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The sweat was pouring over his face and down his chest and back. Yet, Nathan pressed on, running along the trails he knew by heart. His feet hit the ground in a quick pace, keeping tempo with his rampant thoughts. He didn’t want to think anymore, to feel anything but the brunt of the punishment he was putting his body through, the sting in his muscles from the intense workout.
He had to get away from that cabin, away from Jessie. Waking up with her in his arms this morning had been more than he bargained for. He hadn’t expected to feel so complete with her there, didn’t want to have those raw emotions surging through him. It was one thing to want to fuck her, but quite another to be so emotionally connected with the woman. He had let his guard down, had let himself get too close to her. But today, that would stop. Once he returned to the cabin, they needed to get down to business, to figure this thing out so he could get her back to Deatsville and her life and he could get back to his own life.
He ran harder and faster, up the steep heel and through a shade of trees. Still, the vision of her face would not fade. She had been so vulnerable last night, so weak and exposed. Nathan hadn’t had the chance to get to know her personally all that well, but he knew that vulnerability wasn’t an emotion she had encountered often. Jessica Porter was independent, self-sufficient even. She had never had to depend on anyone in her life, prided herself for it. For the first time ever, she had to look to someone else for help. And he could tell that the idea of leaning on someone was killing her.
Nathan didn’t find much comfort in the fact that he was forced to be in control of someone else’s fate. He was a cop. His job was to serve and protect the general public. But never before had he been forced into a situation where he was personally responsible for the safety of one particular person. And the fact that he was attracted to this woman made it very hard to keep her safe. Soon, he would be thinking only with his dick and not with his head. Right now, the only thing he could concentrate on was getting her to bed and that was a very big problem.
He could ask himself what if circumstances were different. He would still find Jessie attractive but have enough sense to stay away from her. Nathan knew she was much too good for the likes of him. She deserved someone that could treat her right, could commit to loving her for the rest of her life. He was nothing more than a fling for any woman, a one-night stand. There were some men that could commit and others who could not. He happened to fall into the latter category. It wasn’t that he had never tried to follow through with a relationship. He had and it had turned into a catastrophe.
Even if he was capable of commitment, his job took care of that for him. He was dedicated to his work, so much so that he had forsaken all attachments in the past for his job. There was no fairness in dragging a woman into his life, what with him being called away any hour and all hours of the day.
Jessica deserved to be adored and cherished. She was a remarkable woman with devastating beauty and wit that could foil the most patient man. She needed to find someone that could challenge her, could test her on a daily basis. Nathan, once again, was not that man.
But damn if he didn’t want her. He had thought about nothing else since he had walked in on her in the hospital room, her gown at her waist, her bare chest displayed right before his eyes. Nathan hadn’t been able to get the vision out of his head, hadn’t been able to forget the feel of her skin from that night on the ride up here when he had examined her wounds. God, he wanted her unlike any other. And for the first time, he couldn’t take what he wanted without leaving his conscience soiled.
This was killing him. He had never had a problem taking what he wanted as far as women were concerned. By his standards, he wasn’t a catch. And ironically, women were drawn to him because he was unattainable, were probably attracted to him for that lone reason. There was nothing that a female liked more than a chase, of conquering the unconquerable.
Nathan finally came to a halt, doubling over to catch his breath. He lifted his hand to his forehead to wipe the sweat that had accumulated there. Casting his eyes to the sky, the clear blue heaven that closely resembled the shade of her eyes, he groaned inwardly. He had to go back. Nathan needed to get into her mind and find out what she knew and soon. Much longer in the confined company of Jessica Porter and he knew he wouldn’t be able to control himself.
* * * *
Isabella glanced over her shoulder before she hunkered down over her computer and allowed her hands to glide over the keys. She had been working on deciphering Roger’s password for weeks now and had had no luck. Today, she thought was going to be her lucky day. It had to be.
Entering any and all combinations, she sat back holding her breath while each time the computer rejected her command. Blowing out an angry breath, she tried again, her fingers moving over the keys swiftly. How hard could it be to hack into this man’s personal files? She had burrowed her way into more complicated and complex computer systems than this.
Leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms over her abdomen, she glared at the computer screen as if it were her mortal enemy. Inhaling and exhaling, Isabella uncrossed her arms and scooted forward, her fingers hovering over the keyboard. She would try one more thing and if that didn’t work then it would be time to call in reinforcements.
Stroking the keys, she entered one more quick code and command and waited… And then the most magnificent thing happened. She was in! She had done it, had broken into Roger Blake’s personal files. Finally!
Scanning the separate titles to each document, Isabella didn’t know which one to dive into first. At that moment, a particular file caught her attention, labeled J. Porter. With an eager hand, she reached over for the mouse and moved the arrow to that file, clicking to open the dossier. Pictures of the four victims in the brutal stabbing flashed onto her screen.
Isabella took another quick look around the office to make sure that no one was watching before she started clicking on the pictures of the women, starting with Jessica Porter. A bevy of information flashed up on the screen, including her classroom schedules, her day-to-day activities, a list of family and friends. As she scrolled down, there were more pictures of Jessica, taken without her knowledge from what seemed like a bystander.
She inhaled nervously as she clicked on the other pictures, finding the same information as was in Jessica’s file. All of the women’s schedules, their family and friends, their extra-curricular activities. There were pictures taken of all of them as they were coming and going, the men they were with leaving their house… It looked as if someone had been taking surveillance pictures of them, keeping a diary of their day-to-day activities.
Isabella quickly reached into her top desk drawer and pulled a disc out, popping it into the computer and waiting for a fraction of a second before she clicked on the download icon. Drumming her fingers on the desktop, she glanced around the office anxiously while she waited for all of the files to download.
Once the transfer was complete, she ejected the disc, tossed it in a cover and logged off of her computer. Placing the disc carefully into her bag, she slung her purse over her shoulder and stood up. There was only one person she could show this to, as much as she hated to have to go see him after what had happened the day before. Oh well, desperate times called for desperate measures. And sucking up her pride was definitely a desperate measure.
* * * *
Jessie pulled into the drive of her house, put her car in park and climbed out, walking up the pavement on light feet. It was just like any other ordinary night, but still something was amiss. The hair on the back of her neck stood at attention, a chill erupting down her spine. She heard a commotion behind her that almost made her jump out of her skin before Jessie stopped and took a deep breath. It had to be a dog or a raccoon or something. Calming her nerves, she took another step forward, glancing up at the front of the house.
She noticed the hazy image standing by the front porch and squinted, trying to make out the figure before her. It was a profile of a woman swathed in white and colorless, almost as if the form was in black and white.
As she walked closer, Jessie realized that the vision standing on the porch was beckoning for her to follow her. Jessie didn’t hesitate and trailed behind the apparition. She walked inside of the house, the den bathed in candlelight. Frantically, Jessie searched around for the vision in white; saw the spirit standing in the middle of the room. Jessie narrowed her eyes until the face of the woman became clear. It was Sherry and she was standing over her own body that lie naked and bleeding on the floor. Her expression was clouded with sadness and misery.
She looked up at Jessie with vacant eyes and began to move her mouth, a whisper that was almost mute. Then, Sherry covered her mouth with her hand and started to sob, crumbling to her knees and kneeling before her shattered body.
Jessie wanted to take a step forward, to console her friend, but knew that she was inconsolable. There was nothing that Jessie could do to take away her pain, to end her anguish.
“Sherry,” Jessie breathed, her own voice echoing around her.
Sherry stood up and came to Jessie, reaching out a hand and brushing it over Jessie’s cheek. She could feel nothing but cold enveloping her, couldn’t seize Sherry’s touch.
“You couldn’t have known,” Sherry said in a haunted voice, a mere murmur that carried along the soft breeze that ripped through Jessie.
“Couldn’t have known what?” Jessie cried out, not understanding what any of this meant.
“None of us did. We all trusted him.”
“Trusted who, Sherry?” Jessie bellowed.
“We all trusted him. And he betrayed us all.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?” was Jessie’s desperate plea.
The specter began to fade, turning into nothing more than a translucent mist. But her voice continued to ricochet all around Jessie, that eerie whisper that teased her ear.
“We all trusted him. We all trusted him. We all trusted him.”
And it merely faded into nothing, the voice, the vision… Sherry.
Jessie heard a door open and shut and sat up straight on the sofa, her body drenched in sweat, her head spinning, and her breathing quick and harsh. She forced her eyes to focus, the room still spiraling around her. But she couldn’t bring herself around, to force the haunted image she had just witnessed from her mind. It was as if she was in between a state of reality and the dream.
She heard the masculine voice, tried to draw herself out of the trance-like state she was in. Jessie was finding it hard to wake up, to open her eyes. Nathan’s voice shouted her name from somewhere out of her present realm. She felt his hands on her shoulders gently shaking her, heard his voice call out to her again. Finally, she forced her eyes open, brushing away his hands with force and pushing away from him.
The moment reality set in and she could once again bring herself back to what was happening, she felt the bile rise in her throat and stood immediately, bolting from the room with her hand over her mouth.
Nathan stared after her for a long moment, confusion etched on his face. He had never seen anyone look like that before, ashen-faced and wild-eyed as if they had seen a ghost. It was almost as if she had been in a daze, unable to decipher reality from whatever she had seen in her dream. And what scared him the most was that he had feared for a split second that he would be unable to bring her out of that daze.
Pulling himself to his feet, he ran after her. Nathan didn’t know what to do or say at that moment. He only knew one thing. She had seen something that had scared her, that had taken a hold of her and almost didn’t let go.
* * * *
Mike stared at the woman standing in front of his desk, shifting her weight from one foot to the other nervously. It brought him some kind of weird satisfaction that she had come to him. Had she come to apologize for being rude to him yesterday? Was that it? Or had she come to rub it in his face? That was the more logical reason behind this unexpected visit.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankle over his knee, giving her a smug smile. “What brings you by, Miss Evans?”
“I have something I think you might want to see,” was her grave reply.
His grin broadening, Mike shook his head. “What makes you think you would have anything I would want to see?”
Isabella rolled her eyes and groaned, pulling the disc out of her purse, stepping around his desk and popping it into his computer. “Stop being an arrogant bastard for two seconds and take a look at this.”
Mike sat up straight and opened his mouth to protest but she simply put one finger over his lips, grabbed him by the chin and forced his head around so that he was looking at the computer screen. She reached for the mouse and moved it to the icon, clicking on the file to open it and took a step back.
Mike’s eyes widened, his jaw dropped, as he stared at the images flashing in front of him on the computer screen. “Where in the hell did you get this?”
Crossing her arms stubbornly over her chest, she jutted out her chin. “Oh. So now I have something you would want to see.”
Mike glared up at her. “Will you stop playing games, Isabella, and tell me where you got this?”
“I see,” she continued in a haughty voice. “I bring you something that might actually help you solve this case and we are suddenly on a first name basis.”
Mike stood up and stared at her square in the eyes, his face merely inches from hers. “Where did you get this?” he growled.
“Roger Blake’s personal files,” she murmured, too aware the seething look he was giving her.
Mike took a step back, shoving his hand through his hair. “Fuck!” he breathed and turned away from her, pacing the small sanctity of his office before he lost his temper completely. Finally, he faced her again. “How did you get this?” Mike asked in what he thought was a calm voice.
“I hacked into his computer,” she replied in a matter-of-fact voice.
“You realize that we can’t use any of this.”
“I know that. However, I’m not an idiot, Mike. This,” she waved her hand toward the computer screen, “is inadmissible. But just think… if I can get my hands on something like this, there has to be more.”
“And how do you suppose I get my hands on the rest of his files?” Mike asked with a strained smile on his face.
“Get a search warrant.”
“Okay. How am I supposed to get a search warrant? Oh wait! I’ll just go up to the D.A. and say look at what we found illegally hacking into Roger Blake’s computer. He won’t give a shit that it was uncovered illegally and be more than fucking happy to hand me a search warrant,” he growled, coming dangerously close to losing what little grasp he had left on his temper.
“All right,” she admitted quietly. “I see your point. So what do we do now?”
Mike glared at her, forcing himself to remain calm. “We?”
“Oh you bet your ass!” was Isabella’s blunt reply.
* * * *
Nathan found her in the bathroom, kneeling over the commode and emptying what little bit of food she had in her stomach. He was quick to stoop beside of her, lift her hair out of her face and rub one hand up and down her back. Her body trembled beneath his touch, the excruciating choking sounds causing her to gasp for breath.
“It’s okay,” he said in a soothing voice, still rubbing her back with his hand.
“No, it’s not okay,” Jessie sobbed, spitting the nasty taste out of her mouth and praying the nausea would subside. “This is definitely not okay.”
Nathan reached up with one hand and grabbed a washcloth from the rack and placed it in the sink. Still with one hand, he turned the faucet on and let the cold water saturate the rag before ringing it out and pulling it into his lap. He folded it and grabbed her hair in his other hand so that he could place the cloth onto her forehead.
“Thank you,” Jessie muttered. She sat back against the wall, taking the washcloth from him and holding it over her brow, still trying to catch her breath. Swallowing hard, she closed her eyes and forced the image out of her mind, the dream she had just had that seemed so real.
Nathan stared at her, fear and worry marring his expression. Her face was flushed, perspiration dripping off of her. Jessie did not look well at all. “What happened?”
“I had another dream,” she replied breathlessly.
“Another dream?” Nathan asked. Her dreams were scaring the shit out of him. Each time she had another vision, the side affects became more brutal. Yesterday, she had fainted in the kitchen. Today, Jessie had been in a stupor that he had barely been able to bring her out of. And when she did awake, she had ran to the bathroom and vomited. This was getting out of hand.
“It seemed so real,” she whispered in a frightened voice.
Resting his arms over his knees, he leaned back against the wall. “Do you want to tell me about it,” Nathan offered in a gentle voice.
“I saw Sherry. She was standing on the front porch of our house, beckoning for me to follow her. I went inside. The den was dark with the exception of a circle of candles burning on the coffee table. Sherry was there, standing over her bloodied body and she started to sob.” Jessie swallowed hard, trying to compose herself as she recalled the image. “She stood up and came to me, touched my cheek. But I couldn’t feel her. I just felt a chill where her hand had touched. She started to speak. I couldn’t understand her at first. Her voice was nothing but a whisper, an inaudible whisper.”
“Did you hear what she was trying to tell you?”
Jessie nodded. “She said that I couldn’t have known.”
“Couldn’t have known what?”
“She said that none of us did. That we all trusted him. And he betrayed us all.”
“I have no idea.” Jessie shook her head and covered her face with her hands. “I keep getting these flashbacks of what happened, but nothing in great detail. And now, I’ve had dreams about Karen and Sherry. None of this is making sense.”
“These visions of yours are starting to get pretty damn scary,” he admitted.
“You’re telling me.”
Nathan pushed himself off of the floor and offered her a hand. “Let’s go get you some water and we’ll try to figure this thing out.”
She accepted his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Dizziness overtook her again and she fell forward, Nathan’s chest bracing her to keep her from falling. Jessie lifted her eyes to his; saw worry reflecting back at her, concern and something else, something more heated. Yet, he quickly placed his fašade firmly back in place and set her away from him.
He took a step back, running a hand through his hair and casting his eyes downward.
“What’s going on here, Nathan?” she asked with bated breath.
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“I’m sorry,” he laughed humorlessly, still refusing to cast a glance her way. “I don’t know.”
“Between us!” she almost shouted. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel it.”
He finally looked at her, forcing control over his features. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
With that, Nathan turned to leave but halted when he felt her hand on his forearm, her fingers brushing against his skin. Slowly, he turned to her.
“You really don’t feel it?”
“Feel what, Miss Porter?” he growled between clenched teeth.
Jessie stared at him, her mouth agape, before she mumbled, “Nothing,” and brushed past him.
* * * *
Nathan sat on the front porch, staring at nothing in particular, his mind wandering in one big circle. This was all becoming too overwhelming for him. None of it made sense. He was beginning to wonder if he should call Mike and have himself relieved up here. There were too many problems, too many issues clouding his good judgment. He just needed to get back to Deatsville and work the investigation end of this case.
Jessica Porter was getting to him. Yet, his attraction was only one facet to this complicated situation. These dreams that were haunting her were beyond his comprehension. He didn’t know if these visions were being conjured up by her own subconscious mind or if there was something mystic going on here. She had been visited by the ghosts of Karen Shephard and Sherry Phillips in her dreams. And each one had given her some sort of ‘message’. But what did it all mean?
Nothing is as it seems. That was what Karen had told Jessie in her vision. What wasn’t what it seemed? Were they missing something or misinterpreting facts? Had they overlooked a detail that was obvious? He just didn’t know.
You couldn’t have known. We all trusted him. And he betrayed us all. That was a pretty blunt statement. It was someone that they all knew and trusted, someone that had taken that trust and used it against them. They had already assumed that the man or men responsible was someone they were acquainted with. But as long as Jessie didn’t see a face in her visions, that still left them with nothing. The women had quite a few acquaintances, quite a few people that could fit that bill.
So, where did that leave them? They were no step closer to figuring this thing out. And that aggravated him to no end. He wasn’t used to dealing with a case like this. There was no evidence, no real suspects. What the hell did he have to work with other than the dreams or hallucinations of a woman that may not have even seen the perps’ face?
Nathan heard the door open and close behind him and glanced up as Jessie slipped into a glider beside of him. He stared at her for a long moment, studying her profile in the shadow the trees cast upon the porch. She continued to stare forward, refusing to speak. Her hands were clasped in front of her, laying in her lap carelessly as she closed her eyes and allowed the gentle breeze to ruffle her hair.
Finally, her lids opened and she looked at him. Jessie took in a deep breath, her expression neutral. “I’m sorry I can’t be more help to you. And I apologize for what happened earlier. I’m just really messed up right now and I… I’m sorry.”
Nathan shook his head and sighed. She was apologizing for two things that she did not owe him an apology for. Jessie had no control over her ‘visions’ or her memory. And secondly, she had only stated the truth earlier. There was something going on between them, something beyond the investigation. He just didn’t want to admit it.
“It’s funny,” she laughed humorlessly. “Just when you think you’ve gotten everything figured out, life goes and throws you a curve ball. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t real anymore. And that scares me. Because I’ve always prided myself on being practical. But I honestly can’t explain what these dreams are. They come on out of nowhere. The first night I had the dream of Karen, I was sleeping. But these last two, they caught me off guard when I was wide awake.”
“What triggered this last one?”
“I had a candle burning on the coffee table,” she shrugged.
Nathan nodded. “Do you think these visions are your mind’s way of reconstructing what happened?”
“I don’t know. That’s possible. I mean, maybe I’m subconsciously giving myself little clues. And if that’s the case, then I do know who did this.”
“That’s a possibility.”
Jessie shoved her fingers through her hair, her expression crumbling for a mere second before she recovered her emotions. She glanced at Nathan again, searching his eyes before she spoke. “I haven’t really made this easy for you.”
“Jessie,” he whispered, wanting more than anything to pull her into the comfort of his arms and tell her that everything was going to be all right. “I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. And that’s okay. Regardless, we’ll get through this together.”
“You keep saying that, but…” Her words trailed off. Jessie didn’t know if she could be so bold as to state the obvious… at least the obvious through her eyes.
“I know that you’re pissed at me. I’ve been nothing but bitchy towards you, patronizing, and basically a pain in the ass. I forced you to drop your life because I was too stubborn to listen to reason and just wanted to check myself out of that hospital, not giving a damn about the consequences. And, the fact that it’s been three days now and I haven’t really been able to tell you anything to help you even get remotely closer to figuring out who did this…”
“Jess,” he breathed, reaching over and grabbing her hand. “I’m not pissed at you. The way I see it, you did what you had to do. That takes a lot of guts.”
“Then, what is it? Please tell me why you seem so distant.”
He took in a deep breath, wondering if he should be open and honest with her and just tell her the truth. Nathan knew he might as well. “What you said this morning… you were right.”
Jessie studied him quietly for a moment before she pulled her gaze from his and stared out across the horizon. “And that repulses you,” she replied blandly.
Nathan stood up quickly and came to her side, kneeling down in front of her and taking her chin in his hand, forcing her to look at him. “No,” he interjected in a fierce voice. “Just the opposite. But, I can’t do a damn thing about it. Because the moment I let this thing get personal, I can’t do my job.”
“I see. And your job comes first?”
“In this case, yes.”
She brushed his hand away and stood up, glaring down at him. “Then, you do what you have to.”
He stood up as well, reaching out and grabbing her shoulders, forcing her to look at him. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do. But damn it, if it isn’t getting harder and harder.”
“Look, Nathan, I’m not looking for love here. If that’s what you’re afraid of, then don’t be. I’m not looking for a relationship.” She pushed him away and took a step back. Throwing her hands in the air, she let out a frustrated groan.
Nathan didn’t think, didn’t hesitate. He closed the distance between them in one step and reached for her, placing his hands on her cheeks and pulling her to him. His mouth found hers, devouring her lips. He felt Jessie’s arms wrap around his neck and he deepened the kiss, his need for her intensifying all the more. Yet, Nathan knew that this was wrong, that he shouldn’t be giving into his need.
Abruptly, he pulled back and searched her eyes. Nathan could read the vulnerability there, could see the desperation in her expression. And no matter how much he wanted her, he just couldn’t do it. Not like this.
Jessie watched his reaction to their kiss, the almost fearful look in his eyes. What he was afraid of she didn’t know. And she didn’t care. This had to stop! “Maybe it’s time you have someone relieve you of your duty here. This is obviously not working out well for either one of us.”
“Is that what you want?” he asked, his voice tainted with hurt.
“I think it would be best. Send Mikey up here and go home, Nathan.”
The man in him faded and the cop quickly jumped back into gear. “Mikey?”
“You know Mike?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“No. He didn’t.”