He grabbed the doorknob. Wrenched it open—
And came face-to-face with Erin. No, not his Erin. An older version, one with faint lines around her eyes. One whose face was more haggard, whose hair was a bit shorter.
And whose eyes were more yellow than gold.
She stared at him, measuring him. Then one black brow shot up and she said in a voice too much like Erin’s, “You gonna stand there staring all night, cat, or are you gonna let me see my daughter?”
Detective Ben Greer eased under the bright yellow line of police tape, his gun holster pressing into his side. He’d had exactly two days of vacation—two days of sitting on his ass and going insane at the cabin—and then he’d gotten the call about Donald Trent.
Trent. Like he’d ever forget that bastard. He’d put down ten to one odds that the guy had offed his wife a few months back. Not that Ben had enough evidence to prove it, though.
But after being on the job for ten years, some things were just pure instinct.
Trent was a killer. A psychopath who got off on hurting women. If Trent’s body really was buried in those woods, then the women in Lillian would be one hell of a lot safer, and their sleep would be easier.
A female uniform waved him over. Kristen Langley was still pretty fresh to the force, but she was a fast learner, and she knew how to keep a scene safe.
“What have we got?” he asked as his gaze swept the area. That house. He’d been there before. Been to tell Katherine LaShaun the news about her daughter. He’d seen the boys, peeking from behind the stairs.
Sometimes, the job really sucked.
“The dogs found something…” Excitement had her voice cracking. “Come on, we’re pretty sure it’s—”
Ben ran past her. He could hear voices rising in the distance. The rest of the team. He caught the thud of a shovel. Dammit, they’d better be careful with his scene.
He twisted, avoiding the thick brush as best he could, then he broke into the area with his group. Stumbling to a halt, he eyed the large hole his men had sectioned off. Not too deep. Not deep at all, really. The spotlights lit up the area, and in the black dirt, he saw the faded blue fabric.
A shirt. Ragged.
More of the thick dirt was carefully brushed aside and he glimpsed—
“Think it’s Trent?” Kristen asked, that excitement still in her voice.
He glanced at her, mouth grim. “It’s him.” Tests would have to be done. Dental records checked. But he could see a long, thin necklace, one with intertwined snake heads, laying across the bones.
Trent had worn that piece of crap around his neck every time Ben had seen him.
“Careful, people!” Ben yelled. “I want every piece of evidence here! Tag it, bag it, and don’t miss anything!” This case was going to have a shitload of media scrutiny. There would be no room for mistakes on this one.
Buried behind his kids’ house. How freaking twisted.
And who’d done the bastard? Who’d finally managed to kill Trent?
Even he’d been tempted. Especially after he’d seen Sylvia’s broken body.
Ben rubbed his hand over his face. His eyes were gritty. “I want to talk to the family.” Had to be done. Better to just get it over with now.
Kristen nodded, her short red hair bobbing around her face. She looked barely eighteen, but Ben knew that image was deceptive—and one that Kristen used to her advantage on the streets. When you were expecting fluff, it was easy to get taken down by a bulldog.
Crickets chirped around them. The cadaver dogs barked as their handlers held them back.
When they approached the house, he saw Katherine walk onto her back porch. A worn robe covered her thin shoulders and she hugged herself. “You found him, didn’t you?”
He didn’t want to suspect her, but the questions in his mind wouldn’t stop. Had she known about the kill? Been in on it?
Katherine LaShaun. A strong woman. One who would do anything for her family.
Buried behind the house. In the woods that the boys probably played in every day.
He walked onto the porch. He hesitated under the bright light. “We’ve found a body. Too early for identification yet.”
Kristen crept to his side, almost soundlessly. The lady knew how to move and she knew how to track killers. One day soon, she’d make a good detective.
Katherine nodded. “It’s him, then.” Certainty. A jagged breath. “My boys won’t have to worry anymore.”
Ben glanced around. The house seemed too quiet. Sure, the boys should have been sleeping—but no, they would have woken up with all the cops and dogs there. It was too loud for the kids to still be sleeping. “Katherine, where are the boys?”
Her gaze left the woods and came to rest on him. “At a friend’s house. They’re safe. They don’t know…won’t know…about this.” Her lips shook. “They play there— they won’t know. ”
She’d moved the boys before the cops arrived. How the hell had she known to do that?
“You knew we were coming, didn’t you, Mrs. LaShaun?” Kristen asked.
Katherine glanced her way. Slowly. “Don’t believe I know you, honey.”
Kristen slapped a smile on her face. The non-threatening one she wore so well. “Kristen Langley.” She offered a hand.
One that wasn’t taken.
Katherine rocked back on her heels. “All this time, I was afraid, and he was right here.” Her gaze skittered back to Ben’s.
“Do you know who killed him?”
Not yet. But, God willing, he would soon. “Who told you we were coming, Katherine?” The person who’d given her the tip could well be the killer.
Only the officers on his team knew about this body. The cops—and the killer.
Her lips, already thin, flattened even more. “I need you cops to be done by tomorrow afternoon. My boys will be comin’
Kristen opened her mouth—
“You got a phone call, didn’t you?” he pressed, not about to be led off track. He wasn’t new to this game.
Kristen’s mouth snapped closed.
“We can subpoena phone records, you know. We’re going to find out, one way or another.”
She stumbled back. “You didn’t do a damn thing to help my girl! Not one damn thing! You let that bastard out and he killed her—he killed her!”
“We don’t know that, Mrs. LaShaun.” Yeah, right.
Katherine had never been one to mince words. One of the things he liked about the woman. “I’m sorry about your daughter, Katherine. I did try to help her. Erin—” Don’t think about her now “and I did everything we could.” It just hadn’t been enough.
Her gaze fell. “Erin Jerome fought for my daughter even when Sylvia wouldn’t fight for herself.” Soft. Sadness passed over her face. She sucked in a sharp breath and her shoulders shoved back even as her chin came up with new determination. “Get your subpoena if you have to! Do it! But I’m not tellin’ you another thing!” Then she turned and stormed into the house, slamming the back door behind her.
Well, well. Katherine was hell-bent on protecting someone. From the look on her face, she thought that someone might have been involved in the killing.
Who? Who would Katherine protect? Only her boys. Just the boys.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at the back door. “Kristen, get the DA. Let him know we need that subpoena yesterday.”
Ben kissed the rest of his vacation good-bye and got ready for his business of murder. Murder—just what he did best and—
Voices. Shouting, the snarls of fury drifting on the wind.
His stare snapped to Kristen’s. What the fuck?
He vaulted off the back porch. She was with him, her smaller body hurtling behind his.
They rounded the house. Good, more police tape was up. That should keep the gawkers back, for a while anyway.
“Get out of my way! Don’t you know who I am?” An asshole was all but screaming at one of the uniforms, shoving a long, thick finger at the young guy’s chest. “I’m—”
“Judge Lance Harper.” Bastard extraordinaire. Ben braked to a halt and glared at the idiot who would no doubt be headlining the local news for the next three days.
The judge’s head jerked toward him and his muddy brown eyes slit. “Greer.” Sounded more like a curse than a name because, yeah, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of love lost between him and the judge, arrogant SOB that the guy was.
Ben braced his hands on his waist, knowing the move would show his holster. Shooting the judge probably wasn’t an option, but a man could dream.
Oh, yes, he could dream.
“I’ve got this one,” Ben said to the uniform. “Langley”—Kristen’s gaze was on the judge—“go make that phone call.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her head bob and then she backed away.
The judge’s hands fisted. “I demand that you tell me what is going on here.”
“Ah, you demand, huh? Since when do you have the right to demand anything at my crime scene?” What was the guy even doing there? No way was this the man’s business anymore.
A muscle flexed along Harper’s jaw. “Cartwright told me about the body on the property.”
Did no one in this city believe in keeping things under wraps? This was a murder for shit’s sake! “His mistake,” Ben managed, the words grating in his throat.
“It was my case, detective. The man was in my courtroom, he was—”
“You let him walk.” A mistake. Not Harper’s first, not his last, and the judge’s insanity on the bench was only part of the reason why Ben couldn’t stand the guy.
The other reason? Ben had once had a lover leave him…for the judge. The guy might be old, but the bastard was hell with the ladies.
Very slowly, Harper’s fists unknotted. “You think you know me, don’t you, detective?”
No, he didn’t know him particularly well. Didn’t want to, either. “I’m working a murder, Harper. I don’t have time for your games.”
Harper’s chin rose. “I didn’t want to let that bastard walk, but I had no choice.” He shook his head. “When the wife changed her story, what was I supposed to do? There wasn’t enough evidence to hold him.”
“You know he probably killed Sylvia, don’t you?” Ben fired right across his words. “He walked and he killed her.” That knowledge had burned in Ben’s gut more nights than he could count.
Harper’s Adam’s Apple bobbed. “I-I know.” A rasp. Remorse? What? From Harper? Their eyes locked. “What I do in this world isn’t easy,” Harper said. “Justice never is.”
Ben thought of those dirty bones. Of the boys who’d grow up without their mother or their worthless excuse for a father.
“Go home. There’s nothing left for you here. This isn’t your case anymore.”
Harper’s gaze drifted to the house. “No—no, I don’t guess it is.” His shoulders slumped and he turned away.
For an instant, Ben could almost feel a stir of sympathy for the fellow. Almost.
Then the instant passed. He wheeled around. Back to business. “All right, people, I want this scene combed for every bit of evidence you can find. We’ve got a body, and we’re damn well gonna find his killer.” Because Ben didn’t believe in letting monsters walk. Not in his town.
Even if the vic had been a cold-blooded asshole, he’d find Trent’s killer. That was his job.
He was good at his job.
“What are you doing here?” Erin stared at her mother—oh, damn, her mother—and kept every muscle in her body locked tight.
Not going to her.
Not going to hold her.
Not going to hit her. Not!
“I came to see you.” Flat. No emotion there. Never had been. That one eyebrow rose again. “Can I come in or do I have to stand out here all night?”
“Come in,” Jude growled. “But at the first sign of a shift, your ass is gone.”
She sniffed and crossed the threshold. “I can’t talk to my daughter in wolf form. She doesn’t change—”
“Yeah, I fucking know. Big damn deal.” Jude shut the door behind her. Too quietly. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared.
Her mother—Theresa—blinked and glanced over at Erin. “You told him? And he’s still with you?”
Oh, yes, her mother was full of love and maternal instincts.
Erin felt her blood heat. “He’s still here.”
“Standing here, big as day,” Jude murmured. “Not planning to go anyplace.”
In a flash, her mother attacked, jumping back, and thrusting her claws right up to Jude’s throat. “Don’t even think about hurting her. Just ’cause she’s weak, you can’t—”
“Get away from him.” Not screamed. Not shouted. Erin gave the demand coldly, despite the fire in her gut, and she felt the rip of her claws tearing through her flesh.
Her mother’s head swung toward her. “Erin? What are you—”
Jude threw her back. A hard toss with his hand that had Theresa flying through the air and slamming into the floor. She scrambled up, fast, crouching, snarling and spitting.
Erin hurriedly stepped in front of Jude. “Don’t come at him again.”
Her mother’s face went slack with surprise.
Looking at her hurt. Erin sucked in a breath. “I don’t know why you’re here, and I really don’t care.” Lie, lie. “But you are not going to attack Jude. He’s done nothing but help me, and he doesn’t deserve that shit.”