Dangerous Illusions (Book 1, Code of Honor)
Revell, ©2017, ISBN 978-0800727673
Trish Bailey is on overload trying to deal with a demanding job, an ailing mother, and a healing heart. When a series of unsettling memory lapses leads to a tragic death—and puts Trish under police scrutiny—her world is once again thrown into turmoil. Detective Colin Flynn isn’t certain what to think of the facts he uncovers during his investigation. Did Trish simply make a terrible mistake or is there more to the case than meets the eye? As he searches for answers, disturbing information begins to emerge—and if the forces at work are as evil as he suspects, the situation isn’t just dangerous . . . it’s deadly.
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“Hello, Matt. Long time no see.”
As the words slithered through the clammy night air, a jagged shaft of lightning illuminated the speaker’s face for one brief instant.
But Matt Parker didn’t need a visual cue to identify the man on the other side of his front door.
The glib voice was all too familiar.
Fingers clutching the doorknob, he stared at the shadowy figure as shock thrummed through his nerve endings. In the background, another eruption of electricity slashed across the inky sky. A sharp crack of thunder shook the walls of the house. Rain pummeled the tulips rimming the porch, beating their heads into submission.
Hollywood couldn’t have staged a more dramatic—or ominous—reunion.
“Aren’t you going to ask me in?”
When the man he loathed flashed the same smug smile he’d worn during their last conversation five years ago, Matt attempted to slam the door.
“Not so fast.” A foot shot between the door and the jamb. “I’ve come a long way to see you.”
“You wasted your time.” The anger he thought he’d tamed churned anew in his gut.
“I never waste my time.”
“Get your foot out of my door.” He ground out the words through clenched teeth, knuckles whitening on the doorframe.
“We need to talk.”
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“I have some things to say to you.”
“I’m not interested in hearing them. I told you five years ago—stay out of my life.”
“I intended to. But I have a problem.”
“Tough.” A pair of headlights swung onto the long driveway that led to the house he’d called home for the past three years. “My pizza’s here. Don’t expect me to share.” He kicked the foot away from the jamb.
Before he could shove the door closed, however, the interloper shouldered through. “I didn’t come for pizza.”
“Get out of my house.” Fury nipped at every syllable as he grabbed the other man’s arm.
“I don’t plan to complicate your life for long, so back off and deal with the pizza guy.” He yanked free and strolled toward the kitchen.
As the car lights swept across the front of the house, Matt muttered an obscenity—but remained by the door. Finding a pizza place willing to deliver to his wooded property on the outskirts of St. Louis had been tough, and he wasn’t about to jeopardize their arrangement by ignoring a delivery on a night like this.
But once he took possession of the dinner he no longer wanted, the man in his kitchen was getting a swift kick out the door.
Literally, if that’s what it took.
An older-model Sentra stopped in the drive, engine idling. The lanky kid who often delivered on Saturday nights bounded up the stone walkway through the driving rain and leaped onto the porch, juggling an insulated container.
“Hey, Mr. Parker.” He cringed as a shaft of lightning pierced the sky, followed by another bone-jarring crack of thunder. “I thought April was supposed to bring showers, not monsoons.”
Matt tried to conjure up a smile for the high schooler with the happy-go-lucky grin.
“Thanks for coming out on a night like this.” The charge for the pizza was already on his credit card, but he fished out a generous tip.
“It beats doing homework.” The teen’s eyes widened as he pulled the pizza out of the carrier and gaped at the bill Matt extended. “Are you sure about this? I mean . . . that’s a lot of money.”
“Put it toward your college fund. And be careful driving tonight.”
“I will. Thanks a lot—and enjoy the pizza.”
He waited until the kid was back behind the wheel, then closed the door and stalked to the kitchen.
His visitor had tossed his slicker over a chair and was sipping a can of pilfered soda when he entered. Water pooled on the tile below the garment, the puddle widening with every drip.
“I told you once to leave.” He slammed the pizza onto the counter. “You have thirty seconds to clear out.”
“And if I don’t?” With infuriating nonchalance, the man settled on a stool at the island. “Is 911 in your plans?”
Matt clamped his jaw shut, silently cursing the obnoxious piece of scum across from him.
“I didn’t think so. I’ve been watching you, Matt. You lead a quiet, off-the-grid life. I doubt you’d want to call attention to yourself by filing a police report . . . or dredging up our past.”
The very thought of all that garbage seeing the light of day sent a cold shiver snaking down his spine.
But the man’s first comment scared him more.
“What do you mean, you’ve been watching me?” Although Matt tried to contain his alarm, tension nipped at his words.
“I mean exactly what I said. I’ve been watching you. Observing. Studying.” He started to lift the lid on the pizza. “Trish is pretty. I commend you on your excellent taste.”
Matt shoved the box out of his visitor’s reach, his blood chilling. “Leave Trish out of this.”
“Hey . . . can’t a man notice a pretty woman? You did. The two of you seemed very cozy at lunch last week.”
Matt’s stomach heaved. “Why have you been watching me?”
“I need your help.”
“You expect me to help you?” Matt barked out a harsh laugh. “What a joke.”
“I’m dead serious.”
“You’re also delusional. I wouldn’t lift a finger on your behalf if my life depended on it.”
A muscle twitched in the other man’s cheek. “Too bad. Refusing isn’t an option. But once you give me the help I need, you’ll never see me again. Guaranteed.”
“Forgive me if I have trust issues.” He made no attempt to hide his sarcasm. “As for that option crack—you can’t force me to help you. I want no part of your problems. If you’ve dug yourself into another hole, you can dig yourself out.”
“That’s what I’m doing. It’s why I’m here.” He finished off his soda and set the can on the counter. “To tell you the truth, I’d rather not involve you. It’s too messy. But there’s no other way.”
“You are delusional.” Matt planted his palms on the counter and leaned toward the man who was fouling the air in his house. “Read my lips. I said forget it. Now get out of here.”
As a shudder of thunder rumbled through the walls, the lights flickered. Steadied.
His visitor regarded him, an odd mixture of emotions in his eyes. At last he stood. “Sorry, Matt. You are going to help me. Here’s how.”
With the pizza cooling between them and the aroma of spicy tomato sauce turning his stomach, Matt’s heart stalled as the man he’d never wanted to see again revealed his plan.
And as the seconds ticked by . . . as Matt stared across the counter at this specter from his past . . . as the rain pounded against the roof and the wind howled . . . one thing became terrifyingly clear.
The new life he’d created was over.
One Week Later
At the peal of the doorbell, Trish Bailey looked up from the lesson plan she was preparing.
“Matt’s here.” Her mother adjusted the afghan thrown over her legs.
“Punctual, as usual.”
“One of his many virtues.”
Here we go again.
Expelling a breath, Trish set her paperwork on the sofa beside her and stood. “Do you want to meet with him in the kitchen?”
“Yes. He’s handsome too.”
Best to ignore that as well.
She moved toward the door, stopping to rest a hand on her mom’s shoulder as she passed the wheelchair. “Can I get you anything while I’m up?”
“No. I’m fine.”
Hardly. But Eileen Coulter had never been a complainer—before the car accident two years ago, or since.
She gave her mother’s arm a gentle squeeze. “I’ll be right back.”
“After we finish, nap for me. Matt might stay for cake.”
Although the words were stroke-garbled, the meaning was clear. Her mom wanted her to stop mourning and start living again—a message the older woman had been communicating with increasing frequency over the past few weeks.
“It means maybe.” Without giving her mother an opportunity to press the issue, she crossed the living room to the foyer. Her parents’ accountant was nice . . . and she’d enjoyed the lunch he’d suggested a couple of weeks ago . . . but she was in no hurry to dip her toes back into romance.
Besides, much as she liked Matt, there was zero zing. Not like there’d been with John from the first moment they’d met.
But perhaps that kind of instant attraction, that immediate feeling of simpatico, only came along once in a lifetime.
The bell rang again, and she picked up her pace—and propped up her spirits. She wasn’t going to sink back into the morass of self-pity she’d languished in for the first few months after the accident. If her mother, who’d suffered far more, could carry on with a cheery spirit, she would too.
Trish straightened her shoulders, tugged the hem of her tunic down over her leggings, and summoned up a smile of welcome.
But as she pulled open the door, her mouth flattened.
The tall, sandy-haired man on the other side had a stitched gash on his temple, a purple-hued bruise on his forehead, and one wrist encased in a removable brace.
“Matt! What on earth happened?”