A Taste of… Cold threat
Thirteen Years Ago…
Whistling a happy tune, Anderson Duncan paused in the parking lot and turned his face up to be warmed by the sun.
Taking a deep breath of fragrant Charleston air, he continued to the front of the building where his therapist kept an office. He held the door open for a woman coming out of the building, frowned when she didn’t thank him, and walked through the entrance, determined to not let a thankless bitch ruin his day.
A short drive from his own workplace, the small psychiatric practice specialized in treating compulsive behavior and intrusive thoughts, of which Anderson suffered from both. Used to suffer from, he told himself, whistling again.
He was better now. Much better. Thanks to a magic pill and the good doctor located in this building.
His shoes squeaked on the polished floor with each step, the sound echoing off the vaulted ceiling above. He’d come to think of this particular tone of squeak as the sound of mental health. Even after a long day at work, Anderson was excited for his weekly session. He had news to share, and he just knew his doctor would be very proud of what he’d accomplished.
There was no one at the front desk, so Anderson checked the hall. The tiny light above the doctor’s office door was green, indicating he could enter without interrupting another patient in session. At the door, he turned the handle and opened it without knocking—he was expected, after all. He froze as his gaze landed on a young man sitting beside the doctor.
He’d made a mistake. He should have knocked. The doctor wouldn’t be pleased.
Worry circled Anderson’s mind, the questions picking up speed before the doctor inclined his head in the briefest of greetings. The stranger said nothing. Did nothing. It was as if he were made from stone.
Anderson needed to go. Flee. Run away from this awkward scene. An awkward scene of his own making. He was such a fool.
He was supposed to be here, he reminded himself. Not this other man.
Giving himself a mental shake followed by a deep, cleansing breath he practiced every day, Anderson flashed the pair a bright smile as he pushed the door open a few inches more. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
“You’re rather chipper this afternoon, Anderson,” the doctor said, his mouth a thin line. “How was your day?”
“Amazing,” he blurted, glancing at the other man who still hadn’t moved. “I implemented some of the changes you suggested, then I confronted the coworker who has been undermining me. I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough. Standing up for myself is almost intoxicating.” He checked his watch, preparing to stand up for himself just a little more. “In fact, I have to leave our session a little early today, but don’t worry, I’ll still pay the full price. It’s worth it.”
The doctor’s mouth ticked at each corner. “The fee is a flat one, but may I ask why you have to leave early today? They haven’t roped you into working overtime on a Friday?”
“No. Ellora in accounting is leaving the company, and they’re throwing her a party at the office.” He gave a half snort, half laugh. “What can I say, I wanted to see her off personally.”
The doctor’s bland expression didn’t change. “I hope you’re not letting your animosity toward Ellora color your excitement?”
Although he hadn’t been invited in, Anderson took two full steps into the room. “Actually, ever since I started coming to therapy, things have changed for me. I haven’t forgiven her for mocking me in front of our colleagues and acting like OCD made me incapable of doing my job.” His heart started hammering at the memory, but he took a deep, cleansing breath, just as the doctor had taught him.
“And how does that make you feel?”
Anderson lifted his chin, immensely proud of himself. “I feel more in control of my compulsions, and I’ve made positive changes in my life. She doesn’t bother me the way she did. To be honest, proving that she’s wrong about me and showing everyone in the office that I’m capable and driven despite my challenges has been the best kind of revenge.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“I have you to thank, doctor. She nearly broke me with her constant ridicule. We’d be in a meeting, and I would catch her using her thumb to count off silently on her fingers, just like I do…like I did.” His smile grew wide, his heart feeling like it might explode with gratitude. “Doctor, I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me. If you ever need anything at all, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I’m glad you feel that way.” The doctor gestured toward the blond man seated near the desk. “Of course, you noticed my assistant here.”
Anderson nodded in greeting. “I did.”
“He’s doing an internship with me, and I was hoping you would allow him to sit in.”
Anderson’s gaze shifted from the doctor to the strange man and back, tension becoming a ball in the pit of his stomach. “I…um, I don’t know if I’m the best patient to observe.”
“What did we decide about self-depreciation?” the doctor asked in a firm voice, his expression gentle. Reassuring.
Anderson couldn’t help it. He tapped his thumb on his pinky finger—one tap, two taps, three taps, four taps. Then his ring finger, counting each tap until he reached the number four at his index finger. Immediately, he started again.
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four.
Behind his desk, the doctor waited patiently for Anderson to stop the compulsion.
The intern was less patient, fidgeting in his seat, glancing at the doctor a couple of times, obviously wondering what the holdup was.
Anderson blinked and shook his head, forcing his fingers open to stop the endless counting. Air hissed through his clenched teeth as he took a slow, measured breath. “I’m fine with him observing.”
“Excellent.” The doctor brushed a bit of lint off his suit and turned to the intern. “Anderson really is the perfect subject for this. Take notes. You’ll want to remember everything you learn today.”
The intern nodded, reaching out to pick up a pen from the silver cup in the center of the desk. He grimaced, fingertips shaking as he struggled to grab the tip of the pen closest to him.
The doctor’s bemused smile held a touch of cruelty Anderson wasn’t expecting. Anderson caught his thumb stretching toward his pinky, balled his hands into fists, and took a step forward.
The intern froze and eyed Anderson.
Anderson stuck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I didn’t catch your name.”
“You can call him Ernest.”
Ernest stood and took Anderson’s hand, then winced and quickly pulled away, clutching at a spot on his chest. “Sorry. It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I appreciate the opportunity to observe your session.”
“Are you injured?”
Ernest took a step back and waved his hand in front of him. “It’s nothing.”
The intern opened his mouth to say something more, but the doctor interrupted him. “Just an unfortunate incident with a patient a few weeks back. It’s a hazard of psychiatry when you work inpatient.”
Anderson frowned. “Oh, that sounds scary.”
“More frustrating than anything. Ernest and I had to postpone some of our work, which threw us off schedule.” The doctor smiled. “You know how that is.”
“Speaking of schedules, shall we start? Ernest, there’s an audio recorder in my bottom drawer if you’d rather take notes that way.”
Ernest retrieved the recorder and moved his rolling office chair out of the way so he was close enough to observe Anderson and the doctor without interfering.
The doctor cleared his throat, forcing Anderson’s attention back in his direction. “Are you ready?”
Anderson sat down on the couch and nodded.
Using a small remote, the doctor dimmed the lights until only a single, recessed light above them lit the room.
The intern faded into the shadows, his outline visible but indistinct. With a pale, shaking hand, Ernest set the voice recorder on the desk, angling it until the microphone was pointed in his direction.
Panic welled in the pit of Anderson’s belly, and his thumb itched to start counting. Licking his lips, he cleared his throat, thumb poised and ready. “I’m not comfortable recording this.”
The doctor’s face remained calm. “This is how it needs to be done.” His voice was low, steady to the point of monotony. “If you truly wish to heal, you need to be willing to give up control.”
“I’m really uncomfortable.”
“Change is uncomfortable,” the doctor said in a flat tone, unbothered by Anderson’s protests.
His thumb twitched toward his pinky. “I don’t want to lose control.”
“Control is an illusion.” When the corner of Anderson’s lip twitched, the doctor tilted his head. “Have you been taking your medication?”
The scratching of the doctor’s pen on the yellow notepad paper set Anderson’s teeth on edge. His thumb flexed, fingers ready.
“I see your fingers twitching. Are you sure you’ve been taking the medication as prescribed?”
“Every day at the same time.” He had an alarm set to the minute.
“And how many do you have left?”
The doctor checked the calendar on his desk and made a tsking sound. “You should have four left. What happened?”
“I dropped the bottle and couldn’t find two.”
The doctor became motionless, his expression indifferent, but his sharp words didn’t match his demeanor. “That was careless of you.”
Deeply ashamed, Anderson lowered his head. “I’m sorry. I tried to refill it at the pharmacy, but the pharmacist couldn’t find any information on my prescription.” He retrieved the small yellow bottle from his jacket pocket, shaking it to prove there were only two pills left.
“It’s a proprietary formula not yet available to the general public.”
Anderson’s spine stiffened, alarm forcing his thumb against his pinky. “Has it been cleared by the FDA?”
The doctor’s eyes bore into him. “How well did the FDA-cleared medications you’ve been on before work?”
“They didn’t.” Anderson leaned back into the couch cushion, letting out a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, you’re right. Ever since I started taking it, I feel better. I’ve even become more assertive at work. Just like you said I would be.” He perked up when he remembered his news, his chest swelling with pride. “I’m up for a promotion. I’ve been at the firm ten years, and I finally took a chance.” He glanced down at the small container of pills in the palm of his hand and shook his head. “Who knew something so small could completely change my life?”
“It’s amazing what one can do with a little push.” The doctor leaned forward and held out his hand for the bottle. Reluctantly, Anderson handed it over. “When did you take your last dose?”
“Right before I got in my car to drive here.”
An arched eyebrow was the only emotion the doctor had shown since he’d dimmed the lights a few minutes before. “And you were fifteen minutes away, correct?”
Anderson blinked, surprised the doctor had that information. He nodded.
The doctor smiled, and Anderson relaxed under the silent approval the gesture created. “That makes sense. It starts to take effect between twenty and thirty minutes later. You’ll start feeling it soon.” Tucking the bottle into his own pocket, the doctor clicked his pen.
Anderson moved to the edge of the couch, his jaw twitching. “Why did you keep my medication?”
“You don’t need it right now.”
“But I do need it.” His thumb itched, bending at the knuckle. “I can’t stop my compulsions without it.”
“I’ll return it when we’re finished.” The doctor glanced to the side, reminding Anderson that the intern sat just outside the circle of light, silently watching from the shadows.
He shuddered. “Why is he here again?”
“He’s learning. Are you feeling anxious, Anderson?”
“You’ve had an eventful day.”
Anderson nodded, thumb waving, the urge to count so strong that his throat constricted. He licked his lips and swallowed hard. When the doctor’s eyes lowered and settled on Anderson’s hand, he locked his thumb joint, ashamed. “Why isn’t the medication working?”
“You’ve had an eventful day, like I said.” The doctor reached into his pocket, pills clicking against each other inside the plastic cylinder. He opened the lid and shook out one pill, handing it to Anderson. “Have another.”
Anderson stared at the pill in his hand. The doctor motioned to the intern, who stood quickly, shuffling deeper into the shadows. He returned with a water bottle from the mini fridge, twisted the cap off, and handed it to Anderson. Holding the pill in one hand and the water in the other, Anderson was frozen by uncertainty. “Is it safe to take two on the same day?”
“Absolutely. You want relief, don’t you?”
Nodding, Anderson regarded the tiny white pill, jaw working as he grappled with his choices. He could take a second pill and hope the doctor was right, or he could suffer in silence the way he had for years.
“What the hell,” he muttered finally, popping the pill into his mouth and chasing it with a swallow of water. He pursed his lips, turning the water bottle to the side to read the label. “Is this flavored?”
“There’s a hint of cucumber and mint or some trendy nonsense like that.” Another small smile shifted the doctor’s expression. “Do you like it?”
Anderson took another drink, not stopping until the bottle was empty. “It’s delicious.”
“I’ll make sure to keep it in stock. Now, shall we begin?”
The doctor set aside the pen and steepled his hands, watching him with interest. “You were saying when you walked in that you’d had a successful day. Was the rest of the week positive as well?”
Anderson nodded and blinked as the edges of his vision went fuzzy for an instant before sharpening. “Overall, it’s been one of my best weeks. I’ve felt almost invincible.”
“And the suicidal ideation?”
Anderson stiffened, casting his gaze toward the intern before shooting the doctor a look of betrayal. “That was almost a year ago. I don’t know why we need to talk about that now.”
“Establishing a baseline to measure progress is an important part of the process.”
Anderson scratched his itchy palm, blinking again as his vision went out of focus. The right corner of his lip twitched upward. “I haven’t thought about killing myself since I started treatment, no.” The doctor’s pen scratched over the paper, making him want to clamp his teeth together. He scratched his palm again as sweat dampened his underarms. “Is it hot in here?”
“The temperature is the same as usual. Are you feeling hot?”
His shoulder flexed and relaxed, almost on its own. “Yes.”
“It will pass.” The doctor tilted his head to the side, a dreamy smile settling over thin lips. “What about intrusive thoughts? Have they been as loud as before?”
“They’re almost gone.” He flinched, glancing down to see that his hands were clenched so tight, his nails dug into his palms. He tried to open his fist, but his fingers only twitched. “Something is wrong.”
“When those thoughts do intrude, are they the same as before? Do you see yourself jumping out a window?”
Anderson’s head lifted, his eyes narrowing as he divided his attention between the doctor and his hands. “Not anymore, no.”
“Look at me, Anderson. Give me your full attention.”
Anderson blinked, and his eyes focused on the distinguished man only a few feet away. “Yes, Doctor.”
“Can you feel the wind whipping through your hair as you plummet to the earth?”
“It would be hard to breathe. The wind would rush at me so fast it would be difficult to draw a breath.” Anderson clamped his mouth shut, a moan locked in his throat. “I don’t know where that came from.”
“Where would you do it, Anderson?”
“At work.” Anderson’s shoulder jumped, his fingernails digging deeper into his palm. “The balcony looks over the courtyard.” He swayed in his seat, blinking his eyes rapidly to clear them of the vision, but it was as if he were staring down at the inner courtyard at work. “There’s a fountain there. Four stories down.”
“Ellora would be shocked.”
Anderson’s vision disappeared, turning gray before the room became clear again. He nodded. “Ellora would be shocked.”
“She always said you were all talk, no action.”
“All talk, no action.” His voice echoed in his ears. Distant and flat.
The words turned into Ellora’s words, leaving his mouth in her high-pitched tone. “All talk, no action.”
The clock on the wall ticked off the seconds. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
“Ellora would be shocked,” Anderson repeated, his voice his own once again.
“Anderson, are you counting?”
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four.
He looked down at his fingers, but they were invisible. Gone.
“I feel weird.” The words were little more than a whisper. “Something is wrong.”
“Don’t let your illness lie to you. You’re safe here. You’re safe.”
Anderson surrendered to the heaviness in his eyelids and let them flutter closed. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he nodded slowly, just once. When he opened his eyes, the room had grown darker than before. Still sitting across from him, the doctor’s gaze was intent. Anderson’s compulsive urges faded in response. “I’m safe here.”
“The party is starting soon. You should go. Show Ellora that you’re a man of action.”
“A man of action.” Anderson shook his head, blinking rapidly. Wiping a hand over his face, he gasped when the room shifted out of focus, then snapped back into place with painful detail. “What was in that pill?”
The doctor chuckled. “The pill was your standard prescription.” He took an orange bottle out of his pocket and handed it to Anderson.
“This bottle is orange.” Anderson turned it over in his hand, counting the pills. There were four.
“The bottle has your name on it. It is your medicine, Anderson.”
Anderson frowned, tilting the bottle to one side, then the other. “There are too many in here.”
“How did you like that water?”
Anderson swayed with the beat of the ticking clock. “It was good.”
The doctor turned to the shadow in the darkness, just outside the circle of light. “Water is a much better delivery system. A little flavoring and it’s undetectable.”
“Who are you talking to?” Anderson asked.
“My intern.” The doctor stood and motioned toward the door. “You need to go. The party is starting.”
“The party is starting.”
The doctor’s gaze met his, unwavering and filled with pride. “Show them you’re a man of action.”
“A man of action.”
“They’ll know Ellora drove you to it. They’ll know what kind of monster she is.”
Anderson laughed, the sound coming out like a cackle. “She’ll be so embarrassed.”
“She said you’re sick, that you need help. Show her who you really are.”
“Go. Don’t disappoint me, Anderson.”
Anderson scowled, offended that the doctor would ever think he would disappoint him. “Yes, Doctor.”
Anderson stood, car keys already out and in his hand. His eyes closed for an instant, and he was somehow in the parking lot, starting the engine. Damn, he was good. The radio played softly, the low, pleasantly familiar notes skipping forward in the song with reckless abandon.
Time skipped with the music, and he was exiting the freeway, coasting to a stop. The song had changed, the warm harmonies of a full string quartet giving way to a piano concerto.
Floating on the memory of the music, his hand was on the door to his building. The symphony was gone, replaced by humming that followed his every step. It echoed in the hall where the elevator waited, its mouth yawning wide, light bursting from inside it.
Anderson hesitated, but only for a moment. He didn’t remember the elevator looking so much like a monster rising from the depths of Hell.
Man of action.
As the doors slid open, metal scraping as they shuddered along the warped track, Anderson was surprised that the monster hadn’t swallowed him whole. Forcing his eyes to stay open, he carefully placed one foot in front of the other and wound his way through the long hallway that led to McBride Industries. The double doors were propped open, the afterhours party already in full swing.
Ellora stood just inside the doors that led to a wide balcony that encircled the inner courtyard on all four sides. Four. Four fingers. Four stories down to the fountain.
What wasn’t eloquent were the party decorations. Balloons with storks and babies all over the blue and pink.
He blinked in surprise. Was the retirement party over, a baby shower taking its place?
He didn’t care.
He cared about one thing. Being a man of action.
Marching forward, Anderson walked up behind the brunette and snagged the champagne glass from her hand. This was his, now. His and no others.
Ellora’s mouth formed a shocked o as she turned. “Hey! Anderson, what the hell are you doing?”
He downed the entire drink in one quick gulp. It wasn’t champagne at all. Sparkling apple juice maybe? He didn’t care. He cared about only thing.
“You’re going to be surprised.”
Ellora’s face was a mixture of disgust and unease. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m a man of action.”
He grabbed her wrist, yanking the petite woman forward and through the double glass doors. He stopped only long enough to wedge a heavy metal chair against the door between them and his fellow employees. It wouldn’t buy him a lot of time, but he didn’t need much.
“What are you—”
He whirled on her and squeezed her arm so hard he could feel the bone pressing into his palm. “You mocked me and called me names. You drove me to it. I’m a man of action, Ellora.”
“Stop! You’re not making sense.” She twisted her arm in his grasp, trying to pull away, but Anderson dug his fingers deeper into her skin. “You’re hurting me.”
He took a step toward the railing, pulling her with him. She stumbled in her ridiculous heels.
“The wind will take your breath away. You’ll move so fast you won’t be able to draw air into your lungs.”
“Anderson, stop!” Her voice was more of a screech. “What are you doing?”
“The party is starting.” Another step closer. “It’s your party, Ellora. Your going away party.”
Her face contorted as she began to cry, struggling anew against his iron grip. “Please don’t do this, Anderson. They lied to you. This isn’t a going away party. It’s a baby shower. I’m pregnant.”
Even better. The devil’s spawn would never darken this world.
Anderson grinned. “It’s a going away party now.”
On the other side of the glass door, panicked voices rose, their words jumbled, too many people talking at once for Anderson to clearly understand.
“You made me miserable, Ellora. Mocking me.”
She was crying hard now. “Anderson, please.”
He pulled her the rest of the way, reached the railing, and peered down at the fountain. “It’s off-center.”
“What?” She sniffled, her arm going slack as she followed his gaze.
Behind them, someone was banging a chair against the glass. The chair he’d wedged under the door’s handles moved an inch, the metal against concrete screeching through the air.
“The fountain. It’s closer to this side than the others. A fountain that big should’ve been easy to center.”
Her frightened blue eyes widened, and she tried to pull her arm back from his grip once again. “You’re scaring me.”
“You’re going to be surprised. All those times you said I’d be better off dead. You’re going to see. I’m a man of action.”
“I never said that, Anderson. Never.” Her body shook with tremors, and her bottom lip quivered, but she still managed a reassuring smile. “I think you need to see a doctor. You need help.”
The hate for her that Anderson had learned to chomp down on for so long rose up, making his head hurt. He leaned in close, whispering in her ear, as the shouts of their coworkers grew more frantic by the second. “I did see a doctor.”
The metal legs of the chair screeched again, and people’s shouts grew a little bit louder. He was running out of time.
“Anderson, you’re sick. You need help. Please, let me go.” The vitriol in Ellora’s voice drew him back into the fog, where there was just the two of them.
His lips turned up in a slow smile. “You’ll be so embarrassed.”
Show them you’re a man of action.
“I said, let me go.” She was clawing at him now. “Can you hear me?”
“I hear you, Doctor.”
“What are you—”
“They’re going to know what kind of monster you are.” He snaked his arm around her waist, which was much more protruded than he remembered—the spawn—and lifted her.
As he did, he saw a friendly face on the other side of the glass. Brianna looked terrified. Her fear bounced off him. “Help me,” he mouthed, just as Ellora’s elbow caught him on the side of his head.
What had he been thinking?
He was a man of action.
Renewed in his mission, he lifted the struggling woman higher.
Her legs kicked at the air as she screamed.
Hands grasped at his shoulders. The railing.
She screamed again, loud and high. A scream of absolute terror.
Smiling, he plucked her hands free of the railing, and with an ease that surprised him, flung her over and into the wide expanse of air.
Her scream was cut off seconds later by the gratifying thud of her body hitting the concrete edge of the fountain’s reservoir. Cut short, her voice was now silent, but Anderson was already climbing onto the railing, balancing on the beam with his arms out for balance.
He smiled as he looked down at her twisted body, half in the water, half out. Her hair floated around her, giving the illusion that she was still alive.
He knew better.
Shouts rose behind him, but the only words he could hear clearly came from the inside.
Go. Don’t disappoint me, Anderson.
“Yes, Doctor.” He bent his knees and flung himself forward, jumping as far out as he could, aiming for the middle of the off-center fountain, arms out in a graceful swan dive. He smiled as he took a deep, calming breath.
I was wrong. You can breathe on the way down.
It was his last thought before his head broke the surface of the shallow water.
Then the world went dark, and Ellora couldn’t hurt him anymore.
Detective Ellie Kline adjusted the vent on the passenger side of her boyfriend’s Cayenne, turning the warm air so it hit her bare shoulders. She wrapped the soft turquoise shawl tighter around her arms until it hid the scar from where Tucker Penland’s bullet had grazed her skin.
That was a night she wouldn’t soon forget, one that had turned out well after she found his hostage, Valerie Price, and they beat him at his own game of hunting humans as prey. She shivered again, though this time it had nothing to do with the temperature.
She caught Nick watching her and flashed him a quick smile. “I’ll be so happy when it’s spring.”
Nick Greene smiled back. “Only a few days left.”
She gave a decidedly unladylike snort and pulled the shawl closer. “Just because the calendar says spring officially starts in March doesn’t mean I’m buying it.” Sighing, she took in the majestic old buildings with hand-carved details as they passed through Charleston’s historic district, each as unique as the next. “I was meant to be a summer baby.”
She’d had a hell of a winter, having witnessed the man she held responsible for allowing her own kidnapper to remain free blow his brains out. Not to mention she’d been under suspicion for his death until it was ruled a suicide.
Being put on leave from the Charleston Police Department for having witnessed Detective Roy Jones’s self-destruction and also for being shot by a serial killer—or nicked by the bullet of one—might’ve been procedure, but for her, there was nothing worse. A break was the last thing she needed, with so many cold cases waiting. So many families who wouldn’t know what happened to their loved ones until she cracked the case. And the evidence locker was full of cases, so many that she’d often been tempted to haul in a cot and camp out there.
Still, she’d promised herself this night out. This one night away, where she could forget the horrors humans wreaked upon one another before she began to make her way back to some semblance of normalcy.
Nick chuckled, the soft tick of the blinker syncing with the flashing green arrow as he took the next left. “I don’t think that’s how it works. And if you want to get technical, March fifteenth means you’re a winter baby. So, not even close.”
Ellie rolled her eyes at him, but their shared laughter filled her with warmth. “It’s my twenty-eighth birthday. Let me have this one.”
He pulled the car to the curb in front of an upscale Italian restaurant and leaned over, planting a quick kiss on her cheek before leveling his piercing blue eyes on her. “Anything you want. It’s your day.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
He arched an eyebrow, but before he could ask what she meant, the valet was opening her door and offering a hand to help her out. She gave Nick a pointed glance over her shoulder as she stepped out of the warmth of the car and into the brisk evening air.
“I don’t remember them having valet. I guess business is good.” She shrugged, smoothing down her skirt, and Nick was by her side a moment later, holding his arm out for her. She took it, resting her head on his shoulder. He looked so handsome in his suit, the fine black material setting off his perfect hair. “It’s been so long since we’ve been to Villa Dianna. I’m glad you mentioned it.”
“I thought you could use a night out. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress at work and then on leave.” He stopped and turned toward her, concern etching deep lines into his face. “I want you to have one night where you’re not looking over your shoulder or worrying about the next case. Since you won’t let me take you on a vacation, a night out on the town is the next best thing.”
She shook her head, ready to deny she’d been struggling, but his jaw clenched, and she relented. “You’re right. Things are…” She paused, searching for the right word and enunciating it in a sarcastic voice. “Intense. Very intense, answering the tip line.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, let’s just have a nice, relaxing evening.”
She frowned but allowed him to tug her forward. “Okay. It’s not getting any warmer out here.”
He chuckled as the host opened the double doors and welcomed them in and out of the cold. The restaurant beyond was dark, the foyer lit by a single candle.
Ellie turned to Nick, lips parted in question, and the lights suddenly flicked on. Loud voices echoed off the walls, making her jump. “Surprise!”
Her family was gathered in the dining room, which was decorated lavishly with purple orchids, silver streamers, and a large chocolate fountain in the middle of the room surrounded by every shade of fruit imaginable. Tucked in the back corner opposite the kitchen, a string quartet played an upbeat yet soft refrain of “Happy Birthday.”
Nick’s lips were warm against her ear when he leaned in to be heard over the applause that welcomed her. “Happy birthday.”
Helen Kline was the first to welcome her, arms flung wide and a brilliant smile on her ageless face. Bright red lips kissed Ellie’s cheek as her mother squeezed her tight, but she knew from experience that there would be no trace of color left behind on her skin.
Dan Jr. pushed their father, Daniel, forward in his wheelchair. Before Ellie could bend down to hug him, he waved her away and stood, folding her into a bearhug that was stronger than it had been in a long time. Ellie’s chest swelled, and her throat stung with happy tears. Just a few months had passed since Daniel Kline’s successful heart transplant, but every day was better than the last.
“You look beautiful, sweetheart.”
Daniel’s eyes shown at the endearment as he sat back down in the wheelchair and let Dan Jr. wheel him to the head of the long table set up in the middle of the room.
Wes stepped forward, his green eyes, so much like Ellie’s, were alight with mischief. The youngest of her three brothers, they were the closest both in age and temperament, not to mention looks, with both of them unmissable in a crowd due to their brightly colored auburn hair. Helen Kline had desperately wanted a second daughter, but a young, raucous Wes had cured her of any desire to have more children by the time he was two. Ellie adored him.
“I have a feeling you had something to do with this,” she teased.
He shrugged, flashing the trademark smile that made him adored by Charleston’s debutants. “I may have wrangled Jillian into helping me make sure you were available this evening. Then, of course, there’s Nick, who’s always up for a good surprise.”
Ellie scanned the small crowd at the mention of her friend and coworker’s name. A man she didn’t know caught her attention. Clad in a dark suit, he stood well away from the other guests, his eyes in constant motion. When he caught her watching him, he nodded gravely.
“Wes, is that man a guard?” She kept her voice quiet so only her brother could hear.
Jaw tightening, her brother nodded. “Ever since you convinced Mom that your kidnapping was not a failed ransom attempt, she’s been hypervigilant. They hired guards for the party.”
“I have no idea, but I’ve already counted four, plus the men in the front working ‘valet.’” The last word came with a dramatic air quote that had Ellie rolling her eyes. “I also overheard her talking to Dad about hiring twenty-four-hour security for your apartment building.” He smirked, knowing she would hate that.
Ellie cringed. “She knows that Jillian and I are both armed, right?”
“Like that’s going to stop her.” He turned his palms up, shaking his head, laughing off the subject like he did with most stressful things in life. “Don’t worry about that right now. It’s a party. Enjoy your special day, and we’ll go over that later.”
“You’re right,” she muttered. Still, she ran her gaze over the gathering, looking for others she didn’t know. And more importantly, those she did.
Jillian Reed stood off to the side with Jacob Garcia, her former partner. Separated from the rest of the partygoers, it was clear they were outsiders doing their best not to look out of place. Ellie patted her brother’s arm and excused herself, hurrying to the back of the room. Jacob held a flute of champagne, his brown eyes soft and relaxed.
“I’m glad you two could make it.” Ellie motioned toward Wes, elbowing Jillian playfully. “I hear you and my brother were scheming.”
Jillian’s light-colored skin flushed the softest shade of pink as she shrugged one shoulder. The pretty evidence clerk had transformed into Ellie’s best friend when she’d been tossed into the police precinct’s basement to work on cold cases back in the fall. “Someone had to make sure you got out and had a good time. Especially on your birthday.”
Movement along the back wall caught Ellie’s attention, and she stiffened.
Jillian held up her hand before Ellie could ask. “It’s okay. According to your brother, the guestlist is a little more selective than usual.”
Jacob nodded his agreement. “Wes made us swear not to tell Chief Johnson and Captain Browning about the party.”
“Aside from Nick, Jacob and I were the only ones invited that aren’t family.” Jillian frowned. “It’s safer this way, but I heard your last party was epic.”
Ellie scoffed, snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. “That’s how my family does these things. If it’s not extra, my mom isn’t happy.” She pursed her lips and nodded. “I’m glad they’re taking this seriously. With everything that’s going on with Valerie, and not knowing who is behind the website where my…kidnap video was posted, I’d rather not have the entire town here.” She downed half the glass.
The video was actually a snuff film, meant to end in two deaths. Only Ellie had gotten away. Survived. And she’d be damned if she stopped before she found the woman she had ordered to be killed.
Kill the bitch. The words still rang in her ears.
“It looks more like a wedding reception than a birthday.” Jillian held up a simple black gift bag with a pink ribbon tying the handle closed. Jillian’s initials were written on a tag in neat cursive with a silver marker. “I have to say, this is the first time I’ve been to a birthday party where I received a gift and brought nothing.”
“Have you opened it yet?”
Jillian bit her bottom lip. “Would it be rude if I took a peek?”
“Not at all.”
“It’s a charm bracelet.” Jillian lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper. “The expensive kind.”
Jacob cleared his throat, crossing his arms. “That’s real pretty and all, but I want to talk about something a little less flashy. Arthur Fink. Any headway on his case?”
Fink. The bastard’s name suited the man to a T.
A pervert to his very core, Ellie had arrested the asshole a month ago after discovering that he was a top-tier client for a human trafficking ring.
Ellie shook her head, taking a sip from her glass. “I miss you too, partner.” Jacob had been the only partner she’d ever had to not desert her because of her…rambunctious style of police work. Not even after she jumped off a bridge. “His lawyer has him in protective custody, and he’s working on a deal.”
Jillian’s hazel eyes narrowed. “Am I the only one who thinks that prick is going to walk away without serving a day in jail?”
“I’ve wondered the same thing, but at least for now, he’s behind bars.” Ellie lifted the glass to her lips and took another sip, letting the alcohol hit her bloodstream and soothe her raw nerves. “In solitary, with constant supervision, which is not much different than what he did to Valerie Price for nearly two years. If he gets released before the trial, he’ll have officers assigned to him round the clock. Not the justice he deserves, but no matter what happens, life as he knows it is over.”
Jacob set his empty glass on a nearby table. “How is Valerie? Did you visit her today?”
“I see her at least once a day. She’s doing a lot better than the doctors expected after being on death’s door from sepsis, not to mention being malnourished and being traumatized. She’ll be released from the hospital soon, and she’s going a little stir-crazy.” Ellie glanced around the room, stepped closer to Jacob and Jillian, and lowered her voice. “We’ll talk about it later. Mom’s on her way over here, and you know how she gets when she catches us talking shop.”
Jacob laughed, stopping abruptly as his eyes focused over Ellie’s shoulder. “Mrs. Kline. It’s a pleasure to see you.” He stepped forward and took her hand, kissing the back of it with the grace of an aristocrat. “Thank you for inviting us to this lovely celebration.”
Helen Kline beamed. “Thank you for coming.” She squeezed Jacob’s hand affectionately, then she glided from Jacob to Jillian, hugging her tight. “I’m glad you could come, dear.” Still holding on to Jillian’s hands, she turned her gaze to Ellie. “Jillian, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to my daughter alone for a moment.”
Jillian nodded as Jacob hooked an arm around her, and they blended into the crowd, heads close as he made a comment that made her laugh.
Ellie prepared herself for one of her mother’s well-intentioned lectures, so when Helen Kline reached into her purse and handed her an envelope with nothing but a smile, she was shocked almost speechless. “What’s this?”
“Eleanor, I was racking my brain, trying to figure out what to get our only daughter for her birthday. You have everything, and you’ve never asked for anything more, so it was hard to come up with a gift without asking you outright.”
“I have everything I could ever want, Mom. You don’t have to give me a thing.”
“I thought you would say that very thing, but then I had an epiphany.” She motioned to the envelope. “It’s cash for Valerie Price.” When Ellie opened her mouth to protest, Helen cut her off. “It’s not much, but enough for someone about to start a new life. I thought you might prefer a gift in your honor, to Valerie, instead of something for yourself.”
Ellie’s lips dropped open as tears filled her eyes.
Helen waved her hand in the air between them before Ellie could say anything. “Your father and I are still struggling with your career choice, but it’s obvious that this is your true calling, no matter what life we’d envisioned for you. You’ve grown so much since you became a detective at Charleston Police Department, and we don’t tell you enough how proud we are of you. Not only for saving that poor woman but for ignoring your detractors and following your heart and your head.”
Helen’s bottom lip quivered delicately as she lifted a hand. “Eleanor, I believe with my whole heart that poor woman wouldn’t be alive today without you, and after being held captive for so long…” Helen’s voice broke, emotion clearly overwhelming her. She dragged in a shuddering breath to calm herself and lifted her chin. “Well, let’s just say the poor dear will need a little help to get back on her feet.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Ellie threw her arms around her mother and pulled her close. When she could finally speak, her voice was just above a whisper. “Thank you.”
“No. Thank you, darling. For always showing me that there’s more than one way to bring light to this world.” When Helen pulled away, her brown eyes glimmered with unshed tears. “This world deserves more people like you.” Helen hugged Ellie again and sighed, her gentle laugh like tinkling chimes on the wind. “Looks like our private moment is over.” She gestured to the center table where Daniel Kline sat, flanked by Ellie’s brothers, an empty seat saved for Helen. “They’re beginning to serve dinner. We’ll talk more later, but I wanted you to have this.”
Ellie nodded and tucked the envelope into her small clutch just as Nick arrived to escort her to her seat.
When Helen walked away to join her husband, Nick leaned in close. “What was that about?” He chuckled, stealing a quick kiss. “Is she still trying to convince you to give up police work for something more noble?”
“No.” Ellie shook her head, watching her mother place a loving hand on her dad’s shoulder. “She was telling me how proud she is.”
Nick arched an eyebrow. “Well, that might be the biggest surprise of the night.”
“You’re telling me.”
He took her hand and gave it a little tug. “Your party awaits. Here’s hoping the rest of the night is just as wonderful.”
* * *
Nick twirled the last strand of handmade fettuccini onto his fork, swirling it in the thick garlic cream sauce before bringing it to his lips and savoring the last bite.
Ellie set her fork down and picked up her wine glass, throwing her head back and downing the last drops of red wine. Her lashes fluttered, and her lips turned up into a satisfied smile as she held the empty glass up for the waiter to fill. He rushed forward, careful not to splash the crimson liquid as he poured. When the waiter handed the glass back, Ellie swirled the wine gently in the glass, inhaled, and sipped. Glancing over, she caught Nick watching her and grinned. “It’s my birthday.”
Nick shrugged. “No judgment. I just enjoy watching you let loose every once in a while.”
Ellie felt a niggle of guilt. “It has been a while since we’ve been out.”
“Too long.” He stood and held his hand out to her. “The band’s been playing all night, but the dance floor’s still empty. What do you say we get this party started?”
She chuckled, placing her hand in his and letting him lead her into the center of the room. He spun her once, her turquoise dress shimmering as the generous skirt floated on the air. His breath caught when she stepped into his embrace, her nearness setting his heart racing.
They’d grown up together, dated since she’d graduated high school, yet she still took his breath away. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled her close until she rested her head on his shoulder, one hand on his chest. They swayed to the sweet melody as the lights dimmed slightly, and the guests scattered about the large dining area faded into the background.
“Happy birthday,” he whispered.
“Thank you.” Poised and confident on the dance floor, she followed his lead with effortless grace when he stepped back to spin her again. “Tonight was exactly what I needed.”
He flashed her a wry grin. “Does that mean you’re not mad that I brought you here under false pretenses?”
“I’m always game for a surprise.”
He raised his eyebrows, giving her a disbelieving look. “I’ll file that information away for another time.”
The band flowed into the next song seamlessly. Couples fell into step around them, one at a time. Nick motioned with his chin, drawing Ellie’s attention to her parents entering the dance floor.
Ellie sighed. “Their fortieth anniversary is at the end of June.”
Green eyes bright with mischief, she wagged her finger at him playfully. “You’re not the only one who can keep a secret.”
“My parents have theirs next year, so I’ll be taking notes.”
“As you should.”
He pulled her closer and nuzzled her neck, inhaling her familiar jasmine and vanilla scent. “Speaking of presents, I didn’t get you anything for your birthday yet. I was thinking about a vacation to a tropical island. Or a mountain resort. It doesn’t really matter where.”
“Hmm…a long weekend sounds wonderful.”
“I don’t plan on leaving the bedroom when I finally have you all to myself. I’ve missed you.”
A soft pink glow crept up on her cheeks. “You sure do know how to make a woman feel beautiful.”
“Trust me. You make it easy.”
Nick held Ellie in his arms as the songs melted one into another, and he lost track of time.
A tap on his shoulder pulled him out of his reverie.
“May I have this dance?” Jacob gave a little bow, a warm smile on his face.
Nick reluctantly spun Ellie one last time and stepped out of the way.
Jacob cut in, surprisingly nimble for a man of his size. A little shorter than Nick, Jacob’s arms were thick with chiseled muscles, his chest wide and strong. He had the body of an MMA fighter and the patience of a saint—he’d lasted the longest of all of Ellie’s partners. For six months, they’d patrolled together five days a week. Then when Ellie made detective, Jacob had been promoted to the K9 unit.
Jacob was the only man who knew Ellie as well as Nick did, and he couldn’t help the twinge of jealousy that floated to the surface. He pushed it away, opting for a glass of sparkling water from a passing tray and skipping the wine. Now that he wasn’t moving, his arms felt heavy, and his body protested being upright so late in the evening after such a long day. Work had started at dawn, and he was running on empty, but seeing Ellie enjoy her party was worth it.
Happy to give his aching feet a rest, he wandered over to a seat near the dessert table. Long legs stretched out in front of him, his eyes followed Ellie as she and Jacob danced. Her thick, curly hair was loose, cascading down her shoulders in tight coils of fiery red. She glided across the floor like a vision, so different from the rough and tumble woman hidden just beneath the classy exterior. Ellie was a walking contradiction in the best way.
He was so lost in his thoughts, he almost missed their secret cue. Another spin around the dance floor later, and her emerald green eyes caught his pointedly as she touched her finger to her earlobe. Nodding, he waited until the two came around again, cutting in so smoothly, Ellie was back in his arms before the next beat.
“You called, my lady,” he murmured.
“I need to talk to you.”
“We’re talking now.” He dipped her low, and quickly spun her, cinching his arm tight around her waist.
“Not here. Join me on the balcony?”
“I’d say I like where this is going, but I never know what to expect from you.”
She grinned and winked. “I like keeping you on your toes.”
He was still laughing when she led him off the dance floor and grabbed her wrap. One of the security guards watched as they approached the heavy door, and he held up a hand, stopping them while he checked the balcony. “All clear.” The guard stepped to the side so they could pass through the doorway, but when he tried to follow, Ellie shook her head.
“We’ll just be a moment.” When he didn’t move, she gestured toward the door. “We’ll be fine.”
The guard scowled but gave a curt nod in Nick’s direction. “I’ll be just inside the door if you need me.”
Her demeanor had Nick’s heart racing, wondering what could be so important that she was willing to sidestep security and risk her mother’s fury to speak with him alone. She held her tongue until the guard moved to the side, crossing his arms over his chest and standing firm like a concrete sentry. Laughter floated through the open door as they stepped into the rectangle of light that flooded the dark balcony. The thud of the heavy oak door abruptly cut the noise of the party off, plunging the quiet hideaway into darkness.
Placing her hands flat on the cement railing, Ellie leaned forward, face tilted skyward, eyes closed. Her shoulders rose and fell with each breath, lips parted slightly. The pale light of the moon cast a silvery glow on everything it touched. When she turned to face him, her lips were set in a grim line, her fingers threaded tightly together in front of her.
“You’re making me nervous.” Nick’s chest tightened with worry, his elation forgotten. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her head and pulled her thin wrap tighter to ward off the chilly night air. Nick slipped his suit jacket off and wrapped it around her shoulders. Her expression softened, and she gazed into his eyes. “You always know exactly what I need.”
“You know me. If I can make life better, I’ll do what I can.”
“That’s why I needed to talk to you. There’s a lot going on with work, and I need you to help me with a few things.”
Relief flooded through him. He took her hands in his. “I’m glad you’re finally ready for a vacation. With everything you’ve been through, and getting shot twice in the past six months, I’m not surprised you’re rethinking things. Stepping away is good. It will give you time to really figure out if this is the right path for you—”
“What?” She pulled her hands from his, taking a step back. “What are you talking about? I can’t take a vacation right now.”
He pulled back, searching her face. “I thought you were on leave.”
“I start restricted duty tomorrow.”
Disappointment hit him like a fist. “So, you’re going back already? Are you sure that was enough time?”
“I’m fine. I could’ve gone back to work the same week, but Fortis is such a hard-ass, he wanted me to take more time to recuperate.”
“Okay, then I guess I don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Ellie frowned, letting out a quick, exasperated breath. “It’s funny. My mom finally starts to see things my way, and then you’re ready to whisk me away to some deserted island getaway at the first sign of trouble.” She laughed, but the sound held no humor. “It figures, the minute I have my mom in my corner that you would flip.”
Her words stung like a slap. “That’s not how I meant it.”
“Then what did you mean?”
“I just want you to be safe. That’s all. Everyone needs a break now and then, and you’ve been through so much in the past few months.” He took a step forward and put his hand on her arm, wishing he’d let her explain before he opened his mouth. By trying to anticipate her needs, he’d made a mess of things. She was upset, and he wasn’t sure he could fix it. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been missing you a lot, but I know you can’t just leave when things are this intense at work. I was trying to be supportive, and it came out sounding like I’m an ass. Whatever you need me to do, I’m here for you. No judgment. No ulterior motives. And I promise not to try to persuade you to leave your career for a life of leisure. That’s not what I’m here for.”
Her shoulders visibly relaxed, and she placed a hand over his. “I know that, Nick. I do. But I don’t need to be coddled, and if I need to get away, believe me, you’ll be the first to know.” She inhaled a deep breath, straightening her shoulders, and he could tell she was preparing herself for what she had to say next. He braced himself. “What I need from you is bigger than a last-minute vacation. This isn’t the kind of thing I can trust just anyone with, which is why I wanted you out here alone.” She gave him a wry grin, blinking emerald eyes up at him. “If I’d known you were bringing me to a surprise party with my whole family, I would’ve broached the subject in the car on the drive over.”
“Whatever it is, you know all you have to do is ask.”
“That’s good, because you’re the only person I can depend on right now, aside from Jillian. I need a favor, Nick, and it’s a big one. But you can’t tell a soul. Even my family.”
She looked so serious that a spider of unease crawled across his skin. “All right.”
“No, Nick. I need you to promise that what I’m about to ask you stays between you and me.”
“I swear,” he said solemnly.
It was an eternity before she finally nodded. “Good, because if I’m going to keep Valerie Price safe long enough for her to testify, I need all the help I can get.”
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