“You tried to stop him, ’cause you’re the hero, right?”

Luke hissed out a low breath.

“Does Monica know?” Laughter grated in the air. “Does she know he beat the shit out of you and left you in your own vomit and blood while he killed your mother?”

No, she didn’t know. Her fist pounded against the door. “This isn’t about Luke! Let him go! You’ve got me! You want to play your f**king games, play them with me!”

Luke. No wonder he’d always jumped to save the ladies. Even in Gatlin, with Lynn. “Fucking makes me sick. Every time I see a guy punching on a woman.”

She tasted blood and the salt from her tears.

“When the cops came, they found you hugging her. What was it like, holding tight to a dead woman?”

A roar of fury.

“I mean, you were like six, right? That had to screw with your head. Would have turned some guys into killers—”

“Like you?” Monica yelled.

“But you…” Vance kept right on talking, too focused now on Luke. And she had to get his focus back on her. He’ll kill Luke. “You became the boy scout, didn’t you? Always got to save the day.”

Monica’s fingers curled around her belt. She pulled it loose, yanked it up. She grabbed the buckle, snapped it back, popping it, and tried to break it free from the leather.

“You’re not gonna save the day this time, Dante. You’re gonna die, and you’re gonna die knowing I have her. I’ll cut her apart, just like I’ll do to you. I’ll cut her, and she’ll cry, and she’ll beg, and she’ll scream for you.” A long sigh. “But you won’t be there to save her.”

The buckle broke free. Monica tossed the leather to the floor and curled her fingers around the metal.

“Just like you couldn’t save your mother.”

Luke’s worst fear?

“I get a f**king two-for-one special!” Vance yelled and laughter followed, the kind that told her the deputy had left the land of the sane long ago. “Now, bastard, let’s see how long you last before you start beggin’!”

Blade hit flesh. She knew that soft noise, the unmistakeable sound as the knife dove in, then pulled out.

“Let’s see!”

Her breath caught. This was it. If she didn’t stop him, Luke would die. She pounded on the door. Pounded until her hands went numb, then choking back the fear and only letting the fury out, she yelled the words that she knew would get to him. Monica screamed, “Romeo let me watch!”

Silence. Breathing. Heavy. Excited.

She swiped her tongue over her lips. Hate the taste of fear.

Footsteps shuffled toward her. Keys jingled. Let me out. Come on, let me out….

Her fingers tightened around the buckle.

Light came at her. A trickle first. Then, bigger, bigger…

Vance’s face popped into that light. His eyes were wild, and he wore a grin that went from ear to ear. “Just when I thought my day couldn’t get better.” He had a gun in his hand. One that he’d aimed right at her. “I was hoping you’d scream those magic words.”

CHAPTER Eighteen

Luke jerked hard against the straps that held him pinned to the table. Pain burned through him. The bastard had sliced both of his arms and had driven that big-ass knife into his shoulder.

“Lee!” Monica’s sharp cry.

Luke’s head reared up, just a few inches because that was all he could manage. His eyes shot to the left, the right, and—there.

The other deputy was tied to a chair in the far corner. His head sagged. Blood dripped from his nose. Bruises covered him.

Because Vance liked to play.

“Don’t worry about him,” Vance muttered, and Luke’s stare zeroed back in on the killer. Vance grabbed Monica’s arm and pulled her close. He shoved the gun under her chin. “With the drugs I gave him, he doesn’t even know where he is. And when I’m done, he’ll eat this.” The barrel jabbed into her flesh. “Just like his old man ate his weapon.” A twisted smile. “Like daddy, like screwed-up son.”

Blood stained Monica’s face. Luke wrenched his arms, struggling to get free. Have to help her. Can’t leave Monica alone.

Because he knew good old Vance hadn’t been lying. Luke would die first, the better for Monica to watch.

Then she’d be on her own with the sick f**k. Pope couldn’t help. And she’d die.

No f**king way.

With his left hand, Vance pulled out his cuffs, that stupid grin still on his face. Luke clenched his teeth. The taste of blood filled his mouth. Kill him.

“Let’s give you a good show. Real up close…” He snapped a cuff around her left wrist. A tear leaked from Monica’s eye as she stared at Luke. She didn’t struggle against Vance. Just stood still and silent. “So close you’ll feel the blood on your skin.” The other cuff snapped around the leg of the table, the one closest to Luke’s head.

She’ll see me die.

He’d f**ked this up. She’d told him to be on guard, but he hadn’t been ready. He’d let this bastard take him down, and now Monica would pay.

I won’t scream. Not in front of her. She didn’t need the sound of his screams in her head. She had enough of those.

“Close your eyes,” he told her. Because he didn’t care what she’d seen before. She wouldn’t see this. “Just close your eyes.”

But she shook her head.

Beautiful Monica. The woman he’d always wanted. The only one he’d loved.

The one who’d see him die tonight.

• • •

Hyde’s foot slammed the accelerator into the floorboard. Sheriff Davis sat beside him, riding shotgun in his own patrol car.

The pine trees swirled past him, and time seemed to disappear.

Sixteen years ago, he’d been driving down another dirt road. One surrounded by swaying pines.

A cabin had waited for him, with death inside.

Monica had survived once. She’d do it again.

He’d brought her out of the ashes, watched her nearly crumble over her mother’s grave. He’d been by her side through the years, and he’d stood back as she grew stronger.

A miracle.

He’d gotten one before. He’d get one again.

His fingers curled around the radio. He brought the receiver up to his lips. “Go in with sirens silent. We don’t want to give this bastard any notice, you got me?”

Because if he heard them coming, Luke and Monica would be dead before they ever opened the doors of the cruisers. Out in these damn boondocks, it would be hard to keep quiet.

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