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Excerpt for OMINOUS (with Nancy Bush and Rosalind Noonan)

Zebra
July 2017, ISBN: 1420137883

Genre: Romantic Suspense
(Part of the Wyoming series - Book 2)

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He’s out there...and he’s a monster

PART ONE

Fifteen years ago . . .

Chapter One

          They came.

          As expected.

          But this time there were three, not just two.

          All young, on the brink of womanhood.

          All with nubile, firm bodies.

          All unaware that he was hidden, deep in the umbra of the woods surrounding the lake.

          The back of his throat went dry and he licked his lips in anticipation.  As the tallest one began to strip in the moonlight, he felt his dick start to come alive, thickening beneath his jeans and hardening in anticipation, as if it had a life of its own.  He skimmed his fingers down his zipper, feeling his boner, smiling before reaching for his belt and silently drawing his Bowie knife from its sheath.  He traced the smooth steel of the slightly concaved clip point with the tip of his finger and imagined the weapon plunging deep between the breasts of the girls who had gathered on the shoreline.  Underage, they were here despite their parents’ warnings, because they were brazen and rebellious and . . . not good girls.  This, he knew.  Sensed.  No, they were bad.    

          He felt his juices flowing, that little zing that sizzled through his blood at the thought of what he would do.  Ahh, yessss . . .

          But first things first. 

          He had to wait, until the precise moment.

          Parting the branches, he watched, his heartbeat accelerating, his breath coming in shorter gasps. 

          Moonlight was a ribbon on the smooth, unbroken surface of the lake and the wind rustled through summer-dry branches, the hoot of an owl breaking the stillness.

            Come on, he thought, his blood tingling.  Take it off. He’d been to his share of strip clubs, first sneaking in when he was underage, then later, when there was no fear of being kicked out, sitting as near the stage as possible, watching the dancers carefully peel off their clothes in the most titillating of manners. Over the years he became less interested in what was obviously staged, a practiced tease to turn on the audience and draw money from the viewers’ wallets. But this, three girls on a dock at a deserted Wyoming lake, this was different.  More real. More raw. And the fact that these near-women had no idea that he was observing them was the ultimate turn on. 

          He squinted, then lifted his night vision goggles to get a better view.  The tall one striding out to the end of the dock was a blonde with an athletic build and he knew why.  Shiloh. She was the cowgirl, a tomboy, though built like a woman, her pale hair braided into a rope that hung halfway down her long back. 

          The middle girl was shorter, but trim, a petite brunette, her father a cop.  He smiled at that.  Katrina. Patrick Starr’s kid. She resembled her mother and was a feisty thing.  He knew. He’d watched. The fact that she was a detective’s daughter only made her all the more interesting.  A taboo.

          But the third girl baffled him and he didn’t think he’d seen her before. Certainly she’d never come to swim nude with the others. He wouldn’t have missed her.  She was the smallest. Petite. Her hair was probably some shade of red, he guessed, pinned into a topknot on her head.  Despite her small frame, she had big tits.  He couldn’t wait until she yanked off that sleeveless blouse she was wearing and show ‘em off.

          Again his dick twitched.

          He wondered at the color of her nipples.  Pale and blushing?  The kind that nearly blended into the surrounding soft tissue?  Or big, dark discs with pointed little nubs that he’d love to suckle and nip?

          Now his damned hard-on was pulsing.

          But she was sitting on the edge of the dock now, hugging herself, hesitating. Come on now, girl, don’t hold back now. Who the hell was she?  He zeroed in on the features of her face and didn’t recognize her, but he could imagine what it would feel like to have her slim legs wrap around his waist, the tightness of her moist pussy.

          He had to look away for a second.

          Couldn’t let sex distract him. 

          At least not yet.

          Come on, come on.  His whole body tensed as the disrobing began. Of course it was Shiloh, the cowgirl, who started the strip show.  Her friends were following suit.  The cop’s daughter, supposedly whip smart, wasn’t shy either, but the third one was still hesitating.

          So, now, which one?

          Who would be the lucky girl?

He adjusted his ski mask and raising one finger, pointed at the unwitting three as they innocently removed their clothes.

          Eenie, meenie, miney, moe . . .

#

          They should never have brought Ruthie.

          That was the mistake.

          And a huge one, Shiloh thought with more than a little rancor.  She shouldn’t have agreed to the change in plans, should never have sat waiting in the truck she’d “borrowed” from her jackass of a stepdad while Katrina had sneaked up the well-manicured street to Ruthie McFerron’s house, tapped on the girl’s bedroom window and helped her sneak out.  Crap! What had Katrina been thinking when she’d suggested Ruthie join them?

          Shiloh should’ve argued the point.  After all, she was the one taking all the chances.  If Larimer Tate figured out she’d rolled his truck away from the ranch, not turning on the headlights until she was around the corner, taken his crap of a pickup without his permission, there would be hell to pay. Sometimes, she thought, shaking her hair loose from its long braid, she let other people rule her life. Always a problem.  Tonight, letting Kat talk her into bringing the third girl was an example. 

          Obviously Ruthie was having second thoughts about sneaking out of her parents’ house to join them and now, of course, the little wimp was nervous, seeing ghosts in the shadows of the large aspens guarding this private lake, feeling as if unseen eyes were watching them.  

          The fact that the girl still went by Ruthie said it all. What 16-year-old would still be called Ruthie?  And yet it fit, Shiloh thought, as she stripped off her dusty T-shirt and sweaty bra. 

          The cold breeze kissed her skin as she dropped both items into a pile on the dock.  Ruthie McFerron was a baby.  That’s all there was to it.  And she’d been coddled by a neat, little, holy-roller family, unlike the patchwork of weirdos Shiloh’s called family, with her mother marrying a string of losers, the last, Larimer Tate, to whom Faye was still married, being the worst of the lot.

          “But I think I saw something,” Ruthie whispered again.

          “Like what?  It’s dark as hell out here,” Shiloh grumbled as she worked at the top button of her jeans.  She was having none of it.  “You’re imagining things.”  

          “No, I think--”

          “Shhh!”  Katrina, a few steps behind the other two, hissed a warning. “No one’s out here. Just us.”

          “Then why do we have to be quiet?”  Ruthie’s round eyes were visible in the moonlight, the whites shimmering.

          She was such a wuss.

          “I think someone or something’s out here.  There.  Over there!”  She pointed to a thicket of trees where the undergrowth was the darkest.

          “Oh, for the love of God,” Shiloh muttered, kicking off her cutoff jeans and panties.  They landed close enough to her T-shirt that if she had to grab them quick, she could scoop up all of her clothes   Good enough.   If, on the off chance that Ruthie was right and there was someone hiding in the copse of saplings surrounding this lake.  “It’s probably just a deer or a cougar, maybe a bear.”

          Ruthie gasped.  “A cougar?  No, it couldn’t be a--”

          Shiloh shrugged. “Then a wolf.”

          Planks creaked underfoot as Ruthie backed toward the center of the dock. “Can wolves swim?”

          “Stop it!” Katrina warned angrily.  “Why do you do that?  Huh?  What’s wrong with you?” she asked and Shiloh knew the question was aimed at her.  

          She didn’t answer.  Girls like Katrina and Ruthie didn’t have a clue about the hot mess that was Shiloh’s life; they didn’t understand how living at home was far scarier than anything these woods could hide.

          With a little less anger, Kat said, “Don’t mess with her.  It’s her first time. She’s not used to disobeying her parents.”

          Shiloh snorted to herself. Like Ruthie was some fragile china doll.  But there was no talking Katrina down when she found a cause to get behind and right now, Ruthie-damned-McFerron was the cause du jour

          Rebuked, Shiloh decided not to wait. Sucking in her breath, she made a shallow dive into the icy water. She barely made a splash in the still, humid night.  Grateful for the frigid grip of the lake and the silence it brought with it, she swam deep under water as if she could get away from the sting of Katrina’s words.  But the question, What’s wrong with you? chased after her, echoing through her brain.

          Not for the first time.

          Maybe it was her needy mother and the slew of broke-ass stepfathers who always eyed Shiloh with more than a little lust.  Larimer Tate was the worst of the slimy lot, a sick bastard if there ever was one. 

          Or maybe she’d just been born with a bad attitude.  Who knew?  And really, who gave a crap? She tried to ignore Kat’s question, attempted to shrug it off, as she did with anyone’s criticism, be it constructive or not, but the words burrowed deep in her brain: What’s wrong with you?

          Nothing! She let a few bubbles escape from the sides of her mouth and they rose around her, catching the moon’s reflection in the inky depths.  Really, it was all Ruthie’s fault.  Not hers.

          Skimming along the bottom, she wondered why she’d ever allowed Ruthie to come anyway.  The girl was the daughter of a minister, one of those fire-and-brimstone types who were always condemning sinners to hell.  Shiloh had known sneaking Ruthie out and heading out here to go skinny dipping was asking, no, make that begging, for trouble, but Katrina seemed hell-bent on making friends with wimpy Ruthie. 

          For the life of her, Shiloh didn’t understand why, but she sure wasn’t surprised that the girl was jumping at shadows.  Well, fine.  Katrina had wanted Ruthie to come along, so now she could deal with the girl and her case of nerves.  Served them both right.

          Her lungs started to ache and she shot upward to surface, tossing her hair from her face.  Treading water, she observed the moonlight shining through the trees to show in stippled lines upon the lake’s dark surface. Ripples moved around her as she turned onto her back, her bare breasts exposed.  At least her muscles were finally relaxing after of day filled with dust and chaff from bucking hay and training a particularly stubborn colt.  She enjoyed the horses, hated hauling the scratchy bales into the barn, detested working with her useless stepfather, though.  What a douche.

          Ruthie and Katrina were still on the dock, where they were finally removing their clothes.  About damned time.  Katrina was probably having to convince the younger girl that being naked was okay.  What a head case!

          She turned again and from the corner of her eye she thought she saw movement, just the barest alteration of the shadows in the foliage flanking the lake.  Her muscles tensed as she blinked away the drops of water clinging to her lashes.  Telling herself that they’d distorted her vision, she focused hard but saw nothing she shouldn’t. She gave herself a quick mental shake.  Ruthie’s over-active imagination was infecting her.  That was all.

          Damn.  Shiloh had come here all summer long and never once seen or heard anyone.  Nothing had changed when Katrina, thinking a swim sounded good after a greasy, smoky shift washing dishes at Big Bart’s Buffalo Lounge, had started tagging along.  So why would that all change.  Because of Ruthie?

          It’s nothing.  With a kick, she turned over and dove deep again, but the eerie sensation chased after her into the murky depths.        

#

          “Shiloh?” Ruthie McFerron called nervously.

          “She’s fine.” Katrina couldn’t keep the irritation from her voice as she peeled off her tank top.   Shiloh could be such a bitch, a hot-head who was always barreling through life and damning the consequences.

          Well fine.  Let her swim off alone.  Cool her jets.   Katrina could deal with Ruthie. “Don’t worry about her. She talks before she thinks.”  Standing near the edge of the water, Katrina tightened the band pulling her hair away from her face and noticed that the greasy smells from the fryer at Big Bart’s still clung to her. 

          She glanced at her friend. Ruthie was having one helluva time taking off her clothes.  Katrina unhooked her bra and tossed it onto the small heap where she’d kicked off her flip-flops.  Then she dropped her shorts and panties in one fell swoop.  “Come on,” she said to her newfound friend.

          Anxiously eyeing the surroundings, Ruthie was carefully undressing, even bothering to fold her skirt and sleeveless blouse over her sandals.  “I don’t know about this,” she whispered but managed to take off her bra and tuck it under her blouse.

          “You wanted to come,” Katrina reminded her.  The truth was that Ruthie had practically begged Katrina earlier in the day when the preacher’s daughter had come into the diner for an iced mocha and had overheard that Kat was meeting Shiloh for a midnight swim. 

          “I know, but . . .” Ruthie held her hands over her breasts. “But it’s all kind of weird and I swear I saw something.  I mean, Shiloh, she was just joking about cougars and wolves and all that. Right?”

          “Of course she was,” Katrina said tautly.  But she slid another look into the fringe of trees surrounding the lake.   There was something off tonight, a little bit of electricity in the air she couldn’t explain.  Or maybe Ruthie’s case of nerves was just making her edgy.

          “Well, it’s not funny. I know I’m a little jumpy, but I’m still not used to the country. When we lived in Denver, everything was total suburbia. Malls and neighborhoods and Blockbusters and stuff. Dad said the area was losing its frontier charm. I’ve only been here a year and the wilderness takes some getting used to. I really did see something. It’s . . . it’s probably nothing,” Ruthie said.  “My mother accuses me of jumping at my own shadow.”

          “Yeah, well, don’t worry about it.”  Katrina tried to soothe her friend, tried to ignore the skin-crawling doubt, that little bit of subconscious anxiety suggesting that things weren’t as they appeared.  A warning.  She narrowed her eyes on the darkest spot in the surrounding trees, where the tree limbs nearly canopied over the narrowest point of the lake.  A frog was croaking and mosquitos buzzing, a fish jumping in the water and sending out ripples.  But she saw no one lurking in the shadows.

          The thought was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  No one would be out here.

          For a fleeting second she thought of the two girls who had disappeared two years before on a summer night just like this. Not here at the lake, but at a brook where they had gone wading. Rachel and Erin, two teens from good families. Katrina’s father was still working on their missing persons cases.  And then, just last month, Courtney Pearson had also gone missing one night after fighting with her boyfriend Rafe. No one had been surprised about Courtney. She had been suspended from Prairie High School numerous times because of her piercings and tube tops with jeans cut so low you could just about see her girl parts. Katrina and Courtney had been lab partners in earth science class, with Courtney repeating the class after failing it twice. Courtney Pearson had gained a reputation as the bad girl of Prairie Creek High School. Her image wasn’t helped by the fact that her boyfriend was Rafe Dillinger, a spoiled rich kid who’d gotten caught stealing a few times.

Three girls gone. Some people, like Shiloh, discounted them all as runaways, but Katrina wasn’t sure that was correct. Since the girls had vanished on Patrick Starr’s watch, she had overheard a lot of the details, and it sounded like none of the girls seemed eager to get out of town. Kat worried they’d been kidnapped, and her father seemed to agree. Dogged as he was, Detective Starr wasn’t giving up the investigation, not until he found them.

Katrina shook off her dark thoughts and lifted her arms to the humid velvet air. She was safe with her friends. “It’s a good night for this.” She glanced back at Ruthie. “Are you coming or not?”

“Sure.” Ruthie didn’t seem sure at all with her arms folded to cover her breasts.

          “Then come on. We’ll ease in from the beach.”

          Ruthie let out her breath.  Stepped out of her panties.  Hid them in her tidy stack of clothes.  “Okay,” she said, tentatively following Katrina off the dock to the sandy shore.  They waded into lake, the water so cold it could steal your breath.

          Katrina hissed, sucking in air through her teeth, her abdomen concaving.

          “Wow,” Ruthie whispered as she checked to make sure the pins holding the knot atop her head were secure.  “It’s freezing!”

          “You just need to get used to it.”  Katrina scanned the lake.  Shiloh had submerged again.  Insects buzzed over the surface and she felt rather than saw a bat fly by, but she wasn’t going to say a word about it and spook Ruthie even further as they picked their way carefully over slick stones and sand.

          Katrina loved coming here. To get away.  Not only from her summer job as a waitress at the diner, but from other troubles – troubles related to her family.  Her father was wrapped up in his work, a detective who worked overtime.  Sometimes Katrina thought work was just a handy excuse for Patrick Starr to avoid facing what was happening at home.  With Mom. 

          “She hasn’t come up.”  Ruthie was eyeing the water, searching the depths.

          “She will. It’s a game Shiloh plays, holding her breath for as long as she can.  Ignore her.”  She was done pandering to the anxious girl. In one quick movement, Kat dived in and knifed through the water.

          Shiloh was untamed and tough, sixteen going on forty, or so she’d overheard her father grumble once.  As a lawman Patrick Starr didn’t really approve of Kat’s association with Shiloh and the troublesome Silva clan, but he tried to keep himself from nagging too much, she could tell.  No doubt he would prefer to find out that Kat was hanging out with Reverend McFerron’s daughter, since Ruthie walked the straight and narrow as a rule, while Shiloh didn’t give a hot damn for convention of any kind.

          “Hey, wait up!” Ruthie called and Katrina saw the timid girl had actually started dog paddling after her.  

          Katrina began swimming again.

          Suddenly, a hand grabbed her leg.

          Her heart leapt to her throat and she yelped in shock.

          The hand slid away and Shiloh shot out of the water not a foot from her.

          “Gotcha,” Shiloh said, grinning as she tossed her wet hair from her face.

          “I knew you were there,” Kat lied, more than a little pissed. She was nervous enough as it was with all of Ruthie’s fears coming to the fore.  She didn’t need Shiloh playing her stupid games. 

          “Nah.  Ya didn’t.  Race ya.” 

          “You’ll lose.”

          “No way.” Shiloh grabbed Kat’s shoulder and pulled her back. 

          “Hey!” Kat sputtered, spitting water.

          “That’s cheating,” Ruthie called from across the lake, but even she was laughing as Shiloh started swimming again and Katrina, still burned, her heart racing, took off after her only to be beaten.

          Shiloh heaved herself onto the shore, moonlight dappling her sleek skin.  “You should have seen your face,” she said to Kat who glowered at her from the water. “Looked like you saw a ghost.”

          “More like the bogeyman,” Kat snapped back. 

          “Shhh. Don’t say that,” Ruthie said, slowly making her way across the lake,  all the while careful to keep every strand of her red hair piled high and dry on her head. “You shouldn’t talk about the bogeyman,” Ruthie warned in a worried whisper as she reached the opposite bank.  “That’s tempting fate.”

          “Oh, it is not.”  Kat kicked and splashed water at her.   Ruthie pulled away fast.  “Don’t tell me you’re superstitious.”

          “I’m not.  Not really.”  But the tremulous tone of her voice said differently. 

          Another splash.

          “Stop it!  You’ll get my hair wet!  My dad will notice.”

          “He already thinks you’re in bed, so he won’t see you when you sneak back in,” Kat assured her for the thousandth time.  Maybe Shiloh was right; maybe she shouldn’t have let Ruthie come along.   Even now, as if tired of Ruthie’s complaining, Shiloh had slipped back into the water and vanished without making a ripple. 

          “She’s a damn fish,” Kat said, half admiringly.

          “A cold fish,” Ruthie agreed.  “She doesn’t like me.”

          “She doesn’t like many people.”  Why try to argue when it didn’t matter anyway? It wasn’t like Shiloh and Ruthie were going to start hanging out. 

Especially when Ruthie, standing chest-deep in the water, was once again staring anxiously at the darkest spot in the thicket of trees, trying, it seemed, desperately to pierce through blackness to discern what might be hiding behind the thick boles.  “We should go back.”  Nodding to herself and worrying her lower lip, Ruthie added, “Yeah, I think it’s time.  You know . . . it might not be so safe here.  Let’s go.”

          Shiloh broke the surface of the water again to stand next to her.  “What are you talking about?”

          “Ruthie’s thinking about the missing girls,” Kat said.

          “I didn’t say that!” Ruthie protested.

          Kat said, “But you were.”

          “No, I--”

          “But nothing happened to them, okay?” Shiloh cut in. “Some people don’t know this, but Rachel and Erin took off after going to a rodeo – happens all the time. Sometimes teenagers just don’t come home.”  Shiloh barrel-raced in the local circuit, so she considered herself an expert on all things rodeo. 

          “Rachel Byrd wouldn’t just not come home!” Ruthie argued.

          “You know her?”  Shiloh was skeptical.

          “No, but her family attends a church where my dad sometimes preaches.”

          “Oh, God.” Shiloh rolled her eyes.  “So what?  Here’s a news flash Ruthie: Even churchgoers cross moral lines, just like the rest of us. Trust me, I know.  Some of them are the biggest hypocrites around!”

          “No--” Ruthie started to argue, but Shiloh ran over her with, “Even the police think those girls ran away.  End of story.  No big deal, really.  Maybe they needed to leave. Maybe things weren’t all that great at home.  Maybe they were really bad.”  Her expression, already shadowed in the moonlight, turned even darker. “When I turn eighteen, believe me, I’m taking off.”

          “You mean to college.”

          Shiloh shot her a searing and didn’t bother keeping the sarcasm from her voice.  “Sure.  College.  That’s the plan.”

          Stung, Ruthie winced, but asked, “Where would you go?”

          “Somewhere else.  Anywhere else.”  Shiloh was emphatic. “Like those girls who got the hell out of here.”

          “They didn’t just run away,” Ruthie said, spinning in the water.  “Isn’t that right, Kat?”

          “Why are you asking me?”

          “Your dad doesn’t think they’re runaways.  That’s what you said about Rachel and Erin, right?  And Courtney Pearson . . .”

          “Give it a rest,” Shiloh muttered, her voice hissing across the lake’s surface.

          But Ruthie went on, “Courtney’s been all over the news, and I told you, Rachel used to attend our church. But everyone talks about them. Right, Kat?  And . . . and, Shiloh, you really shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

          Shiloh snorted. “Kat’s dad is a deputy. He’s paid to be suspicious, but no one’s saying anything bad happened like -- foul play.” She looked to Kat for corroboration.

          “Not officially,” Kat agreed, “but Dad doesn’t tell me everything.  He can’t.”  Especially when he wasn’t around all that much, when he was avoiding coming home.

          “I’m telling you all that’s going on is that a couple of girls took off to get away from some kind of bad situations.  They probably had dads or stepdads who knocked them around and had weak mothers who didn’t believe them, or even want to believe them. Or maybe their mom was a drunk, or on pills, or a sicko cousin or some creeper of an uncle tried to get into their pants.”

          Ruthie actually gasped, treading water with some difficulty.

          “Oh, get real!” Shiloh rolled her eyes at the younger girl’s naiveté.  “For God sake, Ruthie, it happens, okay?  Not everyone has a perfect mom and dad who go to church picnics and hold hands and dote on their children and wear halos over their damned sanctimonious heads!”   

          “Shiloh, enough,” Kat warned.

          In the moonlight Ruthie’s face started to crumple, but she kept her head above the waterline and managed to lift her chin a fraction.  “Why are you so mean?”

          “I’ve had lots of practice,” Shiloh said tautly. Not backing down an inch, she added, “Remind me again, would you, why you were so hell-bent on coming here?”

          Ruthie’s lips tightened.  “I don’t know anymore.”  She spun in the water and took off for the dock where they’d left their clothes.

          Kat glared at Shiloh.  “Do you always have to be such a bitch?”

          Shiloh was hot.  “Yeah. I think I do.”

          “You went too far this time. Look what you did.”

          “What I did?  What you did,” Shiloh shot back furiously.  “Bringing her was your idea.”  Before Kat could say a word, Shiloh dove deep and disappeared again.

          “Damn it.”  Pissed as hell, Kat saw Ruthie’s head bobbing over the water’s surface.  What a colossal mistake this whole skinny-dipping thing was.  Well, it was the last time.  Shiloh was right:  Ruthie was a wimp, but with three girls missing it was kind of stupid to be out here like this. And Ruthie wasn’t wrong about Shiloh, either.  At times Shiloh was an angry, heartless bitch.

          Who needed either of them? Kat thought, as she cut across the water after the shyer girl.  She had her own problems.  Big ones.  Unbidden, her mind drifted back to her mother, never far from her thoughts. Ill . . . dying . . . And no one in her family knew what to do.

          Nope. She didn’t need Shiloh or Ruth. She vowed with each stroke that, starting tomorrow, she was going to find new friends.  Normal friends. 

Chapter Two

          Ruthie shivered and tried not to think about someone hiding in the woods, about the eyes she felt watching her, about sensing an evil presence.  The other girls would just laugh at her, but as she worked her way across the lake, she scanned the perimeter, searching the gloom and feeling a gnawing fear.

          Beneath the surface something slimy slid across her leg and she let out a startled cry, but whatever lurked in the water moved on.  Or maybe it was just in her mind. 

          Probably because of Shiloh. The truth was Ruthie was starting to think she wouldn’t really care that much if Shiloh left town.  Good riddance to bad news.  Isn’t that what her mother always said?  For once, maybe Beverly McFerron had a point.

          Katrina had said Shiloh was fun to be with, sort of, but she also had a blazing mean streak and the tongue of a viper.  It was almost as if she reveled in being a bad girl or a rebel or whatever.  The bottom line was that it was dangerous just hanging out with her.

          Ruthie had been a fool.

          What had she been thinking sneaking out here in the middle of the night?  Just to fit in?  Just to make friends?  Well, no, there was more to it than that, of course.  It was because she needed to get close to Kat to gain access to her brother. Ethan Starr was like a real-life cowboy, having won junior rodeo competitions in barrel racing for the past few years running. So adorable, and humble too, as he said hello to Ruthie every morning when they passed in the hall at school. Some days she lived just for that hello from Ethan. She knew he didn’t have a girlfriend, so why the heck couldn’t it be her?

Because everyone knew Ruthie was a minister’s daughter, doomed to be chaste and boring until she got married. 

          She bit her lip and mentally chided herself.  Coming out tonight had been a stupid idea.  If Ruthie happened to get caught by her mother or father as she tried to sneak back into the house, she’d be in deep, deep trouble.  Punishment at the McFerron house was meted out by measure, determined by the magnitude of the crime and usually accompanied by a stern reprimand from her father while her mother’s eyes welled with tears.  Ruthie shuddered to think what her father would consider appropriate for lying and leaving the house without permission, allowing her parents to think she was safely asleep in her bed when she was out wandering the countryside and swimming nude while dreaming of Ethan and what it would be like to kiss him.  Or more.  She blushed at the thought.

                     Sin after sin after sin.

          Quickly she climbed the slimy ladder onto the dock and, feeling goose bumps rise on her flesh, bee-lined for her tidy stack of clothes.  She was reaching for her underwear when she heard a noise.

          The rustle of dry leaves?

          Big deal.  A breath of wind, that was it.  Nothing sinister or menacing.

          The crack of a twig snapping?

          Footsteps drawing nearer?

          Her heart froze.

          But the other girls were still in the lake.  She could see their dark forms as they swam closer to the shore. 

          She was alone.

          Right?

          Dont do this, Ruthie.  It’s just your imagination gone wild.

But there it was again: The steady footsteps of something or someone drawing nearer. Thoughts of a wolf prowling, hidden in the night, its head low, its eyes focused on her made her heart thump.  Slowly she lowered herself to the pile of clothes then gasped at the sudden flash of light in the trees.

          Heat lightning?

          Dear God, please let this be my imagination.   

Shivering, she folded her arms across her chest as she heard splashing, the other girls arriving.  Good.  Then they could leave!

#

          Shiloh dragged herself from the water one step behind Katrina and gave her body a little shake as she made her way down the dock. Katrina  stood in front of her, smoothing her dark hair back from her face, a sheen of water shining on her skin.

“Finally,” Ruthie said. “I keep seeing something in the bushes.”

“Take it easy.” Shiloh was stretching toward the sky, eyes closed, trying to rub the whole naked thing in Ruthie’s face, when she saw the flash of light. “What the hell was that?”

“Lightning?” Katrina asked, wincing.

Trying to peer deep into the darkness, Shiloh saw a movement, the dark shadow looming, stepping away from the undergrowth.

          What the hell?

           No way! 

          But even as she was denying it, telling herself she was letting Ruthie’s stranger-danger fear get the better of her, the hairs on the back of her neck sprang to attention.

          A huge bear of a man rose from the scrub. A dark, moving shadow, he charged toward them.  Shit!  

Fear sizzled down her spine.

          Panic gripped her soul.

          Who the hell was it?

          Why was he here? 

          For no good reason.

“Run!” she screamed as a flash of light burst before her eyes, blinding her.  “Run!” She took off, stumbled, her heart racing as she scrambled over the shoreline and dived into the foliage.  “Oof!”  She hit the ground hard, but pushed herself upright.  She heard the other girls running, feet pounding, breathing hard. She blinked and scrambled for footing.  The bastard must’ve had a flash camera.  But she couldn’t worry about that.

          Run, run, run!

          Blood thundering in her ears, she raced barefoot through the foliage.  Thorny branches scratched her legs.  Leaves and limbs slapped her face.  Still, she kept moving, plowing forward, adrenaline firing her blood.  Faster and faster, her hands outstretched so that she didn’t run headlong into a tree. 

          Who the hell was the voyeur in the woods?  

          Her stepfather

                     She wouldn’t put it past Larimer Tate, that raving perv, to follow her out here. Inside she withered.  Would he? Was he that much of a sicko?  Had she stupidly lured her friends out here just so that he could . . . what?  Take nudie pics?  For what purpose?  To leer at her image as he jacked off?  Her stomach revolted at the thought.

          Faster!  Faster!   It didn’t matter who thecreeper was or what his intentions were. She had to get away, put distance, miles if possible between him and herself.  And her friends, she reminded herself.  Katrina and Ruthie.

          Veering around a thicket of spruce, Shiloh picked up the pace, her eyes readjusting to the dim night, her long legs stretching with each stride as she found the wide path they’d used to get to the lake.  Now, with moonlight giving her some visibility, she flew along the dirt trail, dry weeds brushing her ankles.

          Where were the other girls?  Had they gotten away?  Oh, please . . .

          She nearly screamed when some lumbering creature, a skunk or porcupine or whatever waddled across the path in front of her, but she kept going, all the while feeling its beady eyes watching her.   Well, fine, she’d take her chances with the beast rather than whoever it was who had followed them out here. 

          Her heart was pounding, her lungs beginning to ache.  She stubbed her toe on a hidden root, but managed to keep her balance and keep running.  Go!  Go!  Go!  She heard footsteps pounding behind her, the rustle of branches being parted.   Her heart leapt to her throat as she ran frantically.  Whoever was chasing her was breathing hard, audibly.

          She didn’t even bother glancing over her shoulder, just shot forward.

          Was her pursuer the perv with the camera?

          Or his accomplice?  Oh, God, what if there was more than one of them?

          More than two?

          No, no, no!  It could be Kat on her heels.  Or even Ruthie.         

          Please let it be one of the girls!  she silently prayed and wondered fleetingly when was the last time she’d tried to talk to God.  Ages.  Months.  Maybe even years.

Who cared?  Whoever was behind her was breathing hard, gasping.  Gaining?  Oh, God!

          She spurred herself even faster, kicking up dust, feeling a warmth sliding along the bottom of her foot, her toe bleeding and aching.  Still she ran, terror urging her forward, a slow-burning anger edging into her consciousness.  What did that jerk-wad think he was doing, spying and taking pictures?  What kind of creep does that?  How did he even know they’d be there?  Geez-God, was it Larimer?  The guy was built like her hated stepfather, and she wouldn’t put it past the bastard.  Oh great.  Wouldn’t that just be perfect?

          “Jerk,” she muttered and spat as she ran, sprinting through the trees.  She heard the creek tumbling over rocks before she saw it, a silver slash in the dappled movement.  Without breaking stride she splashed through the icy water and slipped a little on the muddy bank, her already stubbed toe hitting an exposed root.

          “Ouch!”  Pain ricocheted up her foot.  “Son of a bitch!”  Just keep moving!

Gritting her teeth, she pushed on, upward over the slippery edge and onto the dry earth again.  Her strides lengthened, but she heard the sound of footsteps pounding the ground behind her. 

          Was he gaining?

          Oh. Dear. God.

          Suddenly the aspens gave way to a clearing, a wide patch of grass and weeds, broken only by a few large boulders, huge huddling masses scattered in the dry field.

          Shiloh propelled herself to the back of the largest rock and gasped for breath.  Only then did she remember that she was nude, sweating and breathing hard.  Her clothes were where she’d left them on the bank of the damned lake. 

          Idiot!  Now what?

          She flopped back against the rough boulder and tried to regain her wits as she heard the footsteps again.  Fast.  Wild.  Oh, Jesus.  Squinting, pulse pounding in her ears, she dared peer around the sharp edge of the stone to spy another person flying from the woods.

          But not a man.  A smaller woman running as if Lucifer himself were on her tail. 

          Katrina! 

“Kat!”  Shiloh stage whispered and her friend, also still naked, looked sharply in her direction “Over here!” 

          Kat veered toward the boulder, sliding to a stop behind it, nearly crashing into Shiloh.  “What the hell was that?” she rasped, gulping for air.  “Was that sick freak out here with a camera?”

          “At least it wasn’t a gun.”

          Katrina bent over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.  “Not that we saw.  I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t see much.  That damned flash!”  Still drawing in air, she peered into the darkness. “Where’s Ruthie?”

          “I don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”  Or heard her either.  Once Katrina appeared from the woods the sounds of footsteps and something crashing through the undergrowth had stopped.  “Maybe she ran the other way.”

          “The other way was the lake,” Katrina reminded, an edge to her voice. 

          “Then she could’ve stopped to grab her clothes--”

          “I don’t think so.  Damn it!”

          “Shhh.  Listen.”  Shiloh was straining to hear something, anything to indicate that the other girl was bearing down on them, ready to burst from the forest flanking this field.  She found herself rooting for the girl she’d so recently thought of as a wimp or a baby.  Come on, Ruthie.   Come on.  Just show up.  Please!

“He’s got her,” Kat said, voicing Shiloh’s worse fears.

          “You don’t know that.”

          “But it’s a pretty good guess.”  She shook her head.

          “She could’ve angled off . . .”

          “You don’t believe that any more than I do.”  Kat straightened and swore.  “I should’ve brought my cell phone.”

          Kat was the only girl who of the three who had a mobile flip phone.

          “Why didn’t you?”

          “I don’t know.  I just didn’t.  Look, we have to go back.”

          “Are you crazy.”

          “We can’t just leave her out here.  With that maniac.”

          Shiloh wanted to argue.  “I know, but, you don’t know that she’s not safe.”

          “You want to take a chance?

          Shiloh shook her head. “No.” 

          “Then we have to go back,” Katrina repeated.

          Before Shiloh could argue a raw, terrified scream tore from the quaking aspens and pine trees.

          “Oh, Jesus.  Ruthie!”  Katrina started sprinting back the way she’d come, heading for the opening in the dark forest from which they’d both just emerged.

          “Damn it,” Shiloh growled out and was right on the shorter girl’s heels.  No way could Katrina handle the guy alone. No doubt Ruthie would be little help.

          Her toe throbbing, she chased Katrina along the path and through the creek back toward the lake.  While she ran after Kat, she played out the scene they were sure to find: Ruthie being mauled, or raped or tortured or killed by the psycho with the camera.  Shit!

          Unless the guy had been scared off by Ruthie’s scream.  Maybe he’d taken the picture and left before anyone showed up.

          Oh, please.

          As they neared the lake, Katrina slowed and motioned for Shiloh to move off to the side, to split up so that they could approach from different angles.  Shiloh eased away from Kat, taking a small spur in the trail, one that opened up to the lake twenty yards beyond the dock area.  Her heart was a jackhammer in her chest as she reached down and scraped up a rock she found on the trail.  About the size of a baseball, it was rough against her palm, heavy and the only weapon she could find.

          After the one bloodcurdling scream, she’d heard nothing.  No, that wasn’t quite right; there was another noise, deep-throated grunts, the kind of rutting noises she’d heard through the paper thin walls of the house where she lived.  Oh, God.  Without another thought to her safety, she stepped from the foliage.  “Stop!” she bellowed, spying the huge bear of a man, his pants at his ankles, lying atop a wan, unmoving Ruthie.  “You son of a bitch, stop right there!”

          “Wha–?”  He looked up, his eyes zeroing in on Shiloh as she hoisted the rock high.  God, who the hell was he?  With the dark ski mask on his head, the only features she could make out were his body type and his beady, cold eyes.  

          He rolled off her and onto his feet in one motion. Ruthie whimpered. Only then did Shiloh see the knife, a curved blade winking evilly in the darkness.

          “Oh Jesus,” she said under her breath and this time it was a prayer.

          “Whatcha got there, girlie?” he asked with a sneer.  “A pebble?”  Waggling the knife, he laughed, a cruel guttural sound that was eerily familiar, as if Shiloh had heard it before.  But where?  When?  Who the hell was he?  “You think yer gonna hit me with that itty-bitty rock?  Go ahead and try.”

          Amen to that!  Without waiting a second, Shiloh hurled the stone with all the force she could muster.  The rock hissed through the air, straight as an arrow and hit the bastard square on the forehead.

          Thwack.

The blow knocked him to his knees.  He sputtered, tried to scramble to his feet, but his pants were like shackles around his ankles and Katrina flew from her hiding place, a stick in her hand.  “You sick bastard,” she cried and whacked him hard on the back of the head.

          Craaaack! 

          The dry branch splintered in her hands.

          Groaning, he fell forward.

His face landed on the dry ground. 

          Thud!

          “Let’s go!” Shiloh yelled, and raced for Ruthie.

          “Oh, Jesus.  Are you okay?”   Throwing herself onto her knees beside the stricken girl, she felt renewed panic.  Ruthie lay staring upward at the sky, her eyes wide open, her expression blank.  “Ruthie!”  The girl was nearly catatonic.  “Ruthie!  Come on.  We gotta get out of here!”  She pulled on her arm.

          Nothing.  It was as if Ruthie’s bones had melted, her arm going slack.

          “For the love of God, move it!” Shiloh ordered.

          “Let me.”  Katrina was at her side.  “Ruth.  Come on, honey.  It’s all right.”

          A low moan from the lump nearby indicated that no, they hadn’t killed the bastard.  At least not yet.

          “Get his knife,” Katrina ordered Shiloh.  “And our clothes.”  She was forcing Ruthie to her feet.  “Come on, honey, we have to leave.  Now!” 

          Ruthie wasn’t arguing, but she wasn