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A convicted serial killer threatens their child.
Max Di Luca goes on the hunt…
What would you do to protect your family?
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"Darling wife, today Dr. Clift confirmed our fears. The surgery to remove the bullet from your brain was successful ..." Max Di Luca laughed a broken laugh. "That's what he said. Successful. As in, he removed the bullet, and you lived. But it's been three weeks. You haven't regained consciousness. At all. I don't know how they know, but the doctor said the coma was deepening and you have no chance of survival without life support." Max took a long, wrenching breath and pressed his forehead to Kellen's cold hand. When the temperature of her skin registered, he lifted his head and said, "You're freezing! I wouldn't want to wake up in a hospital room, either, much less a cold one. Hang on, let me get you a warm blanket."
He hustled over to the microwave blanket heater, pulled out a narrow cotton blanket and spread it over Kellen's inert body. He placed her hands under the covers and tucked the blanket around her from her neck all the way down to her toes. "There. Is that better? I want you to be comfortable. I don't want you to suffer. I want this to be ... easy." He groped for the chair behind him, found it without looking, pulled it close and seated himself. He slid his hands under the blankets and found one of hers — which was slowly warming — and held it. "Remember, when we talked about this surgery, you made me promise I wouldn't allow you to be nothing more than an unmoving, unfeeling carbon life form on a hospital bed. That if you survived the surgery but didn't return to light and speech and hope, I wouldn't keep you beyond your time." He pulled his hand out of the blankets, reached into the pocket of his jeans, withdrew a massive handkerchief and blew his nose. Honked his nose.
Kellen sat on the chair opposite and watched Max affectionately. God bless him. He was so sad, and he wasn't afraid to blow his nose so hard it echoed down the hospital corridors. He cried openly for her, and his grief fed her hope that her life had not been wasted, that it had meaning.
She had collapsed at their wedding. Not exactly the right time or place, but when it came to comas, she couldn't pick her moments. She'd had a bullet in her brain for years, resting there, waiting to move into position and cause her trouble. After a few too many adventures and jumps and bumps and leaps, she had a few problems. Then a few more. Then sure enough, after the wedding ceremony at their winery in Oregon, she had seen Mara Philippi smiling and making conversation with their daughter, freaked out, told Max and collapsed.
That was it.
She didn't exactly know what happened after that. She hadn't known anything until right now when she got up off that bed and thought, Huh. This is different.
Now she knew. Max had told her. She'd had surgery, she hadn't recovered. He hadn't said it yet, but she was going to die.
She examined her hands. They looked pretty normal. Maybe a little transparent around the edges, and her fingernails were bluish, from the cold she supposed. But the skin tone looked healthy. For someone headed toward death, she felt pretty good.
Kellen looked up at her body on the bed. Those hands were hidden, fingers slightly curved.
Ah, those poor hands.
The bullet had been lodged in the quadrant of the brain that controlled the hands' fine motor skills. Without being told, Kellen knew she'd lost a lot of those skills. But what did it matter? She was dying.
Max said to the Kellen on the bed, "We're going to take you off life support. No IVs and stuff. You've got about ten days before you pass on. My mom will be bringing Rae to visit you."
He choked up again.
Rae was their daughter, a wonderful seven-year-old genius smart-mouthed child who Kellen loved so much. At the mention of Rae's name, Kellen choked up, too, but there were no tears.
No tears. If the Kellen on the bed had heard, she would have cried. But the Kellen in the chair had slipped beyond that human response.
"We have somewhere between five and, um, seven days. You're going to pass on. Personally, knowing you, I'm betting ten days. You're so damned stubborn and tenacious."
I am, aren't I? And looking pretty rough. Someone had shaved her head. Dr. Clift had cracked open her skull. Bandages covered her head everywhere except her face, and the bruising from the incision slid down her forehead, her nose and her upper lip. Weird.
"Here's the thing. Right now, I'm leaving, and heading to the federal prison where Mara Philippi is incarcerated. You saw her at our wedding. I don't think you were hallucinating. And let's be frank. If you weren't, that means Mara Philippi is free." He looked up at her IV bag, and as if that reminded him to hydrate, he stood, poured himself a glass of water and downed it. Twice.
Poor guy. He wasn't taking care of himself.
He came back and leaned his hip against the mattress. "I guess it's no surprise that a federal penitentiary isn't a place where you wander in and ask to see an inmate. There are bells and whistles and ordinances and rules, and when you want to see a prisoner who has been convicted of serial murders and is held in isolation on death row — well, that involved some awkward moments."
She liked that he talked as if she could hear him, and even more that he talked as if he liked her.
Yes. Their relationship h/ad been good. Passionate, smart, controversial, dedicated, and, most important, they had loved each other across years of loneliness. Leaving him now was lousy. Wrong. Bullshit.
She waited to see if lightning struck her for such rebellious thoughts.
Nope. She remained unsinged.
Max continued, speaking to her unresponsive body. "You'll recall that our winery manager, Arthur Waldberg, is a former inmate of a Texas prison. And you remember Arthur is a miracle of efficiency, with connections everywhere. When I determined I needed to actually see Mara Philippi in person, rather than on some fuzzy video, Arthur leaped into action. He called the warden in Texas, who called the warden in McFarrellville Correctional Facility in Utah where Mara is incarcerated. Apparently, there was some argument about whether or not I'd be permitted to see Mara in person. Because of the viciousness of her crimes, and because ..." His voice faded.
Funny. Kellen could hear him in her mind. The prison warden had queried the reasons for the visit, and when he discovered Kellen had been the only one at the wedding who had seen Mara, and that Kellen had then promptly collapsed and gone into surgery, he'd questioned the veracity of her vision.
Rather unfair; she'd had problems, blackouts, mostly, but no hallucinations.
Max cleared his throat, and his voice came back clear and strong. "But in my day, I've played college football, led the Di Luca family winery business, raised our child in your absence. I know my way around protocols, rules, government red tape, and — most important — I know how to pull strings and exert influence. I told Warden Arbuckle you were the one who discovered Mara Philippi was not merely the Yearning Sands resort spa manager, but also a smuggler, a murderer and a madwoman."
Mara Philippi walked in Kellen's nightmares, and for good reason. The mere idea that she might be free terrified the Kellen that sat in the chair and the Max that sat opposite.
"I'm going to McFarrellville Correctional Facility, and I'm going to make them prove she's locked up." Max patted my hand under the covers. "If they can't show me that the woman they have in that cell is Mara Philippi, then you know what that means. It means we've got to be ... I've got to take care of Rae in a way we had never imagined. Darling —" he stood, leaned over my body and kissed my cold lips "— be here when I get back. I want to be here when you pass. Don't leave too early. I couldn't stand it."
As if he couldn't turn away, Max backed away from the bed. "You could also," he whispered, "wake while I'm gone. Think about it." He bumped the wall with his back, then groped his way to the door and pushed his way out into the hospital corridor.
He was gone.CHAPTER 2
Kellen was still in her hospital room, in body and in spirit. Separate body and spirit, but still body and spirit.
She knew she was supposed to witness some things; events, sentiments, human interactions, although why she knew was a mystery to her. But the knowledge was more than an urge — it was a compulsion.
She wandered out the door, into the depths of a busy hospital.
A hospital was the embodiment of drama. Birth and death, joy and tears. The corridor hummed with light, motion, people who were healing, people in pain ...
Emotions buffeted Kellen. Sorrow, hope, exhaustion, hunger, annoyance, loneliness. She felt them all. The nurses moved from one crisis to another. The doctors diagnosed, prescribed, consulted, explained. The LPNs eternally hoped for no unforeseen body functions. The patients suffered and survived, or suffered and died. The families supported, loved, hated, prayed for life, prayed for death, prayed to be included in the will, wept for the loss of a dear one.
For Kellen, the corridor was a turbulent river that carried her along, lifting her to the highest heights and plunging her to the deepest depths. She surfaced, and briefly she saw someone on the fringes. Someone like her, a man, alive, yet free from his earthly body. He surveyed the writhing ribbons of emotion calmly, no longer part of the madness of humanity.
Suddenly, Kellen knew she was apart, also. She didn't need to feel all this. She was above, beyond.
She nodded to the other soul, thanking him without words.
He nodded back and entered the door beside him.
She followed him into a hospital room.
The man on the bed was old, so old, and breathed with great difficulty. His family gathered around him, weeping or staring or trying to not be there.
The spirit she had seen had changed. The color had bleached from him; with a start, she realized, he had become a ghost. That white spirit legend was the truth, glimpsed across the veil.
He slipped between the family gathered around him and settled into his body.
He would be gone soon.
That was okay. He was ready.
Exhausted by the turmoil she had experienced, she made her way toward her room.
She had begun to enter her room, to rest once more in her body, when something made her turn. Not an emotion; quite the opposite. A complete and utter lack of feeling, a black hole from which no light or thought emanated.
She looked first at the nurses' station, a large half circle set against a wall of computers, monitors, alarms. She thought that the medical personnel had had to learn to be impersonal, to guard their feelings. But no. Eight nurses, doctors, technicians sat, leaned, spoke, frowned, scribbled on iPads. They were involved in their work, and their concerns, interests, personalities colored their auras. She could hear snatches of their thoughts as clearly as if they were speaking.
Kellen looked beyond at the patients. Four corridors branched out from this central station; her room was at the junction. Toward the end of one hallway, she saw a man in a hospital gown and pajama bottoms, moving painfully, leaning on a walker and pulling an IV. Yet he laughed affectionately with another man by his side.
Down another corridor, another man pushed a woman in a wheelchair. She was frightened, so frightened Kellen wanted to cry for her. The woman awaited a diagnosis, and her fear made her life aura so taut it looked swollen and painful.
Down another corridor came ... Ah. There he was. A tall man, handsome, in his thirties, wearing casual, expensive clothing. He walked like an important man, a man of privilege who was used to being in charge.
He was the black hole of emotion, and seeing him, Kellen knew why.
He wore a prosthesis on each arm. One started above his elbow near his shoulder. The other started right below his elbow.
She knew him. Not from life, not from notoriety or publicity, but because at this moment, she was meant to see him, know him.
His name was Harrison Benchley.
Not only was she meant to see him, she was supposed to do something for him.
But not now. First she had to rest.CHAPTER 3
McFarrellville, locally known as McFelonville, was a company town. Everyone who lived there worked at the McFarrellville Federal Correctional Facility and was related to someone who worked at the prison, or supplied the prison or the prison personnel.
McFarrellville itself was south and west of Salt Lake City, in the desert, isolated as all hell, with one highway running through town, and a tiny airport built to transport visitors and officials to and from the prison. The drive from Salt Lake City in Max's rental car took three hours; during those three hours he saw eight passenger cars, two tractor trailers and four police cars. He set his cruise control at precisely the speed limit.
He drove through town, taking note of the Desert Diner, the old local drive-in and the new fried-chicken-chain drive-through. He hoped to be out of here before he had to try any of them.
Based solely on its location, he'd booked a night at the Aloha Motel. He could have stayed at the Desert Flower Bed and Breakfast, but in the online photos the decor looked like a fancy Victorian whorehouse.
These days, he wasn't in the mood for whorehouses, Victorian or otherwise.
The prison itself had once been out of town, but, incredibly, McFarrellville had grown out to meet it, and the Aloha Motel sat close to the prison. Really, how bad could any place named after a Hawaiian greeting be? According to the reviews, the beds were comfortable and the rooms were clean. More important, it was cheap; if he lucked out and finished his prison business before nightfall, he figured the loss of his payment was insignificant. One reviewer had written, "No bedbugs!!!" in italics. When he turned into the parking lot, he realized maybe the motel had doctored the reviews. It was a motel in the true fifties sense of the word, with an office at the front, a long strip of ground-floor rooms, and three cabins off to the side. He would bet the rooms were available by the hour, no questions asked.
He parked next to the door labeled Office, got out, pulled off his sunglasses and looked across the street.
There it was. The prison.
Even if he'd never seen a prison before, he would have known that's what it was. Gray, monstrous, surrounded by wire and barbed wire and electric wire, towers, gravel, shimmering heat. And lights, even in the daytime. It was as if the site and building sucked in the desert's eternal sunlight and disposed of it, as if desperation had constructed itself a home.
God, he hoped Mara Philippi was locked up in there. For all the pain and suffering she had caused, she deserved to live out her life in McFarrellville Correctional Facility. He didn't believe she was in there — but he hoped.
A man stepped out of the motel office. His hair was white blond, his eyes were pale blue. He was probably five feet ten inches and rail thin; if Max had seen him in Kellen's hospital, he would have thought him suffering from a terminal disease. "Hey! You Max Di Luca?"
The guy shoved his hands into the pockets of his no-iron khaki trousers and grinned. "I thought so. I looked you up. I saw you play against Notre Dame. I couldn't believe when I saw your name on the motel roster. Come on in. We put you in the best room."
Okay. This was weird. Max trekked across the melting hot asphalt into the motel office.
It was clean. Smelled clean, looked clean, if a little shabby.
The man pulled his hand from his pocket and stuck it out for a shake. "Jack Shales. I graduated from U of M three years after you."
This guy was younger than Max? He didn't look it.
Max shook. "Good to meet you, Jack."
Jack continued, "Graduated summa cum laude in Physics with a minor in Mathematics."
This guy was smarter than Max? Well, all things were possible.
Snow White would have envied Jack his complexion. How did someone who lived in the desert, under the unrelenting sun, stay so white? "You work here?"
"It's worse than that. I own the place."
As he was supposed to, Max chuckled. "I imagine it's a paying proposition."
"Sure is. My wife's family has had it for years. All the wives, husbands and reporters who want to visit someone at the prison stay here." Jack grinned wider. "Which one are you?"
Taken aback by the blatant prying, Max said, "None of the above. I'm here to visit Mara Philippi. I'm one of the people who helped capture her."
"I told you." Jack spoke toward the counter.
A woman rose from a chair back there. Max hadn't noticed her; she was less than five feet tall, and the top of her head had been barely visible.
"My wife, Elyse." Jack sounded uneasy.
"Good to meet you." Max strode over and shook her outstretched hand.
She was pudgy, soft, with the same pasty-white complexion as Jack. Her shoulder-length brown hair had artful blond streaks and her shrewd blue eyes sized Max up. "Jack has talked about you for years. Nice to know you're not a figment of his imagination."
"Elyse, do you have to?" Jack snapped.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hidden Truths"
Copyright © 2019 Christina Dodd.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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