Keep me safe, p.12
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       Keep Me Safe, p.12
 

         Part #1 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks  
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  He came to attention, his nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing as he focused on Caleb Devereaux leaving the office building. He started forward, his stride hobbled, his clothing dirty and torn. There was nothing about his current appearance to hint at his identity. He was very careful and he knew he was smarter than the others. They wouldn’t find him.

  His pulse accelerated and a giddy thrill coursed through his veins as Caleb Devereaux approached. Caleb didn’t see him. Men like Caleb never saw the less fortunate. He looked past others as though they didn’t exist in his privileged world. His shortsightedness would cost him dearly.

  On cue, he stumbled, falling forward directly into Devereaux’s path. His arm flailed upward as if he were trying to catch himself. His fingers curled tightly around Devereaux’s arm as he went to one knee.

  “Sir, are you all right?” Devereaux asked in a concerned voice.

  Surprise prickled down his spine at Devereaux’s reaction. He blinked and forced his attention back to the task at hand.

  Devereaux helped him to his feet while he had his hand clamped around Devereaux’s wrist.

  “Do you need medical attention?” Devereaux asked, his brow furrowing.

  He shook his head and rasped out, “No. Thank you, sir. You’ve been kind. But I’m all right. I just tripped. Sorry to have bothered you.”

  “You weren’t a bother,” Devereaux said kindly.

  Then to his surprise, Devereaux reached into his billfold and pulled out several twenties. He held the money out to him, urging him to take it.

  Even better. He now had something that had been in Devereaux’s possession, which had his imprint all over it.

  “Have a blessed day,” he said to Devereaux in a gravelly voice that sounded as aged as he currently looked. And then he turned and shuffled away, careful to keep the guise of an old, homeless man. A smile hovered on his lips and adrenaline pumped through his veins, giving him a euphoric high that could only be topped when he had Ramie St. Claire at his mercy.

  TWENTY-THREE

  “THE eyes aren’t right,” Ramie said, frustration beating at her temples.

  She scrubbed a hand over her face and closed her own eyes momentarily. She tried to force herself to relax and allow her mind to hone in on her stalker’s features. But every time she pulled up his face it was all a giant blur.

  Her head pounded viciously. The harder she tried to bring the image into focus, the more her head hurt. It felt as though she could burst a blood vessel in her brain at any moment.

  “Do you need to take a break?” Dane asked.

  His concern was evident as his gaze swept over her. Judging by his reaction, she must look pretty terrible. If she looked even half as bad as she felt then the expression death warmed over applied.

  “We can stop for a few moments,” Eliza said gently. “Maybe get some fresh air. Would you like something to drink?”

  “My head,” she moaned, pain assaulting her over the two words she verbalized. She sandwiched her head between her hands, pressing her palms to her throbbing temples.

  “Are you all right?” Dane demanded. “What about your head?”

  “Migraine.” It was all she could or wanted to get out. Her voice was so loud in her ears that even the three words she’d uttered felt as though she’d screamed them.

  Eliza cast a worried glance in Dane’s direction.

  “Do you have meds?” Dane asked. “Or do we need to call a doctor to come see you?”

  Ramie’s brow wrinkled. One eyelid twitched spasmodically, one of the many side effects of her migraines. Any direct exposure to the sun or bright lights made the twitch more pronounced.

  “Doctors don’t make house calls, and if we leave to go to the ER, I’ll be waiting for hours and it will be that much longer before we get a likeness of his face distributed. For his next victim, every minute counts.”

  Dane shrugged. “Doctors make house calls when you’re Caleb Devereaux.”

  “Of course,” Ramie muttered, pushing her fingertips in a tight circular motion at her temples. “And I did have medication but I used it sparingly because I don’t have a regular doctor anymore and I can’t just walk into the ER or an urgent care center and demand migraine meds. I lost it, and everything else I owned, escaping my stalker in Oklahoma.”

  “I’ll ask Tori for a pill for you,” Dane said, his gaze gentle and his tone matching.

  She wondered just how awful she looked and sounded for Dane and Eliza to be on virtual tiptoe around her. Then, as she took in what he’d said, she frowned and shook her head. The very last thing she wanted was to involve Tori. It was better for everyone if Tori remained in blissful ignorance locked behind the walls of her bedroom.

  “Her doctor prescribed the medication after what happened last year because she gets debilitating headaches when she has visions or dreams. It might make you a little drowsy, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Dane said pointedly. “I imagine you could do with some actual rest rather than running on fumes like you are now.”

  As he spoke the last, he rose from his seat on the couch and made a gesture to the artist, who’d patiently tweaked and rearranged each time Ramie got it wrong.

  “Take a five-minute break. I’ll get her something for her headache. There’s no sense in pressuring her more right now. A few more minutes won’t make a difference if he’s already moved on to his next victim.”

  Mocking laughter echoed in Ramie’s mind and she squeezed her eyes shut, her hands trembling violently in her lap. She wouldn’t let him unbalance her. He wasn’t really there.

  The ache in her head intensified, the pressure building so much that it felt as though something inside her would shatter into a million pieces. It was as though someone was piercing her skull.

  Too late . . .

  The thought drifted through her mind leaving her to question whether it was her own manifestation of her deepest fear or if the killer had truly communicated with her through their link.

  Of course she wasn’t imagining it. She wasn’t an idiot and it had been as plain as day the night before last when he’d told her there was nowhere she was safe from him. She wasn’t a hysterical person by nature, though to anyone seeing her now it would appear she was a complete nutcase.

  Dane didn’t wait for confirmation or for her to refuse his offer. He simply left the room.

  When he didn’t reappear within a few minutes, Eliza frowned and checked her watch. Her foot tapped impatiently on the floor and then she glanced at Ramie, apology in her eyes.

  “I know how hard this must be for you, Ramie. Or maybe I don’t. I’ll spare you any condescension by claiming I know what you’re going through. I’m not trying to say I’ve experienced anything on the scale that you have. But I can imagine how scared you must be and I can also imagine me not having the courage to see it through like you have.”

  Ramie laughed, the sound jarring and abrasive, scratching like a steel wool scouring pad over her skin.

  “Scared? Absolutely. Courageous? Not even close. If it weren’t for Caleb, I’d still be out there hiding, trying to cover my trail and praying that each day wouldn’t be my last. If I was brave—or whatever . . .” she said derisively.

  She paused a moment and swallowed back the knot in her throat. Then she looked straight through Eliza.

  “If I had courage, then all the women he killed in his efforts to get to me would still be alive. If I was brave, I would have taken a stand much sooner instead of acting like a frightened child and burying my head in the sand.”

  She held up her hand when Eliza launched an immediate protest.

  “Save your breath,” Ramie said, fatigue swamping her. “I didn’t say that to earn your pity or to get you to argue and tell me it wasn’t my fault. Nor do I expect or want validation. Rationally I know I can’t be held accountable for the actions of others. But at the same time, if I had only tried to confront him instead of spending the last year running and constantly looking over my shoulder the
n maybe he’d be in prison right now. Or dead. And all those women who died would still be alive, enjoying their families, children . . .”

  “Or maybe you’d be dead and he would still be out there stalking his next victim, still taking innocent lives because there was no one to bring him down. There are a lot of maybes, Ramie. A lot of what-ifs and second guesses. You forget that you saved a hell of a lot of victims. You saved Tori from certain death. They got to her mere hours before he planned to kill her. And the others you helped. They’d all be dead if you hadn’t intervened. Focus on those lives you saved. Not the ones you didn’t.”

  Dane returned just then, a bottle of water in one hand, his jaw tight. His eyes glinted with anger and Ramie saw Eliza’s eyebrow go up. Evidently she saw the same thing Ramie had. Ramie didn’t need to touch him to know he was pissed.

  “What is it?” Ramie asked softly.

  Dane ignored her and held out the medication. Ramie eyed it dubiously, knowing she likely wouldn’t be sensible in an hour’s time. She was sensitive to any medication that altered her level of consciousness in any way, no matter how weakly it might affect her.

  She was at her most vulnerable when she took medication. She couldn’t school her thoughts as well and didn’t have protective barriers in place. From past experience she knew that memories and dreams of past victims would be unleashed, and she would be unable to control her thought patterns. She shuddered, her skin prickling, the hairs standing on end.

  “Take it, Ramie,” Dane urged.

  Though he wasn’t in the least bit threatening and he’d tempered his voice in deference to her sensitivity to sound, she could sense his steel resolve that she down the pill. With a sigh, she allowed him to drop it into her hand, but still she paused after he handed her the bottle of water.

  Emotion swamped her. She jerked in surprise at the strength of the impressions from just a tiny pill. But Tori—and Dane—had touched it and so the remnants of their volatile encounter was transferred to Ramie.

  Dane studied her, his eyes sharp as he took in her reaction. His lips thinned as if he realized what had happened and had little liking for it. She could barely hear the muttered curses under his breath.

  “Before you get pissed, understand that it’s high time someone quit coddling her and pulled her back into the real world where everything doesn’t revolve around one individual,” Dane said.

  It was obvious that Tori and Dane had faced off about something. Her? Giving her relief from the mental strain of a migraine and the psychic weight of so many souls, pulling her left and right, all demanding justice for what was done to them?

  That heaviness gave her much-needed impetus to face the task ahead. If everyone thought Tori unreasonable and recalcitrant then what must they think about her? Tori had more reason to be angry than Ramie. After all, no matter that Ramie shared the same fate, it still wasn’t the same as being there, suffering it firsthand and being helpless to stop it. And there was the fact that Ramie had been so difficult to find. And unyielding, only giving Caleb the information he demanded after it was forced on her.

  She swallowed the pill, grimacing as it went down. She’d never been able to swallow pills. Even as an adult, she often resorted to crushing tablets into a fine powder and mixing it with a tiny amount of liquid.

  It took a few more sips to wash it completely down and then she leaned back, focusing her attention once more on the drawing. In an hour’s time she wouldn’t trust herself to remember details accurately so she needed to get this right. Every minute the killer walked free was another minute his victim had to endure the unimaginable.

  Even the effort it took to get the pill down sent shards of pain through the base of her skull. Her stomach lurched and she inhaled sharply through her nose in an effort to stave off the nausea. She felt as though tiny little fractures formed a spiderweb over her skull, cracking and splintering as they raced, weaving a crisscross pattern through her hair.

  She reeled precariously, her stomach revolting once more. She swallowed furiously, forcing herself to keep the pill down and not promptly throw it up.

  Dane swore colorfully. “That’s enough for right now. She can’t do this. This can’t be good for her, and Caleb will have my ass if we allow her to continue as is.”

  The sketch artist looked mildly surprised but shrugged as though he didn’t care one way or another and that angered Ramie. It was irrational. She knew that. But the unfortunate artist just happened to be an outlet for her anger, and she was at her boiling point.

  Anger was a more acceptable emotion than fear. Anger didn’t make her weak. Just careless and volatile as she unleashed her rage.

  The artist’s apathy infuriated her. Made her feel as though no one really cared about all the women who’d been victimized. Or cared that she had endured hell with each and every one of them. It made her feel negligible. Overlooked just as the other women had been forgotten about, just another sad statistic in a growing stack of them.

  “Do you really want the next victim to be on your conscience?” she asked in a frigid tone, her gaze narrowing at the artist. She continued to coldly stare him down until he fidgeted under her scrutiny. He at least had the grace to look abashed but he refused to meet her challenging stare. With a sound of disgust, she glanced up at Dane. “We’ll stop when we get it right and not a minute before.”

  Eliza reached for Ramie’s hand, squeezing it in a silent show of support. Ramie immediately flinched and braced herself for the inevitable onslaught. Eliza’s shocked gaze met hers and Eliza swiftly removed her hand, as though she’d forgotten all about Ramie’s ability to read people through touch and she had secrets she wanted to remain hidden.

  Ramie carefully schooled her features, forcing herself not to show any outward reaction to the flood of rigid anger buried beneath Eliza’s cool façade. Rage. Billowing like a black thunderhead at the front of a huge storm.

  It put Ramie into sensory overload. Her pupils constricted and then dilated in a few blinks. It was like being caught in the path of an avalanche and knowing there was no escape. Just waiting for the white wall of snow to envelope her.

  “Don’t touch her,” Eliza said sharply.

  Ramie assumed she was talking to Dane and that Dane had in some way reached for her, perhaps to steady her.

  “No,” Ramie whispered. “Don’t touch me, please.”

  She curled inward on herself, pushing the dizzying rush of fragmented emotions as far from the epicenter of the storm as possible. She closed her eyes and pulled her knees to her chin, rocking back and forth in an effort to sooth the raw edges that had been seared through her mind.

  For several long minutes she rocked, her forehead touching her knees, her arms hugged around her legs, a barrier to anyone in the room. It was a protective gesture, not that it ever did her any good because there was no defense for the mental onslaught she experienced.

  She blew out steadying breaths, determined to get her thoughts back under control. The last thing she wanted was for Caleb to return to this. He couldn’t pick up the pieces and put her back together forever. She had to learn to cope. Her old defense—denial—was no longer an option.

  She knew too much. She understood far too well the consequences of her closing her eyes and shutting out reality. Her doing so had far-reaching ramifications. Women died. Families were destroyed. Children had a future with no mother.

  “The eyes are wrong,” Ramie finally whispered. “The bridge of the nose should be flatter and wider, the eyes set farther apart and more rounded at the corners.”

  Respect gleamed in Dane’s eyes. She could feel his approval, broadcasting in waves as he stood silently by and watched. Eliza’s expression eased as she turned her attention back to the artist.

  Ramie’s brow wrinkled in concentration when the artist presented the next draft. She studied the face, looking for signs of evil. But he looked . . . normal. Above average. As she’d done before when she’d stared him in the eyes, she was struck b
y how handsome and wholesome he appeared. There was nothing to outwardly indicate the demon behind the polished façade.

  “That’s him,” she choked out.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  WHEN Caleb entered the living room he stopped dead in his tracks, his leather briefcase falling from his grasp and landing on the floor with a resounding thud. The only other sound was coming from Ramie. She was trying to gather herself and be stoic and that made it worse because she was fighting a losing battle. She made small noises, much like a wounded animal might make. And she had her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, her knees drawn up to hide her face. She rocked back and forth, her knuckles white from where she dug her fingers in where they rested on her arms. There would be marks, small bruises from her own grip.

  Caleb surveyed the room, took in the grim mood of Dane and Eliza and confusion in the eyes of the artist. “What the hell happened?” he demanded.

  Not waiting for an answer, he crossed the room and went to his knees in front of where Ramie rocked herself on the sofa.

  “Ramie?” he said in a gentle tone.

  There was something about the way she held herself that suggested utter fragility. Her head never came up. Her face wasn’t visible. Her hair was in disarray and her knees covered her eyes, the rest of her face hidden behind the tops of her thighs.

  Caleb rounded ferociously on Dane and Eliza, both of whom were watching intently, worry marring their expressions.

  He let out a low growl, the sound rumbling from his chest. “What did you do to her?”

  “She identified the killer,” Eliza said in a low voice. “The artist has his likeness, so we can distribute it through the proper channels and hopefully someone, somewhere, will recognize him.”

  Caleb’s gaze drifted to the sketch lying on the coffee table in front of where the artist sat and his brow wrinkled, his gaze narrowing as he took in the killer’s likeness.

  He looked like the last person who’d ever commit such atrocities but then wasn’t that the case with most serial killers? He recalled several famous cases where the criminal was the picture of bland mediocrity. Certainly nothing that indicated the viciousness of the crimes he committed.

  “I gave her one of Tori’s pain pills,” Dane said. “She had a horrific migraine and I was afraid she was going to stroke out on me. If she’s not any better soon, she’ll need to take another. She was in a lot of pain and she needs relief.”

  Caleb blew out his breath and turned his attention back on Ramie. He couldn’t very well take her to the hospital or even a private clinic. No way would he expose her. As long as she remained here, behind the impenetrable fortress he and his brothers had created, then she was safe from harm.

  “If she’s not better soon I’ll call a doctor to see her here.”

  Dane nodded. “I told her that. I don’t think she believed me. You operate in a world completely alien to her. She’s lived such a Spartan existence that she doesn’t know any other way. Your kind of wealth and means, your connections and power mystify her. That is if she even comprehends the full scope of your world.”

  Caleb reached for one of Ramie’s small hands, gently rubbing the fingers to restore circulation.

  “It’s your world too, Ramie. Maybe it wasn’t but it is now.”

  She lifted her haunted gaze to his and he winced at the starkness of her features. She didn’t refute his statement nor did she confirm it. She just stared blankly at him as if trying to comprehend the ramifications of his quiet vow.

  Then to his utter amazement she wrapped her arms around his neck and slid from the couch to the floor in front of him. She pressed her face into his chest and he could feel her trembling uncontrollably against him.

  He stroked his hand through her hair, not saying anything as he sensed she just needed quiet—and comforting.

  “He was here,” she whispered so only Caleb could hear her. In fact, he had to strain to catch what she was saying. When it sank in and he realized her meaning, his blood went cold.

  He pulled her gently away from his chest and cupped her chin so he could see her eyes and her expression.

  “What do you mean by that, Ramie?”

  “I heard him.”

  Frustration was audible in her voice, impatience simmering. She knew her stalker would never give up. He’d displayed ultimate patience, drawing out the pursuit and making her dance to his tune like a puppet being manipulated by his puppet master.

  He was simply waiting for the day when she made a fatal mistake.

  “I can’t go on this way. I don’t want to live like this, always running. I want what everyone else wants. A family. Friends. I’ve been alone my entire life, but I don’t want to be alone forever.”

  Caleb cupped her cheek and then pushed her hair back behind her ear. “You won’t be alone again, baby. You have me. You have my family.”

  She winced at the mention of his family. His family would never be hers. There was too much pain and resentment. She would always be a reminder of what happened to Tori. There was no erasing it, no making it all better. Tori—and Ramie—would bear the emotional scars for life.

  “Ramie, look at me,” he said in a firm voice.

  She instinctively obeyed before she could think better of it or shy away. Their gazes collided and his eyes were brimming with sincerity. There was
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