Twelve years ago, Lei Zhang and her friend Emma Nilsson miraculously lived through the notorious Sorority Row Murders that left twenty-one of their sisters dead. Still wrestling with the trauma but finally out of the limelight, Lei and Emma are now devoted to helping other victims find closure. But most disturbing for Lei—beyond the gut-wrenching survivor guilt—is that the killer was her boyfriend. He’s behind bars, but she’ll never lower her guard again.
When a copycat killer targets Lei and Emma, FBI Agent Dante Young is put in charge of anticipating the sociopath’s every move. But what he doesn’t expect is his immediate and overpowering attraction to Lei. The closer they get to each other, the more desperate and terrifying the questions become: Who wants to finish what the killer started—and why?
Now Agent Young vows to protect Lei at all costs. If they have any chance of a future together, first they have to stay alive…
Watching the women interact was fascinating on a level Dante wasn’t prepared for. He’d known Lei and Emma lived together, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to take a step back and consider the implications of that arrangement. Emma teetered on the edge of a breakdown and used Lei to pull herself back from the ledge . . . everything made a lot more sense.
They’d formed a symbiotic relationship, of sorts.
There wasn’t much data concerning situations like this one, mostly because they rarely arose, and each case was too individual to tie together in nice, easy studies. It stood to reason, though, that coming out of that sorority house as the only two survivors would send these women into one of two futures. In one, they never saw each other and pretended the other didn’t exist rather than be faced with the perpetual reminder of what they’d gone through.
In the other, they realized that no one would ever know what they went through as intimately as the other person who survived—and leaned on each other as result.
Lei was the one who finally met his gaze, and hell if her inky-dark eyes didn’t take his breath away despite the circumstances. Clarke had pulled both women’s photos on the way over there, but they were old—from their sorority days. Both beautiful in their own way, though they were a study in opposites. Emma had the sweet southern thing going for her, all blonde hair, big innocent blue eyes, and curves that suggested southern cooking. He couldn’t tell if her soft tone was practiced or natural, but it pricked at him every time she spoke.
Lei . . . She was something else altogether. She was petite in a way that should have read frail but reminded him of a blade waiting to be unsheathed. There were muscles beneath her light-brown skin, and he guessed that she’d have no problem keeping up with the monster dog at her feet during a search. Her straight black hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, which left her features in stark relief. Beautiful, but doesn’t like to draw attention to it. Might as well have tried to hide the sky.
Fuck, get it together. You’re here to interview them, not to lose your damn mind over Lei Zhang.
Yes, she was beautiful, but he’d dealt with beautiful women before without jeopardizing his professional persona. Dante didn’t know what it was about this woman that called to something in him, but he had to shelve it.
He couldn’t afford to be distracted.
She clasped Emma’s hand but turned her body to face him more fully. “The night of the murders, I let Travis Berkley into the Omega Delta Lambda house. We’d been dating four months and he told me he had a surprise.” Her lips twisted. “It was against the rules, but girls broke the rules all the time.”
He noted her knuckles whitening where she held Emma’s hand, but her voice maintained its steady tone. “We had sex. Approximately an hour later, something changed. I still have problems putting it into words. Travis just . . . shifted. It was like he’d taken off a mask and I didn’t recognize the man beneath. He hit me. A few times.” She absentmindedly touched the little hooked scar on her cheekbone. From Travis’s ring. “I passed out. When I woke up, he’d barricaded my door shut and I could hear their screams.”
Lei’s breath hitched, and it was almost as if she inhaled and Emma exhaled. The blonde lifted her chin. “I was in the basement studying when it started. Finals were coming up, and I was struggling in history and needed the extra study time. The first sign of something wrong was Travis hauling Sarah—” She cut herself off and flinched. “I’m sorry. It’s hard to say their names, even now.”
Clarke huffed out a breath. “You don’t have to name every single girl he killed. We know their names. We know their stories. We just want to hear how it all went down from your perspective.”
They wouldn’t find anything new here. Dante knew it, and he suspected Clarke knew it, too. These two women had told their stories countless times over the years, and if there was information they hadn’t shared before now, he highly doubted this would be the time it’d magically come out.
Hearing the story through their own voices was a whole hell of a lot more jarring than reading it in the file, however.
Emma took them through it. How Travis Berkley brought the entire house of girls into that basement, how he was charming and terrifying and told them that he’d let them go one by one . . . if they did exactly as he asked. It wasn’t until the night was over and no one had come to save them that the remaining girls realized what was happening, and even then, they were too afraid to try to overpower him.
Herd mentality. Travis had to have known he could manipulate the whole group as long as he got them scared and in a single place. They believed the pretty lie because the truth was impossible to wrap their minds around.
Emma’s voice shook. “There were still . . . ten of us left when I realized I wasn’t getting out of that house alive—that none of the girls had gotten out alive like he’d promised. When he took the next girl, I hid under the couch.”
“None of those girls saw you hide?” Clarke frowned. “I find that hard to believe.”
“I don’t know. I don’t . . .” She dropped her gaze as if she couldn’t bear to hold her head up any longer. “We were in shock at that point—just sitting there, lost in ourselves. We didn’t talk. We didn’t even look at each other. We just sat there and . . . contemplated the fact we were going to die. I don’t know if they even noticed I was gone. I hid until every single one of them was gone. And he just . . . walked out.”
“He came for me. I guess it was then.” Lei didn’t shrink in on herself. She seemed to grow taller, sit straighter. “I heard him removing the barricade and I panicked. After listening to that all night . . .” She shook her head. “I knew what would happen if he got back into my room, so I climbed out the window.”
Clarke went still. “I saw the list of your injuries. You had a broken arm, your knee was so fucking swollen you shouldn’t have been able to walk, and you had several head wounds and a handful of broken ribs on top of that. How the hell did you climb out a window?”
Lei shrugged on shoulder. “He would kill me if I didn’t. I figured falling to my death was preferable to letting Travis have me, so I took my chances.”
It was only sheer dumb luck that it was late enough in the morning that a student jogging past saw Lei. By the time he’d come back with help, Lei was unconscious in the flower bed and Travis was gone.
Dante sat back, going over the story again in his head. As he suspected, there was no new information, but they’d have been remiss if they didn’t go over it one more time. He exchanged a look with Clarke. The killings in Seattle held some key differences. He didn’t think any of the girls had willingly let the unsub in, and he had carved his message into their bodies when he was through.
A message that might or might not have been meant for Travis Berkley. Hard to believe that someone who’d gone through the trouble of researching the murders would get the killer’s name wrong, but the alternative was that the girls’ deaths were meant as tribute to someone else. Both possibilities stretched the realm of belief and didn’t make a damn bit of sense.
The tension in the room grew like it was a living thing, coiling and snapping between the four of them. Once Dante and Clarke left, things would move quickly. They had to talk to Berkley. They had to head back to Seattle to go over things again with Detective Smith and the ME. They had to track down this bastard before he continued with whatever plan he’d begun with those girls’ deaths.
Dante, at least, would have the comfort of motion to keep him distracted from the scenes that he’d witnessed. Lei and Emma wouldn’t have even that. He leaned forward, catching Lei’s attention. “We can assign a protection detail. I don’t think you’re in any immediate danger, but if it would help ease your mind, I’ll make some calls.”
Lei’s lips quirked up at the edges, but the smile never came close to reaching her eyes. “Dante—Agent Young—we were in immediate danger the second that asshole singled Travis out as someone he wanted to emulate. We’re more than capable of taking care of ourselves.”
“…a captivating read, made all the more rewarding when good triumphs.” —Washington Post on The Devil’s Daughter
“Robert shows off her impressive versatility in this fast-paced and inventive new Hidden Sins series. The small-town setting is a masterful blend of quaint and oppressive, which ratchets the menace and thrill factor. The protagonists carry the full weight of their pasts with them, making their growing relationship as compelling as the mystery element in The Devil’s Daughter. With plenty of twists and betrayals, this is a book that is sure to earn Robert a wealth of new fans.” —RT Book Reviews on The Devil’s Daughter
“Katee Robert has definitely picked up the romantic suspense genre and made it her bitch. I can’t wait to see what we get next. Given some of the books I see she’s been using for research, I know it’s going to be frightening and amazing at the same time.” —Goodreads Review
“Every bit as complex as book one but with a totally different storyline, The Hunting Grounds once again proved Katee Robert is more than capable of spinning a thrilling romantic suspense tale that will keep readers on their toes.” —Harlequin Junkie on The Hunting Grounds (recommended read)
“Filled with suspense and lot of unpredictable twists and turns…Gripping.” —Life at 17on The Hunting Grounds
New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Katee Robert learned to tell her stories at her grandpa’s knee. Her 2015 title, The Marriage Contract, was a RITA finalist, and RT Book Reviews named it ‘a compulsively readable book with just the right amount of suspense and tension.” When not writing sexy contemporary and romantic suspense, she spends her time playing imaginary games with her children, driving her husband batty with what-if questions, and planning for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.