CHAPTER ONE Firm lips kissed the delicate spot above her collarbone as if he knew that would drive

her crazy. She grabbed onto his broad shoulders. Her nipples tightened. Desire coiled low in her groin. His long, midnight hair brushed her hand. She threaded her fingers through the silky strands and arched, bringing her nipples into contact with his hard pecs. Need shot through her. More pulsed with her body. His lips stroked up the column of her neck. She turned her head, giving him complete access to the sensitive skin. He chuckled, a deep, sensual sound that reverberated through her and made her want to hear him laugh. A velvety touch circled the shell of her ear. She giggled and twisted her head to get away, bringing their lips within centimeters of contact. Would he finally kiss her? Through the fall of his hair, she glimpsed his eyes. Deep ocean blue. Her lungs struggled for air as she drowned in their watery depths. His hands tightened on her bare hips. Her legs parted and slid up his muscular thighs. She was more than ready for him. He said her name. Whispered it. “Alexis. Wake up.” Detective Alexis Lever’s shot straight up in her bed. Her breath hitched and her heart rate ran a marathon in her chest. Wow.

She’d dreamed of him before, but never so vivid. He was always shrouded. Shadows masking his face, and a great distance separated them. Tonight, she felt his touch, glimpsed his face. “It was just a dream.” She heaved a disappointed sigh and adjusted her twisted flannel P.J.’s. A breeze fluttered the curtains and stirred the surprisingly thick October air. A putrid odor flooded the small the bedroom. Gagging, Alexis pressed a fist to her lips as her heart kicked into another gallop. Her gaze darted around the moonlight dappled bedroom of her grandmother’s house. No one lurked. The raised hairs on the back of her neck didn’t buy it. She reached for her gun, slid the covers off, and slipped from the bed. Her thoughts turned to Daniel Nicolis, The Village Strangler. The last time she had seen him he was climbing out the freezer at the M.E.’s office like it was an Olympic sport. The department was in deep denial. They claimed he must not have been dead. Yeah, it’d happened before, but how many walking dead had taken a header out of a high story window. And the person that gave him the final shove was stash in here, sleeping in the opposite bedroom. It could be him, back to even the score. She opened her bedroom door and eased out. The dim hall smelled of carpet fresh from a recent vacuuming.

Alexis raced across. Please don't tell her she had led Stella Walker, the only survivor of The Village Strangler, into a death trap. If anything happened to Stella, Alexis Lever, NYPD detective could kiss her career bye bye. She yanked open the door to her childhood bedroom. Empty. The bed neatly made. Stella Walker was gone. Not only was Alexis not supposed to take a witness into her home, she damn sure wasn’t supposed to lose her. So much for her good intentions. She slammed her fist onto the dresser rattling the antique perfume bottles. If only Stella had stayed in protective custody and hadn’t decided to go it on her own, Alexis would still be asleep. The rumble of an engine drew her to the window. Headlights off, a sleek sports car crept down the street to the cul-de-sac and parked across the street. The car door swung open and Roman Nicolis stepped from the dark interior. The weak streetlight didn’t soften his hard face. Neither did the leather coat hide his muscular frame. How had he found them at her grandmother’s house? The floorboards squeaked in the living room and the rusty hinges of the front door squealed. Stella raced from the house and into his arms. It was amazing how some women fell for a criminal. And make no mistake, Roman Nicolis was a criminal. He held Stella close. Not even air separated them. Then he kissed her. Must be nice to have someone care that much. Someone that would follow you to the end of the earth and back. Wouldn’t be her though. That helpless female thing some women

did wasn’t her. Major General Martin Lever and her three older brothers made sure she didn’t need rescuing. Alexis ran down the stairs. Stella wasn’t under arrest. She didn’t have the legal right to stop her from leaving. But she couldn’t let her leave with Roman. The man was a mercenary, his brother Daniel, a serial killer. Maybe a dose of common sense would make the woman reconsider departing with a man she barely knew. As she stepped off the last stair, that smell slammed into her. Rotted. Decomposing . . . death. The moonlight slicing through the window above the double sinks cast shadows that loomed and concealed the room. Her hand stroked the wall and brushed the switch. Fluorescent lights flickered on. Leftover cartons from the Chinese takeout place littered the countertop. The fine hairs on her arm saluted. She moved forward. The Glock led the way to the back door. Midway in, a low growl froze her. Her heart kicked into a hard gallop. Her muscles quivered ready for flight. The back door to the kitchen exploded. Lifted off her feet, wood and glass narrowly missed her. She landed against the back of the sofa in the adjacent living room. Alexis rolled to her knees. “What the hell?” Where was her gun! Patting the ground around her, she skimmed the nozzle poking from beneath the sofa.

The light had shattered. The kitchen door was a black hole to the backyard. Foul air wafted in and smothered her. Alexis doubled over and hurled chunks of Chicken Low Mein. When she stood, she wasn’t alone. A monster had stepped through the opening. She saw it in pieces where the moonlight touched. A flash of a crocodile face. A glint of razor sharp white teeth. And a glimpse of claws as long as her fingers. Before she could raise her gun, it closed the distance between them. A beefy hand grabbed her throat and snatched her close to rows of teeth. Its fetid breath buffeted her, ruffled her hair. She couldn’t breathe. Terror sapped her strength. This had to be the flipside of her dream. Things like this didn’t exist outside of sleep. She brought her gun up, but it knocked the weapon from her hand sending it clattering to the linoleum floor. A tongue snaked from its mouth. It lapped her face. Thick saliva coated her cheek. “You’re not her,” the beast hissed. Did that mean she wasn’t dinner? Its head whipped towards the front of the house. The claw holding her loosened allowing for a wheezy breath. One eye with a vertical pupil rotated and studied her. “Next time.” It threw her. Alexis flew over the sofa and crashed onto the oak coffee table. Through a fog of pain, she glimpsed the beast crashing through the front door. She rolled and landed between the table and the sofa.

Stella, had she escaped? Please god, let her be safe. Clutching her side, she lumbered to her feet and made her was to the destroyed doorway. She paused against the shattered frame. Twos and threes of everything wavered, but when her vision cleared Roman, Stella and the car were gone. Her stomach rolled. She took a step and stumbled over a piece of the broken door frame. Weightless, the pain skittered away, leaving her euphoric. Her vision cleared and the stone stairs leading to the front of the house rushed towards her. Or was it the other way around? Not that it mattered. She didn’t have enough strength to brace for impact.