A Taste of... Dark Purpose

Chapter One

Maddie Hanley walked down Brockman Street, sticking to the shade as much as possible as she followed the same route home from school she took every day. During the cooler months, she didn’t mind that her route took her through the outskirts of Savannah’s Historic District, one of the few places where the live oaks didn’t explode everywhere like some tree lover’s wet dream. Today, it was hot, though. She’d kill for a little extra shade.

She fanned herself with the hem of her t-shirt to try to cool off, not that it did any good. Even with the scattered clouds, the air was thick with humidity. The kind of weather that made being outside feel like hanging out in her cramped bathroom at home with the door closed and a steaming shower running at full force. The kind that only grew worse as May rolled into the hotter summer months.

Just one more week of school, and then she could swim in water instead of her own sweat.

She used her bare arm to swipe the moisture from her forehead, making a face when she realized how pointless it was. Her arm was just as gross as the rest of her, so she’d basically just mixed her arm and forehead sweat together like some kind of weird chemistry experiment.

Great.

She already regretted not accepting that ride home from Donny, the senior who lived a few houses down from her. He was so annoying, though. Always bragging about his grades and how he was going to get to UGA on a band scholarship.

That was why Maddie was planning on getting out of this hellhole. Not because of the senior or even just the heat, although that totally played a role. Mostly, she was sick of her parents, always up in her business. She couldn’t wait to get her driver’s license when she turned sixteen in a couple months, though she’d be shocked if her overprotective dad would let her get a car.

School sucked too. If it weren’t for seeing her friends during lunch, she’d lose her freaking mind. What was the point of classes like Geometry? She sucked at math and had zero interest in being a mathematician when she grew up. Not that she knew for sure what she wanted to be, but definitely something cooler than that. Like maybe a journalist or a party planner.

She was pretty sure neither of those careers required knowing the hypotenuse of some stupid triangle.

Maddie crossed the empty street and hopped up onto the sidewalk. The only good thing about the heat was it meant the school year was almost over. Soon, there’d be no more classes or homework, freeing her up to spend more time with Kevin.

Kevin.

Tingles raced through her body as she thought about her boyfriend. So far, the farthest she and Kevin had gone was making out because her parents were freaks. Like, so uptight. They wouldn’t even allow Kevin in her bedroom with the door closed. How stupid was that? Depriving teens of privacy should be against the law.

Maddie cut through the same abandoned lot she always did, veering over to a patch of weeds and kicking an empty beer can someone had chucked. Tonight would be different, though. Tonight, she and Kevin planned to sneak off to his older brother’s apartment to mess around. No open doors, and definitely no nosy parents.

I could become a real woman tonight.

Giddiness made her dance a few steps onto the adjacent street before she caught herself and slowed her pace. Cheeks hot, she glanced around to make sure no one had witnessed her dorkiness, but the neighborhood was empty as usual. If any kids from her school lived on this block, she’d be surprised because she’d never run into them before. The homes were more beat up than the ones on nearby streets. The yards were a mess, with weeds as high as Maddie’s thighs in places, and the driveways were full of junker cars. One of the houses even looked deserted, with boarded-up windows that creeped her out a little.

The black SUV across the street was probably the nicest car around, all sparkling clean and new looking. Maddie had first noticed the SUV a week or so ago, parked across the street from the abandoned lot, and it hadn’t moved since. Probably belonged to a contractor from one of those construction companies her dad was always bitching about. He’d been all bent out of shape one day over the weekend when someone from that neighborhood tattle app complained that they’d spotted two construction workers sleeping in their truck at five in the morning.

Maddie rolled her eyes. Seriously? Who cared if someone wanted to sleep in their car? Adults were so weird, always sticking their noses into other people’s business.

Her dad was a dick too, so there was that.

She spared one last glance at the SUV before shrugging. Whoever owned it was smart because they’d sprung for tinted windows. Probably because they wanted privacy from freaks like her parents. She could totally relate.

Maddie’s phone blasted her favorite rap song from her bag, and she paused to dig it out from beneath a tangle of papers. “Abby, whassup?”

Her best friend launched right into her mile-a-minute babble. “Oh my god, can you believe it’s finally Friday? That week took like a thousand years. I’m so ready to be done with school for, like, forever. Are we still good to hang out tomorrow night? There’s a movie I really want to see, plus I need new shorts because it’s already so freaking hot and all my old shorts from last year are gross. Oooh, and I heard Jeff Swanson talking about going to that party at Tyler’s. I swear, could that boy be any hotter?”

Abby finally paused for air, making Maddie smile. “Could which one be hotter, Tyler or Jeff?” She shouldered her bag and headed into the empty street. The sidewalk was so messed up and uneven that the last time she’d tried to talk and walk, she’d tripped and skinned the shit out of her knees and hands.

She definitely did not plan to show up for her date with Kevin tonight with oozing scabs.

“Does it matter? I’d jump either one of those delicious man-morsels in a hot second.”

Maddie giggled as the asphalt heated the bottom of her shoes. “Okay, big talker. I expect to see that in action next time we’re out.”

Abby was so funny. Anyone listening to her would think she was some kind of uber-confident sex maniac who’d tapped more ass than a rock star, when in reality, Abby froze up when it came to talking to boys in person.

She prattled on in Maddie’s ear about some stupid thing her mom had done while Maddie paused to wipe the fresh sweat off her face. Only a few blocks, thank god. The first thing she was going to do when she got home was jump into a cold shower and wash away the slime.

Showing up for her date reeking of BO was even worse than concrete rash.

“What you got going on tonight?”

Kevin. Lots and lots of Kevin.

Maddie stifled a giggle. “It’s my mom’s birthday, and we’re supposed to go out for some family dinner.”

Maddie didn’t add that she planned on skipping out by saying she had a school project that couldn’t wait. Since she really did have a project due on Monday, it wasn’t a total lie.

Though, if she was lying, it was her parents’ fault. If they weren’t so controlling and weird about her personal life, she wouldn’t have to sneak around like some freaking juvenile delinquent just to be with her boyfriend. Like, why couldn’t her parents be more like her friend Gina’s, who was allowed to have sex in her own room? Gina’s mom had even taken her to the doctor and got her on birth control.

So not fair.

Abby babbled on about the last birthday party her mom had, where one of the neighbors drank so many margaritas they puked in Abby’s kitchen sink. “It was so gross. Like, why not try to get to the bath…” Abby groaned then dropped her voice to a whisper. “I gotta go. My mom’s screaming at me about something again, and I don’t want to lose my phone. Later!”

“Bye.” Maddie hung up and stuck the phone back in her bag.

Only a few hours until I’m at Kevin’s. Oh god, what am I going to wear?

Good thing she’d done her laundry last night. At least she was sure she had clean underwear. None of them were Victoria’s Secret exciting or anything. She supposed that one black-and-white polka-dotted pair was kind of cute, except, ugh, were polka dots too little kid-ish?

As Maddie performed a mental inventory of the contents of her dresser drawers, an SUV flew past her before slamming on the brakes and blocking her path.

“Chill out, dude.” Maybe those stories she’d read about delivery drivers being under too much pressure and having to pee in bottles instead of stopping for bathroom breaks were true because this person was driving like a jackass.

She hadn’t reached the bumper yet when the driver’s side door popped open. Curious now, Maddie checked out the person who jumped out. He was a tall man, wearing jeans and a gray, long-sleeved hoodie pulled up over his head.

No uniform. Maddie wasn’t sure if delivery people even wore uniforms anymore. Damn, though. He must be sweating his balls off in that outfit today.

She took another few steps before stopping short.

The SUV was black, with dark-tinted windows.

The same one from down the block?

Beneath the sweat, Maddie’s skin turned cold. Not a delivery driver or a construction worker.

She hesitated, telling herself not to be an idiot. The guy probably had a perfectly good reason for moving his car.

To the middle of the street, right in front of you?

Okay, yeah, that was a little sketch, but it wasn’t like he was coming for her or—

Before she could finish the thought, the man charged. Panic froze her in place as every horror story from the news flashed through her head.

Kidnapping. Rape. Murder.

This was exactly how teen girls disappeared.

That split second of hesitation cost her. By the time she whirled to run, he’d narrowed the gap between them. Fear pounded her body, pushing her legs to pump harder. Blood thundered in her ears. Were those her shoes smacking the asphalt, or was he gaining on her?

Faster, faster, he’s going to catch you.

Panting, she poured on the speed, craning her head to peer over her shoulder, and—

An arm wrapped around her neck and yanked her off her feet.

Maddie gasped for air as the pressure squeezed her throat shut. Her backpack was jerked off before she reached up to claw and pull at the arm, anything to release that iron grip.

“Help!” Her scream was useless, more like a croak as the stranger bent her over his hip and dragged her backward.

Maddie dug her heels into the asphalt, her lungs burning from lack of oxygen. She thrashed and struggled, but nothing worked.

Suddenly, he stopped moving, and she threw all her remaining strength into escape. She had to. She’d heard the stories of girls who were snatched off the streets and tossed into cars. No one ever saw them again.

Maddie bucked against his grip, and the pressure around her throat loosened. Hope barely had time to surge in her chest before he’d grabbed both of her arms and twisted them behind her back.

Zip! A stinging pressure bit into her wrists, and when Maddie tried to pull them apart, the pain increased. Her legs started to shake as an intense wave of terror swept her body. He’d zip-tied her arms together.

No more time.

Maddie gasped for air, trying to suck enough oxygen into her lungs to scream. The next moment, her body was wrenched sideways, and she was flying headfirst into the open back of the vehicle.

Her shoulder struck the floor, followed by her cheek. White-hot pain shot through her face, stealing her breath as she rolled onto her back. Her scream was cut off by a thick wad of cloth stuffed inside her mouth, choking her all over again.

As she bucked and squirmed and tried to spit the cloth out, the man slapped a strip of duct tape over the gag, securing it in place. When he turned away, she kicked out at him. Her left foot struck his stomach, hard enough to make him grunt.

Take that!

Maddie’s triumph died with the fist that smashed into the side of her knee. Pain exploded in her joint, and she screamed…or at least tried. The gag muffled the noise to a squeak.

She was still writhing in pain when her feet were bound a moment later.

Through tear-blurred eyes, she watched the man jump out. He jogged over and grabbed her bag. He dug around and pulled out a turquoise object.

Her cell phone.

“No!” The gag swallowed her shriek.

Within seconds, he’d dropped it on the ground and brought his foot down on top of it with a loud crunch. Her hope shattered along with her beloved device.

No one could find her now. She was completely on her own.

When he returned and started to crawl inside, Maddie wiggled as far away as she could, sweat dripping down her back as he slammed the rear door shut. She cowered against the second row of seats, whimpering.

This is it. This is the part where he rips off your clothes and rapes you, and then sells you into sex trafficking.

Tears streaked down her cheeks. Why hadn’t she said yes when Donny asked if she’d wanted a ride home today?

The man scooted closer, so close that Maddie could smell his spicy cologne and sweaty armpits. Or maybe that was her sweat. Either way, she gagged.

It was a reminder that she would never get to shower or meet Kevin tonight.

Maddie sobbed harder, choking on her own tears as he reached for her jeans.

An object appeared in his hand. A knife? She started to shake violently, blinking to clear her vision.

Not a knife. A syringe.

Before she could flinch away, his hand swung. The needle stung her ass right through her jeans. The injection was still burning into her system when the man scrambled into the driver’s seat, and the engine turned over. Fresh terror exploded beneath Maddie’s skin when the floorboard rattled, and the SUV rolled forward.

Wherever this guy was taking her, it was nowhere good.

Last chance.

Maddie wiggled her bound legs closer to the rear window. Almost there, almost there. If she could just get close enough, maybe she could kick out the glass. Her legs were strong from walking every day.

She was so close when exhaustion crashed over her, worse than the morning after that last all-nighter she’d pulled with Abby over spring break. Her arms and legs stopped working properly.

So, so tired. If she could just close her eyes for a little bit…

Idiot, that has to be the drug! Get out of here, sleep later!

Maddie fought the grogginess for a few seconds, but her body and mind had other ideas. She was floating away. The sweet calm dragging her under was so peaceful that Maddie almost wanted to give in to the drug’s soothing pull. She reclined on her back, staring out the window as the world turned hazy.

“There you go. Nighty night.” A man’s chuckle followed. “I can already tell we’re going to have a lot of fun together.”

Maddie frowned at the unfamiliar voice that seemed like it was coming from the far end of a long, hollow tunnel. Who was talking? Where was she?

A pinprick of clarity pierced the fog, giving Maddie time for one final burst of terror.

Mom, please, help me…

That was Maddie’s last thought before she was swept away.

Chapter Two

Detective Charli Cross slouched in the driver’s seat of her four-door hybrid, polishing off the last bite of a double cheeseburger with ketchup only and washing it down with a slurp of soda. She wadded the paper wrapper into a tight ball and shoved it into the sack before carefully swiping her shirt to remove any crumbs and collecting them on the napkin spread across her lap. After she folded up the paper to trap all the crumbs inside, the napkin joined the wrapper in the bag.

She picked up the drink again, sucking on the straw as she studied the fancy house across the street from where she’d parked at the curb. This particular Savannah neighborhood was wealthy without being ostentatious, boasting traditional Southern-style houses set back on sprawling lots. The home she was currently scouting out was a two-story brick affair with white columns lining the porch. Deep green ivy climbed the sides and added a splash of color between the windows, and two large trees provided shade to a manicured lawn.

Dread crawled down her spine, making her slouch lower in the seat. There were plenty of things Charli didn’t look forward to—sticking her feet into those cold stirrups in the gynecologist’s office, dental surgery, short people jokes—but this visit topped the list.

Her boss knew how much she despised this type of job duty, but had that stopped Sergeant Ruth Morris from sending Charli? No, of course not. When Charli had asked why they couldn’t just take care of this at the precinct, Ruth had lowered her head and fixed her with that flat Terminator-esque stare that made even the most senior officers squirm before grinding out the favorite reply of peeved parents everywhere.

“Because I said so, Charlotte.”

Charli cringed but didn’t say a word. Ruth eventually explained that Charli showing up at the Briggs’s house would make the matter more personal and comfortable.

Charli’s eyebrows had shot up her forehead. “For who?” She might as well have been talking to a wall for all the good it had done. Fitting, since Ruth seemed about as persuadable as an inanimate object most of the time.

Charli expelled a sigh before sucking on the straw again. No liquid came up this time, which meant she’d officially run out of procrastination excuses.

Let’s get this over with.

She climbed out of the car, brushed the few remaining crumbs off her pants, and headed across the street. Damn. It was only the first week of September, and it was still hot as a furnace outside.

She all but dragged her way up the three steps that led to the front door, stopping on the porch to smooth her blazer and her hair. Her finger hovered an inch from the doorbell.

Charli stared at the white circle for far too long before jabbing it. If the order had come from anyone but her boss, she might have dug in her heels. One didn’t argue with Sergeant Ruth Morris, though. As a fifty-three-year-old Black woman, Sergeant Morris had experienced more than her fair share of hostility over the years. As a result, she had no patience for “attitude” in the department. Mess with her orders, and she’d punt you to desk work faster than you could say “oopsies.”

The musical “ding dong” was still echoing through the house when the door swung open, and a beaming face greeted her. “Detective Cross, so good to see you again. Please, come in.”

Peter Briggs was an attractive man with deep brown hair and a strong jawline. He motioned for her to enter, so Charli stepped into a high-ceilinged entryway with walnut-colored hardwood flooring that matched the banisters on the dual staircases that swept upstairs from each side.

Peter’s wife, Shelly, popped into view and ushered Charli toward the back of the house. “This way, Detective Cross.”

Charli allowed herself to be herded between the staircases and into an elegant living room overlooking a lush backyard. Shelly gestured at a sunny yellow couch with skinny, delicate legs that seemed to defy physics in holding the piece up. Pretending like she hadn’t noticed, Charli scooted past and claimed a sturdy yellow-and-blue wingback chair instead.

As soon as Charli’s butt hit the cushion, Shelly rushed up, bearing a gleaming silver tray. “Please, help yourself to a cookie. I baked them fresh today.”

Charli brightened, plucking a napkin from a short stack. After careful deliberation, she selected the biggest cookie with the most chocolate chips. Finally, a perk to this excruciating assignment. The double cheeseburger she’d eaten in the car had barely made a dent. “Thank you.”

Shelly hovered a foot away, nibbling her lower lip and watching her like a hawk. “Is the cookie okay? If you don’t like it, I can get you something else.”

Charli wasn’t sure how she could possibly know if the cookie was okay since she had yet to take a bite. The intense scrutiny made her twitchy, though, almost killing her appetite.

Almost.

This cookie had better be good, Ruth.

Feeling a little like an animal exhibit at the zoo, Charli nibbled off a tiny piece. Mmmm. Okay, Ruth was vindicated. “It’s delicious, thank you.”

Shelly beamed at her. “I’m so glad.” Turning, she set the tray back on the table and held up a finger. “Hang on just a second.”

“Okay.” Not like Charli could go anywhere anyway.

Shelly scurried over to the stairs and cupped her hands to her mouth. “Michael, come on down. Detective Cross is here, and I know you’ve been dying to thank her.”

Charli chewed off a massive bite of cookie to hide her groan. Sure, I bet that’s exactly what the poor kid has been begging to do.

A few seconds later, footsteps clanked down the stairs, and seven-year-old Michael appeared. The last time she’d seen the little boy, she’d been rescuing him from his biological father and Shelly’s ex-husband, who’d decided to kidnap Michael when the courts refused to up his visitation rights. That night, he’d been trembling and pale.

Charli studied him as he entered the room, pleased to note the healthy pink cheeks and lack of fear. He did, however, tug at the collar of his short-sleeved polo shirt, his uncomfortable expression reflecting Charli’s mood perfectly.

You and me both, kid.

She toyed with the idea of faking an emergency call and bolting, but Ruth’s stern voice echoed in her head.

“Don’t you dare mess this up, Cross! You sit your ass down and smile and suck up whatever that family has to say, and be glad it’s not a damned complaint. The way things are playing out in the court of public opinion lately, we can’t afford to pass up any good PR opportunities that come our way. Understand?”

Charli did understand. Unfortunately.

She forced her lips upward and prayed the expression didn’t resemble one from her school yearbook photos. The photographers were forever nagging her to smile, a tactic that might have worked on her classmates but with Charli was an epic fail.

Even at a young age, she’d bristled whenever someone told her what to do.

Pretty much every school photo had ended up with her either appearing pissed off or constipated, to the point it had become an inside joke between her and her mom.

Pain twisted her heart, making the already fake smile even harder to hold. Luckily, Shelly and Peter Briggs seemed too tickled with her presence to notice. They both settled on the sunny yellow couch, with little Michael squirming between them.

Charli’s gaze flickered to the spindly legs. How was that thing even standing? One day soon, those legs would cede the battle to mass and gravity. Designers who sacrificed form and function for the sake of appearance would never cease to baffle her.

Peter cleared his throat. “We just wanted you to come by so we could thank you personally for rescuing our little boy.”

Shelly nodded. “Yes, we all owe you our eternal gratitude for helping us through that terrible time. There aren’t very many true heroes in the world anymore, but you’re definitely one of them.”

Charli clenched her knees together to keep herself from squirming. Ruth was definitely back on her shit list. “I’m glad I was able to help.”

How much longer?

Shelly turned to her son. “You remember Detective Charlotte Cross, don’t you, sweetie? Isn’t there something you wanted to say to her, Michael?”

The little boy fidgeted with his belt loop. When he finally spoke, he mumbled the words without glancing up. “Thank you for saving me, Detective Cross.” Michael scooted closer to his mother and buried his face in her side.

Charli wished she could hide her face too. So. Much. Awkward. “That’s so kind of you to say, Michael, but really, I was just doing my job. And please call me Charli.”

“Well, then, you perform your job exceedingly well.” Peter Briggs ruffled Michael’s hair while Shelly Briggs sniffled, her head still bobbing up and down.

“Yes, how can we ever begin to thank you enough? That whole ordeal was so awful. I knew that George,” Mrs. Briggs gave a delicate shudder and checked on Michael as she uttered her ex-husband’s name, but the boy didn’t stir, “wasn’t happy with the custody arrangement, but I never would have guessed he’d stoop to kidnapping.”

A snort came from the opposite side of the loveseat. “Well, maybe you should have guessed. It’s not like George has ever been a real stand-up guy, is it?”

Her husband’s mild tone was belied by the accusation underlining his words. Charli knew it, and Shelly Brigg’s flattened smile said she did too.

A tense silence followed. One Charli filled by mentally cursing Ruth for sending her on this painful excursion in the first place.

And by grabbing another cookie.

After a huffed breath, Shelly sat up straighter and jerked her chin toward Michael. “Like I’ve mentioned before, I’d rather save discussions of George for more private conversations.”

Peter Briggs shook his head and gave a humorless chuckle. “Right. Because Mikey can’t figure out for himself that his bio dad is a loser after being kidnapped by him for five days.”

Charli stuffed another chunk of cookie into her mouth to prevent sharing a statistic on the percentage of children kidnapped by their biological parents each year. Not everyone appreciated a good statistic as much as she did.

Shelly Briggs cleared her throat. “I’m sure Detective Cross didn’t come here to listen to us squabble.”

No. Charli Cross didn’t. The awkward gratitude session had been bad enough without adding a shot of marital strife. As a consolation prize, she snatched a third cookie. “These cookies really are delicious, Mrs. Briggs, and it does no one any good placing blame on each other.” Poor woman. She’d just been through the wringer with her son and ex-husband, and now her current one was raking her over the coals.

Shelly shot her a grateful smile. “Thank you. I enjoy baking. It’s stress relief for me.” Her mouth tightened. “I used to do a lot more before Peter decided to go on a keto diet.”

Charli stopped mid-chew, her gaze darting to the front door like a cornered animal.

Don’t do it. Ruth will bench you for a month if you pull a dine and dash.

Still, the tension crackling through the room made her scoot her hips toward the edge of the chair. Just in case.

“Yes, I’m trying to stay healthy for Michael. Is that so wrong? I’m sorry if I’m raining on your inner Betty Crocker parade.”

Charli choked on the last bite. Eyes watering, she pounded her chest and cleared her throat before grabbing a glass of sweet tea off the table and guzzling it down.

She slanted an accusatory glare at the silent phone in her pocket. Were all the criminals on vacation or what?

Somehow, she managed to survive another excruciating ten minutes of the Briggs’s appreciation for her efforts, mixed with their needled barbs.

Her heart softened when she focused on the kid. Poor Michael. No wonder he hadn’t wanted to come downstairs.

When Peter Brigg’s phone rang and he rose from the couch to answer, Charli was prepared. She sprang to her feet and powered toward the entryway. “Thank you for having me over, but I really do need to get back to work now.”

Shelly popped up behind her. “I understand. I’m sure you must be busy. Here, let me walk you out.” She rushed past Charli to open the door.

Charli was almost free and clear when, without warning, Shelly flung her arms around her neck. “Thank you again for rescuing my baby.”

The second Shelly’s hands clutched her, Charli froze. Oh no. Nooo. Shelly Briggs was a hugger.

She probably should have guessed and kept her distance or faked a cough, but it was too late now. The hugging was already underway.

Thankfully, Charli had both enough experience with the loathsome squishing of bodies together and enough discipline to ignore the instincts screaming at her to bolt like a scalded cat, the way she used to as a girl whenever her hug-loving grandpa from Virginia came to visit.

Charli’s hands hovered in the air, inches away from Shelly’s back. She should probably pat the woman on the shoulder or something but couldn’t quite bring herself to make that additional contact.

Shelly seemed too busy sniffling when she finally stepped back to notice. They exchanged awkward goodbyes before Charli hurried down the walkway at about three times the speed of her arrival.

When she climbed into her car and slammed the door, she released a giant sigh of relief. That had been every bit as awful as she’d anticipated, but the ordeal was over now.

She patted her pocket. At least she’d managed to grab two cookies for the road before making her escape.

The cookies almost made the trip worth it.

Almost.

Charli snapped on her seat belt and released the parking brake before steering the car onto the road toward the precinct. She flipped through the radio stations, cranking up the volume when an old Beastie Boys song came on and tapping the steering wheel in time to the beat.

Just before the final chorus, her phone shrilled. The radio silenced as Bluetooth kicked in and commandeered the speakers. “Detective Charli Cross speaking.”

“So, how’d it go, Smalls? Did the theme song from Full House play in the background while Mr. and Mrs. Briggs gushed over you?”

“It went fine, Bigs.” Charli emphasized her partner’s despised nickname as payback.

Smalls. She wrinkled her nose. Charli’s short stature meant people already treated her like a cute teen or talked down to her. She definitely didn’t need a cutesy nickname making things worse.

“Really? So, you didn’t chew off your own leg and make a run for it? Damn, there goes my twenty-dollar bet.”

Matthew’s reply surprised a snicker out of Charli as she pulled to a complete stop at a red light, scanning for cars in both directions before making a right turn. “No, but I definitely thought about it. Especially when Mrs. Briggs gave me a surprise hug at the end.”

Her partner’s sympathetic groan filled the car. “Noooo, really?”

“Yup.”

“What did you do?”

Charli rolled her eyes. “What do you think I did? I shoved her away and told her she’d better brush up on the basics of consent. Obviously.” She was careful to keep her delivery matter-of-fact.

A second or two of silence followed her remark before Matthew cursed under his breath. “Dammit, Charli, you almost had me that time.”

Charli smiled as she flicked on her turn signal. “I promise, I only thought about shoving her away, all while praying she wasn’t crushing the two cookies I’d shoved into my pocket. The important takeaway is, both me and the cookies emerged unscathed.”

“Whew, what a relief. Cookie crumbs can be a bitch to remove from pockets. Save one for me?”

“Not on your life. I earned those things.” Charli’s conscience pinged a little, and she sighed. “Mr. and Mrs. Briggs were very appreciative and seem like decent people. I feel bad for the kid, though. I’m not sure their marriage will survive the kidnapping.”

They razzed each other a little more before Charli ended the call. “See you back at the precinct in a few.”

Before the radio could retake control of the speakers, Bluetooth announced an incoming text from her dad in a robotic female voice: We still on for dinner tonight?

She dictated the return message: Yup, looking forward to it.

Not even a lie, as long as the meal at her dad’s house turned out to be for dinner as advertised and not another opportunity for him to launch into a spiel criticizing her life choices. By now, she was pretty sure she could recite them by heart.

She curled her fingers around the steering wheel before easing her grip. Her dad loved her and meant well. Still, his disapproval of her job as a detective stung. Even when she was younger, Jason Cross hadn’t quite understood Charli, always wondering why she wasn’t bubbly like his friends’ daughters, or more into dancing and dresses, or at least more into interests that fit the typical Southern daughter mold.

Her dad never seemed to see the real Charli. Or maybe he did and just refused to accept she was a little left of center.

She’d been lucky, though, and had a couple of friends in high school. Well, two exactly. Rebecca Larson and Madeline Ferguson. Charli and Rebecca had been fairly close, but Madeline was the only human who truly got her. Madeline had been her best friend…right up until some bastard murdered her at age sixteen.

The next person who’d come closest to grasping Charli’s off-frequency wavelength was her mom. Pain sucked the air from Charli’s lungs, wrenching her ribs and burning her chest.

Two years had passed since lung cancer had taken Carrie Cross from them. The diagnosis had come unexpectedly because her mom had never smoked a day in her life. The cancer hadn’t cared, though, spreading like wildfire and stealing her mom so much faster than the experts had predicted.

Charli’s eyes burned. Her mom had appreciated her for the daughter she was rather than the daughter she’d hoped her to be. Her dad managed to make Charli feel like a failure for staying true to herself instead of settling down with a family like he wanted.

She grimaced as she cruised down the street. Her dad didn’t even get her well enough to understand her deep-seated drive to achieve. If he did, he’d know why she devoted most of her time to the job.

At work, she had a good shot at succeeding.

Ten minutes later, Charli parked in her usual spot and headed inside. Out of the four precincts in Savannah, this one was the oldest, with all the offices housed in an unimposing three-story brick building that sat on the edge of a graveyard.

Charli entered the lobby at a brisk pace and made her way upstairs toward the small office she shared with her partner. Several pairs of eyes tracked her progress, but she ignored them. Not her problem some of the uniformed officers were jealous of her quick transition to detective. She’d never win a popularity contest around here. She could live with that.

Especially since being popular typically translated into a willingness to bitch and gossip all day long. Charli would rather peel off her own skin and set it on fire than be subjected to twenty-four-seven whining about missing out on promotions or speculating over who was banging whom.

When she burst into their cramped little office, Matthew paused over his laptop keyboard to examine her. As usual, his button-down shirt and thinning dark hair were equally rumpled. One from his inability to keep his possessions tidy for longer than five minutes, and the other from his habit of dragging his hand across his scalp when he was deep in thought.

He chuckled. “What, no fruit basket or t-shirt that says, ‘Best Detective Ever’? Gotta say I’m a little disappointed.”

“Really?” She was tempted to flip him off but refrained. “When’s the last time you ate a piece of fruit, huh?”

He scrunched up his broad face and pretended to think that over. “Does a protein smoothie count?” When Charli narrowed her eyes, he busted out into a grin. “Okay, okay, you win. I didn’t really care about the fruit basket. The shirt is still a real bummer, though.”

“Right. That’d go over about as well as that terrible elephant joke you told me yesterday did.”

“Hey!” Matthew looked genuinely offended. “That was a great joke. I can’t help it if you don’t appreciate my sophisticated sense of humor.”

Charli snorted as she arranged her bag neatly on the shelf below her desk. “It was a knock-knock joke. And it didn’t even make sense.”

He scratched his chin. “Yeah, come to think of it, that wasn’t my best offering.”

The smile left his face when she collapsed into her chair with a soft groan. “Seriously, though, you do okay on that visit?”

Charli softened at her partner’s concern. He knew how much she hated the non-detective part of the job, like dealing with the public in a one-on-one capacity or accepting kudos for simply performing her job. Out of the few people she had left, Matthew probably understood her the best. Not as good as her mom had, or Madeline, but it was something.

“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks, though.”

He grunted and returned his attention to his laptop.

“What’re you working on there?”

Matthew shrugged. “Just wrapping up a report on that drug bust that went bad. Nothing new came down the pike except for some small-time stuff.”

That meant no new homicides, a fact for which Charli was grateful on a personal level. Professionally, though, she enjoyed a challenge. “How small are we talking?”

“One of them is a vandalism case, if that answers your question.”

Charli drooped. Ugh. Property crimes were the least interesting to her, especially lower-level ones like vandalism. She’d entered the police force to help solve murders and bring peace and closure to victims’ loved ones. Ease their pain, if only a little.

Buildings didn’t have feelings.

Three sharp raps rattled the door. Without waiting for an invitation, Sergeant Ruth Morris blew into their office, her cropped black curls gleaming beneath the artificial light. “I need both of you in Conference Room A, stat.”

Her boss’s full lips were flat, and a muscle near her right eye twitched. She glared at both of them before pivoting and marching out.

Matthew and Charli exchanged a glance.

Murder face? Matthew mouthed as they trailed their sergeant to the conference room.

Charli nodded. Definitely.

Looked like the vandalism case would be someone else’s problem.

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