Feb 21, 2020
Book Two in The Hellbound Brotherhood
They were never supposed to leave alive…Find out why New York Times bestseller Maya Banks hails McKenna’s books as “A non-stop thrill ride…”
Only one woman could tempt him to return…
Eric Trask and his brothers have turned their backs on their past. Only their beloved foster father’s funeral could drag them back to the small town of Shaw’s Crossing. Eric is haunted by the memory of GodsAcre, the doomsday cult in the mountains where they were raised and the deadly fire that destroyed it, but one memory still shines bright…Demi Vaughan. Her lush, sexy mouth, her stunning green eyes. Their hot fling seven years ago crashed and burned in the worst possible way, and she’s still mortally pissed at him…and more gorgeous than ever.
Demi Vaughan did her best to forget Eric Trask. They told her from the start that he was a train wreck, and she hadn’t listened. He’d broken her heart and derailed her life, and she’d be damned if she’d let him do it again, now that she’d followed her dream and opened her own restaurant. But the years that passed have only turned Eric into a more concentrated version of what he’d always been—a flint-eyed, brutally ambitious, hyper-focused alpha male hunk. Just taller. Harder. As intoxicating as hell.
Demi tries to withstand Eric’s magnetic pull, but she can’t resist the all-consuming heat between them. But an old evil still lies low in Shaw’s Crossing, and Eric’s arrival has shocked it back into life.
Now it’s not just their hearts that are in danger. It’s their lives…
Read an Excerpt
Eric Trask stared over Otis’s flower-heaped coffin. His jaw ached from clenching his teeth.
He couldn’t skip his adoptive father’s funeral, but couldn’t help reflecting that this display was a huge waste of extreme discomfort. The old man was gone. He couldn’t appreciate the gesture, and no one else around here gave a flying fuck if Eric was present or not, other than his brothers Mace and Anton, who stood on either side of him.
They hated funerals like he did. For all the same reasons.
Yet here they were. Shoulder to shoulder, grim and stoic as befitted the sons of the Prophet, as well as sons of Otis Trask. Both those men had been heavy into grim stoicism.
A big crowd of Shaw’s Crossing inhabitants had trooped down to the cemetery in the frigid wind for Otis’s interment, which wasn’t that surprising. Otis had been the chief of police in Shaw’s Crossing for many years and had been highly respected in that role.
Some of those people were giving the Trask boys the side-eye from across Otis’s open grave. Not that they gave a shit.
No side-eye coming from Demi Vaughan, though. She didn’t look at him at all.
Eric hadn’t expected to see Demi here in Shaw’s Crossing. He would have thought she’d be long gone, as far from her asshole of a father as it was possible to get.
But here she was, right in front of him. No time to prepare. To brace himself.
Looking at Demi gave him a hard, twisting ache in his chest. Different and distinct from the pain and shock of losing Otis. The feeling surprised him. He’d thought all that stuff from the past was buried deep and covered with concrete. He’d gone to great lengths to bury it. He’d even congratulated himself on how completely he’d gotten over it.
He hadn’t. Like he needed anything else to humble him today.
On the plus side, being ignored by Demi left him free to discreetly ogle her, which was well worth doing. Seven years hadn’t dimmed her glow. She hadn’t gotten any taller, but her small frame had filled out, and every part of it looked great. Her full lips were painted a hot red and her long brown ringlets fluttered in the gusts of wind. He keenly remembered her hair’s satiny softness and scent.
She looked sexy and tough in her snug black skirt. Black tights on her strong, shapely legs. High-heeled boots. A nipped-in black leather bomber jacket. Hot.
She still had that regal, indomitable look he remembered so well in those striking, pale green eyes. Clear, challenging. Demi Vaughan stared the world down fearlessly, calling out any bullshit she saw for what it was. Including Eric’s own.
It had made him hard, when it wasn’t driving him fucking nuts. Sometimes both at the same time.
Demi stared at Otis’s casket, not sparing him a glance, but Benedict Vaughan, her asshole father, made up for it with an unwavering glare.
Eric gazed right back. A look that silently said everything he needed it to say.
I know what you did. I know what you are, you lying piece of shit. And so do you.
Ben Vaughan’s mouth twisted. His eyes slid away.
Vaughan himself, unlike Demi, didn’t look so good. Seven years ago he could still have been called a good-looking guy, but not anymore. His face was puffy and bloated. His eyes bagged, his jowls sagged. Demi’s granddad Henry Shaw, acknowledged king and boss of Shaw’s Crossing, stood with them, but old man Shaw didn’t glower at Eric. He just gazed at Otis’s coffin with hollow, reddened eyes, hunched and sad in his black wool coat. Henry Shaw and Otis had served in Vietnam together. Marines. They went way back.
Eric forced himself to look away. Eye contact with the Vaughan/Shaw family was unwise. His long-ago fling with Demi had ended about as badly as a fling could.
Which was to say, with him in jail, looking at eight to ten. It had been a near thing.
Mace tapped his arm. “Pinstripes and hair grease at three o’clock,” he said under his breath. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Eric spotted the guy instantly when he looked in that direction. He should have noticed the man already, but he’d been shamefully inattentive. Wandering down memory lane, gawking at Demi’s hypnotic green eyes. He tried without success to place the stranger. A new arrival, a visiting relative, somebody’s new out-of-town boyfriend?
No. ‘Professional asshole’ came off the man like a bad smell. He had shifty snake eyes. A hook nose. Balding, with a greasy black widow’s peak. Bad skin, a pimp suit, and a restless, seedy urban vibe that was all wrong for Shaw’s Crossing.
“His buddy’s at nine o’clock,” Anton whispered.
Eric assessed the other guy. Bigger than the first, beefy and bearded and thick in the neck. Cold, shuttered eyes. A brainless thug in a suit. The two were a matched pair.
“Assholes that Otis sent to jail?” he speculated under his breath.
“Maybe,” Mace said. “Come to gloat over his corpse.”
“If it was just one, maybe,” Anton replied, his voice barely audible. “Not two. Bet they’re packing.”
“Yah think?” Mace said. “Good. Let’s separate these shitheads off from the herd after and pick a fight with ‘em. I need to vent.”
The hungry flash of eagerness in his younger brother’s eyes made Eric nervous. “No,” he hissed. “We talked about this. In and out. No drama. Stick to the plan.”
He forced his attention back to the service. The familiar verses made his stomach clench, just like the drone of the organ and the sickly smell of lilies at the funeral home. Otis’s sister-in-law Maureen had organized all of that.
But when they lowered the coffin into the ground…God, he dreaded that part.
Eric and his brothers had declined to give a eulogy, their memories of Otis being their own damn business, so the eulogy had been given by the man who replaced Otis as chief of police after his retirement, Wade Bristol. Big, beefy guy in his late fifties. Eric remembered him all too well. Bristol had been the guy who arrested him and read him his rights while Eric was lying in bed in the Granger Valley Hospital Intensive Care Unit.
He didn’t hold it against the guy. Bristol had just been doing his job to the best of his ability.
The eulogy Bristol gave wasn’t bad. Comprehensive. No surprises. Bristol droned on about Otis’s courage, his exemplary life, his heroic and highly decorated military service, his selfless dedication to the community of Shaw’s Crossing, etc., etc. All of which was absolutely true and could not be overstated, even if you tried.
Only Eric, Anton and Mace heard the subtext. Thirteen years ago, everyone had told Otis he was a goddamn lunatic for taking on a three-headed monster like Eric, Anton and Mace, after all the bad shit that gone down at GodsAcre. Just because it was the right thing to do, and nobody else seemed to be willing to do it.
Taking not one, not two, but three big, strong, massively fucked-up teenage boys with extensive combat training and a bizarre upbringing into his home…it was a disaster waiting to happen. Otis would be murdered in his bed. Everyone was sure of it.
But they hadn’t hurt Otis. The old man was tougher than boot leather. He’d kept them in line. They’d all survived. It hadn’t been easy, but Eric and his brothers had kept it together. Graduated from high school. Eric and Mace had even gone on into the military.
It was afterwards that everything had gone to shit. When Eric ran afoul of Benedict Vaughan and Henry Shaw for daring to raise his eyes to their precious princess.
And not just his eyes. Another part had risen up, as well.
Bad scene, all around. But in spite of everything, sex dreams about Demi Vaughan regularly jolted him out of sleep, panting and sweating and stone hard.
He’d gotten well away from that fucking place after the charges were dropped. Started his life fresh, far away from Shaw’s Crossing. He’d worked like a bastard. So had his brothers, each in his own way. They’d promised not just Otis, but also each other. They would not be defeated.
They would make something out of themselves. Prove all the shitheads wrong.
They’d done it, for the most part. Built good careers. Lives for themselves, such as they were. Strange but true. They owed it all to Otis. Boot-leather tough, cantankerous, lecturing Otis.
It still seemed impossible that he could be gone. A stroke, they said, but Otis had gotten himself checked out, and recently. He’d bragged to them about being as healthy as a horse for his age. Just some arthritis. No reason that he wouldn’t go on being his own ornery, opinionated, difficult self for decades to come.
And suddenly he was gone. With no warning except for that strange voicemail he’d sent to the three of them the night before his death. Not one of them had managed to get back to him in time.
He hadn’t said that he was sick. Just that he had something urgent to tell them about GodsAcre, and that they needed to be in Shaw’s Crossing to hear it. He’d sounded agitated. Afraid, even. Insofar as it was impossible to imagine Otis afraid.
But the mystery message had never been delivered. Otis had died on his own dining room floor. No warning.
Like all the people in the death cluster.
He tried not to dwell on that, but the thought hung heavy in the air and Eric was sure he wasn’t the only person thinking it. Thirteen years ago, right before the GodsAcre fire, fourteen people in Shaw’s Crossing had dropped dead in the course of only twelve days. All deaths had been unexpected, but there was no evidence of foul play. Like Otis.
Perfectly natural deaths…but for their suspicious timing.
The Prophet’s Curse, the town called it. Sometimes to their faces.
It was the creaking of the ropes as they lowered Otis’s casket down that set him off. Eric started struggling to breathe. His chest was being crushed in a vise. His head roared, his heart thudded, his belly heaved.
He heard coffin ropes in his nightmares. Thirteen years ago, they’d laid the victims of the GodsAcre fire to rest. So many coffins. All of them closed. By necessity, since the thirty-eight bodies inside them had been charred beyond recognition.
Nine of those coffins had been very small.
He felt like a container swiftly filling up with icy liquid. Fuck. After all these years, and it still got to him, as bad as it ever was. His throat was closing, chest squeezing, no air, vision dimming. Heart thudding, boom boom boom.
Guilt, clawing inside him. For surviving it. Not being able to save them.
“…Trask? Mr. Trask? Excuse me? Sir?”
The funeral director spoke with the tone of someone who’d asked the question more than once. When he saw he’d gotten Eric’s attention, he gestured at the heap of earth that had been uncovered from the shroud of fake green grass.
Time to finish this.
Eric took a handful of earth and tossed it down. Dark, thick clods scattered over the gleaming cherry-wood coffin that Maureen, Otis’s sister-in-law, had selected. His brothers followed suit.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the guy with the greasy black hair and his thuggish pal stroll toward the access road where the mourners’ cars were all parked. Good. He wouldn’t have to wrangle Mace out of provoking them. He didn’t have the juice for that fight today.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Eric whispered to his brothers.
“Oh yeah,” Mace agreed fervently.
They wasted no time putting distance between themselves and the rhythmic shovelfuls of dirt hitting Otis’s coffin. They’d opted to park on the rough dirt road on the far side of the cemetery, far from the paved road where the mourners usually parked, for the purposes of a quick getaway. Why not avoid the stiff, awkward, socially mandated conversations from the get-go? They were doing everyone a favor by sparing them that necessity.
They were so intent on their escape, the black granite obelisk that loomed suddenly before them took them by surprise. They all stopped in their tracks at the same moment.
Shit. Of all the fucking gravestones to stumble across today. It had been so long since he’d seen it, he’d somehow forgotten it was even here.
“Oh fuck.” Mace cleared his throat. “That’s just great. My cup runneth over.”
They stood there like they’d all forgotten how to move, gazing at the list of names chiseled into the dark granite. Jeremiah Paley, ‘The Prophet,’ the charismatic leader of the survivalist compound where the three of them had grown up, topped the list. The rest of the adults that had died there followed him.
Nine children were listed at the end, in order of age. Youngest last. Little Timothy Paley. Aged three years. Eric still remembered Timmy’s high, squeaky voice.
The kids born up at GodsAcre had never had birth certificates. There were no documents to consult, no registries, no living adults with reliable information about the actual biological parentage or possible relatives of the smallest burned bodies.
Only Eric, Mace and Anton could bear witness to the fact that those little ones had ever existed at all. No one else on earth remembered them.
Those exclusive memories were a strange and heavy responsibility.
So they had all been listed as Paleys. Eric, Anton and Mace had been Paleys, too, having become Jeremiah’s adopted sons after he had married their mother. They’d borne his name until Otis Trask adopted them, a year after the fire. When Otis had offered them his name, they’d jumped at the chance. A fresh start, not tethered to the past.
A memory floated up from Eric’s mind as his eyes moved over the engraved inscription. Some church in town had got up a collection to buy a proper headstone for the victims of the fire and the minister had asked the three of them if there was anything special they wanted engraved on it.
Without thinking, Eric had blurted out a fragment of Jeremiah’s favorite psalm. The Prophet had chanted it every time he got up in front of his congregation at GodsAcre.
He trains my hands for war so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
The Prophet never quite pulled that off, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. Jeremiah had been crazy as all fuck, but no one could doubt the old man’s commitment.
“Hey, you! Paley boys! Come to pay your respects to your psycho killer dad?”
They turned to see an older woman coming across the grass toward them. Her fuzzed gray hair was dragged back in an unkempt braid, and she wore a baggy sweat suit that had once been beige but was no longer. Her face looked caved in and her reddened eyes, sunk deep into bruised looking hollows, were wild and staring.
“No, ma’am,” Eric said. “We’re here for Otis’s funeral. And our name is not Paley. We’re Trasks now. Legally. For twelve years now.”
“I don’t give a shit what’s on your driver’s license.” Her loud voice was slurred. “I know the truth. You can’t bullshit me. I know what you are. You’re garbage.”
Eric waited for a careful, measured moment before replying. “Know whatever you want, ma’am,” he said evenly. “And I’ll do the same. Good afternoon.”
But they weren’t getting off that easy. The woman hustled toward them faster, a little unsteadily. Eric caught a scent of alcohol coming off her from yards away.
“You have nerve, coming here. See that grave?” She pointed behind herself, at a small headstone to the side of them. “That’s my husband. My Malcolm. Do you know how he died? The Prophet’s Curse, that’s how. I put him in the ground and just a couple weeks later, the fucking bastard who murdered him gets buried right across from him.
Now I have to look at your killer dad’s headstone every time I come to see Malcolm.”
“He wasn’t our dad.” Mace’s voice was flat. “He was our jailor.”
“Bullshit. Garbage. Otis couldn’t see the truth, but the rest of us did.”
“Don’t worry,” Anton said. “We’ll be out of your face soon. We won’t be back.”
“Bullshit. Liars. Just like the goddamn Prophet.” Foamy spit dotted her purplish lips as she staggered closer.
Eric exchanged alarmed glances with his brothers. Jeremiah Paley’s combat training had wired them up for lethal self-defense, but they had no playbook for drunken, unhinged female senior citizens on the rampage. They were on uncharted ground.
“Linda, that’s enough.” Wade Bristol’s gruff voice sounded from behind them.
They turned to see the older man huffing up the slope, red faced. “You’re not making sense,” he scolded the woman. “These boys weren’t responsible for Malcolm’s death. They were just orphaned kids. Malcolm died of a stroke. You know that.”
“Stroke, my ass! It was the curse!” Linda yelled. “Fourteen people in twelve days, Wade! And now Otis? He had a stroke, too! Just like Malcolm! It’s starting up again, see? Now their own goddamn foster father is dead. Just like all the others. There’s some fucking gratitude for you, eh?”
“Linda, calm down. They didn’t have anything to do with—”
“Garbage!” she yelled. “They’re garbage, and their fancy fucking suits can’t change that!”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Mace flicked an imaginary speck of lint from his lapel and adjusted his jacket on his broad shoulders. “Glad you like the threads at least.”
“Shut up, Mace. You’re not helping.” Wade laid a soothing hand on Linda’s shoulder. “Linda, calm down. Try to—”
“Go to hell.” She flung off his hand and lurched back, almost toppling over in the process. “All of you go to hell. Keep your murdering freak father company there.”
They silently watched her totter down the grassy slope.
“You’re not driving, are you, Linda?” Bristol called.
She flipped him off without turning. “Fuck you, Wade.”
Wade cleared his throat self-consciously as Linda retreated. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s nothing we haven’t heard before,” Eric replied.
“Well, you shouldn’t have to hear it the day you put Otis in the ground.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Anton said. “At this point, we barely notice.”
“Thanks for saving our asses, Chief Bristol,” Mace said. “Nick of time, too. Don’t know what we would have done. That dame woulda finished us.”
The police chief gave him a quelling look. “Don’t be a smart-ass. I buried a friend today, too, Mace, so shut your damn trap.”
Mace’s eyes went big and solemn. He made lip-zipping gesture.
Chief Bristol cleared his throat again and stuck his hand in his pockets. “So, ah…I just came over here to make sure you boys knew about the reception.”
They looked at him blankly.
“Reception?” Eric repeated.
Chief Bristol grunted. “Figured as much. Since you don’t answer calls and you came late to the funeral. And left before anyone could shake your hand or offer condolences.”
“We don’t have a lot to say to people here,” Anton said. “What with one thing and another.”
Bristol harrumphed. “That’s a real unfortunate attitude.”
“I guess it is.” Anton’s voice was unapologetic.
“Hmmph. Well.” Chief Bristol’s eyes went to Eric. “So I know we’ve had some tense moments in years past,” he said. “I sure hope you won’t hold it against me.”
“I don’t, Chief,” Eric said. “It’s all good. Past and gone.”
Bristol looked cautiously relieved. “Well, that’s fine, then. I think it would be a real good thing, a real appropriate thing, to go to that reception. For Otis’s sake.”
“Maureen didn’t say anything about a reception,” Eric said.
“Maureen didn’t organize it,” Bristol said. “There’s a buffet spread at the Corner Café. You should drop by. Show some respect for the people who respected Otis. I’m heading over there now. I expect to see you there.”
Eric stared after the man retreating back. Bristol’s lecturing tone stuck in his craw, but he figured it came with the job. Otis had been a lecturer, too.
But Otis had worn authority far better than most.
They watched Bristol’s big, unwieldy body stomping across the grass toward his pickup. When the vehicle was lost to sight in the trees, they turned to each other.
“Well, damn. That came out of nowhere,” Anton commented.
“Yeah,” Mace agreed. “Reception? What the fuck? Who’s paying for it? Not Maureen, that’s sure, the cheapskate bitch. She’s still pissed that Otis left his house and land and truck to us instead of her two boys. She’ll never forgive him for doing that.”
“This morning, I gave her back the money she fronted for the funeral expenses,” Eric said. “But she didn’t mention anything about a reception.”
“Probably didn’t want us to come,” Anton said. “Did she spit in your eye?”
Eric snorted. “Not until the check was in her purse.”
Mace shook his head. “I’m not going to any goddamn reception, no matter what Chief Bristol says. I feel like hammered shit as it is. Why dial it up?”
“Agreed,” Anton said. “I can only take this place in micro-doses. I blew over my safety limit a long time back.”
Eric gave them a withering look. “Can’t handle a little fish-eye? Pussies.”
“Say whatever you want,” Mason said. “You can’t shame us into this.”
“Fine,” Eric said. “I’ll stop in alone. Just long enough to reimburse whoever paid for it. I don’t want to be indebted to anyone in this fucking place.”
Mace snorted under his breath. “Why? We didn’t organize it. I wouldn’t voluntarily give the time of day to most of these people, much less cheese cubes and fruit skewers. After what all those pricks did to you seven years ago? Fuck ‘em all sideways.”
“Not an issue,” Eric said, through his teeth. “Gone and forgotten.”
“I doubt that the majority of the people at that reception will have forgotten it,” Anton said. “I heard you say ‘in and out and no drama.’ But if you keep engaging with these people, you’re going to generate some drama. It’s a mathematical certainty.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Eric said. “I’m just going in to write a check. That gesture works on drama like a fire extinguisher. Poof, and everybody’s smiling.”
“You cynical bastard,” Anton said. “And if Demi Vaughan is there, or her acid-spitting dad? I saw him staring at you from the minute you walked into the funeral home. A check isn’t going to work on that guy’s drama. He hates you so damn hard.”
The look on Eric’s face made Anton raise a cautious, soothing hand. “Easy,” he said gently. “I couldn’t help but notice that she was there. Right front and center. You noticed her, too. In a big, obvious way.”
“That is a big affirmative,” Mace chimed in. “Obvious as all fuck.”
“Not. Relevant.” Eric bit the words out through his teeth. “Ancient history.”
Anton let out a sigh, a worried frown between his eyes. “If you say so.”
But they didn’t move. Both his brothers just stood there, staring at him with those worried, searching eyes until he wanted to smack the living shit out of them both.
“So?” he urged. “Get lost, you two. If you don’t have the balls to go with me, then stop lecturing and let me get this over with.”
“Watch yourself.” Mace’s voice was grim. “Remember what happened when you last had dealings with these people. It didn’t end well. It almost destroyed you.”
“It came out okay. I’m fine. She’s fine. We all survived. We’re different people now. Besides, she probably won’t even be there. I’ll just go say hello and thank you, write somebody a check and walk out. Clean slate. And we are done with this place.”
“Okay,” Anton said. “Happy cleaning. See you back at the ranch.”
His brothers strode off toward Anton’s gleaming Mercedes GLS. They got in and drove away without looking back at him. His brothers. Dragon-scale armored bad-asses. They always acted like they didn’t give a shit. Never let anyone see behind their masks.
But he saw beneath it. Because he was just like them.
Otis’s death had cut them all off at the knees. The old man had been like one of those volcanic granite monoliths that jutted up out of the turf like a preacher’s pulpit. Weathering the storms, never changing, never giving any ground. A touchstone, a landmark. The most solid, reliable one that he’d ever had, other than Anton and Mace.
Otis hadn’t been afraid of them. That had been the biggest gift that anyone could have possibly given them. It might have saved their lives.
He still remembered the day Otis had told them that the paperwork was ready if they wanted to take the Trask family name. He wanted to show his boys how a man stepped up and did the right thing. How he followed through on his word.
That gesture had been a big deal for them. A new name. A fresh start as a Trask.
Aw, shit. Thinking about that had messed him up. Now a big fist was squeezing his throat hard enough to crush it. The world had never felt particularly friendly to him, even at the best of times, but without Otis in it, it felt like a ticking bomb.
Which was exactly how Shaw’s Crossing had seen him and his brothers.
To be fair, the townspeople had good reason to think it. With the intensive combat training they’d had since early childhood, he and Mace and Anton were fully as dangerous as the suspicious residents of Shaw’s Crossing believed them to be. Probably more so.
But only Otis ever knew it for a fact, and Otis never told.
Old Jeremiah Paley had been a Vietnam vet. Delta Force. Trained to kill in every conceivable way. When he opened up GodsAcre to true believers, he trained the children who lived there for war. After the Scourge, they were to be the vanguard of virtue in the blasted aftermath. The army of the faithful. It was a great responsibility which required expertise in small arms, knives, hand to hand, marksmanship, strategy, explosives, military history, guerilla warfare tactics. Jeremiah had been a relentless teacher, and Eric, Anton and Mace had been his best students.
Before he went entirely nuts. In that final, awful year when everything had gone to shit.
Eric was surprised as he drove through the downtown area of Shaw’s Crossing on his way to the Corner Café to see how the business district had grown. It was trendy and touristy now. He parked his car a couple of blocks away from the café and strolled past a number of high-end shops, noticing sports gear, jewelry, crystal art, fancy housewares, a bookstore, an art gallery, coffee shops, a taco place. Sushi, even, for fuck’s sake. Marconi’s Corner Café diner used to be the only place downtown for food. If you could even call it food.
The Corner Café looked different, too. Its decaying fifties era vertical neon CAFÉ sign was gone, replaced by a big carved, painted wooden sign. The big picture windows that fronted both sides of the street corner were lavishly decorated with grease-pencil color drawings. Autumn leaves, pumpkins, a witch on a broomstick.
It wasn’t until he was right in front of the diner, in full sight of everyone crowded inside, that he focused on the words carved into the wooden sign.
Demi’s Corner Café. The fuck?
Wade Bristol was inside, leaning over a buffet table. His face brightened when he saw Eric. He beckoned with a big hand piled with mini-burgers heaped on a napkin.
Benedict Vaughan saw him at the same moment, and choked on his wine. He grabbed a napkin from a napkin fan on the table, wiping his mouth, and flapped his hand at Eric in disgust. Shooing him off as if Eric were a raccoon knocking over garbage cans.
That fucking settled that. Eric pushed the door open and walked in.
Bristol lifted his glass to Eric. “Good to see you. Glad you decided to drop by. Anton and Mason chickened out, I take it?”
“You didn’t tell me the Corner Café was Demi’s.” He could not control the accusatory tone that came out of his mouth.
“I’m surprised that Otis didn’t tell you himself,” Bristol said. “He loved eating here. The food is good. Much better than Ricky’s ever was. Demi runs a tight ship. Great pie. And you need to talk to her anyhow.”
“I do? Why?”
“She was the one who found Otis the other morning at his house. She was at the ICU with him when I showed up. And she was with him when he passed. She’s also hosting this reception. All by herself. I just thought you should know.”
Eric just stared at the police chief, his mind stalled out. “I, uh…didn’t know.”
“’Course not. How could you know? You’ve been too busy making sure nobody ever got a chance to talk to you.”
Then Demi turned her head and met his eyes.
The contact zapped his mind blank, his mouth dry. She looked right inside him with those wide, light green eyes, as if he were made of clear glass. Everything lit up. In one swift, blazing assessment, she saw everything he was. Everything he’d ever been.
Everything he’d tried so hard forget.