Good Little Girls – Rita Herron

Tinsley Jensen was tired of being a shut-in. Tired of living in fear. Tired of not living. How could she live when she was too frightened to go outside the beach cottage she’d rented and explore Seahawk Island? Set on the coast of Georgia, it was beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing, and it had been a favorite vacation spot of her family’s when she was little. Now she’d become so antisocial that her friends and fiancé had abandoned her. She traced her finger over the photograph that she kept on the table of her and her younger sister. She’d even cut off communication with Carrie Ann. The wind whistled through the eaves, rattling windowpanes and sending a chill through her. Dusk settled over the sea, the twilight hour a reminder that soon night would envelop her, cocooning her in the endless loneliness. Outside, a seagull swooped down onto the sand in search of food. A sailboat glided away into the distance. The last fisherman of the day packed up and left the dock, visible from her window. A few feet away, volunteers from the sea turtle patrol, a local group who devoted their time to rescuing injured sea turtles, knelt to dig up a loggerhead nest. Onlookers gaped in awe as the babies burst through the shells. Families crowded around.

Two little girls she’d seen playing on the beach all summer squealed with delight as the volunteers gently scooped the babies into their palms, then placed them in a large bucket. Memories of the happy times from her childhood surfaced. She and Carrie Ann on the beach, chasing waves and riding bikes. She wanted to talk to Carrie Ann so badly she ached. Her sister had been calling lately, but she hadn’t answered. What could she say? I’m still here, trapped. Frightened. Stay away from me. He might be watching. She had always been the strong sister, the one who took care of Carrie Ann.

She couldn’t see her until she could stand on her own two feet again. Or walk out the door . Angry that she was missing out on life while her attacker was free, she inhaled a fortifying breath. Those tiny baby turtles had broken out of their shells and were fighting to reach the sea. She had to break out of her own. Stop allowing the Skull—the man who’d abducted and held her hostage—to dominate her thoughts and run her life. It had been months since she’d escaped him. There had been no word since from the police that he’d taken another woman. Or that he was anywhere near Seahawk Island. Maybe he’d moved on and forgotten about her .

All summer she’d watched people walking their dogs in the early morning. She’d seen families playing on the beach, chasing waves, building sandcastles. The mother with those two little girls, dancing and laughing, reminded her of her own family. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed. Then another memory came to her. The last time she’d volunteered with PAT, Pets as Therapy. She’d carried a Yorkie to visit an elderly patient in a nursing home, a woman who’d given up on life. The moment she eased the dog into the woman’s arms, though, life had sparked in her eyes. If that frail ninety-year-old lady could fight to live, so could she. Even Tinsley’s parakeet, Mr.

Jingles, perched in his cage by the window, was stunted by her withdrawal from the world. She’d opened the cage door, offering him freedom. But he hovered inside just as she did. “We can do this,” she whispered. A shadow fell across the window. Night was coming. The crowd outside parted, then formed two lines, leaving a path for the baby turtles to crawl to the ocean. She snatched her camera. She wanted to see them up close. Determined, she took a step toward the door, but suddenly her lungs squeezed for air.

Fear seized her, its invisible hands immobilizing her. Cursing herself, she reached for the doorknob, then turned the lock. But she was shaking all over, and her knees buckled. The room spun. The doorframe blurred. She staggered sideways and clawed her way toward the couch. Gasping for air, she fell onto it and dropped her head between her knees. Sweat beaded her face and neck. Her heart raced. A sob of frustration welled inside her, but her throat was so dry the sound died.

The medication for her panic attacks sat on the kitchen table a few feet away. It felt like a million. Knowing she couldn’t reach the medication, she grabbed the bottle of green tea she’d opened earlier. With trembling hands, she tipped it up and drank deeply. Seconds passed. The room spun again. Perspiration trickled down the side of her face. She focused on the door, willing herself to try again. But the knob was turning. Someone was outside, trying to break in.

Dammit, she needed the .22 she’d bought when she’d moved here. She had to protect herself. Terrified, she jerked her head toward the window. The Skull. He was there. His evil eyes were watching her through the eyeholes of his black mask. A scream lodged in her throat. Her phone was on the end table. She needed help.

She’d call Agent Wyatt Camden. He’d protected her a few months ago when a vigilante killer had struck on the island. A rapping sounded on the window. Glass vibrating. She blinked, certain she was seeing things. But he was there. The man who’d tortured her—his masked face pressed against the window. Tears filled her eyes. Her body trembled. Dammit, she had to fight.

Call Wyatt. He was on speed dial. She managed to hit the number, but the window rattled again, and the Skull’s eyes peered at her, mocking her. His voice taunted her from the past: Good girls don’t cry . God . She’d cried, and he’d punished her for it. Her phone slipped from her clammy hand and hit the floor. The room swam into a sea of grays. Shadows filled her vision. The glass was breaking .

He was coming inside . his dirty hands reaching for her . She forced herself to stand. She needed that pistol. But his laughter echoed through the room, and she stumbled. Then her legs gave way, and she tumbled into the darkness. Family meant everything to Wyatt Camden. Even more so since his father’s death five years ago. Yet he was proud of his old man. Twenty years on the Savannah police force, and he’d been one of the good ones.

He was brave, strong, courageous. Everything Wyatt aspired to be. Too bad he’d been killed in the line of duty. His mother had fallen apart when the news came. The one bone of contention between her and his father had been the danger he faced daily. Wyatt could be killed on the job, too. He’d almost died after being stabbed by that bastard, the Skull. His father’s words echoed in his head. Show no weakness, son. Emotions are for wimps.

Men must be strong. So he’d worked like hell in physical therapy and fought his way back to active duty. That ordeal had made him question whether or not he’d ever marry. He sure as hell didn’t want to put a woman through the pain his mother had suffered. Except part of him wanted a family of his own. It didn’t matter now. He was married to the job. He pushed away his dinner plate with a groan. “Mom, that was great, as usual.” She gave him that sweet, concerned look that made his stomach knot.

“Don’t you want some more, honey? You need your strength.” Wyatt gritted his teeth. He didn’t want sympathy or to be babied. Ever since he’d been injured, his mother had plied him with meals. She claimed it was the way of the South. Recovery meant hearty food. Grieving meant casseroles. Family dinners meant gorging on pot roast, potatoes, and gravy. And peach cobbler. It was a wonder he didn’t weigh three hundred pounds.

He started to carry his plate to the kitchen, but his mother motioned for him to stay seated. She insisted she liked waiting on her boys, that it gave her purpose, so they’d silently agreed to let her. His brothers, Cody and Dominic, grinned as his mother cleared the table. Family dinner was a required weekly event in the Camden house, as it had been when his father was alive. It was even more important to his mother now that he was gone. Dammit, Wyatt missed him. “How’s Little League going?” Cody asked. Wyatt couldn’t help but smile. He loved those kids at the Boys’ Club. They needed him.

“Good. We could use another hand if you want to help.” Cody nodded. “Sign me up.” Dominic set his coffee cup on the table. “I would help, too, but I’m getting ready to leave for NCIS training at FLETSC.” Before his mother could return with the pie, Wyatt checked his phone for messages. She insisted no phones or work discussion during dinner, but he’d felt antsy the past few days, like something bad was about to happen. The screen displayed a number he didn’t recognize. But the name “Tinsley Jensen” appeared.

Damn. Her disappearance had been the biggest case of his career. The investigation had dragged out for months as he and his partner, Hatcher, had chased one false lead after another. During that time, he’d learned everything there was to know about Tinsley. He liked what he’d discovered. She rescued dogs for a living. He was a canine lover himself. Had always had a stray around growing up. He’d have one now, but he wasn’t home long enough to take care of it. He and the police had exhausted lead after lead until the case was about to go cold.

Then Hatcher’s first wife, Tinsley’s friend, had been abducted and the stakes raised. He and Hatcher had worked around the clock to find both women. They’d been too late for Hatcher’s wife. Tinsley had been hanging on by a thread. One look into her sad but determined eyes, and he’d fought like hell to free her. Rescuing her had nearly cost him his leg. But hell, danger went with the job. He thrived on the adrenaline rush. The chase. The reward of taking another predator off the streets.

Heart pounding, he pressed “Voice Mail.” Instead of a message, a muffled sound echoed back. Then white noise, and the phone went silent. Fear mushroomed in his chest. Tinsley hadn’t called him in months. Not since that awkward night he’d guarded her when a vigilante killer had struck. Although those murders hadn’t been related to the Skull, the killer, who belonged to a group called the Keepers, had been drawn to Tinsley’s website, Heart & Soul. A website where she expressed her feelings regarding her abduction. A place where other victims shared their experiences. Victims who bonded over the violence that had uprooted their lives.

A member of the Keepers had turned vigilante and had left a body on the dock by Tinsley’s cottage as a sign that justice was being served. His mother swept in with the pie, but he pushed away from the table. “I’m sorry, Mom. I have to go.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, said good night to his brothers, then hurried to the front door. Outside, he hit the sidewalk running. CHAPTER TWO They called him the Skull. He liked the name. It made him sound tough. Scary.

And important. He’d evaded police for months. Had worn a disguise. Smart. His victims couldn’t identify him. Which gave him the advantage. He could walk up to them in the grocery store or at a coffee shop, and they had no idea who he was. Only one had survived, though. He’d thought about her ever since. He paddled the canoe away from the dock near Tinsley Jensen’s cottage, his heart pounding.

She probably thought she was safe hiding out in the cove, thought he had no idea where she was. He’d known all along. He’d done his homework. Tracked her from the minute she was released from that hospital. And he’d been watching her ever since. Something was wrong tonight. Someone else was there. When he saw the silhouette on the walkway to her cottage, he’d retreated into the shadows. He hoped to hell whoever it was hadn’t seen him. He’d been so careful these last few months.

Meticulous in keeping a low profile. Need clawed at him day and night, relentlessly feeding the darkness inside him. It had taken all his will to keep the rising hunger inside him at bay. It was almost time to be with her again. The Day of the Dead would mark their anniversary. The shadow on the dock turned and looked straight out toward the ocean. Toward him. He cursed, ducked low, and paddled down toward the pier where he’d parked his car. Fuck. He couldn’t be with her tonight.

But he would be soon. And nobody would stop him. CHAPTER THREE Wyatt’s pulse raced as he drove across the causeway onto Seahawk Island. He called Tinsley back, praying she’d answer. But the phone rang several times and went to voice mail, raising his anxiety, and he sped around another vehicle. Nightmares of her ordeal and rescue plagued him constantly. If he’d found Tinsley early in the investigation, she wouldn’t have suffered the atrocities inflicted by her abductor. She wouldn’t be totally free until the Skull was caught and in prison—or dead. He’d prefer the latter. Criminals escaped prison, were released on parole.

He didn’t want that fear hanging over Tinsley. Anger nearly choked him as he remembered the bruises and scars on her body. The monster who’d tortured Tinsley didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as a human. Seagulls swooped low in the sky as he left the causeway and drove through the heart of the island, the Village, with its shops and restaurants. Dusk had come and gone, the last slivers of red and orange streaking the sky as night settled in. Spring and summer had brought tourists and vacationers to the coast, giving life to the stores, pier, park, and community swimming pool. Now that fall had arrived, the crowds had thinned. But with milder temperatures in the seventies, people still flocked to the island for rest and a reprieve from their busy lives. He slowed to let a biker cross, then veered onto the side street leading to Sunset Cove. Wyatt scanned the street as he approached.

No cars in sight. The two other houses in the cove looked vacant. Lights off. Blinds and curtains drawn. The breeze from the ocean picked up, making the palm trees sway. Waves crashed onto the shore and dock, the wind beating at the wooden railing and porch. He parked, then pressed Tinsley’s number again. The ringtone buzzed in his ears. Still no answer. He climbed the steps and glanced at the side window.

The shutters were closed. Body tense, he scanned the porch, dock, and property. A lone figure in a dark jacket was jogging down the beach, nearly lost in the shadows. A jogger or someone who’d possibly hurt Tinsley? He rapped on the door, then peeked through the front window facing the ocean. It was dark inside, a single light burning from the back. Tinsley’s bedroom. Tinsley hated the dark. She’d slept with a light on since the attack. He knocked again, then jiggled the doorknob. The door creaked as it opened.

Fear pulsed through him. Tinsley never left the door unlocked. Never. He pulled his gun and held it at the ready as he inched inside. Tinsley was lying on the floor near her desk, unconscious. He raced to her and knelt, then felt for a pulse. Weak. But at least she was breathing. Heart hammering, he reached for his phone to call an ambulance, but she moaned and her eyelids fluttered. Gently, he rolled her to her side and tilted her face so he could examine her for injuries.

“Tinsley, it’s Wyatt.” Her eyelids flickered, eyes widening. “You called me. I was worried and rushed over.” Her gaze darted from side to side, then settled on his face. He gently grazed his knuckles along her cheek. “What happened?” She whimpered and tried to sit up. He took her arm to help her, but she pulled away, her eyes wide with fear. Dammit, he’d forgotten she didn’t like to be touched. She scrambled back against the couch and propped her back to it as she rubbed at her temple.

“He . was here.” Wyatt tensed. She didn’t have to tell him who he was. “You saw the Skull?” he asked gruffly. She nodded, her lower lip quivering. “At the window . looking in. Then he broke the glass . ” Her voice cracked.

“He was reaching for me . ” Wyatt jerked his head toward the front window, then the side windows. None of them were broken. Tinsley’s gaze followed his, shock flashing across her face when she saw that the windows hadn’t been shattered. “I’ll check.” He scanned the room, searching for footprints, sand, a dusty fingerprint—any sign that someone had been inside. But other than the door being unlocked, nothing was disturbed. A bottle of prescription pills sat on the end table by the couch. He examined the label. A narcotic for anxiety.

Had Tinsley taken the meds and imagined she’d seen the Skull breaking in? Confusion clouded Tinsley’s mind as she stared at the window overlooking the ocean. It wasn’t broken. No shattered glass. No one coming through . But she’d seen the Skull. Hadn’t she? “Are you certain you saw him?” Wyatt asked. Anger hit her hard and fast. He didn’t believe her. She nodded. Although with the window still intact, how could she be sure? She dug her fingers into the edge of the couch and pulled herself to her feet.

Still dizzy, she had to take several deep breaths to steady herself. Wyatt was watching her as if she was crazy. She supposed locking herself inside this house made her appear unstable. Maybe she was losing her mind . Wyatt cleared his throat as he approached her. His big masculine body overpowered the room, filling her space with his woodsy scent. Reminding her that she wasn’t strong enough to fight him off. Emotions flickered in his eyes as if he realized he frightened her. Humiliation washed over her. But she refused to apologize.

She’d been brutalized by one man. She didn’t know whether she’d ever trust another. He stepped back, giving her space, then claimed the club chair across from her. With one hand, he gestured toward her prescription bottle of Ativan. “What were you doing before you saw him?” Wyatt said in a quiet voice. “If you think I drugged myself into hallucinating, you’re wrong.” She squared her shoulders, struggling for calm. “I haven’t taken one of those in months.” His gaze locked with hers. “Half of the bottle is missing.

” Tinsley shook her head. “That can’t be. I didn’t like the way they made me feel and stopped taking them.” Her hand shook as she reached for the medication. She removed the cap, her head throbbing as she looked inside. He was right. Half the pills were missing. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “This bottle was full.” A tense silence stretched between them.

“Let’s retrace the evening,” Wyatt said. “Tell me what you were doing before you thought you saw him.” Tears of frustration clogged Tinsley’s throat, but she swallowed them back. That monster’s voice taunted her—Good girls don’t cry. If they do, they die . “Tinsley?” Wyatt said in a low voice. Mouth dry, she grabbed her bottle of tea and took a sip. “I was watching the sea turtle patrol. They were releasing baby hatchlings.” A small smile tilted Wyatt’s mouth, and Tinsley’s stomach fluttered.

Wyatt Camden was a handsome man. Big. Strong. Tough. Once upon a time, she would have thought his smoldering eyes, shaggy hair, and muscles were sexy. Sexy was the last thing she wanted now. “My brothers and I used to watch the volunteers release the babies when we were little,” Wyatt said. “My mom even donates to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.” “It’s a good cause.” The conversation sounded so normal that she wanted to ask more about his family.

After all, he knew everything about her. But she couldn’t make this personal. “A crowd had gathered to cheer the babies out to sea.” She gestured toward her camera. “I . told myself if those babies could make it, I could leave the house.” His eyebrow shot up. “You were going outside?” Emotions welled in her chest. “I wanted to,” she whispered. A tense heartbeat passed, sympathy flickering in his deep-brown eyes.

“Go on,” Wyatt said quietly. She inhaled sharply. Talking about herself was always difficult. She’d learned to live alone. To be alone. Not to trust anyone or to share her vulnerability. Her fiancé had run when she’d opened up to him. He’d wanted a whole, normal woman. That ship had sailed the day the Skull abducted her. She wasn’t whole or normal anymore.

She never would be. “Tinsley?” “I reached for the doorknob. I wanted to go out and breathe the salty air, b-but I got dizzy.” She rubbed at her temple, disgusted with herself. “The room started spinning, so I staggered to the couch. When I looked up, his face was pressed against the glass, watching. He was smiling, then he broke through the glass . ” Her chest ached again. The air was trapped inside. She couldn’t breathe.

“It’s okay,” Wyatt said softly. “You’re safe now, Tinsley. He’s gone.” She hadn’t realized he’d moved, that he was sitting beside her. His hand was on her back, rubbing circles. For a moment, it was comforting. Then the fear returned and she pushed him away, then looked at the window again. Another strained moment. “I don’t see signs that anyone broke in.” “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Panic sharpened her tone. “That I made it up?” Wyatt shook his head. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe the wind rattled the glass so hard you thought it shattered.” He gestured toward the entry, concerned. “The door was unlocked when I arrived. Did you unlock it?” Tinsley rubbed her forehead again, her mind a blur. She’d reached for the doorknob. Had she unlocked the door? Yes . “I did, but then I got dizzy . ” “You could have been dreaming? Sleepwalking, maybe?” She prayed he was right. “Maybe.” He stood, jaw set, his dark eyes piercing her. “I’m glad you called. I want to help you.” He moved toward the door. “I’ll look around outside.” Wyatt didn’t know what to believe. Tinsley had been hiding out for months, ever since she’d been rescued. She was afraid the Skull would return for her and suffered from nightmares and anxiety attacks. The Keeper had frightened her even more by leaving a body on the dock in front of her place. Those factors could possibly trigger delusions. Wyatt stepped outside, pulled a small flashlight from inside his jacket, and shined it across the porch floor. His boot prints marred the wooden surface. But no others. Dammit. He didn’t want it to be true that the Skull was back. He didn’t want Tinsley to have a breakdown either. Although if he was locked inside a house for months, he would go out of his mind. He thrived on open spaces, on adventure activities like biking and hiking and whitewater rafting. He aimed the flashlight along the door and searched for evidence someone had jimmied it, but he didn’t see any dirt or prints on the doorframe or knob. The Skull was smart, though. He hadn’t escaped the law because he was careless. He would have worn gloves. Covered his tracks. Still, Wyatt spent the next half hour searching, walking the steps and dock, looking for any hint that the bastard had been on the premises. Just as he was about to return to Tinsley, his phone buzzed. His boss, Deputy Director Roman Bellows from the FBI’s Savannah field office. He quickly connected. “Yeah?” “SPD phoned us. They’ve got a case they want our help with.” His instincts kicked in. If they wanted the Feds, it was serious. “What is it?” “A crabber found some bones in the marsh.” “They were murders?” “Don’t know yet, but it gets more interesting.” Bellows paused. “The heads of the skeletons had been removed.” “You mean they were separated from the rest of the body?” “I mean they’re missing.” A coldness swept through Wyatt. The Skull had kept Tinsley in a dark place, a room where three skulls had stared back at her from ropes strung from the ceiling. Skulls that clacked together and tinkled like wind chimes made of bones.

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