Home > Hour of Need (Scarlet Falls #1)

Hour of Need (Scarlet Falls #1)
Author: Melinda Leigh

Chapter One

Friday 9:00 p.m.

Tonight’s celebration felt as hollow as Lee’s confidence. Anniversaries were a big deal, especially this one. A little more than a year ago, Lee hadn’t thought he and Kate would make it to their ten-year milestone. He should be happier, but he couldn’t shake the nag of betrayal.

He should have told her.

Actually, he should have discussed the situation with her before committing. Her stake in the outcome was as large as his, but this wasn’t the first decision he’d made solo.

The raw March wind whipped across the stucco facade of La Cusina. Stepping down from the brick stoop of the Italian restaurant to the sidewalk, Lee steered his wife around a patch of ice on the asphalt. Her high heels were sexy but precarious on the slippery spots. Although he probably shouldn’t worry. As a former nationally ranked figure skater turned coach, Kate spent as much time on ice as on solid ground. They walked past the bank and the bakery, both closed.

“Maybe next year we can do more than dinner for our anniversary. Wouldn’t a cruise be perfect? Aruba, Jamaica . . .” He hummed the first line of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.”

“I’m happy to get out to dinner.” Kate leaned closer, using his larger body to block the wind. Spring didn’t come early in upstate New York. “How many times have we had dinner out since Faith was born? Oh, yeah. None. If Carson had been this difficult, he’d be an only child.”

Their six-year-old had been born easygoing.

“It’s her elaborate plan to weaken us into submission so we’ll give her anything she wants.” Their sweet four-month-old turned into a wailing banshee when the sun set. But they both knew the baby wasn’t the only reason they hadn’t had a date night lately.

“Sleep deprivation is an established form of psychological torture.” Despite her banter, Kate’s laugh sounded forced, as if she was just going through the motions of tonight’s celebration.

Lee’s chicken marsala took a quick spin in his gut. Kate had been quiet all night. Was she simply worried about the baby or was she unhappy for some other reason? He’d logged too many billable hours these last few weeks. They’d barely seen each other. Paranoia dug its fingernails into his heart. He didn’t want to lose his wife. Those nights he’d slept in the guest room eighteen months ago were the loneliest of his life. He’d been isolated. Kate wasn’t just his wife. She was his best friend.

They turned the corner and set off down the side street where he’d parked the car. Mature trees lined the quiet lane, their branches hanging over the sidewalk. On a bright summer day, the shady canopy was quaint, but on a frigid and dark night, the added shadows shifting with the wind were unwelcome. Lee tripped over a slab of concrete pushed above the sidewalk by shallow tree roots. Kate caught his arm and held on until he sorted his feet under his body. Typical. Even handicapped by three-inch heels, his athletic wife was his supporter.

“Thank God for Julia.” Kate reached into her pocket, pulled out her cell phone, and glanced at the display. In her other gloved hand, the Styrofoam takeout box of lasagna crackled as she shifted her grip.

“Any calls?”

“No, but we’d better get home. The poor girl is probably ready to scream after a couple of hours of Faith’s howling.” Kate pocketed her phone.

Their teenage neighbor had been a savior as the last few months had passed in a sleep-deprived blur.

“I know.” Lee sighed. Their big night out was over. Back to the ear-splitting reality of a colicky infant, but he’d take it. Their marriage had gone through a rocky patch. They’d come through it, and if he made partner, everything would be all right. If being the key word. Their entire future rested on him being chosen for partnership, and the weight of the decision he’d made this week sat on his shoulders like an anvil. Had he let ambition ruin his marriage?

He needed to tell Kate soon about the case he’d taken. Refusing the Hamiltons hadn’t been an option. He couldn’t look those parents in the eye and say no, especially with his gut telling him the situation was more complicated than it appeared. After two days of inquiries into the case, he was even more disturbed. But controversy didn’t necessarily translate into popularity. In a small town, there was such a thing as bad press. The lawsuit could affect his chance for partnership, and he wouldn’t be the only one in the line of fire. Everyone in Scarlet Falls had a heated opinion. With the investigation centered on the rink where Kate coached, she was sure to be embroiled in the fallout.

He glanced sideways at her profile, her expression unreadable in the darkness. Would she stand by him? Without Kate’s steadying presence, Lee feared he couldn’t succeed.

On the bright side, a win would all but guarantee him the partnership. Frank Menendez, the new associate, wasn’t shy about lobbying for the promotion. Lee needed an edge over his ruthless competition. The case was a gamble, but given what he’d discovered, the odds of winning were in his favor. He just had to have faith and work hard. Then everything would be all right.

He wasn’t going to tell Kate tonight. She was already stressed. He hoped her tension was all about the baby and not a replay of their marital strife. Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to ruin their anniversary. He was going to let his wife enjoy as much time as possible before he brought more worries crashing down on their family.

Kate patted his arm. “They’ll be grown and gone before we can blink. I can’t believe Carson is six already.”

“If we can just get past the colic.” Among other things.

“Amen. God, it’s cold.” Kate zipped her coat higher under her chin. “We should move somewhere warm. It’s March. I’m totally over this thing called winter.” A scraping sound diverted Lee’s attention.

“Me too,” he said absently. His ears strained for another odd noise. The wind blew. Clattering, winter-bare tree branches waved overhead.

Head bowed against a sharp gust, Kate quickened her steps. Lee grabbed her arm and pulled her to a halt.

“What’s wrong?” She turned to him, the question furrowing her brow.

“I don’t know.” He scanned the dark street. A dozen vehicles were strung out along the snow-edged curb. The restaurant rode the edge of the commercial section of their quiet, boring town. The other businesses along this side street had closed hours ago. A block ahead, the neighborhood turned residential. The thin air smelled faintly of garlic, wood smoke, and snow.

There was absolutely no reason for the unease brewing in his gut. “Something’s wrong.”

Kate lifted her head. “The streetlight is out.”

“I guess that’s it.”

They started forward again. Kate slipped, and Lee wrapped a steadying arm around her.

A man stepped out from behind a truck and headed up the sidewalk in their direction. Work boots, jeans, and a black leather jacket were normal attire. Even the baseball cap that shadowed his face was ordinary. But something about the man’s posture put Lee on edge. There was readiness in the set of his shoulders, unnatural purpose in the cadence of his stride, and though the man wasn’t staring at them, Lee could feel the energy of his focus.

He pushed Kate behind him and veered into the street. They’d cross and continue on the opposite sidewalk. Their car was barely twenty feet away. Lee pulled out his keys, planning to get Kate locked into the vehicle and then deal with the man if necessary.

But the man stepped into the street and cut off their path. He raised his hand. Lee’s attention locked on a semiautomatic handgun, the barrel elongated by a silencer. Pointed at Lee and Kate, the muzzle yawned as large as a manhole cover.

“Wallet, keys, purse.” Gloved fingers curled in a gimme gesture.

Lee dug his wallet and keys out of his pockets. He reached back, took Kate’s handbag, and handed the items over. The man lowered the gun to tuck the purse under his arm and pocket the small items. Lee breathed. Being robbed sucked, but it was the best possible outcome of this scenario.

The gun came up again. Shocked, Lee froze. Moonlight glinted on metal as the muzzle flashed. The bullet tore through his skull with a searing blast of agony. Then his brain disconnected from his body. His knees buckled, and he did a slow-motion face-plant on the frozen blacktop. Liquid dripped into his eyes, obscuring his vision. But he felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not the pain from the wound. Not the warmth of the blood flowing into his eyes. The patch of ice beneath his cheek should have been cold. Kate’s screams sounded far away, though he knew she stood just two feet behind him.

The gunman said something to Kate, but the ringing in Lee’s ears drowned out the words. He strained to hear.

“Stop screaming and answer me,” the man said.

But Kate couldn’t stop. If anything, her shrieks grew louder, the pitch rising with hysteria, and then faltering with sobs. Lee tried to lift his head to see what was happening, but his muscles wouldn’t respond to his commands.

His gaze fixed on a pair of tan work boots. Blood speckled the toe. He moved his eyes. Kate dropped to her knees beside him. The takeout box hit the street. Lasagna spilled out, tomato sauce staining the roadside slush red. No, Kate. Run, was what he wanted to say, but nothing came out of his mouth. Paralyzed, he was unable to react, unable to protect his wife.

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