, you didn’t.”
“The job doesn’t allow for a lot of long-term commitments.” Not when he was always off chasing another perp. “No girlfriend. I’m not involved with anyone right now.”
“That was too personal, wasn’t it?” Her husky voice rolled into his ear. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. You can ask me anything.”
“Sure.” Why the hell not?
“What kind of ice cream do you like?”
A laugh escaped him. “What?”
“What kind of ice cream do you like?”
“I’m a chocolate chip cookie dough kind of guy.” He paused. “You?” Maybe she needed to talk about mundane things. Things that let her feel normal.
“Chocolate. Plain chocolate, nothing added. And I haven’t had any ice cream in…” She paused. “I had some the day before he took me.”
“Then you are overdue,” he told her determinedly. “How about we meet up for lunch tomorrow and we get some?”
“I think I’d like that.”
“Know what? So would I.”
“Elijah, is he going to hurt someone else?”
He stared up at the ceiling. Three months had passed. Three months of searching and turning up exactly jackshit. The bastard had seemingly fallen off the radar. His jaw locked. “Not if I can help it.”
“I wish I could tell you more. Something that would help.” Her voice drifted into his ear. It was the middle of the night. The time she often called. “But I never saw his face. He approached me at my car and I—” Penelope stopped.
“I…think I just heard something.” Her voice was low. Scared. “A knock…at my door.”
A knock at this hour? Elijah jumped out of the bed. “Call the cops.”
“Penelope?” he blasted. Nothing. “Penelope!”
Shit. Shit. He raced for the door. Grabbed his keys and his gun. “Penelope!”
“I-I smell smoke.” Her voice nearly stopped his heart.
Smoke? Fuck. “Get out of the house.”
“But—but what if he’s waiting outside?”
And what if he’s burning your house? “I’m coming. Five minutes away.” Five minutes—he’d be there before the local cops. He lived close to her. “If you smell smoke, get a weapon and get out of the house!”
“There is no sign that anyone was here.” The uniformed cop shifted from his left foot to his right. “My partner and I canvased the area, and we didn’t see a thing.”
Elijah glanced toward the porch of Penelope’s home. She stood there, a robe wrapped tightly around her body, and her eyes on him.
“Keep searching. Talk to all the neighbors,” he ordered curtly. “I want to be sure.”
Penelope crept off the porch steps. Walked toward them. The robe flapped behind her like a cape.
“Uh, yeah.” The cop scratched his chin. “With all due respect, Agent Cross, we are sure. Ms. Kostas said that she smelled smoke, but nothing is on fire. There are no signs of any intruders, and, you know, I get that she was a recent vic of Flame—”
“Don’t fucking call him that.”
“Sorry, ah, just—maybe it was in her head? Maybe she—”
“I’m not crazy.” Penelope’s tone was flat.
The cop jerked.
“Search again,” Elijah directed.
The young officer scrambled away.
“I am not crazy,” Penelope repeated.
“Never said you were.” He let his gaze sweep over her. God, those had been the longest five minutes of his life. He’d been desperate to get to her. And what if the killer had been there? What if he had arrived too late? Elijah made a swift decision. “You’re staying with me tonight.”
“Your house needs to be swept.” The whole area needs to be swept again. Thoroughly. “And you’re not crazy. If you say you heard someone at your door, I believe you.”
Her head tilted to the right, sending dark hair streaming over her shoulder. “Just like that?”
He wanted to touch her. Do not. She was a victim. He was an agent assigned to her case. “Just like that.”
She rushed toward him. Threw her arms around him and held tight. “Thank you.”
His hands hovered over her. All he wanted was to wrap her up and keep her safe. Agent. Victim. There were boundaries. Rules.“You’re welcome.” And his hands did not touch her.
“She slept at your place last night.” Izaak eyed him over a steaming mug of coffee.
He’d known this scene would come. “Penelope took the bed. I took the couch. Like the amazing gentleman that I am.”
Izaak sipped some coffee.
“She was scared and needed a safe place to crash.” So he’d given her one.
“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” Elijah glowered. “I did a good deed. You would have done the same thing.”
He sipped his coffee once more. “Maybe,” Izaak finally allowed. “But there’s one major difference between us.”
“I don’t look at her like I need her more than air.”
A bark of laughter burst from Elijah. “I damn well don’t do that.”
Izaak stared back at him.
Fuck me. I do. He would have to be careful with that. Very, very careful.
“The trail is ice cold, and you know it,” Elijah snapped as he paced in front of Izaak’s desk. “He’s in the wind. Could be in another state.” Another country.“Probably is targeting another vic, and we have nothing to go on.”
“We need to bring Penelope in again. Make sure she hasn’t remembered anything else.”
“We’ve grilled her again and again—she doesn’t!” Those interrogations just led to more nightmares. He knew because she was the one he called in the middle of the night after each interrogation. Rough question sessions that went nowhere. She hadn’t seen her abductor’s face. He hadn’t talked to her. She didn’t remember anything they could use.
Izaak exhaled. “There are other cases…”
“We will absolutely continue hunting for Flame…”
He hated that moniker and couldn’t believe Izaak was using it. It made the perp sound like some kind of damn comic book villain. Why did the press have to run with such stupid names? And didn’t they get that the names just gave the perps power?
“But other cases need priority. Come on, man.” Izaak tossed a file his way. “Look at this guy out of Dallas. We need to fly our asses over there and help the local badges. He’s already attacked twice…”
“You’re not looking for him, are you?”
She was in his living room. Dressed in jeans. A billowing blouse. Cute little tennis shoes.
Her hands twisted in front of her as Penelope said, “He’s not mentioned in the press any longer. Everyone seems to have forgotten him.” She swallowed. “Everyone but me.”
He stalked toward her. Wanted to touch. Wanted to curl his hands around her shoulders and hold her. Do not. “I won’t ever forget him. You can count on that.”
Her long lashes—so very long and thick—shielded her bright gaze. “But you’re not looking for him.”
“Your boss called me today. Told me that other cases had priority and that you were being redirected.”
His boss was an idiot. Clint Michaels, kiss my ass. “I’m not stopping the search.”
Her lashes lifted.
“I will not stop.” She was so close. She smelled like roses and her lips were so plump and red and—
Get a damn grip.
He stepped back. Straightened his already straight shoulders. “I promise you, I will not ever stop looking for him.” Izaak had been right. Elijah…he wanted Penelope. Huge mistake. With who he was, who she was—won’t ever happen.
Elijah turned away from her.
“Why don’t you do it?” Soft. Husky.
His shoulders stiffened. “Do what?”
“Kiss me. Why don’t you do it?”
“Because it’s a line I can’t cross.”
He felt her hand curl around his arm. She tugged him so that he faced her again. “You can’t?”
“No.” Do not look at her mouth. Do not. But he did. Dammit.
“Huh.” A nod. Her tongue slid over her lower lip. A sensual swipe. “Then maybe it’s a good thing I can.”
She lifted onto her toes and pressed her mouth against his.
Mistake. Huge mistake.
He’d go down in flames for this, Elijah absolutely knew it.
But his hands closed around her, and he knew he wasn’t going to let go.
Of all the beaches in the world, she had to be on his.
Elijah Cross shook his head, narrowed his eyes, and stared at the woman who was slowly making her way down the white, sandy shore and coming straight toward him.
Dark, thick hair was tossed by the wind. Hair that was so much shorter than it had been the last time he’d seen her. Cut now to land above her shoulders, her hair had once tumbled down her back. He’d wrapped his hands in it even as he’d plunged deep into her body again and again.
Of all the beaches in the world…
This couldn’t be happening.
But she was still coming straight toward him. Her feet were bare, and she left small footprints in the sand behind her even as the waves rushed up to quickly wash away those tracks. She wore shorts that displayed her toned legs. A loose top that was sliding off one slender shoulder. Sunglasses shielded her gaze, but he knew that, behind those lenses, she would have the greenest eyes in the world. Incredible eyes. Eyes that took her from pretty to absolutely gorgeous.
Oh, who the hell are you kidding? You always thought she was absolutely gorgeous.
His greatest weakness was closing in on him, and Elijah found that he could not move a muscle, not even as the waves battered at his own feet.
Surprise, shock, need—they all blasted through him. So did anger. A low, simmering anger that boiled hotter with every step she took until…
Penelope Kostas—his own personal demon—stood right in front of him. “Hello, Elijah.”
He shook his head. Her voice shouldn’t sound so good. She shouldn’t look so good. And he—
He turned on his heel and began to walk away. Something she’d done before. Only now, it was his turn.
“Don’t.” She grabbed his arm. “I need to talk with you.”
Her touch burned all the way through him. “I’m not supposed to be anywhere near you.” Because when he got too close to her, he wanted her too much. He forgot about being civilized and following rules and he let his primal instincts out. And those instincts? They urged him to take. To let go of all control.
“You’re not an FBI agent any longer.”
No, he wasn’t. He looked at her hand. “Touching me isn’t the best idea.” Time hadn’t dimmed the desire he felt for her. Time and space—they hadn’t done jack. So much for that overly optimistic theory.
Maybe I will just always want her. But he knew you couldn’t always have what you wanted in this world.
“Give me five minutes.”
He turned toward her. Raised his eyes. Saw his reflection staring back in her glasses. “All I wanted was to take a walk along the beach and see the sunrise.” Was that such a horrible thing? He’d followed the routine for the last three days. Tried to get some damn Zen time in his life.
Today, the sun had risen. And then she’d appeared.
He did not feel Zen-like. At all.
“I need you,” Penelope said.
His whole body tensed. He’d heard those words from her before, only they’d certainly been under different circumstances. The kind of circumstances that involved rumpled sheets. Sweaty skin. Breathy moans. Elijah swallowed. He stepped back, forcing her to let him go, but he kept his gaze on her. “It’s been a while.”
His hand raked over the three-day old scruff on his jaw. “I’m not with the Bureau any longer. That means I don’t quite have to keep up with the lame agency appearance rules.” He was currently wearing loose sweats and nothing else. He knew his hair was too long. The scruff too rough. So what? Screw it. “New lifestyle.” The beach life. He’d been digging it, until now. Until a ghost from his past had just sashayed her sexy ass right down the sandy shore toward him.
“New lifestyle.” A nod. “Working at Wilde? That’s a new lifestyle for you?”
Surprise had him rocking back onto his heels. “Well, well, someone has been checking up on me. Odd, considering that I haven’t heard from you in months.” More like a year. Not that he’d counted. It was just easy to remember when the woman who held your heart in her delicate palm decided to pack up and leave your ass.
“I haven’t heard from you either.”
Because she’d walked. He could take a hint—especially when it was delivered with a hammer.
“But you knew where I was.” She lifted her chin. Her hair tossed across one of her glass-sharp cheekbones. “You always knew, didn’t you? Not like I could just vanish and you wouldn’t know where I’d gone.”
He wasn’t touching that one. But, yes, he’d known. Maybe he’d checked on her a time or two, just to make sure she was safe. Some habits died hard. Protecting Penelope? That was one very, very hard habit to break.
“You didn’t come down here for me, though, did you?” Penelope pushed as waves crashed onto the shore. “You came down here because you were working a case for Wilde.”
Wilde. His head inclined toward her. “I do go where the boss sends me.” In this case, the boss would be Eric Wilde. Eric owned the elite protection and security firm that now employed Elijah. Turned out, there were quite a few career options out there for an ex-FBI agent. Eric had recruited Elijah on his second day away from the Bureau. The pay was one hell of a lot more than he’d ever gotten while working for the government. Sure, some of the clients were spoiled assholes, but he did his job and kept them safe.
He wasn’t tracking down serial killers at night. He was guarding pop princesses and trust fund babies. The new job came with headaches, but a lot less nightmares.
He looked at his wrist, at the watch that would probably show his heart rate was sky high because she was close. He barely saw the dial, though, since he was thinking too much about her. Getting close to Penelope again was a mistake. Huge.
He’d already made too many mistakes where she was concerned. Mistakes that had made his Bureau job turn to ash…
Mistakes that had sent her running.
“Looks like time is ticking pretty fast—” Elijah began. Hell if I know how much time has passed.
“Then I’ll cut to the chase.”
His gaze tracked back to her.
She squared her shoulders. Her blouse slid down her left shoulder a few more inches. “I want to hire you.”
Automatically, Elijah shook his head.
“I can pay any rate. I’ve done some checking, and I know that Wilde is pricey. I don’t care. I can pay.”
More tension slipped through his body. “Is someone threatening you?” People didn’t just turn to Wilde for no reason, and if some SOB was trying to hurt her…
“Take the job, and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Nice try, but no. I don’t go into situations blind.” His current partner at Wilde had recently made that mistake, and he wasn’t about to follow in Gideon’s footsteps. “Use the time left to tell me now.”
She stepped even closer to him. Over the salty air, he caught the scent of roses. Her scent. “Why do you look at me that way?”
Oh, shit. How was he looking at her? “What way would that be?” His voice was carefully emotionless. He should have brought his damn sunglasses with him. Instead, he’d left them back at his rental condo.
“Like you’re mad.”
Mad? Elijah mulled that option. “Not quite the word I’d use.”
“You’ve never…you never stared at me like this before.”
“It’s been a while, Penelope. We’re not the same people.”
“Is that why you’re looking at me like I’m a stranger?”
She wasn’t a stranger. He knew every single inch of her body, just as she knew his. But her mind? That had always been closed to him. Considering that he’d been one of the best behavioral analysists at the Bureau—not arrogance, just truth—the fact that she’d managed to blindside him spoke volumes. “You used me before.”
“Are you looking to use me again?” He’d truly cut to the chase, even if she wouldn’t.
“It wasn’t like that.”
In the distance, a jogger was running behind her, kicking up sand in his wake. Automatically, Elijah’s gaze swept toward the figure. Some habits just didn’t die, and it was second nature for him to scan everyone that he saw. He assessed the man—jogging shorts, running shoes. No weapon. This guy didn’t seem like a threat. Elijah’s stare returned to Penelope.
Yes, she was a threat to him. All five feet, two inches of her. She might look deceptively delicate, but it was that very fragile appearance that had tricked him before.
“You left the Bureau.”
His heels dug into the sand. “Yep, as you established already, I work with Wilde now.”
Her hand rose. Pressed to his chest. “That means there is no reason for us to be a secret.”
Us—the relationship they’d had that had been against the rules, and he’d known it. But he’d wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anything, so he’d decided to fuck the rules—and her. “There isn’t an ‘us’ to keep secret any longer.”
“I meant…us working together. If I hire you through Wilde…”
He was sure five minutes were up. He was also sure he’d never been counting. “Who is after you?”
Her plump lips parted. The lower lip was a little fuller than the top, and the top was pure bow-shaped perfection. She wasn’t wearing lipstick, she rarely ever did. Her lips were full and pink, and he was not going to stare at them.
Wait. I am. His gaze swept back to her eyes. “If you’re coming to Wilde, it means you need protection.” The fact pissed him off. Things hadn’t ended well for them—understatement of the century—but no one would hurt her. “Who is it? Some ex who can’t let go?” That will not be me. When she’d walked, he hadn’t chased after her. She didn’t want him? Fine. He could move the hell on.
His jaw locked. “If some asshole is giving you trouble—”
“I haven’t been with anyone since I left you—I mean, since I left Atlanta.”
She had left him. And that had been a year ago. His eyebrows shot down. “Then who is after you?” He ignored the lick of electricity that pulsed through his body. Okay, fine, screw it, he was glad she hadn’t been with anyone else. He was a jealous bastard. One of his many faults. When it came to Penelope, his emotions had never been what he’d call civilized.
Her hand still pressed to his chest. “Him.”
Her hand—those soft fingers hovered over his heart, so he knew she felt the sudden lurch in his chest when he registered what she’d said. “Him?” No, no, there was no way she meant…
“I wasn’t crazy in Atlanta.”
“I never thought you were.” Just so they were clear.
“The other cops did. The other FBI agents did. They thought that I was making up what was happening, but he was there, Elijah. He was watching me. Following me. I left because I wanted to escape him.”
His teeth were grinding together. But I told you I’d protect you. I swore I would do anything—
And it was there. In her eyes. The promise that he’d made so long ago. On a night when he’d given in to the dark desire and passion that burned in him.
The jogger who’d been behind her had turned and was running toward the boardwalk. Elijah could just see his dark hair as he hurried away.
I need to get out of here, too. “No.” He backed up. “Penelope—”
“He found me. Or maybe he always knew where I’d gone. Either way, he’s back. He’s coming for me, and I need your help.”
He took another step back from her. “Go to the cops. Go to the Feds. Izaak is still active at the Bureau, go to him.” Elijah turned away. “I can’t help you. I don’t have a badge any longer.”
“I don’t want you for the badge.”
“No? Thought that was why you wanted me the first time.” Bitterness underscored his words. But she’d used him, and he’d—hell, he’d fallen hard for her. Won’t do it again. Elijah made it a point to learn from his mistakes.
“It was a lot more complicated than that.” The wind seemed to catch her words and toss them after Elijah.
Life was complicated.
“It’s him.” Intensity sharpened her voice. “I know it is, just as it was him before. He’s playing with me.”
Dammit. Elijah’s hand raked through his hair. “Are you seeing a counselor?”
Silence. Do not look back. Do not look.
He looked. Caught the flash of pain on her face.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” Penelope asked. “You’re like the others now. You think that I’m so messed up by what happened that I jump at shadows.” She caught a heavy lock of hair that the wind had tossed over her face, and she angrily tucked it behind her ear. “I’m not crazy. I never was. He didn’t break me. Dammit, you used to trust me!”
He had. Until he’d found out that she’d stolen from him. Used his classified access to search the FBI database.
“I know I made mistakes. I was desperate.” Her hand fell back to her side. “I’m even more desperate now, and you are still the man I trust. I need you, Elijah. I want to hire you to help me. To prove that I’m not crazy, that I never was.”
“He’s here. He thinks he’s going to come for me, but this time will be different. This time, you will be with me. We can stop him. We can catch him.” She hurried to close the space between them once more. She didn’t stop until their bodies nearly brushed.
They stood so close together that he knew they would look like lovers to anyone watching on the beach.
But there was no one out there to watch. The jogger was gone…The jogger…Old instincts nagged at Elijah as he thought of the jogger.
He turned before I could get a good look at his face. He only appeared after Penelope did. As if…as if he’d been following her?
Then the jogger had realized she wasn’t alone on the beach. Is that when he decided to turn around?
“Sonofabitch.” An angry snarl burst from Elijah and before he could second guess himself, he was surging past Penelope. Running fast and hard toward the boardwalk even as she called his name.
He didn’t stop. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was right. Either way, he needed to see that jogger again. The sand flew in his wake, and he heard Penelope rushing after him.
He hit the boardwalk and rushed past his tennis shoes. He’d left them there when he arrived at the beach. His feet thudded over the wood, and he raced forward but he could hear—squealing tires?
He flew off the boardwalk. Burst onto the parking lot and saw a black van flying down the road. Too far away now to see the plates, if there even were plates on the thing. The driver was seriously hauling ass.
Not suspicious. At all.
He spun. Penelope’s breath heaved out as she sped toward him. “Why are you running away?” She put her hand to her abdomen and gulped air. “What’s happening?”
“Did you see him?” The van was totally gone now.
“The jogger. Tall. Muscled. Dark hair. On the beach behind you.” He bit off the words. He didn’t like the scene, not at all. The man had been desperate to get away, hardly the routine of a Saturday morning jogger at the beach.
“I-I didn’t see him. No.”
He spun back to search the lot. He’d walked to this particular stretch of beach. It wasn’t far from the condo he’d rented, but a small, blue convertible waited about fifteen yards away. Had to be Penelope’s car. He hurried toward it and saw that the front right tire was flat. “Sonofabitch.”
Penelope crowded close to him. Her scent teased him as he glared at her tire.
He followed her here. He thought she was alone, and he sabotaged the tire so that she couldn’t leave. He didn’t realize I was here, not until he was on the beach and then he ran away.
“Now do you believe me?” Penelope asked, voice subdued.
His head whipped toward her.
“He’s back,” she said quietly. “And we have to stop him.”