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Stay Hidden (The HIdden Series Book 1) by Leigh Fleming (1)


Chapter 1

Derek Bronson stood inside the bank foyer and looked down at the fresh pool of blood. Mesmerized, he stared as a small stream traveled between the tiles, the off-white grout channeling the dark red liquid. His gaze locked on the bloody trail as it crept toward his feet, giving him a minute to fight back the memories before he looked at the dead body lying inches away.

Shattered glass crunched under his shoe when a passing police officer bumped into him, hurrying across the lobby toward a witness. The woman sobbed uncontrollably against the shoulder of a paramedic as he guided her to a waiting gurney. Derek turned his head to the smell of coffee, freshly brewed for customers. There would be no takers today.

Unable to put off the inevitable any longer, Derek forced his eyes to the young woman lying on the cold floor. Her long dark hair splayed behind her as if caught in a summer breeze, and her face held the serenity of sleep. He swallowed hard, squeezed his eyes tightly, then opened them to the large gaping hole torn in her chest.

Images flooded through him of another victim, two years ago, heart blasted out in the same fashion.

His throat closed up. Sweat beaded his forehead, and his stomach roiled—like when he’d stretched the limits of his usual workout.

Sprinting out of the bank and around the corner, Derek dropped his hands to his knees and sucked gulps of fresh morning air. What a wuss. He hadn’t reacted this way since his first days with the bureau.

But this one hit too close to home.

Bile burned his throat. His vision blurred. With another swallow of air, his heart rate slowed. Breathing deeply, the freshly mowed grass beneath his feet settled the adrenaline rush. It was a damn good thing he was in shape. His pounding heart could’ve stopped him in his tracks. He glanced at the intersection where first responder vehicles clogged the streets. Uniforms swarmed everywhere, like bees on a hive.

Yeah. Good. Okay. The familiar routine settled him. Another breath and he was ready. Across the street, large gold FBI letters plastered to the backs of several agents flashed in his periphery.

In the short time since he’d stepped away from the bank, they’d roped off the crime scene. Yellow police tape ran from the front entry, across the street, and down half a block. He dipped under the tape on his way to the group of FBI agents gathered on the opposite corner.

“Stop right there! Don’t move!”

Folded below the caution tape, Derek halted when a skinny, pimple-faced patrolman rushed toward him. A Glock 22 was clasped between his hands. He didn’t look old enough to shoot a gun.

“Sorry, officer.” Derek raised his hands in the air as he stood up, towering nearly a full foot over the town policeman whose job it was to keep the media, family members, and busybodies away from the crime scene.

“I’m lowering my right hand to show you my FBI badge.” Keeping his eyes locked on the unsteady gun pointed directly at his chest, Derek slowly pulled his jacket open to prove to the nervous officer he did indeed have an identification tag clipped to his belt.

The color rose back into the officer’s face as he blew out a sigh and holstered his gun. If not his very first day on the job, Derek figured it was at least his first day at an active crime scene. Nothing like a good old-fashioned bank robbery to get your feet wet in law enforcement.

“May I go? Over there?” Derek pointed toward his fellow agents across the street, but the rookie was too busy dabbing the sweat from his forehead to hear his request.

“Okay then, I’ll just ease under this tape . . .” Derek dipped below the barrier and turned with his hands outstretched to face the quivering patrolman. “I’m heading over there. See me? Hey buddy, you all right?”

Finally, the young officer came back to the moment. He nodded at Derek, who spared some sympathy for the kid. With all Derek had experienced in his career—mutilated bodies, faces blown off at close-point range, victims burned so severely only dental records could identify them—he knew this job wasn’t for the faint of heart. Then again, who was he to judge? What he’d just witnessed inside the bank had brought him to his knees.

He crossed the street scattered with city and state police cruisers and black, unmarked FBI vehicles. Several civilians were lined along the police tape, jostling for a better view of the Pipersburg Community Bank. If Derek’s instincts were right, this robbery was another in a long string that had been taking place across Kentucky and West Virginia the past two years.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Robert “Bo” Azar barked from the center of the group of agents. Just under six feet tall, with black hair and richly tanned skin, he stood out among the men, not only because of his Lebanese heritage, but because of his physical toughness—though Derek knew the man’s mental fortitude put him in a class by himself as well. His biceps strained against the sleeves of his navy windbreaker. Derek never wanted to get on the guy’s bad side, but he had a feeling he was about to.

“Hey, Bo.” Derek waved his hand as if he’d been out for a Sunday stroll and happened upon a bunch of his buddies. “Alex, Tom—good to see you guys.” With handshakes all around, he finally turned to Bo, the supervisor in charge of the investigation.

“You didn’t answer me, Bronson.”

“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the past couple weeks but haven’t heard back. Figured I’d stop by to talk to you.”

“You just happened to be in Pipersburg? Like it’s around the corner from DC?”

“I’m actually in the area for a wedding and thought now was as good a time as—”

“Christ, Bronson, you think now is a good time? We’re in the middle of a robbery investigation if you hadn’t noticed.” His baritone bounced off the old brick buildings, causing the other agents to scatter. “A woman was killed this morning.”

No shit. His ab muscles were still clenched from the sight of her bloody body.

“Let me on your team. That’s all I’m asking.” Derek smiled and opened his arms in supplication.

“I’m not impressed with your blond good looks and cheesy grin.”

“Then what about my forensics background? My investigative skills are just what the team needs.”

“Forget it.” Bo stormed off toward the bank entrance, but Derek wouldn’t be dismissed. This was too important. These robberies had haunted him for two years, and he was bound and determined to find the suspect. He couldn’t spend another day holed up at DC headquarters, evaluating evidence with a serial bank robber and murderer still on the loose.

“Why not? Come on, Bo, we’ve worked together before.” Derek caught up to him, tugging his shoulder around to face him. “You know my work ethic. Who’s better than me for this? I bring a . . . a unique perspective to the investigation.”

“It’s that perspective that’s keeping you off this case.”

“Please. We’re talking about my dad here.”

“Precisely.”

“He would want me on the team.”

Bo’s shoulders sagged as he rubbed his broad forehead with a beefy hand. He had been one of Jack Bronson’s protégées, working under and learning from him, before getting the green light to head a team of his own. In turn, Bo had been one of Derek’s mentors, taking Jack’s son under his wing those first two years out of Quantico.

Derek was getting through to him—at least he hoped so.

“Come on, Bo. If I cross a line, I’ll go without argument. But I know this case. I’ve studied every detail of every incident. I know it like the back of my hand.”

Their gazes locked. Bo’s jaw clenched and released. Derek knew he was in.

“Shit.”

“You know I’m right. I’ll work harder than anyone to catch this guy.”

“You’re a pain in the ass, Bronson, you know that?”

“Yeah, I do.” Derek plastered on a wry grin, hoping to melt Bo’s steely armor. “So, do we have a deal?” He extended his hand, and Bo grasped it. Derek’s bones cracked under his new boss’s strength, but he gave it right back to him, squeezing hard while keeping his smile in place.

“Initiate the transfer, and I’ll sign off on it. Now, get with Alex. He’ll go over what we know so far.”

“Great. I’ll do that. Thanks, Bo.” Derek turned toward the bank entrance, where a state trooper talked with Alex. Tall, his dark hair cropped close, Alex towered above most of the officers around him.

Derek stepped off the curb but stopped short with Bo’s next words.

“Hey, and Derek—” The angry sneer from moments ago was replaced by the soft, concerned face of a friend. “Steer clear of the bank lobby. The body’s right inside the door.”

He glanced over his shoulder where the dark shadow of a body still lay prone on the floor.

“Yeah, I know. I already saw it.” Derek rubbed the back of his neck and caught Bo’s worried look. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Afraid so. Looks like your dad’s murderer struck again.”

~ ~ ~

Riley strolled down the tree-lined street, past Victorian houses and Craftsman bungalows, as the sun sank low behind the rooftops and the spicy sweetness of blooming lilacs filled the air. Today had been bright and sunny, but now there was a nip in the breeze that made her draw her sweater tighter around the middle as she walked home from Beautiful Blooms. A dog barked from a backyard. She knew it was Tiny, the Putnam’s Rottweiler, who often escaped his yard and found his way to hers. Normally, she’d give him a long scratch under his fuzzy chin and a biscuit before he went on his way.

The thought of never seeing that smelly, lovable dog again made her eyes water.

But she’d stayed too long. Six months in one place was time enough to be found. Today, after her phone lit up with Unknown Caller for the umpteenth time, she’d decided that was it.

This weekend was Kate and Brody’s wedding, which she couldn’t miss. Not only had Kate become a close friend—and Riley’d had so few of them—she was in charge of the flowers. When Monday morning came, she would pack up her car before the sun was up and head to another town. Surely Monday would be soon enough.

As she rounded the corner onto Maple Street, the sound of an idling truck drew her attention away from the beautiful pink dogwoods in the Finton’s yard. Over her shoulder, she saw an old Ford cruising slowly down the street. It looked a lot like Brody’s truck, but the color wasn’t right, and his didn’t have a dent in the grill. When the truck sped up and the driver-side window lowered, Riley’s heart rate tripled. She picked up her pace, looking around for anyone who might be outside, watering flowers or rocking on their porch, as the thumping in her chest made it hard to breathe.

Four more houses and she would be in her front yard, just steps from safety. She spared another glance for the truck and noticed a plaid-sleeved elbow jutting from the driver-side window. She was practically running now, like an Olympic speed walker, as she drew within a hundred yards of her house.

“Hey,” the driver yelled.

It was him. She would recognize that voice anywhere. How had he found her? She had been so careful this time—kept a low profile, changed her long hair to blond, only paid in cash, replaced her track phone every couple of months. How had he traced her to Highland Springs?

Riley couldn’t wait another second. He could be out of that truck and tackling her to the ground in a flash. She ran the final few yards to her porch. Her hand shook so violently, she couldn’t get her key in the lock. With another look over her shoulder, she nearly lost her breath when the driver leaned his head out the window as he drew alongside the curb. His dark, wavy bangs flopped over his forehead, looking so much like—

“Excuse me.”

Stars danced in front of her face.

“Hey, can you tell me how to get to College Avenue?”

She blinked a few times as the keys clattered in her hand. Her vision cleared, and this time when she cast a look over her shoulder, she didn’t see a memory, but a dark-haired teenager who looked nothing like him.

“I’m sorry, Miss? I can’t find College Avenue.”

He didn’t even sound like him.

“Oh, um, okay.” Her mouth was so dry, she could barely speak. “It’s um . . .” Her arm felt weighted down as she pointed up the street. “It’s two more blocks that way.”

“Great. Thanks. Sorry to bother you.”

Riley sagged against the screen door as the old pickup pulled away. She trudged to the edge of her porch, sank onto the top step, and dropped her head into quivering hands. Another false alarm. Her mind, yet again, playing tricks on her. When would she stop seeing his face, hearing his voice? Not until he slipped up and was thrown in jail. Until then, she would keep facing the fear she’d had since leaving Kentucky. She’d keep feeling it—and she’d keep running.

Riley’s heart skipped when a muffled meow floated from deep inside a blue hydrangea bush, its owner an orange-striped tabby who leaped onto her steps. He slinked against her shins and dipped behind her knees, then forced his way onto her lap.

“Hello, Tiger. Not a good day, I’m afraid.” The cat belonged to Sam Smiley across the street, and often came for the kibble Riley kept on hand for his frequent visits. While she stroked the cat’s soft, fluffy coat, she replayed the scene over and over, reminding herself it was an illusion. He hadn’t found her. Not this time.

Legs heavy from the adrenaline that had coursed through her system, she couldn’t imagine standing right now—let alone running anywhere safe. She forced herself to take deep, steady breaths, stroking Tiger’s fur in rhythm with her inhales and exhales, until her heartbeat slowed and her tremors subsided. The evening breeze helped dry her damp forehead, lifting her hair to cool the back of her neck. She had to get herself under control. Her luck only had to hold out another few days, and then she could put her fears to rest—at least for a little while.