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Authors: Lynette Eason

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BOOK: When a Secret Kills
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Frank scratched his chin. “I remember that. Cops knocked on the door right after the party. Told them we didn’t hear anything. It ended up being some car backfiring or something.”

Colton ground his teeth, then said, “Then why would Jillian lie? She said you shot him and then fell. You saw her and raised the gun.” He leaned forward, letting the intensity of his emotions show.

Frank slapped a hand on the table and rose to his feet. “Enough. I won’t sit here and listen to this nonsense.”

Colton stood too. “Then tell me the truth! Stop pretending nothing happened and tell me the truth! What did Jillian see if you didn’t kill him? Why else would someone want her dead?”

His uncle’s jaw worked, then tightened as he sank back into the padded chair.

Their food arrived, but the waiter, sensing the thick tension between the men, didn’t linger.

“The truth, Uncle Frank, or I take you downtown and we look at all the evidence against you.”

That snapped his head up. “What evidence? You don’t have any evidence because there’s none to be found.”

“Did you have your boat painted recently?”

Frank’s eyes shuttered. “What does that matter?”

“Give me a straight answer. You’re being evasive and it doesn’t inspire my confidence in you.”

Frank rocked back against his chair and Colton softened his tone. “It matters because the crime scene unit found a slip of material at the scene of Serena’s bombed house. That material had boat paint on it. I asked Aunt Elizabeth if you’d had your boat painted. She didn’t know. I go out to the lake house to look and the boat’s gone.” Colton leaned in. “What am I supposed to think?”

“Maybe that I’m being set up! Maybe you should be trying to prove my innocence rather than my guilt. Why aren’t you asking your father these questions? He was at the house that night too.”

Colton narrowed his eyes and refused to follow that thread. He knew when someone was trying to distract him. “Then you can tell me about that later. Where’s your boat?”

“Getting painted.”

“Why?”

Frank shrugged. “It was time, Colton. I usually have it painted every other year. You know that.”

Despair, hurt, fury . . . and fear mixed together inside Colton to produce a certainty that he was going to have to recuse himself from this case. But before he did, he had to make sure Jillian was safe and find out if her accusations had any merit. The sick feeling in his gut said they did. “You never have it painted this early. If you won’t talk to me, I’ll have someone pick you up and take you downtown.” He slapped a fifty on the table and rose. There was no way he would be able to swallow a bite. “Lunch is on me.”

He started for the door.

“Colton. Wait.”

Colton stopped and spun back to face his uncle. The look on the man’s parchment-white face drained some of Colton’s fury. “What?”

“I didn’t . . .” As before, Frank sank back into the chair. His right hand grasped his left arm and he grimaced. But he looked up at Colton. “The night is fuzzy, I can’t remember everything. I guess I had a little too much to drink, but . . . I—” He gasped and panted. “I . . .”

Colton reacted. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911, then got his uncle on the floor and loosened the man’s clothing while he barked orders at the 911 operator.

“Sir? What is it?”

Colton looked up to see the waiter’s anxious face. “See if you can find me some aspirin.” The man spun and bolted out the door. Colton looked down at his uncle’s pale face. Sweat glistened on his forehead. “Help’s on the way, Uncle Frank.”

“I didn’t . . .”

“Here.” The waiter held out two tablets. “Is he going to be all right?”

Colton gave one to Frank. “Chew it up. Gets in your system faster.”

Frank chewed and time passed at a snail’s pace.

Paramedics finally arrived and Colton stepped back to give them room to work. As they rolled his uncle toward the ambulance, Colton ignored his heavy heart and dialed his captain’s number.

30

Colton paced the hallway of the hospital, waiting for someone to give him an update on his uncle. He’d called Jillian and Blake and told them what happened. They’d reassured him that Jillian was staying put.

Aunt Elizabeth and Carmen, followed by Elliott Darwin, rushed through the sliding doors. He held his hands out and Elizabeth slipped her cool, dry ones into his.

“Well? How is he?” she asked.

“Hanging in there.”

“What happened?” Elliott asked. His pinched face betrayed his worry for his longtime friend. Friends. Elliott would be crushed when Colton had to break the news about his uncle’s possible involvement in a murder. Not to mention how it was going to affect Elliott’s career. How it was going to affect the careers of all of the people who’d put their trust in Frank Hoffman. Tamping down his emotions and digging out his cop facade, Colton recapped the lunch, leaving out most of the details.

Carmen shifted, her perpetually bored expression sliding into place.

Elizabeth frowned. “He’s been under so much stress lately with the campaign and all. Something is really stressing him out.”

“More than just the campaign?”

She shrugged and Colton looked at Elliott. “Do you have any idea what’s going on with him?”

“No, but she’s right. I’ve noticed it too.”

“Any pressure from the senate about voting a certain way?” Colton asked.

They both shook their heads. Elizabeth said, “I haven’t heard him mention anything. Then again, like I said, he’s been . . . not himself lately.”

Elliott’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and his lips tightened. “I need to take this.”

“Sure.” The man stepped away and Colton looked at his aunt. Her usually smooth features were drawn into a frown, a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“What is it?”

She jerked and her face smoothed. “Nothing.”

Carmen let out a sigh. “It’s probably those letters he’s been getting and hiding in his desk drawer.”

His aunt’s face suddenly paled. Colton grabbed her arm and led her to a nearby chair as she swayed. She sank into it, never taking her eyes from her daughter. “Carmen, what are you talking about?”

The girl shrugged. “I went looking for some cash so I picked the lock on his desk.” Something flickered in her eyes. “I found the letters in an envelope. I think he’s stressed about those threats.”

“They were threats?” Colton asked.

“Yeah. Apparently my dad did something he shouldn’t have and someone’s threatening to tell.”

Colton drilled his aunt with a look. “I need to see those letters ASAP.”

She looked away.

He sank to his haunches in front of her. “Did you know about those letters?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I . . . I just found them the other day.” She shot a look at Carmen. “Carmen’s not the only one who knows how to snoop.” She bit her lip, then firmed her jaw and met his gaze. “But I had to know why he was being so secretive. He kept locking himself away in that office and I—” She broke off and swallowed hard.

“You what?” Colton asked, keeping his voice low.

Her eyes shot to Carmen’s, then slammed back into his. “I thought he was having an affair.”

Carmen snorted and shook her head. “Figures.”

At Colton’s sharply indrawn breath, she cast her eyes to the left, then the right, and lowered her voice even more. “Well, he wasn’t, but what else was I supposed to think? The secretive phone calls, the dash to the mailbox, the working at home when he would usually be at his office? I didn’t know what to think, so I searched his desk and found them.”

“What do they say?” He looked between his cousin and his aunt, waiting for one of them to tell him.

His aunt’s eyes darted. “Not here. Come to the house later after Frank’s stable and I’ll show you. You’re a detective. Maybe you can get to the bottom of it.”

“Fine.”

Colton gestured to the nearby waiting room. “Do you want some coffee?”

“No, not from this place.” She gave a delicate shudder.

A toddler got away from his mother and ran on unsteady legs to fall at their feet. Before Colton could react, his aunt swooped down and lifted the little one up. She held him until the weary woman could claim him, and Colton almost smiled.

A snob to the core with a heart of gold.

Carmen had settled into a nearby chair and shoved the earbuds to her iPod into her ears. Already, the whole idea of her father possibly dying and the threatening letters was being drowned out
by whatever she listened to. She had her eyes closed, head back against the wall.

A doctor appeared from the hall, his eyes scanning the waiting area until they landed on Elizabeth and Colton. Colton touched his aunt’s arm and nodded. She rose and approached the man in green scrubs, blue booties, and white lab coat. Carmen stayed tuned out and Colton left her that way. He followed a few steps behind his aunt. The doctor didn’t look like he had tragic news to deliver.

As they shook hands, the man said, “I’m Dr. Cordell, Senator Hoffman’s cardiologist.”

“How is he?” his aunt asked.

The door swooshed open and Colton sighed when he saw the media headed their way. “Is there someplace private we can talk?”

He didn’t have to ask twice. Colton got Carmen’s attention and motioned for her to follow. She gave a sigh and got to her feet. Dr. Cordell led them down the hall to a small room with several chairs. They each took one and the doctor said, “Right now, he’s stable. The emergency surgery went well, but he’s had another heart attack. I’ve got his chart from the one he had ten years ago. That one was a warning. This one is a bit more serious.”

“How serious?”

“He’s going to have to take it easy. Get rid of some of the stress in his life.”

Elizabeth raised a delicate brow. “Good luck with that.”

“He’s got to. Or he’s going to die.”

Colton looked at the floor and reached up to rub the back of his neck. He felt a twinge of guilt. Had his accusations at lunch caused the heart attack? And if he was arrested for murder . . . Colton felt sick.

And now he’d learned his uncle had been receiving mysterious letters. “We’ll talk to him.”

A knock on the door brought his head around to see his mother enter the room. His father followed two steps behind.
Elliott Darwin slipped in behind them. His mother walked over and gave him her “I’m-happy-to-see-you-even-though-you’ve-disappointed-us-terribly” hug. A weak squeeze with a sad look that was supposed to send him into throes of guilt. Fortunately, it didn’t work anymore.

He kissed her forehead. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hello.” She stepped back.

Colton’s father shook his hand. “Colton.” Then turned to the doctor. “I’m Zachary Brady. This is my wife, Sonya. How is he?”

Colton sighed. At least he’d gotten a handshake.

The doctor repeated his earlier statements, then stood. “I’ve got to get back in there. He’ll be in ICU for at least the next forty-eight hours and will be in an induced coma for now. I’ll have another update for you soon.”

Colton said, “I’ve got to get back to work. Keep me updated on Uncle Frank, will you?”

His aunt nodded. “I will.”

Colton’s phone buzzed and he pulled it from his pocket as he started to leave the room.

“Colton, wait—” At his mother’s voice, he turned.

“Let the boy go, Sonya,” his father huffed. “You heard him. He has to get back to work.”

His mother wilted against the chair, her defeated posture rousing his ire toward his father. But he knew if he said anything, it would just make the situation worse. “I’ll talk to you later, Mom.”

She nodded and Colton left. He’d missed the call from his captain. He hit speed dial. The man answered with a gruff, “Where are you?”

“At the hospital. My uncle had a heart attack while we were eating lunch.”

Captain Murdoch’s tone changed. “Oh hey, sorry about that. He going to make it?”

“He’s stable right now. What do you have for me?”

“A court order and the widow’s agreement to exhume the governor’s body.”

Colton sucked in a deep breath. “All right.” He paused.

“What is it, Brady?”

“I think it’s time I recused myself from this investigation.”

“I see. Who’s the best person to take it over?”

“Hunter Graham.”

“I’ll call him.”

31

Jillian sat in the car beside Mrs. Martin as Governor Martin’s body was exhumed. “I’m sorry,” she said without taking her eyes from the proceedings.

Mrs. Martin turned quizzical eyes toward Jillian. “Whatever do you have to be sorry for?”

With a small shrug, Jillian said, “This. Everything.”

Mrs. Martin took a deep breath and turned to watch the coffin slowly emerge from its resting place. “It’s time for the truth to come to light. Harrison was very much about justice. This is a good thing, I promise you.” She gave Jillian a small smile. “Why do you think I had him interred in a climate-controlled area? I prayed for this day to come. If his body holds any evidence, your ME should be able to find it.” The whir of the machine stopped and everyone went silent. A moment of respect for the man and his wife.

Workers moved the coffin into the waiting hearse. Security was tight and numerous around the area.

Jillian asked, “Do you plan to come to the morgue?”

“No. I don’t suppose I will. I’ve signed all the papers.” She let her gaze fall on the disappearing hearse. “Harrison’s not in that box.”

“No, ma’am, I know he’s not.”

“God had a reason for allowing Harrison to die when he did. I don’t know what it was and I’ve managed to gain peace with that over the years. But,” she drew in a deep breath, “if you can prove he wasn’t killed in a car wreck, I think that would add a new layer of peace. You know what I mean?”

“I know.”

The woman offered a gentle smile and Jillian felt her throat clog as she thought about the families affected by that night ten years ago. Good families. God-fearing and loving people who probably hadn’t done anything to hurt anyone.

She straightened her spine and firmed her jaw as Colton and Hunter walked toward them.

She’d made the right decision.

5:15 PM

Jillian stared out the window and watched the hearse leave, escorted by several police cruisers. Now that it was over, she was stunned by how fast it had happened.

“You all right?” Colton asked as he slid into the seat beside her and shut the door.

She shrugged. “Antsy. Anxious. Anticipating.”

“You got a thing for A words today?”

“When they’re A-ccurate.”

He gave a mock wince and she found a small smile on her lips as she buckled her seatbelt. Within twenty minutes they were pulling up to the morgue entrance. Blake and Colton never dropped their guard as they ushered her in. Hunter and Katie pulled up the rear.

Jillian allowed herself to be escorted through a door that reminded her of a garage door. When it settled closed behind them, Serena stepped around the corner and motioned them back. The coffin rolled in on the gurney and the team opened the lid. Jillian held her breath while Serena looked inside. She grimaced. “He
didn’t die a pleasant death, did he?” She continued her perusal. “I will say as bad as he’s burned, he’s very well preserved.”

“His wife did that on purpose.” Jillian looked at Colton. “She knew his death wasn’t an accident so she put him in a climate-controlled grave.”

“How very insightful. Lucky for us.”

He paused as he thought and watched Serena. “When she got the report from Gerald that there was no sign of foul play, she probably didn’t know what to do after that. She trusted him—it would be hard to question his findings.”

“So she prayed and waited.”

He looked at her. “She didn’t know it at the time, but she was waiting for you to come home.”

“Maybe.”

After Serena and her assistant, with the help of two other morgue workers, got Governor Martin onto the table, she went to work. Jillian watched her make the Y-incision over the previous one. Her stomach churned. Not at the sight of the autopsy, but at the thought of this man being murdered and his family being threatened. Would justice finally be done?

Please, Lord
, Jillian whispered her silent prayer.

She heard Colton’s phone buzz. He looked at it and said, “My aunt is calling. I’m just going to step outside and see what she needs.”

She turned pained eyes on him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Yeah. Me too. Especially since it looks like you’re right about everything.”

“I wish I wasn’t.”

His jaw clamped. “What matters is the truth.” He nodded toward Governor Martin’s body. “Truth and justice for him. For all the people involved—”

“Well, I can tell you one more thing,” Serena said.

Jillian whipped her head around. “What?”

Even Colton tensed and ignored his still-buzzing phone. Serena looked up over her mask. “I haven’t examined his head yet—he may have died from blunt force trauma as the original report states, but he was also shot.” A clink sounded. “And there’s the bullet.”

Jillian gasped, felt her knees buckle. Colton’s strong hand gripped her arm. She caught herself and looked up into his face. Now that the truth stared him in the eye, he was devastated.

And she’d caused that.

“Something else is pretty interesting,” Serena went on with a sympathetic glance in Colton’s direction. To Jillian she said, “You said the senator pulled the gun and shot the governor. Was the governor facing him? Or leaving the room?”

Jillian frowned. “Facing him. He shot him in the chest.”

Serena’s glance went back to the body, then to Colton and Jillian. “I thought that’s what you said.” She pushed her mask up and bit her lip. Worry danced in her pretty dark eyes.

“What is it, Serena?”

“That’s not what happened, according to the governor here.”

Stunned, Jillian asked, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, this man was shot in the back.”

BOOK: When a Secret Kills
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