Alice May barely recognized the woman in the long, white dress. The silk seemed to stretch for miles and miles, and she’d never felt anything so soft against her skin. Her hair had been artfully styled, her makeup carefully applied. Everything was ready. She was ready. Her hands tightened around her bouquet—a bouquet of blood red roses.
The wedding would start any moment…
Or, at least, it would start once her groom arrived.
Her bridesmaids were dead silent behind her. When word had first reached them that Hugh Collins hadn’t made it to the little chapel on the edge of Savannah, Georgia, they’d just all laughed and said he must have partied too hard at his bachelor party.
He’d be there.
He wouldn’t miss his own wedding day.
The door opened. She spun around, her heart jerking in her chest. “Hugh—”
Hugh’s brother Jonathan stood in the doorway. His dark hair was no longer perfectly in place. Instead, it stuck up at odd angles, testimony to the fact that he’d been shoving his fingers through it again and again.
Jonathan’s gaze—the same battered gold as Hugh’s—swept over the room. He jerked his head toward the avidly watching bridesmaids. “Give us a minute, would you?”
Oh, God. Hugh wasn’t coming. He’d said he loved her, but he wasn’t coming. He’d changed his mind.
After casting her sympathetic glances, the bridesmaids filed out. The door closed behind them with a soft click. And Alice realized she was twisting her bouquet too hard in her hands. Rose petals had fallen to the floor. They almost looked like drops of blood. “He’s not coming.” Her voice was soft, sad.
“I can’t get him on the phone. I had a neighbor check his house. Hugh isn’t there…but, the cops were.”
Her head whipped up. Fear raced through her. She forgot about the chapel full of people. Forgot about the growing fear that Hugh didn’t love her as much as he’d promised. She bounded toward Jonathan. “Is he okay?”
Oh, God, they’d need to check the hospitals. Right the hell away.
“The cops are searching for him, too.” Jonathan swallowed and his gaze darted from hers. “The neighbor—Sherry something—she said the cops wanted to arrest him.”
A cold chill slid over her skin, but Alice heard herself give a too-high peal of laughter. “That’s ridiculous. Hugh doesn’t even get traffic tickets. Why would he possibly be arrested?” He was an engineer. A volunteer firefighter. The guy was good. Dependable.
But Jonathan’s face remained tense. He drew in a deep breath, and his gaze slid back to her face. “Has he ever…said anything to you about our dad?”
“Your dad?” Her eyes widened. “He died when you were kids. Hugh barely remembers him.”
“Right.” Jonathan nodded, but his stare had become hooded.
He’s not telling me everything.
“Jon?” Alice whispered. “What’s happening?” Because he knew more, she could feel it.
Jonathan shook his head. “We should leave. I don’t want you here if…” But his words trailed away.
“I can’t leave my own wedding!”
A rough exhale came from him. “There isn’t going to be a wedding. The cops think Hugh is on the run, and they are coming here. I don’t want you caught in this madness. You need to get out of this place before it becomes a circus.”
He wasn’t making sense. Nothing was making sense. Her right hand held her bouquet, and her left grabbed the train of her dress. She hurried to the door just as it flew open.
Heather Hollow, her maid of honor, stared at her with wide, stark eyes. “I just heard—on the news—” But she stopped, as if she couldn’t say more.
Heather just stared at her.
“Heather! Tell me! What did you hear?”
“Th-there’s b-been an accident. Just down the road…A blue Mercedes SUV flipped. It was being chased by police cruisers…”
Her heartbeat was suddenly far too loud. “Hugh drives a vehicle like that.”
The police had been at Hugh’s house. A blue Mercedes had flipped.
She shoved past Heather. Rushed down the hall. Dropped her bouquet as she ran. Guests saw her. They called out, their eyes flaring in surprise, but Alice didn’t stop. She rushed to the front of the chapel.
For such a small chapel, there were so many people crammed in there. She hadn’t wanted to get married in that place. She’d just wanted to run away with Hugh. Only the two of them. Forever. But Hugh had insisted on taking their vows in front of friends and family. He’d been so excited.
She shoved open the chapel’s door. The sunlight hit her, too bright and hot. She was sweating in her beautiful gown, and Alice could hear the scream of sirens. She could also smell smoke in the air.
She started running, not even caring what she looked like. Hugh was late for the wedding. Too late. He was never late. An SUV just like his had been in an accident, and she could see the smoke and flames filling the air. So close to her. She rounded the corner, and there it was. His SUV. She knew it was his because she could see the hiking sticker on the SUV’s bumper. The burning SUV.
Alice screamed and ran forward, but hard hands grabbed her and shoved her back.
One of the uniformed officers barked, “Ma’am, no! This scene isn’t safe!”
“That’s my fiancé’s SUV!” Alice yelled back at him. “Where is Hugh? Where is—”
An explosion rocked the street. The blast was hard enough to send chunks of the SUV flying into the air. Hard enough to send her sprawling back onto the concrete. The skin scraped off her palms, and her dress twisted beneath her.
The uniformed cop reached down for her, and she could see the horror on his face. A terrible combination of horror and sympathy, and she knew he was going to say something that would wreck her. She wanted to beg him to stop, wanted him to—
“He was in the vehicle, ma’am. I’m sorry.”
Alice stared into the mirror. A one-way mirror in a police interrogation room. Right after the uniformed officer had told her that Hugh had been in the burning vehicle, Alice had been taken from the scene. She’d been crying, been fighting to get to the SUV and Hugh, but the cops had pushed her in the back of a patrol car. They’d taken her to the station. Left her in this room.
Shock had moved in. A numbness that seemed to fill her every limb.
As she stared at her reflection, Alice realized that she didn’t look like a blushing bride any longer. Mascara had smeared, and it lined her eyes, giving her a raccoonish appearance. Her dark hair had come out of its careful twist, and her white dress was stained with soot and dirt. Blood had dried on her hands. And Alice just kept thinking…This can’t be real.
The door opened. Finally. She jumped from her chair, part of her thinking it would be Jonathan walking inside…the way he’d done at the chapel. He’d come in and this time, he’d tell her that everything had been a mistake. A big misunderstanding. Hugh was fine. He hadn’t been in the burning SUV.
But Jonathan wasn’t there. A blond man with a hard jaw and glinting eyes stared at her. She could have sworn there was anger in his gaze. He wore a dark suit, and a badge was clipped to his hip.
She nodded. Shivered.
“I’m FBI Agent Ryan McCall. I want you to sit down.”
The FBI? What? “This…it’s my wedding day.”
His gaze raked her. “I can get more clothes brought in for you.”
She didn’t want more clothes. She wanted Hugh.
“You should sit back down.”
God! He’s not saying this is a mistake.
The chair’s legs screeched across the floor as she pulled it back. Alice sat in the chair again, falling too heavily. “Please tell me that Hugh isn’t dead.”
Agent McCall sat across from her and put a manila envelope on the small table. “Hugh Collins was in the SUV when it crashed. We weren’t able to get him out before the fire spread.” His lips thinned, then he said, “From what we can tell, he died on impact. The fire didn’t take him. Bastard got off easy.”
Her breath caught in her throat. She could feel herself choking. Why had he just called Hugh a bastard?
Ryan McCall flipped open the manila envelope. “Do you know this woman?”
Alice stared at the woman in the photo. Dark hair. Wide smile. Heart-shaped face. She looked a little like Alice. “N-no…”
Ryan’s mouth tightened. “Her name is Vicki Sharpe. She was in the SUV, too.”
“Her dead body was found in the rear of the vehicle. After the fire was extinguished, we discovered her. She’d been stabbed in the heart, just like all of the other Secret Admirer’s victims. Because most of the fire was centered near the vehicle’s engine and front seat, Vicki was still in fairly good condition for the ID.”
A dull ringing filled her ears. Had he just said the dead woman had been in “good condition”—wait, no, surely not. Surely, he hadn’t just said that a woman had been in the rear of the vehicle. And there was no way the agent had said that she’d been stabbed.
Her heartbeat came faster. Even harder. Alice struggled for breath. “I don’t understand…”
He slid another photograph toward her. “Do you know her?”
Another woman with dark hair. Blue eyes. A small mole near her lips. “I-I saw her on the news.” Alice was shaking now. “M-Mary Ellen—”
“Mary Ellen Jones. Another victim of the Secret Admirer.”
The killer who’d been in the news. The killer who’d terrorized the Savannah area for the last year. He abducted women, all dark-haired, blue-eyed, unmarried women in their mid-twenties. He kept them for a while…torturing them, then when he was done playing with his prey, the killer would stab his victims in the heart before he dumped their bodies.
The Press had dubbed him the Secret Admirer because a reporter had gotten a tip from an unidentified FBI source—that tip had revealed that the guy stalked his victims before he took them. That he sent them flowers. He talked with them online. He seduced them, and the women willingly left with him. But after he got them, after he took them away…
The women never escaped him again.
More photos were slid toward her. Three more women. “Why are you showing these to me?”
“Because we found jewelry belonging to all of these women…in your fiancé’s house.”
Alice shook her head. “That’s not right.”
It couldn’t be right. Please, don’t be right. Please.
“We found blood. The weapons he’d used on them.”
Alice put her hand to chest and pressed hard.
“Did you know?” Agent McCall’s voice seemed distorted. As if it had come from a great distance.
Alice couldn’t look away from the photos. All of the women looked like her. Too much like her.
“Did you know that the engagement ring you are wearing belonged to Mary Ellen Jones? It was her grandmother’s. Mary Ellen always wore it on a chain around her neck.”
Alice’s stomach twisted. She could feel bile rising in her throat.
“The ring is evidence, and I’m going to be taking it.”
She was already fighting to get the ring off her finger. Only it wouldn’t come off. It had always been a little too tight.
“Did you know he was a killer?”
Her gaze snapped up to lock on the FBI agent. He stared at her with a cold fury.
“Because that’s what I can’t figure out about you yet, Ms. May. You were closer to Hugh Collins than anyone else.”
She could barely breathe.
“Did you know what he was doing to those women? Did you know he was torturing them?” His questions battered at her. “Were you covering for him? Were you helping the sonofabitch?”
She didn’t look like a killer.
Zander Todd swept his gaze over his neighbor, knowing that his sunglasses would hide the direction of his stare. Alice May didn’t realize that he was watching her. She didn’t know that he was cataloging every single detail about her appearance.
Her long, thick, dark hair.
Her heart-shaped face. Her red lips. Her high cheekbones.
Her golden skin.
Her long legs.
Alice May was a looker, a woman who seemed to exude sex appeal. And, if the stories were true, if the FBI was right with their suspicions, she was also a killer. One who had managed to get away with her crimes so far.
“What do you think, Zander?” Alice asked as she stepped away from her flower bed, brushing her hands across her hips. “Does that look okay?”
“Fantastic.” He put an edge in his voice, one that she wouldn’t be able to overlook. Slightly flirtatious. Admiring.
She immediately jerked her gaze toward him. Her eyes went wide. Her little pink tongue gave a nervous swipe over her lower lip. She was good at that. Good at pretending to be innocent. Uncertain.
But the FBI brass didn’t think she was nearly as innocent as she seemed to be.
Alice May’s fiancé had been the infamous Secret Admirer. A man who’d murdered five women before he’d been killed.
The case should have been closed. Hugh Collins had died a year ago.
But two months ago, the Secret Admirer had claimed another victim.
Zander stepped closer to Alice. Her scent—light jasmine—teased him. “Have dinner with me tonight.”
He’d asked her out three times before. And every single time, Alice had shot him down. She hadn’t dated anyone since Hugh had died. Zander knew that for a fact, because the FBI had been watching her. Very, very closely.
Alice sucked in a sharp breath and her deep blue eyes widened. “I…don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You’re seeing someone else. I get it.” But she wasn’t. Would she lie?
Alice shook her head. “No.”
“It’s me?” He flashed her a smile. He’d been told he had a good smile. Hell, most women found him charming. Alice didn’t seem to be like most women. “Just not that into me, huh?”
“No—you…um, you’re very handsome.”
He laughed at her words. Zander couldn’t help it. She’d just sounded all polite and courteous, like she was worried she’d hurt his feelings. She hadn’t. But she was making things difficult. His assignment was to get close to Alice. To get her to trust him. To get her to reveal details that she had never spilled during all of her interrogations.
“Did I say something funny?” A faint furrow appeared between Alice’s brows. She wiped her dirty hands on her faded jeans. Jeans that fit her like a second skin and showed Zander that Alice was one very, very sexy woman. Long legs. High breasts. Killer smile. Not that she smiled a lot. In fact, in the two months that he’d been working as a “handy man” in the area, Zander had only been able to coax about three smiles from her full lips.
He stilled his laughter. Gave a rueful shake of his head. “A woman as gorgeous as you probably has men lined up for miles, just waiting for her to give them a second glance.”
“I don’t date.” Her words held a brittle edge. “I…had a bad experience once.”
That had to be the understatement of the century, but Zander kept his expression controlled. “I’m sorry.” He made his voice gentle. “I didn’t mean to—to make you uncomfortable.” Time for his exit. If he pushed her too hard right now, Zander knew he’d lose her. He’d come out to her cabin to fix her sprinkler system. A system the FBI had sabotaged while she’d been stocking up on groceries the day before. The fix had taken all of three minutes, but it had given him an excuse to see her. To chat with her.
Spring had finally come to the little mountain town of Sky, North Carolina, and Alice had been eager to start her planting. She’d wanted colors. Flowers. She couldn’t have any of that without her sprinkler system…The FBI made her need me again.
Zander inclined his head toward Alice. “Have a good evening.” Then he turned on his heel. He made his steps slow and certain as he headed away from her. And he counted in his head…Five, four, three—
Her footsteps rushed behind him.
“Wait!” Alice’s fingers pressed to his arm. A fast touch, and then she hurriedly pulled back.
But he whirled toward her. “Something wrong?”
She rocked onto the balls of her feet. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“You didn’t, Alice.” Shit, now he was feeling bad. It’s just a job. Sometimes, though, when he looked too deeply into her eyes, he could forget that. And he could get lost only seeing…her. “Look, I’m not the kind to pry. Something happened in your past, and you don’t want to date. That’s your business. I understand.”
Some of the tension slipped from her shoulders. She tipped her head back so that she could stare up at him. Alice was close to five-foot-eight, but he skirted six-foot-three. And she was too damn thin. Every time he came to the cabin, he found himself picking up pastries for her. Today, he’d brought three cupcakes. She’d given him a smile as a thank you.
Smile number three.
“Everyone else always pries.” Her lashes lowered to shield her gaze. “I don’t look…familiar to you?”
“Um, I’ve seen you off and on for the last two months. You definitely look familiar.”
She gave a short, negative shake of her head. “That’s not what I mean.”
He waited. Come on, Alice. Make this important move. Do it. Trust me.
Even though he was lying to her. Using her.
She nodded, then her lashes lifted. “Do you remember the Secret Admirer?”
He rubbed a hand over his jaw. “Wasn’t that the guy from Savannah? The one who killed those women?”
A flinch had her whole body jerking. “Yes.”
Hard to forget a freak show like that guy. “What about him?”
Her spine straightened. Her chin lifted. “He was my fiancé.”
Zander let surprise cover his face.
“The woman in the white wedding dress? The woman who was splashed all across the news and in all the papers? The fool who didn’t know her fiancé was a killer?” A smile covered her lips—smile four—only this smile wasn’t like the others. This smile was almost painful to see. “That woman was me.”
He gave a low whistle. “So when you say you had a bad experience…”
“I mean it.” Her smile was gone. “You don’t want to date me. You don’t want my baggage. You don’t want to wake up one day and find reporters camped out on your doorstep because someone in the area realized who I was and tipped them off.”
Shit. Alice was trying to protect him?
“You are handsome. And you’re kind. And you’ve been an absolute lifesaver to me.” Her hand gestured vaguely toward the small cabin that waited behind her. “I swear, every single day, something new is falling apart in this place.”
Yes, it was. Because of the FBI.
“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have running water, a front door that opened, a refrigerator that worked, electricity that—”
“It’s just my job,” Zander cut in. The FBI had been sabotaging things left and right, so that she’d have to call Zander. And right then, he felt like a total jerk.
Her gaze softened on him. “You’re a nice man.”
The hell he was. He was ruthless. He was determined. He was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. But no matter what else might be said about him, Zander always got the job done. Zander wasn’t the type to hesitate, hell, just ask any of his old Ranger buddies. He was many things, but not nice. No one had ever called him nice. That title was damn insulting.
“You don’t deserve to be dragged down into my trouble.” She turned away.
His hand flew out. This time, his fingers reached for her. He caught her wrist, and his hand encircled it. Zander pulled her back toward him, and their bodies almost brushed.
Her gaze flew up to his. “What are you doing?”
He shouldn’t have touched her. And he absolutely shouldn’t be running his thumb along her inner wrist in a soft, sensual caress. Swallowing, Zander let her go as he stepped back. “I like trouble.” That was one of the most truthful things he’d ever said to her.
Her lips parted. “You…do?”
“And you’re too young to lock yourself away because you had the misfortune to be taken in by some twisted freak.”
Her arms wrapped around her stomach.
“I’m not a killer. Hell, if you want them, I can give you references. Can even let you talk to my fourth grade teacher. She’ll vouch for me.” He paused, then added, “You can trust me.” Shit, he almost choked on those words.
“Trust isn’t exactly easy for me.”
Alice loved her understatements. It was kind of cute.
“One dinner,” Zander offered. “That’s what I’m asking for. Let me show you that it’s okay to live your life again.”
“H-how do you know I haven’t been living?”
Hell—fix that blunder. “When I come out here, you never have friends or family over. You don’t even have a dog. You’re a beautiful woman, and you’re hiding yourself in the mountains. You’re hiding from the world. Don’t have to be a shrink to realize that.” He waited a beat and decided to push more, using info that one of the FBI shrinks had passed along to him. “You’re letting him win, Alice. Don’t you see that? If you give up your life, isn’t it like he killed you, too?”
She held his stare.
Had he pushed too far? Too fast? Dammit. What should he do next? How to play this, how to—
“Hugh didn’t take my life. But sometimes, it sure feels like he did.” She exhaled. “Okay, fine, if my scary past didn’t run you off…if you really think you want to date me—I mean, have dinner—then…let’s do it.”
“But…can we have dinner here instead of going out? I’m a really good cook. And I—I don’t exactly like being in crowds.”
Probably because she was afraid someone would recognize her.
“It’s one of the reasons I work from home,” she murmured. “I like…quiet. Space.”
He knew she worked as a freelance designer. She spent her time creating ad pieces for corporations. And staying out of the limelight.
“I stocked up at the grocery store yesterday,” Alice continued. “So I’ve got plenty of food.”
Right. She’d been on the trip to the store when her sprinkler had been sabotaged.
“I have steaks.” Her words came quickly. “And salad.”
He gave her his winning smile. “I have wine.”
She didn’t smile back, but her eyes seemed to gleam a little more. “Then how about you come back tonight at seven?”
“It’s a date.” He gave her a little bow, and then he headed for his truck. Zander waited until he was a good distance away from her cabin, then he called his partner. The line rang once, twice—
“Hey, Z. Tell me you made some progress with the target.”
Randall Cane’s voice filled the interior of the truck as it carried through the Bluetooth system. “I made progress.” So why was his gut knotted? “We’re having dinner in her cabin tonight.”
“Hell, yes. Finally. If anyone could get that woman to lower her guard, I knew it would be you!” Satisfaction deepened Randall’s voice.
“It’s just dinner,” Zander muttered. “Not like she’s going to spill every secret she has to me.”
“She’d sure as hell better. That’s the point of this whole operation. For you to build trust with the target. For her to feel as if she can confide in you. For you to figure out if Alice May is a cold-blooded killer, just like her former lover.”
His hands tightened on the wheel, an instinctive reaction. “She doesn’t seem the type.”
“Yeah, well, don’t forget, we found those photos of the vics in her apartment.”
They had. Black and white photos of the victims had been hidden beneath a floorboard in Alice’s closet. She’d claimed never to have seen those photos before. Told authorities that Hugh must have kept them hidden there without her knowledge.
Her fingerprints hadn’t been on them. There had been no physical evidence to tie Alice to the murders. There had just been unanswered questions. A whole lot of them…
Why were the photos in her closet?
Why was Alice allowed to live—when she looked exactly like the Secret Admirer’s other victims?
Why had the killings all started after Hugh Collins met Alice May?
And even though Hugh Collins was in a cemetery, the Secret Admirer had claimed a new victim two months ago. Julianna Stiles. A woman who appeared eerily similar in appearance to Alice…a woman who’d been found with a knife stabbed in her heart, and rose petals sprinkled around her body. The Secret Admirer’s MO. But the Press hadn’t gotten wind of the story, not yet. The FBI was trying to keep the murder under wraps. Trying to see if Alice could be tied to that crime…
Trying to see…if Alice had been her lover’s partner all along.
Sure, the FBI could be dealing with a copycat. That was one option, but the FBI brass had long suspected that Hugh Collins hadn’t worked alone when he’d committed his crimes. And the higher-ups at the Bureau suspected his secret partner was none other than the lovely Alice May.
“If she isn’t Julianna’s killer,” Randall continued, “then she has to know who the fuck is. No one was closer to Hugh than she was. The killer’s identity is in her head, even if she doesn’t realize it.”
“I’ll let you know what I find out. I’m heading back to her place at seven.”
Silence. Randall wasn’t often the silent type. When he went quiet, it meant he was worried.
“You got something you want to add?” Zander pressed.
“Don’t get fooled by a pretty face.” Randall’s voice had turned brisk. “You know pretty faces can hide sadistic killers. You’re the one playing her, not the other way around. Don’t forget that shit.”
Zander didn’t intend to let himself get played.
“She’s a job,” Randall continued flatly. “Nothing more. Bust her—or find out who the hell was working with her lover. Do whatever it takes, but get the job done.”
“I always do.”
For some reason though, he had a quick flash of Alice as she stood, wiping her dirt-covered fingers on her jeans. She’d looked so damn innocent.
Was she a world-class liar?
Or one of the Secret Admirer’s victims?
He was going to find out the truth about Alice. Even if he had to be a lying bastard in order to uncover her secrets.