Being on the Sugarland P.D. means never backing down, no matter how intense the case—or how dangerous the attraction…
Captain Austin Rainey knows all too well that being a good cop sometimes means gaining some bad enemies. After his ex-wife is killed, he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, trying to prove he’s innocent of her murder. The last thing he needs is a distraction—especially of the irresistible female kind…
Medical examiner Laura Eden has always found Austin more than a little intriguing, but she’s kept her feelings under wraps. Now she's determined to do her job and clear his name—but as her investigation brings them into close proximity, she can’t deny the attraction between them—or resist the temptation he presents.
But Laura and Austin soon realize their budding feelings might be more than emotionally perilous. Someone is coming after everyone Austin holds dear—and Laura might be the next one in the line of fire…
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Austin Rainey hopped out of his truck, slammed the door, and strode up the walk, biting back a curse of aggravation. So much for what had been, until an hour before, a damn fine spring day off.
Except for his impending divorce from Ashley. The constant fighting over the details, every little thing from the pots and pans to who got the cat. Not to mention the one argument they hadn’t seen eye to eye on from the beginning:
The baby Ashley was carrying. Austin’s baby, a son he had always longed for so badly and she never wanted. And yet she was going to deny him custody.
Why? Out of spite?
He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. He was going to have a son, and he’d be a great hands-on dad. At least he was alive to bitch about the crap that was his life, unlike the poor bastard inside the condo.
Something told him that might be the only positive note this day had in store.
Out of habit, he glanced around at the condos and surrounding neighborhood, getting the feel. It was older, well established. Upper middle class. Mercedeses, BMWs, and fully decked-out SUVs. Not rich, but not hurting by any stretch.
As he neared the lower-level breezeway between two buildings, he spotted Lieutenant Daniel Coleman talking to Detective Shane Ford and a couple of uniformed Sugarland PD officers he’d never met. The younger man’s normally cheerful face reflected the grim pall permeating the air. Arms crossed over his chest, Danny leaned his tall frame against the side of the building, shaking his head.
The quartet glanced up at his approach, and Danny straightened, green eyes widening as he read the declaration across Austin’s T-shirt.
Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.
The cops chuckled and Danny shot him an exasperated glare.
“Good God, Rainey. If you’re really dying for Chief Byrne to ream you, at least take him to dinner first.”
“Fuck you, asshole. It’s my day off, the Rangers were winning, and my goddamn beer’s going flat as we speak,” Austin announced. No one gave a damn. With a sigh, he got down to business. “What’s so important that I needed to be called down here?”
Shane Ford stepped forward. The tall, brown-haired man was one of Austin’s best homicide detectives and a superb leader on the force. “Trust us, Cap. You’ll understand when you see the body.”
“Who was the first on the scene?”
“We were,” Shane confirmed, gesturing to his partner, Taylor Kayne, who had just stepped into their circle. “Victim inside is identified as a thirty-one-year-old male named Matthew Blankenship. Call came in to nine-one-one this morning shortly before noon, a Mr. Rick Yates screaming at the dispatcher that his friend was dead. I arrived to find Mr. Yates completely hysterical. Haven’t been able to get much out of him yet.”
“Where is he?”
Shane jerked a thumb toward the adjacent parking lot, where two squad cars were parked side by side. A dark-haired man in the backseat of one had his face buried in his hands. Austin winced, a wave of sympathy rolling through him. Even seasoned veterans often had a tough enough time mentally dealing with a murder scene. He’d been chasing monsters for most of his life, sifting through the aftermath of their cruel work because he was damn good at it . . . and because the victims’ ghosts never let him rest. He couldn’t imagine walking in to discover a friend or loved one brutally killed.
“We’ll speak with him after he’s calmed down,” Austin told Shane. “Go on.”
“We found Mr. Blankenship deceased, apparently murdered, in his bedroom. After getting a good look at the victim and his manner of death, we immediately called you.”
Austin tensed. “Did either of you touch anything?” His men were too good to make rookie mistakes, but still, he had to ask.
“Not a thing,” Taylor assured him. “We went in, saw what we’re dealing with, and came outside to secure the crime scene.”
“I haven’t been inside yet,” Danny muttered. “Laura Eden and the FU are en route.”
Laura Eden. The striking, dark-haired medical examiner who was smart as hell, had a dry sense of humor, and a mouth like a sailor. For the past few years, Laura had worked alongside the department’s Forensics Unit, sarcastically dubbed the FU, to solve homicides and unexplained deaths. She was highly respected in the community.
She was also the bane of Austin’s existence. And the woman who secretly drove him crazy with desire.
With an effort, he snapped himself out of his mental lapse. Thoughts of Laura faded, as did his pitiful hope of getting back to the game and his beer, and he let them go. In his department, easy solutions were as scarce as winning lottery tickets. “Okay, I’m going in. Danny?”
“Hope you haven’t eaten lunch.” Taylor grimaced.
Actually, he had. Damn.
He and Danny entered Blankenship’s condo, ducking under the yellow crime scene tape stretched across the doorway. Inside, they paused, studying the interior. Tasteful, clean, not your stereotypical bachelor pad. A Fender electric guitar and a large amp in one corner. A framed photo of an older couple on the fireplace mantel, likely the parents. Another shot of two young guys, one auburn haired and one with dark brown hair, singing in a rock band on a small stage, guitars slung low. Blankenship and Yates?
A short hallway off the small living room led to the bedroom. Danny on his heels, he covered the distance and paused a second before stepping inside. The stench of loosed bowels gagged him. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the blinds, illuminating the bound man on the bed.
Halting, he stared at the carnage.
“Mother of God,” Austin whispered.
Beside him, Danny’s voice shook. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Not personally, no.” Suppressing a shudder, he glanced at his partner, who swallowed convulsively. “You okay?”
Danny heaved a deep breath, expression determined. “Better than him. Jesus.”
Austin clapped him on the shoulder, then stepped closer to the bed, cataloging the gruesome details. The man’s face was frozen in horror, wide blue eyes twin orbs of glass. A length of red silk parted his lips, tied snug around his head.
Blankenship was sprawled spread-eagle on his back, but, interestingly, his wrists and ankles weren’t bound to the four posts on his bed. The tall man’s sculpted body evidenced plenty of hours in the gym. Good looking, Austin supposed, though he wondered what role, if any, the man’s physical characteristics played in his murder.
“What do the guys want me to see?” Austin mused, frowning.
“Not sure yet.”
The upper half of the man’s body was so mutilated, the torso and the sheets were saturated in blood. The deep slashes indicated stab wounds, but he couldn’t make that call. That was Laura’s area of expertise.
“Doesn’t look like he struggled much, considering what happened to him,” Danny observed.
Austin cocked his head. “The killer might’ve slipped a roofie into his beer,” he said. “I saw two beer cans on the coffee table in the living room.”
“Statistically, the killer is probably a man.”
He shrugged, then gestured to the body. “Could be, but not necessarily. Put a sharp instrument like a knife in a person’s hand, throw rage into the mix, and anyone could do this.”
Danny wrinkled his nose in disgust. “There’re some sick people in this world.”
“Yeah. Let’s talk to his friend Yates, his coworkers. Get a picture of what he was into sexually, though I’m not sure anything like that is at play in this case. We need a picture of his after-hours social life, bar acquaintances, etc.”
Danny frowned at Blankenship with intense scrutiny for several long moments. Austin had come to understand that expression, the quiet stance, the stiff set of his shoulders. Other than the obvious terrible scene, something was bothering his colleague.
“What is it?”
Danny cocked his head. “You know, this guy looks a lot like you.”
“The fuck he does.” But as Austin stared at the corpse, a creeping sensation crawled down his spine. “Okay, maybe a little. But the others wouldn’t have called me down here just because he resembles me.”
“No, but that might yield a clue.” Danny gestured to a small square of cream paper on the nightstand, and Austin walked over to view it better.
The object was a brief note, handwritten in what he considered a man’s blocky, messy style, though it would take an expert to weigh in on that. He read the missive without picking it up.
One down, how many more to go? How many wrongs have you dealt others, Captain? How great is the number of your sins? One body for each of them. Your price to pay.
“Danny, read this.” Austin stepped aside to let his friend view the damning note.
“Christ.” He breathed. “So that’s why they called you.”
“You really think I’m the captain he’s referring to in the note?”
“I’m not sure, but I know one thing—we’ve officially got a fucking nightmare on our hands.”
* * *
Rick Yates had managed to pull himself together somewhat, but shook violently throughout the interview. This had always been the part of an investigation Austin dreaded the most, even more than studying the actual crime scene. The victim was gone, and nothing would reverse whatever fateful decisions he’d made the night before.
But the survivors broke his heart, and with good reason. He’d never learned to harden himself against the loved ones’ sorrow, and hoped he never would. The day he could look into the reddened eyes of the Rick Yateses of this world and feel nothing, he’d turn in his damn shield.
The information Yates provided seemed typical enough to begin with. The two were lifelong friends, had grown up in the Sugarland area together. They held different jobs— Rick worked for a local telecom company in fiber optics, Matt was a graphic artist— but played together in a rock band as a sideline, for enjoyment rather than any real hope they’d make it big. They’d played Spanky’s, a club in Nashville, the night before. The mood had been rowdy, festive. Before Blankenship left, he’d made no bones about the fact that he’d planned to find some serious action.
“You didn’t see whether Matt picked anyone up at the club?” Austin pressed, leaning against the squad car Yates had been sitting in. Danny hovered at his elbow.
“No—” He choked. “I wish to God I had. I told him to be careful. I always tell him to fucking be careful.”
Yates squeezed his eyes shut, but a tear escaped to roll down one cheek. Grieving, in denial, referring to his friend in present tense, unable to make the horrible switch in his mind.
“I’m sorry, Rick,” Austin said. “I know how hard this must be to talk about right now.”
He gave a bitter laugh and opened his eyes. “Do you?”
“Yes. Now, why would you caution him? What kinds of things was Matt into that concerned you?”
“Picking up random people for one-night stands, guys or girls. Doesn’t matter to him. Lately, he’d done a couple of threesomes.”
“Were you ever included?”
Yates looked genuinely shocked, and shook his head. “No. I’ve never been a part of that.”
A bisexual player. Interesting. Blankenship had certainly made the killer’s job a breeze.
“I’ve got one more question, Rick. Did Matt do drugs?”
“Not on a daily basis. He did ecstasy sometimes after we played, especially if he had sex planned for later. But that’s it, I swear.”
“All right.” Austin dug out his wallet and removed one of his cards. “Keep this. Call me or anyone in Homicide if you think of anything, no matter how insignificant it may seem. We’ll be in touch.”
“Captain Rainey.” Yates hesitated and pocketed the card, lips trembling. “Matt’s parents, I c-can’t tell them. M-Matt’s all they h-had.”
His eyes filled again and Austin’s throat tightened. He reached out, squeezed the younger man’s shoulder. “Do the Blankenships live in the area?”
“Yeah.” The tears fell as he recited the address.
“Lieutenant Coleman and I will take care of it. We need to speak with them anyway.”
He and Danny turned to leave, just in time to see the Forensics Unit pull in behind Austin’s pickup. And behind that, the dark Mercedes belonging to Laura Eden.
His heart skipped several beats and he forced himself to remain impassive as she stepped from the vehicle and headed his way.
It was almost impossible to concentrate on what she was saying as she stopped in front of him. Even with her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail with a clip, and wearing a pair of conservative black pants and a blue blouse, she was beautiful. Her large brown eyes were expressive and intelligent, missing nothing.
She had a great sense of humor, but the frequent half smile, the sparkle in her gaze, was noticeably absent at the moment as she stood waiting for his response.
“I’m sorry. What?” he muttered, feeling his face heat.
“I asked you to fill me in,” she replied, eyeing him curiously. “What’s going on with you? Are you feeling okay?”
“Of course. I’m ready for a steak dinner after taking a look inside.”
If she realized he was deflecting the question of his mental lapse, she didn’t call him on it. Instead, she got down to business. “Victim?”
Quickly, he gave her the rundown of what they knew so far, plus the position and condition of the body. She merely listened, nodding, her sharp mind taking in every detail and cataloging it in that incredible brain of hers.
When he was done, she took a pair of latex gloves from her pocket and pulled them on. “Into the battle zone, then. Want to come with?”
Not because he wanted to return to the grisly scene— hat was the very last thing he wanted. But he wasn’t going to turn down the rare chance to watch Laura work, a privilege usually granted to his men in the field while he was stuck behind a desk.
Few people would consider watching a medical examiner conduct an investigation at a murder scene anything to write home about, but cops were a different breed. The need to protect and see justice served ran strong in Austin’s veins, and when an expert like Laura had to be called in to help, his curiosity and need to see things through came to the fore.
Sure, a lot of his fascination was the woman herself. But not all.
“These are definitely stab wounds. Don’t suppose you recovered the murder weapon?” she asked, interrupting his musings.
“I wish. Wouldn’t that have been nice.”
“Yeah.” She paused, peering closer at the body. “This poor guy didn’t even put up a fight. No defense wounds on his hands or arms. No scratches from fingernails on his skin, and no skin under his nails, either, that I can see.”
“That’s what we observed, too.”
“Tests may show trace amounts. No obvious evidence of sexual activity, but again, we’ll see.” She stood staring at the body for a moment. “He could’ve been roofied, or completely sedated. I’ll let you know what we find.”
At that exact moment, she spotted the note. Slowly, she skirted the bed, leaned over, and read the missive without touching it. Then she straightened and pinned Austin with a glare. “What the hell is this?”
“What it appears to be, unfortunately. An accusation, and a probable motive.”
“The killer is referring to you?”
“My team seems to think so. That’s why they called me over here.” He nodded to the victim. “They think he resembles me, too.”
For once, words seemed to fail the woman as she turned to study the body again. Then she looked back at Austin. “I hope with everything in me that this has nothing to do with you.”
“Me, too. But I don’t know what other captain he could be addressing.”
“You’re not the only captain at the department.”
“I’m the only auburn-haired one who looks like him.”
Neither of them had an answer for that.
They walked outside together, and Laura directed her team to get the body loaded as soon as Forensics was finished processing the scene. Then she turned to Austin and regarded him thoughtfully.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
He tried a smile. “Why would you ask that?”
“You’re too quiet, Austin, and you don’t look well. You’re completely healed from the attack, right?” Her gaze sharpened.
“Yes,” he answered truthfully. A few months earlier, he’d been stabbed and nearly killed while working a case with Tonio Salvatore, one of his detectives. “It took a while, but I’m totally well. I’m just dealing with some personal stuff, and frankly it’s running me down a little.”
“You heard?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “One of your uniformed officers mentioned it at a scene we worked a couple of weeks ago. I’m really sorry to hear about it.”
“Thanks.” He made a mental note to have a word with the shift during the next briefing about flapping their loose lips. “It’s for the best, though—believe me.” He didn’t know whether she’d heard about Ashley’s pregnancy, and he wasn’t about to bring it up.
“Well, I know it’ll be rough for a while, but it’ll work out. I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
Their eyes met and held. It was Laura’s turn to blush, and Austin stared at her, captivated. In the past few years since they’d met, this was the first time she’d extended a personal offer of friendship. He wasn’t dumb enough to think the timing was a coincidence, and suddenly the day seemed a lot brighter than before.
“Thank you.” He smiled. “I’ll remember that.”
“Take care, Austin.”
Watching that woman walk away was getting more and more difficult to do.
Austin hovered outside Byrne’s office door for a few seconds before knocking. He couldn’t help but smile a bit as he recalled his meeting with his boss and good friend the day after the Blankenship murder almost a week before.
Muffled snickers punctuated the sudden stillness at his back. Assholes. He threw an evil glare over his shoulder, squelching the laughter if not the childlike glee on some of his detectives’ faces.
Except for Danny, he noted with gratitude. Seated at his desk, his friend looked up from the Blankenship file, expression sober, and mouthed, Good luck.
“Come in,” Byrne’s deep voice intoned, colder than the North Atlantic. “And close the door.”
He did, pushing it shut behind him. Dammit, Glenn couldn’t be that angry with him. As a captain, Austin did his best to keep his nose clean.
In the early days, Austin had been wary of Glenn, who was then a hard-as-nails captain. The kind that made the men sit up straighter and sweat a little when he walked into the room. It wasn’t long, however, before Austin realized the man possessed a brilliant mind and a warmer heart than he let on.
What the hell have I done to piss him off?
The man in question didn’t bother to rise from his chair, but merely nodded. His dark eyes snapped with irritation and his mouth was pressed tight. “What the fuck was yesterday?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he confessed, gazing steadily at the chief. “I was called to the Blankenship murder scene because my detectives believe the killer might be focused on me somehow.”
The chief’s stony expression softened some. “I know that. I’m talking about the public image we have to maintain.”
“What do you—”
“‘Gun Control Means Using Both Hands’?”
“Oh. The T-shirt,” Austin muttered, sitting back in his chair. “I was off duty, Glenn. They sounded so adamant I get there, I didn’t think to change my shirt first. How did you find out about it?”
“On the six o’clock news,” the chief said icily. “When I saw you walk across the lawn of the crime scene wearing it.”
Shit. He blew out a breath. “Damn. I’m sorry I messed up, okay? I never even saw the reporters.”
“Messing up is wearing one blue sock and one black sock. Judging from the number of messages on my voice mail— ne from the mayor himself— our stupidity qualifies as a clusterfuck.”
Austin winced. “It’s done. I don’t know what I can do about it.”
Glenn ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper brown hair. “Me, either. The problem is, with the climate in the media so anticop right now, none of us can afford to step one toe out of line, even with something as innocent as what’s supposed to be cop humor on a T-shirt. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, sir. Every single thing we do gets blown totally out of proportion.”
“And then some! Hopefully this will all blow over by tomorrow and they’ll be focused on county taxes or some shit.”
He’d started to ask whether the comments on the news were that bad, but decided he really didn’t want to know.
They’d all been called on the carpet by Glenn at some point. The media and the public wanted answers about the murder— nswers Austin and his men didn’t have. Yet.
Bracing himself, Austin brought himself back to the present, knocked and walked inside, shutting the door behind him. Glenn waved him in and sat back in his chair, looking no less harassed than he had in the past few days.
“Tell me something good,” the chief said wearily. “Anything.”
Austin thought about that. “Not a single one of our men has been caught on a cell phone video doing anything remotely inappropriate. This week, anyway.”
“Aren’t you hilarious?” Byrne huffed, glaring at him. “I’m talking about the Blankenship investigation.”
“I know.” He shook his head. “Not much to go on yet. The full report from Eden isn’t back, and they’re swamped.”
“But I’ve started a list of my former cases where the perp I’ve put away might still hold a grudge. It’s slow going.”
“All right. Keep me informed.”
“You know it.”
“How are things with you? Personally?” The question was genuine, Glenn’s expression concerned.
“Not too bad, I guess. The baby’s due in four weeks, and I’ll admit I’m scared as hell.”
His friend smiled. “And excited.”
Just then a loud knock sounded on the chief’s door, startling Austin. As he turned in his chair, he wondered who would have the nerve—everyone knew better than to interrupt the chief in a meeting.
“What?” Glenn barked.
The door opened and Shane stuck his head in. His gaze found Austin sitting there, then skittered away without acknowledging him.
“Chief, I need to speak with you.” Shane’s voice was strained.
“Now?” Glenn swept a hand toward Austin. “You can see I’m busy at the moment.”
“This is important, sir. I wouldn’t interrupt otherwise.” Something in his tone must’ve alerted the chief, because Glenn nodded.
“Fine. Come in, Detective.”
“No, sir. I mean, I think it’s best if you come out here.”
The chief’s brows rose to his hairline. But he did as he was asked, pushing his fit frame from his seat and leaving the office with Shane.
That’s not strange or anything, Austin said to himself.
Shrugging, he pulled his iPhone from his pants pocket and checked his text messages. Two from Ashley, combative as usual, one from his mother asking when she and his dad could come for a visit.
After he responded to those, he surfed Facebook. In fact, when several minutes went by and the chief hadn’t reappeared, Austin frowned. What was keeping his boss? They all had shit to do, and Austin was no exception.
Patience finally expired, he got up and left the office. As luck would have it, the chief was on his way back, Shane and Taylor walking with him.
“Are we done with our talk?” Austin asked his boss. “Because I’ve got things to—”
“Son, I need for you to go back into my office with us.” Glenn stopped in front of him and gestured in that direction.
Son. It was the way he’d said it. That tone. Austin knew that voice, had used it and heard it used many times in his career. But he didn’t have to judge by that alone. Their faces were grim, etched with sympathy, their eyes telling him without words how very much they didn’t want to say whatever must be said.
“What’s going on?” he asked quietly.
“In the office,” Shane insisted.
Panic seized his heart, started to claw its way up his throat. “Tell me now. What’s happened? Taylor?”
The blond detective wouldn’t look at him, just shook his head. “Cap, please—”
“Has there been an accident? Is it my parents?” He stared at them, unable to figure out whether it was one of his parents, how they would’ve learned something before him.
“No, it’s not your folks,” Glenn said, taking his arm. “Come inside.”
Austin jerked his arm from the chief’s grasp, voice rising. “Tell me! Is it Ashley? Oh God.” His frantic gaze darted between them. “Something’s happened to Ash— and my baby. Christ, what’s going on?”
By then he realized all activity around them had gone silent. Without waiting for an answer, he yanked his phone from his pocket again and tried to punch in his estranged wife’s number. His shaking hands wouldn’t cooperate, and when Shane’s hand covered the phone, Austin froze.
That one word told him all he needed to know. “Where is she? At the house?”
“You are not to go out there. Do you hear me?” Glenn ordered.
“No.” He couldn’t think it. Refused to believe. Frantic, he dug his truck keys out of his pocket and turned, running for the front of the building. Despite the chief shouting for someone to stop him, nobody did. Most of them simply gaped in confusion, unsure what to do.
By the time anyone mobilized behind him and there were sounds of pursuit, he was almost to his truck. In short order he was tearing out of the parking lot, narrowly missing a squad car and someone’s personal SUV.
He didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was getting to his house as quickly as possible. The house he still owned but no longer lived in because he was letting Ashley have it in the divorce. The house where she’d raise their son, and Austin would be a fixture in his life.
Please, let them be safe. Let my boy be unharmed. I’ve waited for him for so long.
“He’ll be fine,” he told himself. “They both will.”
All the way out of town to his place, he told himself that. Even when a marked squad tried to intercept and pull him over, he told himself that didn’t mean the worst had happened.
But when he skidded to a stop in his own front yard, saw the yellow crime scene tape stretched across the front porch, his world came crashing down. Leaving the keys in the ignition, the truck running, he jumped out. Detectives Tonio Salvatore and Chris Ford, Shane’s cousin, were on him before he reached the porch, and Tonio wrapped him in a hold from behind, around his chest, with arms like steel bands. But that didn’t stop him from fighting to get free.
“Let me go!” he yelled.
“Cap, you’re not going in there,” Tonio shouted back. “You can’t.”
Chris stepped around in front of Austin, hands out as though trying to deter a rabid animal. “We absolutely can’t let you in there. Deep down, I know you understand that.”
His heart was going to explode. “Ashley’s gone?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry,” Chris said softly.
Austin stared at the detective, who blurred as his eyes welled with tears. “The baby? Please. They saved my son, right?”
Tonio’s voice was quiet in his ear. The arms didn’t let go. “They couldn’t. I’m sorry.”
“My son, too? My son is dead? But he was so far along,” he heard himself beg. “He was due in four weeks. I don’t understand.”
“He didn’t have a chance,” Chris said, placing his hands on Austin’s shoulders. “He was already gone when Ashley was found.”
“She was murdered. I’m so sorry.”
“How?” The word emerged as a wail from deep within his soul. “Why?”
“We’re right here with you,” Tonio said instead of answering either question. “And we’re going to find who did this.”
Ashley and his baby. Dead.
Austin swayed on his feet, nearly went down. Would have if not for the men holding him upright. Distantly he was aware that they were guiding him away from the house, toward Tonio’s car. Chris opened the passenger-side door and got Austin seated just as more vehicles arrived. Austin didn’t look to see who it was, nor did he care.
The most precious person in his life had just been taken from him before he’d even gotten a chance to know him. His baby was gone.
And Austin wanted nothing more than to be wherever his little angel was right now.
* * *
Laura scanned the yard as she pulled up and parked. She’d known, the second the address had come in, along with the victim’s name.
Hand trembling, she shut off the ignition. Oh, Austin.
She spotted him as soon as she got out, sitting in the front passenger seat of someone’s car. Detective Chris Ford hovered nearby as a paramedic crouched inside the open car door and checked the police captain’s vitals. Chris paced a little, worry and strain clear on his face and in every line of his tense body.
Approaching, Laura caught his attention and waved him over, careful to keep herself out of Austin’s line of sight. She didn’t want the man thinking about what she was doing there. Not right now, if he was even capable of thinking at all.
“How is he?” The detective didn’t have to ask who she meant.
“In shock. He hasn’t said a word since we made him sit down. Not one sound.”
Her heart bled for the big captain. “That’s not uncommon. Everyone reacts differently to this type of bad news.”
“Yeah. And this is the absolute worst I’ve ever seen. My God, Laura, who does this to a pregnant woman?”
“Someone evil,” she said. “And I’ll do everything in my power to help you all catch him.”
Chris nodded, then glanced back toward the car. “Are you going to talk to him?”
“After. I can’t focus if I’m worried about Austin, and I don’t want to miss any details.”
“Just . . . do your best. This one is personal,” he said hoarsely.
“I always do, but yes. It’s very personal.”
With that, she steeled herself and went on inside. There just wasn’t any preparation for a scene like this one. Cases involving infant deaths were among the worst, but most of those were due to accidents or natural causes. Nothing like what awaited her in the entertainment room just off the den.
There was nothing accidental or natural about Ashley Rainey’s death, or the death of her unborn child. The room was destroyed, the big-screen TV shattered and ripped from the wall, lamps broken, furniture shoved aside. The woman had put up a good fight, which was evidenced by the defensive wounds on her hands and arms as well.
Under her manicured fingernails, she’d torn what appeared to be a good chunk out of her assailant’s flesh. Good for you, honey, she thought sadly. We’re going to catch the demon who did this to you and your baby.
Ashley, once a pretty blonde, had been badly beaten, especially her face. But that wasn’t what had caused her death. The man’s belt wrapped around her neck and applied with force until she asphyxiated had been. Tests would prove it, Laura felt certain, given the facial skin condition and coloring, and the broken blood vessels in her eyes.
Once finished, which didn’t take long, she headed back outside. Chris and Tonio met her a good distance from the car where Austin still sat.
“Strangulation is the cause of death?” Chris asked.
“Almost positive, but tests will probably bear it out. The scene looks pretty straightforward.”
“Beating and strangling a pregnant woman to death, that’s a crime of intense rage,” Tonio said in disgust.
Chris shook his head. “Or just seriously crazy.”
“I’d say both, but motives are your area of expertise.” Glancing past them, she spotted the captain’s still figure in the car and sighed. “Is someone taking Austin home, staying with him?”
“We’re driving him home,” Tonio said. “Not sure who’s staying with him tonight, but he won’t be alone. The paramedic gave him a sedative to help him sleep, too.”
“Okay, good. I’m going to speak with him. I’ll be in touch.”
“Take care,” Chris said, and Tonio echoed him.
With no small amount of dread, Laura walked over to the car. Austin’s strong profile came into view, and she saw he was sitting upright, just staring out the front windshield. Sunlight glinted off his deep auburn hair, setting it on fire. He gave no indication that he heard her footsteps approaching, so she called out softly.
No response. She called his name again, and when he still didn’t answer, she crouched inside the door and touched his leg. Slowly, he turned his head and looked down at her. His brows drew together as if trying to figure out exactly why she was there.
Then recollection dawned in his green eyes, the hurt so deep and profound it took her breath away.
“They’re dead,” he whispered. Tears filled his beautiful eyes.
“Yes. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
His hand covered hers. “Help my men find out who did this.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Take care of them.” His voice broke, and so did her heart.
“You know I will.” She swallowed hard, determined not to lose it. “I’m here for you. Always.”
“I know. Thank you.”
He hung his head and didn’t say any more, just gazed at the floorboard. After several more seconds of lending her silent support, she gave his hand a squeeze and stood. Forcing herself to walk away from him was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
It felt wrong on every level to leave him there. But he was in good hands for now.
And she had a job to do. For Austin, and his lost family.
Excerpted from "Bring the Heat"
Copyright © 2015 Jo Davis.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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