A Taste of... Autumn's Strike

Chapter One

Ely Turner loosened his tie, placed his briefcase on the shiny foyer table, and let out a soft whistle.

It was damned good to be home.

Late afternoon sunlight spilled through the windows and onto the glossy mahogany floor, revealing not even a speck of dust. From the antique buffet to the imported coffee table to the elaborate chandelier created from hundreds of individual crystals, every surface glowed from a fresh polish or wax.

Cheryl always kept their house tidy, but at the moment, it resembled a royal palace.

He hoped she’d tipped the housekeeper extra that morning.

He rolled his shoulders, sighing as the last of his office stress faded away. Nothing beat coming home each day. Not when home was a sanctuary like this.

After unbuttoning his shirt collar, Ely followed the aroma of garlic through their open floor plan. As a prominent D.C. lawyer, he bumped shoulders with a lot of powerful people each and every day. Several of his colleagues were coming over for an evening gathering, and Cheryl loved nothing more than putting on a good dinner party. She’d no doubt spent hours preparing the meal that was wafting such delicious aromas and making his stomach rumble.

Cheryl might outsource the cleaning, but when it came to cooking, their kitchen was considered five stars by all who’d been lucky enough to sit at their dining room table.

Just as he’d expected, his wife was bent over the counter when he entered the kitchen, mixing ingredients in a large glass bowl. Cheryl took great pride in creating her own cuisine and showing off her cooking skills whenever they had company, but the culinary miracles she was busy concocting weren’t the focus of his attention.

She was beautiful.

He drank in his wife’s figure as she bustled about with her back to him. Her long dark hair had been meticulously curled, the tresses swishing from side to side as she moved.

His gaze dropped lower, and his breathing quickened. Her ass, in particular, was something of a showstopper. He’d never admitted as much, but that sweet peach of a derrière was one of the first things he’d noticed about her. More than a few of his coworkers had taken heed of that particular attribute as well, and on more than one occasion.

A less confident man might feel jealous, but not Ely. All that attention only made him prouder that Cheryl had chosen him.

He sidled up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Smells amazing, darling.”

She yelped before turning and batting him on the shoulder. “You know better than to sneak up on me when I’m cooking.” The merriment dancing in her beautiful eyes belied the cross words, though.

His breath hitched as he stared down into her beautiful, rosy-cheeked face. How had he gotten so lucky? She twined her arms around his neck and tugged his head down until their lips met. He pulled her closer, curling a hand around that succulent rump and forgetting about his colleagues altogether.

Ely was ready to lift her up onto the counter when she wiggled away. “Okay, cowboy, that’s enough for now.” His groan of protest made her giggle. “Just because I sent Myrtle home early doesn’t mean you can just walk in here and ravish me.”

He crossed his arms and leaned against the refrigerator. “That’s exactly what it means. I’m a lawyer. I know these things.”

Her infectious belly laugh made him smile. “It’s six, Mister Know-It-All. You need to get showered. Warp speed.”

His grin was devious. “Only if you join me.”

Cheryl whipped a dishtowel at him. “I still have a chicken to baste, stuffed mushrooms to broil, and fresh bread to slice. You’re on your own for this one.”

Ely stuck out his lower lip in a faux pout. “Fine, but I’m gonna be thinking about you naked throughout the entire party, so deal with that, Mrs. Turner.” More giggles erupted behind him as he climbed the staircase.

Later, he’d wink at her during dinner when she least expected it and enjoy her blushing that soft shade of pink. Then, after the party, he’d have his way with her a few times over.

Grinning, Ely proceeded to take the lightning-fast shower he’d promised his wife. In a little under two hours, their dinner table would be surrounded by a few of the arrogant pricks who “graced” his law firm, as well as their snooty wives.

As the oversized showerhead pulsed water onto his scalp, he sighed.

Why are we doing this again?

Cheryl’s smiling face flashed through his mind. She loved being a hostess. If entertaining his coworkers for an evening made her happy, the social interaction was worthwhile. As long as none of those bastards stared at her ass for too long.

There was a fine line between appreciation and ogling.

Ely dried off with one of the ridiculously fluffy towels his wife insisted on buying and pulled on his boxer briefs. He padded barefoot across the custom stone floor toward the enormous walk-in closet, where Cheryl would have a crisp button-down hanging right next to a meticulously ironed pair of dress slacks.

Despite the impending dinner guests, a smile played at his mouth. Considering some of the nags his colleagues were saddled with, he’d lucked out big time. Marriage wasn’t always easy, but his wife never gave up, and he wouldn’t, either. He’d hit the jackpot with Cheryl.

He swung open the closet doors and hit the light switch. After flicking it up and down several times without success, he gave up and stepped inside. The bulb must have burned out. He’d change it later. There was just enough ambient light to grab his clean clothes.

Ely was reaching for his shirt when an electric shock zapped his neck. Excruciating pain exploded through his body before his legs turned boneless, and he collapsed to the floor.

* * *

Ely crawled out of the void into consciousness in feeble little bursts, with a pounding skull and his body aching like he’d started up a new CrossFit regime.

What the hell happened?

Last night had been the dinner party. Right? With the way his head throbbed, he must have drunk like a damn fish.

Just what he’d needed to do, get blackout drunk like a college student in front of his colleagues. His adorable wife was probably so pissed. He reached out a hand toward her side of the bed, but his arm wouldn’t budge.

Jesus. How sloshed did you get, dumbass? Cheryl is going to kill you.

As the fog receded from his brain, Ely became lucid enough to cue into the rest of his body. His back wasn’t nestled into their plush king mattress, and he wasn’t staring up at their white ceiling.

Something was very, very wrong.

His eyes shot open. He wasn’t lying down at all. He was bound to Cheryl’s throne-like vanity chair. Someone had wrapped him with layers of duct tape so thick they must have been concocted in the vicious bowels of hell.

Ely listened closely for any sound he might recognize, but his heartbeat thumped wildly in his ears. What was happening? Was his wife playing a prank on him? Maybe he’d drunk so much that he’d passed out in her chair, and she’d paid him back by tying him up.

His mind rejected the idea. That wasn’t Cheryl’s style…so how had he ended up in this position?

“Cheryl?” He formed the word, but only a muffled sound came out. More clarity came to him.

A gag. Someone had stuffed a thick gag in his mouth.

Sweat beaded on his naked chest as he yanked at his tethers. They held tight. He was strapped to the sturdy chair, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs. His neck throbbed like someone had punched him multiple times. None of this made any sense.

You stepped out of the bathroom…and then…the closet, to get your clothes, and…

An electric shock. Pain.

He froze, a chill snaking down his back.

Jesus. Someone had been hiding inside his closet. Waiting to sneak up and do what? Tase him?

Every muscle of his body seized with mental horror this time as the dire nature of his predicament became clear.

Someone had planned this whole thing out. Worse, the person was probably still in the house.

Fear turned Ely’s skin clammy as his gaze raked the bedroom. Where? Where were they? What did they want?

He didn’t spot an intruder, but that meant nothing. They could be hiding behind the bed, or in the closet, or rummaging through their belongings downstairs.

His mouth went dry. Downstairs.

Cheryl.

Ely screamed his wife’s name, but the gag-muffled shouts weren’t nearly enough to alert a person even if they were sitting on his lap, let alone in another room.

What if Cheryl was already dead?

Adrenaline surged through his veins. He fought the bindings, rocking the weight of his body back and forth. All that did was make the heavy chair wobble and threaten to fall. Helpless rage flooded him. An hour and a half at the gym five damn days a week, and he still couldn’t bust through a few strips of duct tape.

“Ely? Honey? Are you about done up there?” Cheryl’s sweet voice drifted into the room, and an enormous weight lifted off his chest. She was very much alive.

Ely’s relief was cut short when a muffled laugh caught him by surprise. His head jerked toward the noise, but only his wife’s massive wooden armoire stood in its position near their bedroom door.

Was his imagination playing tricks on him, or was someone hiding back there? Biding their time until Cheryl walked in?

His pulse stuttered in his ears.

No! Don’t come upstairs, babe. Please. Get out of the house. Run. Call nine-one-one.

The gag swallowed his warnings.

“Babe?” Mild annoyance tinged his wife’s voice this time. “You need to hurry, hon. I don’t want to greet all these people by myself. Ely? Ely? Are you ignoring me?”

The click of her heels on the wooden stairs ignited a level of panic he’d never experienced in his entire thirty-two years of life. His beautiful wife was climbing those stairs and heading right into a trap. It was his job to protect her. To shield her from harm.

Instead, he was doing the exact opposite. He was likely leading her to harm as the bait.

He thrashed against the bindings. The duct tape held. Cheryl’s heels clicked across the hall toward their bedroom. Sweat trickled down his cheeks, and he tried to scream again. The noise was barely louder than a mouse.

“What on earth are those noises? Please don’t tell me you’re hiding up here watching another one of those ridiculous monkey videos on YouTube.” Her footsteps came closer.

By the time his wife’s slender hand appeared to push the door open wider, Ely’s muscles were so taut it was a wonder he didn’t snap in two.

She faltered for a second, her lips parting in confusion. “What are you…” Her eyes widened when the duct tape and gag registered. “Oh my god!”

Cheryl rushed toward him, sending terror spearing into Ely’s chest. He shook his head with violent motions and tried to yell. All he needed to get out was one syllable. “Run.”

The sound he uttered was nonsense, but Cheryl hesitated. “Ely?”

Her voice trembled as she took one more halting step forward. Behind her, in the hidden space between the armoire and the open door, a hooded figure slowly crept out of its lair.

Fear punctured Ely’s lungs and sucked his oxygen dry. He jerked his head at Cheryl and widened his eyes, trying to communicate with any part of his body that moved. “Go!”

The command was garbled, but she understood this time. She shot him a glance that was half despair and half horror before turning and running down the hallway.

The intruder lunged from behind the door and pursued Cheryl with swift steps, wielding a long, shiny object in their right hand.

A knife. The person chasing his wife had a knife.

Ely bucked, pulled, flailed against the tape. He had to free himself. He had to.

At the top of the stairs, Cheryl glanced over her shoulder and let out an earsplitting scream before disappearing from view.

The intruder followed.

After that, Ely could only listen to the unfolding nightmare.

While he strained to hear, the thought raced through his mind that he might never meet Cheryl’s beautiful blue eyes again. Never touch her soft skin or run his finger down her delicate spine. He fought off the wave of sorrow that threatened to shatter his composure.

“Leave us alone!” Cheryl shrieked the words, terrified and sobbing. “Take whatever you want and get out!” Sounds of a scuffle came next, loud thuds and clatters. He pictured chairs toppling over. Appliances being thrown.

He didn’t hear a single word from the intruder.

His wife’s screams, however, morphed into nearly incoherent pleas. “Don’t! N-no! No! Please, stop!” After that, the words stopped, and a series of shrieks took over, their high-pitched terror flaying him like a leather whip.

Just as Ely could stand no more, the house went quiet.

The quiet was much, much worse.

He stopped breathing, straining to catch a single sound from his wife. Any sign that she was still alive. Instead, he was met with the solid thuds of footsteps climbing back up the stairs.

One set of footsteps.

An overwhelming rage burned in his chest. He strained every muscle again, determined to break free. Cheryl was alive. She had to be. He could still save her. Whatever atrocity had taken place, if he could get her the proper medical attention, she could very well survive—

“I was more than a dirty little secret. I loved you. No one could ever love you the way I did. You’ll understand that. I know you’ll understand.”

The voice belonged to a woman, but it wasn’t Cheryl. Who the hell was she talking to? Someone on the phone?

The footsteps quickened before pausing, as though she were waiting for a response.

“You’ll understand what you gave up…” Again, she was silent after her statement. It almost sounded like she’d called an ex-boyfriend, but that made no sense. Who called their ex to argue in the middle of a home invasion?

“You’ll come back for me.”

The figure clad in a dark hoodie and dark pants reentered the bedroom. The hood hid most of her hair, but the woman’s eyes gleamed with delirium as she strode toward him.

I’m your happiness. I’m the only real happiness you’ve ever known. You’ll understand…I will make you understand, you sonofabitch.”

Ely’s flesh broke into goose bumps. She wasn’t holding a phone to her ear, and he didn’t spot the telltale shape of wireless earbuds beneath her hood.

The attacker was holding a conversation with herself.

Ely’s fear for his wife spiked even higher. Was Cheryl injured? Unconscious?

Dead?

“I’m not just a hot lay.” As the woman prowled toward him, she lifted her right hand and waved it through the air.

His heart crashed to the very depths of his soul. She was still holding a knife. The same one she’d raced out of the room with, except now the blade dripped with blood.

Cheryl’s blood. You know that’s Cheryl’s blood.

Ely’s pulse roared in his ears. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t respond. He was at the utter mercy of a psychopath. One who had almost certainly stabbed his wife.

The woman crouched until their gazes were level and peered into his eyes with such intensity it was as if she were peering right through him. “I never would have let you into my body night after night after night if I had known how easily you could walk away. I wasn’t your wh…whore.”

Her voice was all choked up now, like she was on the verge of tears. Whatever had happened to this woman had traumatized her. Sent her over the edge.

That was assuming she hadn’t been batshit crazy to begin with. Some people were just not right mentally from the day they were born.

“That bitch down there.” She pointed the knife at the doorway. “She looked pretty good on paper, didn’t she? Much better than a girl from the trailer park like me.”

He noted her use of the past tense when referring to Cheryl, and his heart splintered all over again.

She could still be alive. You don’t know. You can’t give up.

“How many?” Hot breath nearly scoured his face as she screamed the words from only an inch away. “Tell me how many others you tossed aside just like me! Who else was good enough for your bed but not a diamond ring? Tell me how many!” She gritted her teeth, a low snarl emitting from her throat.

Ely shook his head. How could he deny these accusations without the use of his voice? How could he reason with this insanity?

He gritted his teeth and contracted his thigh muscles, determined to rip free from the restraints binding his limbs to the chair.

Maddening. Hopeless.

The attacker traced the knife across his chest. With her other hand, she used her knuckles to gently caress his cheek. “Did you love them? Your little harem of gritty side action? Did you? I don’t suppose you did. I don’t suppose you’re capable. But if you just could have loved me…all you had to do was love me!”

He tried to talk, tried to enunciate through the gag, but each syllable was only a garbled mess.

She stiffened, cocking her head like a dog before springing to her full height and twisting to face the far corner of the room. “That’s not true! I haven’t lived in that trailer for fifteen years! Fifteen years, you bastard! I clawed my way out of that hell! I’m not that girl anymore!”

Through his terror, Ely was struck by a morbid fascination. This cracked nut truly believed she was speaking to someone who wasn’t there at all. A figment of her deranged mind.

She advanced toward the empty corner, fists clenched at her sides. “Your reputation was just too important. I was a stain. I was a shit-stain on your perfect, sparkling life.” She raised the knife at the wall. “Well, you can’t just bleach me out! I’m still here! I’m going to haunt you forever! I will ruin you! I will end you!”

All captivation faded as the feral creature whirled back toward him. Ely gulped as she stalked his way, tapping the knife against her forehead and laughing. Smears of blood that could only be Cheryl’s streaked her pale skin.

“You men. You’re all just wired to be evil, horrid pieces of shit. You can’t even help it, can you?” She locked stares with him. “No. You can’t help it. But you can sure as hell pay for it.”

As she approached, Ely closed his eyes and envisioned Cheryl moving about the kitchen. Her happy grin. Her exquisite face. He should have never stopped kissing her in the kitchen. He should have made love to that woman every day. He should have—

You look at me,” the she-devil commanded.

He opened his eyes.

She bent again, coming so close as to almost bump noses with him. Her breath smelled of wine and Cheryl’s garlic mashed potatoes. “You’re cheating on me again, aren’t you.”

This was a statement, not a question. Ely shook his head again and tried to shout through his gag.

Grunts. He managed nothing more than unintelligible grunts.

“I won’t let you do this to me or anyone else ever again.” Her voice trembled, but her hand—and the knife—held steady.

This is how it ends for me. A victim of a sick mind.

Just when Ely was sure he was about to be stabbed, the woman smacked her hands over her ears and screamed. He stared in horror as the blood dripped from the blade and ran down her hand while she screeched and howled, her eyes shut tight.

He hoped, for a fleeting moment, that she would kill herself. She was clearly in a type of unfathomable mental agony. It was possible that she’d forget he was here at all.

The earsplitting wail stopped, and the deranged soul refocused on him. She lowered her hands, her feverish, vapid stare sending shivers throughout his body.

Lip curled, the woman put a finger to his taped mouth. “How many times do I have to tell you to shut up?”

There was no feasible way for Ely Turner to respond, and he had no time left to even try. In one swift movement, his adversary raised her knife and slashed his throat wide open.

White-hot pain seared Ely’s neck. Blood sprayed from his flesh like a red geyser. Awful gurgling noises bubbled from severed flesh while he gasped for air.

The last image he saw before darkness claimed him was his attacker grinning at him with delight as his life drained away before her eyes.


Chapter Two

Special Agent Autumn Trent wriggled her back into the pillows propped against her headboard and soaked in the peace suffusing her bedroom. No adrenaline-pumped hunts for bad guys. No threats of violence or death. Just a quiet night at home with her two furry companions, all of them relaxing together in her king-sized bed while the moon peeped in through the window.

Some people might find such a laid-back evening in Richmond, Virginia boring, but not Autumn. Ever since she’d taken a job working for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, this type of lounging around in her pajamas had become a rare event.

While she’d always appreciated downtime amidst the never-ending hustle of her career, she’d grown to positively cherish the breaks as of late. Life had been set to a ridiculous pace of “busy” for as long as she could remember. Earning her Ph.D. in forensic psychology while minoring in criminal justice and achieving a Juris Doctorate had consumed the majority of her twenties. The remaining years so far had been filled with her work as Dr. Autumn Trent.

Her thirties, looming over the not-so-distant horizon, weren’t likely to be any less busy. Life as a federal agent left little time for leisure.

Case in point. Autumn had traveled to Quantico for training in mid-February. Upon her return to Richmond in early July, she’d immediately tackled her first official mission as an FBI agent. There wasn’t time to catch her breath between tasks, and she doubted there ever would be.

Toad, her fluffy Pomeranian mix with an endearing underbite, chose that moment to groan. Autumn stroked his soft head. “I know. I’ve been gone a lot lately. I’m sorry.”

The sleek ginger tabby shot Toad a baleful look, but even Peach was sprawled within an arm’s length of Autumn on the bed. Both animals seemed determined to keep an eye on her, as if worried she might up and disappear on them at any moment.

She couldn’t blame them. A familiar wave of guilt flooded her over the ever-increasing frequency in which she’d been leaving them behind.

“I’m sure you’re both spoiled rotten when I’m not here.” Autumn’s generous neighbor tended to both pets while she was away, but that wasn’t the same as having their “person” home. “I miss you guys when I’m gone too.”

For now, she’d focus on basking in the happy rumble of Peach’s purr, the wheeze of Toad’s snore, and the soft whirring of her box fan. This was bliss…or as close to the sensation as anyone could get while living on such an unpredictable planet as Earth.

Peach stretched beside her and nuzzled her thigh. Autumn scratched behind the cat’s ears. “You guys are my happy place. Don’t you forget it.”

She’d pushed her laptop away minutes ago, deciding to call it a night on the Harmony House paperwork. The mystery of her last case involving Beechum County’s suicides had been solved, but proper documentation of every single detail of the investigation was paramount to ensuring successful convictions in court.

“I can’t believe I almost fell for that man’s crap,” she murmured. “I bet you would have used his dick as a scratching post.”

Peach ignored her owner in favor of lifting a hind leg to groom herself. Her cat had the right idea. Damien Parr, the notorious cult leader of Harmony House whom she’d been sent undercover to investigate, didn’t warrant their attention.

Autumn’s stomach still turned at the memory of how easily that charismatic charmer had initially drawn Autumn in with his promises of a life of freedom from all regrets. Like a bloodhound, he’d sniffed out her wounds as soon as they’d first spoken, preying upon them to bring her into the fold.

“At least he didn’t turn out to be a murderer, right?” Just a greedy, sex-addicted, money-laundering ass. Still, none of that changed the reality that Autumn had been susceptible to his brand of manipulation. Not so great for a newly minted FBI agent.

With a heartfelt sigh, Autumn scooted until she was lying down in the bed.

If all the men and women who possessed such insight into others would use their abilities to better the state of humanity, the world might be a less turbulent place. Instead, many of them followed Damien’s path by allowing their own human imperfections to sully their promise. In the end, he’d been nothing more than a selfish crook taking advantage of vulnerable, hurting hearts.

Beautiful hearts. Like Alice’s.

A dull pain throbbed beneath Autumn’s rib cage. Alice Leeson had been the kindest, purest soul she’d ever crossed paths with thus far in life. The devoted Harmony House resident had deserved so much better than Damien Parr and the awful fate that befell her.

Instead, Alice had been murdered by another follower who had hanged the innocent young woman from a tree in her own family’s yard. The killer had also murdered nearly a dozen others he’d deemed as threats to Damien’s mission.

The man was, without question, a deeply disturbed individual in need of mental help, rehabilitation, and medication who would have to pay for his crimes. He was also a soft-spoken young man who’d never had access to the kind of assistance that might have helped him avoid the path he’d traversed.

As much as Autumn hated what the man had done to Alice, though, his story was almost as much of a tragedy.

She shifted in bed, stretching her legs. Peach shot her a warning glare, indicating she had no qualms about deserting her owner if these intrusions should continue. “And to think, when I first brought you home, you were little more than a harmless puff of orange fuzz. Now, look at you, Ms. Sassy Queen.”

That was the point the rest of the world missed. The villains flashing across their screens during a nightly newscast had once been newborn babies squalling for their mothers just like everyone else. When they’d entered this life, there’d been a window of time and opportunity for them to succeed. Excel.

Autumn’s greatest ambition in life was to find broken minds such as Evan’s before they were past repair and aid them in seizing their best qualities. Seven point nine billion people lived outside of her apartment walls, and if she could help just one mind at a time succeed in overcoming their darkness, she would count that as a win.

Everyone had a beacon of light inside of them. Not everyone knew how to find it.

From somewhere under the covers, her phone buzzed. She dug beneath Toad’s furry tush until she found it, swiping to open the new text.

See ya tomorrow morning, Agent Trent. Hope you’ve recovered from all your Krav Maga madness.

Autumn smiled and typed a quick return: Be there or be square.

She hoped Winter Black was taking advantage of the quiet weekend to keep a low profile. Her friend deserved rest and relaxation even more than most special agents after the recent hell she’d lived through, thanks to her little brother, Justin.

Worry niggled at the back of Autumn’s brain. Even though Winter had kicked ass during the Harmony House case, she hadn’t seemed like herself. “That’s okay. It’s my turn to be the guard dog now, Agent Black.”

Her quiet declaration earned her an inquisitive nuzzle from Toad. “Don’t worry, you’re still the alpha dog, buddy.” She appeased him with a tender scratch to the chin.

Men and their doggone egos. Speaking of egos…

Her mind turned to her boss, Special Supervisory Agent Aiden Parrish. According to him, they could be leaving as soon as Monday morning to investigate a series of home-invasion murders in Washington, D.C. If so, that left Autumn with less than twelve hours before hitting the road once again. She really should try to sleep.

Instead of closing her eyes, Autumn reached for her phone again, bringing up her emails and making double, triple, quadruple sure that she hadn’t missed one. She found no new messages. None about Sarah, at least. The sister she’d been separated from when Autumn was nine and Sarah just seven years old.

The sister she desperately missed and wanted to find again.

Autumn remembered how sad she’d been when Sarah’s real father had taken Autumn’s little sister away, promising to save Autumn from the monster her biological father had become.

Instead, Autumn’s father had nearly killed her, delivering a blow that sent her skull straight into a table corner. Emergency brain surgery had saved her, but life after that day had never been the same.

The operation had provided Autumn with a “gift” that allowed her to access other people’s thoughts and emotions via any physical contact. She’d eventually learned to use her odd sixth sense to ameliorate many a turbulent situation, but as a child, the influx of sentiment—negative or positive—had been overwhelming.

By far, the most painful change she’d experienced was Sarah going to live with her biological father while Autumn got shuffled into the foster care system. Sarah’s father had promised to come back for Autumn and become her legal guardian, but that never happened.

Autumn ran a finger down Toad’s furry spine. “Do you ever wonder what happened to your siblings, little man? You think they’re out there thinking about you too?”

Toad had reached near-coma status in his slumber and didn’t so much as twitch at the question. She figured his littermates were probably experiencing equal levels of concern as to his whereabouts.

Humans, though…how different these matters were for her species.

Not too long ago, the National Name Check Program had alerted her to the possibility that Sarah was in Florida. While in the area assisting the BAU on a nearby case, she’d found Sarah’s home and her place of work.

The latter turned out to be a strip club, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Her younger sister was also a prostitute. Autumn desperately wanted to see Sarah again—help her—but her visit to the trailer court where Sarah had lived had spooked her.

Sarah had fled. Nearly eight months had passed without Autumn trying to find her again…until yesterday, when she’d contacted Jackie Cohen, a major crimes detective in the Criminal Investigations Department of the Lavender Lake Sheriff’s Office she’d met during the Florida case.

Jackie had agreed to do some digging and determine if she could track Sarah’s steps after her most recent disappearance. A good start, but Autumn planned to do even more. Like asking Aiden Parrish for the Bureau’s help.

That task would be a whole lot easier if he and Autumn didn’t share…whatever that connection between them was.

“Ugh.” She buried her head in her pillow. Aiden was her superior, which made the tension between them complicated. Entering into a relationship with him would be a risky prospect for both of them. “Dum-ditty-dum-dum-dumb.”

Their chemistry seemed to have its own ideas, though. So far, time hadn’t defused the friction between them. She sensed a day of reckoning was nearing, and the thought made her stomach clench with anxiety.

“Lucky little guy,” she whispered to Toad, giving him a gentle scratch on the belly. “If reincarnation is real, I wanna come back as a spoiled little dog. Your biggest concern is your next handful of treats.” Toad’s happy grunt of a reply at the word “treats” was enough to lift her mood.

What she needed to do was pack. Throw together some clothes and toiletries into her “go bag” in case they really did leave for D.C. in the morning. Long before she’d been through the Quantico training program, she’d realized that always being prepared for travel was a fundamental job expectation as far as the FBI was concerned.

However, the idea of disturbing her two content and unconscious companions seemed cold. She could rise early and grab a few things from her closet before heading to the field office. That would work just as well.

As Autumn reached for her bedside lamp, a knock at her front door echoed throughout the otherwise silent apartment.

Peach cracked an eye open while Toad sat up straight and alert. Autumn eyed the digital clock. Almost ten.

A little late for visitors, isn’t it?

Unless it was Winter. There were no hours placed on friendship, and especially not when Winter was undergoing such a challenging period of her life.

Then again, criminals didn’t exactly follow a strict nine to five, either.

She sprang from her bed and quickly retrieved the Glock from the drawer in her nightstand. She wasn’t sure if the instant stealth mode was warranted or if caution was just a part of who she’d become.

Either way, she crept down the hallway toward the door. Every light was off except for a small lamp by the sofa. She took a deep breath, peered through the peephole, and gaped.

What in the world does Philip Baldwin want this late on a Sunday night? And how in the hell does he even know where I live?

“Just a second!” Autumn clicked the safety back on her gun and made swift time of placing it in a kitchen drawer. Philip was an unexpected guest, but that didn’t mean he deserved to be greeted with a firearm.

She pulled the door open wide, noting the distressed expression in his dark green eyes. Her muscles tensed. “Philip, come in. Are you all right?”

He obeyed her gesture to enter, meeting her gaze for only an instant. “I’m so sorry. It’s ridiculous to bother you at such an hour.”

Autumn shut the door and turned toward the harried psychiatrist. “It’s not a problem. What’s wrong? You look upset.”

Philip was the very picture of nervous as he dragged a hand through his dark brown hair. “I’m not much of a…I’ll just get right to it. No reason to drag this out. I’ve been thinking about this for, well, for months now. I’ve tried to silence the idea but to no avail.”

For a psychologist with a special gift, she was still clueless as to his intention. “What do you mean? What idea?”

“I think,” Philip stepped closer to her, “that I would like to take you out for a proper date, Autumn Trent. I think we should…I think there could be something here. Between us.”

Shock radiated throughout her every cell. Though she had caught a bit of this current from accidentally brushing her hand against Philip once before, she hadn’t expected the man to ever act upon his inclinations.

For god’s sake, Philip Baldwin had despised her when they’d first met. The notion that such great loathing had turned into this was mind-boggling.

He tilted his head, a timid smile playing at the corners of his lips. “You have to say something now. I am by no means an expert at this, but I believe it is your delegated turn to speak.”

Despite the awkward situation, Autumn smiled at his humor. Her heart sank, though, as she realized how very misplaced his affections were. That hopeful gleam in his eyes was about to take a hit, and she experienced a pang of regret that she was unable to say the words Philip wanted to hear.

He stepped back and frowned. “You don’t feel the same. It’s written on every inch of your face.”

There was no fooling a psychiatrist. “I’m so sorry.” She shook her head. “I would never purposely hurt your feelings. Please know that.”

“I do know that.” His assurance was immediate, even as his head hung in defeat. “It’s not your fault. Not at all.” He avoided her eyes again.

Autumn considered giving his arm a comforting pat but held back. She didn’t want the action to be misconstrued.

Cut, dry, and clear was the best way to go about handling situations like these.

“I should go.” Philip’s shoulders drooped as he walked past her.

“We’ll stay friends, of course.” She followed him, conflicting emotions twisting her gut. “I promise.”

He pulled the door open and turned toward her. “Ah. The ‘f word.’ Every man’s dream.”

The weak humor was a coping mechanism, she knew. Autumn had a sinking feeling that Philip was going to drive away feeling awful.

Guilt stirred in her stomach, but she shoved the feeling away. She could empathize with Philip, but she wasn’t to blame for his sadness. It wasn’t like she could conjure attraction out of thin air, and giving him false hope would only cause more emotional damage in the long run.

She stepped after him into the breezeway. “Hug?” Not a wise offer, but the only type of affection or comfort she had to give to this man.

He hesitated, eyeing her with blatant misery. Just when she was sure he’d forego the embrace altogether, he stepped forward, took her face in his hands, and pressed his lips to hers.

Surprise froze Autumn to the spot. As Philip’s lips moved over hers, her gift jolted to life. His touch injected her with a steady current of passion and warmth, but a darker emotion pulsed underneath.

Despair.

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Autumn's Strike by Mary Stone

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