Deadly Secrets, Book Four
On a good day, Russell McClane could handle a family party. He looked forward to the chaos, to watching his pathetic brothers make fools of themselves bending over backward for their wives, to hearing his five-year-old niece Emma’s high-pitched shriek and the way the sound set his youngest brother, Thomas, on edge. He didn’t even mind the inevitable bickering that always accompanied a McClane family event or the dozens of ways his brothers would razz him for being single in his midthirties.
But today Rusty wasn’t in the mood for family or laughter or teasing. Today, every second that ticked by until he could leave was torture, like plucking his chest hairs out, one by one, with tweezers. Just a giant, in-your-face reminder that he didn’t belong in this family. That he wasn’t honest and good-hearted like the people surrounding him. That the really awful things he’d done in the past—not years ago but as recently as last night—made him the outcast. The black sheep. The sinner.
“I swear . . .” Hannah McClane swept through the patio door and shook her head as she moved around the kitchen island to where Rusty was standing, slicing tomatoes for the burgers his dad was supposed to be grilling outside on the deck. “Your father is getting harder of hearing by the hour. I told him fifteen minutes ago to start the barbecue, and he’s only just doing it now.”
Rusty glanced through the wide windows of his parents’ house on the edge of Lake Oswego outside Portland, Oregon, and watched his dad toss Thomas a football as he slowly backed his way toward the barbecue where he was supposed to be playing grill master. All of Rusty’s siblings were out on the deck, along with their significant others, chatting in the late-spring sunshine. Somewhere around the corner, out of Rusty’s line of sight, his niece Emma squealed and yelled, “I get it, I get it!”
“Told ya you should have put Alec on grill duty,” Rusty said.
Hannah huffed as she set another cutting board and a head of lettuce beside him before turning to grab a bowl from the cabinets. “Alec burns everything when I assign him to the grill.”
“On purpose so he doesn’t have to work the grill,” Rusty muttered under his breath, focusing on the tomato in his hand.
His mother moved back beside him, pushed up the sleeves of her black cardigan, and reached for a knife from the block with a smirk. “Perhaps. But he’s too distracted by their news today to be trustworthy. I’m afraid he’d burn his hand off if I put him near a flame.”
Their “news” was Alec and his wife Raegan’s announcement that they were expecting another baby—the reason for this impromptu family party that Rusty couldn’t wait to get out of.
When he didn’t respond, his mother glanced sideways at him, her sleek, dark hair cut into a stylish bob swaying near her ear. “Aren’t you excited for your brother?”
“Sure.” Rusty moved the tomatoes he’d sliced to the tray and went to work on the onion. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. You just seem quiet today. I wasn’t sure if the baby was the reason.”
The baby was not the reason. He was happy for his brother—thrilled, even. Alec and Raegan deserved some joy after everything they’d been through. Though Rusty was sure a new baby was going to cause his brother serious anxiety both before and after it arrived next fall.
“I’m fine, Mom.” He made quick work of slicing the onion and arranging it on the tray. Moving to the sink to rinse off the cutting board and knife, he added, “I’m always quiet, in case you forgot.”
He worked up a half smile as she watched him, one that did nothing to alleviate the worry in her amber eyes. At fifty-five she had no wrinkles and not a strand of gray hair. She was still as youthful as she’d been the day he’d met her nearly twenty years before when she’d come into his life and she and Michael had eventually adopted him. Too bad he felt a million years older.
“I haven’t forgotten. Doesn’t mean a mother doesn’t worry.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve told you that before.” He shook the water from the cutting board and set it on the rack to drain. “I’m fine.”
“I do, though. Especially when you show up with bandages on your hands like that.”
His hands stilled on the dish towel as he looked down at the bandages covering the backs of his knuckles. The sounds of fists cracking against bone echoed in his head, reminding him just how he’d gotten those injuries last night. But just as quickly, he remembered the lie he’d told to cover for it.
He resumed drying his hands, then tossed the rag on the counter. “Not a big deal. I already told you.”
“Yeah, I know.” She sliced through the head of lettuce with a sigh. “Just everyday scrapes working on the vineyard. I’d still feel better if you let me look at them just to make sure you don’t need any stitches.”
Yeah, not happening. He did not need his physician mother inspecting his injuries because she’d know immediately his story was crap. She’d always been able to see right through his bullshit. Which was another reason he wanted out of this damn party now.
He pushed away from the counter. “Anything else you need me to do?”
“No, grab a drink and go on outside. This salad’s the last thing, then I’ll be out.”
He moved around her and headed for the patio door.
He stopped a foot from fresh air and freedom and glanced back. “Yeah?”
She set her knife on the block and reached for the hand towel, drying her hands as she moved around the island to stop in front of him. “I haven’t told you this enough—we haven’t told you this enough—but your dad and I are very proud of you.”
A feeling he didn’t like bubbled up in his gut. A familiar stab of shame and regret he wished he could ignore. He glanced down at the floor. “It’s true,” his mom went on. “I know you think I was disappointed when you dropped out of college. I wasn’t. I realize college isn’t for everyone. And I know you think your dad and I were against you buying that property with part of your trust fund, but we weren’t. We were just worried you were taking on more than you could handle.” She reached for his hand and squeezed his fingers, careful to avoid his bandages. “But everything you’ve done with that property, planting the grapes, starting the vineyard, getting the loan to build the winery . . . It’s amazing. You are amazing. You surprise me every single day with your resourcefulness. You’ve overcome so much in your life. I know you can do anything you set your sights on.”
Shit. His eyes grew hot, and that uncomfortable feeling jumped from his stomach to his chest.
His mother smiled. “I’m not trying to embarrass you. I just want you to know that I’m proud of you. And I know I have no reason to worry because you have a good head on your shoulders and you only make good decisions, but I always will worry. I’m a mom, and that’s what moms do. Because I love you.”
Guilt swamped him. This was so not what he needed today. If she knew what he’d done last night, she wouldn’t be proud. If she had any idea what he’d been up to for the last six years, she’d be horrified.
Not that he had any intention of telling her. All he wanted to do was get the hell through this damn party and get back to his property where he could be alone with his memories.
“I-I love you too, Mom.” Her smile widened. “I know you do.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him, pressing her cheek against his shoulder and filling his senses with the scent of lilies.
Fucking lilies. He closed his eyes and held her close, drawing in the scent that had first made him trust her, remembering that day so long ago when he’d been in the ER and she’d pulled back the curtain and stepped into his room.
He’d been thirteen, physically and emotionally broken, and she’d smelled like lilies when she’d bent over him in her blue hospital scrubs and white doctor’s coat to look at his burns. He’d flinched at the touch of every other adult that day, traumatized by an event he still had nightmares about, but he’d told himself someone who’d smelled like his most favorite person in the world couldn’t be bad.
He’d let Hannah McClane save his life that night, all because she’d smelled like a flower. And today, he fought back the guilt as he savored the scent and let her hug him. Some days he wished she’d smelled like Betadine that night he’d first met her. It would have made things so much easier. It would have made his life a helluva lot easier. He wouldn’t be feeling like shit now if she had. He wouldn’t be feeling anything now.
“Okay.” She drew back and smiled up at him. “Enough mushy stuff for one day.” Letting go, she said, “Go on outside and tell your father everyone’s hungry.”
He watched her turn and head back into the kitchen, feeling like a fraud, feeling lucky that she’d found him that night, wishing like hell he could be like his other siblings who’d all moved beyond their troubled pasts. But he couldn’t. He was still stuck in the middle of his nightmarish upbringing—this time by choice. And there was no way he was going to drag her into it by confessing things she didn’t need to hear.
He turned for the patio door just as it opened. His pint-size niece, Emma, burst into the room, darted behind him with a squeal, and wrapped one arm around his left leg. “Potect me, Unca Rusty!”
“Gosh dangit, Emma!” The youngest McClane sibling, Thomas, a senior in high school who was only a few months away from graduating, burst through the door right after her, nearly mowing Rusty down. “Gimme back the damn football!”
Laughter echoed through the open door from the deck. In the kitchen, their mother Hannah exclaimed, “Thomas! Language!”
“Sorry,” Thomas muttered. But his apology was cut off when he spotted Emma behind Rusty. He twisted to the left to grab the football she’d tucked under her arm. “I said, give it back, Em!”
Emma squealed in delight again, thrilled with the keep-away game she’d started, and shifted behind Rusty’s other leg so Thomas couldn’t reach her.
Rusty wasn’t so thrilled. He wasn’t in the mood to play referee, even if it did involve his favorite five-year-old. Not after last night, and not after the last few minutes.
“Dude.” Pressing a hand against the teen’s chest, Rusty pushed Thomas back a step and pinned him with a hard look. “Chill out.”
“You chill out. We were playing catch out there, and she had to ruin it, like always.” When Thomas darted in the other direction to tear the football out of her arms, Emma shrieked, wrapped her chubby arms around the football, and raced for the kitchen.
Thomas shifted to run after her, but Rusty stepped in his path, blocking him. “She’s five, Tommy Boy. Ruining things is what little sisters like to do.”
Thomas huffed and glared past Rusty’s shoulder. “She’s not my sister.”
“That’s right. She’s your niece, which means she can get away with being a brat, and you just have to deal with it.”
Thomas scowled, and his shoulders slumped. “That’s not fair.”
Rusty rolled his eyes and shifted his hand to squeeze Thomas’s shoulder. “Life’s not fair, kid. The sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be.”
A lesson Rusty had learned long ago.
Thomas’s scowl deepened, but the kid was smart enough not to argue.
Behind Thomas, Emma’s mother, Raegan, moved into the house along with Rusty’s brother Alec and tucked a lock of auburn hair behind her ear. “Sorry about that, Thomas,” she said. “Emma thinks it’s a game.”
“Yeah, deal with it, butthead.” Alec tapped the back of Thomas’s head as he moved past him toward the kitchen, ruffling Thomas’s shaggy hair. “She wouldn’t mess with you so much if she didn’t like you. Don’t you know anything about women?”
Raegan rolled her eyes.
The rest of the family filtered into the house to refill drinks and help Hannah take items out to the patio for lunch. Even though it was only late March, the weather the last few days had been unseasonably warm, and their mom had wanted to eat outside.
The doorbell rang. From the kitchen where she was still hiding behind her grandmother, Emma heard the sound, dropped the football with a thunk, and raced toward the front door. “I get it!”
Hannah shot a quick look at Alec. “Intercede. Fast.”
Alec was already moving toward the foyer. “On it. You expecting anyone else?”
“No. But if it’s a door-to-door salesman, she’ll order ten of whatever he’s selling before we know it.”
“My kid? Never.” Alec chuckled as he disappeared around the corner.
The room was filling up with too many people. That familiar feeling of being boxed in surrounded Rusty. Instead of joining in the conversations starting up around him, he ducked behind his brother Ethan and sister-in-law Sam and headed out to the patio, making a beeline straight for the cooler. Just as he’d hoped, his dad had loaded it with ice and craft beers from their favorite local pub.
He popped the top on a red and took a long pull. From the grill behind him, his dad said, “Is your mother almost done in there? These burgers are going to be ready in about two minutes.”
Rusty lowered the bottle and raked a hand through his hair, itching to get on with the meal because it would mean he was that much closer to being able to leave. “Yeah. They’re all grabbing stuff now.”
“Good.” Michael McClane glanced over his shoulder toward Rusty, then refocused on the burgers in front of him. “Your mother get done grilling you about those hands?”
Rusty’s gut tightened. He lifted the bottle back to his lips as he said, “Yeah, she did.”
His dad shook his head. “You got her all worried again. Gotta stop doing that, son.”
And there was the guilt once more. Rusty’s fingers flexed around the beer bottle. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Hey, Russ.” Alec stuck his head out the patio door. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Rusty did not want to go back inside right now. Not with all the chaos happening in there. “Go ahead and talk.”
Alec’s worried gaze darted toward their father, then settled on Rusty. “There’re two guys here to see you.”
Rusty’s brow lowered. “What two guys? No one knows I’m here.”
“Uh . . .” Alec stepped out onto the deck, again glancing warily toward their father’s back as he flipped the burgers. But it was the tense line of his shoulders that caught Rusty’s attention and told him something was wrong. “Just a couple guys I think you work with. Come in here for a second.”
None of the guys Rusty had hired to work on his property would stop by his parents’ place on a Sunday afternoon. Spine tingling, Rusty moved toward his brother. As soon as he got close, Alec slapped a hand on his shoulder and ushered him into the house with a whispered, “What the fuck did you do? Two detectives are outside the front door, asking for you.”
Every nerve in Rusty’s body went on full alert. “Shit.”
“‘Shit’ doesn’t exactly put me at ease,” Alec mumbled.
Setting his beer on the table with a sweaty hand, Rusty followed Alec around the rest of his siblings and significant others who were busily grabbing items from the kitchen and headed toward the entryway.
“Alec,” their mother called just before they could disappear around the corner unnoticed. “Who was at the door?”
“Oh. Uh.” Alec all but pushed Rusty into the entryway as he looked back at Hannah. “Encyclopedia salesman. No one special.”
Emma was standing in the foyer playing with the hem of her shirt with her chubby little hands, yacking away at the two men in suits on the other side of the screen when Rusty turned the corner. Her mother, Raegan, glanced over her shoulder when she heard Rusty’s footsteps. “There he is.” She shot Rusty a worried look as she reached for Emma’s hand. “Come on, Em. Let’s let Uncle Rusty talk to the nice policemen.”
Raegan quickly brushed by Rusty, squeezing his forearm as she passed. The reassurance did little to ease the ball of stress suddenly building in his gut, though, because he could think of only one reason the police had tracked him down.
“Mr. McClane?” the shorter of the two men asked. He was only about five seven, late forties, with dark hair and eyes and a brown suit that looked as if it had seen better days.
“Yeah.” Rusty tucked his hands into the front pocket of his jeans, trying to stay as relaxed and unintimidating as possible. “Who’s asking?”
He flashed a badge. “I’m Detective Simms.” He nodded at the second man, taller and older with salt-and-pepper hair and wearing a gray suit, as he slipped his badge into the inner pocket of his jacket. “This is Detective Pierce. We’re with Portland Police. We’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“About what? I’m kind of in the middle of a family party here.”
“Oh, this won’t take long,” Simms said. “We’re just hoping you can clear up a few things for us regarding a case we’re investigating.”
Nothing was ever routine with the police. And Rusty didn’t miss the way the man refused to answer his question. “I don’t know how I can—”
“Could you please step outside, Mr. McClane?” Pierce asked.
Rusty’s gaze shot toward the guy in the gray suit. His blue eyes were easy and relaxed, and there was no warning in his expression, but Rusty didn’t trust the guy. There was something in his body language that screamed he was waiting for Rusty to say or do the wrong thing.
Good cop, good cop. Rusty had been baited by that before, and he didn’t like where this was headed. He knew what they were doing. If he refused to move out onto the porch, it would raise suspicion, give them a reason to wonder. If he did, and he said something they didn’t like, they could haul his ass in.
Before he could decide what to do, tiny footsteps echoed on the hardwood at his back, followed by Emma’s small voice, yelling, “Unca Rusty!”
She threw herself at him and latched onto his leg with a death grip. As Rusty reached down to try to pry her free, footsteps sounded on the hardwood again, followed by Raegan’s worried voice. “I’m sorry. Emma, come here.” She disentangled Emma from Rusty’s legs. Hauling her daughter up into her arms, she said, “I told you to leave them alone, sweetie.”
Voices echoed from the other room. He could hear his mother questioning Alec about who was really at the door and what was going on, followed by his dad, who’d obviously abandoned the grill when he’d realized something was happening.
Shit. Whatever these yahoos wanted from him, he didn’t want them to ask it in front of his family. Especially since he had a pretty strong hunch it had to do with last night, where he’d been, and what he hoped no one knew he’d done.
He pulled the screen door open and moved out onto the porch, shooting Raegan a secret message he hoped she caught.
Raegan nodded and reached for the door. “I’ll just close this so she doesn’t bother you again.” To the detectives, she said, “Sorry about the interruption.”
“No worries, ma’am,” the taller one said with a half smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
When they were alone on the porch and Rusty was sure no one inside could hear him, he folded his arms over his chest. “So what’s this about?”
The shorter of the two detectives pulled a photograph from his breast pocket and held it up. “We’re looking for a girl. Any chance you’ve seen her recently?”
Rusty’s gut dropped like a stone as he focused on the blonde in the picture. She looked nothing like she had last night. Instead of wild curly hair and heavy makeup that made her look twenty-five, her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, her skin was pale and clean, and she was smiling in a head shot like the kind taken for a school yearbook.
A thousand thoughts and reactions pinged around in his head as he studied the photo. If he lied and they caught him in the lie, he could find himself in deep shit. But if he told the truth, there was no guarantee that wouldn’t lead him to the shit either. “
Mr. McClane?” the taller detective asked.
“Uh. Yeah. She looks a little familiar.”
The shorter detective jotted notes on a pad of paper Rusty hadn’t seen him reach for. “Any chance you were at an establishment known as Leather and Lace in Portland last night?”
Double shit. They wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t already know the answer. Perspiration dotted Rusty’s spine. “Uh—”
“It’s a strip club,” the taller detective cut in. “In case you can’t remember.”
“I know what it is.” Rusty worked to stay relaxed. “Yeah, I was there. It’s a legal joint. What’s this all about?”
The shorter detective pocketed the picture again. “This girl was reported missing by her employer. We’re checking in with anyone who might have come in contact with her last night.”
Fuck. Rusty’s mouth went dry.
“What happened to your hands, Mr. McClane?” the taller detective asked.
Rusty’s adrenaline shot sky-high. Before he could answer, though, the front door of the house jerked open.
“What’s going on out here?” His mother pushed the screen door open. “Rusty?” Her worried gaze darted from the detectives to Rusty and back again.
All that guilt came rushing back. He didn’t want to do this in front of Hannah McClane. Not in front of the one person who believed in him more than anyone else ever had. He moved quickly to her side. “It’s fine, Mom. It’s nothing.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing.” Voices echoed behind her. More of his family filled the entryway, questions already flying.
“Mr. McClane,” one of the officers said in an irritated tone.
Rusty turned back to them. “I’d rather do this somewhere else.”
The officers exchanged glances. The taller one looked back at Rusty with a superior expression. “We can do this down at the station if you’d prefer.”
That was not what he’d prefer, but it was better than this. “Fine.”
Shock widened his mother’s eyes. “Rusty—”
“Right this way, Mr. McClane.” The taller detective stepped back and held out his hand toward the blue sedan parked in the drive.
Hannah grasped his arm tightly. “Russell McClane, you tell me right now what’s going on. Are you in trouble?”
He hoped like hell not. But something in his gut said that was wishful thinking at this point.
He kissed his mom’s cheek, desperate to reassure her but also to get away from her and the rest of the family before one of these officers spilled something he didn’t want them to know. “I’m fine. This is no big deal, and it won’t take long. I promise. Go on and eat without me.”
He twisted out of her grip before she could do something to keep him at her side, and he didn’t look back at his siblings all whispering in the foyer as he crossed the drive and slid into the back seat of the sedan like a common criminal. He also didn’t look up as the taller officer slammed the door, climbed into the front, and the car pulled out of the drive. Because he knew what each and every one of them would see in his eyes if he met any of their gazes.
They’d see guilt. A guilt he hoped like hell he could figure out how to cover before these detectives tore into him at the station.