So the editors finally approved all rewrites and edits on Deadly Secrets a few weeks ago. Now that the holiday chaos is winding down, I thought I’d share the final prologue with you guys! I know I posted previously from the prologue, but this is the new final version. At this time, I have not been given a date. As soon as they share that information with me, I promise, darling readers, I will be shouting it out to you! I hope you enjoy the peek at Quinlan Kinncaid and Ella Kinncaid from Deadly Secrets…*
**Reading material for 18 or older due to language and graphic content**
New Mexico, two years ago
He waited until the patient’s breathing leveled out.
“This is insane,” she whispered beside him.
His attention was settled on the woman on the operating table. No one would ever know. They never ever did. That was the beauty of it all, or part of the beauty of it all.
So fucking easy.
Her swollen stomach was already an orange brown from the Betadine. He watched the monitors, the computerized screen showing not only the mother’s heartbeat but the baby’s as well. He listened to the soft swishing to make sure the baby’s heart rate stayed within a safe range.
“Is everything ready?” he asked, already thinking ahead to a phone call he needed to make and the happy parents-to-be.
“Of course.” She sighed. “I don’t like these.”
He was tired of listening to her complain. A shrewd bitch, but too soft too often in his opinion. “These are never pleasant. Just don’t think of it. Remember, this little one will bring in fifty thousand. And it’s not like anyone will miss the bloody mother. If you could even call her that.”
The woman next to him said nothing as she rearranged his tools. He heard her moving the instruments around on the metal tray.
The mother’s heart rate was a little high, but that didn’t concern him.
He picked up the scalpel, steadied it, and quickly made a lateral incision on the very pregnant belly. Blood welled in the wake of his sharp object.
Normally, he was obscenely careful in performing this operation, but it wasn’t as if he had to worry about the outcome. The mother had become a liability. He gripped both sides of the incision, prying through fat tissue and muscles, feeling the tissues rip under his force. At the uterus, he slowed, took a deep breath and concentrated. He heard the mother’s erratic heart acceleration. With a precision born of practice, he carefully cut through the extended womb. The babe within squirmed, shifting beneath the tissue. The infant’s heart rate swished louder in the quiet room.
In seconds, he had the baby out of the confines of the uterus. A boy, which he’d already known. Quiet squeaks filled the air while he suctioned the mucus from the babe’s mouth. Then the small eyes blinked open. The cord still pulsed.
He puffed out a relieved sigh. “He’s a big one.”
She looked at him over the top of her mask and he read the disapproval mixed with greed in her eyes. The greed always won, always.
She clamped off the cord, her surgical gloves squeaking on the instrument, and clipped it.
“What of her?” she asked, motioning toward the woman.
He ignored the question. “We don’t need any more complications. Someone will come in and take care of her. Here, get the babe ready. We’ve three buyers to choose from.”
The operating room was filled with the newborn’s cries and mewls as she wiped him off and rubbed him gently, talking softly.
He took a deep breath and pulled the mask down. “Healthy little boy, aren’t you then?” he asked, rubbing a finger down the small upturned nose.
He reached over and pressed an intercom button. “Send Kevin in.”
She kept her attention centered on the babe; a head full of dark black hair topped the little pink head.
“Beautiful little guy, don’t you think?”
She nodded. “He’s healthy. Weighing in at . . . roughly eight pounds thirteen ounces.”
Music still played; the slow strands of Handel waltzed around the room.
“Apgar’s good,” she muttered, noting and jotting down other details of the baby’s health.
He nodded and reached for his cell phone. He hit the speed dial and waited. The voice on the other end picked up. “You better have come through for the amount on the table.”
He smiled. “You worry too much. Pick a buyer. Healthy dark-haired boy.”
There was a pause on the other end, then a sigh. “Good. No complications?”
He shook his head, part angered that the question was asked to begin with.
Who the hell did the guy think he was to question him? “No.”
“What of the other matter?” the deep voice asked again.
He had no clue and he wasn’t stupid enough to say that. “It’s being handled.”
“You better make damn certain of that. Do whatever you must to clean things up. I’m not going down because of a mess you dragged me into.”
With that the line went dead.
Lawyers were always a pain in the ass, weren’t they? Lawyers could always be replaced, and if the bastard became too much of a pain, they’d just find another one.
A knock at the door startled him. He opened it to Kevin dressed in green scrubs.
“You wanted me?”
He turned back to the gurney. She was still hooked up to the respirator, but he saw there was no need of that. She’d bled out. Her EKG was too low. He sighed, walked over, covered her with a sheet and motioned to the body bag on the floor. “Get that and help me put her in it.”
The babe still squalled over in the heated bassinet.
He had to get rid of the woman. She’d known too much, asked too many questions when she should have just ignored things, gone along with it all. He’d still have her baby in the end no matter what she wanted, but she’d have been alive.
He unhooked the IVs, the breathing tube, and waited while Kevin wrapped the woman’s lower body. They lifted the bloody mess and awkwardly placed her in the black body bag.
The babe continued to cry.
He had another buyer.
And more waiting for precious little bundles.
* * *
Washington, D.C., October, the present
Where the hell was his wife?
He was married. Still.
Quinlan Kinncaid looked up at the ceiling in his darkened living room. The streetlights didn’t glare into the window of his penthouse suite above the family hotel. He sighed and raked his hands through his hair.
What the hell was he doing? He’d left the rest of the family earlier. They’d all taken Mom out for her birthday, so hopefully the surprise party he and his siblings had planned for tomorrow night might actually work. Probably not. Mom knew everything.
Well, just about everything. Hell, his entire, interfering family knew just about all there was to know about the others—but that was the way it had always been in his family. Now, though, now he had a secret that none of them knew and he wasn’t about to tell them.
Not that he didn’t want to. He just didn’t know how.
Two words, dumb ass. I’m married.
And chaos would undoubtedly ensue.
His phone rang, jerking him from his thoughts of his missing and estranged wife.
It rang for a third time before he finally wrestled it from his pocket, automatically sliding his thumb across the screen to answer the call before it went to voice mail. Figuring it was one of his brothers about last-minute details, he didn’t bother looking at the caller ID before he answered.
Silence. He rubbed a hand over his face. He really didn’t have time for this.
A throat cleared. “Quinlan?”
He sat up, barely wincing at the pain in his thigh. “Ella?”
“Oh thank God. Thank God I got you. I know you probably don’t want to hear from me and I’m sure you’ve already moved on and that’s fine. Really.” She paused in her rush of words. “But I’ve got to talk to you. I don’t know who else to trust, who else to—”
“Yes, it’s me. I know, I know I walked away and I’ve never been sorrier for anything I’ve ever done, Quin. I’m sorry.” Her voice stumbled. “I’d say I’m sorry a thousand times and I know you probably don’t want to help me, but I don’t know who else to trust, who else to—”
“Ella.” He stood from his leather couch and walked to the window, looking over the D.C. night winking and spread out before him. “Calm down, take a deep breath.”
She was always so . . . calm. Spirited, yes. Funny and quirky, smart-ass even, but always a level of calm. Nothing much rattled her. But this?
He’d never heard her this way. “You’re not making a lot of sense.”
“I’m scared, Quin.” Her voice trembled over the phone. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what’s real anymore. I can’t see past . . . I don’t know. I just . . .” Her voice skipped for a moment.
“Ella, I can’t hear you very well. Calm down, babe. Tell me what I can do to help.”
For a moment there was silence on the phone. Then he heard her take a deep breath in and blow it out.
“I don’t know how to tell you this. I called weeks ago and—never mind, that doesn’t matter. Did you get my letters?”
He shook his head, then realized she couldn’t see him. What the hell was she talking about?
“Letters?” he asked. “What letters? I haven’t received any letters from you. Hell, I haven’t received anything at all from you. Not even a text.”
She made some sound, part groan, part laugh? “Oh God, that’s just . . . perfect. Of course you don’t know what letters. That doesn’t matter, or it does. It really does, but not now.” Again she was quiet. Again he waited, so glad to hear her voice, that smooth Southern drawl, even if he had no freaking clue what the hell she was talking about.
Ella cleared her throat. “Look, there’s something you need to know. I just don’t know . . . I don’t know . . . Hell, I don’t know how to tell you but I’m scared. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep and it’s too late for me to fly out to you. I could take a bus or—”
“Why are you scared, Ella?” He fisted his hand on his hip, worried because he could hear the fear in her voice.
“God, Quin, where do I even start?” She laughed but it held no amusement to him. “They won’t let me go. I know they won’t. I thought I could help. Thought I was doing good. I bought into it all and that was so stupid. God, I was so stupid and naïve and . . . They want her, Quin, and I’m afraid, I’m so scared they’re going to just take her and I won’t be able to stop them. I won’t be able to stop them. Can you come out here please? I know I don’t have a right to ask you. I know I don’t, not after throwing it all away and—”
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Honey. Stop. Just stop.”
“Deep breath. Come on, I can hear you.”
He heard her inhale, then exhale.
“Now, who is scaring you?”
For several seconds there wasn’t anything other than her sniffle.
“Did someone hurt you?” he asked, straightening, anger flashing through him. “Ella?” he snapped.
“No. No, I don’t think so. I can’t remember,” she said, her voice almost a whisper at the end.
He started to ask what she couldn’t remember, but then shook it off and headed back to his bedroom.
“Okay, we’ll talk about that later. Who’s scaring you, baby? Tell me.” And he’d damned well take care of them. In his room, he strode to the closet, grabbed a duffle and tossed it on the bed, along with a couple of pairs of jeans and shirts. “Where are you?”
“T-Taos. Taos, New Mexico. I’m still here.”
“Okay, and what’s your number?” He grabbed a pen off his nightstand and the pad beside it.
“Five seven five—” She cut out again.
“Ella. Ella, I can’t hear you.”
“Hang on. I need to plug in.” He heard her rummaging on the other end of the phone.
“What’s the number again?” This time he wrote down the entire number and read it back to her to make sure it was correct. “Is that right?”
Taking a deep breath, he asked, “What’s your address?” When she told him, he wrote that down as well, then ripped the paper off and shoved it in his pocket. “So if I call you back in a bit, you’ll answer?”
“Yes. God, Quin, I’m so stupid. Do you have any idea—” Her voice broke again before she continued, “how good it is just to hear your voice, Quinlan?”
At least she could call him; he hadn’t had a number to reach her, but he didn’t see the point in saying that. “Same goes. You’re okay now?” he couldn’t help asking. “Are you safe right now?”
She didn’t answer him for a moment.
“I think so. I don’t know.”
“I’m coming out there,” he said as he shoved his stuff into the bag and grabbed his small overnight off the counter in the bathroom.
“I could come to you. I can drive partway tonight and—”
“I’ll be there in a matter of hours, Ella.” He zipped the bag shut and hurried to the safe hidden in his office down the hallway. Punching in the combination, he quickly grabbed the papers he wanted, some cash, and shut it. “Now, who are you scared of?”
Taos. He was heading to Taos. He’d need a damned jacket. He grabbed his Marmot jacket and shoved it into the bag, then jerked on his black wool coat. As an afterthought, he grabbed his briefcase and hefted it over his shoulder as well. Bags, coat, cash. His cane. Glancing around, he saw it leaning against the side table in the living room where he’d been sitting when she called.
“Ella?” She still hadn’t answered him.
Cane . . . anything else? He scanned the area. No. He was good.
“Ella, answer me.”
“I don’t—I don’t know who it is exactly. I just know they want her, Quin. They want her! And I know, I know they’ll take her from me, no matter what I’ve told them. I know it!”
He pulled his door shut and hurried to the elevators. “Who? Who will they take?” She wasn’t making any sense and that worried him almost as much as the stark fear in her words, in her hurried speech.
Her quick breaths panted through the phone.
“Okay, someone, you’re not sure who is going to take someone else? Who are they going to take?”
Again her phone cut out for a minute.
“Ella! Hello?” The elevator dinged but he didn’t get in just yet. He held the private elevator with his hand. He’d lose the signal inside it.
“Who are they going to take?”
He heard her inhale. Exhale.
“The baby,” she said quietly.
“Whose baby?” he asked very carefully.
For a long moment there was nothing, just silence. He thought he’d lost her or she’d hung up, or her battery finally died. But then he heard her sniffle and inhale again.
“I’m sorry, Quinlan. I’m so sorry and I know I can never make it up to you. I know that.”
Oh God, she wouldn’t . . .
“Ella,” he said, whether in plea or command he wasn’t sure.
“She’s yours, Quinlan. Ours.”
He couldn’t say anything . . . His? His baby? Their baby? His?
Shock. Then anger burst and flared. He opened his mouth. Bit down. Opened it again.
“How . . . When . . . How could you . . .” he managed past the tightness in his throat. Very softly. Very quietly.
“I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. I was helping them, or thought I was. They asked me to help and they wouldn’t let me tell you, said it could compromise things. But it’s all lies. Women are missing, Quin. Dead. I know they killed her. They wanted her baby. And they just took it. I know they’ll take mine too! I don’t know any more who to trust. Except you. I’m not supposed to be calling you, but I don’t care what I screw up for them anymore. Please, Quin. Help me.”
He couldn’t say anything. Hell, he couldn’t see. He rubbed his eyes and blinked, but that didn’t really help. Squeezing his eyes tight, he tried to understand, tried to make sense of the whole damned conversation.
But he couldn’t.
All he heard was baby. Yours.
Her voice echoed through the pulse thundering against his ears. “ . . . be mad at me. Hell, yell at me, be pissed at me, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Well, that’s great of you, Ella,” he said.
“Look, hate me even. God knows I hate myself just knowing how this hurts you, how I’ve already hurt you. But please, please Quinlan, I need you. We need you. If you can’t come out here, I’m leaving. I have to get out of here—”
Her words tripped and rattled in his mind, broke his heart and made him wonder what the hell he’d been waiting for for the last few months. Did he even know this person? Nothing made sense.
“When . . .” He took another deep breath.
“Please,” she begged. “Please, help me. You’ll keep her safe.”
His daughter? Hell yes he would.
He opened his mouth, pissed, confused, and knew the words hot on his tongue were probably not the ones he needed to say. Instead he closed his eyes, took another deep breath and another and counted very slowly to ten. A hundred would probably be better but he didn’t have the patience for a hundred.
“Ella. Are you at home?”
“What? What has that—”
“Yes or no. That’s really all I can handle right now.”
A beat of silence. “Yes. I’m at home.”
“Good, stay there and don’t move until I get there.” He took another deep breath as he bit down. “Then you and I, dear wife, are going to have one long conversation about many things.”
“You’re coming?” she asked quietly. “You’re really coming?” Again her voice broke on the end and he heard her swallow.
“God, what kind of—” She was pregnant. Pregnant. The word kept rattling in his brain. Pregnant. He probably shouldn’t yell at her. Probably, but damn it.
Very carefully he said, “Ella, I’m heading to the airport now.” He checked his watch, calculated the time difference. “I’ll be there in about five hours, probably less. I need to call the airport and have them fuel up the jet. I’ll be landing in Taos and I’ll call you.”
“I can come pick you up.”
He nodded. “Okay. Now, is there anyone you can call to stay with you until I get there?” She was scared. Terrified, to be honest, he could tell that much. He raked a trembling hand through his hair.
He heard something in the background.
“Someone’s here,” she told him suddenly.
He heard her sigh. “Oh, it’s just a friend. I’ll see if she can stay. Or I’ll go stay with my neighbors the Richardsons after she leaves. Then you’ll be here and it’ll be okay.”
A friend. He set his briefcase in the elevator and then tossed his duffle bag inside. He bit down. “Mrs. Kinncaid . . .” He shook his head. They’d get into that all later after he made certain she was safe. “Stay put. I’ll be there soon.”
* * *
New Mexico, October, the present
Can’t die . . . can’t die . . .
The lights. Too bright. Too dim. Everything in contrast. Where was she? She blinked and tried to focus.
The street blurred before her. She saw the dark river of asphalt. The tall, wavering streetlights. Flickers of lights zoomed to and fro farther down the way.
Where was she?
She stopped, the road cold beneath her bare feet. Her foot hurt. Her ankle hurt.
She raised her hands and saw there was blood on them. Blood and scabs on her mangled wrists. Her shoulders hurt. Her head throbbed. Hell, her whole body seemed to pulse with pain, almost distant and dull, but not quite enough.
The cold wind blew against her legs and she looked down. Something shimmered, dark and glossy, along the bottoms of her legs. Why couldn’t she think?
She put her hands on her stomach.
Important . . .
The baby. The baby . . . Her baby.
The bump was different. Smaller, softer. She pressed her abdomen with her bloody hand splayed on her stomach.
No. No. No.
Images, disjointed and fractured, jumped in her brain.
A baby crying.
A room. A room where she’d been tied down.
They’d taken her baby. Taken it. Taken her sweet little girl.
No. No. No.
She stood there, shaking from cold, from shock. Ice in her veins.
Bright. Too bright. Bright, bright lights.
Slowly, she turned and blinked.
“Baby. My baby,” she whispered.
Someone walked toward her, the image dark against the bright lights. A hand reached for her. “Ma’am . . . I’m . . . help . . .”
A man’s voice, faded and loud, then silent against her eardrums.
“No, please,” she whimpered.
“You’re safe now. You’re safe.” The world tilted and she tried to make sense, but nothing did. Nothing solidified in her mind. Nothing congealed to a whole complete thought. Cold. So, so cold. Why was she so cold?
Quinlan. She wanted Quinlan. She’d called him. He was coming to help. Help her. Help them.
“Ma’am. Stay with me . . . stay . . .” A static of radio voices tunneled to her, swirling and merging, fading . . .
“Stay with me. Help is on the way,” shouted down at her. “ . . . name?”
The sky was dark, then bright. Red. Blue. Red. Blue. Dark. The darkness grew . . .
She tried to pull away. Tried to go. Have to find her. Have to find her.
“Ma’am, what’s your name? Your name?”
A dog barked somewhere and kept barking, jerking her back to here, to now, away from the darkness for a moment. She could feel the darkness getting closer though, whispering to her. Sirens screamed louder and louder.
“Ma’am, calm down. Calm down.” Hands held her and she blinked, finally focusing. A policeman. A cop.
She licked her lips. “Cop. Help. Please.”
“What’s your name?” he asked. Dark hair, dark eyes.
“Ella. Ella.” She grabbed his shirt. “Help me. They took . . .” She tried to take a deep breath, but her chest felt funny, tired. So damned tired. “Baby. They took my baby. My . . . my . . . Please, I need him. Please. They took her.”
“Him? . . . Ella! Stay with me! What’s his name? Stay with me!”
“Quin.” She licked her dry, cracked lips. Dry. So tired. Have to find her. Have to find her baby . . .
“Ella! What’s his name?”
“Quinlan Kinncaid . . . D.C. . . . The baby. Took her. They took her. Please . . .” She wanted Quin. “He’s my . . . my . . .” She tried to swallow; the world unfocused again in bright blues and reds as sirens screamed in her ear. “Husband.”
She saw his lips move, knew he leaned over her, but the darkness grew, a terrible monster, and swallowed her whole.