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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (34 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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“How did you find us, Dawn?”

The teen lifted her eyes, and Jax saw something in them. Something secretive and maybe afraid. “Long story.”

“Dawn?” Beth asked.

“Not now. It's…I can't talk about it now.”

Jax peeled off the hospital gown, tossed it to the floor. She picked up the bra and small T-shirt from the pile of clothes Beth had brought, and put them on without a hint of embarrassment or shyness. She managed to pull on the panties underneath the sheets, but the jeans were a little tougher. Dawn helped her.

Once dressed, Jax got to her feet, but her ankle gave and she sank back onto the bed again with a harsh wince and a jolt of pain. “Dammit.”

“You have to stay off it,” Beth said.

“No. I just need a crutch or something.”

“Sorry,” Dawn said. “If I'd known, I'd have had Beth bring one.”

“It's okay. This is a hospital, they've got them everywhere. Go pilfer me a pair, would you, Dawnie?”

“You got it.”

“Jax, you can't just leave.”

“Watch me.” Jax sighed, impatient now for those crutches. Beth excused herself, probably to go rat her out to the staff, Jax imagined. But she used the time to place a call on Dawn's cell phone to her own.

River picked up on the third ring. And the minute she heard his voice, something hit her dead center in the chest. It hit her so hard it knocked the wind right out of her. Something flashed in her mind: herself lying in the back of Dawn's Jeep. Him leaning over her, his lips moving near her ear, the words he'd said.

I am in love with you, Cassandra. You need to know that, because I don't know what's going to happen now. I know you told me not to let it happen, but I didn't have much of a choice in the matter. So there it is. I love you. And I'm going to make things right for you again.

“Cassandra?” he asked in her ear. “Cassandra? God, is it you?”

“Yeah.” She shook off the memory and the emotional firestorm it set off inside her. This wasn't the time. There might never be a time. “It's me. I'm okay. Listen, the cops think it was you, River. They're looking for my car. You need to ditch it.”

“Are you still in the hospital?” he asked.

“Yeah, but not for long.”

“How badly are you hurt?”

He sounded so afraid for her. And it occurred to her that she didn't know how badly she was hurt. She hadn't even asked. She knew her ankle was sprained because of the wrappings, but beyond that…

“Cassandra?”

“I'm fine. Nothing big. A sprain, that's all. Where are you, River?”

“Don't worry. I'll be with you soon.”

“I know. But where are you?”

She heard something in the background. The geese, the ones that wintered at the pond near Ethan's house.

“I'll be with you soon,” he said again.

“River, don't do anything stupid.”

“I have to go. Do you—do you remember…anything?”

“I remember
everything.
And if you meant what you said, River, you won't do what you're about to do.”

“I meant it. Don't doubt that, whatever else happens. 'Bye for now, Cassandra. Be safe.”

“River!” But he was gone; he'd disconnected.

Five people entered the room almost as one—Beth, Joshua, Bryan and two nurses—and a beat later, behind them all, Dawn with a rubber-tipped, rubber-gripped, metal cane. She tossed it over the crowd to Jax in the bed, and Jax caught it.

“Lieutenant Jackson, you can't just leave,” a nurse said. “You've got broken ribs, a concussion, smoke inhalation, and we don't even know—”

“I know my rights. You can't keep me. I'm going.”

“At least wait until we get the doctor in here to check you over,” said nurse number two.

“You can't leave without signing yourself out,” nurse number one insisted.

Jax pulled her gun from under the covers. Didn't point it at anyone, just pulled it out. Made a big show of checking it over, working the action. “Make no mistake about it, ladies. I
am
leaving. Now.”

“I think she's leaving,” Joshua said. He sent her a worried look. “And if I offer to go with you?”

“You're retired, pal. This is my collar, so back off.” But she
knew he saw the gratitude in her eyes, despite the harshness of her tone. She got out of the bed, wobbled a little.

“Dammit, Jax,” Beth muttered, gripping her upper arm—to steady her or to slow her down, Jax wasn't sure which. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“I need a car. You got a car?”

“Take my Jeep,” Dawn said, and handed her the keys. “Down the hall to the right, out the double doors. It's left of center, not too far out in the parking lot.”

“She shouldn't be driving, Dawn.”

“I can drive her, then.”

“No!” both women barked at once.

“No one's driving me,” Jax said. “Dawn, you've done plenty already. Believe me. I'm fine. I promise. And I
have
to go. It's life or death.”

“Yours?” Beth asked.

She shook her head. “His, I think.”

Beth blinked, but seemed to understand. At least she stopped bitching.

Jax handed Dawn's cell phone to the girl, held her gun close to her waist with her other arm folded over it, so she wouldn't cause mass panic in the hospital, and limped, barefoot, out of her room. On her way down the main corridor she spotted a pair of disposable blue foam slippers on a shelf, yanked them off and took them with her.

Moments later they were on her feet, and she was shifting Dawnie's Jeep, groaning out loud in pain every time she had to use the clutch, and vowing not to wreck the vehicle on her way to Ethan Melrose's mansion.

CHAPTER 21

R
iver had driven past Ethan's house and looked carefully around the place as he did, but he'd seen no signs of other vehicles parked around it. Only Ethan's SUV sitting in the driveway. He'd gone a few hundred yards down the road and still saw no other vehicles. Satisfied, he'd turned around and pulled into Ethan's driveway. Maybe the cops would see the car there and come to arrest him. And maybe they wouldn't.

Whatever.

This was the end. It was ending right now. Before he got out of the car River buried his hands in Rex's fur, and the dog licked his face. River didn't say goodbye. Just left Rex in the car, whining as if he knew the shit was about to hit the fan.

River walked over the snow, which crunched under his shoes. The walk hadn't been shoveled this morning and a little more than an inch had fallen in the outskirts of Burlington overnight. His feet made tracks beside Ethan's own as he walked up to the door.

He didn't have to knock. Ethan opened the door before River even raised his fist. He met River's eyes, then his gaze wandered over his face. “You look like hell.”

“Haven't had time to wash up since fighting my way out of our burning cabin. I'm supposed to look good?”

“There's blood on your neck.”

River touched his neck. His hand, when he examined it, was brown with soot, and just a bit of blood colored his fingertip. Ethan reached out. “Let me take a look.”

But River ducked his touch. “Don't. You put it there, Ethan, don't act as if you regret it now.”

“River, I didn't do this to you. I don't know what else you think—”

“I don't think. I know. You were sleeping with Stephanie. Do you deny it?”

Ethan's eyes lowered instantly. “No. No, I don't deny it.”

“Jesus.”

Ethan turned and paced away from him, into the living room off the foyer. He stopped near a marble stand on which a bottle and a pair of glasses stood. “You've been off your meds, what—a week now?”

“Yeah, and amazingly, I'm fine.”

He nodded, tipped the bottle and poured. “I…can't explain that, River.”

He was lying. River knew it. “I can. You were overmedicating me. Keeping me comfortably insane enough so that I'd never be able to figure it out.”

“You really think I'd do all that just to cover up an affair?” He handed River the glass. It held three fingers of whiskey.

“No, pal. To cover up a murder.” River downed the drink.

Ethan only stared at him. “I didn't kill her, River. I adored Stephanie, I wouldn't—”

“Yeah, I'm well aware how much you
adored
her.” He lifted his gaze and met his former friend's. “It wasn't even my baby, was it, Ethan? It was yours.”

Ethan downed his own drink, turned and poured another. River moved closer, set his glass down, and Ethan splashed amber liquid into it, as well.

“She didn't love me. She loved you, River, and in the end, she was the one who ended it. She wanted to make things
work with you. She was determined to raise the baby with you, not me.”

River closed his eyes. “And you knew you could never have any others. Not with Victoria. Is that why you killed her?”

“I didn't kill her.”

“Then who did?”

His former friend met his eyes, held them. “You must have found out about us. The strain of it was too much. You killed her during one of your blackouts, River. You know that.”

“I thought I did. But if that's the case, who killed Arty Mullins?”

“What?”

Ethan tried to look puzzled and River thought his friend was a better actor than he had ever realized. “His body was in a freezer, in the rental unit where all my worldly possessions were stashed, until it was firebombed. Then it was moved to the cabin. I imagine it's in a forensics lab by now. I figure he saw what really happened at the house that night. He saw who set the fire. He knew. So you had to kill him, too.”

Ethan paced away slowly, shaking his head.

River slammed his glass onto a table, bringing Ethan around quickly. “Stop pretending you don't know what's going on here, Ethan. I know. I know it was you. You broke into the house the other night. You knew Cassandra was helping me. Jesus, it was your Mercedes that ran her down in the street. And who the hell else would take her to the cabin we bought together? It had to be you or me, pal, and I damn well know it wasn't me. I didn't black out. I can account for every minute of time I spent today. No gaps. So I know it wasn't me. The rest of the world might doubt it, but
I know.
And I know you know.”

Ethan blinked slowly, and River could see his mind working, analyzing, running through every possible way out of this. “You saw the Mercedes hit Lieutenant Jackson?”

“No. But someone else did. More than one person, in fact.”

“Could it have been a mistake?”

River shook his head. “No mistake. One witness even got the plate number. And Cassandra saw it, too.”

“But…but the car was at your place—Jackson's place! I let her drive it home.”

“And then you came and got it, early this morning. And I know you saw me. So you knew I was staying there, with Cassandra.” River's anger was mounting. “Is that what this is about? Every time I find someone to love you have to kill them? Do you hate me that much, Ethan?”

Ethan blinked. “You…love her?”

“That's why I can't let this go on. I might go down for this—they might keep right on blaming me for everything
you've
done, Ethan. God knows I can't prove a fucking thing. But I'm not gonna leave you around to try to hurt her again. I can't.”

“No. No, I don't suppose you can.” He drew a breath and sighed, walking to the marble stand again, turning his back to River while he poured a final shot into his glass. “I never hated you, River. I mean that. We just need to get you back on your meds. Everything will be all right, after that.”

He slugged back the drink and turned. When he did, River saw the gun in his hand, swore under his breath and then lunged forward even as Ethan raised the weapon. They grappled for it, until the firearm wound up skittering across the floor and slamming into the wall. River wrestled Ethan to the floor, straddled him and pounded him in the face. Ethan elbowed him hard in the rib cage, knocking him off. Then Ethan sprang to his feet and River did as well, and they leaped at each other—best friends fighting as if to the death.

When the woman burst into the room and began shrieking at them to stop, they barely took notice. River recognized the voice as Victoria's, and he felt damn bad for her—married to a murderer. Soon to be a killer's widow.

“Stop!” she shrieked. “Stop now or I'll shoot!”

That
brought things to a grinding halt. River and Ethan stood, a couple of feet between them, sweating and bloodied, and turned their eyes slowly toward the woman. She stood ten feet away, near where the gun had wound up, and she clutched it in hands that shook so badly River was surprised she didn't drop it.

“Stop right now, River. I don't want to shoot you but I will! I swear I will. You leave him alone!”

River said nothing. Ethan held up a hand. “Don't. Victoria, don't. It's…it's over.”

“No!” She pointed the gun at River, thumbed back the hammer and squeezed the trigger.

River felt as if it happened in slow motion, even though it was so fast he didn't have time to move. He heard the explosion—couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe Victoria would have it in her to shoot him. And even as that thought raced through his brain, he was vaguely aware of Ethan, shouting and diving toward him.

In front of him…

One arm thrown out, Ethan clotheslined him right across the throat so that he went down hard, gasping for air. He felt the stitches in his thigh tear free, felt the wound reopen and start to bleed.

It was all so damn fast.

The next thing River knew he was on his back, gasping like a fish, wondering if he was shot. And Ethan was on the floor beside him. And Cassandra was bursting through the door shouting at Victoria to drop the gun, and damn but she was in full cop mode. Down on one knee, gun drawn and steady on the armed woman, eyes scanning the entire scene, taking it all in even as Victoria let her weapon clatter to the floor and started sobbing.

Cassandra. She was incredible. Hair wild and all over the
place. Face as pale as a cloud. She wore hospital slippers on her feet, jeans and a little T-shirt he'd never seen before. He realized why she was down on one knee, when she got up. She barely put any weight on that leg, and Ace bandages bound her foot and ankle. A metal cane lay on the floor. He knew damn well she shouldn't be walking when she left the cane there, and limped over to Victoria. She grabbed up the fallen weapon, tucked it into the back of her jeans and quickly patted the woman down, in search of others.

“I was only defending my husband,” Victoria said. “God, I came home to find an escaped mental patient attacking him. What was I supposed to do?”

“Save it for the judge, lady.” Gripping Vicki's arm, Jax then turned toward the two of them. “Are you two all ri—Oh, shit.”

And finally, River managed to take his eyes off her. He sat up, looking where she was—at Ethan, who'd probably just saved his life, in spite of everything.

Ethan lay in a pool of blood, eyes closed. He wasn't moving.

Victoria started to scream again and came racing forward, falling to her knees and wailing as she wrapped herself around her husband.

“He's got a pulse,” Cassandra said, after managing to get in close enough to check the man. Victoria hadn't made it easy, until she collapsed and lay across his chest, sobbing.

River had the phone in his hand already. It was ringing, and eventually the 911 operator picked up.

“There's been a shooting,” River began.

* * *

Jax managed to keep it together, to keep going, despite that she was dizzy and weak and that her leg was throbbing like a toothache and the broken ribs were like hot nails in her sides every time she moved.

River dragged a protesting, nearly incoherent Victoria off her husband and kept her occupied so that Jax could admin
ister basic first aid. The bullet was in Ethan's head. No exit wound, which she figured was good or he'd be long dead. The gun was a little .25 caliber peashooter, not a cannon. And not the gun Ethan had used to shoot River in the leg. But damn, at such close range, even a small bullet was enough.

“Bitch intended it for River,” she whispered, even as she used a white cloth napkin she found on the wet bar to put pressure on the entry wound and ease the bleeding. She glanced across the room at River. He'd moved Victoria all the way over to the sofa, where she was even now swallowing a handful of pills with the contents of a glass that had been a third full when Jax arrived. Whiskey, she thought.

“River, I need a blanket and a couple of those sofa pillows.”

He nodded, sending a nervous glance toward Victoria as he got up.

“I've got her,” Jax told him. She kept her eyes on the woman, confident she could pull a gun and drop her before she took three steps in any direction, if necessary. She was
good
and pissed.

River took what looked like an antique tapestry from the back of the sofa, snatched up two sofa pillows and hurried toward her.

“Put the pillows under his feet. Cover him with the blanket.”

River did as she asked, his eyes focused only on her. “Are you okay? You look ready to drop.”

“I
am
ready to drop. In fact I think I will as soon as we get some backup here.” He held her eyes, worried, until she smiled. “He admitted it, didn't he?”

“No. Not yet.”

Jax blinked. “Then you need to get out of here, River. You need to get out of here now, before the police…” She hadn't even finished the thought when the first sirens sounded. She shot him an urgent look.

“No way. I'm not leaving you, not again. Look what happened last time.”

“Please,” she whispered. “Please, River—”

Too late. Cops were swarming through the front door. She was relieved to spot Frankie Parker's face among them. Jax raised her hands above her head. “I've got two weapons tucked in the back of my pants,” she said. “I'm gonna stand up slow, now, but I need someone to hold pressure on this man's gunshot wound or he'll bleed out.”

A cop came forward, while another kept her covered. He took her weapons, even while a third officer spun River around and snapped a pair of handcuffs on him.

“Better cuff that one, too,” Jax told them, nodding toward Victoria. “She's the one who shot him, and I know for a fact there's another gun in the house. At least.”

Paramedics were rushing in by then. Jax was relieved. She turned to the cop who was leading River from the room, and said, “This is my collar, pal. I'm taking him in.” And to another. “And I'll take my weapon back now that I've identified myself.”

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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