Book One in the Wildefire Trilogy: Midnight Secrets
AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT, THE HEAT BEGINS
On a hot southern night, with a storm on the horizon, a family is shattered. Three beautiful daughters—Savannah, Samantha, and Sabrina Wilde—go on with their lives, each significantly changed, as they bear the memory of the murder-suicide that killed their parents. For years, they have stayed away from Midnight, Alabama. Until Midnight calls them home.
Savannah is the first one back, when a grueling case in Nashville leads the young prosecutor to seek shelter in the quiet of the once grand Wilde mansion. But when she finds letters casting doubt on her family’s dark, shameful past, she realizes that peace in Midnight is a shallow façade and sinister secrets lurk beneath the surface. Zach Tanner, once the town’s bad boy, is now the new police chief and still has a wild hold over her. Zach can feel it, too, but he hurt Savannah once. As teenagers, they broke every rule together. Now it’s his job to keep her safe, even though he isn’t sure who her enemies are, or which ones might be his own. All he knows is that they have only each other to face dangers they can’t see coming.
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Instead of turning right onto Beach View Drive to go home, Zach made a left onto Grant Road. The convenience store was only a couple of blocks away. Hopefully he could get into bed before midnight since he wanted to get up early for a couple more hours of study time. Glancing over at the high school on the right, he wondered about all the cars and then remembered that this was senior prom night.
How could he have forgotten the prom? Josh was there. Though his little brother wasn’t a senior, one of the senior girls had asked him to take her. Josh, being Josh, had refused. The kid did everything he could not to incur any added expenses. Zach wasn’t having it and had insisted that he go. He hadn’t been able to go to his own prom, not that he would’ve wanted to go, but choosing not to go was a hell of lot different than not being able to afford to go. Zach was determined his little brother get all the advantages he hadn’t had. That included proms, dances, dates and all the other things most teenagers took for granted.
Zach made a sweeping glance at the full parking lot but didn’t see the car Josh was driving—a baby blue Lexus—Leonard’s gift to Francine on the day of his proposal. Maybe he’d parked on the other side. About to turn away, his headlights swooped across the parking lot and he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Blinking to clear his sight, he saw what looked like four guys standing in a circle. Though they were in a dark area, away from the streetlight, their menacing stance and total focus told him they were surrounding someone. Some poor kid was about to get an ass whooping.
He told himself he was too tired to intervene. Early on, before he’d learned a few hard earned lessons, he’d been the recipient of several of those beatings. They weren’t fun but they’d toughened him up. Besides, the army recruiter had told him to stay away from anything that could cause him trouble. One more blight on his record and his dreams of being in the service would be toast.
A few yards later, Zach slowed to a standstill. How many times had he wished for someone to come rescue him or help him out? No one ever had. Was this guy wishing for the same thing?
The badass reputation Zach had worked hard to earn could now deter even the toughest asshole from bothering him. Maybe just by showing up, he could scare the little shits away and help a kid out.
Mentally shrugging, Zach made a quick u-turn and headed for the entrance to the parking lot. Whether he could just make verbal threats or he’d have to knock a few heads together no longer mattered. The closer he came to the menacing circle, the more imperative it seemed for him to put a halt to whatever was about to happen.
Not bothering to park, Zach stopped within a couple of yards from the group and turned his lights on bright. Four young men, two dressed in tuxedoes and two in casual clothes, whipped their heads around and glared. Oh yeah, he’d definitely interrupted their good time.
Zach opened the car door and got out slowly. “You guys having a party or what?”
“What the hell do you want, low-life Tanner?”
Hearing one of the many nicknames he’d been called much of his life barely penetrated his consciousness. A gap between two of the guys showed him exactly what the fine young men of Midnight were about to do. A teenaged girl stood in their midst. Shivering and trembling like a candle about to be extinguished, her wide-eyed, terrified expression revealed her helplessness. Rage like he’d never known before zoomed through his body, spiking his adrenaline and giving him a much-needed boost of energy.
Striding toward them, letting them know he was now the predator and they the prey, Zach asked with a soft, growling fury, “What the hell do you guys think you’re doing?”
“We’re just having a little fun.”
That came from one of the tuxedoed pricks, the quiver in his voice an indication that he was suddenly having second thoughts.
“This ain’t none of your business, Tanner,” Clark Dayton snarled. “This is private school property and you ain’t in school no more.”
Zach cocked his head. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Dayton, but didn’t you graduate last year? Though by the sound of your speech, holding you back a few years might have been wise.”
With a vicious curse, Dayton lunged toward him. Zach had plenty of time to step out of his way and let the jerk land on his face. The guy was not only drunk but also moved like an lumbering ox. Avoiding a collision never entered Zach’s mind. Dayton slammed into him, apparently trying to knock him off his feet. Laughing at the piss-poor assault, Zach caught the idiot’s whiskered covered chin in a clean uppercut. Dayton’s mouth snapped shut with the satisfying crunching sound of breaking teeth.
Not even glancing at the now semi-conscious Dayton, moaning and wallowing around on the pavement, Zach focused on the three remaining. “Anybody else want to give it a shot. Come on.”
The two in tuxedoes backed away, one mumbling about not wanting any trouble. The remaining guy looked down at Dayton and then back at Zach. “You’re going to pay for that.”
“Bring it,” Zach offered softly.
A clicking sound gave Zach a second’s warning before a knife was jabbed toward his face. Jerking back, Zach threw out a kick and knocked the knife out of the guy’s hand. The guy barely had a chance to know he’d lost his weapon before Zach was on him, taking them both to the pavement. The breath had been knocked out of his opponent, giving Zach the opportunity to pen him down by holding both of his arms above his head. Then, very deliberately, he positioned his knee over the guy’s groin and pressed down… hard. Whatever breath the idiot had regained was expelled in a squealing sob.
“Next time you think about raping a girl, remember this, asshole.”
“Get off me…please.”
Taking his time, Zach got to his feet. Consumed with holding his privates and rolling around on the pavement, the guy never looked at Zach again.
Finally able to face the young woman he’d just saved, for the first time he realized her identity. Savannah Wilde. “You okay?”
Instead of nodding her head, answering yes, or hell, even running away, she did something that stunned him. With a sobbing, “Oh, Zach, thank you” she launched herself toward him. Zach had no choice but to open his arms to catch her.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she held on tight.
Zach forced himself to hold her loosely, because, for whatever insane reason, he instinctively wanted to hold her tighter and feel her body pressed up against his. His mind scrambled for a noble excuse. It was a reflex from the adrenaline rush, not because she felt so dammed good or because no one had ever looked at him as if he was something special.
Whatever the reason, they had to leave. She needed to get to safety and he needed to get the hell out of here before the police showed up. No matter that he had saved one of the Wilde sisters from a gang rape or even worse, Police Chief Harlan Mosby would gladly haul his ass into jail. When it came to Zach, Mosby acted first and asked questions later.
Pushing her away slightly, he said, “You okay?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered softly.
“You have a car?”
“No.” She glanced toward the school building and then back at him. “Would it be too much out of your way to take me home?”
The question stunned him almost as much as her jumping into his arms. Good girls, rich or poor, did not get into the car with Zach Tanner. Few parents wanted to see their daughters take up with the town’s bad boy, especially one with no money or prospects.
She had to know who he was…she’d called him Zach. He knew little to nothing about the Wilde sisters, but he had heard that Savannah was ‘the brainy one’. So far, she wasn’t impressing him with her smarts.
“I don’t think me taking you home is a good idea. Who’d you come with?”
She glanced nervously toward the school. “My date.”
“Then what the hell are you doing out here?”
“He’s inside getting drunk. I was looking for my sister.”
The idiocy of some guys amazed him. While his date was in the parking lot close to getting raped, he was inside boozing it up. Figuring they had mere seconds before someone either called the cops or one of the guys on the pavement got up the courage to take him on again, Zach took Savannah’s hand and pulled her to his car. “Let’s get out of here.”
Savannah sank into the car seat, her relief so great she could barely catch her breath. She had no doubt what Clark Dayton and his friends had wanted to do. And Zach Tanner had been the one to save her.
The driver’s side door squeaked open and Zach slid into the seat beside her. The heart that had been slowing down jettisoned back up. She had never been this close to him before; he was even more handsome than she had thought.
“You live on Wildefire Lane, right?”
Too breathless to speak, she nodded.
The car shot forward. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Clark leaning against a car. As they passed by him, he yelled out something and raised his hand, extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture.
Zach acted as though he didn’t exist but shot her a warning look. “Dayton won’t forget this. You need to be on the lookout for him for a while.”
“I don’t plan to ever be in a position where I see him again.”
“You’re living in the same town…might be hard to avoid him.”
She didn’t bother to point out that she and Zach had lived in the same town and this was the first time they’d encountered each other. Instead she told him news that no one but her family knew. “I’m leaving for college in a few months.”
“Oh yeah, where you going?”
“Vanderbilt University in Nashville.”
A smile spread over his face and Savannah had to hold her breath to keep from gasping. She’d never seen such a transformation. Before, he’d been handsome but grim looking. His smile changed him into just short of beautiful.
“Good for you. That’s a great school. What are you going to study?”
“Law. I’m going to be a criminal defense attorney.”
Zach nodded his approval as he turned into the drive, in front of her house. Savannah couldn’t believe they were already here. It felt as though she’d just gotten into the car.
“Might want to mention this incident to your granddaddy, just to be on the safe side.”
She nodded absently, biting her lip in indecision. While she’d been in the midst of those hideous boys, a thought had flashed through her mind of how safe and staid her life had become. She was eighteen years old and had never done anything remotely exciting or risky. Here was her chance to do something different, be someone different. Her mind whispered: Take a chance! For some reason, she felt changed, as if her life had been altered. She didn’t want to go back to the same boring Savannah. Taking that chance, Savannah blurted out her thoughts, “Would you like to come in and meet Granddad? I’m sure he’d like to thank you for basically saving my life.”
Zach snorted and shook his head. “You really are an innocent, aren’t you? Your granddaddy would probably lock you up until it’s time for you to leave for college if he saw you with me.”
She didn’t bother to ask him why he felt that way. She knew what the gossips said about him. Having been the victim of many of those same gossips, she knew better than to believe their lies. What they said didn’t faze her. Nor would it her grandfather.
“Granddad isn’t one to believe the gossips. He said you have to look beneath the surface to get the true measure of a person.”
Instead of arguing with her, he gave her another sweet smile. “Your grandfather sounds like a good man.” He glanced at his watch. “But I need to get going.”
Of course he did. He’d probably had a date tonight and was heading home. Or maybe he was just now going out. Since he was older, he didn’t have to worry about curfews and stuff like that.
“Would you come for breakfast in the morning?”
Though he didn’t move a muscle, she could tell she had startled him. His words confirmed the thought. “Excuse me?”
“Come for breakfast in the morning. We sit down at eight. It’s really informal…I know my granddad would be very excited to meet you.” Before he could answer and give her the rejection she expected, she added, “Please, don’t say no.”
He opened his mouth and she was sure that was exactly what he would do, instead, he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Letting it go at that, she opened the car door and then looked at him again. “Thank you for saving my life.”
“Just be careful from now on. Okay?”
“I will.” And before her newfound courage deserted her, she leaned over and quickly kissed his cheek, loving the tingling feel of his five o’clock shadow against her mouth. “You’re my hero.”
Before he could say anything or she could do anything crazier, Savannah jumped out of the car and raced toward the house.