Book Two in the Wildefire Trilogy: Midnight Lies

Midnight Lies

IT’S ALWAYS HOTTER AT MIDNIGHT

The winds of fate have blown cruelly on a family that once had it all: money, power, prestige. The lives of three beautiful daughters were forever changed when, on a sultry night in Midnight, Alabama, a murder-suicide shattered the Wilde family. The girls grew up to live separate lives but now have returned home, each to face a danger no one can see coming.
 
Former homecoming queen Samantha surprised everyone by going into law enforcement, but beneath her tough façade lies a wary heart. The tragedy that struck her family is an ever-present reminder that nothing is ever as it seems. When the man she loves, Quinn Braddock, a doctor and Iraq war veteran, is accused of murder, Samantha assumes the worst. Brokenhearted, her confidence shattered, she returns to Midnight. Though exonerated, Quinn still feels the sting of Samantha’s doubt, but he can’t forget his feelings for her and follows her. Soon after his arrival, a shocking murder terrifies the town, and once again, Quinn is under suspicion. This time, Samantha will not turn her back on the man she loves—even if it means walking into a killer’s trap.

 

Coming Soon!

Chapter One

Atlanta, Georgia
Five months ago

Charlene Braddock slammed her laptop closed and hurled it across the bedroom. The hard thud as it crashed against the wall gave her no satisfaction or relief. Jealousy and bitterness sizzled and burned like acid inside her. After three years of trying and failing to regain her ex-husband’s affections, she was no closer than the day he’d shoved the divorce papers in her face and demanded she sign them or else. Remembering that look in his eyes always made her shiver. He had been furious. Those steely blue eyes of his had blazed with a passion and intensity she had rarely seen. Instead of dissolving their marriage, she had wanted to tear off her clothes and let him work out all that anger and aggression on her body. When Quinn Braddock got worked up, her libido went into overdrive.

Of course she’d done nothing of the sort since she wouldn’t have received the response she desired. Quinn’s control was legendary. Fury might envelope him but it would never consume him. He kept his emotions on a tight leash. Even their final argument before he’d walked out the door for the last time hadn’t produced any drama. Sure there had been full-blown anger but he’d never let himself get out of control.

Not that Quinn was a cold fish. Oh no, there was definitely passion in him. She had felt and tasted its intensity. Early in their marriage, he had been insatiable. Back then, their apartment had been small and there hadn’t been a wall or flat surface where they hadn’t screwed like minxes.

His career had ruined them. Long hours of work had left her alone with too much time on her hands. Quinn was a gifted doctor with an excellent reputation. Nice for him but her life had become tedious. When she had complained about her boredom, Quinn’s solution had been for her to find a job or do volunteer work. She had wanted to laugh in his face. She was the wife of a physician—she didn’t have to do anything so mundane or common.

That was the day she’d gone out and had her first fling. Getting back at Quinn that way had given her immense satisfaction, so she had continued, discreetly, of course, enjoying the pleasures that illicit relationships could bring. Down and dirty sex with a variety of men brought delicious danger to a whole new level. Unfortunately, satisfaction from each encounter only provided a temporary fix. Charlene had still wanted more. More of what, she didn’t know. She had only known she wasn’t getting it from Quinn. It became a vicious circle. The more he pulled away from her, the more she had craved his attention, which increased her need to screw around even more.

It was all his fault. She had hoped one day he would understand that and come back to her.

Charlene glared over at the ruined laptop. The local online news report confirmed what she had longed feared. Quinn had a new woman in his life. One who was, no doubt, giving him everything he wanted in the bedroom.

Memories of some of their happier times went through her mind. Her eyes closed on a shiver of arousal. Vanilla sex with Quinn Braddock was better than the hard and rough stuff she got from all of her other lovers combined.

Still she loved the hard, often brutal sex play. Her newest lover gave dangerous liaisons a whole new meaning. He certainly had no issues with giving her all she could take. Sometimes he gave her much more than she could handle. Last time it had gotten so rough, she’d been almost afraid she wouldn’t survive. She had begged him to stop. Not that he had. He had told her his loss of control was because of his desire for her and not because he liked to inflict pain. She didn’t care what his reasons were. As long as he provided the pleasure she needed, she would keep him. When that ended, so would their relationship.

But she wanted Quinn back, too. They could be good together again if he would just stop being such a tight-ass.

Charlene cursed the day he’d found her with that weasel Nate Lockhart. Not only had the bastard been a poor substitute for her husband, he’d been ridiculously unimaginative. Every time he did something to her, he’d ask if she liked it. Hell, he should have had enough balls not to care.

It had been a mistake to seduce Nate. Having her husband’s friend screwing her brains out had been fun the first couple of times. Quinn wouldn’t give her the attention she needed so it had been another way to get back at him. She’d even gotten off on it when she had been having sex with Quinn, thinking how delicious it was to have him inside her where only hours before his friend had been pumping away.

She hadn’t expected Quinn to walk in and find them screwing in Nate’s office. It had been her little secret, exciting and dangerous.

Quinn’s reaction might have been the most humiliating part of all. He had laughed. Even now, years later, she could hear that abrupt bark of laughter. He had seemed genuinely amused and almost relieved. Dammit to hell, how had it all gone so wrong?

This new woman Quinn was seeing…who was she? Of course, Quinn had dated several women since they had divorced. He wasn’t a monk. But neither was he one to be caught on camera with a woman unless he wanted to be. Was this the woman who would finally take him away from her forever?

The photograph from the fundraiser had been frustratingly bad. The shot showed Quinn’s profile as he looked down at his companion. But even the bad picture made it look as though Charlene’s tall, gorgeous ex-husband was enamored of the woman. His half smile, with that sexy, quirky edge, had been for only the female beside him. The photo had just shown the back of the woman. Straight, thick hair fell halfway down her back. She was a blonde. Well, dammit, so was Charlene. And a real one at that. This bitch probably got her color from a bottle. And she was fat and wore frumpy clothes, too.

Charlene blew out a frustrated sigh. Okay, so she wasn’t exactly fat but she was nothing like Charlene who spent hours each week with a personal trainer, honing her body to taut, slender perfection.

But at least Charlene was right about the woman’s dress. It was definitely not designer-made and was conservative by anyone’s standards. With Quinn’s talents, he was destined to move up in his career. He had a reputation to maintain. One would think he would be more careful in his selection of dates for high-profile events.

On impulse, Charlene grabbed her cellphone from the nightstand. She couldn’t let it go…she had to try one more time. They’d had some good times, especially at the beginning. If she could just get him to stop being so uptight. His straight shooter, Eagle Scout demeanor had been charming at first but had worn thin after a while. Living with such perfection could be damn irritating.

He answered on the first ring, his groggy “Braddock” telling her she’d woken him. She refused to feel any guilt for interrupting what was probably much-needed sleep. This was important, dammit.

“It’s me, Quinn. I need to see you.”

An explosive sigh came through the phone making her glad she’d woken him up. The asshole!

“What is it this time, Charlene?”

Her eyes roamed around the massive bedroom, trying to come up with some new hook to get him to the house. The necklace draped casually on her dresser caught her eye. She hated the thing. Her taste in jewelry ran toward bold and spectacular. The pearl-and-diamond necklace was a Braddock family heirloom, much too understated and old-fashioned for her. Quinn had given it to her a couple of weeks before they married. She’d never worn it but when he’d asked for it in their divorce settlement, she had gleefully declined. Just one more twist of the knife. He’d been more pissed about her refusal to return the necklace than he had been about finding her screwing Nate. Yes, he would jump at the chance to get it back.

“I’ve decided to return the Braddock necklace to you.”

“Why? What’s the catch?”

Dammit, he didn’t even try to hide his suspicion.

“No catch. I hate the thing. But if you don’t want it, I’ll just—”

“Fine. I’ll come by this evening and—”

“No, I’m busy this evening. You need to come right away or I’m selling it to a jewelry store.”

The long pause that followed made her wonder if she’d played her hand too forcibly. She had tried to entice him over to the house before and had been successful only a few times. But this was something he really wanted.

“I’ll be there within the hour. Meet me at the door with it. I won’t come in.”

She smiled her satisfaction. We’ll just see about that.

“Of course, darling. Whatever you say.” She ended the call and raced to her closet. She had just the outfit for seducing a reluctant ex-husband back into her bed.

The cellphone in her hand rang. Charlene cursed, sure that Quinn was calling to cancel. She glanced down at the display. Recognizing the number, she sighed, part in relief, part in frustration. Phone to her ear, she opened her closet door as she said, “Darling, how are you?”

“Horny.”

Her lovers were usually all about pleasing her. From the beginning, this man had been different. He never sugarcoated what he wanted. Sweet talk and flowers were not his way. And though occasionally he was too crass even for her, the things he did to her in bed made up for his inadequacies. Unfortunately this wasn’t a good time for him to be horny and demanding.

“I’m sorry, darling, but I have an appointment in a few minutes. Can you come by tonight?”

“An appointment? With whom?”

Though she resented his nosiness, she hesitated in not telling him. His temper had a volatile edge. A couple of times she’d pissed him off and he’d gone way beyond the pain-filled pleasurable lovemaking she enjoyed and into something intensely scary. The last time that had happened, she’d had to hide the bruises for days.

“My ex-husband is dropping by to discuss our divorce settlement.”

“I thought your divorce was settled a long time ago.”

“It was, but I kept a piece of jewelry he wanted. I’m redecorating my bedroom and came across it while I was putting things away for the workers to come in.”

She winced. Dammit, now she’d probably have to do some kind of decorating just to keep him from asking about it later. If he ever learned she had invited Quinn over to get him into bed… She shivered at the thought.

“I’ll be there tonight at six. Be ready for me.”

A different kind of shiver swept through her. After their first time together, he had set ground rules and expectations. One of those was preparing herself for him. He had given her a list of do’s and don’ts, including where to shave, what perfume and makeup to wear, what music to have playing when he walked in the door and what food he required after their playtime had ended. And always, he wanted her naked.

“I’ll be ready,” she answered with her most sultry tone.

The line went dead and Charlene dropped the phone on the chair beside her. She only had a few minutes to get ready for Quinn. She pulled the lace-and-silk black negligee from its hanger and stripped out of her robe. The anticipation and nervousness of seeing Quinn again made her normally graceful movements stilted. It had been years since they’d slept together. Would he notice that her breasts were larger and perkier? The plastic surgeon had done a marvelous job with them; Quinn had always been a breast man.

After slipping the skimpy gown over her head, she stood in front of the full-length mirror to assess her allure. Damn, she looked good. Though she had just passed her thirty-fifth birthday, she didn’t look a day over twenty-five. Her tits and ass were sublime. There was no way in hell Quinn could resist her. So what if she’d slept around? It was past time for him to get over that.

The doorbell rang. She glanced sharply at her clock. He was way too early. She hurriedly put on the necklace he was coming for and then took one last glance in the mirror. His timing didn’t really matter. Even with the too-demure necklace, she looked fabulous.

Running lightly down the stairs, Charlene almost laughed with sheer happiness. Things would work out, she was sure of it. Quinn would be enamored of her again, take her to bed and do all sorts of delicious things to her. And tonight, her lover could take care of any remaining sexual needs she might have. What had begun as a lousy day might well be her best ever. Her nipples tightened in anticipation of the coming events.

She opened the door. “Darling, it’s so good—” Stopping abruptly, she stared. “What are you doing here? I told you I had an appointment.”

His eyes gleaming wickedly, he moved forward, giving her no choice but to retreat to the middle of the foyer.

He closed the door behind him and sneered, “Is this the kind of outfit you wear to greet your ex-husband?”

Charlene held back a huff of exasperation. The last thing she needed was for him to be here when Quinn arrived. She should have lied when he had asked about her appointment.

“I was just about to change into something more appropriate.”

“But he is coming over. Right?”

“Quinn? Yes, he’ll be here in just a few minutes.”

“Then there’s not much time, is there?”

“Time for what?”

He came closer. “For this.”

Charlene looked down at something gleaming in his hand. “What is…?” She frowned, confused. “Is that my knife? Where did you…? I’ve been looking all over the place for—”

The knife thrust toward her. So startled by the attack, she barely felt the pain in her shoulder. Frozen, she stared up at him in horror. Then, as realization hit, she screamed.

In a gleaming arc, it came down again.

“No, stop please…Stop!”

She stumbled backward and turned to run. Too late. Agony exploded in her shoulder and back. This time the pain was intense…urgent. Twisting around, Charlene screamed as she raised her hands to fight back, slapping ineffectually as the knife descended again and again. Slashing, ripping, destroying.

Blood was everywhere. He was ruining her beautiful gown. The pain was excruciating…unbearable. Why, why, why?

The floor appeared before her, slamming into her face. She lay, panting, too tired to cry, too stunned to speak.

A voice from above whispered silkily: “How about it, darling? Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

 

Chapter Two

“Hey, sleepyhead. Wake up.”

Samantha Wilde woke with a smile on her face. That sexy baritone growl did it to her every time. Rolling over onto her back, she blinked sleepily up at the harshly beautiful face of Quinn Braddock—surely the most perfect man on earth. Before she could kiss that perfection and entice him back to bed, her foggy brain registered that he was dressed.

“I thought you weren’t going to the hospital until later today.”

“That’s still the plan. Charlene called and asked me to drop by for a few minutes.”

She had never met Quinn’s ex-wife, but had heard enough stories about the woman to make her glad she hadn’t. Not that Quinn would talk about her. Everything she’d heard had come secondhand. The only thing Quinn had ever said was that he never should have married her. The look on his face when her name came up was enough to keep Samantha from asking more. Quinn was a warm and compassionate man but a cold, hard look entered his eyes at the mention of his ex-wife.

Hiding her yawn behind her hand, Samantha gave a full-body stretch, wincing at her slightly stiff muscles. She had tackled a suspect yesterday when he’d tried to run. Though the perp had gotten the worse of it when he had tried to fight her, she still had some aches she needed to work out.

“Still sore?”

Nothing got by this man. She’d once told him that if he ever wanted to leave medicine, he’d make a great cop. “Just a little. A hot shower will help.”

“I’ll give you a massage tonight.”

A shiver of anticipation swept through her. “All over?”

He lowered his mouth over hers and spoke against her lips. “Every soft, silky inch of you will know my touch.”

Groaning her anticipation, Samantha wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders and pulled him closer. His mouth moved over hers for several long, satisfying seconds. She uttered a small sound of disappointment when he pulled away from her and stood.

“Gotta go.”

Samantha propped herself up on her elbows. “Something wrong at Charlene’s house?”

“No.”

She wasn’t put off by his abrupt answer. She just hated that his day was starting off on such a sour note. Considering the things she’d heard about Charlene, Quinn’s relationship with his ex-wife was understandably strained. They’d been divorced for three years now but Charlene had a tendency to call her former husband often. Samantha had no worries that Quinn would be tempted to go back to her. He might not have much to say about her, but if one read between the lines, his opinion of Charlene was just below that of his regard for slugs.

Hoping to erase the grimness from his face, she said, “I’ll be working until at least nine tonight. Want to meet for a late dinner somewhere?”

As a new homicide detective, Samantha often had unpredictable hours. Fortunately Quinn’s hospital schedule was just as grueling and time-consuming, so he understood about her crazy hours and limited time.

He leaned over and pressed a tender kiss to her forehead. “You’ll be too tired to go out. Come over to my place and I’ll make dinner.”

Another reason she had fallen in love with Quinn Braddock. He loved to spoil and take care of her. Smiling her gratitude, she reached up and caressed his clean-shaven jaw. “I’ll bring the wine.”

He lowered his head again, moving his lips softly, confidently over hers. Samantha pressed upward, wanting a deeper taste. When he pulled away, her lips pouted her disappointment.

“Be careful. You’re half a second away from having this sheet stripped away and me inside you.”

A familiar delicious throb began. “Have time for a quickie?”

“You know we never can settle for a quickie.” He glanced at her bedside clock. “Besides even a quickie wouldn’t work. Aren’t you testifying again today?”

He was right on both counts. After their first night together, they had learned that their quickies could last for hours. She wasn’t the most knowledgeable when it came to sex but Quinn’s expertise made up for her lack of experience. She couldn’t imagine a man pleasing her more, inside or outside the bedroom.

Sighing her regret, she made a promise. “Let’s plan for an extended quickie tonight.”

“You’re on.”

Samantha watched in admiration as he went across her bedroom to pick up the car keys he’d left on the dresser. She loved the way he walked. For such a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular man, he moved with amazing agility and grace. She could only imagine that all of his patients, at least the female ones, fell instantly in love with him.

When he turned back, her expression must have revealed her thoughts because he grinned and said, “Stop looking at my ass and get dressed. Telling the judge what delayed you probably won’t win you any points.”

So true. This was her second day of testimony and if there was anything clear about the trial, it was that the judge disliked cops—and female ones in particular.

Before she could respond, he headed to the door, that austere, grim expression back in place. “See you tonight.”

She grimaced in sympathy. When compared to meeting with a despised ex-spouse, facing an unfriendly judge didn’t sound so bad. “I hope it’s not too unpleasant.”

“I just hope I can get out of there without strangling her,” he muttered and was out of the apartment almost before Samantha could register his astonishing statement. For Quinn to reveal his hatred was rare. Charlene must have really pissed him off this time.

Samantha dropped her head onto her pillow again. Her granddad would have approved of Quinn’s restraint in not discussing other people. Though her hometown of Midnight, Alabama, had been rife with gossipers and busybodies, Daniel Wilde had looked upon gossiping as an evil deed. The fact that the Wilde family had often been the subject of those gossipers hadn’t helped. And their hometown newspaper, Midnight Tales, had been the worst. Every salacious remark that had been whispered about the Wildes, they had printed as thinly veiled innuendoes—skirting as close to libelous as possible, without going over the edge.

But her grandfather would have approved of Quinn for other reasons, too. She had often worried that she would never find the right man. She had dated often but had never felt a real connection with anyone. Her sisters, Savannah and Sabrina, had called her a hopeless romantic, insisting that there was no perfect man out there. She had been almost to the point of believing that. Then she’d met Quinn.

Silly, but sometimes she worried that he was too perfect. If perhaps she was seeing only what she wanted to see. When she was a kid, how many times had she looked up at her daddy and thought him to be the most perfect man alive? And what had he done? He had brutally murdered her beautiful mother and then had cowardly taken his own life. That had shaken Samantha’s trust to the core and destroyed her innocence.

Then, years later, both of her sisters had thought they’d found their ideal matches only to learn how wrong they’d been. With that history, why should she have faith in any man at all?

Now Savvy was back in Midnight for a short time to ready the Wilde mansion for sale. And she would most likely have to see the man who had shattered her heart. Life was just too damn unfair sometimes.

Even though Samantha and her sisters understandably had trust issues with men, they’d thankfully had one wonderful example. Daniel Wilde, their grandfather, had epitomized everything honorable and good. If Samantha could find a man half as wonderful as Daniel Wilde had been, she would call herself lucky. And unless she was seriously mistaken, that man was Quinn Braddock.

There was one major fly in her happily-ever-after ointment: Quinn wanted nothing permanent—he had made that clear from the start. Samantha, quite confident in her feminine powers, hadn’t been worried when he had made that announcement on their first date. It was the first time any man had ever made that stipulation. Instead of being insulted, she had been amused, almost seeing his warning as a challenge. Weeks later, when she realized she was falling in love with him, she wasn’t feeling quite so confident and was most definitely not amused.

After almost four months of dating, their relationship was intense, passionate and more satisfying than anything she’d ever experienced. Even sex was exciting and thrilling. Before Quinn, her sex life had been about as bland as cold grits. She had decided that, for her at least, the idea of sex was much more enjoyable than the actual act. She was good at a lot of things…sex just didn’t happen to be one of them.

Then, the first night she and Quinn made love, she had changed her mind. She had been terrified, worried that she would disappoint him. Quinn had been incredible. Patient and oh so very thorough in his intent to pleasure her. He had praised her, making her feel beautiful and sensual—sexually confident. Their lovemaking was everything she had wanted and so much more.

Still, even with the amazing connection they had, Quinn was never wavering in his stance on no commitment. He seemed to enjoy their relationship, laughed with her, talked with her, and made love to her until she was breathless and weak. But there had been no indication that he had changed his mind about anything permanent.

She wasn’t giving up on her dreams, though. Beneath the façade of toughness she’d adopted to handle her job as a cop, Samantha was still the romantic her sisters had teased her about. The romance novels she had stashed away in bookshelves and drawers throughout her apartment were testaments to her belief in a forever kind of love. And she was a small-town girl, with traditional values. That meant a wedding, babies, PTA meetings, Pee Wee football, and school plays. She wanted it all. Unfortunately, the man she wanted to share all of that with had firmly denied wanting any of those things.

With an explosive sigh, Samantha sprang from the bed and headed for the shower. Her time was too limited to lie in bed and worry. Besides, staying busy had always been her answer to her troubled thoughts. As a teenager, she’d involved herself in every activity possible. It had made her numerous friends and paved the way for opportunities and honors many had envied. Little had those people known that all of that had been to stay sane. Cheerleading, becoming the homecoming queen and class president, and taking dance and drama classes had all looked like fun and frivolous activities for a spoiled teenaged girl. That had been fine with her. Few saw beyond the shield she had erected to deal with the crushing pain of her parents’ deaths.

She had eventually come to terms with her father’s betrayal but work was still her answer to her worries. Being a homicide detective definitely kept her mind from obsessing over things she couldn’t change.

After her shower, she pulled her hair up in a tight, brow-raising bun, applied a minimum of makeup, then stepped into a somber black pantsuit and low-heeled black pumps. She hated that she was dressing for the judge but couldn’t deny it. Yesterday, she’d worn what she had considered a conservative skirt and blouse. The judge had glared at her as if she were wearing a bikini. Hopefully an even primmer outfit would help.

The clock chimed eight times. Grabbing the purse she’d dropped on her dresser, she dashed toward the front door. A stomach rumble halfway there reminded her she hadn’t eaten. Cursing softly, she detoured into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee from the pot that Quinn had made, flipped the switch to off and then looked around for something quick. The overripe banana on the counter or a cold Pop-Tart? Quickly deciding, she shook the foil-wrapped pastry from its box, dropped it into her purse and headed out the door. Maybe she would call Quinn at lunch and see if he had time to spare. The delightful prospect of seeing him in the middle of the day gave her the boost of energy she needed.

Samantha ran down the stairs, enjoying the heady feeling of being young, healthy and in love with an amazing man, gloriously oblivious to the horror her life was about to become.

Quinn parked his Audi across the street from Charlene’s house. Instead of immediately getting out, he took a few seconds to center his thoughts and push aside his usual revulsion at seeing his ex-wife again. Hell of it was, he wasn’t nearly as disgusted with her as he was with himself. He’d made some dumbass mistakes in his life but marrying Charlene had to be the absolute worst.

An image of Sam came into his mind, instantly soothing him. How he’d fallen so hard, so fast, he would never know. He’d met her at the hospital. She’d been there to interview a shooting victim and he’d been headed home after a grueling night in the ER. They had walked onto the elevator together, along with a couple of other people. Someone had asked for a floor number to be pressed, and he and Sam had reached for the button at the same time. He’d practically smashed her finger and had turned to apologize. Whatever words he’d been about to say were instantly forgotten. Beautiful, brilliant sunshine had invaded his life in an instant.

After his divorce, he had vowed he would never become seriously involved with a woman again—or at least not until he was much older. Sam had changed his thinking. He wanted something long-term. Not marriage. He was done with marriage. After seeing his parent’s ice-cold union and knowing what he came from, he should never have tried it in the first place. Those asinine decisions were in his past. But Sam… Sam was his future. She made him want more…something a hell of a lot deeper and permanent than the temporary sexual relationships he’d had since his divorce.

She had no clue that this coming Friday, he had something special planned at his apartment. Her favorite restaurant was delivering an elegant meal. Amidst delicious food and wine, along with candlelight and soft music, he was going to ask her to move in with him.

Right now, their hectic schedules prevented them from seeing each other every day. Living together would make it easier on both of them. Waking up beside her every morning was something he could definitely get used to. He hoped to hell he hadn’t misread what he’d seen in her eyes. Finally he had found someone he could believe in and trust.

The screech of tires pulled Quinn from his thoughts. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught a glimpse of a dark, blurred streak as it zoomed by, like a vehicle leaving in a hurry. Someone most likely late for work.

Pulling in a deep breath, he got out of the car. This wasn’t going to get any easier…might as well get it behind him. With quick, determined strides, Quinn headed across the street. Two minutes. That’s all the time he would give Charlene. If not for the necklace, he wouldn’t even consider coming back here.

He wasn’t as stupid as she apparently thought. The necklace was to get him inside her house so she could once again try to seduce him back to her bed. That ploy hadn’t worked the dozens or so times she had tried. Would never work. But he did want the damn necklace and was willing to stomach her presence for the two minutes it would take to reject her and get what belonged to him.

Sam’s birthday was coming up in a couple of months and despite the fact that the necklace was only ever given to a Braddock bride, Quinn couldn’t squelch the thought of having it reset and giving it to Sam.

Quinn was so focused on getting through the next few minutes with a minimum of drama that his eyes barely skimmed over the massive two-story, light brown brick house Charlene had gotten in the divorce settlement. Purchased eight months before their divorce, the house had never been home to Quinn. Before that, they’d had a perfectly nice condo in the city. Charlene had insisted that decorating her own home would fill her creative void.

A few weeks after they moved in, the unsatisfactory marriage he’d stubbornly been keeping together, unraveled further. Quinn had spent most of his nights on the sofa in his study. Then one day, he’d gone to talk to a friend and had gotten his socks blown off. Seeing Nate and Charlene together had cleared up so many things. Instead of the fury other men might have experienced, Quinn had felt only immense relief. At last, he could let go.

That day might have been the end of his marriage, but it was also the day he’d finally started living again.

Quinn rang the doorbell and waited. When there was no immediate answer, he pounded on the door and was surprised when it squeaked open. Charlene had probably left it open, thinking he’d just come inside. That wasn’t going to happen.

Pushing the door open wider, he stayed on the other side and called out, “Charlene, I’m here.”

The vile stench of blood attacked his senses and caught him off guard. The stink of violence was a scent he knew all too well. Unlike the hospital, where the smell was almost drowned out by antiseptic cleanliness, this was intense and brutal. The way it smelled in battle. He’d been an army combat medic. The foul odors of dismemberment and carnage were scents you never got used to or forgot.

He pushed the door open further and saw the blood. Then he saw her. Lying on the floor, facedown, blood pooled everywhere. God, there was so much of it.

Training kicked in—Quinn didn’t think, he acted. Rushing forward, he dropped to his knees, touched her neck to feel for a pulse. Was that a faint flicker? Holding her neck and head in place, he gently rolled her onto her back and saw immediately why there was so much blood. Her throat had been cut, nicked at the carotid artery.

Her eyes flickered open, their light blue depths glazed with pain. There was no recognition in them. Quinn had seen it too often not to know she was mere seconds from death.

“Charlene? Stay with me. You’re going to be all right. Try to stay awake.”

She opened her mouth to speak but there was only a gurgling sound.

Quinn’s hand on her throat stopped some of the bleeding but it was seeping through his fingers. She raised her hand toward his face. Quinn grabbed for it but not before she slashed him with her nails across his face. He jerked back and her hand fell to the floor. One last gurgle emerged from her. Quinn watched as her eyes went still and unfocused in death.

Dammit, if only he’d come a few minutes earlier. The only thing to be done now was to call the police and alert them to a murder. Standing, he put his hand in his pocket for his cellphone. The door behind him slammed against the wall. Quinn whirled around.

A uniformed policeman stood at the door, his gun pointed at Quinn. “Take your hand from your pocket and put both of them in the air.”

Following the officer’s direction, Quinn raised his hands. “I was just about to call the police. She’s dead.”

“No shit. Looks like you made sure of that.”

The sick feeling in his stomach sunk lower in his gut. “I didn’t do this. I tried to save her.”

“Yeah, right. Just keep your hands up.” The officer glanced over his shoulder at his partner. “Cuff him and read him his rights.”

Knowing that arguing would do no good, Quinn held his words. As his wrists were cuffed, he took one last look at the woman on the floor. She’d been a pathetic, miserable human being and he’d lost any affection for her long ago, but she hadn’t deserved this sad and horrible end.

In the backseat of the patrol car, headed to the police station, one thought comforted him. At least he knew who he would call. Sam would figure out what to do about this mess. If there was anyone Quinn knew he could count on, it was Samantha Wilde.

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