Happy May, friends, and happy release day to me! THE HEART-SHAPED MURDERS hit shelves today, and I am so excited to share this first book in my West Coast Crime Story series with you. Keep reading for all the deets on the novel, including the blurb, an excerpt, giveaway info and more!
Attacked and left with a partial heart-shaped symbol carved into her chest, forensic investigator Lena Love finds her latest hunt has become personal. But leaving LA to return to her hometown comes with its own danger—like detective David Hudson, the love she left behind.
The crime scene investigator, who doubled as a forensic science technician, stood back up and eyed Los Angeles’ Cucamonga Wilderness trail. Sharp-edged stones and ragged shards of bark covered the rugged, winding terrain.
“Watch your step,” she uttered to herself before continuing along the path of her latest crime scene.
Lena’s eyes squinted as she focused on the trail. Heavy foliage loomed overhead, blocking out the sun’s brilliant rays. She pulled out her flashlight, hoping its bright beam would help uncover potential evidence.
An ominous wave of vulnerability swept through her chest at the sight of the vast San Gabriel Mountains. She spun around slowly, feeling small while eyeing the infinite views of the forest, desert and snowy mountainous peaks.
The wild surroundings left her with a lingering sense of defenselessness. Lena tightened the belt on her tan suede blazer. She hoped it would give her some semblance of security.
Lena wondered if her latest victim felt that same vulnerability on the night she’d been brutally murdered.
“Come on, Grace Mitchell,” Lena said aloud, as if the dead woman could hear her. “Talk to me. Tell me what happened to you. Show me what happened to you.”
A gust of wind whipped Lena’s bone straight bob across her slender face. She tucked her hair behind her ears and stooped down, aiming the flashlight toward the majestic oak tree where Grace’s body had been found.
Lena envisioned spotting droplets of blood, a cigarette butt, the tip of a latex glove…anything that would help identify the killer.
This was her second visit to the crime scene. The thought of showing up to the station without any viable evidence yet again caused an agonizing pang of dread to shoot up her spine.
Grace was the fifth victim of a criminal who Lena had labeled an organized serial killer. He appeared to have a type. Young, slender, brunette women. Their bodies had all been found in heavily wooded areas. Each victim’s hands were meticulously tied behind their backs with a three-strand twisted rope. They’d been strangled to death. And the amount of evidence left at each scene was practically nonexistent.
But the killer’s signature mark was always there. And it was a sinister one.
After murdering his victims, the predator would carve a heart into the chests of his victims with what looked to be a sharp blade.
“Ugh,” Lena groaned, shivering at the gruesome thought of his actions.
The entire state of California, along with the victims’ families and the media, had put an immense amount of pressure on the LAPD to catch the killer. As a result, Lena was recently assigned to the case.
The sound of a crackling tree branch stopped Lena dead in her tracks. She almost stumbled forward when the tips of her boots dipped into the dusty earth.
She quickly gathered herself and aimed her flashlight toward the noise. Bears and mountain lions were known to frequent the trail. So were hikers.
Unfortunately, so were serial killers.
Lena swallowed hard, questioning whether she should turn around and leave. But her resolve was stronger than both her fear and common sense combined.
“Maybe you just shouldn’t have come out here alone…”
She did an abrupt 360-degree turn and waved her flashlight in the air. The stream of yellow light landed on several tree limbs that were swaying in the wind. Her shoulders relaxed a bit at the sight.
“See?” she said to herself. “It’s nothing. You’re good.”
Lena chalked her panic up to paranoia and continued along the path.
“Come on, Grace,” she whispered once again while shining her light along the edge of the trail. “Speak to me. Give me something to work with here.”
Lena paused. She noticed what appeared to be two oddly shaped black lumps sticking out from underneath a tall shrub.
She stepped off the path and walked farther into the wooded area, then pressed the button on the back of her flashlight, increasing its brightness.
Are those lumps of coal? she asked herself while slowly moving in. Remnants from a barbecue grill, maybe?
But as Lena got closer, she realized that the lumps looked more like leather than sedimentary rocks.
Lena dug around inside her pocket and pulled out a pair of latex gloves. She slipped them on, then bent down.
She pressed her fingertips against the black matter. It wasn’t hard enough to be stone. But the smooth surface was firm.
She leaned farther into the brush. Shined her light down directly onto the objects. After a few moments, Lena realized that she was staring at a pair of black leather work boots.
“Bingo!” she exclaimed, thrilled to finally get her hands on a possible piece of evidence.
She reached down and grabbed the boots. But when she tried to pick them up off the ground, they didn’t budge.
“Come on,” Lena grunted, wondering if the hot sun had caused the rubber soles to disintegrate into the dirt.
She pulled harder. The boots still did not move.
“What has these stuck?” Lena asked aloud.
The investigator gave the boots a firmer tug. Suddenly, one of them lifted off the ground. It kicked up so swiftly that it knocked her square in the forehead.
“Ow!” Lena yelled, falling backward onto the ground.
She closed her eyes and gripped her head. A bump was already beginning to form.
Lena slid her hands underneath her. The rocky soil scraped against her palms. She ignored the pain and brought her knees in close.
Just as she began to stand up, Lena was knocked back down again.
She was completely discombobulated. Strangely, the work boots she’d been trying to grab were now positioned directly in front of her.
Lena recoiled when they moved in closer. A shadowy figure hovered over her. Within a matter of seconds, she knew she was in danger.
Just as she opened her mouth to scream, a man pounced on Lena. She tried to kick him off, but his weight pinned her legs to the ground.
She tore at his arms. He overpowered her, his hands moving past her flailing limbs and going straight for her neck.
“No! Stop!” Lena attempted to yell. “Help!”
Her muffled screams were silenced by the howling wind. The attacker’s hands were now wrapped firmly around her throat. Lena’s voice was a mere whisper. Her vocal cords had been immobilized. And she was too deep into the woods to be seen from the trail.
This is it, she thought, tears falling from her eyes as the pressure behind them increased.
Just when Lena felt herself losing consciousness, the predator loosened his grasp on her neck.
She gasped, choking on the huge puff of air that swept through her lungs. But before she could truly catch her breath, the attacker ripped open her blazer and tore at her blouse.
Pearlized buttons flew through the air. She emitted a guttural scream, punching her assailant in the chest.
He continued to overpower her. Lena’s blows did nothing to deter his assault.
Your pepper spray, she thought.
She struggled to reach down inside the pocket of her black cargo pants. Just as she wrapped her fingers around the canister, Lena felt a cold, sharp blade slice into her skin.
Her mouth fell open. But nothing came out. She was too stunned to make a sound.
This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening!
The blade continued to carve into her chest. That’s when it struck Lena. She was being attacked by the serial killer she’d been pursuing.
You will not be his sixth victim, Lena told herself. Fight back. Fight!
Burning pain tore through her chest. She bit down on her bottom lip and snatched the pepper spray from her pocket. Lena held the canister directly in front of his masked face, closed her eyes and hit the red button.
“Aah!” he grunted.
As the man howled in pain, Lena opened her eyes slightly.
He was up on his knees, still hovering over her while covering his face with his gloved hands.
She quickly jumped up and kneed him in the groin. His screams caught in his throat. A hissing wheeze oozed through his mask.
When he rolled over and curled up into the fetal position, Lena took advantage of the moment. She jumped up and hurried back toward the trail, tearing down the pathway toward the canyon’s entrance.
Lena wanted to turn around to see if her attacker was following her. But she was too afraid of losing her footing. So she kept moving forward.
She could feel the blood pouring from her chest. The chilled mountain air stung the open wound. But the gash was the least of her concerns. All Lena cared about was reaching her car and getting the hell out of there.
As the trail began to open up, she heard faint footsteps pounding behind her.
Just keep going, she told herself. Keep going!
After what seemed like forever, Lena finally reached the parking lot. It was practically empty.
Her wide eyes darted anxiously. A surge of relief eased the terror running through her limbs when her silver Jeep came into view.
Lena charged toward the vehicle. But as it got closer, sharp cramps began to shoot up her legs.
Don’t you dare stop now, her inner voice screamed as sound of looming footsteps persisted. Keep going!
She fought through the pain and forced herself to run faster. Lena grabbed her keys from her back pocket, pounding the fob until the alarm unlocked the doors.
She reached the car door, then turned around. A shadowy figure appeared at the parking lot’s entrance.
It was her attacker.
He quickly limped toward her, holding his groin with one hand while swiping his eyes with the other.
Lena emitted a short, panicked scream.
“Get back here, you bitch!” he yelled.
She inhaled sharply. Her fingers trembled as she grabbed the handle and threw open the door.
His heavy footsteps were drawing nearer. Her assailant was getting closer.
“Aw, is she ?” he taunted. “Did you actually think you were gonna catch me? It’ll never happen, sweetheart. But I caught you. And after I finish what I started on that delicate little chest of yours, I’m gonna kill you!”
“Stay away from me!” Lena tried to shout. But her voice sounded more like a whimper than a command.
The cramps in her legs intensified as she struggled to climb inside the Jeep. She grabbed the side of the driver’s seat and pulled herself up.
Finally, she was in.
Lena’s chest heaved with panic. She pressed down on brake and frantically pushed the start button. The door hadn’t closed all the way before she threw the gearshift into drive.
Her attacker was only a few feet away. He ran toward the front of her Jeep, still holding his groin. Lena’s headlights lit up his masked face. She looked into his pale gray eyes. There was something oddly familiar behind their cold, menacing glare.
One thing was for certain. He appeared determined to take her out. And judging by the blood that continued to seep from her chest, he’d almost completed his mission.
Lena rammed her right foot down onto the accelerator. She slammed her door shut, then tore through the parking lot.
She craned her neck, blinking back tears while glancing in the rearview mirror. Lena watched in horror as her attacker jumped inside a black sports car. Its huge spiked chrome wheels screeched loudly as he sped after her.
Lena’s chest tightened. Thin streams of air barely filled her lungs. She whipped her Jeep around the mountain’s sharp turns, all while struggling to catch a glimpse of her assailant’s license plate. It was obscured by a black shield.
Stay calm. Just get to the hospital. Stay calm. Just get to the hospital, Lena kept telling herself over and over again.
When she reached the bottom of the mountain, Lena made a quick right turn onto a desolate road. She pulled over in front of a large dumpster, making sure her Jeep was hidden from the main street.
The sound of her attacker’s roaring engine filled the air. Lena’s eyes were glued to the side-view mirror.
Please keep going. Please keep going, she repeated over and over again.
Her prayers were answered when the car flew past the side road.
Lena’s chest heaved with relief. She waited several minutes before spinning around and creeping toward the main street. It was clear. She sped off toward the hospital.
When she pulled into the emergency room’s lot, Lena opened the console and pulled out a stack of napkins. She pressed them against her wound. Blood quickly soaked into the stark white paper, turning it into a bright shade of crimson. The sight, along with the intense pain, caused her to cry out in agony.
She pulled down the sun visor and slid open the mirror.
Lena stared at the wound on her chest. She studied the curved, cordate symbol.
After I finish what I started on that delicate little chest of yours, I’m gonna kill you!
The attacker’s words echoed through her mind. The half-shaped heart he’d carved into her skin would be a permanent reminder that she was almost murdered by her most elusive suspect to date.
And now, it was a race against time to catch him before he really did finish what he’d started.
Titles and release dates have been announced for Harlequin’s upcoming box sets that include the book. Here’s the lineup:
FOOTHILL FIELD SEARCH by Maggie Wells
UNDERCOVER RESCUE by Nicole Helm
THE HEART-SHAPED MURDERS by Denise N. Wheatley
CAVANAUGH JUSTICE: DEADLY CHASE by Marie Ferrarella
THE HEART-SHAPED MURDERS by Denise N. Wheatley
UNDERCOVER RESCUE by Nicole Helm
THE HEART-SHAPED MURDERS by Denise N. Wheatley
If you'd like to check out a few of the other thrillers I've written, CLICK HERE.