It was the first time she’d thought about what had happened to her, so close to this very spot, since she’d left her house that morning. It had been a nice reprieve, not to be consumed by the instant replays that had run over and over in her head, keeping her awake all night long.
But she let herself think of Jay. And of the kiss. And suddenly the damp chill that had been clinging to her evaporated in a wave of heat that started in her belly and spread like an uncontained blaze, flushing her from cheek to toe.
She realized that she was smiling now, and she had to force it away, not wanting anyone to see her as she searched in vain for the missing girl, grinning like the village idiot.
The cell phone was still ringing in the distance.
Violet looked around, trying to figure out which direction it was coming from, and realized just how easy it would be to get lost out here. All alone, in the dead of night.
Violet couldn’t help but hope that was what had really happened. And that today, with the light on their side, they would find Mackenzie Sherwin, cold and hungover, confused and grateful to be rescued.
She heard another voice calling out for Mackenzie, and she looked around her.
She could no longer see the woman with the too-red hair, the team member that she’d been assigned to keep within visual range. She’d lost track of herself, and of where she was supposed to be searching, and she realized that she’d been moving without thinking, like a sleepwalker.
The sound of the phone grew slightly stronger, and she realized that she’d been following it. Searching for the source. Drawn to it…against her own will.
She could see another team’s members, not too far away, and realized that even though she was breaking the rules by wandering off on her own, she still wasn’t lost. It wasn’t like she was out here on her own. This morning, the forest was swarming with dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. She wasn’t alone.
She heard it again, only slightly louder, and she wondered why it was still ringing.
An ear-piercing bellow broke through her concentrated silence, and Violet jumped. She felt foolish when she realized that it was just another searcher, moving between the trees to the right of her, calling out the missing girl’s name. She silently chided herself for being so skittish.
That was when she realized why she was so skittish…so jumpy.
It was the cell phone.
But it wasn’t really a cell phone at all.
The sound that she’d been following, the sound she’d been drawn to, the very one that had pulled her away from her own search team as she wandered closer and closer to it…it was never a cell phone.
It was the sound of bells.
The spectral sound of Brooke’s bells.
Far away, muffled, obscured over the distance…but growing clearer…stronger.
Her heart pounded violently, and her feet suddenly felt like they were mired in quicksand that was slowly sucking and pulling her down. She was afraid to struggle, afraid to move or even breathe, for fear of being dragged beneath the surface forever.
A thought flashed through her head that maybe she had never been moving closer to the sound at all, but rather he was out here and moving closer to her. She wasn’t sure whether that was good news or bad. This was a man she’d been hunting. A man she’d been determined to find. A killer who needed to be stopped.
But why would he be out here? Now, of all times? Was he part of an assigned rescue team, searching through the forest and pretending not to know the fate of this poor girl? Or of all the others before her?
And, now, he was out here with her?
She suddenly felt trapped, and she wished that her father were here. Or her uncle Stephen. Or Jay.
And then the sound grew fainter, and Violet knew that could only mean that he was moving away from her. An unexpected panic settled over her as she realized that she could lose him. He could still get away from her, and they would be no closer to ending his reign of terror than they had been yesterday or the day before that. And no closer at all to finding Mackenzie Sherwin or Hailey McDonald, both of whom were still unaccounted for.
Violet moved then, stumbling in an effort to keep up with the sound of the bells…not wanting to lose his trail. She caught herself before she actually fell and was practically running before she’d fully recovered. She passed through areas being searched by other teams and felt a little like she was trespassing on their assigned coordinates, but that didn’t slow her down. Thankfully no one seemed to notice her as she rushed past them.
She barely watched where she was going, concentrating only on following the sound of bells that was resonating, louder and louder, as she drew closer to the man carrying it. She didn’t bother planning what she would do when she found him, when she could see into his face and feel the imprints he wore like a tainted uniform woven from his monstrous deeds.
She was more afraid of not finding him. Terrified that she would lose him inside the vast, crowded, overgrown woodlands.
She didn’t even see the man in front of her until she had run smack-dab into him. The impact knocked the wind out of her in a breath-stealing whoosh as she collided against his rock-solid chest. He caught her with one strong arm before she could fall backward from the force of the collision.
She was too stunned to be immediately embarrassed.
“Whoa! Are you okay?” he asked, not releasing his grip right away, probably afraid she was too klutzy to stand on her own two feet. He looked down at her with genuine concern. “Do you need some help?”
Violet didn’t recover quickly, and she looked up at him in confusion, still processing what had just happened. “I…uh, I…I guess I’m okay,” she stuttered, wondering at the buzzing sensation in her head. Had she actually hurt herself when she’d so gracelessly run into this man?