Debra Webb is the USA Today bestselling author of more than 150 romance and suspense novels, with more than four million books in print in numerous languages and countries. She is the recipient of the prestigious Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Romantic Suspense as well as numerous Reviewers Choice Awards. In 2012 Debra was honored as the first recipient of the esteemed L. A. Banks Warrior Woman Award for her courage, strength, and grace in the face of adversity. Recently Debra was awarded the distinguished Centennial Award for having achieved publication of her 100th novel.
Legal investigator Finley O’Sullivan has dealt with her share of shady characters, but the firm’s latest client has an even darker past than most. In fact, Nashville Metro Police seems to think he’s a murderer.
Finley isn’t so sure. Her investigation into Ray Johnson’s history focuses on the unsolved murder of a teenager who died seventeen years earlier. The case went cold, but questions remain. Months after the girl’s death, people close to her started disappearing—her mother first, then Ray’s brother. But why?
As Finley races to solve a decades-old murder, she uncovers new clues and long-buried secrets that could blow the case wide open. But whoever killed the girl all those years ago may still be a threat—and now the chase is on.
Thirteen Years Ago
Friday, Oct 6
Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Elysian Fields Road, 8:30 p.m.
The zoo was closed.
No one was supposed to be here. Her mother would be furious that she hadn’t been honest about her plans. This was her mother’s number one rule: always tell the truth. Never lie to her.
But this time the rules could not stop Lucy Cagle. Not for any reason. Her mother wasn’t the only one who could uncover the facts in the deepest, darkest places they were buried. She wasn’t the only one allowed to ignore the rules when necessary. How many times had she heard her mother say that some things were worth the sacrifice?
Lucy had decided she would use her senior thesis to prove the apple never fell too far from the tree. Like mother, like daughter, and all that.
Her mother wanted Lucy to be a doctor like her father, and he was a great doctor. His work was important, admired . . . noteworthy. But Lucy wasn’t interested in a medical career. She wanted to be an investigative reporter, like her famous mother. She wanted to be fearless and groundbreaking.
Tonight was her big chance.
Lucy shivered. It was oddly cool for an evening so early in October. She should have brought a sweater or a sweatshirt to pull over her blouse. She’d worn this low scooped neckline for him. It was impossible not to notice the way he stared at her chest every time they were together. He was like twenty-three; he should have gotten over such adolescent fixations by now. Lucky for her, he hadn’t.
Tonight was the night. He had promised to tell her all his secrets. She had led him on with the possibility that she would be his girlfriend. At first, he’d been reluctant. He’d pointed out several times that guys like him didn’t get girls like her. And she’d said all the right things. Innocently touched him in all the right places and pretended to be totally obsessed with him. How many times had she heard her mother say getting the job done wasn’t always easy or pretty?
If she were honest with herself, she would have to say this had been kind of easy. He was really handsome. Nicer than she had expected, and he made her feel things too.
Lucy rubbed at her arms. She had to stay focused. She had him on the edge now—the point of no return. He wanted her to know him . . . all of him, including the family secrets he feared would put her off. They had spent so much time making out . . . had almost gone too far a couple of times. He couldn’t be in the same place with her without going crazy, he insisted. She wasn’t exactly unaffected. Which was why she’d had to insist on many of their rendezvous being in public places like that car wash. Even then, it hadn’t been easy to ignore those unexpected feelings.
Sacrifice, she repeated silently. This was worth the sacrifice.
Lucy glanced around, suddenly angry that he wasn’t here already. He had told her he would be behind the giraffe house at eight. For half an hour she had been standing out here in the dark. He never made her wait like this.
She snatched her cell from her shoulder bag and was ready to call him and tell him off when she spotted headlights in the distance. She held her breath and watched as the lights bobbed, turning from Elysian Fields Road onto the narrow street that led into the zoo employee entrance.
She shoved her phone back into her bag and stayed in the shadow of the trees, waited for him to park. The firm smack when his car door closed made her jump. No sound or light had warned her when the door opened, so she hadn’t noticed that he’d gotten out. Why hadn’t she noticed before that his interior light didn’t work? Weird. She shook off the creepy sensation.
Lucy took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
“Are you hiding?” he called out, sounding a little amused and something else . . . anxious, maybe.
Annoyance puckered her brow. Why would he ask such a silly question? Her car was parked not a dozen feet from where he’d parked his own. She rolled her eyes. Maybe he was as nervous as she was. Just because he was older didn’t make him immune to uncertainty.
Lucy suddenly wished she was immune. None of this had been as easy as her mother made it look. And, giving him a break, she supposed that spilling the family secrets wasn’t exactly a cakewalk either.
Another deep breath. Showtime. Lucy adopted a pout and stepped forward, away from the shadow of the trees. “You’re late,” she accused with just enough irritation, she hoped, to have him second-guessing himself.
He moved toward her with that sexy swagger of his. As he drew closer, she noted the grin. Despite her best efforts, she smiled, then gave herself a mental kick. This was serious. Not a game. This was bigger than some high school romantic adventure with an older guy. She had to remember that above all else.
“I’m here now,” he said, finally stopping so close that she could feel his breath on her face.
Steeling herself against an all-too-human reaction, she challenged, “Are you ready to do what you promised?”
As if to underscore her demand, a cold wind kicked up, sending a fresh wave of shivers along her skin. He had insisted that before they took their relationship any further, he wanted to be totally honest with her. He wanted to tell her all his secrets. She’d already told him all hers, she’d assured him, making him feel guilty for keeping his own. But she hadn’t told anything even close to the truth. He had no idea who she really was.
The tiniest flicker of regret flared inside her.
Stop. Remember the bigger picture.
His grin widened, and her heart thumped harder. She really, really hadn’t meant to like him so much. He would get into serious trouble for all that he’d told her already.
How did her mother do it?
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He put his arm around her and ushered her toward his car.
They usually met somewhere like this and then went out in his car. She had been too afraid of running into some of her friends and her car being recognized. He could never know that she was the daughter of Louise Scott, the hottest investigative reporter in the Southeast. She glanced up at him, studied his profile in the moonlight as they walked through the darkness. He trusted her.
How would he feel when he learned the truth? The knots in her belly tightened.
He paused at the passenger side door and opened it. Lucy stood in the V made by the open door and waited for him to go around to the driver’s side. When he opened his door, she bit her bottom lip, then smiled. He smiled back at her. This was it. Tonight, she would get the whole story on his family. All the secrets that had stayed hidden for decades. Nothing else mattered.
Her mother was going to be stunned. Maybe even speechless.
She settled into the passenger seat and closed the car door. He slid behind the steering wheel and did the same. For one long moment before starting the engine, he simply stared at her. Her skin prickled with anticipation. Or was that fear?
This is it, girl. Stay cool.
Rather than start the engine, he reached toward her. “I’m sorry, Lucy.”
Before his murmured words were fully out of his mouth, something closed around her neck . . . tightened until she couldn’t scream . . . couldn’t breathe.
Heart thundering, she clutched at the thing . . . choking her . . . frantically dug at her skin to get her fingers beneath the thin wire . . .
Help! What should have been a scream was nothing more than a squeak of pathetic sound.
He stared at her . . . his eyes full of something like . . . regret. His mouth was moving with the words he spoke, but she couldn’t understand. Her ears were filled with the sound of her blood roaring . . . her heart pounding.
Help! Help! But the words couldn’t get free.
His door opened, and he got out.
She kicked. Twisted her body. Dug her fingers deeper . . . blood oozed between them, down her throat.
Her car door opened . . . hands grabbed at her body, but the noose grew tighter and tighter . . . her legs flailed helplessly, and then her fingers slid away from her throat. The hope that he would rescue her died.
Her vision faded to darkness, and she thought of her mother and her father. How sad they would be. She should have listened to all their warnings.