The Skeleton King (Dartmoor Book III)
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Available September 15th
“Anyone want to say anything?” Mercy asked.
“You’re the Catholic, Merc. Why don’t you take ‘er away,” Ghost suggested.
“Alright.” He cleared his throat, stared up at the sky for a moment. “Okay, here we go. ‘Dearly beloved–’ ”
Walsh saw the glowing sphere of a torch just above them, at the top of the small rise they were parked beneath. Before he could react, he heard a sharp feminine gasp of shock, and then the tall grass rustling as someone fled.
Not someone – Emmie. She’d seen his light and followed him.
“What the–” Ghost said, swinging around.
All heads turned.
Walsh knew what he had to do, and he hated it.
A dead body. That was his club business – a dead body.
It was an alien breed of panic that exploded in her veins. Run, it said. Run, run, run, stupid! She had to get away, had to tell someone, had to –
She was running before her brain could give her legs the order, plunging through the dew drenched grass, struggling against the woven mat of dead stalks that tangled around her boots.
Be careful, Walsh had said.
Be careful, I’m a murderer.
A solid weight landed against her back. “Oof!” The air went out of her lungs and the weight pushed her down, down, until her knees buckled and she collapsed flat on the grass.
The panic roared; it was all she could hear, see, taste, feel. It was tangy like metal and loud as ocean waves crashing over her. Crashing and turning her, flipping her onto her back. She saw stars and a human shape above her. She’d managed to hold onto her flashlight and she aimed it upward, shooting her attacker in the face with the beam.
It was Walsh, eyes closing against the brightness. “Jesus, turn that thing away.”
She kneed him hard as she could, aiming for his balls, hitting his thigh instead.
“Get off me,” she hissed, struggling to crawl from under him. “Get off!”
She knew she had to get away. If she didn’t, she’d be as dead as that shrouded man beside the freshly dug hole in the ground. Hell, they might save time and chuck them together into the same grave. She’d been naïve, sleeping with this man, trusting him, letting him into her home, but she knew what happened to people who happened upon crimes. She knew what these men would do to her. What Walsh would do, and that broke her heart.
He snatched both wrists and pinned them to the ground beside her head, pressed his knee into her stomach and held her down like an insect specimen. She was going nowhere.
Shapes were closing in, his brothers coming, circling them like wolves in the dark.
Emmie closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Let it be quick, she prayed. Whatever it is, let it be fast.
“Who in the fuck is that?” Ghost’s voice vibrated with contained fury. It was the voice he usually reserved for Aidan’s more spectacular screw-ups. Walsh couldn’t remember a time when he’d been on the receiving end of such censure, and it stung. But it was no match for the dread pulsing through him. He wasn’t sure what Emmie was to him at this point, but he wasn’t going to let her get treated like collateral damage, that was for damn sure. He’d drive her to Canada himself if he had to.
“Just let me talk to her.” Walsh heard the pleading in his voice and didn’t care. “She won’t be a problem.”
“Merc is talking to her.”
And he was, looking giant looming over her, laughing at his own jokes. Emmie sat on the tailgate of the truck and stared up at him, expressionless, her hair silver in the moonlight. Walsh thought he saw tremors in her throat, little tells of fear.
“And you’re talking to me,” Ghost continued. “Who is that?”
Walsh forced himself to look away from her, took a deep breath. “She works for me. She’s the barn manager.”
“And your girlfriend.”
“Oh, complicated,” Ghost scoffed. “We’ve got a dead body, an illegal burial, and a civilian witness. That’s complicated.”
“She isn’t going to say anything. Let me talk to her,” he said again. “She won’t squeal, I promise you.”
Ghost inhaled deeply through his nostrils like an angry bull, hands settling on his hips. “I haven’t liked this farm bullshit from the beginning. But I trusted you” – he dropped his voice so they wouldn’t be overhead – “because when it comes to this kind of stuff, I always can. But this – Walsh, this a problem. Understand? It’s a big fucking problem.”
“I know.” He stole another glimpse Emmie’s way. Mercy was talking animatedly to her and she was still as stone. “But, please…” It was all he could say. What else was there?
The man in front of her was terrifying. Rather like her horse, huge and dark-haired and powerful in a way that inspired automatic fear. But Emmie had never been afraid of Apollo, and she refused to be afraid of this man, even if her hands were shaking in her lap.
“…I bet he’d love to see the horses,” he was saying, his accent something she couldn’t place. “He’s only a year, but he pays real close attention to stuff. And my old lady, you’d like her.”
He was trying to distract her, and he was talking about his son and his pregnant wife, and beneath the glazing of shock and imminent disaster, she was struck by the sweetness of his words, the way he couldn’t stop gushing about his family.
But her sole focus was Walsh up by the front of the truck, talking to a man who was clearly in charge of this whole operation. She caught the tight whispers of their conversation and felt sure her life was being decided. Could she run? They’d catch her, like they had before, damn her short legs.
Could she shoot a few of them? Doubtless men carting around dead bodies were armed to the teeth, and she didn’t relish the idea of a shootout. Plus she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to shoot a person. Silhouette targets were one thing, living flesh another.
“…maybe, I dunno, pet them or something?” her captor was saying.
“Sure,” she said woodenly. “That’s fine.”
When he grinned, his teeth were so white they almost glowed in the dark.
Rustling in the grass signaled an approach, and Walsh drew up to the tailgate, braced a hand on it, bringing them closer together than she wanted to be at the moment. His expression was indecipherable.
“Come on, love. I’ll walk you back.”
Love. She didn’t want him to call her that after he’d tackled her. There wasn’t an ounce of love between them.
“Aren’t you going to execute me?” she asked, shocked by the coldness in her voice.
It was hard to tell in the ambient headlight glow, but it looked like he frowned. “No, pet. Let’s go home.”
Yes, home, the place he’d invaded and made his own, the place that was no longer safe.
A scream was building at the back of her throat, but she clamped her teeth down against it, hopped off the tailgate and set off through the grass, toward “home,” Walsh a half step behind her. She felt the eyes of the other men and refused to acknowledge them.
It felt like it took forever to get back to the barn. Across the overgrown field, through the gate, down the run. Nothing but the sounds of swishing grass and their breathing. Her legs wet and filthy, her boots full of dew. She kicked them off at the base of the stairs and went barefoot up to her apartment, her anger mounting with every step Walsh took in her wake.
He followed her into the loft, across the floor. There wasn’t room to escape him, so when she reached the foot of the bed, she rounded on him, hand gripping her satchel hard, drawing on the knowledge of the gun to still the awful shaking in her limbs.
The sight of him struck her hard, the regret stamped into his features, the dark terror in his eyes. It wasn’t what she’d expected, and it knocked the breath out of her, the naked emotion in his gaze.
“Who was that?” she asked in a choked voice. “The dead man. Who was he?”
“A friend you were burying in an empty pasture?”
“One who was murdered.”
“Walsh, when a friend gets murdered, you call the damn police! You don’t dig a hole and roll him in it!”
He had no answer for that, and her eyes filled with tears.
“It’s all true, isn’t it? All the stories they say around town. The killing and the drug dealing and all the terrible, awful things they say.”
Again, no answer.
“Right.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “So that would make this the part where I get ‘bumped off.’ Right? Isn’t that what they call it? I saw something I shouldn’t, and now you have to kill me.” A thin, hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat. “You said to be careful. Be careful of you. Of what you’ll do to me, huh?”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“Then what’s to keep me from going to the cops?”
She lifted her brows.
“If I get arrested, this farm gets seized, gets sold. And then what would you do?” His brows snapped down low over his eyes, expression hardening. “You’ve got no plans, no man, no escape route, and no future. You’ve got nothing except this farm.” His voice was like a knife as he threw her words back at her. “You said it yourself – you’ve got nothing to live for except a barn and a few horses, so you can’t afford to tell the police anything.” He took a step toward her. “You’re gonna keep your mouth shut, because that’s all you can do. Hear? You didn’t see shit tonight, and you aren’t gonna say shit.”
The worst part? He was absolutely right.
He wasn’t going to see her cry, though. She sucked up her tears, blinked, and straightened her spine. “Of course not. I wouldn’t want to get fired, would I? Termination means a whole other thing in your world.”
He stared at her one unreadable moment, then turned and left the apartment without a word, his footfalls steady on the wooden steps.
The tears broke through, filling her eyes, spilling down her face.
Read the rest 9/15/15…