Authors: Liliana Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Medical, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Romance, #Suspense
To my readers—
Because you make my job fun. The brightest part of every day is getting emails from
from all over the world.
To the countless number of law enforcement officers, morticians, and medical examiners who let me pick their brains while I'm researching a book. They are truly at the top of their fields and true heroes.
Any mistakes made in the book are mine and mine alone.
And thanks to my gal pals... Jaye Wells, Molly Harper, Nicole Peeler, Heather Osborn, and Judy Harper for showing a girl that a cabin in the deep woods of Kentucky can, in fact, be fun.
never given the phrase
Dead Man Walking
much thought. Not until a few hours ago when I’d been faced with the ghost of my father. Only he hadn’t been a ghost. He’d been flesh and blood and bone—and he’d been breathing.
Only a few short hours ago, I realized I was happy for the first time in as long as I could remember—I had a career
I hadn’t planned on and wasn’t overly fond of, but it paid most of my bills. And I had a man who loved me despite my numerous flaws. I should have known it wouldn’t last. Anyone with the last name Graves was cursed from the cradle.
The memories of the afternoon run in with my father looped over and over in my mind.
Jack had dropped me off at the house I’d grown up in—an old Victorian that backed up to the Potomac River. It was a house that brought nothing but bad memories—of a childhood filled with neglect, as well as the death of an old lover that had spattered the walls with crimson. The house was going on the market, and then it would be another family’s burden—an empty vessel to fill with their own memories.
I’d waved goodbye to Jack and had every intention of packing the last of my things.
I’d barely had the door closed at my back when I realized I wasn’t alone. Fear overwhelmed me. I’d experienced it before and the memories of death were still too fresh in my mind.
The floorboards creaked as he came from one of the back rooms and I froze in terror.
“So you’ve decided to move in with Jack,” he said. “I wondered how long it would take the two of you to stop dancing and get down to business. I always did like that boy.”
I tripped over my feet and slammed back against the door. Mewling whimpers escaped from my throat as my sweaty hand fumbled for the doorknob. But then the familiarity of that voice caught up to my brain and my knees turned to jelly.
“What’s wrong, Jaye? Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“Dad?” My legs gave out completely and I slid to the floor.
He smiled like he hadn’t just destroyed my world and stuck his hands in the pockets of his khakis. All I could think was he looked good for a dead man—I’d know since I’d seen more than my fair share.
He was thinner than the last time I’d seen him, the lines in his face a little deeper.
He skimmed just under six feet and his hair was thick and the color of a deer pelt. His eyes were hazel and he still wore the same tortoise shell glasses he always had. He looked more like a college professor than a mortician or a criminal, but that was probably the point. My dad could be accused of being a lot of things but an idiot wasn’t one of them. He knew how to blend—how to fade into the background. Which was one of the reasons I’d never bought that he and my mom drove over the cliff on purpose during a fight. It was too big of a splash. If they were going to commit double suicide they would’ve popped a couple of cyanide pills in the privacy of their own home.
I shook my head, trying to get my thoughts back together, and I realized he was speaking to me.
He sighed and squatted down beside me. I tried to crawl backwards, but the wood was solid at my back. “You always did like to overdramatize things. Emotions only get in the way of the important things in life. We taught you to keep a clear head, no matter what the circumstance.”
Some things can be taught. Others are passed through the blood.” I met his gaze with all the anger I’d been holding inside since I’d found out I hadn’t really been theirs. “I guess you failed on both accounts there.”
His surprise at my knowledge was quickly masked. “You’ve always been ours. We loved you the same. The how you came to be here is just all in the details.”
I knew the signs of shock. I was a doctor, for God’s sake. My pulse was rapid and my skin cold and clammy with sweat. My pulse raced and I knew if I looked in the mirror my eyes would be dilated to the point that only a thin ring of gray would be showing.
Since you know about your birth, I’m going to assume you found the boxes of papers in the bunker. The body was still there the last time I checked, so I know it wasn’t the FBI. I need those boxes, Jericho.”
A sound I didn’t recognize escaped my mouth
and tears I couldn’t control dripped down my cheeks and onto my shirt. My father was the only person who ever used my real name, but even then it was only when I was in trouble. There were only a handful of people who even knew what my name was because I loathed it with a flaming hot passion. It didn’t bode well that he was using it now.
His hand came up and I stopped breathing when his finger trailed down my cheek, following the path of my tears. I knew what it was like to have the air cut off, so oxygen couldn’t reach the lungs no matter how hard you tried or struggled. I knew what it was like to gasp and claw your way toward death. I’d been there. And feeling the touch of a dead man, which proved he wasn’t really dead after all, brought an onslaught of memories I’d tried hard to forget over the last months.
I had to remind myself to suck in oxygen, just like I had after I’d been attacked by Jeremy Mooney—a sociopath who’d taken three other lives before he’d decided to add me to his collection. I felt the airway of my throat open and I sucked in a gulping breath.
My dad took my chin between his thumb and forefinger
and turned my head so I had no choice but to look straight at him. “I’ve been through the house from top to bottom and the boxes aren’t here. You haven’t stepped foot inside for months, so it’s been a good place for me to lay low.”
I wanted to scream. To tell him how much I hated the house and everything it represented. All the lies. And I hated the fact that this had been the place I’d almost died—only a dozen or so feet from where I sat now.
“I know what happened here.” He didn’t explain how or why he knew. “It’s best you haven’t been around. The Feds still have the house under surveillance. They were never really looking at you anyway.”
I jerked at that bit of knowledge. I hadn’t noticed anyone hanging around, federal or otherwise, for almost a year. It made me wonder if Jack knew. There wasn’t much that got by him.
“Could’ve fooled me,” I croaked out. I’d been an emergency room doctor at Augusta General when my parents had taken that drive over the cliff. I’d been questioned by the FBI for weeks and they’d dogged my every step. If I hadn’t quit my job when I had I probably would’ve been fired. “Wh—who is the body?”
He looked at his watch and th
en back at me, his gaze determined and a little bit sorry. “A mistake. Now tell me where the boxes are. I’m assuming either with Jack or at the funeral home. I haven’t been able to search either location and time is running out.”
We both heard it at the same time. The sound of tires on the gr
aveled road coming to a stop. My dad sighed and quirked the corner of his mouth in a smile. “I guess we’ll have to do this later. We’ll talk again soon.”
I watched as he walked down the darkened hallway and disappeared right in front of my eyes. I’d almost convinced myself that I’d been hallucinating—that the horrible memories of the
house had somehow manifested into my own reality. But then I looked down at my hand and realized I held a circle of silver, the outside of the wide band engraved with a complicated design.
It sat like molten lead in my palm and I almost dropped it. The last time I’d seen the ring
it had been on my mother’s finger.
Not a hallucination
My name is J.J. Graves and I’m the coroner for King George County, Virgin
ia. Since there isn’t a huge demand for coroners in a county that has a population of just over twenty thousand, I supplement my meager income through Graves Funeral Home, working for those who meet death the natural way.
I live in Bloody Mary—one of the four towns that makes up King George County—and despite the rather macabre name, most people manage to make a good life and live the American dream. I preferred not to dream. I’d found my dreams turned to nightmares much too easily. I’m fourth generation mortician. First generation law-abiding citizen. And either way, it’s a hell of a legacy.
Three A.M. had come and gone, but I had yet to close my eyes. Slivers of moonlight managed to find their way between the cracks and gnarls of tree limbs and shone into the floor-to-ceiling windows that took up an entire wall. The ceiling fan whirred overhead and I stared at it with utter concentration, hoping the repetitiveness would lull me to sleep. My eyes felt like they were weighted with sand, but every time I closed them I could see his face—my father’s—and I could feel the icy touch of his finger as it trailed down my cheek.
I hunkered farther into the mattress and pulled the down comforter up to my chin. I’d been chilled for hours and nothing could warm me. Not even Jack, who slept in peaceful ignorance beside me.
My life had changed irrevocably in the past couple of weeks. I’d somehow found myself living with the man I’d called my best friend since childhood. Our bond was solid—unbreakable even—and we had a lifetime of knowing and loving each other to anchor us. But that was before my dead father made an appearance.
The strength of our relationship was bound to be tested, and I could admit the reason I hadn’t found the courage to tell Jack about my fat
her was that I was afraid it would be the excuse he’d need to walk away. I still didn’t understand why he loved me—why I deserved that love—and I kept waiting for him to tell me he’d changed his mind. That it had all been a terrible misunderstanding.
Jack believed in law and order, and as sheriff of King George County, he was elected to the office with those principles firmly in place. He was already skating on thin ice with the upcoming election because of his relationship with me. Sins of the fathers and all that nonsense. My father showing up now, of all times, would just add nails to the coffin. It was safe to say that my father had never met law and order.
The burning sensation in my gut was either an ulcer or the knowledge that I might not be the best thing for Jack, even though I knew with certainty he was the best thing that could ever happen to me. And the thought flitted through my mind, not for the first time, that maybe I should be the one to walk away. For his own good.
I shivered beneath the covers and
figured I might as well get up and start coffee. I didn’t have any dead to deal with at the moment, but I had unpacking to do. It was pitiful how few belongings I had to bring with me into my new life with Jack.
“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?” Jack asked, his voice husky with sleep. He rol
led so he faced me and pulled me close against his body. He hissed out a breath when the ice of my skin made contact, but he didn’t let go. He just pulled the covers tighter around us and cocooned me with his warmth. “You’re thinking so loud that neither one of us is going to get much sleep if you don’t shut down.”
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” I couldn’t tell him. I was ashamed of where I’d come from.
Afraid that Jack would be ashamed of me. And I wasn’t sure that was something I could face. “Can’t turn my brain off.”
I felt him tense behind me and he turned me so we were face to face. Jack liked to meet problems head on. I’d had enough problems in my life that I didn’t mind
avoiding them whenever possible.
“Are you having regrets?” His touch was gentle as he br
ushed the hair back from my face, but I could see the tension in his jaw—the worry in his eyes. I realized he was talking about us.
“No, of course not.” I leaned in and kissed him on the base of the jaw, his morning whiskers prickly against my skin.
“I never could. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I have no regrets about moving in with you, about sharing a home with you.”
His hand massaged the back of my neck and down to the tight muscles
between my shoulder blades. “I should have gone with you inside the house. It wasn’t something you needed to face on your own. You’ve been upset ever since.”
I licked my lips and snuggled closer so I wouldn’t have to look him in the eyes when I lied. “It hit me harder than I thought it would. I’ll
just be glad to get rid of it once and for all.”
“That’s fine. But I want to make sure you really feel like this is home and that you’re comfortable here. If you want to make changes to a room or buy new furniture just tell me.”
My lips twitched at the thought of spending time and money decorating a house that was already beautiful. I’d never been a typical girl growing up—just one of the boys playing sandlot baseball, building forts, and tromping through the woods. And then I’d gone on to medical school and my residency and I’d been so tired from lack of sleep that thinking of fixing my hair or putting on makeup and a nice outfit to attract the opposite sex had been the farthest thing from my mind.
“I don’t think I’m going to be very good at living together,” I said softly.
“You’re naked and in my bed. I think you’re doing a pretty damned good job so far.”
I rolled my eyes, but he couldn’t see it. “I mean I’ve never lived with anyone before. I don’t know how to cook or decorate for holidays, and
I never remember to put seasonal wreaths on the door like every other woman in town.”
“Thank God for that,” Jack said dryly. “I’ve never been overly fond of seasonal wreaths.”
I smacked him in the arm. “I’m just saying I’ve spent most of my life focused on my career. I don’t want you to have these expectations and then have you disappointed when I don’t meet them.”
“Jaye, I’ve known you since we were barely walking. I know you can’t cook. Just like I know you have a competitive streak a mile long and you can gut a fish with a precision that makes me jealous.
We both have our strengths. It’ll all work out okay.”
lay wrapped in each other a few minutes—soft touches and comfort. “I’ve decided to put in for vacation time,” Jack said. “I have more days accumulated than I know what to do with, and I’ve got good men to cover for me.”
I pulled back in surprise. “
What? Why? You’ll be bored out of your mind in a week.”
He sighed and rubbed slow, soothing circles on my back. “You know we have to go
back and look. To see if the body is still there. And anyway, we’ve got to report it to the authorities whether the body is still there or not. It’s the right thing to do. The investigation will take some time, and it’ll also make your parents’ crimes and their deaths fresh again. I don’t want you to have to handle it all by yourself.”
In a moment of weakness I’d told Jack about the body I’d found in my parents’ bunker behind their house in the Poconos. The same body my father had so casually called a
I shook my head because I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to go back there. I wanted to pretend I’d never found the body or taken the boxes my father was looking for. I wanted to pretend I wasn’t J.J. Graves, mortician of
the damned. I wanted to start my life with Jack and live with the illusion we were white picket fence kind of people. But I couldn’t, and we weren’t.
“You know we have to, Jaye. It’ll haunt you forever if you don’t see it through. We need to bury the past before we can move to the future.”
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. The past was far from buried and it made the future impossible.
And after we get that taken care of, maybe we could make this arrangement more permanent.”
I tried to laugh it off, but it came
out as a nervous croak. My blood ran cold and my skin went clammy. I had a feeling I knew what he was going to say—he’d hinted at it a time or two—but I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear it.
“It seems to me that we’ve got here is pretty permanent.”
“I want to marry you, Jaye. I want to be a family. For it to be binding and permanent. I think after everything we’ve been through together that we both need that. I need it. I want you to be my wife.”
I felt the constriction in my lungs and realized I wasn’t breathing. And this time when I told myself to breathe my brain didn’t listen.
“Jesus, Jaye. I’m not asking you to join a cult or commit murder.
Breathe before you pass out.”
I sucked in a deep breath
and felt the tightness loosen in my chest. “I’m fine. I’m good,” I wheezed out. “You just took me by surprise.” The exasperation on his face was plain to see, and it reminded me of a similar look I’d seen from my father just hours before.
“I love you. And unless something has changed you love me too. This is just the natural progression of things. I’ve never said I love you to a woman before. Never wanted to spend my life with
anyone or even think about marriage. Not until you.”
My heart did a long, liquid roll inside my chest and I sighed at the sweetness and sincerity of his words. I knew he spoke the truth. I didn’t want the magic of the moment to end between us, and I tried not to think about the future—about the possibility of Jack changing his mind once I told him the truth. But for now I could enjoy the fantasy—and be loved just a little.
“I’ll marry you,” I said, hoarsely.
I felt his relief and saw the quick flash of his smile. “I was hoping you’d say that. I didn’t want to have to resort to torture techniques.”
Jack rolled us so I was on my back and he leaned over me, and the hardness nudging my thigh gave me a good idea what he had in mind.
My eyebrows raised at the feel of him. “It feels pretty torturous to me.”
He cracked out a laugh and I couldn’t help but grin, shifting beneath him so he fit more comfortably between my thighs, my ankles curling easily over his calves. I explored his skin with my hands—over taut muscles and scars, up his chest where the coarse chest hair curled around my fingers, and across the flat discs of his nipples that went rigid beneath my touch.
“God, you’re pretty.”
I cupped his face with my hand and watched the uncomfortable embarrassment flash across his features. He looked like a man more suited to making action movies in Hollywood instead of reigning herd on citizens in bumfuck Virginia.
a chiseled, angular face and sensuous lips that constantly distracted me. His eyes were so dark they were almost black and thick brows winged above them. A thin scar slashed through his right eyebrow, giving him a somewhat disreputable appearance. And since it had been my cleat that had connected with his face while I’d been sliding into home, the mark made me feel somewhat sentimental. His hair was dark and cut close to his scalp, and over the last year or so his beard had become flecked with the occasional strand of silver.
Flattery will get you everywhere,” he grinned. “And since you’ve decided not to tell me what’s bothering you, maybe I should go ahead and show you my interrogation techniques.”
I gasped as his hand cupped my breast
at the same moment he slid deep inside me. My legs came up to tighten around his waist and my blood pumped with excitement. My nails dug into his shoulders at the abrupt invasion, and Jack held still as he waited for me to adjust to the intrusion. I was morning soft, but hardly prepared to take something of Jack’s size without a little preparation first.
He kissed me then, h
is teeth nipping at my bottom lip so he could drink in my sighs. His tongue danced with mine, stroking, soothing, until I’d relaxed beneath him and my hips began to lift on their own, meeting his as he began to move in long, slow strokes.
My hands roamed down his back and his buttocks, feeling the muscles bunch beneath my
fingers and the dampness of sweat on his flesh. Soft sighs and the rustle of sheets filled the air and my skin tingled as I felt the beginnings of an orgasm gathering deep inside of me. Jack always knew just where to touch—where to kiss—to make me go liquid beneath him.
The climax rolled through me like a wave and I shuddered beneath him as he took me higher and higher, prolonging the sensations until I wasn’t sure I’d survive it.
My hands slid limply
from his back and to the mattress and my breath labored while my heart thudded in my chest. I felt Jack’s heart beating against my breast—the same thumping rhythm in perfect sync with my own.
“Yes, you can,” he whispered against my ear.
He stopped moving, kissing me softly as I continued to spasm around him. He was still hard inside of me and I shifted a little, watching his jaw clench as he tried to stay in control. Thoughts of exhaustion evaporated and I felt the need surge inside me once again. I was insatiable. But only with Jack. It had never been that way with anyone before, and I knew there could never be anyone after.