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Mary Stone - Cold Crash (Ellie Kline Psychological Thriller Series Book 13)

A Taste of… Cold Crash

Chapter One

Monique LaPierre glided through the lavish gala, her senses tingling with a mix of excitement and unease. The room was a swirl of opulence, but beneath the surface, something felt amiss.

Or maybe it’s just me.

She passed a cozy couple laughing near the cocktail bar. The woman, swaddled in a luxurious red satin gown with loose ruffles billowing to the ground, was part of the mayor’s entourage. Her companion, sporting a black tuxedo with a silky bow tie almost the same shade as the woman’s dress, was an actor. Just months ago, Monique had seen him battling aliens on a doomed cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle, a far cry from the sophisticated world she was used to.

The movie’s ridiculous premise was the complete opposite of the foreign and period films she and Hal used to watch, and she’d loved every minute. Sitting in the half-empty theater, munching on popcorn and laughing at the preposterous scenes until she cried, Monique had found freedom. An escape from the uptight, dulled glitz and glamour of her real life.

Since then, when her day-to-day responsibilities got too stifling, she closed her eyes and imagined the coolness of the dark theater and the taste of greasy butter on her lips. The memory calmed her anxiety during rough times.

Like tonight.

Perhaps I’ll cancel my appointments tomorrow and catch the new Jennifer Aniston film instead. Just the thought of that minor rebellion brought a smile to her face.

Monique waltzed around a crowd of men—all dressed to the nines in pristine black tuxes and ties—and stepped toward a round table near the edge of the portico. She dropped into a chair and inhaled the mixture of bourbon, sweat, and cigar smoke swirling beneath the twinkling white lights above.

Exhaling, she massaged her aching shoulder. Political fundraisers exhausted Monique. Especially those meant to fund campaigns for politicians she didn’t particularly care for, like tonight’s big event for the mayor. Hal used to handle the schmoozing. All Monique had to do was show up, make nice chitchat, and look gorgeous.

But now her throat ached from talking so much, and her brain strained to remember all the names and positions of the people around her. The crescendo of voices from the dozens and dozens of rich attendees chattering around the room made her head ache.

I can’t take much more socializing tonight.

She glanced at her daughter, who sat across the table with her eyes glued to her phone. At twenty-seven, Jackie appeared younger than her years in the pink halter frock she’d chosen. Her tawny shoulders glistened in the glow of the faux candles placed in a flower arrangement at the center of their table.

Monique frowned at Jackie’s lack of investment in the party. Her daughter was too young to be so blasé about her status in society. This is Hal’s fault. He’d spoiled her too much over the years, letting her skip events whenever she begged.

The LaPierre lifestyle came with responsibilities, which Monique assisted her husband in fulfilling for decades. Hal was gone now, and, at fifty-two, Monique had grown tired of the constant grind.

Soon, those responsibilities would fall on her daughter’s unprepared shoulders. In the years since Hal’s death, Monique had dedicated all her time and energy to preparing Jackie for a leadership role in society.

So far, she’d failed.

Meu anjo, this will be your life someday.” Monique brushed a thick, black curl off her neck. “Show a bit of interest in it, at least.”

As Jackie’s head shot up, her dangling diamond earrings flurried back and forth like tiny pendulums. She arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “My life? Uh-uh. No. I’d rather die than pander to these egotistical windbags.”

A rush of heat singed Monique’s cheeks. She swiveled her head, surveying the area for signs that anyone had heard her daughter’s outburst. “Jackie! You can’t—”

“This will never be my life. Clawing up the social ladder is your thing. Not mine.” Jackie rose and grabbed her wine glass from the table, swallowing the rest of her drink in one gulp. She fluffed her own ebony strands and stormed off.

Monique’s skin prickled as her daughter disappeared into the crowd. Rotten child. She immediately regretted the thought and sighed. Jackie wasn’t rotten. A little spoiled and headstrong, but that was to be expected, considering they’d raised her with a silver spoon in her mouth.

A server appeared beside her with a tray of crystal flutes filled with champagne. “Madam?”

She reached for a glass before reconsidering and shaking her head. The server nodded and moved on. Feeling torn, Monique drummed her fingers on the white linen tablecloth. The mother in her begged her to chase after Jackie. The businesswoman in her advised her to get back to work. Both options would drain her energy.

Screw it. The wooden chair legs screeched when she stood. I need fresh air and privacy. She whirled and slipped through the crowd.

A man in a burgundy brocade jacket tugged at her elbow. “Monique! It’s been ages. How have you been since…?”

His sentence trailed off in a way Monique had become well-accustomed to since her husband’s death. She tilted her head and smiled. “Taking it day by day. Call me, and we’ll get together for lunch, yes?”

Before he had time to answer, she stumbled toward the exit but was stopped again. This time, a woman in a white satin formfitting dress and huge blond bun approached her. “Oh, my goodness, Moni. I haven’t seen you since Hal’s funer…”

Bristling, Monique flashed a smile she hoped the woman didn’t realize was fake. “You’re right. Why don’t we get together for a round of golf and catch up? Call me.”

A man nibbling on a mini-tomato pie caught her eye, but she ignored him as she dodged between bodies, careful to avoid tripping on flimsy long skirts and shiny leather shoes. He left her mercifully alone as she cut through the crowd.

“Mrs. LaPierre?”

Her head jerked toward the familiar voice. Dammit. She and the development director of the local home health care agency had been playing phone tag for days. Shuffling away would be rude. Monique turned and feigned a chipper attitude. “Linda, I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

“I was hoping we’d run into each other. Been trying to touch base with you since Wednesday. You got a moment?”

Linda’s shimmering blue dress hung loosely on her minuscule frame. The patent flats she wore raised her up an inch, at the most.

Sweat beaded on Monique’s forehead. “Of course. What do you need?”

The noise, the bodies shoved together, all the commotion circling around her was too much. She had to escape.

“Nothing overly complicated. We need donations to build a new hospice house. I have specs and funding projections we could go over.”

Monique’s black strapless dress tightened around her chest, the damp fabric clinging to her body. She palmed at the jewels resting around her neck, desperately trying to ignore her increasing heart rate. The veins in her arms and legs pulsed angrily, and her lungs shriveled into dried-up sea sponges. Why was she still in this suffocating room?

“Yes, call the office first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll have the receptionist put you through.”

Monique waved at the other woman while she stepped away, jostling the eyeglasses on a man’s face when she bumped into him to make her escape.

Two more friends caught her on her way to the door but released her after a round of gentle cheek pecks. By the time she pushed through the threshold and scurried along the black-and-white checkered floor of the Coastline Inn’s elegant sunroom, her body cooled, and her heart palpitations slowed.

Relieved to find no one else inside, she took a deep breath. Grazing her fingertips along the white panels of the sunroom, Monique walked farther into the house.

The Coastline Inn, built in the late 1700s, was one of her favorite places in Charleston. She’d attended several events at the popular venue. Some were held in the glass-enclosed portico, like the mayor’s political fundraiser. Others, like her cousin’s wedding, took place on the magnificent lawn in front of the house’s main entrance.

The river bordered the property on one side while gardens flanked by oak groves surrounded all the others. Her favorite aspect of the Coastline Inn, though, was how the home and its grounds transported her miles and miles away from the busy bustle of the city.

At the end of the hall, Monique spotted the base of the winding staircase. Chestnut-colored wooden steps and a curving line of creamy white balusters twined upward to the second and third floors, where guest suites waited for pooped partygoers to unwind.

The suites, added during one of the house’s many renovations, oozed elegance. Detailed cornices hung above ornately printed carpeting draped over original wood floors. Mantels with intricate moldings showcased valuable ceramics and vases. Chandeliers lit the rooms, and majestic medallions adorned the doors.

Monique climbed the stairs as she drank in all the beauty and grandeur. With each step, the anxiety she’d harbored moments before drifted away. Once she reached the third-floor landing, her head and heart were clear.

To her right, a dimly lit hallway led to a row of guest suites. On the left, a wooden door with a stained glass window in its center waited at the end of the hall. Behind that door sat her favorite area of the Coastline Inn. Monique wandered down the lavishly decorated corridor toward that cherished space. As she passed, portraits of members of Charleston’s elite from over the years gazed upon her.

A warm breeze rolled off the nearby river when she opened the door and stepped out onto the veranda. The structure, built with bluestone and concrete mixed with crushed oyster shells, wrapped around the entire house. Lush gardens and trees surrounded the property, but the view from that door was the best.

Monique stepped forward and rested her hands on the railing. Taking another deep breath, she relaxed her shoulders and let the rich, earthy scent of pluff mud and river water sink into her lungs. The breeze toyed with her curls. Beneath her, the water swirled in mad circles and bumped against large rocks placed between the house and the river’s edge.

She leaned forward, squinting in the moonlight. Recent rains had flooded parts of Charleston, but she hadn’t expected the sea level to still be so high. All the other times she’d stayed at the Coastline Inn, the water had been calm and serene.

As a strong gust of wind buffeted her, Monique shivered, instinctively gripping the railing for balance. She glanced down, a flicker of unease passing through her as she considered the perilous drop to the jagged rocks below.

Stepping back, she crossed her arms and marveled at the blanket of stars glittering in the night sky. This world was so beautiful.

Monique smiled, a grin of genuine happiness. I’m so fortunate. More fortunate than the people I try to help. Her face fell as guilt tugged at her heart. Maybe she’d visit Linda tomorrow, bright and early, instead of waiting for a phone call. She could make a real difference for the people at Linda’s new hospice.

The floor behind her creaked. Monique turned and peered into the dim hall. Her momentary happiness soured as a shadowy figure approached. “Oh, it’s you.”

Another creak resounded, louder this time.

As a shiver of unease raced down her spine, Monique steadied her stance. She was a petite woman, but she could be intimidating when necessary. “What are you doing out here? Didn’t you leave?”

The ominous sound of footsteps echoed, each step a defiant drumbeat in the quiet corridor.

Monique groaned. Was this some sort of intimidation tactic? She had been unequivocal earlier during their heated exchange. “I’m not going to change my mind. Nothing you say will make—”

In a blur of movement, powerful hands struck Monique’s chest, sending her backward. She lost her breath as her spine crashed against the railing.

Gasping for air, she struggled to regain her footing, but another vicious strike left her reeling. Her heels slipped on the balcony’s surface, the world tilting dangerously as she bent backward over the edge.

Monique’s hands flailed, grasping in vain for something—anything—to grab onto. But salvation was out of reach.

With one last cruel shove, she flew over, toppling and spinning into the void. As she spiraled downward, her world moved in slow motion. The stars, the veranda, the moon, and the piazza blurred together, amplifying her terror.

The roar of the river grew louder, almost mocking in its fury. A strangled cry, raw and full of despair, lodged in her throat. Every instinct shouted at her to brace for the inevitable.

Before she could even begin to pray, the jagged rocks embraced her. The chilling finality of impact came mercifully swift—a bone-jarring collision that silenced everything.

Chapter Two

The heels of Eleanor Kline’s sandals slapped against tile as she strode into the Charleston Police Department. Two detectives sitting on the edges of their desks, holding coffee and chitchatting, glanced up and gawked at her. Another detective perusing a file while walking to his desk almost dropped the entire stack when she passed by.

She could almost read their minds. Why is she back? Wasn’t she suspended? How did she get out of trouble this time?

Ellie ignored the surprised faces on her trek to Lead Detective Rachel Stoddard’s office. A couple weeks had passed since her boss had called her in and suspended her. She cringed at the memory. Harsh words were tossed around, most of them by Ellie, and tempers flared. That meeting ended with her storming out of the Charleston Police Department.

Getting the call from Stoddard to work a case? No one was more shocked by the turn of events than her.

An hour ago, she’d been sitting in the school parking lot, waiting for her foster daughter, Bethany, to bounce out of the building after her classes so Ellie could surprise the little girl with a trip to the ice cream shop.

A text from her mom arrived first. A few distraught sentences with a link to an article. The body of her mother’s friend, Monique LaPierre, was discovered on the rocks bordering the river below an elite celebration venue.

The call from Stoddard came next. Ellie gaped when the other woman told her that her suspension was being, well, suspended. Apparently, she wanted Ellie to assist with the LaPierre case.

Ellie gripped the strap of her bag as she approached Stoddard’s office. The blinds were drawn. Is that good or bad? She shuffled to her boss’s doorway and halted.

She didn’t have to be here.  During her suspension, Ellie thought long and hard about her options going forward, should the worst-case scenario happen—that being complete banishment from the Charleston PD. Right now, her stunned and grieving mother needed her more than the people of the city did.

The muscles in her neck tightened. Peeking past the doorway, she spotted Stoddard at her desk, hunched over her laptop. Ellie stepped back.

With time to reflect, she now understood why Stoddard and the Office of Internal Affairs had suspended her in the first place. Her actions in the Cupid Killer case had been unjustified. She’d tricked people into helping her get information, manipulated Stoddard’s commands, and run off to a secluded house in the woods to catch the perp without telling anyone. Or even getting a warrant first.

She’d told herself that the end—saving the Cupid Killer’s captive—would justify the means. Acknowledging the truth was a hard lesson.

Inside her bag, Ellie’s phone buzzed. Probably her mother. Make a choice. Are you going to walk in there and tell Stoddard you’ll help, or are you going to say your afternoon’s already booked and go spend time with your grieving mom?

Her last interaction with Stoddard earlier that morning had been civil enough. Stoddard even complimented Ellie on her actions in Long Field Township, where she, along with her family and her boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Clay Lockwood, had gone for a week’s vacation.

Except Ellie had gotten very little relaxation. Dead bodies seemed to follow her everywhere, even when she chose to scoot away from Charleston for a holiday. She’d stumbled onto a crime scene the day after they arrived.

When Stoddard called her in after she and her family returned, Ellie hadn’t known what to expect. She certainly hadn’t believed Stoddard would pat her on the back for the way she handled herself in her pursuit of the Long Field Killer. Sure, they’d come closer to understanding each other in that discussion, but not enough for Ellie to let her guard down around the woman.

“Kline? That you?” Stoddard’s voice echoed through the hall.

“Yes.”

Ellie straightened her shoulders before stepping into the office. Not much had changed, except for a new motivational poster. Teamwork, not me work. The accompanying image conveyed a group of soldiers struggling to raise a concrete wall.

Stoddard waved at the hard-on-the-butt chairs in front of her desk. “Have a seat.”

“I’d rather not.” Ellie crossed her arms. “I need to get back to my mom. You called when I was picking Bethany up from school. I had to drop her off at Mom’s, who’s a wreck because she just found out her friend died. She needs me.”

“So do we, Kline.” Stoddard’s tone was firm.

“Okay. I can help you out with this case,” Ellie raised her chin a little higher, “if you lift my suspension. Otherwise, I’m heading back to my mom’s house to be a good daughter for a change.”

Stoddard tilted her head and studied Ellie. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “I understand your dilemma. Let me fill you in on the case. You can decide what you want to do after.”

Stoddard being reasonable? Ellie blinked. “Sure.”

She walked to her boss’s desk and dropped into a chair. Her bag sounded like it weighed twenty pounds as it thunked on the floor beside her.

“Our victim is Monique LaPierre. She’s got friends in high places. One of those friends is the mayor’s office, meaning we’ve got some additional pressure to make a quick collar in this one.”

Ellie held up her palm. “Wait. So because the victim is rich and influential, we’re going to cut through the administrative BS?”

Her mind drifted to Monroe Wieland and Omar Vincent, two victims in a previous case. They were considered gangbangers and riffraff. Ellie found her hands tied at every turn as she tried to find their killer because the department wanted to write the men’s deaths off as gang violence. Regret stabbed her heart when she remembered that she’d had a chance to save Monroe.

For them, she would’ve gladly cut through the administrative red tape. Ellie crossed her legs and leaned forward. “If this is cutting the line for a political favor, count me out.”

Stoddard shook her head. “It’s not. It’s just another case. One which, I have to admit, you are uniquely suited to investigate. Your family has money and connections. You move freely in this world. And…”

Ellie inched closer, practically hanging off the edge of her seat. “And what?”

Her boss sighed. “And you’re one of my best homicide detectives. Even in the short time you’ve been gone, the difference has been clear. I need you on this one.”

Oh, my…

Ellie grinned. “How much did it hurt to say that out loud?”

Stoddard smiled back before speaking through gritted teeth. “More than you know. Are you in or out?”

Ellie tapped her fingers on the armrest. If she took this case, she wouldn’t be available to comfort her mom, but if she found Monique’s killer, she could give her mom closure. “Okay. Catch me up on where we are.”

“This is the workup on Monique LaPierre and the Coastline Inn.” Stoddard pushed a manila folder across the desk. “The Coastline Inn is still an active crime scene. You might want to head over there before they wrap up for the day.”

She opened a desk drawer and pulled out a familiar badge and gun. Excitement bubbled around Ellie’s heart, and her fingers trembled when she slipped the badge and gun into her bag. She was back. Again.

“There’s a lot riding on this for you, Kline.” Stoddard settled back in her chair.

With a nod, Ellie rose. She reached down to grab her bag, clutching the folder to her chest.

“And Kline?” A tiny smirk played on Stoddard’s face. “As part of your reinstatement, I’ve assigned you a partner. Detective Lancaster. He’s already at the Coastline Inn.”

A partner? Seriously?

Ellie bit her tongue. Letting Stoddard see her annoyance? Not a chance. Instead, she plastered on a smile and shrugged. “Fine with me.”

Lancaster. Her mind scrambled to recall the other detective. Was he the one with the mustache? Or the glasses? Her shoulders slumped. She couldn’t jog an image of him into her brain.

A tiny, invisible hammer banged against her temple as she exited Stoddard’s office and swept past the other detectives still gawking at her from their desks.

She waited until she was outside to huff and puff, where only birds were around to give her a glance.

A partner? Stoddard’s amused expression streaked through her mind. She opened the door to her SUV and climbed into the driver’s seat. Leaning against the headrest, she released a heavy sigh.

I’ve got to make this work. One way or another. But how?

Ellie twisted her key in the ignition, and the motor hummed to life. She sat still for a minute, allowing her mind to brainstorm ideas. None of the options she conjured satisfied her. With a grunt, she eased out of the parking lot and onto Lockwood Drive, still contemplating the question.

How am I going to do my job effectively with a babysitter breathing down my neck?

On a crash course with death.

Ellie Kline’s return to the world of crime investigation is heralded by two unexpected texts. The first bears unsettling news from her mother…a family friend has been found dead under mysterious circumstances. Was it an accident, suicide, or foul play?

Before Ellie can process this family tragedy, the second text arrives, jolting her back into professional mode. The Charleston Police Department, grappling with a case that could shake the city’s upper crust, lifts Ellie’s suspension but pairs her with a partner to investigate the case.

A lone ranger at heart, Ellie isn’t pleased. Read More