Jade had thought there was nothing more destructive than a man in his twenties. That aimless, mindless wandering; the restless dissatisfaction with their lives and everything in it. They were cocky and brass and unapologetic, clambering from day to day like stampeding wildebeest. They cared about nothing save the idea that they stood for something: “paper-maché Mephistopheles,” each one of them.
But she’d been wrong.
Calculated, focused destruction – the cold cruelty of an impartial predator – was devastating. A man in his forties, lean and sharp-eyed and jaded, could draw you in with such skill you never noticed that he was planning to cut you down all along. A man like that could play charades and spin lies effortlessly; they could let you go without a backward thought. A man like that was untouchable. Jade had always thought she’d been smarter than to be fooled so thoroughly.
But she’d been wrong.
She was twenty-four when she met Ben. She had jury duty, and the parking deck on the Marietta square was a nightmare. She parked in a loading zone and when she left the courthouse, she found a tow truck backing up to her F-150. The tow truck driver didn’t want to hear her pleas or accept the twenty bucks she offered for his time, but the dark-haired man in a suit walking past came to her rescue.
“Hey.” He fished a badge from inside his jacket, overhead all-weather lights catching the gold shield. He flashed it to the tow guy. “Unhook this truck.”
Jade folded her arms beneath her breasts, closing her knee-length sweater coat over her dress, eyes doing a fast, startled sweep of her rescuer. He had one of those angular, strong faces too stern to be considered outright handsome, his nose thin, but prominent, cheeks lean and tight. His dark hair was clipped short on the sides and soft on top, gleaming under the parking deck lamps. He was tall – decidedly over six feet – and his suit fit well. He was older than her, probably a lot older, and that only fortified her impression: he was attractive.
The tow driver pushed his cap back and scratched at his hair, mouth pulled to the side in a grimace. “I got called to take this in, so I gotta take it in.”
“A patrol called you; I’m a detective, and I’m telling you to unhook it.” The command in his voice, the way he didn’t expect to be disobeyed…it was nothing like the posturing of boys her age; it had true authority behind it. He turned to her – as the tow driver, grumbling, starting taking the chains off her truck – eyes impossibly dark, and said, “I don’t normally condone blocking loading zones.” He smiled, a feral, white, frightening smile. “But I figure since you’re about to agree to have dinner with me…”
Jade coughed a startled laugh. “Just like that? Does this white knight routine work for you often?”
His smile turned pleased; he liked her comeback. “Always.”
She smiled. “Hmm. Detectives lie all the time, though. If you even are a detective. How do I know that badge isn’t from Party City?”
He put it in her hand, still smiling; their fingers brushed, his warm and rough. The badge was solid smooth leather and cool metal. She traced a nail over the shield. Cobb County Police Department she read. She’d never seen one up close before, but this looked and felt like the real deal. She hadn’t really doubted him, but there was something reassuring about the way he’d given it to her. That automatic trust.
“I’m Jade,” she said when she glanced up, offering his badge back.
His hand lingered when he took it, sending little ripples of sensation moving beneath her skin. “Ben.”
Dangerous. The word woke her, echoing through her head like someone had whispered it right up close to her. But her room was empty. A wedge of blue from the hall nightlight cut across the carpet, touching the corner of the hope chest at the foot of her bed. Her reflection was a twitch of movement in the dressing table mirror across from her. For a long moment, she searched the familiar lumps and shadows of the room, pulse slowing, then she fired off a text and climbed out of bed.
It was just after five and though it had stopped raining, the sky was an inky black, the darkness heavy, the air soupy. The wet grass swished against her ankles and all around, the leaves dripped water with little splats.
The horses were used to early wakeups, and they blinked against the onslaught as she flipped the lights on. There was a chill in the barn, a dampness that gave her the shivers. She nudged Fat Monty the cat off the lid of the sweet feed can and scooped up a handful for Atlas. Down the aisle, he was waiting for her, head hanging over his stall door, ears swiveling, nostrils quivering in a silent whicker as she reached through the bars and dropped his snack in his feeder.
“Hi, boy,” she greeted as she slid into his stall with his brushes. “You sleep well?”
He licked up the crumbs of feed and craned his neck around to snuffle at her pockets while she curried him.
Jade smiled. Atlas never failed to brighten her mood. He was a beautiful animal, big-boned and solid in the old warmblood style that had been popular before leggy typey types like Rosie had come into fashion. He had big dinner plate feet and a broad back; thick, powerful legs and a neck like a chess piece. He was a rich blood bay with a white snip on the end of his nose that sunburned in the summer; he had a flymask with a nose guard to keep it protected that he always talked Merry into pulling off for him. He’d been her baby before Clara had come along, and because she felt guilty that motherhood dominated her life now, she made time – like five-fifteen on a Sunday morning – to ride.
The arena was smooth and hard-packed after the rain, like the beach at low tide. All the shoe prints had been washed away; it was hard to imagine that it had been a crime scene two nights before. Jade swung up into the saddle and all conscious thought promptly evaporated. It was her, and Atlas, and the wet sand under the lights, and nothing else.
She’d been riding since she was seven, and it was the only area in which she’d ever excelled. Her legs and seat and abs and shoulders knew the rhythms by heart; her body accommodated and encouraged Atlas’s big swinging gaits and her fingers moved feather-light on the reins: flexing here, slowing there. The sound of his hooves on the wet sand was as familiar as music to a dancer.
She was spiraling him out of a canter circle when she noticed the man-shaped shadow standing down by the gate, and her heart leapt against her ribs before she remembered that it had to be Ben, and that she’d texted him. She slowed Atlas to a walk, let out the reins and headed toward him.
Ben was in jeans and a dark canvas jacket with the collar turned up. Mist had settled in his hair, glittering in the arena lights. “You look good out there,” he said as she reined Atlas up at the rail. It was an observation, but not a compliment; Ben didn’t do compliments.
Her stomach tightened. “How’d you know I was down here?”
“It’s black as shit out here and you’re riding under a spotlight. Everyone with eyes in their head knows you’re down here. You’re lucky our killer likes them younger than you.”
She was long since used to his lack of tact and his black sense of humor, but she wasn’t in the mood for it this morning. Fear at the mention of the killer streaked through her, followed by indignation. “You could have called,” she said, deciding it was so much better to talk to him on horseback than to dismount; she was taller than him this way. “You didn’t need to come by.”
He shrugged and offered his palm for Atlas to inspect. The gelding – traitor – licked Ben’s hand. “I had to be up anyway. Autopsy’s this morning.”
Jade ignored the mental image that conjured. “Asher told me what you did to him,” she said, not wanting to prolong this visit if it could be helped.
He made a face. “That little squealer.”
“Ben, what the hell is wrong with you? You can’t just – ”
“Do my job?” His voice was low and conversational, but the glance he tilted up to her froze her cold. “I’m doing my job. And don’t you think I know better than you what that entails?”
“Don’t call me stupid,” she said, but her voice quivered. “Asher isn’t a suspect.”
“Do you know that for sure? How well do you know him, Jade?”
“I know you, and this is just your sadistic streak getting the best of you.”
“Maybe.” He stroked a hand down Atlas’s neck before he crammed it back in his pocket. “Or,” his eyes looked black, “you’ve been letting a sicko spend time with our daughter.”
He’d never referred to Clara that way: our daughter. Acknowledging her as belonging to the both of them together.
Then the full weight of the accusation slammed into her. She sucked in a breath. “I would never…”
But Ben already had his back to her and was walking up the drive.
“He never spent time with her!” she called to him. “Never!”
Ben was forty-two when he met her. She was twenty-four. He didn’t think, at the time, that anyone could have blamed him. She was impossibly long legs and gently flared hips in a clean sheathe dress under a sweater. Her face was fine china with dark, arched brows framed in sleek mahogany hair; but it was her eyes that stunned him: big and blue and stuck on him like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She was captivated, and he wanted to see what was under her dress, and that was all there was to it.
“What’s a girly girl like you doing driving that truck?” he asked her over bacon-wrapped filets that night at his favorite out of the way steakhouse.
“Girly?” Her lipstick had some kind of glitter in it. “What makes you think that?”
“Killer detective work.”
“Ha.” She grinned a shy, sideways grin at him. “More like going off stereotypes.”
“What’s wrong with stereotypes? A lot of them are true.”
“Wow. Okay.” Her slender brows quirked with amusement or doubt or something worse. She set her fork down. “Let’s see if you can guess then.”
She was playing with him, and he liked it; she was smarter than he’d originally given her credit for being. “Okay. It’s your dad’s – ”
“Don’t have one of those.”
Daddy issues: this night just kept getting better. “It’s your boyfriend’s – ”
“Do you think I’d be out with a much-too-forward cop if I had a boyfriend?”
He grinned. “You stole it – ”
“Again with the cop reason.”
He wondered if she was a first date kind of girl. Probably, given the daddy issues. “Or you - ”
“Or I have horses,” she said. “And I tow a horse trailer and haul hay and there’s nothing strange about me having a truck at all.”
“Or there’s that.”
He kissed her on her front steps in the cool autumn air, one hand cradling the back of her head, the other sliding between the halves of her long sweater. Her mouth was soft and yielding; her lipstick tasted like cherries; and her breath caught in a startled gasp in her throat. He molded his palm around the swell of her breast before she came to her senses and shoved him away.
She was smiling, but her eyes were wide and wild, glittering with a hesitance akin to fear. “You’re a cad, Detective Haley,” she said on a crystalline laugh. “Utterly and completely.”
He was. And she was something else entirely.
He’d left his Charger up at the split in the drive and he turned when he reached it, a hand braced on the roof as he glanced back down the hill at Jade and her great beast of a horse in the spotlit arena. Dawn was still an hour off, and the darkness was thick, consuming, nightmare-quality stuff. In the warm glow of the lamp posts, Jade was regal as a queen: head lifted, shoulders squared, the lines of her body long and elegant.
He was on his way to watch a dead girl get laid open on a steel table, so he took a moment, in the dark, to watch something alive and vital and graceful. He was still a cad, and if anything, Jade was even further out of reach than she had been four years ago.