Will her need to do the right thing cost them everything?
Anything But Mine by Linda Winfree
Book Four of the Hearts of the South series.
Public Defender Autry Holton is in a "shunned if she does, disbarred if she doesn't" position—honor-bound to defend an accused serial killer. To complicate matters, she’s pregnant and hasn’t told the father about a baby she’s sure he won’t want.
Sheriff Stanton Reed never believed he was the right man for Autry. He’s already raised one family and suffered a failed marriage. When an attempted break-in at Autry’s home highlights the real danger she faces, at first all he can think of is protecting her. Before long, all he can focus on is how much he loves her and wants her back in his life.
But just as Autry dares to hope there’s a future for them, an act of home-grown terrorism shatters her trust—and threatens their lives.
She wasn’t going to die. It just felt like she was.
And right now, she really, really wanted to.
Autry Holton rested her forehead against the cool wood of the vanity. The orange-scented cleaner she used wafted from the floor, and nausea churned in her stomach again. Whoever had coined the term “morning sickness” was an idiot. It was more like morning, noon and night sickness, and anyone who said it didn’t last beyond the third month needed a mental health check too. Tonight, she’d be willing to bet labor pains wouldn’t feel like menstrual cramps, either.
Holding the vanity for support, she pushed to her feet. Her knees trembled, and she rested for a minute, breathing through her nose. Avoiding her reflection, she reached for her toothbrush and toothpaste. She didn’t have to look to know her eyes were red and watery, her hair stringy, her skin pasty.
Yes, she had that pregnant-woman glow people raved about.
The mint cleansed the awful taste and left her feeling somewhat refreshed. She spit and rinsed her mouth. This constant nausea couldn’t last five more months, could it? At least, if nothing else, it would go away when she had the baby. Stress. It had to be the unremitting stress. If she could just relax--
A high-pitched whine rent the air, and she dropped the cup, ceramic shards flying everywhere, plinking off the tile, hitting the wall with soft thumps. Her heart thudded, tempo picking up to an uncomfortable race. Oh God. He’d come for her, just as he’d said he would. Her stomach pitched again, and she wrapped her arms across the small bulge of her baby. She couldn’t let him hurt the baby.
Think, Autry. She slammed the door closed and threw the lock, hitting the panic button next to the light switch. In the bedroom, the phone rang. She took a step back, and pain sliced into her foot. The broken cup. Just a cut. She could handle that. She could handle anything as long as he didn’t get through the bathroom door.
The phone continued to ring, and she strained to hear other noises—splintering doors, shattering glass, footsteps. Nothing. Simply the harsh whine of the alarm and the phone’s shrill ring mingling with the roar of her pulse and her own rough breathing.
In her stomach, the baby fluttered, the low, soft movement she’d only noticed in the last few days. “It’s all right,” she whispered, the sound of her shaky voice too loud in the bathroom. She slid down to sit on the floor again, blood oozing from her foot to pool on the white tile.
“It’s all right, baby,” she said again, rubbing a palm over the soft mound. Maybe she should have gone for the phone, but that meant crossing the bedroom to get the cordless from her desk and she’d already been here, in the safe room with the panic button. Besides, if she didn’t answer, the monitoring company would automatically call the sheriff’s department. Help should be on the way. Everything would be fine. She just had to keep telling herself that. Help would arrive soon.
The lights went out. The alarm ceased its wild squeal in an instant. A neighbor’s dog barked in a wild frenzy.
Stanton Reed slid from the patrol car and left the door slightly ajar. Sound traveled farther during the quietness of night and he didn’t want the snick of a closing door to alert anyone to his presence. Darkness shrouded the neighborhood, punctuated only by pools of blue from security and street lights. Welcoming the shadows, he slipped into them, using the dark for cover. He jogged across a damp lawn, eyeing the street as he went. No one moving about, no one hiding under vehicles.
With each step, Autry’s name beat in his head. Hard to convince himself this was any routine call, when it was Autry’s house, Autry’s alarm, Autry not answering the phone.
Dogs barked in the distance, a wild chorus, but the alarm remained silent. A lawn away, he could see her house sitting, completely dark, even the outside lights extinguished. Foreboding shivered over him. Had someone cut the power, silencing the alarm before the neighbors awoke?
Why didn’t she answer the damn phone?
Dread lay like a lump in his gut. Four minutes since dispatch had received the call from her alarm company, another two minutes before that between the initial alarm and the call to dispatch. A lot could happen in six minutes.
A person could die.
No. Damn it, he couldn’t let anything happen to her. As he reached Autry’s dark yard, one of the shadows to his right moved, morphed into the running form of Tick Calvert, his lead investigator. Any other time, he and Tick both would have been home in bed this time of night, but tonight, Stanton was thankful for the flu that had more than half of his deputies incapacitated. Autry deserved the best his department could offer. He might not have been the right man for her personally, but he and Tick were the best cops to respond to her call.
“See anything?” Tick whispered as he reached Stanton’s side. He had the entry ram slung over his shoulder, flashlight off but ready in his hand.
Stanton shook his head, trying to still the nervous pulsing under his skin. No noises came from the house. He closed his eyes for a brief moment. God, let her be okay. Don’t let him be too late. “You?”
“Nothing.” Tick tilted his head toward the house. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” With the well-oiled timing of a long partnership, they circled the house, Tick moving right, Stanton moving left, so they met up at the back door.
“Looks clear,” Tick said, his voice a mere breath. He lowered the entry ram and stepped back. “Ready to do this?”
He’d been ready four minutes ago. “Just do it.”
Seconds later, the steelcore door swung inward with a deafening bang. The sound echoed in the still night, and the dogs barked again, wilder this time. The door hung on its hinges at a drunken angle, and Tick laid the ram aside. Stanton eased his gun from its holster, aware of the hushed slide of Tick’s Glock leaving its leather case as well. On either side of the doorway, they made eye contact using the dim illumination cast by a neighbor’s security light. Both eased to a crouch.
Stanton hefted his flashlight, rubbing his thumb over the switch, prepared to perform a “flashlight roll”. The house remained dark and silent, but they couldn’t take a chance it was empty. For all they knew, a suspect waited, set to ambush them at the first opportunity. The glow behind them would serve to silhouette them as they moved through the door, so a low-profile entry was key.
He strained his ears, listening for any sound that would alert him to Autry’s presence. Where was she? What was going on?
With a soft click, he depressed the flashlight switch. Brightness burst into the kitchen, and he let the cylinder flow from his fingers, rolling across the doorway to rest near Tick’s waiting hand. Nothing moved in the light.
“Same as always?” Tick murmured. Stanton nodded. He lifted his gun, offering cover while Tick slipped into the room. Grabbing his flashlight, the beam extinguished again, Stanton followed. In the dark, his senses seemed heightened. The silence pulsed with a noise of its own, a heaviness against his ears. The familiar smell of the house, a blend of orange cleaner and the cinnamon potpourri Autry loved, surrounded him. The urge to cry out her name gripped him, and he shoved it down. The training had to win over instinct.
Progress through the house was torturous. Each room required a cautious approach and thorough check, with the dark serving to underscore the tension. At least he knew the house, which saved them minutes, but his foreboding grew as they neared Autry’s bedroom. He’d heard nothing to let him know she was in the house, that she was okay, and he dreaded what they might find once they crossed that threshold.
The bedroom door stood open, and once more, they repeated the flashlight roll and covered entry. The room was empty, the bed rumpled. The scent was different here, the unique smell he associated with Autry, her body wash and the pure sweetness of her skin filling his senses. An image flashed through Stanton’s head, of those same sheets wrapped around his and Autry’s sated bodies, of her soft touch and softer sighs. He shook away the memory.
Where was she?