Authors: Shannon McKenna
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
EDGE OF MIDNIGHT
Occupational stress. It was a bitch, but he was coping.
Tonight’s evening news had buzzed with the shocking story of the famous Seattle cardiologist who had snapped under the strain of his job, murdered his beautiful wife and two young sons, and then ended his own life. Dreadful. Tragic. Almost jerked tears into Gordon’s own eyes.
Though the bank transfer of the second half of the kill fee would dry them very fast, he reflected. All in all, it had been a satisfying day.
An actress tearfully confessed her secret pregnancy, and Gordon grabbed the remote to fast-forward through the local news piece that began to play. That was how he saw her. By pure, random chance.
A hot-cold rush of shock went through him. He had seen that perfect face only once. Magnified through the scope of a sniper rifle.
He would never forget those big, dreamy eyes. His heart thudded.
The program was a tedious feel-good piece about the revitalization project in historic downtown Endicott Falls. A perky commentator was interviewing his lost girl about her new bookstore café. Gordon picked up the phone, dialed. His fingers vibrated with excitement.
The man who answered the phone did not waste words. “Yes?”
“I found the girl,” Gordon said. “From the Midnight Project fuck-up.”
There was a startled pause. “You’re sure it’s her?” his sometime employer asked. “After fifteen years? She was just a teenager.”
Gordon didn’t bother to answer the insulting question. “Want to find out what she knows before I take her out?” His eyes explored the lush curves of his lost girl’s body. “I’ll interrogate her. No extra charge.”
The other man grunted. “Forget indulging yourself. It’s been years. Just end it. Get a police file started first. Some dirty letters, a dead pet, and when you finally do kill her, nobody’ll be surprised.”
Hah. Like he needed to be told how to do his job. Gordon hung up, rewound, and studied her face. Just look at her. Fresh as a daisy—or so she seemed. He knew the truth. She was sly. Selfish. Look what she’d done to him; disappearing on him, eluding him for fifteen years, putting a massive dent in his professional reputation. Anger rose inside him like a boil, ugly and inflamed. He reveled in its hot, burning itch. Gave himself up to it. Just look at that bad, bad girl. She’d been laughing at him, all that time. Thinking she’d made a fool of him. Thinking she’d won.
Self-satisfied bitch. She was about to discover how wrong she was.
He freeze-framed, and placed his finger against her throat on the screen. Traced the laughing curve of her scornful pink mouth, imagining its hot moisture. Electricity from the TV screen buzzed against his finger.
This was going to be fun.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” Sean snarled. “Would it be asking too much for you to just cut out this shit and leave me alone? Go into the light, or wherever the fuck it is you need to go. Move on, already!”
I just want to help, Kev said mildly. You could use some help. You’re going down the drain, buddy. Swish, glug, bye-bye.
“You can’t help me!” Sean bellowed. “You are dead! And this bullshit is torture! It does not help me! It will never help me!”
Kev was unperturbed by his rudeness. Stop being a spaz. His ghost voice took on that irritating tone he’d always used when dealing with his more volatile twin. You’ve got to do something about Liv’s car. She’s—
“Forget about Liv! Stop torturing me! Leave me alone!”
Alone…alone…alone… The echo accompanied him into waking consciousness, where there was never any way to brace himself for it.
He had to sort it all out over again. Like it had just happened.
Yeah, it was another fucking day. Yeah, Kev was still dead. And yeah, Kev was going to keep on being dead. Forever.
It would be so much easier to accept this if his twin would quit it with the spectral visits. But try explaining that to Kev. Stubborn jerk.
Light pried between his gummy eyelids. He ventured a slit-eyed peek. Unfamilar room. A clock on the bedside table read 12:47. Data crunched in his aching brain. Reality settled down, heavy and cold.
Another failure. His annual effort to erase August the eighteenth off the calendar hadn’t worked yet. Pinheaded optimist that he was, though, he just kept right on trying. The clock clicked over to 12:48. Eleven hours and twelve minutes of this goddamn day to get through.
He started to roll over, stopping as his leg encountered a silky thigh. The angle of that thigh to that ass wasn’t anatomically possible.
He struggled to focus his eyes. Oh. Yeah. There was more than one pair of female legs in the bed. The stripes of light slanting through the blinds made it tough to sort out the tangle of slender limbs.
Two girls lay crosswise to each other. A blonde and a brunette. Nice butt cheeks, all four of them. Round and smooth as duck eggs. The brunette lay with her face hidden by a heavy fall of dark hair. The blonde’s head was under the pillow, curly wisps poking out.
He stroked the butt cheeks closest to him and scanned the room for evidence that he had engaged in protected sex. One, two, three…huh, a fourth condom wrapper, on the bedside table. It would seem he had done his sacred manly duty by the sleeping cuties. That was good.
And it was starting to come back to him, in disconnected chunks. Stacey. The blonde was Stacey. The brunette was Kendra.
He extricated himself carefully from the bed. He didn’t want the babes to wake up on him, no matter how round and rosy their collective butt cheeks were. He wasn’t up to being sweet and charming today.
He stared at them, trying to reconstruct the impulse that had drawn him to them last night. Probably the brunette. With those kissable dimples in the small of her back, he could almost imagine she was Liv.
Not that he’d ever seen Liv’s naked ass. He’d just worshipped her from afar, like the lofty virgin goddess that she was. Although he’d worshipped her pretty thoroughly with his fingers once.
His dick jumped up like a puppy whenever he thought of that warm summer night when he’d cornered her in the historical collection room, and put his hand up her skirt. He remembered her pussy, tender and snug around his fingers. The way her soft thighs squeezed his hand. The choked, helpless sounds she made when she came.
The smell of old books made him hard to this day.
That sashay down memory lane had rendered him stone hard, hangover and all. He massaged his turgid cock. Eyed the brunette’s peachy ass. Half tempted to suit up with latex, close his eyes, and…
Christ, no. He shook away the bad idea, and froze, motionless, as a punishing bolt of pain reverberated through his head like one of those big Chinese gongs. Ouch. Fifteen years, and still hung up on that chick.
It would be funny, if it weren’t so fucking pathetic.
Sean massaged his throbbing forehead and let the Liv tape play through his head; he’d done her a favor, dropping her before doing anything unforgivably stupid—like marrying her, the equivalent of lying down and offering to be her personal throw rug. He would have tied himself in knots trying to be a good boy, and ultimately failed. Torture, agony, humiliation, blah blah blah. He knew the drill so well, he bored himself.
But he still saw the look in her eyes when he told her to get lost. He saw it every night, at four AM and whatever girl’s bed he woke in. Always with that same sucking hole in his gut as he pondered the most spectacular fuck-up of his life. The one that defined him as a person.
He eyed the brunette’s tantalizing ass, and sighed. He must have screwed hundreds of girls in his effort to get that chick out of his system. Hadn’t worked so far, but hey. He was nothing if not persistent.
He felt betrayed by his own body. The amount of tequila he’d drunk last night should have guaranteed a longer blackout.
Maybe he should bash himself over the head with a bigger pharmaceutical nightstick. Hard drugs weren’t his scene, though. The desperation that clung to the people who dealt and used them was a big, flesh-crawling downer. He didn’t even like alcohol that much. It made him fuck up in embarrassing ways. Not that waking up behind bars or in the emergency room really mortified him all that much, but it upset the hell out of his brothers. Upright, respectable family men that they now were. Pillars of the community. Legally wed to their fine and lovely lady wives. Soon to spawn big families too.
Connor and Erin were well on their way. Only four months to D-Day. A baby, whoa. Uncle Sean. So cheerful and normal. As if his brothers hadn’t grown up in the same gonzo parallel universe that he had. Crazy Eamon’s wild boys.
Even worse was this new family phenomenon he now faced; a pack of concerned sisters-in-law ganging up on him, trying to get him to open up and share. Suffering Christ, save him. They were great women, and it was sweet of them to care, but no fucking way, thank you.
His jeans were draped on a leather couch, beneath assorted lingerie. Another condom wrapper fluttered to the ground as he pulled on his jeans. He grunted, unimpressed, and rooted through his pockets.
Typical. He’d blown his emergency cab fare buying drinks for those girls, from the looks of them. So he was stranded, on foot, who the fuck knew where. Partying was such a freaking chore sometimes.
A trip to the john revealed two more condom wrappers. So he’d engaged in sink and/or shower sex. He stared at the scraps of foil as he pissed, trying to remember the aquatic adventures. He felt soiled.
Not that he had moral problems with an anonymous three-way. On the contrary. Girls were yummy. Bring ’em on. He was just lower than dirt depressed today. And it was just going to get worse from here.
The face that stared back from the bathroom mirror was both familiar and strange. The face of his dead identical twin, as Kev might have been. They hadn’t looked as much alike as some twins did, but his own mug was still Sean’s best point of reference. The superficial details were the same. Hard-muscled body, give or take a few scars. Wavy dirt-blond hair, which had gotten shaggy lately. A mirror image of Kev’s one-sided dimple in his own lean, stubbly cheek.
The grim face that stared back at him had no dimple today. Eye sockets smudged with purplish shadows, which made his light green irises look weirdly pale. The hollows under his cheekbones looked like they’d been chopped out with a hatchet. He looked grayish in the harsh light. Zombie pale. Something to scare the kiddies into good behavior.
Looking into a mirror on August eighteenth forced him to reflect on how much his face resembled Kev’s—and how much it no longer did.
He was harder, sharper, after fifteen years of hard living. Had a fan of squinty crinkles around his eyes. Grooves bracketing his mouth.
Years would go by, and the resemblance would continue to fade, until Sean was a gnarled, toothless, yammering old coot who’d lived many times the span of Kev’s short life. A yawning gulf of years.
He yanked open the medicine cabinet and scanned the contents.
Excedrin. He shook out four, tossed them in, crunched, gulped.
He leaned over, pressing his throbbing forehead against the cool porcelain sink, and let out a long, hissing string of vicious profanity.
This sucked ass. Utterly. Shouldn’t time have healed him? Wasn’t it a natural process, like continental drift? He tried so hard to dodge it, but this goddamn feeling circled him like a vulture, waiting for its chance to pick out his eyes and feed on his flesh. Sometimes he just wanted to lie down flat on his back and let that old vulture have its way.
And so it began. The sucking sound of Sean going down the drain.
He had to get the fuck out of here. Slinking away without coffee and pleasantries was rude, but better to leave before the charming sex machine of last night mutated before their eyes into a grunting zombie.
A cautious sniff at his pits practically knocked him out. A shower was too risky, though. So was coffee, he concluded with regret, gazing at the gleaming coffee technology on display in the kitchen. The bean grinder would wake up the cuties, and there he’d be, up shit creek. Forced to smile, chat, flirt, give them his phone number. God save him.
He stumbled out into a bland residential neighborhood. No money, no wallet. He never went out on the eve of August eighteenth with credit cards, or anything with his address printed on it. Just cash and condoms. Flashing lights, blasting music, sex, dancing, liquor, anything that blotted out higher cognitive function.
Fighting worked fine, too, if anybody was ass-for-brains stupid enough to get in his face. He loved a good fight.
He had no clue which direction to go, so he picked a vaguely downhill slope. Uphill would make his heart beat faster, and every lub-dub smacked at his brain tissues like the blow of a splitting mall.
Downhill. Down the drain, like Kev’s dream scolding. The partying, the fucking, the fighting, on days like this he saw it for what it was: a cheap trick to distract him from the sinkhole under his solar plexus.
His whole life, one big goddamn flinch.
The sinkhole was getting bigger, ground shifting, threatening to pitch him in. He might never find his way back up if he fell. Dad hadn’t. Neither had Kev. They’d fallen like rocks. All the way to the bottom.
Thunk. The muted thump of a car door had him spinning around and sinking down into guard before he knew he’d moved.
The tension sagged when he saw his brothers getting out of Seth Mackey’s Avalanche. Seth got out. Then Miles, from the passenger side.
Sean’s stomach sank. It was an ambush. He was so screwed.
The guys flicked each other glances that made him feel about six years old. Sean’s having one of his freak-outs. Quick, get the trank gun.
The one person in the world who had known him better than Con and Davy knew him had died fifteen years ago, to the day. He’d have calculated it to the second, if he could, but time of death had been impossible to determine. Kev’s body had been charred beyond recognition, after taking that swan dive into Hagen’s Canyon. He’d plowed through the guardrail, fallen for a few timeless seconds, then a rending crash, a hot whump as the pickup exploded—and that was it.
The blunt, chopped-off finality of it still baffled him.
There had been no skid marks leading up to the ragged hole in the guardrail. He’d searched and searched. Kev hadn’t tried to brake.
Sean saw Kev’s falling pickup reflected in Davy and Connor’s eyes too. He looked away fast. Couldn’t bear it, couldn’t share it. He had no comfort to offer, and he was too raw to accept any from them.
He just wanted to hide, alone. In a culvert somewhere.
It was easier to look Seth and Miles in the face than his brothers. He directed his glare there. “Who invited you guys to this freak show?”
Miles shrugged, his face worried. Seth’s mouth twisted into a humorless smile. “I had a brother once. I don’t need an invitation.”
Ouch. True enough. Seth’s younger brother had died too. Very badly, and only a couple of years ago. His loss was fresher than Sean’s.
Great. Another thing to feel like shit about. Thanks, guys.
Sean’s gaze slid away, leaving him with no place at all to rest it except for Seth’s black Chevy. “How’d you guys find me? X-Ray Specs?”
“We monitored you this time,” Con said. “From a safe distance. Bailing you out of jail for a drunk and disorderly is embarrassing.”
“So don’t bother, next time,” Sean suggested. “Leave me to rot.” He fished his cell out of his pocket. A transmitter inside sucked off the phone’s battery. Usually, it gave him the warm fuzzies that his family cared enough to plant spyware on him. Aw, how cute, and all that.
Connor, Davy, and Seth had all had freaky wild adventures that had convinced them that beacons were a great idea for the whole family.