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SNEAK PEEK!!!

A lot of good things were about to happen to Leon Wilhite. But first, he had to get out of prison. And then, may the good Lord have mercy on someone's mother.

Three months prior, using his contraband cellphone, Leon swiped left until he found Erica’s smiling profile pic on the CanWeTalk dating site and he knew she was perfect for him — kind, crooked smile; soft, sad eyes, bare face but subtly attractive in a middle-aged deaconess kind of way. According to her profile, she was, “Seeking a God-fearing man because I’m a good Christian woman who believes everyone deserves a soulmate.”


In other words, she was the perfect mark.


The cheap looking wig did her no favors, but what did he know about hair, outside of the flirty conversations he had with the female COs? But it told him she was insecure, maybe a little bit of low self-esteem from a lifetime of dealing with ain’t shit dudes. She owned some kind of tech company, doing something or other that sounded mighty fancy and rich to Leon, even if he didn’t understand it. He had an outside connect research the company and found that it was courting a buyout offer from Google, so that meant even more money on the horizon.


What the hell, he clicked the red heart and sent her an auto greeting. Might as well go for it, he thought. The fact that she was on a free dating site told him she was wide open and he was just the dude to fill her cup. 


He had poured all his talent as a seasoned con man into his digital romance with Erica, adding just the right amount of pathos and self-deprecation. His sob story of having to drop out of community college to help his cancer-stricken mother and subsequently falling in with the wrong crowd was developed specifically to tug at the heartstrings of desperate women. He peppered their weeks of chatting with jokes too, never forgetting to mention how much he missed laughing or just sitting at home watching television. Everything was carefully crafted to make her see him as the man he might have been, instead of the hardened criminal he really was. 


And Leon didn’t feel one iota of guilt about leading her on. What did she expect from a free dating site? Did she think prisoners couldn’t get on there too? If she was desperate enough to fall in love even after finding out that their first date was going to be in the visiting room of Ohio State Prison, well, she deserved what was coming. Still, Leon made sure to temper his lies with enough truths to be believable: that his dad had abandoned them when he was twelve, forcing him into illegal means of making money to help his mom. Or that he enjoyed being a mentor to some of the younger inmates. His words contained just enough of the real and redeemable Leon that Erica fell completely for the fictional version he piled on her and she forgave him for initially pretending to be a free and available man.


Their first meeting would be the real test. Some women were all words on the internet, then chickened out or disappeared once they actually had to interact face to face with a convict. The men often shared stories about the women who were brave enough or in love enough to show up, but also the ones who chickened out and failed to put their money where their mouth was, quite literally. 


If Leon could establish a physical connection with Erica, he could start to gently work on her. Ask her to put money on his commissary account. Maybe get her on board with sneaking some contraband items in for him. Once she started crossing lines, he’d really have her on the hook. From there, the possibilities were endless. Some sob story about legal fees for an appeal or money to help his destitute mom—Leon’s playbook was filled with options once he felt the mark had caught feelings and was invested. All he needed to do at this first meeting was turn on the charm.


And then she was there. His precious Erica was sitting right across from him in the uncomfortable plastic chairs of the prison waiting room. His eyes swept over her from head to toe, confirming what he already knew from studying her photos: graying dark hair twisted in a casual knot piled on top of her head, heart-shaped face that had probably turned more than a few heads back in her day, full curves filling out her purple long-sleeved tunic and jeans. Not a model by any means, but unassuming enough that he could mold her into what he needed.


“Well, here we are, here YOU are,” Erica started shyly, tucking an invisible strand of hair behind her ear. Those big brown eyes swept over him like he was something precious. 


Leon made sure his smile showed just the right mixture of pleasant surprise, joy, and restraint. Not too eager, but tickled she had really come. “You’re even sexier in person,” he said smoothly as she ducked her head, blushing like a girl thirty years younger. 


“So are you.” Her eyes raked over his muscled arms and lingered on his tattoos for a moment with interest before looking nervously away. 


“Your letters have meant...more than you know.” Leon leaned forward, carefully unleashing that intense stare he knew made women squirm. That coupled with his bald head, intense brown eyes and a lick of his lips, her breath quickened almost immediately. “I wasn’t sure you’d come. You really brightened my whole month.”


Erica fiddled with a wrinkle in her shirt, then met his gaze again with a shy smile. Her faint perfume floated across to him, stirring his predatory instinct that arose when Leon knew the bait was taking hold. “Aww, stop. I figured after all of the phone calls, I owed you at least one visit. I mean, we’re friends, right?”


Friends. That was almost cute. This lonely woman had already rationalized her attraction to a criminal with the soothing balm of friendship. She wanted the fantasy he was spinning—the romance, the idea of nurturing a wounded soul. Leon felt the familiar thrill of sinking his hooks in deep. This poor thing was going to make him a very rich man soon.


Fourteen months later, the newlywed Mrs. Erica Wilhite was dead.

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