The vicious burns scarring the victims' flesh reveal the agony of their last moments. Each woman was branded with a star, then stabbed through the heart. With every death, a vengeful killer finds a brief, blissful moment of calm. But soon it's time for the bloodshed to start again. . .
Ten years ago, Eva Rayburn and her sorority sisters were celebrating the end of the school year. That party turned into a nightmare Eva can't forget. Now she's trying to start over in her Virginia hometown, but a new nightmare has begun. Every victim is linked to her. And Detective Deacon Garrison isn't sure whether this mysterious woman needs investigating--or protecting. . .
Only Eva's death will bring peace. Only her tortured screams will silence the rage that has been building for ten long years. Because what started that night at the sorority can never be stopped--not until the last victim has been marked for death. . .
"A twisted tale. . .I couldn't put it down!" --Lisa Jackson on Dying Scream
"Taut, compelling. . .delivers a page-turner." --Carla Neggers on I'm Watching You
"A chilling thriller." --Beverly Barton on Dead Ringer
"Mary Burton's latest romantic suspense has it all--terrific plot, complex and engaging protagonists, a twisted villain, and enough crime scene detail to satisfy the most savvy suspense reader."--Erica Spindler, New York Times bestselling author of Blood Vines
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December 28, 2010
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Excerpt from Senseless by Mary Burton
Saturday, April 1, Midnight
Duct tape muffled the woman's hoarse moans as a hooded figure stoked the glowing embers in the basement hearth. She had been screaming and struggling, hoping to get her captor's attention since she'd started awake . . . was it an hour ago? Two hours? Down in this cellar prison, time leaked away like the drip, drip of water from an overhead pipe.
No amount of crying or rattling of chains against the stone floor diverted the shadowy figure's attention from the flames that hungrily danced and licked the logs in the ancient hearth. Twig by twig, her jailer tenderly fed the flames as a mother might nourish a child, never paying her a moment's attention. In this dank place, she was invisible, of no greater consequence than the three-legged chair leaning in the shadowy corner or the trash bags piled by the rickety staircase.
The hard, uneven stone floor dug into her back, cramping her muscles, numbing her skin and driving home the realization that there'd be no escape. She was going to die.
She closed her eyes, the thud of her heart mingling with the crackle of the fire and the clink of the andiron against the blackened grate cradling the logs. Since childhood, she'd been told she didn't deserve happiness or a full life. Bad girl. You are a bad girl. All her life, she railed against those messages, grabbing or stealing what she could to not only survive but also to prevail.
Maybe the dark message funneled into her soul since the cradle was right. Bad girls always came to a bad end.
Despair rose up in her like a black storm cloud, wrapping around her throat and beckoning her to relent. It would be so easy to give in to her predestined fate. So easy just to close her eyes and let the darkness slide over her.
As she eased toward the mental abyss, ready to surrender to fate, a primal survival urge jerked her back from the edge.
No! You want to live! You deserve to live!
She opened her eyes and stared at her captor. He wasn't so large. He didn't look so strong. Or so evil. Perhaps she could wedge a bit of reason under his icy exterior and get him to take pity.
Drawing on what little energy remained in her limbs, she kicked and screamed, but he didn't shift his gaze from the fire.
God, what was he planning? What could he want with her? As her mind tumbled over increasing vicious scenarios, fear and panic reignited her struggles. Please, God, get me out of this. A thousand promises, I swears and resolutions raced through her mind as she bartered with God.
And then a miracle came in the form of a loud thump from upstairs. The noise cut through the stream of I swears. She craned her neck toward the rickety staircase that led to the upper floor. Someone had arrived! Her heart pounded faster, harder and her stomach coiled like a tight spring.
She studied her captor's posture, searching for a sign. Was the upstairs arrival good or bad? Did this creep have some sick friend who'd come to enjoy this party? Or did she have a savior?
His narrow shoulders stiffened and an abrupt jerk of his head toward the door told her that the guest was uninvited.
Hope exploded. Maybe someone had come! Maybe someone had figured out that she'd been kidnapped.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Please send someone to save me!
She jerked against her bindings and screamed muffled pleas, projecting her voice beyond the tape.
Sunglasses and a hood hid a great deal, but she caught traces of a scraggly beard as he carefully laid down his iron and climbed the stairs to the first floor.
He unlocked a shiny new padlock on the basement door, opened it and vanished.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she strained to listen. Above, the ceiling creaked as her jailer crossed the first floor in search of the intruder.
Someone, please, save me.
Floorboards creaked with light tentative footsteps of the newcomer who moved about the upstairs freely. As the seconds passed, the footsteps grew more confident as if the new arrival wasn't expecting company.
Be careful! He's waiting for you!
She screamed until her throat burned, but the duct tape muffled her words, garbling all her warnings.
The intruder moved across the first floor. Her jailer remained still, lying in wait, like a snake ready to strike.
And then a loud scream, "Shit!"
A scuffle followed. Bodies slammed against walls. Glass hit the floor and shattered. A subdued groan and something large slammed the floor, as if a body had crumpled under its own weight. And then silence.
The woman's heart jack hammered her ribs so hard she thought bones would crack as she frantically twisted her hands and stared at the door, hoping for a miracle.
Who had won the battle? She struggled against her bindings, willing the hemp to snap even as it cut into her flesh.
Oh, God, save me!
Her mind tumbled as she imagined police storming into the basement and cutting her bindings as they explained in soothing tones that she was now safe.
They'd ask her what had happened and she'd calmly explain.
"The last thing I remember was sitting at the bar in Moments, a little upscale place on the Potomac. It's a good place to hang out. Normal people, like doctors, lawyers and bankers, drink at Moments. It's not the kind of place crazy people visit. It's safe."
She'd be sure to mention that she'd only sipped a single white wine and had spent most of that night chatting with the female bartender, killing time until her blind date showed. This had been her Saturday night routine for over a year.
Toward the end of the evening, a guy had settled beside her on a bar stool. He'd worn sunglasses, had a neatly trimmed beard and a nice oversized dark suit. He was a strange still man who could hardly be classified as overly masculine. Her stepfather would have called him a "Girlie-man." He'd ordered vodka in a quiet raspy voice that had sent a chill whispering down her spine. But his drink had arrived and he'd sipped it without fanfare as if content to be alone. Ignoring him had been easy.
She remembered a woman walking into the restaurant and shouting someone needed to fix her flat tire. The shrill voice knifed through the hum of conversation and soft jazz.
Distracted, she had turned to see who was making so much noise. She'd classified the woman as unimportant . . . some nobody from the street. She'd returned to her drink, forgetting the woman even before she'd swallowed her next sip.
And then . . . then she'd woken up here--a dank, dark basement, tied to the floor.
Oh, God, how she desperately wanted to tell that story. To be saved.
Seconds passed--then minutes and then the steady sound of footsteps. Steady. Not rushed. Cautious like a rescuer or unhurried like a madman? Impossible to tell.
And still she hoped. What if her savior was just being cautious? He didn't know what was downstairs.
He had to be careful so he didn't get hurt himself.
The door at the top of the stairs opened and a silhouetted form appeared. Who was there? He descended the steps, carefully and deliberately moving into the light generated by the fire.
Fresh tears welled and streamed down the side of her face, pooling in her knotted blond hair.
As if she were invisible, he passed her, his attention transfixed by the fire. He stoked the embers, whistling as he lovingly coaxed more life from the flames.
Tears ran down her face. Look at me, damn you! See me as a frightened woman! She was a good girl. She was from a respectable family. Sure she liked to party. What girl didn't? She'd told a terrible lie years ago, but it had haunted her almost every day of her life and she'd prayed for forgiveness. She'd donated to an animal shelter at Christmas. She went to church at Easter. She laid flowers on her stepfather's grave even though the bastard had never deserved respect. Christ, she'd just turned thirty.
Good people didn't die this way.
She didn't deserve this!
Her head slumped back as she tried to block out the panic and focus on what might get her out of this horror.
Oh, Holy Mother of God, this had to be a nightmare. It had to be! This did not happen to regular girls. It just didn't.
But the raw skin on her wrists and pain in her spine said otherwise. This wasn't a nightmare.
Fear fisted in the woman's gut as she stared at the man. Was he the one from the bar who'd sat down beside her? She couldn't tell, but sensed he had to be the one. Who else would do this to her? The one man she'd known who could be this cruel had died years ago.
"Finding you was easy, you know." His voice sounded like sandpaper rubbing against wood. "You didn't move more than five blocks from your parents' house."
She stopped struggling, searching her brain for any clue to his identity. But as much as she tried to cut through haze and confusion, she found no answers. Fear rose up in her and she couldn't suppress a moan that sounded like an animal caught in a trap.
The guy straightened and turned. He wore a large bulky coat, making it hard to judge his size, maybe five nine. As the figure moved toward her, his glasses reflected the firelight, which mingled with her terrified face. He pulled the tape from her mouth and the adhesive pulled bits of the skin on her lips. She tasted blood.
"Surprised to see me again?"
The raspy voice sent a chill snaking down her spine. In the dim light she could see that he wore a wig and his beard appeared fake. Smoky glasses obscured his eyes.
She winced, moistening her cracked dry lips with her tongue. "You were in the bar."
If she hadn't been trying so hard to ignore him in Moments she'd have seen he was a freak. "You drugged me."
"Makes you more reasonable." With a gloved hand he pushed up her shirt, exposing her flat belly.
"What are you doing?" Her white flesh quivered with fear.
Gently, he smoothed his hand over the pale skin.
"So pretty and clean. But we both know that you aren't clean, are you?"
"I'm a good girl."
"No, you are not."
Her mind reeled. Make a connection. Let this freak see that I'm a person. "I have a family. Parents. A child."
He circled an index finger around her belly button. "You haven't seen any of them in a very long time. None of them want you."
The words clawed at her insides. He was right. She'd lost contact with them all. She grasped for the right words that would cause delay. "Someone was upstairs! Someone knows you are here. They know I am here."
"He's trussed up like a pig for slaughter. I'll deal with him after you."
Tears welled in her eyes. "Please let me go."
He arched an amused eyebrow. "Can you imagine?
A thief breaking into this house, tonight of all nights. Talk about timing." A smile teased the edges of his beard. "You can scream if you want."
Her heart hammered so hard it rattled her ribs like a speeding freight train. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
"I'm not going to scream."
The guy cocked his head. "Why not? You've reason to scream."
Oh, God. Please. "I won't scream."
The smile widened, revealing small yellowed teeth. "We shall see."
Words tangled with fear and caught in her throat. "What do you want?"
"Why? I'm nobody. You said so yourself. My family doesn't want me. I'm not worth the time."
"No, you're special."
Special. That's what her stepfather used to say. My special little girl, it'll be our secret, won't it? "What do you want?"
"Not much really. All you have to do is lie still."
Gloved hands stroked her hair, the heavy-handed gesture pulling hard against her blond curls.
She winced. "I want to leave."
Panic rose up in her throat. "People will miss me."
"No they won't."
With quick, angry strokes, the guy jabbed a metal rod into the embers. Finally, he raised the tip out of the flames and inspected the glowing star-shaped tip.
A four-pointed star.
Memories from long ago burned through her mind, forcing her to remember a time she'd worked hard to forget. "What are you going to do with that?"
"You remember the star, don't you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The star. And The Secret."
Memories elbowed to the front of her mind. "No, I don't remember," she lied.
"No, I swear." She squirmed and tugged against her bindings but her struggling only tightened their hold. He adjusted his sunglasses as he stared at the glowing red star. "I promise you before I'm done, it'll be burned in your memory."
Sobs fueled her hysteria. "Please, I don't want to remember."
He knelt beside her, the coarse fabric of his pants brushing her hip. "Your job is to send a message to the others."
The others. "You don't know about the others."
"I surely do. I surely do. And soon everyone will know of their betrayal." The scent of hot metal wafted around her, stirring up the old sin buried under a decade of wine and denial.
"Please." Her gaze locked on the red tip of the brand and every muscle in her body tensed with terror.
"Starlight, star bright; the first star I see tonight. I wish I may; I wish I might; Have the wish I wish tonight."
And then he touched the hot brand to her stomach. The metal seared into her flesh. Instantly, pain robbed her of breath and she couldn't squeak out a sound.
Every nerve in her body convulsed. When he pulled the brand away, the pain lingered. Her heart slammed the walls of her chest, as if trying to flee the agony.
Glasses hid her tormentor's eyes, but a twitch of his lips betrayed a euphoric joy as if this moment had been a pleasure long denied. "When I'm done, they'll see you and they'll know it's time to atone."
Her lungs contracted, sucking in air.
She screamed like a wild animal caught in a trap.