Excerpt for Compliments of the Chef by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Compliments Of The Chef by Alex Crow

Copyright © 2016 by Alex Crow. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying without written permission of the publisher or author. The exception would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in the critical articles or reviews and pages where permission is specifically granted by the publisher or author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Books may be purchased by contacting the author at:

Publisher: Double Dutch Publishing
Cover Design: Zita Harrison
Interior Design: Double Dutch Publishing
Editor: Annie Jai

ISBN: 978-0-9984309-1-1

First Double Dutch Publishing Edition: December 2016

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A special thank you to my husband, who supported and encouraged me throughout this writing journey.

Also, to Mary C. for her online design skills and patience in dealing with someone as computer illiterate as me.

Last but not least, another huge thank you to Chris J., Amy C., and Rachel B., for their help and support in creating this novel.




Alex Crow


Sara Wilson lay onSARA WILSON LAY ON her back in a pool of her own blood, bound by leather straps to a makeshift plywood table. She fought hard against them, but they cut deep into her wrists and ankles with even the slightest movement.

He reached over and yanked down on the strip of leather dangling from her wrist. It cinched even tighter. First the left, then the right. He never said a word. He simply threw her a quick glance and went back to work…cutting and slicing over and over again. She felt no pain. She didn’t feel anything at all. Thankfully, the anesthetic was doing its job.

He had been at it for hours. Hundreds of two-inch cuts formed flawless diamond shapes across her skin. His lines were exquisite, each perfectly straight and equal. He had the eye of an artist and the hand of a surgeon. It really was quite beautiful. That is, until he slipped the scalpel underneath and started slicing away at the underside. Then, with one motion, he lifted the diamond-shaped piece of flesh off her shoulder, revealing the striated muscle tissue beneath it.

She was being skinned alive…in pieces! More than fifty diamond-shaped flaps of skin had been cut away from her arms, torso, and thighs. She could see her stomach and legs when she lifted her head. Her body resembled a patchwork quilt, with pieces of skin removed from one area and transferred to another. Sections from her right arm were scattered across her left thigh and chest. The sides of her abdomen supplied the pieces to fill the vacancies left on her arm.

The center of her abdomen had been left untouched and intact. It resembled a large diamond-shaped target with her navel as the bullseye. Piece by piece, her skin was rearranged as if she was a human jigsaw puzzle. A patch on her right hip looked truly odd and out of place. One of her nipples, severed and relocated, jutted from her skin. Her eyes squeezed shut at the gruesome sight.

What was he doing? Why? Sara knew she was suffering symptoms of shock. She felt completely removed from her body, as if she was watching it happen to someone else. She couldn’t feel anything, but she could see everything. She tried to close her eyes. To not see. But she couldn’t help it.

She glanced around the small room, trying to distract herself. It was a kind of workshop, very bright and unexpectedly clean. Aside from the crude wooden table she lay on, the rest of the room looked rather like a hospitala stack of gauze pieces he used to blot the blood that seeped out from under his “puzzle pieces,” and multiple scalpels, tweezers, and syringes were laid out neatly on a clean white towel on his workstation.

He didn’t wear a mask, not even a surgical one. He didn’t care that she knew who he was. His latex-covered hands blotted at a few small smudges of blood on his white apron. She expected there to be more blood, but cleanliness was obviously a priority for him. He had clearly done this before and knew exactly how to minimize the mess.

The white walls reflected the fluorescent lights that littered the ceiling. The bulbs nearly blinded her as she stared into them. She had no choice but to continue watching him.

He moved further across her shoulder. She flinched as a searing pain traveled down her arm. He stopped and stared straight into her eyes. She stared back. He didn’t look angry or sinister, or even as though he was enjoying himself. He showed no emotion at all. He lifted one of the few remaining syringes from the towel and plunged it deep into her shoulder. It burned like fire...and then nothing. The pain and sensation disappeared and he picked up where he had left off.

She’d given up on screaming and pleading over an hour before. It was no use. No one could hear her. No one was going to kick in the door and save her from this freak. She just lay quietly, hoping that if she behaved, he would show her mercy when he was done.

The chime from his watch signaled the passing of yet another hour. How long had it been? She couldn’t remember how many times she had heard that thing go off. It couldn’t be much longer. He was running out of needles...out of anesthetic. There was only one left, which could mean one of two things: either he was almost done or she was about to experience a whole new level of hell.

Moments later, he finally laid down his scalpel. He grabbed handfuls of gauze and blotted at her before tossing the gauze into a half-full white trash bag. She could clearly see hoursworth of bright red gauze pressing against the inside of the bag. So that was where all the blood had gone. He spun on his stool, grabbing a large plastic bin from the wall shelving behind him before spinning back around and placing the box at his feet. Reaching in with both hands, he pulled out two fistfuls of small tubes and began to arrange them neatly on the towel. Krazy Glue? Snipping the tip off one of the tubes, he settled back in to finish his work.

He squeezed a delicate line of clear gel along the swollen red incisions on the inside of her right elbow. He continued dragging the tip slowly, outlining every diamond, one by one. He moved from her elbow to her shoulder, across her right breast, down her abdomen, and finished with the diamonds above her right knee. Rolling his stool around the edge of the table at her feet, he continued this same process along her left side. The glue bonded the skin together and sealed the pieces in place.

He tossed the final tube of glue into the trash bag and rolled his stool back slightly. His gaze traveled up and down her naked body. The edges of his mouth curved into a smile for the first time. His hands came together with a loud clap, and he continued to give himself a slow round of applause.

Was he finished? What now? She lay quietly, not knowing what to say or how to react.

A dull ache began to spread across the fronts of her thighs. She had barely noticed it earlier, but now it was clear. The anesthetic was wearing off, and her sensation was slowly returning.

Seeing a tear escape down her cheek, he stood and walked to the far corner of the room. He returned with an oversized standing mirror attached to a wide, modified, wheeled frame. He flipped the mirror and positioned it horizontally, so it hovered almost five feet above the floor. Rolling the frame over the plywood table, Sara received the first full-body view of herself. Oh my god! She looked like she was wearing a Harlequin costume. What had he done to her? He gleamed with pride as, once again, his eyes swept her body.

“You are truly my greatest masterpiece,” he said.

He retrieved a blade from within the deep front pocket of his apron. Sara’s eyes locked with those of the grimacing tribal face that formed the top of the handle. It stared back at her as if it knew exactly what she was going through.

Latex fingers palpated her abdomen, calculating his optimal target. Then, without another word, he plunged the knife deep into her stomach. The cold metal ripped through her, stealing her breath. He closed his eyes and exhaled forcibly, as if climaxing. It was what he had been building up to. The tedious cutting and gluing was just foreplay, escalating his arousal with each passing hour. His head fell backward gently, his eyes still closed. A smile spread across his lips and he slowly came back. His eyes fluttered open and again, he was mesmerized by the sight of her.

He slowly withdrew the knife, and Sara watched a stream of blood flow down the blade and cascade off the tip. It splattered as it impacted her skin. He retrieved a crisp white towel from his workstation and ran it along the length of the blade. Tossing the towel into the bloodied trash bag, he pivoted and strolled across the room and out the door, closing it behind him.

She was alone. Without him there to distract her, she could finally comprehend what was happening to her. She was dying. He had left her there to die slowly. And with the mirror still hanging over her, she had no choice but to watch it happen.

The pain in her gut was excruciating and intensified steadily. Her mind was becoming fully aware of the trauma to her body. As if that wasn’t enough, the local anesthetic had almost completely worn off and her intestines felt as though they had been ripped right out of her.

She started sobbing, quietly at first, and then let out a wail. What had she done wrong? What had she done to deserve this? Why had he done this to her? Her tears slowed as she realized they were not doing her any good.

She wondered how long it would take. How long before this agony was over and she was released. She began to pray—not for some valiant rescue or for her binding straps to miraculously fall to the floor. She knew that was highly unlikely. She simply prayed for her soul and begged God to take her.

Her mind quieted and she began to feel at peace. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the simple things. The low buzz of the fluorescent lights. The smell of bleach. The echoing sound of a trickle of blood droplets splattering onto the plastic sheet that lined the floor beneath her. The pain was fighting for her attention but losing. It had now transformed into nothing more than a simple dull annoyance.

Her breathing slowed. Her mind wandered through random thoughts that made no sense. It didn’t matter. She opened her eyes for one final glance at his “masterpiece.” She smiled a final farewell to herself, just as her reflection began to fade. And He took her.

Chapter 1

“He’ll burn in hellHE’LL BURN IN HELL for this,” Rebecca Black said through gritted teeth.

Her body shifted incessantly in her seat at the back of the courtroom. She anxiously awaited the judge’s return, staring daggers into the back of the man sitting behind the defense table. His head of perfect black waves and flashy smile did nothing to distract her from the monster he was.

Beads of anxiety-driven sweat ran down the back of her neck. The room felt like a furnace, but she knew it was all in her head. She gathered the long blonde tresses that hung down her back and twisted them up into a loose bun on the back of her head. A rush of cool air crossed her exposed neck. Unfortunately, it did nothing for the rage that boiled inside of her.

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but I just don’t think he’s the one,” Lexy said calmly, trying to diffuse her friend’s rising anger.

“Are you kidding me?” Rebecca whipped her head around. “Are we talking about the same man? You’ve been right here with me the whole time. How can you not see him for the monster he is?”

“The evidence doesn’t—”

“He butchered them! Case closed!” Rebecca glared furiously around the hushed courtroom, daring anyone to try to silence her.

“If it was that simple, we wouldn’t still be here,” Lexy said, clearly annoyed at the interruption.

Rebecca closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Lexy had a point. The evidence was all highly circumstantial and didn’t really prove a thing. It all pointed to him, but nothing was concrete, and his dream team of lawyers made sure every person in that courtroom was aware of the fact. However, successfully hiding guilt didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

He was so sure of himself it was difficult not to believe everything he said on the stand. But it was what he wasn’t saying that infuriated Rebecca. It was his mannerisms. His bold cockiness. His totally relaxed posture, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. And, worst of all, the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes when the prosecution presented the crime scene photos. The rest of the courtroom flinched and turned away from the gruesome sight of the sliced bodies projected onto the screen. But that monster actually leaned in closer, as if to get a better look. They were not the actions of an innocent man. Rebecca wished Lexy could see him the way she did.

Lexy gave it one more shot. “Look, I know this is deeply personal for you, but you need to try to see it objectively, at least.” She paused and chose her words carefully. “I’m telling you this as your friend. You need to put your biases aside, just for now, and look at this with a clear head. Because if you don’t, this whole mess is going to tear you apart. Not everyone is as ‘sure’ as you are...especially not everyone on that jury. They love him. They’re hanging on his every word. It’s written all over their faces.”

Rebecca knew Lexy was right. Not about the man’s innocence but about her feelings being completely obscured by rage. But how could they not be? Four innocent women, murdered and dumped like garbage. And her sister had been one of them.

As set as she was in her own judgement, Lexy had been her best friend for almost two decades, and Rebecca owed it to her to at least attempt her suggestion of objectivity. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. No feelings. Only the facts.

The first body had been found just over a year earlier, wrapped in plastic alongside a popular running trail within Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. Exactly a month later, another body was found. The pattern continued every thirty days, like clockwork, until the body count reached four. Whoever had dumped the bodies had intended them to be found quickly. Such time and care had been taken to prepare them. He wouldn’t have wanted them to be destroyed by animals, insects, or the elements.

The most horrifying sight came when the bodies were unwrapped. The victims were naked and covered with diamond-shaped lacerations. The edges were glued, either to keep the pieces from shifting or to stop the bleeding—maybe both.

The autopsies revealed the skinning was not the cause of death, and the victims had still been alive during that process. The cause of death came from a single stab wound to the abdomen, the one area where the flesh had not been removed. That kind of wound would have produced a lot of blood, but barely any was found. He had stabbed them, let them die slowly over several hours, and then cleaned them up before gift-wrapping and dumping them.

There was no doubt they were all victims of the same killer. If the surface mutilations and murder weapon weren’t enough, his choice of victims was. His taste was specific. Tall slender brunettes with mid-neck wavy bobs, emerald-green eyes, and, of course, they were all stunningly beautiful.

Andrew Donovan had been questioned following the discovery of the first victim, as well as the second, third, and fourth. They had all been romantically involved with him at one time or another. He was the glaring connection between them all. The motive was not clear, but he was definitely linked somehow. His alibis placed him out of town at the estimated time of death of each woman. Suspicions had been high, but no hard evidence could put the knife in his hand…until the autopsy of the fourth victim.

The characteristics of the knife were inconclusive in the first three killings. Organs and tissue stretch and retract when impaled, which did not leave an exact impression of the blade. However, the body of the fourth victim told a clearer story. With his most recent kill, the blade buried itself deep within the liver. The liver, being a fairly solid organ, retained an almost perfect impression of the weapon. A three-edged triangular blade, similar to a tent stake. Bruising caused by the impact of the knife’s handle on the uncut flesh revealed the blade was nearly six inches long. Several days after the initial autopsy, more discolorations became visible. Intricate designs where the handle met the blade left patterned bruising and pointed investigators toward a very unique knife. One they had seen before…at Andrew Donovan’s house, during his previous questionings. The Phurba Dagger was one of a collection of ancient weapons he had acquired over the years, proudly displayed in his home office.

But why would he suddenly start killing off all of his exes? And why cut them up the way he did? As hard as she tried, Rebecca couldn’t fathom a logical reason for it.

Once again, she closed her eyes and exhaled. And once again the horrifying images flooded her mind. She couldn’t shut them out. Every day she tried, but they always returned.

The plastic cocoons lying at the side of the trail. The mutilated bodies that were revealed once the plastic was cut away, their dead stares that seemed to look right through her, and the eerie similarities between the victims, as though Sara was being murdered over and over again. Rebecca shuddered as her memory randomly sifted through the crime scene photos. Diamonds, diamonds, and more diamonds.

A tear escaped down her cheek. The endless suffering Sara endured. The suffering all those women endured. Lexy passed a tissue into her lap, and Rebecca swiped it to the floor without a second thought. A superficial peace offering like that didn’t erase the betrayal she felt. She didn’t understand Lexy’s thinking, why she defended him so strongly.

Again, her eyes bored into the man across the room. Mr. Perfect. Money, power, great looks, and charm. A very dangerous combination. She had never met him before, not even when he was dating Sara. But Sara had told Rebecca all about him. How amazing he was. How thoughtful and romantic, and caring. Rebecca didn’t buy it, though. Sara was under his spell, and there was no reasoning with her. A man didn’t get to the top of the corporate ladder without being a master manipulator. The man was a flat-out wizard, with the way he could work people. And he had a pile of dead bodies behind him to prove it. All those women. They were all his, at some point. And none of them saw it coming. Yes, he was a very dangerous man. But why was she the only one to see it?

She gave a subtle glance to her right and immediately regretted it. The longing look in Lexy’s eyes proved that she, too, was spellbound. Her long strawberry locks were likely the only thing saving her from joining the pile.

Rebecca’s train of thought was broken as the crowd jumped to their feet. A hush fell over the courtroom as the judge took his seat behind the bench. Moments later, the jury marched in through the back courtroom door like a line of ants and shuffled into their box.

She glanced once more at the defense table. He looked quite confident; a subtle smile spread across his lips. He seemed to already know what the jury was about to say. And he did. He had known all along.

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Andrew Donovan...not guilty.”

Chapter 2

Rebecca stormed down theREBECCA STORMED DOWN THE front steps of the courthouse. She was absolutely livid. The bastard actually walked.

“Beck! Wait!” Lexy stumbled after her in her heels, struggling to catch up. She finally joined Rebecca at the curb, breathing heavily. “I know this isn’t the result you wanted, but you have to accept it. He didn’t do it. Game over.”

“Why are you even here?” Rebecca shot back at her. “You’re not here for me. You’re not here for Sara. You’re here for him!”

“No, that’s not true!” Lexy replied. “I am here for you. To support you. But it’s also my job to keep you level-headed, and right now, you’re anything but that.”

Rebecca’s green eyes flashed with resentment. “She was my sister, Lexy. Maybe not by blood, but she was still my sister. We swore to protect her and keep her safe. I swore. And I failed!”

“You know there was nothing you could’ve done to prevent this.”

“To hell there wasn’t!” Rebecca lowered her voice, aware of the attention she was drawing from those passing by. “I knew there was something off about him. That pretty picture she painted of him...I read between those lines. I knew he wasn’t as perfect as she was making him out to be.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you get it? She was his wife. They were all his wife. That’s why he chose them.”

“Being attracted to a certain look doesn’t mean he’s under the delusion that they’re all the same person,” Lexy said.

“Where is she, then? Where is Marie Donovan? Even the police don’t know. She disappeared off the face of the Earth three years ago, and no one has been able to find her since. And you don’t think it’s strange that every girlfriend he’s had since looks exactly like her?”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“It does mean something. It means everything. I bet he knows where she is. I bet she’s wrapped in plastic somewhere in that park. She just hasn’t been found yet.”

“He didn’t do it. He was set up,”

“It doesn’t make a difference now anyway, does it? He’s a free man. Free to kill again.”

Rebecca looked deep into Lexy’s eyes. She had never been this angry at anyone so close to her. Maybe that was why it hurt so much. Lexy had truly betrayed her. She was supposed to hold her hand, wipe her tears, and support her through this hellish trial. Rebecca’s parents were far too distraught to even make it that far. They had stopped coming to the courthouse after the first week. She needed Lexy more than ever, and her best friend had let her down. The smile that spread across her face when the verdict was read infuriated Rebecca. Lexy was like family to her. In a way, she was her sister too. How could she be so clouded by a flashy smile? Countless people had been mesmerized and charmed by Andrew Donovan, but she had thought Lexy smarter than that. She was wrong.

“You’re clearly not as intelligent as you make yourself out to be,” Rebecca said, knowing it was a low blow, but not having the willpower to contain it.

“Excuse me?”

“No excuses. You’re not the friend I thought you were, and I just don’t have the energy to put up with it anymore.” Rebecca’s eyes burned with the approaching tears, but she held them at bay as best she could.

She took two steps back to give Lexy some breathing room. With a heavy sigh her face softened. It was over. Her treks downtown to the courthouse, day after day. Her silent fight with Andrew Donovan. And worst of all, her friendship with Lexy.

“You can go now,” she said, with as little emotion as she could.

Lexy stomped past her without a word and headed to the curb to hail a cab. Within a minute she was gone, and Rebecca felt truly alone.

She couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. In an instant, the floodgates opened and they poured down her face. She’d been cruel to Lexy, and she hated herself for it. Her anger had been building for so long, and she simply couldn’t contain it anymore. Without giving a damn about the scene she was creating, she dropped to her knees in the middle of the sidewalk and gave her tears free rein.

It took longer than she had hoped for her emotions to stabilize. She simply had nothing left. She was exhausted and dehydrated, and ready to get the hell out of there. Struggling to her feet, and shaking the pins and needles out of her legs, she decided to walk for a while instead of heading straight to her car. The sidewalk leading to the parking garage was flooded with press anyway, and she didn’t want any part of it. However, she did pause for a moment as Andrew Donovan and his attorney exited the building behind her and were immediately ambushed by reporters. She watched him. He was absolutely beaming. And why wouldn’t he be? He had won.

Chapter 3

Just over an hour JUST OVER AN HOUR since leaving the bustling streets of downtown D.C., Rebecca steered her car down the quiet, shaded lane leading to her parents’ house. Flowering cherry blossoms lined the curb on both sides and funneled her toward a destination she knew she was not emotionally ready for.

They would have already heard. The case had gained national attention, and the recent verdict was, no doubt, swamping every major news station with the story. She swallowed the rising lump in her throat and eased her foot off the gas pedal, trying to prolong the time before she would face them.

A physical pain throbbed deep within her chest. Her heart ached. She had been selfish those past weeks—consumed with feelings of guilt, sadness, and rage. She had put everyone else out of her mind, without the slightest consideration that although she had lost a sister, her parents had lost a daughter. A daughter who had officially entered their family only fourteen years earlier, but one they had assisted in raising since her birth.

Sara’s single mother had been a regular fixture in Rebecca’s life for as long as she could remember, and when she tragically lost her life at The Pentagon on September 11th, it was a given that the Black family would take in her only child and care for her as if she were their own. Rebecca and her older brother, Marcus, took great pride in healing the young girl’s shattered heart and providing the light to pull her out of the darkness that had suffocated her. But would she have been better off with a different family? In a different city? Rebecca couldn’t shake the feeling of responsibility for Sara’s demise. She should have watched her more closely. She should have acted on her gut instinct that Sara wasn’t being completely honest in her description of her relationship with Andrew Donovan. She could have stopped it. But now she was gone, and Rebecca had no idea how to quiet the screams echoing in her skull.

Approaching the house, her car creeped up the driveway and came to a stop. The face of the red brick colonial gave off a disheartening air as it rose into the graying sky. A storm was on its way, both inside and out, and Rebecca wasn’t quite sure which one she would rather be caught in.

She stalled for a few moments more, taking in every detail of her beloved childhood home. She had never really looked at it from that viewpoint before. It was still in pristine condition, even after all that time. Gone was the broken window that highlighted Sara’s first and last day of trying softball. Also gone were the dents in the garage door, sustained during Rebecca’s failed attempts at teaching Sara how to drive.

Her eyes drifted to the pair of rocking chairs on the porch. So many evenings were spent in those chairs. Talking, plotting, laughing—even crying. It was during those moments that Rebecca and Sara’s sisterly bond flourished. It was in those chairs that the name Andrew Donovan first left its bad taste in Rebecca’s mouth.

The tears began to fall as they always did during recent trips down memory lane. Every joyful recollection came hand in hand with the realization that those moments were lost forever. She would never again sit on that porch, rocking away to the sound of Sara’s dreams of the future and amusement at the past.

Rebecca swiftly pulled down the sun visor in front of her and flipped open the vanity mirror. She was a mess. She couldn’t face her parents looking like that. They would need her strength to keep them afloat in the hell they were drowning in. She could barely keep her own head above water, but her self-loathing would have to wait.

Pulling a handful of tissues from her purse, she wiped away the black trails of mascara running down her cheeks and prepared herself for what lay beyond the front door. Her parents’ house had always been a happy home, a symbol of a strong family that could beat any odds that fell before them. Not anymore. That family was broken, and no amount of positive thinking and optimism could fix it.


Rebecca rounded the corner to the living room and stopped in her tracks. The scene before her was one she had expected, but she was still not ready for what greeted her. Not that she ever would be.

Her mother sat on the sofa, her face red and swollen, half-buried in Marcus’ chest. He hugged her tight and rocked her back and forth. The sounds of her sobs carried toward Rebecca’s position in the doorway, and they cut her to the bone. It was a recreation of that day, a year earlier, when officers showed up at the front door to inform them of the body they’d found. However, the saving grace at that time was that it wasn’t yet tangible. There was still hope that it wasn’t Sara. It didn’t last long, but it had been there.

Rebecca glanced over at her father, who painted a completely different picture. He was not the depiction of shock and denial as he had been that day. His large hands covered his face while his shoulders slumped forward and shook with each whimper that escaped through his fingers. She had never seen him like that, so frail and weak. As far back as she could remember, he had always been her rock. The epitome of strength, vigor, and hard work. He had been the one responsible for every ounce of her confidence and work ethic. Through him, she believed she could accomplish anything, no matter how daunting or impossible the task appeared. She had conquered everything she set out to do with her life, and it was all because of him. He was her Superman, but at that moment she didn’t even recognize him.

Marcus’ eyes met hers and that was all it took to strip away every morsel of composure she had been hanging onto. With half a dozen rapid strides she crossed the room and dropped to her knees in front of her father. The tears came hard and fast, streaming down her neck and soaking the collar of her blouse. She had no words. He was the one who always knew what to say. He was the one who had always filled her ears with the perfect line of encouragement, support, or advice. Right now, he needed her to show him the same strength, and she was drawing a complete blank.

She reached up and gently tugged his hands away from his face. The eyes that looked back at her were so full of grief that her brain switched off and her body reacted with pure instinct. She leapt to her feet and squeezed her slim frame into the armchair with him. Mimicking Marcus’ comforting gestures, she urged her father’s head to her shoulder and enveloped him tightly with her arms.

“Oh, Pop.” Her words were barely a whisper. It was all she could manage, but it was all he needed. He wrapped his arms firmly around her waist and let out all of the anguish he had been trying so hard to hold inside.

She hugged him even tighter, hoping the strength in her arms would transfer into him somehow. How could she have been so selfish? All the time she had spent trying to avoid that moment, stalling as long as possible while her brother did all the heavy lifting. She glanced over at him, met his eyes, and mouthed her apology. It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. He gave her an understanding nod before returning his attention to their mother.

The four of them remained huddled close together for the next hour, and the sobs began to quiet. Rebecca couldn’t cry anymore. She didn’t have the energy or the tears left to do so. She had always thought it a dramatic myth that a person could literally run out of tears. However, there she was…empty.

Chapter 4

Rebecca slammed her carREBECCA SLAMMED HER CAR door and stomped across the empty parking lot to the silver metal door. She caught her reflection and, for the first time all day, saw just how evil she could look. She had stayed at her parents’ house until the exhaustion overtook them and they fell asleep. Her mother had made it to the bedroom, but her father didn’t make it out of his recliner before drifting off. As dismal as the visit had been, it had felt good being with those who were going through the exact same agony. However, once she had pulled out of the driveway, the anger had reared its ugly head again and fueled her entire commute into work.

And here she was once more, about to be surrounded by people who had no idea of the hell she was in. She wasn’t a good recipient of sympathy or pity; she didn’t want any part of it. She was a strong woman and hoped to be treated as such. As shredded as her heart was, it was time to put her game-face on. After all, the distraction might actually be beneficial.

She calmed herself with a few meditative breaths and checked the silver mirror again. Better. Decked out in her chef’s whites, she faked a smile and walked briskly through the back door of La Croix D’ior, an upscale French restaurant in downtown Bethesda.

It was her dream job; she had been head chef and co-owner for the past two years. Situated on a corner of Old Georgetown Road, it was right in the heart of Bethesda’s so-called restaurant district. The area was known for its rich cultural cuisines: Thai, Ethiopian, Spanish, and, of course, French. With such a prime location and excellent menu, La Croix was constantly packed with diners, which was exactly how Rebecca liked it.

Unlike every other employee at La Croix, Rebecca was not French. However, she absolutely adored French cuisine and had an intense passion for it. After graduating from New York’s French Culinary Institute, she accompanied her mentor back to France to learn from the masters in his Paris bistro. She had only meant to stay for a year, or however long it took for her to feel confident in her skills, but Gabriel had been too good to her. Four years had passed before she finally bid him adieu and hopped on a plane back to the States.

“Bonjour, mon amour,” she chimed as she made her way into the kitchen.

“Bonjour, vous,” replied the hunky twenty-year-old before her.

Peter was Rebecca’s apprentice and also happened to be her business partner’s son. She had been training him in the kitchen for the past eight months and recognized his special culinary gift, just as Gabriel had recognized hers. It was a natural talent that could not be taught, but she enjoyed teaching him how to refine it. Every day she marveled at his skills. They were no match for hers, of course, but Peter brought a youthful energy to the kitchen that she hadn’t possessed since Paris. She was only thirty herself, but she felt ancient in comparison.

“So, I’m in love again,” he said, grinning widely like a little kid at Christmas.

“Again? You were just in love last week. And, I think, the week before that,” Rebecca pointed out.

“This time it’s serious. She’s the most amazing girl I’ve ever met.”

“And what about the amazing girl you were in love with last week?” she asked.

“She’s still here,” he said as he over-dramatically slapped both hands over his heart. “And there’s plenty of me to go around,” he sang, opening his arms wide.

“Ahh… The French.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” He took a slightly defensive stance.

“Oh, relax. I’m just jealous. I wish I could fall head over heels in love every week.” She gave him a little nudge as she sidled up next to him at the prep table and started slicing some carrots. She cherished their prep time. It would be several hours before the restaurant opened for dinner and the kitchen became a total madhouse.

Peter was totally adorable. It was no wonder his dance card was always full. What girl could possibly resist all that charm, delivered in that sexy French accent? He was quite a looker as well. Dark brown curls that he would swipe away to reveal deep brown eyes hooded with the longest eyelashes she had ever seen. Rebecca was not bad looking herself, although she never gave herself that much credit. She was very attractive, but not in a cause-a-car-accident-walking-down-the-street sort of way. Her long, honey blonde hair fell in natural free-flowing waves that would make any woman jealous. At five foot nine she was considered tall for a woman, and her love of sports gave her a strong and athletic, yet still very feminine, build. However, what mostly got men’s attention was her smile. Thanks to years of high-school orthodontics, she smiled widely and often.

“Come on, my little French poodle. We’ve got a huge dinner rush to get ready for.” She motioned for Peter to follow her.

Tugging hard on the chrome latch of the walk-in refrigerator door, she disappeared inside and immediately re-emerged with a butcher-wrapped beef rib roast. Making her way to the meat station, she placed the beef on the block and began to unwrap it. Peter trailed close behind her, but when she turned to look at him, his young, charming pep was gone. His smile had faded and the outside corners of his eyes drooped with concern.

“Are we ready to get real now?” he asked. “You can’t fool me. I know you too well.”

“Can’t we just pretend for a little while longer?” Rebecca didn’t want to face reality just yet.

However, Peter, who could switch back and forth between immature teen and wise guru in an instant, refused to let her off the hook. “You had quite a day today. It’s been all over the news. They let him go.”

Rebecca didn’t respond immediately. Instead, she grabbed her favorite chef’s knife in one hand and her honing steel in the other before merging them with repetitive earsplitting clashes. She knew it was only a matter of time before she would have to talk about Andrew Donovan. At least it was with Peter.

“Not enough evidence,” she said, her knife gliding through the slab of beef with expert speed and precision. “It was all circumstantial.”

“That shouldn’t matter. People are convicted every day on circumstantial evidence.”

Rebecca smiled. It felt great to hear someone else fight her battle.

“I thought the knife was his,” he added.

“No blood on it. Or prints. His defense attorney said it was most likely a replica. And if it wasn’t, then someone broke in, outsmarted his high-tech security system, stole the knife, used it, and put it back without anyone having any idea,” Rebecca said sarcastically.

“Four separate times?”

“You know, I can understand how a jury can be conservative. It’s a huge decision, sending a man off to die in prison. But Lexy? What’s her reasoning? How can she be so gullible?”

“I’m sensing quite a bit of tension here,” Peter said.

“She was there with me every day. She heard the same information I did. Evidence, testimonies, arguments. How can we draw completely different conclusions from each other?”

“Hmm...opportunity, motive, murder weapon, weak alibi. Check, check, check, and check. What’s her story?”

“She believes he’s being framed. Powerful guy, lots of enemies. Whatever.”

“It is possible.”

Rebecca whipped her head toward him and glared.

“I said it’s possible, not likely.” Peter saved himself.

“You should have seen him, Peter. When they showed those crime scene photos...he actually leaned in closer for a better look. It was disgusting. That is not the way an innocent man acts.”

“So how are things with you and Lexy?”

“Not good. Not good at all.”

“You should call her. Seriously. This man has already taken your sister. Don’t let him take your friend too.”

As usual, Peter made perfect sense. Rebecca couldn’t just throw away an eighteen-year friendship over a misunderstanding. That was all it was. A misunderstanding. It had to be. Lexy just didn’t see what Rebecca saw in that courtroom. She didn’t see, she didn’t hear, she didn’t know. Since half a day had passed, and Rebecca had calmed down, she could explain it to Lexy in a more rational way.

The hours sped by, and Rebecca and Peter worked furiously to stay ahead of the dinner rush. Not another word was spoken about Andrew Donovan. Rebecca almost started to feel normal again, as if her heart hadn’t been carved to pieces in the past weeks. But she knew her temporary feeling of peace was just that...temporary. She had to talk to Lexy.

When the last diner closed out their check, Rebecca tossed another pile of mixing bowls into the soapy water. She began scrubbing mindlessly.

A hand reached in from behind and took the sponge from her. “This is not your job,” Peter said. “You have something more important to do. Go and do it.”

She had been procrastinating, not looking forward to the task at hand. After a final walk-through of the kitchen, and a brief check on her manager, Rebecca left her safe haven and trotted across the parking lot, fishing her cellphone out of her purse. Settling herself behind the wheel, she dialed Lexy’s number. A quick peek into the vanity mirror confirmed that she was in much better shape than when she had arrived earlier that afternoon. She hoped she would be able to keep her cool this time.

“Pick up. Come on, pick up,” she mumbled to herself.

No luck. Lexy’s outgoing message echoed in her ear and at that moment, she had no idea what to say. She ended the call and knew her window had closed. Lexy was never without her phone. Rarely did it ever make it to the second ring. Rebecca knew what it meant. Lexy was done with her.

Chapter 5

Rebecca’s forehead slammed intoREBECCA’S FOREHEAD SLAMMED INTO the steering wheel. She winced at the pain radiating through her skull. She threw herself into it again. It had often been said that physical pain was easier to deal with than emotional pain. Not by much.

She exited her car with purse in tow and staggered up her front steps, holding her head to quiet the pounding. Blinded by the intense darkness inside, she stumbled twice before finding the light switch. She briefly thought of calling her parents and checking in on them, but it was late, and the best she could do for them was let them rest. After the day they’d had, they needed some quiet time. She kicked off her shoes, tossed her purse onto the sofa, and headed straight past the living room to the kitchen—and the liquor cabinet.

She grabbed the first bottle she saw. Tequila. That should do the trick. Her throat burned as she downed the first shot, but the feeling of calm was almost instantaneous. It was very likely psychological, but she didn’t care. Whatever worked. All she wanted to do was forget everything that had transpired that day—even if only temporarily.

Just past the kitchen was the family room. She powered on the flatscreen on the wall and immediately tuned in to a marathon of Friends reruns. Grabbing her glass, she settled on the couch for a night of mindless sitcoms.

It took only a few minutes for the alcohol to begin taking effect. Unfortunately, the rush of brain-numbing endorphins brought a flood of emotion with it, and before long, she was a sobbing mess.

Once again, her thoughts drifted back to Sara. Rebecca felt sick to her stomach thinking about how they had promised to protect Sara and keep her safe from the cruel world they lived in when the girl’s mother had died. Not only had they failed to keep her safe, but the horrifying way in which she died was too much to bear. Rebecca almost wished it had been her. At least then she would be out of her misery and not totally consumed by guilt. Her tears continued to dilute the last drops of tequila in her glass. She rose and staggered to the kitchen to refill it.

She grabbed a lime off the counter, chose the biggest and sharpest knife she could find, and began hacking away at it. She winced and squinted as the acidic juice flew all over the kitchen. The poor fruit took quite the beating as she unleashed her fury upon it. She paused mid-swing as a breaking news bulletin flashed across the television screen. Of course. Would she ever be able to escape him?

Footage of Andrew Donovan leaving the courthouse, charming reporters and flashing that beaming smile that made Rebecca nauseous. She listened as he spoke about how harsh the world could be and how he would do anything he could to assist in finding the killer. He was good. He almost sounded sincere.

Having heard enough, she gripped the knife tightly in her fist and launched it clear across the room, where it lodged in the drywall next to the screen. Rebecca sighed. Her knife-throwing skills left much to be desired.

She walked back over to the sofa and sat on the floor in front of it with her full glass in one hand and a half-full bottle of tequila in the other. It was official. Andrew Donovan had destroyed her. Rebecca had become one of his victims and he had never even laid a finger on her. He had taken the one person that she truly felt responsible for from her. Sara was four years younger than Rebecca and so innocent in everything she did. She was only twelve when she lost her mother and she barely remembered her father.

Rebecca was sixteen at the time and, in the beginning, took on a mothering role. Even though they both had Rebecca’s mother for that, she wanted that job for herself. She cared for Sara as if she was a bird with a broken wing.

Whenever Sara was troubled, Rebecca was there for her. Losing her mother so tragically, and moving in with a new family, completely broke her. Rebecca’s main goal in life became to fix her. She thought she had succeeded in doing so. The nights were the worst for Sara, and Rebecca moved Sara’s bed into her room so she would never feel alone. Night terrors plagued her every sleeping moment, but Rebecca was always there to climb into her bed and hold her tight until she woke up. And there she would stay, to let Sara soak her pajamas with her tears.

As the months went by, it had happened less often. Little by little, Sara’s grief began to subside. The passing of each season was marked by a new milestone in her emotional state. Before long, a year had gone by and her crying fits had all but disappeared. She was then able to cry over the petty things that normally affected teenage girls—drama, boy trouble. Rebecca was there for all of it, and it made her feel important, sharing her experience and wisdom. By that time, Sara didn’t need her as a mother anymore. What she needed was a sister. A big sister. A loving, protective, glorious big sister. And that was exactly what she got.

Rebecca could barely see through the tears pouring from her eyes. What would Sara think of her now? How could Rebecca let her down so much that it had actually cost her life?

She remembered all the late-night chats about Andrew Donovan. Sara had dated him for about seven months. She was head over heels for him. Perfect in every way. Sara was devastated when he broke up with her and spent weeks begging him to take her back. It took so long for her to get over him, but as always, Rebecca was there to comfort her. Finally, she had accepted it and moved on. Rebecca was elated to find that she had raised her right. No man should control her emotions like that. Another milestone hit.

Rebecca had trusted it was all over, but she shouldn’t have. She knew there was something Sara wasn’t telling her. Why would Donovan have broken it off if everything was as perfect as she said? He had been out of the picture for over a year when her body was found. Just like the others. Dumped on the side of a trail in Rock Creek Park, the new gathering place for all those that used to belong to Andrew Donovan.

Rebecca’s teeth clenched and the anger returned like fire shooting through her veins. Her trip down memory lane ended the same way it always did—with the realization that Andrew Donovan was truly the devil in the flesh. The empty bottle lying on its side on the coffee table told her what she already knew. Nothing could tame her rage against that man. Not even Tequila.

Chapter 6

It was late, andIT WAS LATE AND Rebecca could barely keep her eyes open. Her blurred eyes caught a glimpse of the knife still jutting out of the wall. She stood and steadied herself on the arm of the couch before crossing the room for a better look. Wrapping her fist around the protruding handle, she tugged hard and fell backward, the blade narrowly missing her brow as she and the knife crumpled to the floor.

She lay there, stunned for a moment, realizing the stupidity of her action. She couldn’t distinguish whether she was still drunk or asleep, but the room began to spin and the tequila rapidly rose in her throat. Lacking the energy or balance to pull herself back onto the couch, she instead crawled to the nearest wall and sat herself against it. The nausea was steadily increasing, and she was losing the fight to keep the fluid down. In a last-ditch effort, she held up the knife still clutched in her hand and lost herself in its gleaming steel. Nothing could calm her quicker than her razor-sharp security blanket. It was her lifeline. Her stomach settled as her fingers slowly rolled the knife, casting flickers of reflected light throughout the room.

She was so captivated by the light show, that she didn’t even hear the first knock on the door. The second knock rang slightly clearer, and by the third, she had risen and was on her way to uncover its source.

It didn’t occur to her that it was 3 a.m. and quite lateor earlyfor a visitor. Hoping it was Lexy, coming over to accept her apology, she quickened her pace toward the door, still grasping the oversized chef knife in her fist.

She swung the door open and her jaw dropped. The color drained from her face.

“I don’t believe it.”

Under ordinary circumstances, she would have been thrilled to see such a gorgeous hunk of a man standing at her door at three in the morning. Not this time. Clad in blue jeans and a white dress shirt, Andrew Donovan’s attire was casual but sexy. The black waves of his hair danced as the early morning breeze picked up. His blue eyes sparkled, but at the same time, were as cold as ice. They didn’t coordinate with the blinding ear-to-ear smile he had planted on his face.

“I saw you at the trial,” he said, as he eyed the full length of her. “You looked very upset, as naturally you would be.”

Rebecca froze. Her brain screamed commands. Shut the door! Call the police! But she had zero control of her body at that moment. Her arms remained stiff at her sides and her bare feet rooted themselves firmly on the floor.

All that anger she had felt. Everything she told herself she would do to him if she ever got the chance. It was all easier said than done. Standing face to face with the object of every woman’s nightmare, she was powerless. Her feet couldn’t move a single step and her lips couldn’t form a single word. There he was on her doorstep in the middle of the night and she knew, all too well, what he was capable of. Her trembling fingers gripped the knife tighter as it hung by her side.

“I looked you up and came over here to express my condolences for your sister.” He glanced down at the knife she was clutching with white knuckles. “But I see you might have other plans for me.”

He took an uninvited step through her doorway. Then another. Rebecca forced her legs to match his steps in reverse. Her eyes wide with fear, the courage and strength she had built her entire life on was, at that moment, nonexistent.

“You know…” He continued as he made his way even further inside, closing and bolting the door behind him. “I’m not usually into blondes...but if you’re even half as feisty as Sara was...I think I can make an exception.”

Through pure survival reflex, Rebecca spun around and began a sprint toward the back door at the far end of the family room. However, she had only taken two steps when she was suddenly yanked backward. Andrew turned her around to face him, his fist still clutching a fistful of her blonde locks.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

She raised her right arm and swung the knife as hard as she could toward his face. His hand flew up, caught her wrist, and halted her mid-swing, causing a sharp pain in her shoulder. He held her wrist there for a moment, the long metal blade hovering just over his eye.

“Well look what we have here,” he said, grinning ear to ear.

Turning her hand over, he redirected the knife up toward her throat. She didn’t know what to do. She felt helpless. He was big, standing over six feet tall and packed with muscle from head to toe. He felt even stronger than he looked. She tried to pull away, using every ounce of strength she had, but he didn’t budge. He used her own hand to press the blade further into her neck as he grabbed her other wrist and drew her closer to him.

With his face just inches from hers, she could smell him. A hint of cologne mixed with Chardonnay and laced with utter amusement. She didn’t actually think amusement had a specific odor, but if it did...that was it. She gasped as she felt a drop of blood trickle down the front of her neck.

He was still smiling at her. Was that image the last thing Sara saw before he skinned her alive? Is that how he got them in the first place? His smile? Rebecca didn’t doubt it.

Her time was running out and she knew she had to do something...anything. She refused to surrender and allow him to torture her, even as he drove her hand and the knife deeper into her throat.

She made her move, bringing her knee up hard into his groin. Nothing. The man was made of steel. He gripped her wrists so tight she was sure her bones were going to shatter at any second. A shock of pain radiated through her hands followed by the clanging of the knife bouncing off the ceramic floor. At that, he dragged her back toward the sofa in the front living room and threw her onto it. She landed with a huge crack as the back of her head slammed against the wooden armrest. She let out an audible cry. It didn’t last long as he leaped on top of her, straddling her stomach and knocking the breath right out of her. She gasped. She tried to scream, but nothing would come out.

He gathered both of her wrists together into his left hand and shoved them over her head. Again, she tried to scream, but no sound left her open mouth. She was suffocating; the weight of him on her stomach, the intense fear of what was going to come next. Again, she tried to muster up any noise she could. The only thing she could manage was a hoarse whisper.

He leaned into her, placing even more pressure on her chest. Nose to nose, he stared deep into her eyes. He held her wide-eyed stare for what seemed like hours. Finally, he sat up, still holding her wrists in place above her head. With his right hand, he reached toward the back of his jeans, pulled it out, and hoisted it high in the air. The three-edged blade glimmered in the dim light of the room. He ran his thumb over the tribal face, ornately carved into the handle, caressing every intricate detail. The Phurba Dagger—his weapon of choice. He leaned in again and brought the blade right up to her eyes and she stared into it. Wide eyes full of fear reflected back at her.

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