A Taste of... Storm's Wrath
Returning the fuel pump to its holder, Willow Nowland gave her midnight blue Honda Civic a pat. She and the car had been through more than their fair share of changes since she started college a year and a half earlier. This semester had been especially trying, but Willow pushed the thoughts from her mind. She was headed home for Thanksgiving break, and she had so much to be grateful for.
“Home.” She’d even been able to leave campus earlier than expected. Instead of a few days, she’d be home for a full week. She smiled, twisting the Honda’s gas cap shut, then jumped when the sound of a dog barking broke through the silence.
She glanced around. A black sedan was parked at a fuel pump catty-corner to her, but other than an employee’s truck, there were no other vehicles present. Or humans. Or dogs that she could see.
Willow rubbed her upper arms to dispatch the unexplained sense of unease spreading across her nerves. She was just being silly. After spending the last few months on the perpetually active campus of Breely University in Peabody, Illinois, the sight of such a sparsely populated gas station was unnerving.
She reminded herself this wasn’t Peabody. She’d made a pit stop in Cedarwood, and she shouldn’t expect a convenience store in a small town to be bustling at nine o’clock on a Sunday night.
And Willow would know. She’d grown up in Mendoza, Illinois, which boasted a population only slightly more than Cedarwood.
Creepy or not, the absence of other patrons was normal.
I’m just being paranoid.
Her car had been acting up lately, but she didn’t trust the mechanics in her college town. She’d much rather take her beloved Civic to a shop whose owner she knew. And with a population of a little more than seven thousand, Mendoza was one of those places where everyone knew everyone else.
As much as Willow had hated the town’s lack of entertainment during her high school years, and as much as her mother used to complain about the neighbors always knowing their family’s business, there was a distinct comradery that came with being part of such a small community.
The mechanics in Peabody wouldn’t hesitate to rip her off, but a similar shop in Mendoza? Since everyone knew each other, a mechanic in her town would go out of business as word traveled like lightning down an electrical wire that the mechanic was untrustworthy.
She cringed at the crack in her windshield. She’d only noticed the mark a week earlier. One more thing to fix. To her dismay, a year and a half’s worth of engineering classes didn’t mean she could fix her own car.
It’s okay. I’ll get you into George’s shop tomorrow, and you’ll be all fixed up before Thanksgiving. We just have to make it home. You can do it.
Satisfied with her mental reassurance to the car, Willow headed inside the well-lit convenience store, smiling at the “The closer you get, the slower I drive” bumper sticker on the back of the black sedan. She could imagine enraged tailgaters getting even angrier at the sight of the admonition.
Fishing her wallet from the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie, Willow shouldered open the glass doors. A rush of warm air and the faint scent of roasting hot dogs rushed up to greet her like an old friend and chased the remaining unease from her mind.
She was at a gas station in a small town less than an hour from home. The clerk behind the counter was a normal guy around Willow’s age, not a greasy psychopath in faded clown makeup.
As she tucked her wallet under one arm, Willow picked out one of the coffee energy drinks she’d grown to love and rely on over the course of her third semester at Breely University.
She’d always had a knack for mathematics, but Breely’s undergraduate program for industrial engineering was no joke. While most of her friends had enough free time to attend parties and other social gatherings, Willow was stuck in her dorm room with her nose in her laptop.
The hard work had paid off, though. Her grade point average was only a hair below a perfect four-point-oh, and she’d been on the Dean’s List every semester. She’d completed her remaining assignments earlier that day, and she was free and clear to kick back and enjoy the holiday break with her parents and her three brothers.
Willow strolled absentmindedly to the front of the store to wait behind the man at the counter ahead of her. At his side, a girl no older than seven or eight fidgeted with the glittery skirt sticking out from beneath her puffy orange and pink coat. Her cheeks were smudged with the same silvery sparkles as her dress, and a matching headband held stray hair out of her face.
Willow barely kept herself from cooing at the adorable sight. As the only girl of four kids, Willow had always been defensive of her obsession with all things sparkly and glamorous. Any time she saw a younger girl decked out in a glitzy outfit, she was compelled to offer some form of encouragement—the same sense of positivity she’d lacked when she was a kid.
As the girl’s large blue eyes shifted to her, Willow offered a wide smile.
“I like your dress.” Willow patted her own cheeks. “And your sparkles. I love glitter.”
The girl beamed. “Me too. I just got done with a dance.” She paused for a quick twirl.
Willow’s face ached from her grin, and her heart overflowed from the cuteness. “That sounds fun. I like to dance too. When I was little, I always wanted to be a ballerina.”
The girl’s attention perked up. “My mom and dad said I can start ballet next year. I have to be eight to take lessons. Mom says it’s because we live in a small town, so there aren’t very many teachers. Do you live in Cedarwood too?”
“No, I don’t. I’m from Mendoza, which is about an hour away. I’m going there to visit my family for Thanksgiving.”
“Oh, I love Thanksgiving!” She glanced up to her father as she tugged on the edge of his canvas jacket. “Dad, Dad, are we going to have apple pie for Thanksgiving?”
“We sure are, sweetie.” Tucking a wallet into his back pocket, the girl’s father scooped a couple candy bars off the counter.
A grin split the little girl’s face, and Willow found her enthusiasm contagious. “Awesome! I love apple pie. I hope I get a whole pie to myself.”
The father chuckled as he held out a hand to his daughter. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, kiddo. Come on. It’s getting late, and I promised we’d go for a drive before we go home.”
Willow set her chips and drink on the laminate counter before waving to the pair. The girl was sweet and reminded her of a time that seemed a lifetime ago. “Have a good night.”
The girl’s smile widened as she waved. “You too. Byyyyeeeee.” She dragged out the last word until the door closed off the sound.
After Willow paid for her items, made her way back to her treasured Honda, and fastened her seat belt, the child’s cheery disposition still warmed Willow.
Willow patted the dashboard as she slid the key into the ignition. “Okay, just a little while longer. You can do this. We can do this.”
The engine hummed to life without hesitation. She hadn’t had any issues starting the car, but she’d noticed a spike in the normally stable temperature gauge, as well as sluggish acceleration over the past couple weeks.
All she could do now was hope the repairs wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Before merging onto the road, she pulled out her cell and texted her brother. Just got gas and a drink. Headed out of Cedarwood now.
Her family had expressed some concern at her driving all the way from Peabody alone, but in her typical fashion, Willow had dismissed their worries. She’d been living away from home for a year and a half. Besides, how else was she supposed to get her car to a hometown mechanic? It just made sense to drive home.
To appease their worry, she’d promised to stay off the interstate and stick to the state highways. With the issues her car had been having, she wasn’t sure it would handle the higher speeds of the interstate. Besides, going slower on the interstate was probably more dangerous than driving the backroads home. She didn’t need some trucker riding her bumper or blowing by her in a fit of impatience.
“We’ll make it. Won’t we, Car?” Though many of her friends had given their vehicles pet names, Willow hadn’t yet found a title that seemed to fit the little Civic.
Maybe she could come up with one on the final leg of her trip north.
She chuckled to herself and cracked open the coffee drink. After a long swig, she placed the can in the cup holder and shifted the car into gear, easing it out onto the road for the remaining drive home.
One hour, maybe a little less, and I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table eating my way through the pantry.
On cue, her stomach grumbled. Real food was a precious commodity for broke college kids, and she fully intended to stuff herself full of tasty treats over the next few days, waistline be damned. She could hit the gym when she was back in Peabody, but for now, she was on vacation.
Everyone knows the calories consumed on vacation don’t count. Willow smirked at her flawed logic.
As the drum beat to the fourth song on the playlist pounded through the speakers, Willow caught a glimmer of light on the side of the road ahead. Willow recognized a pair of hazard lights when she saw them.
“Shit.” Flicking off her high beams, she eased her foot off the gas.
It’s a stranger in the middle of nowhere.
“Yeah, but they might need help.” She felt stupid responding to herself. The speed limit was only fifty-five, and though she’d slowed down to below fifty already, she was approaching the stranded motorist quickly.
She ran through her options.
First, she could continue driving as if she hadn’t seen a thing. She could cruise off into the moonless night, and no one would have the first clue she’d ignored a person in need of help.
Well, no one other than the driver of the other car…and herself.
Biting her bottom lip, Willow tightened her grip on the steering wheel.
Her second choice was to stop. On the side of a rural Illinois highway without even the light of the moon to accompany her…
Wasn’t this how most horror movies started?
Probably. Naïve college kid pulls over to help a person in need, gets knocked unconscious and then dragged off to be used as a sacrifice in a ritual to summon a demon that fed on the souls of innocents.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she chided herself.
She wasn’t in a Wes Craven film. Freddy Krueger wasn’t driving the car on the side of the highway, and no one was waiting for the blood of a nineteen-year-old woman to unleash the fires of hell.
She groaned at the indecision. Her parents had raised her to be decent and well-mannered. What would her mother say if Willow told her she’d ignored a person in need of help just because she was paranoid?
Not to mention the karmic aspect of the decision to abandon the driver. Willow’s Honda was on the fritz, and it would be just her luck to pass by the stranded motorist only to have her own car break down a few miles later. She’d always been a firm believer that what “comes around goes around,” and that those who remained willfully ignorant of the plight of others would get what was headed their way.
Guilt sawed at Willow’s heart.
In a different part of the country, she could have justified continuing down the highway. But she’d been born and raised in a small town less than forty-five minutes north of here.
One of her high school friends had moved to Cedarwood after graduation, and Willow had driven the route to and from Mendoza to visit her whenever she could. She might not have been in Mendoza yet, but she was home.
As a sense of renewed confidence pulsed through her veins, Willow sat a little straighter and tapped the brake pedal. She double-checked the rearview mirror to ensure there were no surprise vehicles at her back, and the Honda’s headlights gradually drifted over to the bumper of a black car.
She blinked in surprise. “The closer you get, the slower I drive.”
The man and his glittery daughter.
Willow pictured the girl’s big smile, and she worried about her being stranded on the side of the road when she should be home in bed with her comfy pajamas and a beloved stuffed animal by her side.
She’d be fine. And maybe, just maybe, karma would smile on her, and she wouldn’t be stuck paying for a costly car repair of her own.
Slowly, Willow rolled to a stop behind the car, its flashing hazard lights making her squint.
She patted the dashboard. “Sorry, Car. We’ve got to help these folks out, then we’ll be on the home stretch for real.”
Before killing the engine, Willow retrieved her phone and composed a short text to advise her brother that she’d stopped to help a man and his daughter.
If she hadn’t added the “and his daughter” to the text, she’d likely have received an angry call within minutes. Her brothers were all protective of their sister.
Willow tucked the phone in her pocket and eased open the driver’s side door. At the same time, the man stepped out into the night.
Chilly November air greeted her, and Willow clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering at the sudden drop in temperature.
Forcing a smile to her lips, she waved to the man before she took her first few steps. “Hello again. Car trouble?”
He raked a hand through his gray-tinged hair and groaned, exasperation mixed with embarrassment. “Yeah. Wouldn’t have figured with a car this dang new, but then again, I’ve never really been a car guy.”
Willow laughed. The faint hint of anxiety in his voice reassured her that he was a real person and not some deranged sociopath. “I’m not much of a car gal myself, but I’m sure we can put our heads together.”
“I sure hope so. I think it’s just the battery. I pulled over to take a call from my wife.” He scratched the back of his neck. “My, um, my brother got in an accident and almost died a few years ago. The other driver was talking on the phone and wasn’t paying attention to the road, so ever since then, I’ve always pulled over when I need to take a call.”
“That’s totally understandable.” Willow’s voice sobered a notch. “I’m Willow, by the way.”
The man’s mouth quirked into a smile, and he extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Willow. And thank you for stopping. I’m Dan.”
As she closed the distance between them, Willow caught a glimpse of the little girl in the back seat. With her head propped against the doorframe, the glitter-coated child was fast asleep.
Willow accepted Dan’s handshake. “Well, like I said, I’m no expert, but we can give the battery a shot of juice.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Let me grab my cables, and you can start hooking them up while I pull around?”
He rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. “Sounds good. I’ll pop the hood.”
Judging by how he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, Dan was just as eager to get off the side of the highway as Willow. They had a common goal, and fortunately, Willow had experience jump-starting cars.
She pulled open the driver’s side door and leaned across the seat to press the trunk button on the key fob.
Pressing her lips together, she hit the button a second time and then a third. Nothing, and then…nothing.
“Dammit,” she muttered to herself. The trunk release lever next to the driver’s door had been broken since she’d bought the Honda.
With a sigh, she pulled the key from the ignition and straightened. The batteries in the fob had begun to run low, and she hadn’t yet remembered to search for a replacement.
Add that to the list of car stuff I have to deal with this week.
Whatever. She’d replace a hundred fob batteries if it meant she didn’t have to worry about major car repairs.
Gravel crunched beneath her Converse as she circled around to the back of the Honda. Humming quietly to herself, she jabbed her keys into the trunk’s lock.
She whirled at the faint sound on her right, peering down the steep, grassy slope that ended in a half-frozen ravine dotted with cattails and weeds. Not that she could see the vegetation, but she knew the plants were there.
Only now, something else was there too.
A deer? Raccoon? Or a coyote? Or is it…
“Stop it,” she scolded herself and faced the trunk again, finished turning the key.
Her mouth lost all moisture as a snippet of information she’d learned from a crime show she’d binged popped into her mind. She didn’t remember all the technicalities, but she’d basically learned that a person’s peripheral vision had adapted through evolution to allow it to sense danger.
She was sure she was overreacting. She had to be overreacting. Chances were the scuffle in the weeds was just a deer or even a smaller animal like a raccoon or a cat.
The hazard lights of her and Dan’s cars were virtually the only source of illumination, and they were pointed in the wrong direction. No matter how hard she strained to see movement from the corner of her eye, she couldn’t bring herself to face the intruder. Fear had rooted her to the spot.
All she caught was more of the night’s ubiquitous darkness.
You’re not worried about an animal. You know what you’re worried about. You’re worried that man is going to try to sneak up on you—
She silenced the paranoid musing.
If she didn’t fish out those jumper cables and head back to Dan’s car, the man would start to wonder if she was the psychopath.
Still…something was wrong. The churning bile had knotted her stomach, and she suspected the unsettling sensation was there to stay. The clamor of her heart against her ribs was like the persistent knock of a door-to-door salesman desperate to meet his daily commission quota.
Refusing to be afraid this time, she turned to face the direction where the disturbance had originated. Just in time to meet the yellowish glow of a pair of iridescent eyes.
With a yelp of surprise, Willow jumped back a step. Resting a hand over her pounding heart, she bit off a slew of four-letter words as the grass rustled and the eyes disappeared.
Based on the chatter that followed the movement, she’d just been scared to the point of a coronary event by a raccoon.
As she blew out a sigh and reached for her cell, a shoe scuffed against the concrete.
Had she not just emptied her entire adrenaline reserve on a relatively harmless woodland critter, she’d have damn near leapt out of her skin at the newest noise.
Willow pivoted to face the sound of the man’s footsteps.
“Is everything okay?”
She was right. Dan had come over to her.
Laughing at herself, Willow nearly slumped against her trunk in relief…until she looked into his face.
It was the only word her stricken mind could think of.
As the man arched one arm back, the eerie golden glow of the hazard lights caught the stainless-steel bar in his grasp.
A tire iron.
Willow had only a fraction of a second to react, and all she could do was open her mouth.
The building scream never left her lips.
With another kind of crack, the tool collided with the side of her head, and pain exploded outward from the site of the blow.
Though she wanted to run, her knees buckled, and her head slammed into something just as hard as the tire iron just before her world went dark.
* * *
Cold concrete and the faint scent of mildew greeted Willow as she drifted back to the world of the waking. At least, she thought she was awake. But when she blinked to clear the film from her vision, all she could make out was more darkness and a throbbing pain in her head.
A surge of panic pulsed through her veins. Why couldn’t she see? Why wouldn’t her damn eyes work?
Taking in a sharp breath, she finally noticed the vague outline of her confines. She wasn’t blind. She was in the dark.
Her head was filled with cobwebs, and her mouth felt like it’d been stuffed with dirty cotton balls. The taste on her tongue was foul, and though she wanted to try to spit out the bitterness, she couldn’t summon so much as a semblance of moisture to her lips.
What the hell had happened? Where was she? How did she get here?
All she could remember was the blink of the Honda’s hazard lights, that damned raccoon, and…
The tire iron.
No. That wasn’t real. She’d pulled over to help a stranded father and his daughter. She’d introduced herself, and the man had told her his name was Dan. She must have smacked her head somewhere else and had imagined the surprise attack, hadn’t she?
Squeezing her eyes closed, she started to lift a hand to touch the source of the pronounced ache above her temple. As she moved, metal clinked against the floor, but she wasn’t sure why. Not until the edge of a shackle dug into her wrist.
The chains rattled as she sucked in a sharp breath and sat bolt upright.
Chains. She was chained. To what? She couldn’t see anything in this…room. This cell. This…wherever in the hell she was.
Willow swallowed the sting of bile threatening to climb up the back of her throat. She couldn’t be sick now. She needed to think.
The kind father of the glittery little girl had snuck up behind her while she was busy retrieving cables from the trunk of her car, and he’d hit her on the side of the head with a tire iron…once? Twice? Her head ached all over, so it was hard to tell.
The series of events was blurry, but she could still recall the glint of that heavy tool with crystal clarity. Almost as if her subconscious had realized the significance of the item and had highlighted it before her conscious mind could place the danger.
Biting down on her lower lip to stifle a whimper, Willow again lifted a trembling hand to touch her temple. She half-expected to be greeted with the sticky warmth of blood, but she noticed no such wound. Just a lump.
As she pressed on the injury, pain lanced through her skull. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes, and she used every ounce of mental fortitude to keep the display of weakness at bay.
No wonder she was confused. More than likely, she’d sustained a concussion.
Along the back of her scalp, though, her fingers touched something sticky. Blood.
I don’t have time to coddle myself. I need to think.
Dan had hit her, and then…he must have taken her. Where? And…how? How had no one driven by to see him loading her unconscious body into his car?
She knew the answer. No one had seen him because no one had passed their stopped vehicles.
Not that the “how” or the “why” mattered now.
Heart thundering in her chest as if it sought its own freedom, Willow patted her Breely University hoodie and then her jeans.
Nothing. He’d even taken the spare key she’d tucked in her back pocket.
Like the gaping maw of a house-sized beast, another wave of helplessness threatened to swallow her whole. As she pulled both knees to her chest, she almost gave herself over to the bout of panic.
No. Stop it. You might have a concussion. You need to stay on track.
Fighting against the chains restraining her hands, she awkwardly wiped at the corners of her eyes and sniffled. In the event she was in an accident or became lost in a wooded area, her father had always told her the most important first step was to get her bearings. There wasn’t much she could do to get to safety if she didn’t know where the hell she was.
Replaying her father’s words in her head gave her a renewed sense of purpose. Find out what’s happening and go from there.
She brushed her fingertips along the sturdy length of chain that bound the shackle of her wrists together. Her vision had adjusted as much as she could expect, but even so, she could hardly make out the shape of her own damn hands.
As she tugged on the heavy-duty chain, she followed the length to its point of origin.
A cement wall—rougher than the smooth concrete of the floor but still well-constructed. Wherever she was, the place wasn’t old or decrepit, though the musty scent made her think that she might be underground.
As she started to grope along the solid wall, a quiet click echoed throughout the space. Willow ripped her attention away from the wall as a new rush of ice-cold fear surged through her tired body.
The sliver of light that fell through the crack in the door was muted, but she might as well have been staring at an exploding star. With a creak, the slat of illumination grew until she was forced to block the hellish glow with an upraised hand.
This is it. The door is open. Do something.
She licked her dry lips. She had no earthly idea what could have lingered on the outside of this abysmal pit, but the prospect wasn’t any worse than the idea of rotting in the dark.
“I know you’re about to scream for help.”
Dan’s voice had been normal, even warm when she’d encountered him and his daughter at the gas station. Now, his words were as cold as the vacuum of space. The hairs on her neck spiked like the quills on a porcupine.
From beyond her hand, Willow noted a faint movement as Dan flicked a switch to bathe the space in harsh fluorescence. “You can scream if you want. If you think it’ll make you feel better. But I can tell you right now that—”
“Help!” She belted out the word with as much force as she could muster, and she dragged one syllable out for six. Though the overhead light stung Willow’s retinas like a thousand tiny needles, she forced aside the discomfort as she blinked repeatedly. “Please, can anyone hear me? Help! I’ve been kidnapped, please! Someone! Anyone!”
She scooted a little closer to the doorway, though she’d still not risen to her feet. With the monster so close, she suspected she was better off on the floor and out of his immediate grasp.
As she finally opened her eyes enough to make out the shape of the man, he crossed his arms, his stare flat. “Like I was saying. You can scream if it’ll make you feel better, but no one will ever hear you. You’re under eight feet of dirt and a solid nine inches of concrete.”
Willow opened and closed her mouth in disbelief, but the only sound that left her lips was a pitiable squeak. How could this man remain so calm and composed?
She considered shouting for help again, but Dan’s stony countenance dissuaded her.
“Who are you?” she croaked out instead. Her head ached worse than before, and she fought to stay conscious.
“Are you done screaming?” A flicker of annoyance crossed his face—a normal face. The face of a parent, a neighbor, a friend…
Willow squared her jaw, planted both hands on the smooth concrete floor, and prepared to stand. Dan towered over her seated position, and she wanted to at least rid herself of one symbol of her powerlessness.
He raised a hand. “I don’t know if you should do that, Willow.”
White-hot anger burned to life, momentarily dwarfing her fright. “Thanks, Dan, but you’re not my fucking dad.”
Rather than exasperation, Dan’s mouth twitched with…amusement. “Suit yourself.”
This was all a sick game to him. Watching her struggle. Watching her yell in vain for help. All of it.
Willow harnessed the rage as fuel. With one hand on the cool, rough wall for balance, she ground her teeth together as she forced unsteady legs to hold her weight.
By the time she was upright, her breathing came in labored gasps. She would swear she’d just climbed a mountain and not simply risen to stand. Her head throbbed with each beat of her heart, and even as nausea rocked her stomach, she mentally avowed to show no sign of weakness.
Brushing the matted strands of golden blonde hair from her face, Willow took in a steadying breath.
She didn’t have a chance to exhale before Dan took two steps forward to close the meager distance between them. His fingers clamped down on her chin with the same strength of the metal binding her wrists.
Willow tried to jump backward and out of his reach, but her shoulders only met the cold roughness of the wall.
Despite the movement, Dan’s hold didn’t loosen. His malevolent gaze flicked from one side of Willow’s face to the other as he lifted her chin. “Natural blonde, good. Blue eyes, also good. Healthy skin tone, maybe a little on the paler side. But it is November, and we’re in Illinois. I doubt he’ll care too much about that, anyway.”
He snapped up his other hand and tugged at Willow’s bottom lip, then the top lip. To her dismay, she didn’t think to try to bite him until he’d dropped both arms back to his sides and stepped away.
With an approving nod, he stroked the side of his face. “Teeth are a little crooked, but you’ve obviously got good oral hygiene. That’s important. I think he’ll appreciate that. Although…” He looked upward as he appeared to fall into a moment of deep thought.
“What?” Willow was struggling to keep up with what had just transpired.
Had the man just examined her like she was livestock? And who in the hell was the he the bastard kept mentioning?
As if he could sense her thoughts, his dead eyes shifted back to her. “He’s not the one who likes pulling out teeth, anyway. It’ll be fine.”
Willow’s anger had already begun to wear thin, and the casual mention of someone who enjoyed pulling out teeth pushed the remainder of the sentiment to the wayside. All that was left in the wake of her ire was dread.
“W-what are you talking about? Who a-are you talking about?”
Dan’s lips parted in a smile, and Willow immediately wished he’d go back to the emotionless stone expression he’d worn upon his entrance.
“Willow Nowland, you’re going to make someone very happy. Soon. Very soon.”
The room was bathed in darkness as Dan flicked off the lights, plunging Willow into despair as his words echoed around her concrete tomb.
As Amelia waited for the elevator to reach her floor in the FBI parking garage, she double-checked her reflection in the silver doors. Her retro-inspired eye makeup was in place, and no wayward hairs stood out from her neat ponytail. The look, coupled with her silky off-white dress shirt and charcoal slacks, lent her a stylish air of professionalism. She was confident no one meeting her for the first time would guess she’d spent ten years in the military.
Well, not until she referred to a meal as “chow” or offered a salute in lieu of a wave goodbye.
With a cheery ding, the elevator door slid open to reveal an empty car. Good. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be forced to make conversation with someone before she could down her first cup of coffee. Stepping inside, Amelia tapped the button for her floor and waited.
A week after Glenn Kantowski almost killed her outside Newark, Illinois, Amelia had moved out of her old apartment. She’d made use of her stockpile of personal time, splurged on hiring movers, and had her new place set up less than forty-eight hours after leaving the old apartment.
She’d been at the new place for a week now, and she and Hup, her adopted cat, had both adjusted to the change. Part of her still missed staying with Zane, especially since she hadn’t spoken to him outside of work since she’d taken the time off. They exchanged the occasional text message, but after the conversation in her hospital room, their relationship had shifted.
When she’d blurted the question about whether he thought she might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing like Glenn had been, she’d wanted to clear the air. For a beat, she’d even considered coming clean about her ties to the D’Amato crime family.
Now, more than two weeks later, she was glad she hadn’t. If Zane had distanced himself from her based on her question alone, she didn’t want to find out how he’d react if he learned about Alex Passarelli.
Maybe she’d compromised his trust when she’d deferred answering his questions.
As the counter ticked to her floor, she made a valiant effort to push aside the thought. The Leóne Family RICO case had officially been shelved, and with the aftermath of the Storey investigation finished, they were due for a new assignment.
That might be what it is. Maybe we just need to get back to normal. Something to get our minds off what Glenn did. About all the deceit we uncovered during the Storey case.
Amelia straightened her back as the elevator came to a halt. They’d been moved out of the repurposed chair graveyard, much to her chagrin. She would have preferred to have a locked door between her and Joseph Larson whenever possible.
As Amelia neared her desk, she spotted Zane’s black peacoat draped over the back of his seat, but the man was nowhere to be found. Swallowing a sigh, Amelia set her handbag beside the keyboard and shrugged off her jacket.
“Agent Storm, there you are.”
Amelia spun to face the Special Agent in Charge as her heart rate spiked. “SAC Keaton, I’m sorry. You startled me.”
Jasmine’s expression softened. She was well aware of what Amelia had experienced over the past month. “I’m sorry for that. I should have let you know when I saw you instead of running up on you like this.”
Dammit. She prolonged the word in her head. Get a grip. You can’t act like a frightened child in front of your boss. Pull it together, ya wuss, and show her how strong you are.
“That’s all right.” Amelia made her best effort at a smile. “What can I help you with?”
“A briefing. I’m pairing you and Agent Palmer with a couple agents from Violent Crimes. We’ve got a case southwest of here. It’s in a rural county, and the sheriff’s department isn’t equipped to deal with it properly.”
Eager to get back to work, Amelia stashed her purse in her desk. “Is it urgent?”
SAC Keaton beckoned for Amelia to follow. “It is. What the local authorities suspected was a serial killer seems to have turned into something…worse.”
“Worse than a serial killer?” Amelia wrinkled her nose as she fell in beside the SAC.
With those two words, Amelia felt like a kid who’d just stumbled off the tilt-a-whirl at a carnival, and Jasmine was the best friend coaxing her back for another spin.
Here we go again.
Storm's Wrath releases on June 18. Add to your Goodreads shelf - click HERE!