Mom engulfed me in one of her huge hugs. “Oh, baby . . .”
I squeezed my eyes shut, inhaling her familiar rose perfume. Tears clogged my throat as I clung to her.
“You can go ahead and get her out of here,” Shaw said, shutting the car door behind us. “If we need anything else, we know where to find her.”
“Thank you,” Mom said. She turned, keeping her arm tight around me. “Let’s go home.”
Numbly, I let Mom lead me to her Toyota. She stopped by my car, grabbed my bag out of it, then locked it before joining me. Squeezing my hands into fists, I focused on them as Mom turned the car around and drove out of the makeshift parking lot.
“Ella . . . ?”
I drew in a shaky breath. There was so much to be said, but there weren’t enough words in the world to describe the shock and horror of finding a body like that. But worst of all, it hadn’t been my first time coming face to face with one.
We didn’t talk during the short trip home, and when she pulled up in front of the house, she ended up parking where I normally would because her spot was taken.
Slowly, I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the door. Mom joined me, walking to the gate and opening it. I had a clear view of the front porch.
Jensen was sitting on the steps, his hands resting on his bent knees. He stood as we walked up the sidewalk. He didn’t say a word as he strolled toward us, his long-legged pace eating up the distance, his pale blue, almost gray eyes fixed solely on me.
There was something painfully familiar about all of this.
But it didn’t stop me. My lower lip trembled as he walked past Mom and wrapped his arms around me, holding me tight against his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. One hand traveled up my spine, fisting the hair at the back of my neck. “I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”
The thing was, I found a body . . . for the second time in my life, and that was horrific, but nothing compared to what Vee had gone through, what her family would surely experience next. A shudder rocked through me as I dug my fingers into his sides. I don’t know how long we stood there, but I heard the door shut quietly behind Mom. We were alone, as alone as we could be standing in the middle of our sidewalk, and we stood there in silence for several minutes.
Jensen guided me over to the steps, but when I went to sit beside him, he gently tugged me down into his lap, folding me into his embrace. There was a brief second where I thought I should protest this intimacy, but I wanted to be close to him. I wanted to feel the warmth and stability of just having someone hold me.
Inhaling his citrusy cologne and a scent that was uniquely his, I let it seep into every one of my senses. He trailed his hand up and down my spine in a continuous soothing slide, remaining quiet until I found my voice.
“I touched it,” I whispered. “I touched her and I didn’t even realize that it was real, that she was—”
“Shh,” murmured Jensen, his hand stilling as he held me closer, tighter. “There was no way you could’ve known that.”
I turned my head, resting my cheek on his shoulder. “Who would do that to someone?”
Taking several deep breaths, I loosened my grip on his shirt. “I don’t think . . . she was dead long.”
His chin grazed my forehead. “What do you mean?”
I swallowed hard. “She didn’t look like she had been dead for long. I mean, she was missing for three weeks, but she didn’t look that way or . . . or smell like that—” I cut myself off with a sharp inhale. “I’m not an expert, but I know she wasn’t dead for three weeks.”
He didn’t answer immediately. “God, I don’t even want to think it,” he admitted, his voice rough. “That she could’ve been . . . held for that length of time and then murdered.”
I didn’t want to think it either, because that took all of this to a whole new level of terrifying. It wouldn’t be a random thrill kill or anything like that. Not when someone was held for weeks and then killed. What could’ve been done to her during that time . . . ?
My stomach churned.
“And now Monica is missing,” I said, a tremor coursing through me. “I don’t care what anyone says. With Vee dead and Monica gone, it has to be related.”
Jensen didn’t respond right away, but he reached up with one hand, tilting my head back so that my eyes met his. “And you.”
My heart skipped a beat.
“Whoever is behind this tried to grab you a week ago, but you got away.” He pressed his forehead against mine, his chest rising sharply. “God, you got away.”
I didn’t want to think about it, but it was no use, because it was reality. The three of us were related to this—Vee. Monica, and me. He’d tried to grab me and had most likely gotten his hands on Monica while he still had Vee.
And she most likely had still been alive.
Shivering, I closed my eyes as Jensen’s lips brushed over my forehead. “This is all so terrible.”
“She wasn’t just dead,” I told him, because I needed to say it out loud. “There was a cardinal in her mouth, Jensen.”
He gave a little shake of his head. “Damn . . .”
“Just like the kind of cardinal that was in Wendy’s bag.” I bit down on my lip, thinking of the cardinals, the clown masks, and . . . Penn. “That’s too much of a coincidence, isn’t it?”
There was a beat of silence. “I want you to do me a favor.”
I opened my eyes. “What?”
His thumb smoothed over my cheek as his gaze searched mine. “Let me take you to school and bring you home.”
Drawing back, I shook my head. “But—”
“Or let Gavin or someone. I’m not trying to be pushy, I just don’t want you to be alone right now,” he explained. “And it’s not because I don’t think you can take care of yourself, but this is serious. This is real. Something terrible is going on and I want you . . .” He took a deep breath. “I want you to be as safe as possible.”
How could I say no to that? I also wasn’t stupid. This was serious, and the idea of going anywhere alone wasn’t a good idea and not something I even wanted to do. “Okay.”
A lopsided grin appeared. “Okay to me taking you, or someone—anyone—other than me?”
“To you.” I flushed, ducking my chin. “I mean, if that’s what you want. You don’t have to. I’m sure Gavin and Linds—”
“No, I want to. Not Gavin.” Jensen’s hand moved, his fingers curling around my hair. His hand lingered there a moment, and then he reached down, wrapping his hands around mine. He rubbed them between his. “Is your car still at the farmhouse?”
“If you want, we can go get it tomorrow. I don’t think going out there tonight would be smart.”
“I don’t want to go back out there at all,” I admitted. “I don’t even want to see those buildings tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll take care of it. Nope—don’t argue with me. I’ll get your car here. I just need your keys.”
When I nodded, he tucked my head under his chin. We sat there, listening to the chirps of the crickets and the wind moving among the branches. I was okay with him being here—more than okay—and right then our past together didn’t matter.
Jensen was here when it mattered, but how had he known? I doubted it had hit the news that quickly that it was me who found the body. Discomfort tightened my muscles.
“How did you hear about what happened?” I asked.
“Brock texted me,” he answered, his chest rumbling against mine. “He said that you found Vee’s body.”
I wondered if he’d also told Jensen how hysterical I’d been. How I screamed until my voice had given out. Strange thing was, Brock hadn’t been around when I went upstairs and I didn’t remember seeing him afterward either.
JENSEN PICKED ME up for school on Monday morning as offered. I had no idea how he got my car back to me on Sunday, but it was there before I even got up. We didn’t talk about Vee or Monica on the way. Instead, it was a normal conversation. Well, as normal as making plans to go to the warehouse after school for more self-defense was.