Victor Simone, head of a hit man organization, murdered Belle McBain’s corrupt father. Following in her dad’s career footsteps, Belle becomes an attorney, but she can’t seem to move beyond the whispers of her crooked father’s corruption or his failures to his family. Instead of building a career in law, she escapes to a life of drugs and lives off her trust fund.
Unable to cope, Belle attempts suicide and is soon admitted into a rehab clinic where she tries to heal. However, her wounds run deep, so the healing takes time. Once released and three years sober, Belle begins a new life as a private investigator in Jersey City with the help of a friend in law enforcement. Sixteen years have passed … until everything changes.
One of Victor Simone’s cronies is in FBI custody and makes a deal. He says he’ll tell where the fugitive Simone is hiding if Belle agrees to meet with him. When she does, she begins to wonder if her father was ever a dirty attorney at all. As she searches for answers, Belle discovers more than she bargained for, including something more unbelievable than she could have imagined.
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Sixteen Years Later
Everyone deserves a second chance.
As many times as she had gotten such chances, Belle McBain had never believed she rightfully deserved them. She had received more second chances than most. There had been a time when she was ungrateful, downright resentful, of those who intervened in her path of self-destruction just so she could give life another go. But like yesterday, and hopefully tomorrow, today she was glad for the people who had stopped her from giving up on herself and had given her the millionth second chance to pull herself together and learn to cope with life's issues she had been dealt.
On the third floor of her Victorian home, as a high morning light poured into the master bedroom's window, Belle dressed, slipping into a white T-shirt, khaki slacks, and one-inch black ankle boots. She pulled her long, chestnut-brown hair into a ponytail as she walked over to the cherrywood dresser. She picked up the plated sobriety medallion and managed a smile as her thumb caressed the topside, silently saying the serenity prayer. She then slid the medallion into her slacks pocket.
It was still hard to believe she was yet another day clean and sober, off cocaine and booze. Especially when the urges remained frequent and sometimes unbearable. The urges never go away, her sobriety sponsor would matter-of-factly tell her.
Harder yet it was for her to wrap her head around the fact that the days had turned into three years since her life stopped spiraling out of control. Three years since she drove her car off the road and into the ravine.
Strange how things had a way of working out. Her gaze drifted to the empty five-by-eleven manila envelope on top of the dresser. This time she couldn't help but smile. She picked up the packet, feeling a little of the unexpected rush of pride and excitement that had pumped through her blood when she first received the licensure on Friday. That kind of passion was something she hadn't felt in years, not even when she'd graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. She felt it now, though. Pride that she finally was making something of her life. Pride that she hadn't given up, circling back into the deepening abyss from which she thought she could never escape.
In a slow process, while some days still remained harder to manage and struggle through than others, she had broken away from her destructive cycle. Gradually, she had detached herself from the past, from the shadows of her father, becoming her own person with her own identity. She was tired and wanted to stop being driven by the past, allowing it to control her. The past was dead. The past was gone. Time to live in the here and now.
The page came from the ground floor. She smiled inside. Yes, indeed. Letting go of the past and getting clean gave her a sense of clarity and a feeling for an unknown purpose yet to be discovered. She was living in the present and moving forward in a new and healthy direction. Her life was turning out okay ... good, in fact.
On top of her game, the last thing she wanted right now was any more reflections on the past. She rounded the oak railing on the third floor and hurried down the stairs, her boots clapping against the hardwood. Midlevel, she slowed her pace. Her live-in boyfriend waited at the base, arms filled with a morning surprise. Her lips parted into a sheepish grin.
Dr. Mark Stratton stood five ten with dark, wavy hair, broad shoulders, and a lean physique with washboard abs. Playing daily racquetball and sweating out five hundred crunches each morning did him right. An overstuffed backpack hung off a shoulder while a hand clutched a large wicker picnic basket as a devilish look resonated in his sparkling sapphire eyes.
Through her sheepish grin, Belle asked, "What's all this? I thought we were going out for breakfast."
"We are," Mark said. "To the park." He held out the picnic basket and padded the backpack. "Got all the goods. Minus the crowd of people and interruptions."
She stood in front of him and banded her arms across her chest. "Anyone tell you you're a selfish person?"
Mark paused a moment. "Honestly, I can't say anyone has." Then he hiked his shoulders. "Don't care if I am ... not when it comes to you ... to us." He smiled. "And I promise I'm going to remain selfish for a few days since we haven't had much time together. Me with work, you with the apprenticeship. I promise to take up all your spare time before things start getting busy again."
She chuckled sweetly. "You promise to be selfish."
Mark nodded. "Yep. And you can hold me to it." He grabbed her around the waist and planted his lips on hers. After a long moment, he pulled away, their faces only inches apart. "I'm proud of you. You've come a long way, babe."
Tears filled her eyes. She tightened her jaw, hoping to keep her emotions at bay. She gave a wan smile as she nodded slightly.
He pulled her in again, held her tightly. "McBain and Banks Investigation," he whispered softly in her ear. "I like the sound of it."
Mark knew exactly how far she had come. When the EMS had brought her into the ER at Jersey City Medical Center after her near-death experience in the ravine three years ago, he had been one of the doctors on duty. After assessing her and viewing her toxicology report, he made a referral for the hospital case manager to do a complete intake on her, and after five days of mending on a medical floor with suicide precautions, it was brought to her attention that if she didn't seek help on her own, the hospital would have her involuntarily committed to an inpatient drug-treatment facility. She agreed to the terms and, upon discharge from the hospital, committed herself and spent eight months in rehab.
She withdrew from his arms and stepped past him. "Let's get this picnic started."
He tapped her ass. "Hoping to get me some of that tonight."
At the sleek table in the foyer, she dug around inside her messenger bag for her lip gloss. "Why wait? I know a few secluded spots in the park." She looked over her shoulder and gave him a wink.
"You're a naughty girl," he said excitedly.
She turned back around, and as she uncapped the tube of lip gloss, she glanced toward the room to her right. Its interior French doors were wide open. Hanging on the wall across the room was the framed private investigator license. Almost three years and six thousand hours of apprenticeship later, she definitely had something to smile about.
She turned around and faced Mark, who watched her intently apply the applicator of lip gloss, a light shade of pink, seductively to her lips.
He shook his head as he let out a long and heavy sigh. "Woman, you're killing me. We better go before I throw you down right here."
Belle laughed as she shouldered her messenger bag. Just then the doorbell rang.
Not expecting anyone, she walked over to the entry way's window to sneak a peek before opening the door. It was nine thirty on Monday morning. She pulled down a sliver of the blind. A man, about six foot or better with a shiny scalp, stood there in a dark suit and red tie.
She looked behind her at Mark and shrugged. She opened the door, her body half hidden from view. "Yes?" The man had a slim build; shoulders were firm and tight, suggesting high-ranking authority.
"Ms. Annabelle McBain?" His tone was stern.
"Yes ... and you are?"
The man raised a hand and flipped open a leather case, displaying his credentials. "I'm Special Agent Cartwright with the FBI. Can I have a moment of your time?"
She glanced at his creds. "Regarding what?" she asked, confused.
The agent placed his credentials inside an inner pocket of his suit as he spoke. "Regarding Anthony Carzozza."
Belle stood in shock, in utter disbelief. Though she hadn't heard the name in years, she definitely recognized it. The blood drained from her face.
"Ms. McBain, you all right?"
She tightened her grip on the door handle and swallowed hard. "I'm fine," she replied, her tone sharp. Then after another hard swallow, she said, "I have no interest in hearing anything about that man." She shook her head. "And I'm sure I have nothing to say that would be of any help to the FBI."
"In all due respect, Ms. McBain, the Bureau isn't asking for your help. Well, not directly anyway." The agent paused a moment. "I'm here upon a request."
Belle furrowed her brow. "Request?" Her mind grew even more confused. What would law enforcement want from her? "Request from whom ... for what?"
The agent cleared his throat. "We have Carzozza in police custody down in Florida. The agent paused. "He's requesting to meet with you." Just when her life was moving forward, away from the past, was it now to take an abrupt turn and head directly backward?
The sound of her name brought Belle out of her reverie. They were all standing in the foyer now, Mark's arm around her shoulder, supporting her. She leaned into him in disbelief, rattled that a single name could make her mind instantly go back in time, teetering on the edge of unwanted thoughts. Images and harboring emotions — few confronted, many suppressed — were doing their best to seep their way into her mind.
No, don't go there.
Unwilling to let the warped memories intrude on her space, she steeled herself, forced her thoughts to remain in the present, and, not exactly exercising her best judgment at the moment, found herself gesturing the agent into the family room. By the look on his face, it was obvious she had taken him by surprise as well. Apparently he hadn't expected to be invited in.
She stepped aside and pointed to the room on her right. The agent followed and dipped his chin at Mark as he glided past them and headed into the family room.
When she closed the gaping front door, Mark whispered hastily, "What in God's name are you doing, Belle? Go in there and tell him to leave."
A week after her discharge from rehab, Mark had called to see how she was doing. Over coffee, as difficult as it was, she'd shared with him her past. So Mark knew exactly how damaging Anthony Carzozza could be to her mental stability right now.
She ignored his question and demand. "Give me five minutes, and then we'll go." No longer rattled, her morbid curiosity at attention, she waited to hear exactly what the agent had to say.
Mark stared at her, anger and frustration glinting in his eyes. She wasn't sure whether the look stemmed from the unexpected blast from the past or the intrusion on his morning plans for the two of them. A little of both probably.
"I'll be waiting in the car," he said, his voice as ice chilled as a bottle of champagne.
Her heartbeat quickened as she crossed the threshold into the family room. The spacious room with ten-foot ceilings and hardwood flooring gave the presence of it hardly being used. Which was the case with most of the rooms in the house. Born and raised in the large Victorian, she knew she could never find the courage to sell it and downsize. With the aid of her trust fund, she was able to afford the property.
Positioned in the room's center was a sectional white sofa and two antique chairs around a large tan-and-cherry mosaic rug. In the center of the rug was a glass coffee table with a vase of assorted silk flowers. A fireplace was along the sidewall, and built-in shelves aligned the back wall, sporting a collection of books and framed photos. In the far corner, beneath a large white sheath, was a baby grand piano she hadn't played in sixteen years. Parted white drapes hung from the front windows overlooking the Jersey cliffs and the Hudson River. The Victorian and neighboring homes rested a hundred yards off the cliffs in the high end of town. Running five miles along the cliffs was a county-owned embankment that had been developed into a small leisurely park and walking path. From the front windows she had a panoramic view of the beautiful Manhattan skyline.
She stood in front of the windows and behind the sofa. She banded her arms across her chest. "What's this about, Agent?" She spoke to his backside. "Why on God's earth would Anthony Carzozza want to see me? I've never met the sick bastard."
The agent peered intently at the array of photos. Photos of her and Mark on their getaways. Photos of them together with Mark's parents, celebrating the holidays. Photos of them with Osmond, her closest friend since childhood. Photos of her mother years before she died. There were so many photos, and yet none were of her in her earlier years. None of her father. The agent leaned in closer to the framed eight by ten of Mark and her alongside his parents, Ted and Gloria Stratton. The picture had been taken at his parents' summer place in upstate New York.
Agent Cartwright pointed at the photo. "The doctor's parents, I take it." He turned around and looked across the room at her. "Their house" — he thumbed over his shoulder — "is a lakefront on Lake George, isn't it? My family and I rent a house and spend a week up there every August. Definitely not in a house like that one, though." Again, he thumbed over his shoulder. "Very big house. Very expensive. But I guess a retired surgeon can afford it."
It didn't surprise her that the agent knew about Mark's and his dad's profession. He was FBI, after all. They knew everything. The delivery and tone of his remark, however, annoyed her, but her curiosity came to the rescue, deflecting her strong urge to counterattack with a flippant remark. Surprisingly, she wanted to hear where this was going.
Agent Cartwright slid his hands into the pockets of his dress pants as he gravitated over to the fireplace, placing himself closer to her. "He wouldn't say. Just asked to speak with you." He withdrew a hand and waved it in front of him. "Of course, not by any means do you have to fulfill his request. Honestly, I'm not expecting you to. I came to show good faith that we — the Bureau — held to our word with Carzozza's attorney that we would make the attempt."
"What's he being charged with?" Not like she needed to know, but with her curiosity growing, she became slightly intrigued.
Hindsight. She should have left it at that, asked no more questions, said no to Carzozza's bizarre request, and showed the agent to the door. But she didn't. As always being the case, she would push the envelope, dare herself to go where she shouldn't.
Instead, she pulled up her memory bank from sixteen years ago. From what she remembered about Anthony "The Accountant" Carzozza, there had to be more to it than charges in a white-collar crime for a dangerous and deadly assassin, whom she'd never met or spoken to and who now requested an out-of-the-blue meeting with her. Did the big, bad FBI think she was that stupid and naive?
"You need to offer up more than that, Agent," she said curtly. Then she repeated, "Why does Anthony Carzozza want to speak with me?" She tossed him a look, conveying she didn't intend to yield her ground.
Agent Cartwright hesitated as he stared at her, the wheels turning in his head, choosing his words carefully. "Carzozza has agreed to turn state's evidence against Victor Simone."
Her insides recoiled. Another name she hadn't heard in sixteen years, and it could still make the hairs on the back of her neck stand and her stomach grow queasy. Her knees probably would have buckled, dropping her to the floor in pure shock, if she wasn't already numb from hearing Carzozza's name after all this time. With her internal armor on, numbness shielded her mind from lapsing back down the rabbit hole to that dark place still taking up residence inside her. She was filled with suppressed anger, shame, and resentment that for three years she'd fought like hell not to go back to that place, never allowing it to become her shelter ever again. She stood there, determined not to allow the two men solely responsible for ruining her family to steer her off her path.
She tucked a lose strand of hair behind her ear. "What does ratting out Victor Simone have to do with his wanting to speak with me?" Just saying the name made her want to vomit.
Agent Cartwright hesitated again before he spoke. "Like I said, he won't say why he wants to speak with you ... just that he does. We're just as dumbfounded by the request as you are, Ms. McBain."
She paused a beat as she studied the agent. During her childhood and back when she'd wanted to become a lawyer, her father had taken her to court, where she'd sat for hours in the gallery, observing each member of the court and honing in on every verbal and nonverbal communication. Though she wasn't an expert by any means, she was highly observant to what one conveyed with body language; she definitely could read the agent's nonverbal cues. He was holding back.
Excerpted from "Dark Road Home"
Copyright © 2017 Angela Bennett.
Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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