There's just a couple more weeks until release day! God Love Her comes out 2/14 and I'm excited to get it out there and in readers' hands. If you're like me, and you like to read new material before a book is available, then tonight's post is for your. Enjoy the first three chapters! And if you haven't read Made for Breaking yet, it's still just 99cents for Kindle.
“Do you have money for popcorn?”
Charlotte tapped her purse where it hung from her shoulder. “Yes.” She rolled her eyes; he’d asked at least two dozen times. “For popcorn, Twizzlers, Cokes, and Sour Patch Kids. She’ll have ten cavities by the time we leave.”
Aaron smiled. “Just making sure.”
“Uh-huh.” His wife stretched up on her toes and pressed a fast kiss to his lips. “You ready, princess?” she called as she pulled back.
Melissa, eight, blonde like her mother, came skipping into the foyer in her favorite pink ballet flats. It was a warm night, balmy at the end of summer, and Melissa was in white denim shorts with applique flowers and a pink t-shirt. Charlotte had pulled her blonde ringlets up in pink barrettes. “Ready, Mommy!” she said.
“Okay, well say goodbye to Daddy.”
Aaron caught her under the arms and lifted her so she could smack a kiss against his cheek.
“Bye, angel.” She went racing off the moment her feet touched the floor. “Don’t get sick on candy!” he called after her.
“Fat chance,” Charlotte said. She gave him a rueful grin. “Can you rustle up dinner by yourself?”
He kissed her once in the foyer and again on the front steps. By the time he watched the minivan’s taillights slip around the corner, he had a swarm of butterflies tickling the inside of his stomach.
It was always like this: the anticipation.
The older Melissa became, the faster she grew, the less privacy he was afforded. The less time he had for his shopping. So a rare night with the house to himself was not to be wasted.
Aaron passed through the tiger-stripe shadows of the foyer and turned into the kitchen. It was a chef’s dream: stainless everything, Carrera marble, gas range, breakfast nook lined in white beadboard. He was the cook of the family, and this was his domain. His summer barbecues were legend among the neighborhood. At the long marble-topped island in the center of the room, he used mortar and pestle to grind his own spices for rubs; his cutting board had witnessed the prep of countless hors d’oeuvres at Christmas and New Years and Valentine parties. He worked wonders on main dishes. But it was baking – pastries and pies and cakes – where he truly excelled.
He’d made blueberry scones that afternoon and a half dozen remained on a white Kate Spade platter in the center of the island. He plucked one up and nibbled at a corner of it as he listened to the messages on the answering machine. There was one from Linda Burton down the street: “I just wanted to thank you, Aaron dear, for the gift basket of cookies. Such a sweet boy! It was such a nice treat when I came home from the hospital…” Another from Bill Hoskins: “Hey, Quinn family. Wanted to let you know that Claire is having her birthday party next week and wanted to invite Melissa. And, Aaron, if you’re not busy, we could use your magic on the grill…” And another from Patsy Brown: “Charlotte, you simply have to get me your husband’s recipe for the poppy seed muffins you brought to work Thursday…”
Aaron picked up the red pencil from its place beside the phone and dutifully printed the messages down on a piece of Charlotte’s stationary. He pinned the note to the cork board, alongside recipes, takeout flyers, the family calendar, and the dozens of reminder notes they left one another. Then he nicked another scone and headed for his first floor office near the back of the house.
Their home was high-dollar without being lavish; homey and comfortable, with subtle elegance. They’d furnished it one piece at a time, poring over catalogues, debating and arguing and straining to get it just right. The walls had been eighteen shades of eggshell before Charlotte had decided on an unassuming gray. Every pillow, every knick-knack, had been selected with the utmost care. It was the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, filled with the perfect suburban memories of the perfect suburban family.
When he reached the office, Aaron flipped on the lamps that flanked his computer. While he waited for the desktop to boot up, he settled in his swivel chair and reached for the TV remote. He had a flat-screen Sony mounted on the wall between the two closet doors and he clicked it on, scrolling to his favorite pay channel while he licked scone crumbs off his fingers. He’d seen the movies that were being offered, so he watched for a second time the one about the twin sisters. He didn’t touch himself; he would hold off on that until he’d made his purchases, when the anticipation of receiving them was too sharp to bear anymore.
“Alright,” he said to himself, his pulse leaping, as he swiveled to face his computer and opened up his web browser. His palms went clammy and his skin heated to an unbearable temperature under his light polo shirt. He needed his wife – she served her social purpose – but she’d never inspired this sort of craving in him. He could hear the breath hissing between his teeth as he typed in the web address. Could count the heartbeats that drummed in his ears. Just thinking about shopping, and about what that shopping would lead to, was ecstasy. His imagination took him to that heightened state of bliss and allowed him to relive it in all the dull moments of his everyday life. He –
He heard something.
Aaron forced his hand off the computer mouse and listened. The house was still around him, filled with the musical hum of fridge and AC and his computer. The breeze tossed yaupon branches against the siding outside the office window. A passing car rustled the air on the street. And…something sent nervous prickles up the back of his neck. Something wasn’t right; some energy had invaded his space, like when a TV was left running somewhere. He could feel it, but couldn’t prove it.
And then a floorboard creaked overhead.
Aaron shot out of his chair and charged out of the office, into the hall. He was pissed more than anything, at himself, for being so tightly wound that he was jumping at the house settling. Stupid, he scolded himself. He should have found some release for his energy before now. He’d gone too long, gotten too desperate, and he was leaping at creaks and groans. Idiot.
He went to the front and back doors, checked the deadbolts, and then did a round of the windows. He peered through the front sidelights at the street before him. The neighbors across the way – the Jordans – were having a party, their lights blazing, guests walking up the front path with covered dishes in hand. Aaron backed away before Amy Jordan could spy his face in the window and retreated to his office. He wasn’t in the mood for company tonight. He was too juiced. Maybe he needed to watch another skin flick, or download something. Maybe…
No. He’d gone years without resorting to more primitive measures. He didn’t have to hunt anymore. His brother had ensured he never wanted for entertainment.
He slumped back into his chair and passed a hand down his face – and heard another sound. Footsteps. The definitive thump-thump of feet, in his kitchen.
He fumbled across his desk until his fingers landed on the handle of his sterling silver letter opener. He palmed it and squeezed until the engraving bit into his palm. His heart thundered against his ribs, and this time, it had nothing to do with arousal. His legs trembled as he pushed to his feet. It’s nothing, he told himself, but he leaned against the doorjamb a moment, listening, quivering, letter opener clenched until his knuckles went white. The hall yawned before him, laced with black shadows. He’d left the kitchen lights on and a fat bar of light fell across the polished cherry hardwood. He watched it for what felt like ten minutes, waiting for something to flicker across it.
He finally took a breath when he got dizzy. Then, in a rush, he strode down the hall, past the open doorway of the kitchen. He doubled back, and ducked in for a look.
It was empty, nothing but crisp white cabinets and shining stainless.
The rolling trash can was propped against the back door, and the wind rocked it, tapping the edge of the lid into one of the little glass inset windows.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he muttered, the tension leaving his body in a shaky rush.
His steps dragged as he returned to his office for the second time. Too long, it had been so, so long, and his paranoia was reaching new levels of insane. He just needed a release. His eyes fell across his computer and he headed for his chair, strung-out and unsteady and desperate. He –
Pain exploded in his back. A great burst of it through his kidneys that radiated all the way up to his teeth. He tasted blood. His vision went white. He staggered to his knees, and then crumpled to his side. His head impacted the carpet with a muted thud. His insides filled with fire, a sensation of heat and wetness flooding him in unnatural ways. Something had ruptured. Something was bleeding. A high keening sound reached his ears and he realized he was whining like a dog. Tears coursed down his cheeks.
With a groan, Aaron twisted onto his back, and a man-shaped shadow filled his swimming vision. In the buttery lamplight of his purposefully eclectic, Pottery Barn office, the man standing over him in all-black, a ski cap pulled low over his brows, was obscene. He had a handsome face, with a sharp nose; his eyes glittered emerald, full of an emotion Aaron couldn’t fathom. The violence in his gaze was breathtaking. His smile, when he flashed it, was white and sinister, sub-human.
“Hiya, Aaron,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
And then Aaron saw the wood baseball bat propped on the man’s shoulder. His bladder released in a hot rush down the insides of his khakis. “Who are you? What do you want?” His voice was a timid squeak. He tried to crab-walk backward, but pain flared in his back, crippling his movements.
The man lifted the bat, still grinning. “I’m justice,” he said. “And I’ve come for you.”
Aaron saw the bat rear back; saw its forward arc. Heard the gentle rush of the air parting around it.
Then everything was black.
“Your cousin Lisa can’t pick you up, sweetie.” Her aunt’s voice was warm with apology in the message she’d left. “Something…something came up. But someone will be there for you. Meet them at baggage claim. Hope you had a safe flight. Can’t wait to see you again, babe!” And the message ended with a click. The automated voicemail bot prompted her to press five to hear the message again, and Layla hung up instead, sliding her cell back into her purse.
“Well.” Layla took a deep breath and scanned her surroundings, getting her bearings. Passengers exiting her flight were streaming around her, trying to see the arrival board, muttering and cursing her for standing in the way. One thing became immediately apparent: Her memories didn’t do justice to the startling differences between Atlanta and LA. And that was just going by the airport. The voices, the snatches of conversation – the accent wasn’t the stylized drawl Hollywood pretended it was, but something soft and comfy. Smooth-edged consonants and long, rounded vowels. It was August here, and shorts and flip-flops and bright red sunburns melting into golden tans were the uniform components. But there were jeans and boots too. Construction workers. Wannabe cowboys. Country boys – which was a whole other category.
“Move it,” someone off her flight from LAX grumbled, and an elbow caught her in the ribs, throwing her off balance.
She wasn’t going to miss the LA attitude, that was for sure.
Giving herself a mental shake – she had much more pressing issues than Georgia culture to worry about – she pulled up the handle of her black, rolling carry-on and started for the baggage claim.
Someone, her aunt had said. Not her dad. Every other time she’d landed in Atlanta, it had been Mark Russell waiting for her, some cheesy limo driver sign in one hand, pink roses in the other. He always snatched her up in a crushing hug and said against her hair how beautiful she was, and how much he’d missed her. He was one of those dads – utterly clueless, but doting and sweet and wonderful. The kind of dad who brought her flowers. Who thought mac & cheese was still her favorite food and that her favorite song was anything he chose to sing at the top of his lungs, off key. She hadn’t seen him in almost three years, and today, he wouldn’t be picking her up because he was in the hospital. Unconscious. In a coma the doctors didn’t know if he’d ever wake from. Because he’d been shot.
Someone had shot the man who brought her pink roses and told her she was beautiful.
So her steps hastened on the terrazzo as she walked what seemed like miles of airport, on her way to meet someone who would take her to see her dad.
Lisa, was Sly’s first thought. The brunette walking toward him through the crowds looked a lot like Lisa. Same narrow, feminine face, smooth cheeks flushed. Same shiny chocolate hair. And the eyes – those large, round, vivid green eyes. Her shape was softer, though. She had bigger tits. Her narrow waist flared to his favorite kind of grabbable hips. She wasn’t as tan as her cousin, but that didn’t matter. He’d never given a shit about all the fake-pretty modern men wanted their women to trowel on in spades.
Lost little lamb, was his second thought. Because Lisa would have been elbowing her way past people and cursing; this girl had something like fear in her big green eyes and she moved politely, almost gingerly, around the shifting throngs of people.
And then, before he could clamp down on it, a memory came rushing to the forefront of his mind. Because even if this girl looked like Lisa in some ways, she looked a whole lot like another little brunette too. And suddenly he wasn’t wondering if her breasts were real, but wishing he’d sent Eddie to pick her up instead.
Layla, he reminded himself of her name. Layla Russell.
She was in a lemon yellow sundress that swirled around her slender knees and was snug in all the right places; wedge sandals that looked like they weighed a hundred pounds on her tiny, pink-toenail-polished feet. She was nothing like the sort of women he found in bars. A high maintenance, all-or-nothing kind of girl. He knew that with just a look, and that was before her nervous glance flickered across him.
Would she recognize him? It had been three years ago, and he’d just been this guy lurking in the periphery of the afternoon she’d spent with her dad.
Something, some frightened spark of wonder, flared in her green eyes. She recognized, but she wasn’t sure yet. She couldn’t decide.
Sly pushed away from the square of wall he leaned against and her eyes stayed with him, still wondering. “Lay,” he said, voice a subtle cut above the surrounding noise, and the sound of her dad’s nickname for her made up her mind. He watched her body gather inside her lemon dress and her lips curved in a brave semblance of a smile.
She walked up to him with her rolling suitcase in tow, until she was close enough that the assholes jostling around her took note of him and decided not to do anymore jostling now that she had backup. Her eyes came straight up to his and a little hand extended. Her nails were the yellow of her dress.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I don’t remember your name.”
“Sly.” He accepted her shake; her grip was sure, but he could feel her arm quivering.
She smiled, though. Her face was all sweetness. Not at all like her cousin in that respect. “Dad’s friend,” she said. “I recognized you.” Her smile stretched, shaky with nerves. “Sorry you had to come all the way down here and pick me up.”
He dropped her hand with a shrug. “Somebody had to.”
Her smile faded.
“This all your stuff?”
She was sheltered, this one. Not used to anything remotely close to brusque. Whatever. Not his problem. “No,” she said, tidying her hair and looking away from him, green eyes going to the baggage carousel. “I have two more.” She started forward and he stopped her with a light touch at her shoulder. Her head whipped back around, hair rustling against the front of her dress. Up this close, he had a view down the front of it; her bra was white satin.
“Stay here and I’ll get ‘em. What do they look like?”
She blinked, surprise coloring her eyes. “Um…okay. I’ve got two of those” – a smile edged with embarrassment cut across her face, cheeks flushing – “awful yellow American Tourister cases. There’s red ribbons tied to the handles.” Her gaze moved over him, speculative this time. “Thanks.”
She remembered him now. He may have been one of her father’s closest friends, but Sidney Hammond wasn’t the sort of guy anyone ever mistook for giving off an uncle vibe, so she’d never thought of him as such. He had to be almost forty now, lines pressing back from the corners of his eyes, bracketing his mouth, just faint shadows in his suntanned face. He was pleasantly unremarkable: tall, lean and muscled, wide enough shoulders that tapered to narrow hips. He was a mechanic and he dressed like one. His hair was the color of wheat straw, and just long enough on top to be mussed. He was the kind of man you didn’t notice at first…but then found yourself staring. There was something…something she’d never been able to put her finger on…that inspired a double, triple, quadruple look. He was forever lurking in corners with a cigarette, and seemed to draw her eyes anyway. She didn’t know if she liked him, wasn’t sure if she trusted him, and definitely was afraid – a little bit – of his eyes. They were a spooky pale blue, almost colorless at times, foamy like sea water at others. They belonged on a sled dog, some snarling mongrel defending its owner from the wolves that circled an artic campfire. They were neither predatory, nor fiery – they were assessing. Calculating. Knowing. He knew everything there was to know, and that unnerved her.
Sly pulled both her suitcases off the carousel and shot her a flat look, nodding ahead of him, wanting her to lead the way. It had been…she couldn’t remember how long…since a man had offered for her to go first. “Ladies first” was dead in LA. She wanted to smile, didn’t, and started through the fray, suitcase clacking along on its plastic wheels behind her.
She realized, though, after a dozen steps, that she had no idea where she was going. “Where – ” she started to ask over her shoulder, and a hand – rough and worn and warm – landed on her arm, fingers curving around her elbow.
“Over there,” Sly said right in her ear with that emotionless voice of his and steered her in the right direction. She shivered and told herself it was the air conditioning. A fast glance proved he had one of her cases tucked under his arm, the other in hand, and had an arm free with which to guide her forward.
He released her when they reached the parking deck, but stayed close; she could feel him right up behind her; saw their shadows mingling beneath the halogen overhead lights. Hartsfield-Jackson was one of the busiest airports in the country, and it was downtown – there was something reassuring about the way Sly loomed behind her. It felt a little like having a security detail, an impression made stronger by the way he studied the rows and rows of cars around them as they walked, head on a slow swivel.
“Have you seen my dad yet today?” she finally ventured. He didn’t have I-love-chitchat stamped across his forehead, but she’d never been good with awkward silence.
He spared her a fast look as they walked. “I just came from there.”
So Mark wasn’t wasting away in a hospital bed alone. Layla offered him a smile and he turned away. “What are the police saying?” she asked. Her sandals were getting too heavy and she sounded out of breath. “Any leads?”
Another look, and what might have passed for a smile. “Leads?”
“That’s what they call them,” she defended, feeling a blush start along her cheekbones. “I watch TV.”
He did smile then, a fast, semi-passable one. Then soured. “No. Not that they aren’t trying to get one. They stop by the hospital every fifteen damn minutes. Dicks.”
She lifted her brows. “You don’t like cops?”
“I don’t like it when they can’t do their jobs right.”
She chewed at the inside of her cheek, not sure what to make of that. Everything possible was being done to ensure her dad’s shooter was caught…right? “Mr. Hammond,” she said, and he came to an abrupt halt, suitcases swinging in his hands. The look he shot her was an eerie color in the parking deck lights, expression blank with surprise.
“Okay…none of that Mr. stuff. Okay?”
“Sorry. I was just trying to be polite – ”
“Polite’s overrated.” He shook his head. “And it makes me feel weird.”
“All right.” He turned and she hastened to follow him. “Sly,” she started again, above the noise of her carry-on’s wheels and the clop of her shoes. Everything echoed against all the concrete of the parking deck. “Do you know what happened?”
She had the distinct impression that he was being obtuse on purpose and sighed. “To my dad. Do you – ”
He came to a sudden halt and she ran into him, flailing out with her free hand to keep her balance. Her palm landed in the middle of his back, over the ridge of his spine and the lean cords of muscle framing it. She jerked away like she’d been burned, heat rushing to her face, as she stepped back and smoothed the front of her dress. When she glanced up, her gaze collided with his and he was almost smiling at her.
Annoying man, she thought, frowning. He’d done that on purpose.
Layla squared up her shoulders, ignoring the look he was giving her. “Do you know what happened to my dad?” she asked again. “What actually happened that day?” Her hands started to quiver just remembering her aunt’s phone call four days before. “Aunt Cheryl said he was shot, but she wouldn’t give me any details.”
His mouth twitched. “That’s not really a story for mixed company, sweetheart.”
Her frown deepened. “So?”
He regarded her a long moment, eyes going all the way to her pink-polished toes and then back up to her face, lingering in between in a way that was definitely not uncle-like. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll tell you on the way back to the house.”
That was when she noticed that they were standing at the end of a blue Chevy truck. Her dad’s truck: a dark blue Silverado Z71 with mud tires rimmed in red clay.
Her chest tightened and she took a shaky breath, glancing back at Sly. “Actually, can we go to the hospital? It took longer than I thought to get here and I just…I want to see him.”
Something very much like approval flickered through his cold eyes. “Sure.” He hoisted her suitcases over the tailgate into the bed and reached for her carry-on. “Go get in the truck. I gotta make a call first.”
He lingered at the tailgate as she went to the passenger door and wedged herself in; the van beside them was so close she could only get the door open a few scant inches. Stupid, she told herself. She should have worn shorts. She’d been trying to make a good impression with the dress. Trying to…she didn’t know what. She pulled the door shut with a solid thump and inhaled the smoky, stale stink of her dad’s truck. It had always smelled like that. It was comforting, in a way. She was glancing in the side mirror, stealing a glimpse of Sly leaning against the bed with a phone pressed to his ear, when her own phone came to life in her purse.
It was her mother.
“Mom – ” she started, and was verbally trampled.
“Oh, sweetie! Are you okay? You didn’t call when you landed and I thought – ”
“I’m fine, Mom.” She made a slow down gesture that Joyce couldn’t see from the other end of the line. “I landed a half hour ago and I just got in the truck. Safe and sound,” she assured, a smile threatening. Her mother took worry to an extreme, as fretful about her now, even though she was twenty-five, as she was about the teenage children from her second marriage. Layla didn’t suppose she was any better equipped to handle the world than her half-sisters.
Joyce sighed and Layla could envision the deep furrow between her brows smoothing over with relief. “I got worried when I didn’t hear from you. I called the airline, but they didn’t know if – ”
Another sigh. “Who picked you up? Cheryl?”
“No. She and Lisa were busy.” Although, in Lisa’s case, there was no “business” more pressing than her contempt for Layla. “Sly came to get me.”
Her mother hissed a breath across the receiver, the sound too loud in Layla’s ear. “Sidney?”
“No one calls him that.” Or, apparently, “Mr. Hammond” either.
Joyce took another breath and said, “Get out of the car, Layla.”
“Go back in the airport. Wait there until someone else can come. Until – ”
“Mom.” Joyce fell silent. “Why in the world would I do that?”
“You went to see your father,” her mom said shakily. “And God knows you have every right – but stay away from those loser friends of his.” Her voice was just a fine, whispering quiver. “The company your dad keeps isn’t safe, Layla. You need to avoid them. Please, for me. Please, you – ”
Layla didn’t hear the rest of the plea because the driver door opened, startling her, and Sly climbed in behind the wheel. His movements were so sure, so liquid and calm, that for one horrifying moment, her mother’s assertion of danger seemed very real. Then his eyes flashed up to hers through the shadowy cab of the truck, vivid blue and arresting.
“You set?” he asked. He had the calmest voice she’d ever heard. A frozen lake in some still, uninhabited mountain valley somewhere.
“I have to go. I’ll call you tonight,” she said into the phone and hung up while her mother was still protesting. “Yeah,” she told Sly. “Let’s go.”
They were out of the parking deck and driving when Sly spoke again. “The bullet,” he said, tone flat, and surprised her. She’d been watching out the window as they left the airport, eyes skimming along the swollen gray clouds that were draped over the horizon. She turned to him, gaze latching onto his profile, the shape of it limned in silver, stormy afternoon light. Again, she was struck by the plainness of him. But there was something – maybe the sun lines streaking back from his eyes, the white, tender stripe of skin between his bronzed forehead and feathery golden hairline, the translucent discs of his irises in side-view, the distinct ridge of his nose – was pleasing to her eyes. It was a sense more than a sight, one that alarmed and soothed all at once.
Dear God, she was picking the man apart like some kind of hormonal teenager obsessing over a heartthrob poster.
“Went in here,” he continued, tapping a spot just under his ribs on his left side. “It happened on the sidewalk, right in the middle of everything, so the ambulance got there fast, and someone tried to stop the bleeding. He lost a lot, though.” His mouth twisted down in the corner in a grim frown. “Docs had to take out his spleen, and a section of small intestine. He should have pulled through by now, but…”
Layla’s throat was constricted, tight with horror over his matter-of-fact retelling. “But?”
“But he never woke up after surgery. And he’s got a bad infection. They’re pumping him with antibiotics.” He shrugged. “We’ll see.”
She didn’t know why, but for some reason, she’d expected a gentler handling of the subject. She swallowed. “I’ve heard of that,” she said, voice trembling at the edges. “That sometimes a person doesn’t wake up from the anesthesia.”
“Hmm,” he murmured noncommittally.
“Actually, I saw it on Grey’s Anatomy,” she blurted before she could stop herself. “But it happens. I think.”
He was silent, but she thought she saw a fast flicker as his eyes moved to her and then went back to the road.
Layla took another fortifying breath. “Where was he? Which city, I mean,” she clarified. “Cartersville?” That was where he lived, the great big antebellum house where he cohabitated with the rest of the family.
“No. In Alpharetta. About two miles from the shop.”
“Walk-up,” he said. “A witness saw a guy with a hat walk up to Mark. It was a small caliber. There was probably a silencer, because no one even realized it was a gunshot when they first heard it.”
A shiver stole through her. “So it was a hit. A professional one.”
His head turned a fraction as he passed a flat look over her. “You get that from Grey’s Anatomy too?”
CSI, actually, but she wasn’t about to admit that. Her cheeks warmed and she stared through the windshield. “Isn’t that right, though? Right in broad daylight – and no one saw anything – doesn’t that hint that it was a pro?”
He was silent a long moment before he said, “Yeah. Usually. It wasn’t sloppy kids, for sure.”
Her pulse gave a little leap and settled into a shallow rhythm in her ears. “Who…who would want to hurt him?” She took a breath. “Kill him. They were trying to kill him.”
She risked a glance at Sly and saw that his hand had tightened on the wheel, forearm tensing, the thick cables of veins under his tan skin standing out in stark relief. An energy moved through him. He knows, Layla thought. He knows exactly who’d want to kill Dad. The realization slammed into her, frightening and shudder-inducing.
But Sly shrugged and said, “No idea.”
The hospital was a hive of activity, bustling in the efficient, Clorox-smelling way of all hospitals. It was an organized kind of chaos. Nurses and orderlies moving on silent sneaker treads, wheels of carts and empty gurneys whirring, cell phones and pagers chirping. It was stark and white and there was a certain reassurance about the jaded glances of the staff.
At least, that’s the way she’d always thought of hospitals. They had always seemed like the safest places on earth. But when Sly opened the door to her dad’s room and waved her in ahead of him, she came to a grinding halt, and suddenly, the hospital was a house of horrors.
Mark Russell was a hairsbreadth taller than his brother; he had thicker, healthier dark hair, a deep tan, and smiling green eyes, all the lines on his face the result of smiles instead of frowns. That man – the man she knew – had been replaced by the gray, sunken, limp figure tucked unconscious beneath scratchy white sheets. He looked so small now, nothing like the strong father she’d always known. His face was lax, heavy with grooves, the skin too thin and looking like it was sliding slowly down the sides of his head. He breathed on his own, but he was hooked to an IV and a catheter, the collection bag hanging down at the end of the bed. He was completely lifeless. He looked dead already. Only the shallow lift of his chest, and the slow beep of the heart monitor evidenced life.
“Oh my God,” Layla breathed.
Sly gave her a gentle nudge at the small of her back and she stepped into the room on lead feet. That was when she noticed the man in the chair in the corner. He stood as she entered, afternoon light passing through the blinds and doing harsh things to his drawn face. Her uncle Ray looked like hell.
“Lay,” he said, crossing the room and pulling her into a sideways hug. “How are you, hon?”
She banded an arm around his waist and leaned against him. He smelled like laundry detergent, cologne, and felt, a little, like her dad. He was the next best thing, she supposed.
She didn’t answer, instead asked, “How’s he?”
Ray sighed. “Unconscious.”
Before the door closed behind Ray, Sly had a fast glimpse of Layla sinking into the chair at Mark’s head, her yellow dress a little puddle of sunshine in the white-on-white austerity of the hospital room. He saw her dash at her cheeks; she was crying, and looked even more the lost lamb than at the airport earlier. Then the door shut and he was in the hall with Ray and he shoved all such inappropriate thoughts out of his head.
“It’s been quiet here,” Sly said, and it wasn’t a question.
Ray nodded and massaged the back of his neck. They all had stiff, aching spines from so much time spent in cheap plastic hospital chairs. “Yeah. How’d it go at the airport?”
Sly shrugged. “Fine.”
Ray’s glance was doubtful. “Does that mean you didn’t scare the hell out of her?”
Another shrug, and a hint of a smile that he couldn’t suppress. “The ladies love me.”
“Nobody who’s ever loved you comes close to being a lady,” Ray quipped. “I’m serious, though. She’s alright?”
“Her old man’s half-dead,” Sly said matter-of-factly. “She’s scared. And,” he added, “she’s asking questions.”
Ray frowned. “Don’t answer any of them.”
“You think you have to tell me that?”
Ray nodded. “Right. ‘Kay, I’ll take her back to the house with me when she’s done here. You’ll stay?”
“Yeah – ”
Shoes. Decidedly crisp, loud footfalls that didn’t belong to any of the hospital staff. They rang out loud as gunshots against the block walls and they were headed toward Mark’s room.
“Shit,” Sly muttered, hands going in his pockets, thumb flicking along the edge of his pack of Camels, wanting a smoke all of a sudden.
When it had started to look like Ray wasn’t going to make it – and it, depressingly, looked that way more and more – a pair of homicide detectives had been given the case. Even if he pulled through – “doubtful” the lead had said with a practiced eyebrow twitch – they were obviously dealing with an attempted homicide. The dicks were a matching pair of suits with obnoxious haircuts and melodramatic glares, dripping suspicion and too much authority. Sly hated them. Ray was willing to play along…up to a point. He had that lawyer knack of pretending, after all.
Detectives Sheppard and Barr came around the corner wearing matching don’t-fuck-with-me expressions. Barr was a half inch shorter, and at least part Latino, his complexion dark, eyes brown and almond-shaped, hair Ricky Ricardo thick and shiny. Sheppard looked too young to be going silver along his temples; he would have been Central Casting’s first choice for a detective movie, his face all sharp angles, his shoulders wide and his suit immaculate.
Yeah, Sly hated them.
“Mr. Russell,” Sheppard greeted as they drew up in front of the door. “How’s he doing?”
“You just missed his sponge bath,” Ray said, and earned two identical scowls for it.
Neither of the cops, Sly noticed, looked at him. He was nothing to them - a guy with tan lines in a cheap white t-shirt. He wasn’t the kind of guy who drew any attention to himself. Purposefully.
“We heard his daughter was flying in,” Barr said. “We’d like to talk to her.”
Sly met the glance Ray darted him with a flat, unreadable one of his own. A question passed silently between them: who’d squealed? The only people who’d known Layla was coming – or maybe even that she existed – were family.
Sheppard flashed a smug smile. “I have my sources. Layla, isn’t it? Is she here with you now?”
Ray’s stance went rigid and a little bit hostile. “My niece has been living in LA for the past eighteen years. She doesn’t know anything about Mark except for what he tells her in Christmas cards. She doesn’t have anything useful to tell you.”
“Mr. Russell,” Sheppard said with a smug non-smile, “I’d assume that since your brother was the target of a murder attempt, you’d want us to have as much information as possible. People don’t share everything – not even brothers. Mark could have been communicating with his daughter without your knowledge.”
“Seeing as how I didn’t tell either of you she was coming,” Ray said, voice icy, “I can only assume you’ve tapped my phones or been spying on my family. Are we suspects?”
Sheppard blinked, but said, “Of course not.”
“We need to talk to Layla, though,” Barr said.
There was something disturbing about the thought of the pretty little girl in the yellow dress being subjected to these dogs’ claws. Sheppard and Barr were expecting some overpainted, processed LA streetwalker; Layla looked new-fallen-snow innocent, and Sly could already imagine the widening of her green eyes when the detectives started questioning her, the way her small chin would quiver. They’d eat her alive.
There wasn’t much choice, though. If Ray put up too much of a fight, the bastards would get even more suspicious.
Sly watched a muscle in Ray’s jaw flex. “Fine,” he said. “But we’re going in there with her.” He flashed a tight smile. “You know, for moral support.”
Layla’s head lifted as they entered; Sly saw her eyes widen. A tremor ran down her throat as she swallowed. But then she schooled her features and smoothed her dress over her knees and regarded the detectives with cool detachment. Sly felt a flutter in his chest and realized it was pride. Good girl, he thought.
She went on to make him prouder.
They were cops. A blind man would have known that; they radiated a presumptuous kind of authority. Not the reassuring presence of uniformed officers, but the aloof menace of detectives. These weren’t the guys you called when you were frightened; these were the hunting dogs that ran you to the ground.
Layla suppressed a shiver, forced her hands to stay loose in her lap, and darted the briefest of glances at Sly before she focused on the man in the suit coming to stand in front of her. She didn’t know why she did it – why she felt that sudden need to check with Sly – but she asked him a silent question all the same. Should I trust you? Did she leave her father’s fate to the professionals…or in the hands of someone who loved him? He gave her an almost imperceptible nod and she forced her attention up to the dark-haired detective offering her a handshake.
“Miss Russell?” he asked, and before she could answer: “I’m Detective Sheppard and this is Detective Barr” – a gesture to his Hispanic-looking partner – “and we’re looking into your father’s attempted murder.”
“You mean” – she wet her lips “ – this wasn’t an accident of some kind?”
Detective Sheppard was terribly attractive. Tall, broad-shouldered, impeccably groomed. He had a thin, straight nose and high cheekbones; an underwear model jawline. There was the lightest touch of silver in his thick dark hair along his temples – he was older than he looked. He was the kind of man who made women’s mouths go dry, and he was regarding her with something more than concern.
A little frown put a notch between his brows. “No. It wasn’t an accident.”
His hand was still hanging out between them and she took it. His palm was smooth and warm. When he finally let go, he pushed it back through his hair in a gesture that bunched his biceps beneath the sleeve of his jacket. “No,” he repeated. “Someone was trying to kill your father, Miss Russell. We were hoping you might be able to give us some insight into who that could be.”
Her eyes shifted to the bed, to her father’s prone form beneath the blankets. His breathing was so shallow that it was easy to think…
She swallowed. Without turning her head, she snuck another glance at Sly; he was watching her, more attentively than his posture leaned back against the wall would suggest. She could feel his eyes, the heat in them, and it was nothing like the barely veiled interest of Sheppard’s stare. It was borderline terrifying. She swallowed again. “I wish I could help you, detectives, but I haven’t seen my dad in three years.” She found his limp hand on the bed with her own and curled her fingers around his; they felt skeletal to her touch. He’d lost so much weight. “I don’t know anything about his daily life.”
“When was the last time you spoke with him?”
“A week ago. He called me on my birthday.”
“What did the two of you talk about?”
It shouldn’t have, but the question annoyed her. That was none of his business. But she said, “Work. My birthday plans.” She shrugged. “He asked about my mom and wanted to know when I was finally going to get married so he could have grandchildren.” She lifted a glance to Sheppard. “Normal, boring stuff.”
The frown notch between his tidy straight brows deepened. “He didn’t mention having any trouble? Any disagreements with anyone? Anything at all?”
“No. Dad isn’t one to complain. Not to me, anyway.”
“Anything you know about – ”
“Detective…” she interrupted. “I’m so sorry, but I just got into town and I have horrible jet lag. I…” She shook her head as if to clear it. “Is there any way this can wait until later?”
There was something that looked like concern in Sheppard’s dark eyes. He didn’t want to, she could tell, but he nodded. “Of course.” He reached in his jacket pocket and came out with a business card. “I’d like to talk again. But call me before then if you think of anything.”
She took the card with a curt smile and watched him leave with his partner, not missing the resentful gazes Sly and Ray shot them. When they were gone, she zeroed a look on her uncle and said, “Okay, what’s going on?”
They wouldn’t tell her anything. “Later,” Ray said with an assuring nod. And that was it.
When she started to weave in her chair, eyelids flagging, Ray told her it was time to go. She was too exhausted to protest, but leaned down to press a kiss to Mark’s forehead. His skin was papery and dry beneath her lips. Corpse-like. She shivered.
Sly dropped into the chair she abandoned and gave her a flat glance. His voice was gentle, though, when he said, “I’ll watch out for him.” And knowing that made her feel infinitely better. Sly was the kind of guy, she had the feeling, a person wanted watching over him.
Ray didn’t speak again until they were in the truck: a black Dodge Ram with plush leather seats and deeply tinted windows. “You didn’t tell the cops anything,” he said.
Night had fallen and the sky was dark, smudged with yellow along the horizon from the flood of suburban lights. Layla let her head fall back against the seat and watched the parking deck slide around the corner as Ray turned out onto the street. “I gathered I wasn’t supposed to,” she said with a sigh. “Right?”
He was silent a moment and she glanced at him; saw the thoughtful way his mouth was drawn up in the dashboard lights. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had. I know you want to find out what happened.”
“Uncle Ray,” she said, feeling her temper slip. “I may not come here often, but when I do, it always feels like stepping into some kind of…Deep South mob movie. Dad’s always got Sly or Eddie or someone hanging around, looking professional.” That earned her a sharp, assessing look. “I love my dad, but I know he’s involved in some…shady…stuff. Sly said he doesn’t like cops. I don’t have an opinion either way; I just want Dad to get better. And to know” – she took a deep breath and rolled her head to the side, studying his profile – “that I’ll be safe while I’m here.”
He watched the road and Layla thought he almost smiled. “You’ll be safe. That I can promise.”
She wanted to believe him. She guessed she did, on some level. Ray and Mark Russell were nothing like the men in LA. Their promises were the kind always kept.
Layla propped an arm against the window and let out a deep breath, tension rippling through her shoulders that had nothing to do with the long flight. “I should have come,” she said, almost to herself. “He wanted me to fly in for my birthday, and I said no, because of work…” A lump formed in her throat and she tried to swallow it away. “God, can you believe that? I didn’t come because of work.”
“Have you still got that secretary gig?” he asked.
“I’ve been upgraded to personal assistant,” she said with a humorless chuckle. “I get to answer phones and fetch coffee now.”
“You didn’t know this was going to happen,” Ray soothed. “It’s not exactly something anyone expects.”
“No,” she agreed, but didn’t feel any better.
She must have fallen asleep after that. She hadn’t thought it possible to be that relaxed in the wake of the tumbling emotions seeing her dad had kicked off, but the next thing she knew the truck was jostling softly, her head thumping against the window, and when she opened her eyes, they were turning into a lamp-gilded driveway.
It was an antebellum dream of white clapboard, with a front second floor balcony and deep porch supported by Doric columns. It was a massive thing, glowing dimly in the dark, the surrounding lawns lush and green. Ancient gnarled oaks with arm-like branches flanked the house in the back, shading the drive and the carriage house.
Ray pulled in behind a dark blue Ford truck and killed the engine. Layla realized she was sitting up, gripping the edge of her seat, and breathing in erratic little hitches. She was terrified.
“You ready?” her uncle asked.
She couldn’t feel her own feet, couldn’t swallow, but she nodded, and opened her door.
Halfway to the backdoor, a lean wraith of shadow came bounding toward them, ears demon-shaped, white teeth gleaming in the snatches of light from the security lamp. Hektor, Layla remembered before her panic could reach new heights. “Hi, boy,” she called as a preemptive measure.
Her cousin’s Doberman went to Ray first with a happy sound and then turned to her, head cocked, poised between curious and aggressive.
“Hektor,” she said, holding out a hand. “Come here, sweetie.”
The dog hesitated a moment longer, then his tongue rolled out of his jaws and he came to see her, nub of a tail wagging. As she petted his sleek head, she wondered why this wicked-looking dog was easier to charm than his mistress. Because Lisa was –
“Layla!” her aunt Cheryl shouted from the screened in porch. She stood on the top step, dark hair falling in shimmering layers around her shoulders, as lovely as always in white crops and simple knotted black top. Her feet were bare and tan. Cheryl had always walked the line between country girl and Southern chic, and pulled it off flawlessly. She was gorgeous. “Come here, baby!”
“Hi, Aunt Cheryl.” And Layla went into the offered hug with a grateful sigh. She loved her uncle. And Sly was…occupying too much space in her head. But it was nice to have a warm, feminine welcome.
Cheryl squeezed her tight and then pushed her back at arm’s length, hands still on her upper arms. “Oh, you’re beautiful. Isn’t she, Ray? All grown up.”
Ray made a noncommittal sound and ushered them up the steps.
The screened porch was covered in flat, pale carpet, and filled with rocking chairs and wicker benches. Lamps warmed the corners. The French doors led into the kitchen, a long narrow room with pale cabinets and white tile counters. It was dated, but cozy, and there were chunky granite samples on the center island, Layla noticed. They were getting ready for an upgrade. It smelled like dinner – herbs and butter and warmth and meat – and the ranch table was set. There were three people already seated, plates empty, waiting. Three pairs of eyes swept up to her, and Layla swallowed, throat going dry.
Her little brother she knew straight off, with his green eyes and dark hair and sweet face that would eventually look like their father’s. He was twenty-three now, but still a little lanky. A forelock of hair had fallen over his eyes and he pushed it back.
The guy beside him was in a thin white t-shirt that revealed the kind of heavy, concentrated muscling that came from rigorous training. The fighter, she remembered. Lisa had married a prize fighter and he’d turned into a bouncer of sorts. His hair was dark and spiky on top, his eyes black and narrow like Hektor’s, but his gaze wasn’t unfriendly. Drew, she reminded herself of his name. He’d been with Lisa for almost four years now.
And then there was Lisa.
They looked alike, in a way. They both had the Russell dark hair and large green eyes. They were both petite. Lisa was leaner, though, her curves much more subtle. She made up for it in attitude. She had attitude in spades. And she was comfy in her own skin, confident in a way Layla struggled to comprehend. Layla had blurry childhood memories of Lisa’s hand against hers, their fingers laced, tall grass slapping at their knees, the high light sound of their giggled laughter. They’d been friends once, a long time ago. Before the divorce. Before Layla’s mother had packed her up and taken her to LA. She’d been too young to understand anything besides her mother’s tears, had known only a child’s bittersweet loss of half her family when Johnny, no more than a baby, had been left behind with Dad.
Joyce had been a splendid mother. Gentle. Caring…if not a bit too protective. Her second husband – Layla’s stepfather – was a publicist who worked in the music business: Paul. He’d been awkward, not sure how much of a parent to be, but there if she needed him. And he was good with his own daughters, Layla’s half-sisters. Layla hated LA – she didn’t fit there – but she didn’t hate her life. And she hadn’t thought anyone back in Georgia – her family, no less – would have any reason to hate her.
She’d been wrong. Lisa hated her.
“Hey, sis.” Johnny was on his feet – he’d gotten tall! – and she stepped into his offered hug, returning his tight squeeze. His shoulders had filled out since she’d seen him in person last; they were solid under her arms.
“Hi,” she said, throat suddenly tight. “How are you holding up?”
“Okay.” But when he stepped back, she saw the shadows ringing his eyes. The stress grooves pressed along his mouth. “He’s gonna wake up,” he said. “He is.”
She forced a smile for her brother. “Yeah. He is.”
Her eyes were drawn to Lisa’s husband, who was standing now.
“Hi.” He offered a hand that looked too large and gnarled for someone as young as him. “I’m Drew.”
She accepted his shake. “Layla.”
Drew turned to flash a look over his shoulder at his wife. Would Lisa stand? Or was this going to be an outright snub?
Cheryl didn’t give the moment a chance to fester. “Sit, boys,” she ordered. “Layla, you can sit over there with your brother. We’re just about to eat.”
“Oh, my bags – ”
“The boys can bring them in after dinner,” Cheryl said as she crossed to the stove and the half dozen covered plates that steamed on the cooktop. “We don’t want it to get cold.”
Obediently, Layla went to the chair beside Johnny and settled into it, eyes darting across the table toward her cousin. Lisa was studying the bubbles in her glass of Coke; Layla wondered if there was any rum in it.
Ray took his place at the head of the table. “The dicks were back at the hospital,” he said sourly, and Lisa, Drew and Johnny shot him matching disdainful looks.
“Why?” Lisa asked.
“They wanted to talk to Layla.”
“Oh, hell no,” Johnny said. “She’s not involved. They can’t just – ”
“Can and did. Your sister can hold her own with them, though, I promise,” he said, and sent Layla an approving nod.
Lisa made a grumbling sound and reached for her drink.
“Sly stayed at the hospital?” Drew asked.
Cheryl arrived at the table with a steaming casserole dish of potatoes.
“Aunt Cheryl,” Layla said, rising, guilt tweaking her gut. “Let me help you carry –”
“I’ve got it, sweetie.”
But Layla got up anyway, and followed her aunt back to the stove.
Behind her: “She doesn’t actually know anything, does she?” That was Lisa, voice dripping contempt.
“No,” Ray said.
They were talking about her. Cheeks hot, Layla picked up the basket of rolls and a plate of cold ham slices. Cheryl gave her a smile, and started to say something, when Lisa’s voice sounded at the table again.
“Does she know to keep her mouth shut?”
“Lisa!” Cheryl hissed. “That’s enough.”
Ray said something low and dark Layla couldn’t make out, and when she returned to the table, he glanced up at her. “You had some questions before. You want to ask them now?” His tone wasn’t cruel like his daughter’s had been; it was friendly.
It felt like the room was spinning; at least, her head was. Layla braced a hand on the back of her chair and took a deep breath, trying to get her bearings. Something sinister was circling around the family at the table, something she hadn’t expected to encounter. It was nothing more than a sense on her part, a sensation prickling up her arms and the back of her neck. But she’d expected a distraught, grieving family. Instead, she was faced with a table of secrets staring up at her with calculating eyes.
Her fingers curled tight on the chair back. “What happened to Dad?” she asked her uncle.
He regarded her a long moment. Then he sighed and said, “Someone botched a hit, at close range, which is pretty hard to do, but they did it. We know someone wants him dead – that they’ll make another attempt – we just don’t know who yet.”
She swallowed hard against a wave of nausea. “Isn’t that what the police are supposed to do? Find out?”
“Yes.” His gaze was steady. “But that’s what we do too.”