USA Today Bestselling Author

Karen Kelley


Loyalty Honor Truth

Book Four

Ex Special Ops, Dylan Rowley works with a team of men on jobs other men wouldn’t touch. He feeds off danger and the adrenaline rush that goes with it. Yeah, he might joke around and flirt, but that’s only to take the edge off.

When a predator stalks FBI explosives expert Ashlyn Pillar, leaving a trail of bodies and burned out buildings as tokens of his affections, Dylan will stop at nothing to take down the person responsible, even if that means delving into a past that

Ashlyn doesn’t want to face.

What dark memories and monsters are plaguing her? Who caused the scars she carries inside and outside? He doesn’t know yet, but Dylan will do whatever it takes to keep her safe—whether she wants his help or not.

He’s part of a team of ex special ops who are bound by loyalty, honor, and truth. They risk their lives without hesitation to protect the innocent.

Explosive: Book Four
Chapter One
Ashlyn Pillar looked around, feeling a profound sense of loss as she carefully stared at the remains of the house. The local fire department had already soaked everything down, so there was pretty much no chance it would rekindle.

And everyone was careful to preserve the scene when they saw the body.

God, sometimes she hated her job. She was an FBI agent, specializing in criminal investigations—mainly anything involving explosives. She could count on one hand when her gut hadn't churned at the scene where a crime had been committed, and this wasn't your typical house fire. It also hit a hell of a lot closer to home for her.

A flash from another time sucked the breath momentarily out of her body. It was all she could do to control the trembling that swept over her. Yeah, she knew she looked calm and in control on the outside, but it was another story on the inside.
The house in front of her suddenly disappeared, replaced by another. The one in her mind was a two-story, midcentury, modern home with carefully manicured grounds. The kind of house that you'd expect of a high-powered attorney and his family.
Ashlyn grit her teeth, pulling her thoughts back to the present. She looked down at her arms, knowing that her long-sleeved shirt covered the scars. She drew in a deep breath and focused on the present, moving forward, always forward, and trying not to look back. She was afraid if she did, she might see the monster from her past.

The sturdy boots she wore protected her feet from the broken shards of glass and nails as she carefully made her way through the rubble. A lingering odor of smoke, lost memories and death filled her nostrils with each step.

The remains of a sofa faced what might have been a picture window, a wooden table that had probably lasted for years, passed down from mother to daughter, was now broken and burnt beyond repair. It wasn’t any of those pieces of furniture which drew her attention. Her gaze was fixed on the metal chair in the center of the living room. She knew without a doubt that it didn’t belong there.

She continued through the shell of what used to be someone's home—Kimberly Braddock's home, to be exact. If Ashlyn wasn’t mistaken, what was left of Kimberly was sitting on the chair. Arms that had been reduced to bones and charred flesh stretched behind her. By the time the ties that had bound her wrists burned away, it was too late for her to escape.
Kimberly had been a young woman on her own. She’d inherited her parents’ farm after they died within a few months of each other. They’d been an older couple blessed later in life with a child they thought never to have.

Kimberly was twenty-six, engaged to be married. Her fiancé was out of state on business at the time of the fire. He wasn’t a suspect. Not that Ashlyn thought he would be. When they told him, they said he broke down and cried. Who wouldn't?
Ashlyn stopped in front of the metal chair and stared at what used to be a vibrant young woman with her whole life in front of her…until she crossed paths with a sadistic killer.

“We’ve got to catch this guy,” she said, voice cracking. She compressed her lips, swallowing her emotions.

“You okay?” Nolan asked.

She looked at him for a moment, then turned back to the body. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

How much had Kimberly suffered before death took her? Had she thought of her fiancé, Colin, during her last moments?

The life they would’ve shared if she hadn’t stopped at the gas station that night?

Yes, he’d told them exactly where he’d abducted her.

No, that wasn't quite right. He'd specifically singled Ashlyn out. He'd always spoken directly to her, as if she were the only one who could save the victims. He told her what he was going to do, and when he would do it. Clues, always clues.

Taunting her. Asking her if she'd be able to save this one.

Damn, sometimes she’d wake up in the middle of the night and hear his raspy voice scraping across every fiber of her being. A cold chill ran down her spine even as moisture dotted her face from the hot Texas sun bearing down on her.

“Why the hell does he tell us everything he’s going to do?” Nolan asked.

Not everything. If that were the case, he’d already be in jail. She sighed, for a moment, wishing she could turn around and just start walking away. Strip off her latex gloves and drop them as she went. Except she couldn’t. He was still out there. Waiting to kill again.

“He’s goading us,” she told him.

Nolan was new to the team, even though he was experienced in fieldwork. She knew sometimes he couldn't grasp the ugliness. She pulled her attention away from what was mostly skeletal remains and scanned the area.

"Maybe he gets off on our reaction. Who knows what's going on in his warped brain. He didn't set the explosive device under the victim this time. He's evolving, becoming angrier, and wanting us to see more of the victim."

Taunting them. It was as though he wanted them to suffer right along with the victim. No, it was more than that. He wanted her to suffer, knowing the woman had died a painful death because Ashlyn couldn't stop him. He wanted her to figure out the clues he left.

She continued. “He started the fire first, then set off the explosives so that the outside walls blew out. He wanted us to see what was left of the woman sitting in the chair as soon as we pulled up—framed by the jagged edges of partial walls. He planned it that way.”

“That’s gruesome as hell,” Nolan muttered.

“I agree. What’s worse, this guy is good. He knows a hell of a lot about explosives, and he’s learning more as he goes. This is his third victim, but it won’t be his last.”

“That’s why we have to catch the bastard before he can hurt anyone else.”

“Agreed. Let’s go back to the office,” she said.

All the evidence had been collected. She'd found the explosive devices almost immediately and carefully bagged them.

The photographer had taken pictures of the scene and surrounding area. The rest of the team were back at the office by now, but she'd stayed behind.

She needed to feel what had happened. She needed to get inside his head. She scanned the area one last time, making mental notes before they made their way back through the rubble.

The M.E. would collect the remains and try to piece together a story. They would analyze the evidence and try to figure out why the killer was stalking Ashlyn.

Could it even be called stalking? It was more as though he challenged her to a horrible game of cat and mouse, and she was the mouse. Anger began to build inside her. She was damned tired of him, and his games.

“We’ll catch this guy,” Nolan told her after they got into the black SUV and drove away. “Waylon said he’s bringing in someone to help.”

"So I heard," she mumbled and looked out the window. Yes, she knew a fresh set of eyes might help solve the case, but she didn't like feeling that she'd somehow failed. All the clues were there. She just hadn't been able to pull them all together.

It was an hour back to the office. As soon as she walked in, she sensed something was different. "What's going on?" she asked as she sat at her desk.

The team each had their own desk and computer, but they were near enough they could talk with each other. There were five on the team, each with their own specialty. She was the explosives expert and the youngest on the team at thirty.

Leah and Nolan were both thirty-four, Ginny was thirty-two, and Brad was thirty-six. Together, they were damned good—most of the time.

“New guy is here,” Leah told her in a whisper. “My God, he’s hot. I’d leave Gerald for him if he crooked a finger in my direction.”

That’s what she liked about Leah. No matter what, she always made Ashlyn smile. Gerald wasn’t bad looking himself.

They’d been married ten years. Leah had bright red hair and freckles across her nose. There was no way she’d ever leave her husband. She talked a good game, though.

Ashlyn nodded toward Waylon's office on the open second floor. "Is he in with the boss?"

"No, they went to the conference room. I figure they'll be calling us in next to make the introductions, and, so we can go over the new evidence. God, that was grisly this morning. Sometimes I wish I'd chosen a different career—like a school teacher or something." She was thoughtful for a moment. "No, I think I'll stick with the serial killers."

Ashlyn laughed, and some of the tension left.

At least, until the door to the conference room opened and Waylon stepped out. He was in his early fifties, slender with salt and pepper hair. He might be older than the rest of them, but he was in great shape. He’d become a cop at eighteen, from there, college, where he’d gotten his degree in crime scene investigation, then FBI, before settling in the San Antonio area. He was damned good, but this one even had him stumped.

"If you'll join me in the conference room, we'll see what we can do to catch this killer," he said, then turned and went back inside, leaving the door open. He was a man of few words. Rarely did he show emotion, but this case was getting to all of them and putting them on edge.

She followed the others up the stairs. As soon as she stepped into the office, she felt his presence. She studied the new guy for a moment before moving toward a chair. She guessed him to be in his mid-thirties, at least six feet, two inches of pure muscle. He wore a black, pull-on, shirt and low-riding jeans. He looked relaxed as he leaned against the windowsill, arms crossed. Hot was an understatement.

Their gazes locked. His intense green eyes slowly moved over her in a way that made her body grow hot and started a fluttering inside her stomach. When his gaze shifted back to her face, there was a knowing look in his eyes and a slight curving of his lips, as if he knew exactly what kind of reaction her body had to him.

Her eyes immediately narrowed as she jerked the chair out and took her seat. She didn't care what he thought about her or what he might've thought she felt, nothing was going to happen between them. She didn't do office romances or sex with a co-worker or whatever he had on his mind. She was good with a one-nighter if she wanted release, as long as she never had to see the person again.

"I want to introduce Dylan Rowley. His qualifications are outstanding. Ex-Special Ops who works for the government with a team of other operatives. He has agreed to look at the evidence we have so far to see if he can help us catch the killer." He nodded toward Ashlyn. "He'll be working directly with you since you know more about explosives than the rest of us."

She caught her groan before it escaped. When she met his gaze, his smirk had become a full-out smile. Yeah, nothing else will be happening, buddy, she silently told him. He didn't seem fazed by the hard glitter she knew was in her eyes.

She pulled her attention away from him as Waylon introduced the rest of the team, and they got to work bringing out the evidence from the last crime scene. They immediately began going over what had been gathered. They were still waiting on the M.E.'s official report. She quickly noticed Dylan didn't say a lot. If he was going to help, he didn't offer much of an opinion.

He suddenly turned to her. “How do you think it went down?”

She was surprised. For a while, she didn't think he knew how to talk. She looked up from one of the pictures. Okay, he wanted to know her thoughts, she'd tell him.

“I think he’s a psychopath. He wants us to find him, but only when he’s ready. That is, unless he has a change of heart and crawls into a hole somewhere. That’s why his clues are cryptic. He’s giving us just enough that it’s more frustrating than anything.”

He pointed toward the picture of the farmhouse from this morning. “And this particular scene?”

She looked at the pictures pinned on the board. Innocent women whose lives were cut too short before moving to the burned out farmhouse. "I think he doused her with an accelerant, then struck a match. Maybe he gave her something to knock her out first, or maybe he killed her first, then set her body on fire. I like to think she didn’t feel any pain, but I know that’s not always the case.” There were evil people in the world who liked nothing better than to feed off someone’s pain.

“And then what?”

“He probably had the explosive device set in advance. He wanted to watch her burn. Then, when he couldn't recognize her, he walked away. One push of a button was all it took to blow most of the walls out. He set the stage to showcase what he'd done. Framed his masterpiece for the media to report so the world would see his brilliance."

Dylan turned to Ginny. “Is that what you think?”

"Mostly." Ginny carefully studied the pictures. She was good at figuring out how someone's mind worked. "He definitely wants to showcase his work. He enjoys the media attention." She looked across the table and met Ashlyn's gaze. "But I'm still not sure if he's trying to impress Ashlyn or drive her crazy. The killer is fixated on her for some reason."

“Could he know you?” Dylan asked.

"Doubtful," Ashlyn said. "I'm originally from up North. Other than moving here a few years ago, I have no ties in Texas."

“Maybe he followed you down.”

She'd wondered the same thing but then dismissed it.

"I'd like to look at the evidence from the other two cases, especially the explosive devices." Dylan walked closer to the wall board, studying the pictures of the crime scenes. "I want to know about all the correspondence he's sent, any recordings of when he calls. I think the key will be finding out why he feels this connection with Ashlyn.” He looked at Ashlyn. "I'll need to look into your past."

She felt the color drain from her face. She didn’t want anyone digging into her past and resurrecting memories better left buried. Memories that she still couldn’t face.

How the hell was she going to tell a stranger what happened when she refused to think about it herself?