What Are You Afraid Of?
May Book of the Month
A voice in the back of Jeannie Smith’s mind whispered that she should be resigned to her ugly fate.
She’d always known that she was going to come to a bad end. Everyone had said so. Her mother said it just before the older woman had run off with her latest lover. Her grandparents said it when they’d kicked her out of their house when she was just sixteen. And even her pimp said it when he’d caught sight of the infected track marks on her inner arms.
A bad end was what happened to girls like her.
And it wasn’t like she hadn’t had any warning. Since she’d started working as a whore she’d been beaten, robbed, and dumped in the gutter. It’d only gotten worse when she’d left the streets of Kansas City to become a lot lizard.
Trolling the truck stops and rest areas along the interstate was considered the lowest of the lowest, even for whores. Which meant that it was only for the most desperate women.
But even after all the beatings and rough sex she’d been forced to endure, nothing had taught her the true meaning of horror until the john who’d picked her tonight.
Which was weird, really.
He was so handsome.
Dark skin, glossy black hair, and rich brown eyes.
The sort of dude who could have any woman he wanted.
Of course, that might explain why she hadn’t instantly been wary when he’d urged her into the long trailer attached to his semitruck. Not even when she realized it was equipped with a freezer. It was better than doing the john against the wall of the diner. Or on the hard gravel of the lot.
But as she climbed into the back of the trailer, she caught sight of the other men already waiting for her. Shit, she was in trouble.
She jerked her arm, struggling to free herself from her companion’s grip.
“Hey, there was nothing said about this being a party,” she protested.
One of the men stepped forward, his face wrapped in shadows.
“It took you long enough,” he snapped. “There’s a half dozen whores out there. What were you doing?”
The john holding her arm flinched. Clearly, the other dude was in charge.
“You said she had to be a blond. This was the first one I could find.”
The man in charge snorted. “Well, while you were dillydallying the rest of us nearly froze off our balls.”
There was a grumble of agreement from the shadows at the back of the trailer. Jeannie hissed in fear. How many were there? Four? Five? Maybe even more?
“You cleaned up from the last one?” the man holding her rasped, clearly attempting to hide his nerves behind an air of bluster.
“Of course,” the other stranger drawled. “Our previous guest is hidden with the others. Now it’s time for some more fun.”
The numbing sense of resignation was abruptly replaced with a savage need to fight back.
Maybe her destiny had been decided on the dismal day she’d been born. Maybe her fate was to die in a bad way.
But by God, she’d spent twenty years fighting to survive.
She wasn’t going down easily.
She struggled against the bastards as they strapped her down and ripped off her clothes. And even when they took turns raping her.
She struggled until her original john was standing over her bruised and bloody body, a crowbar in his hand.
There was a brief hesitation as he gazed down at her. Almost as if the man wasn’t certain he was prepared to commit the ultimate sin. Then, with the shadowed man whispering in his ear, he at last lifted the crowbar, swinging it with desperate power. There was an odd whistling sound as the metal cut through the icy air. Jeannie was strangely mesmerized by the sheer horror of what was happening. At least until she felt a blast of pain as it connected with the side of her face.
Then she felt nothing.
A bad end . . .
December 20, Rocky Mountains
The large overnight envelope was waiting for Carmen Jacobs on the porch.
She grimaced as she glanced through the frosty window of the front door. Her first instinct was to ignore the unwelcome reminder of the outside world.
She’d rented the isolated cabin in the Rocky Mountains precisely to forget the demands of her high-profile career. Or at least, that’s what she’d told her literary agent. And in part, it was true. She’d spent the past twelve months flying from city to city to sign copies of her blockbuster book, The Heart of a Predator. Her hectic schedule had also included TV and radio interviews as well as speaking engagements. She’d even spent a month in California, teaching a creative writing class.
Soon it would all start again when the paperback version of the book was released.
She deserved a break.
But the deeper need to retreat to this cabin in the dead of winter was to avoid the yearly madness that was a mandatory part of the Christmas season. She wasn’t a grinch. Okay, maybe she was a little bit of a grinch. But it wasn’t her fault. She was a woman without a family. And, if she was honest, without any close friends.
Usually it didn’t bother her to be alone. In fact, she preferred to concentrate on her career without being encumbered by people who would be a constant distraction.
At this time of year, however, she couldn’t help but feel the lack of intimate companionships. Maybe it was the sappy commercials. Or the sight of giggling children who darted through the stores. Or the distant memories of when she hadn’t been alone.
Whatever the reason, she always felt the urge to retreat from the world during this time of year. And despite the fact she’d just celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday, she had the necessary funds to grant her wish.
Sipping her morning cup of hot chocolate, she watched as the snow lazily drifted from the clouds, coating the porch in a pristine layer of white.
In a few more minutes the envelope would be hidden.
She took another sip. And then another. The snow continued to float in the air. Silent. Hypnotic.
A swirling cloud of peace.
She tried to force herself to turn away. Her plans for the day included a long, hot bath. A leisurely lunch. Some prime-time romance in the form of a paperback novel. And later, a bottle of wine in front of the fire.
Nowhere in her schedule was a mysterious envelope.
Unfortunately, Carmen had one deeply imbedded character flaw. Curiosity.
It was the reason she’d snooped on her eighth-grade teacher after catching sight of the woman disappearing into a storage shed with the principal. That little adventure had gotten her kicked out of school. Probably because she’d posted the pictures she’d taken on the classroom bulletin board.
Three years later that same curiosity had urged her to sneak into her grandparents’ attic to try to peek inside the small safe that had once belonged to her parents. She hadn’t managed to open it, but she’d been caught in the act. Her grandfather had grounded her for a month and her grandmother had cried. The tears had hurt more than being forced to miss the spring formal.
On the brighter side, her curiosity had inspired her to become a journalist. And later to interview five of the most prolific serial killers to ever terrorize North America. The book she’d written after the nerve-wrenching meetings had become a number-one best seller and launched her into the world of fleeting fame.
Like disco balls and Crocs.
With a grimace she set her half-empty mug on a nearby table. She wasn’t going to be able to relax until she knew what was in the envelope.
She might as well get it over with.
Wrapping the belt of her heavy robe tighter, she reluctantly pulled open the door. An instant blast of frigid air slammed into her with shocking force. Crap. The cabin had looked so picturesque in the brochure. The pine trees. The snow. The majestic mountains. She hadn’t really considered just how freaking cold it would be.
Now she scurried forward, her fuzzy slippers sliding over the icy surface. She bent down, snatching the envelope off the edge of the porch. Next year she was going to a sandy beach with lots of sun and fun.
Straightening, she paused to glance around, ensuring there was no one lurking in the small clearing. Then, with a small shiver, she darted back through the door and closed it behind her.
She brushed off the few flakes that clung to her robe before she grabbed her mug of hot chocolate and returned to the kitchen. Since she’d arrived ten days ago, the cozy room had become her favorite spot in the cabin. The wood-planked floors. The open-beamed ceiling. The worn table that was set near a window that overlooked the frozen back garden. There was even an open fireplace where she’d toasted marshmallows last night.
Now she moved to pour out the old cocoa in the sink and rinsed out her mug. She wasn’t an obsessive neat freak, but she preferred to keep her surroundings organized. A psychiatrist would no doubt tell her it had something to do with her need to control some small aspect of her life. She preferred to think that she was just tidy.
Taking a seat at the table, she wavered one last time. She should toss the envelope into the fire she’d stoked to life while she was brewing her morning cup of cocoa. Snap, crackle, pop, and all her troubles would be gone. Instead, she gave a rueful shake of her head and turned it over to stare at the front.
Her name was neatly typed, along with the address of the cabin. Then her gaze shifted to the return address, not surprised to find the name of her PR firm. There were fewer than ten people who knew where she was staying.
She ripped open the envelope, only to discover another envelope inside. It was a plain manila one, with her name scrawled across the front.
Usually this would be a desperate plea for help from some unknown person.
Since the release of her book, she’d been besieged with requests for her to investigate the murder of some relative. Or pleading with her to use her contacts to get their beloved son out of prison, despite the fact he’d bludgeoned his girlfriend to death or shot a neighbor in the head. On occasion some enterprising soul managed to discover where she was staying and shoved the information under the door of her hotel, but usually the requests ended up on the desk of her agent, or even her editor, who sent them on to the PR firm.
The same firm she’d given strict orders to hold all correspondence until after the first of the year.
Which meant that they knew better than to pester her with unwanted mail unless they were hoping to be fired. Something she doubted so long as her book remained on the bestseller lists.
So why were they sending her an overnight package?
A Christmas present? An appearance on the Today Show they’d been desperate to book for her?
There was only one way to find out.
Running her finger beneath the sealed flap, she pulled out the sheet of paper. Her gaze impatiently skimmed over the handwritten note.
Holiday Greetings, dearest Carmen. The new year approaches and I offer a challenge. You can be the predator or the prey.
She scrunched her nose. Well, that was cryptic. Her gaze lowered to the signature at the bottom.
From one beat of her heart to the next, her annoyance was replaced by a bone-deep shock. With a gasp she was on her feet, knocking over the chair as she took a sharp step backward.
Get goosebumps with Alexandra Ivy’s latest thrilling romantic suspense. WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF? is out now!