But if Dugan was ever released, he’d have to watch his back.
Dugan turned and waved at the crowd, pausing to insist to the press that he was an innocent man. That he’d been framed.
Bile rose in Miles’s throat, but he ordered himself not to react. Instead, he stepped outside into the muggy Texas air.
Heat suffused him in a cloud of steam rising from the pavement, and the fact that he hadn’t slept for days intensified his fatigue.
He’d vowed to make it up to his son and Marie for leaving them for days on end without so much as checking in, for missing Timmy’s birthday and Christmases and the rodeo at the BBL, for being exactly what Marie said he was: married to the job.
He’d start now. This Christmas he would be there to play Santa for his boy.
He headed toward his Jeep but his cell phone chirped—his friend from the Bucking Bronc Lodge and fellow detective Mason Blackpaw, who’d worked the Slasher case with him.
A bad feeling pinched his gut.
Was Blackpaw calling to congratulate him on the verdict or for another reason?
He punched the connect button. “You heard the verdict, Mason?”
“Yeah. But we have a problem.” Blackpaw hissed a sound of disgust that confirmed Miles’s earlier premonition.
“There was another murder.”
Miles gritted his teeth at the words he didn’t want to hear.
“Another woman, name’s June Kelly.”
“It’s not good, McGregor. Her throat was slit just like the other four.”
Miles dropped his head into his hands and cursed. Dammit, no.
The M.O. was the same as the murders Dugan had just been convicted of.
Which meant Dugan was either innocent, he had a partner or there was a copycat killer.
No...he was sure Dugan was guilty.
But hell, this was bad—even if Dugan was in jail, a killer was still out there hunting....
Three months later
“Dugan is out.”
Miles’s fingers tightened around his cell phone as he wheeled his SUV around and headed toward the station. “What?”
His superior, Lieutenant Hammond, didn’t sound happy. “Based on the Kelly woman’s murder and some technicality with the chain of evidence when they’d searched the man’s place, Dugan’s lawyer got his conviction overturned.”
The past few weeks of tracking down clues and false leads day and night taunted him. He released a string of expletives.
Hammond cleared his throat. “If we’d found evidence connecting Dugan to a partner, maybe things would have gone differently, but...”
Hammond let the sentence trail off, but Miles silently finished for him. If he and Mason had found such evidence, Dugan would still be in a cell. And the world would be a safer place.
But they’d failed.
The day Dugan’s verdict was read flashed back. Dugan’s threat resounded in his head—you’ll pay.
“Now that he’s back on the streets—”
“I know. He’s going to kill again,” Miles said. And he’s probably coming after me.
His cell phone chirped, and he glanced at the caller ID. Marie’s number.
Damn, she was probably on his case for working again last night and missing dinner with Timmy. He’d thought he might have found a lead on the copycat, but instead he’d only chased his own tail.
The phone chirped again.
Panic suddenly seized him, cutting off his breath. Dammit...what if payback meant coming after his family?
“I have to go, Hammond.” Sweat beaded on his neck as he connected the call. “Hello?”
Husky breathing filled the line, then a scream pierced the receiver.
He clenched the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip. He had to clear his throat to speak. “Marie?” God, tell me you’re there....
But the sudden silence sent a chill up his spine.
More breathing, this time followed by a husky laugh that sounded sinister, threatening...evil.
Dear God, no...
Dugan was at Marie’s house.
He pressed the accelerator, his heart hammering as he sped around traffic and called for backup. The dispatch officer agreed to send a patrol car right away.
A convertible nearly cut him off, and Miles slammed on his horn, nearly skimming a truck as he roared around it. Brush and shrubs sailed past, the wheels grinding on gravel as he hugged the side of the country road.
Images of the dead women from Dugan’s crime scenes flashed in his head, and his stomach churned. No, please, no...Dugan could not be at Marie’s house. He couldn’t kill Marie...not like the other women.
And Timmy...his son was home today with her.
The bright Texas sun nearly blinded him as he swerved into the small neighborhood where Marie had bought a house. Christmas decorations glittered, lights twinkled from the neighboring houses, the entryways screaming with festive holiday spirit.