“How can she? He’s so … repulsive.”
“This is b.s. Can you believe he actually charges money for this?”
“Shields said there were five hundred people signed up for this seminar. Multiply that number by the thousand dollars each paid, and …”
“He’s making a bloody fortune.”
“I can’t believe we’ve committed an entire weekend to this.”
“Let’s get in line and then get out of here. I’m starving.”
Regan had just picked up her purse when her cell phone rang. The sound earned her a glare from both bodyguards.
She answered the phone, quickly gathered up her things, and went out into the hallway while Cordie got in line to toss her list in the fire.
Emily Milan was on the line. She was in one of her moods again and didn’t waste words.
“You didn’t give me Aiden’s latest notes,” she snapped. “And as a result, the last meeting was a complete disaster. I’m not going to be able to do my job if you continue to play these childish games, Regan.”
“I’m certain Henry printed out everything that was e-mailed,” she said. “I didn’t erase it, and I’ll be happy to check again when I get back to the hotel, but—”
“I expect those papers on my desk tomorrow.”
“I’m sure everything my brother sent was printed,” she repeated.
“Do I have to talk to Aiden about this?”
Regan counted to five. It didn’t help. “Please do.”
She snapped the phone shut and stood there glaring at it. “Oh, you are so going on my list,” she muttered.
She wished she could have fired Emily right then and there, over the phone. She couldn’t, though. She didn’t have the authority. Thunder rumbled close by, interrupting her mental tirade. She shoved the phone into her purse and went back inside to find Cordie and Sophie so she could get out of there before her mood completely soured. She was pulling the heavy door closed behind her when she noticed one of the bodyguards was down on his knees in front of the hearth turning the gas jets off. She guessed she’d missed the fire cleansing ritual.
She couldn’t find Sophie, but Cordie was where she’d left her, still sitting in the uncomfortable folding chair against the back wall. She sat down beside her and whispered, “Could we leave now?”
“In a minute,” Cordie said. “Shields is telling us what he thinks is a super-inspirational story about one of his students.”
“Students? He teaches a class?”
Cordie shook her head. “He’s calling us his students. All the people who have attended his past seminars are former students. How can anyone with half a brain fall for his act? He’s such a fraud.”
“Look around,” Regan whispered. “The room’s full of unhappy people desperately wanting to change their lives. He’s telling them what they want to hear.”
“He also gives them someone to blame instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior. Sophie was right. He does prey on the vulnerable.”
“I’m going to ask Aiden to fire Emily,” Regan said.
Cordie bolted upright. “Really.” She looked thrilled.
Regan repeated the conversation she’d had with the obnoxious woman. “What would you do?”
“Make Aiden fire her skinny little ass,” she whispered. “You should hire his next assistant. He’s obviously looking for the wrong type.”
“What type is that?”
“Young, beautiful, blond, thin …”
“What do you care what she looks like?”
Cordie shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said quickly. “You’re the one complaining.”
Regan sighed. “I can’t fire her. She doesn’t work for me. Besides, Aiden needs help …”
“So? Get someone else to help him.”
Shields’s volume increased as he finished his story. Applause followed. He waited for the noise to die down, then announced that the spontaneous session was over and to please mingle. Within seconds the psychologist was surrounded by women fighting for his attention.
“Is it raining?” Cordie asked. She lifted a strand of her long hair, sighed, and shoved it back behind her ear. “It’s raining, all right. My hair’s frizzing already.”
“Nonsense,” Regan said. “Your hair doesn’t frizz. It curls.”
Cordie dug through her purse, found a hair clip, and went to work pulling her hair into a twist.
“I’ll go get the car and pull up under the overhang. You find Sophie and drag her outside if you have to,” Regan said.
She gathered up her things, tucked the folder under her arm, and headed out. The mood in the room was still jovial, many of the participants laughing nervously and talking with one another. Such eagerness, such hope, she thought. She was sure she heard Sophie’s distinctive laughter. How in heaven’s name could she stomach being so close to Shields?
Regan seemed to be the only person in a hurry to leave. The lighting on the porch and around the building was abysmal. She could barely see her hand in front of her face.
If she had been a pessimist, she would have thought the rain had been waiting for her, because the second she stepped out from under the overhang, the soft drizzle turned into a downpour.
She sprinted across the parking lot, the rain pelting her face. Since she hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella, she used the blue folder to try to block the raindrops so she could see where she was going.
By the time she reached the park, her knee was throbbing. She considered stopping and taking off her new, impossible-to-resist, sling-back heels, but it was only about fifty yards to the car, and she didn’t want to stop. She already had her car key out. It was attached to a bracelet chain. Regan had slipped the chain over her wrist so she could grip her purse as she ran.
She could have taken a shortcut through the grass, but then her beautiful, soft, buttery leather shoes would have been completely ruined. God, what an idiot she’d been to wear such high heels.
She was about twenty-five, maybe thirty, yards from her car when she thought she heard someone shout her name. Regan automatically pivoted toward the sound. Her left knee buckled, and she went down hard. Crying out in pain, she let go of her purse and the folder to brace against the fall. She was used to having her knee go out—it happened at least once a month—but the pain usually went away after a couple of seconds. This time was different. It was sharp and close to unbearable.
Half the contents of her purse scattered on the sidewalk. She knelt on one knee as she scooped up her lipstick and billfold. Someone shouted at her again. It was a high-pitched voice, or was that the wind playing tricks on her? She strained to listen for the sound as she stuffed the billfold back into her purse and staggered to her feet.
Nothing. Just her imagination, she decided. All she wanted to think about was getting out of the rain.
She heard him coming before she saw him.
A WEEK HAD PASSED SINCE THE INCIDENT WITH THE RUNNER, and the police hadn’t pounded down his door and dragged him away. For seven days and nights he’d vacillated between stark terror and sheer joy. He’d wake up during the night and think, oh, God, what have I done? and he would hear the demon whisper.
We’ve gotten away with murder.
It was Friday, and the beast was stirring. He had to go hunting again. His last venture out had nearly ended in disaster, but he hoped he had learned from his mistakes and would do better this time, for he couldn’t afford to fail again. Yes, he would be better prepared tonight. In anticipation, he’d packed dark jogging clothes, a new baseball cap—he’d had to throw away the old one because of all the blood on it—and black running shoes. He’d stored the gear under the seat in the back of his car, along with thick, nonprescription, horn-rimmed glasses, a dark brown wig—shoulder-length and tied in a ponytail with a red-and-white bandana like a biker would wear—and the essential pair of new black gloves. He’d even purchased glue and a beard at a novelty store, trimming it just right, so that he wouldn’t look too much like Charles Manson.
He still felt he could subdue any woman, but he slipped a knife into his pocket just in case. He spent hours figuring out his approach, trying to cover every possible angle. When he was finally dressed and ready to leave, he took a minute to stand in front of the mirror in the upstairs bathroom and look at himself. He was pleased with what he saw. Why, his own mother wouldn’t recognize him.
The demon would be pleased too.
One thing was certain. He couldn’t return home with more scratches on his face and arms. He could lie well when he had to, but the scratches had drawn attention to him and that was inexcusable. He simply had to be more careful. Whenever he thought about that first deadly encounter, he broke out in a cold sweat. He had come so close to getting caught, so very close.
Tonight would be different. He had been lucky the last time, but he wasn’t about to rely on good fortune coming to his aid again. He had most assuredly learned from his mistakes. Blend in. That was number one on his list. And so tonight he was pretending to be a jogger. He was in wonderful shape, of course. All those nights at the gym—had he been preparing for this and not realized it? He had become a bit obsessive, but now he could see he had started his training when he’d lifted that first ten-pound weight.
Finding the chosen one turned out to be surprisingly easy. She practically strolled up to his car and tapped on his window. That’s how close she was. She walked out the door of the hotel with a friend just as his car turned the corner. And, oh, what a sight. “Perfect,” he whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”
A car backed out of the alley across the street, so he was able to stop and stare at her without drawing attention. He even rolled his window down in hopes of getting a whiff of her perfume.
He was going to follow her and wait for his opportunity, but once again, he got lucky. He heard one of the attendants shout to another, asking if he knew the quickest way to get to Liam House. Her car pulled away, and he tried to tail her, but he lost her when she turned off Michigan Avenue. He drove on to Liam House, found a parking spot a quarter of a mile away, and then jogged back to the conference center.
Adjusting his cap over his wig, he circled the building twice, taking his time as he surreptitiously checked out the area. He’d hoped there would be a jogging path close by so he could pretend he was headed toward it, but there wasn’t. Just streets, parking lots, and a little park in between.
The lighting outside the conference center was quite poor, which he found to his liking, but light did spill out from several windows and the front door as men and women hurried inside. He hung back in the shadows of the trees. He was afraid his chosen one might have gone inside while he was circling.
He waited another half hour or so and then he got nervous. Was she there? He backtracked once again, ran through the parking lot, and finally found her car on the opposite side of the park.
“Yes,” he whispered, weak with relief. It was okay. She was inside.
He didn’t have to wait much longer. He was looking for a better spot to watch the entrance of the building when, lo and behold, he glanced up, and there she was. Before the door shut behind her, she was surrounded by a halo of light. He actually gasped at her sheer beauty. He blinked, and for a second her face magically changed, and he saw his beloved Nina. He blinked again and saw now only the woman. What had caused his mind to play such a trick? Perhaps it was her dark hair. Perhaps, too, it was because she was the one, the perfect chosen one.
He felt the tightness gathering in his chest. Suddenly, he heard a sound behind him. He was clearly visible where he stood, and so he quickly knelt on one knee, pretending to tie his shoes, while the stranger, carrying a sack of groceries, passed him. He kept his face averted until the man disappeared. A clap of thunder ripped the sky. He knew he had to act fast. The wind had picked up and was howling. He pulled his baseball cap down farther and took a deep breath just as the clouds opened.
She was ahead of him now, her long-legged stride a sight to behold. He stepped out of his hiding place, oblivious of the wet slap of the rain against his cheeks, and watched her. Appreciated her. Her skirt was short, but not trashy short. In the misty light from the streetlamps her skin looked golden.
A golden girl, that’s what she was to him, the prize he would snatch in just seconds. He tried to savor every little detail about her. He wanted to remember everything, the way she held herself, the way she smelled, the way she felt when he grabbed her.
She had such beautiful strong legs. She was so like his Nina before the accident. Yes, just like her. Like his wife, she moved with elegant grace, her head held high, her h*ps gently swaying.
His mind rebelled against making the comparison, or was that the demon cautioning him not to think such dangerous thoughts? No, she couldn’t possibly compare to his Nina. There was business to be done. Quid pro quo. With that singular thought in mind, his hand slipped into his pocket, his fingers coiling around his new knife … just in case.
He took that first step toward her and shouted, “Wait!” She didn’t slow down, and so he ran at her and shouted again. This time he heard the fury in his voice.
She turned, her gaze catching him as she pivoted.
He stopped so suddenly he actually rocked on the balls of his feet. In horror, he watched her fall. Her left leg simply folded underneath her, as though her bone had melted. She crashed to the pavement and cried out in pain. He put his hands over his ears to block the sound. It all seemed to transpire in slow motion, just like the car accident of years past. Exactly like that. The tortured look on her beautiful face before the metal imploded on her legs.
His mind couldn’t take it in. What had just happened? He staggered back, then stopped. The poor thing. She was in pain, her leg useless now, and, oh, she was so like his Nina.
He should help her, shouldn’t he? He knew he wasn’t making any sense. Why did he have this nearly overwhelming desire to help someone he was determined to destroy?
He didn’t know what to do. He stood there looking at her. He backed farther away but continued to watch her struggle to get up. Twice she almost made it before she collapsed again. Poor, poor thing. He thought she might be crying, but the wind snatched the sound before it reached him.
He couldn’t stop staring at her, and she kept her eyes locked on him while she tried to get back on her feet. There was a connection between them. He felt it in his heart and in his soul where the demon lived.
She broke eye contact first, turned, and limped away like a wounded animal, her open purse dangling from her arm.