This can’t be real . . . This can’t be real . . . This can’t be real . . .
The words cycle round and round in my mind like the wheels on my speeding ’Cuda as
its ass-end slips and slides over the gravel and ice. This car is hard to handle on the best of days,
built front-heavy and overloaded with horsepower. I’m going to put myself into one of these
damn trees if I don’t slow down.
I jam my foot against the gas pedal.
I can’t slow down now.
Not until I know that Boone was wrong about what he claims to have overheard. His
Russian is mediocre at best. I’ll give anything for him to be wrong about this.
My gut clenches as my car skids around another turn, the cone shape of Black Butte
looming like a monstrous shadow ahead of me in the pre-dawn light. The snowy tire tracks
framed by my headlights might not even be the right ones, but they’re wide like Viktor’s
Hummer and they’re sure as hell the only ones down this old, deserted logging road. No one
comes out here in January.
The line of trees marking the dead end comes up on me before I expect it. I slam on my
brakes, sending my car sliding sideways toward the old totem pole. It’s still sliding when I cut
the rumbling engine, throw open the door, and jump out, fumbling with my flashlight. It takes
three hard presses with my shaking hands to get the light to hold.
I begin searching the ground. The mess of tread marks tells me that someone pulled a U-
turn. The footprints tell me that more than one person got out. And when I see the half-finished
cigarette butt with that weird alphabet on the filter, I know Boone wasn’t wrong.
“Alex!” My echo answers once . . . twice . . . before the vast wilderness swallows up my
desperate cry. With frantic passes of my flashlight, my knuckles white against its body, I search
the area until I spot the sets of footprints that lead off the old, narrow road and into the trees.
Frigid fingers curl around my heart.
Darting back to my car, I snatch the old red-and-blue plaid wool blanket that she loves
so much from the backseat. Ice-cold snow packs into the sides of my sneakers as I chase the trail
past the line of trees and into the barren field ahead, my blood rushing through my ears the only
sound I process.
The only sign of life.
Raw fear numbs my senses, the Pacific Northwest winter numbs my body, but I push
forward because if . . .
The beam of light passes over a still form lying facedown in the snow. I’d recognize that
pink coat and platinum-blond hair of hers anywhere; the sparkly blue dress that she hates so
much looks like a heap of sapphires against a white canvas.
My heart freezes.
“Alex.” It’s barely a whisper. I’m unable to produce more, my lungs giving up on me. I
run, stumbling through the foot of snow until I’m on my knees and crawling forward to close the
distance. A distance of no more than ten feet and yet one that seems like miles.
There’s no mistaking the spray of crimson freckling the snow around her head. Or that
most of her long hair is now dark and matted. Or that her silver stockings are torn and stained
red, and a pool of blood has formed where her dress barely covers her thighs. Plenty of footprints
mark the ground around her. He must have been here for a while.
I know that there are rules to follow, steps to make sure that I don’t cause her further
harm. But I ignore them because the sinking feeling in my stomach tells me I can’t possibly hurt
her more than he already has. I nestle her head with one hand while I slide the other under her
shoulder. I roll her over.
Cold shock knocks the wind out of me.
I’ve never seen anybody look like this.
I scoop her limp body into my arms, cradling the once beautiful face that I’ve seen in
every light—rage to ecstasy and the full gamut in between—yet is now unrecognizable. Placing
two blood-coated fingers over her throat, I wait. Nothing.
A light pinch against her lifeless wrist. Nothing.
Maybe a pulse does exist but it’s hidden, masked by my own racing one.
Then again, by the look of her, likely not.
One . . . two . . . three . . . plump, serene snowflakes begin floating down from the unseen
sky above. Soon, they will converge and cover the tracks, the blood. The evidence. Mother
Nature’s own blanket to hide the unsightly blemish in her yard.
“I’m so sorry.” I don’t try to restrain the hot tears as they roll down my cheeks to land on
her mangled lips—lips I had stolen plenty of kisses from, back when I was too stupid to realize
how dangerous that really was. This is my fault. She had warned me. If I had just listened, had
stayed away from her, had not told her how I felt . . .
. . . had not fallen wildly in love with her.
I lean down to steal a kiss even now, the coppery taste of her blood mixing with my
salty tears. “I’m so damn sorry. I should never have even looked your way,” I manage to get out
around my sobs, tucking the blanket she loved to curl up in over her.
An almost inaudible gasp slips out. A slight breeze against my mouth more than anything
My lungs freeze, my eyes glued to her, afraid to hope. “Alex?” Is it possible?
A moment later, a second gasp—a wet, rattling sound—escapes.
She’s not dead.
Not yet, anyway.