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Mary Stone - Dark Suspicion (Charli Cross Mystery Series Book 9)

A Taste of… Dark Suspicion

Chapter One

Thatcher Garner lined up his shot. On the thirteenth hole, he was behind by several strokes. The old bastard he was playing with was tricky. In more ways than one.

Scowling, Thatcher wiped the sweat from his brow. The late October weather wasn’t overly warm, but his stress levels were elevated. He might have to talk to the doctor about getting some kind of anxiety medication until this whole thing blew over.

On any other day, golf was therapeutic. The game bored him when he was a kid, but eight years ago, as a freshman in college, he’d gone with a bunch of buddies during midterms and found playing calmed him down and helped him focus.

Thatcher prided himself on playing a pretty good game. And usually, not much fazed him. Today, though, was different. His opponent was a much more experienced player, and he’d managed to rattle him.

The bastard.

He should’ve been suspicious at the invitation to play in the first place. Thatcher didn’t see the point in joining one of the exclusive golf clubs, unlike his family and friends, who shelled out an outrageous amount of money for memberships. So he never looked a free invitation to tee time in the mouth.

He’d never play another hole with Mr. Bastard again, though, so he was going to make the most of it now.

Thatcher tried hard to calm his chaotic thoughts as he lined up his swing. If his hands didn’t stop shaking, there was no way he’d win the game. And Mr. Bastard had dropped a bomb on him three holes back with that in mind—to ensure he lost.

Reeling from shock, anger, and resentment, Thatcher found this was one problem that even focusing on the perfect backswing didn’t seem to be helping.

Just breathe. Focus. Line up. Breathe some more. Swing.

Thatcher hit the ball, and it sailed through the air straight and true. An absolute miracle given his current state of mind. With a grim smile, he stepped back as his opponent teed up.

“Nice. I’m sure I can beat it, though.” Mr. Bastard had that annoying, ever-present smirk securely in place.

A hot ball of rage settled into the pit of Thatcher’s stomach.

As Mr. Bastard took his stance, Thatcher knew exactly what to say. “I’m going to marry Claire. I don’t care who objects.”

The timing of his announcement couldn’t have been any more perfect, making Mr. Bastard chip his shot. Thatcher swallowed a laugh.

Eyes darkening, Mr. Bastard spun around to face him. “You can’t, and you know why.”

Thatcher lifted his chin in defiance. “It doesn’t matter.” The words were true. The moment he’d met Claire, he’d ceased caring about anything else in the world. The chemistry between them was electric. And the sense of joy and contentment when he was around her made all his other worries fade away.

Rage contorted Mr. Bastard’s features. “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?”

With a snarl, Thatcher squared his shoulders. The anger he’d held in for the last three rounds bubbled to the surface. “Because I don’t give a damn where she comes from, and she doesn’t care where I do either. I love her, and she loves me, and that’s more than enough to build a life on. You’ll keep your damn mouth shut around her too. I don’t want you dragging her down with all your bullshit.”

Mr. Bastard took a step toward him. “Now, you listen to—”

“No, you listen to me.” Standing his ground, Thatcher took a deep breath. There was a lot to consider, but he’d done plenty of thinking since the tenth hole. “I don’t care if kids are an impossibility. Hell, if we ever actually wanted any screaming brats, we could foster or adopt.”

“You sick son of a bitch.”

“Look who’s talk—”

A fist slammed into Thatcher’s face, and stars exploded in his vision. Warm, sticky blood poured from his nose, and he staggered until the wave of dizziness passed. This was the last straw. Every bit of hatred and fear and disgust he’d been holding back rushed through his system, setting him on fire.

With a growl, he lunged forward, raining blows on Mr. Bastard’s soft midsection. Fear flashed across his face, fueling Thatcher’s frenzy.

“Put your enemy on the ground and make sure he never gets up.”

When Thatcher was growing up, his grandfather—a savvy businessman—had told him that over and over, before a heart attack had taken him down.

Mr. Bastard fell backward, hitting the ground with a sickening thud.

Thatcher leaped forward to press his advantage, every ounce of control gone. “I’m going to kill you, you lying, cheating bastard. You’ll never come near us again!”

As he lay sprawled on his back, the color drained from the asshole’s face. “Stop, please! Get ahold of yourself!”

Any vestiges of control Thatcher’d had left were gone. “You’re the last person who should be giving me advice about anything.”

Like a boxer in the ring, he threw punch after punch, the man cowering in the fetal position. How long did he have before his organs began to rupture?

It’s not fair.

Punch.

None of it’s fair!

Punch.

How dare he drag me all the way out here just to dump all this on me? He deserves everything that’s coming to him.

Tears of rage streamed down Thatcher’s face as he raised his fist for another blow. The bastard rolled over as he clutched his middle. Inching forward, he grasped one of the golf clubs.

Oh, no, you don’t.

Thatcher jerked back, but he wasn’t fast enough.

The club smashed into his shin, pain radiating through his leg. Toppling over into a heap, he sucked in a ragged breath. Roles reversed, his opponent stood over him, club in hand. Thatcher pushed himself up on his hands. He had to get back on his feet.

The heavy, polished club crashed into the side of his head. Once again, pain surged through him, along with a horrible, sickening sense of wrongness.

Flat on his back, Thatcher stared up at the sky. The sun was sinking toward the horizon, and the last remaining moments of daylight were running out. Just like his time.

“Thatcher! What have you made me do? Talk to me, Thatcher.” Panic suffused Mr. Bastard’s voice.

Thatcher wanted to fight back, but he couldn’t speak, couldn’t feel his limbs…

I’m dying.

The realization hit him like a sucker punch to the gut as blood pooled in his left eye and obscured his already fading vision.

Claire.

What will happen to her?

Claire, I’m so sorry.

That thought stayed with Thatcher as he drifted into nothingness.

Chapter Two

No!

A wave of heat hit Detective Charlotte Cross in the face, and she threw her arms up to protect herself. Her partner had just gotten into his truck in front of her parents’ home, and the vehicle had turned into a fireball.

Matthew! No!

Even through the ringing in her ears and the confusion screaming in her head, Charli heard the front door open at her back and Agent Preston Powell taking control. “Cassie! Call 911. Tell them we need an ambulance, a fire truck, and a couple of squad cars. We need everything!”

Adrenaline surged through Charli, spiking her heart rate as her world spun in slow motion.

She stumbled forward. There was no way someone could survive a fiery explosion like that, was there? As much as she dreaded what she might find, she had to look. Charli found her balance and sprinted toward the truck with Preston on her heels.

Please be alive, Matt.

Bits of flaming debris rained down, and she did what she could to dodge them. Cinders fell in her hair, followed by an acrid scent of burning, but she couldn’t stop. If there was any hope whatsoever, every second counted. Charli skidded to a halt as close to the blazing wreck of the truck as she dared, peering inside.

Detective Matthew Church wasn’t in the cab.

What the hell?

Preston yelled from the driver’s side of the vehicle. “He’s over here!”

Charli rounded the crumpled hood, giving the raging fire a wide berth. A few feet away, Matthew lay sprawled on his back, a blaze engulfing his shirt and the terrible black vampire cape he’d been wearing to pass out Halloween candy.

As Preston rolled him over, squelching the flames against the pavement, Charli ran up to help, pulling off her beloved jacket and throwing the garment over Matthew, patting up and down his back to put out the final tendrils. The fire continued to rage in the truck, waves of heat blasting her like a furnace.

“We have to get him away from the fire.”

Smoke stung Charli’s eyes as she batted away tiny embers landing on her hair and skin. While she grabbed her partner’s feet, Preston took his shoulders. Together, they heaved him up, juggling his weight between them. His middle sagged toward the ground, his ankles slipping through Charli’s fingers bending back three of her fingernails before his heels the ground with a thud.

“Dammit!” The obscenity ripped from Charli’s throat as she bent down, coughing and spluttering as she grabbed her partner around the knees so she had a more secure grip. She heaved him up hard, adrenaline surging through her body. Preston gave her a quick nod of encouragement, and they shuffled as fast as they could away from the truck.

Every step up the driveway, heat from the flames licked at her back. If the embers drifting down were burning her now-exposed arms, she couldn’t feel them and didn’t have time to stop and worry.

When they reached the front porch, Charli and Preston took the stairs carefully before setting Matthew down on the painted wood. Preston’s car parked between them and the driveway shielded him from the heat.

“We should be far enough away to be safe, but I don’t want to move him any more than we have to.”

Charli agreed with Preston’s assessment, doubting her ability to move her partner much farther away anyway. She scanned him over, looking for signs of mass bleeding and finding none. “No major bleeding. Any airway obstructions?”

At Matthew’s head, Preston checked his mouth and shook his head. “He’s still breathing. That’s what we need to focus on right now.” He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Do you have this? I need to make sure people stay away from the area.”

Nodding, Charli checked Matthew’s vitals and scanned the rest of his body, trying to assess how much more damage there might be. Although he was breathing, he was unconscious. His charred shirt hung in tatters, revealing burns on his chest and shoulders. No minor bleeding that she could find. His silly vampire cape had solidified into a rubbery lump.

Another shoulder squeeze from Preston before he headed back down the driveway. “You’ve got this.”

Adjusting her battered jacket, Charli wrapped what remained around Matthew’s chest to help keep him warm. Burn victims could freeze to death without the necessary fat layers to regulate body temperature.

There could be internal injuries. I hope we didn’t hurt him by moving him.

Cell phone in hand, Cassie Daniels appeared in the doorway on crutches. After a close call with the kidnapper-killer from Charli’s most recent case, her sister had suffered a broken nose, cracked ribs, and a sprained ankle.

Cassie’s face blanched, and she swallowed several times. “Holy crap, he looks awful.”

Charli shifted, noting the burns on the right side of Matthew’s face. “His ear. A chunk is missing.”

Cassie thumped forward and batted at Charli’s hair. “You’re on fire!”

Leaping to her feet, Charli beat out the embers smoldering in her hair, heat nipping at her palms. Now that she was aware, the skin on her shoulders, arms, and back stung, and she twisted around. “Is there anything burning on my back?”

“No, but your shirt’s burned in a few places. The skin is red. I’ll get some burn cream.” Cassie side-eyed Matthew’s unconscious form, as if unable to face the damage. “For both of you.”

Charli considered the extensive chunks of angry red burned into Matthew’s flesh. A tiny tube of burn cream wouldn’t make a dent in that. “Don’t worry about it now. I’ll be fine.” She sank back down next to Matthew. “The EMTs will have to help him.”

“Okay. I need to check on the kids. I’ll be right back.” Cassie retreated with several hasty thumps of her crutches, as if Matthew’s injuries might jump to her.

Nodding, Charli focused on the burns to Matthew’s right ear. With the piece missing, he’d need some sort of reconstructive surgery and maybe even a skin graft, but at least most of the ear remained.

And he was alive.

She checked his hand for burns. Finding none, she gave one a gentle squeeze. “Just hang in there, Matt. You’re going to be okay.”

I hope.

Time began to lose meaning for Charli. It could have been three minutes or three years since the truck exploded. “Where’s the freaking ambulance?”

“It’s only been a few minutes.” Cassie was back out and beside her. “You’ve got to give them time to get here.”

“Just how long do you think he has?”

“A lot longer than if you hadn’t gone out there after him.”

Her sister was right. Charli knew she was. But everything around her was hazy.

It’s all the smoke.

Charli blinked, her eyes tearing from the fumes. As she strained to see farther down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of an ambulance, she squeezed his hand again. “You’re safe, Matt. It’s me, Charli, and I’m right here with you.”

At last, sirens shrilled in the distance.

Charli jumped up. “Cassie, will you stay with Matt?” Not waiting for an answer, she bolted down the steps.

A fire engine roared into sight first. As soon as it came to a stop, two firefighters jumped down from the truck. One began rolling out a hose as the other approached the scene. “Is anyone injured?”

“Over here!” Charli led the way to her partner. It seemed to take forever to cross the short distance back up the driveway.

Up on the porch, the firefighter bent over Matthew, an emergency kit in her hand. With fast, efficient movements, she did a quick assessment of his injuries. It wasn’t long before an ambulance pulled onto the scene, and Charli collected two paramedics, directing them to her partner.

Please be okay, Matt. Please.

As the minutes stretched into an eternity, the mantra played over and over in Charli’s mind. She stood nearby, trying to get a glimpse of the process over uniformed shoulders, unsure what to do with herself now.

How could she continue without Matthew? And Chelsea? How would his daughter ever survive without her dad? Since the divorce, Matthew’s relationship with her had been rocky, and they’d just recently begun to patch things up. Charli had just lost her own father, and that hole in her heart still hurt—she didn’t want to see Chelsea go through the same thing at only fifteen.

As the medics loaded her partner onto a stretcher and got him into the back of the ambulance, Preston wrapped a hand around Charli’s and pulled her to his car. “We’re right behind you!”

Safety is an illusion. Danger is real. 

Detective Charli Cross can’t escape the haunting image of her partner’s truck exploding right before her eyes. Was the bomb meant for him? Or for her? The cryptic messages from the man who kidnapped and murdered her best friend ten years ago suggest a more chilling answer.

Charli knows the clock is ticking. And she’s got a target on her back.

With her partner in the hospital, Charli doubles down on… Read More