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"The house is the second one on the right."
Deputy Chief Ryan Fitzgerald nodded to the officer sitting next to him and tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the official Fitzgerald Bay vehicle. He pulled to the curb in front of a boxy house with a front brick facade and white siding. The paved driveway was empty. He doubted this trip to the town of Revere would pay off, but it was the only lead he had to a murder suspect and a missing eighteen-month-old little girl.
He glanced around, taking stock of the neighborhood. Quiet, tree-lined street. No one was out and about on this blistering June day. Better indoors, out of the sun and the humidity. The lucky ones with air conditioners, blowing out cool air.
His gaze snagged on a burgundy Subaru parked across the street. His gut clenched. Meghan Henry's car.
What was the nosy reporter doing here? Ever since she had arrived in Fitzgerald Bay six months ago, she'd been hounding him for answers in her cousin Olivia Henry's murder. He didn't blame her for wanting to see justice done. Olivia's death had rocked the community of Fitzgerald Bay and the Fitzgerald family. She'd been his brother Charles's nanny for his twins at the time of her death. Everyone who knew her had said she was a sweet woman. No one could understand why someone would kill her.
Her body had been discovered at the base of the lighthouse cliffs. A life cut too short.
So yes, Ryan understood Meghan's desire to see the culprit arrested and put away, but not at the expense of his family.
With everyone in town believing Charles was capable of killing Olivia Henry, all of the Fitzgerald Bay police force had worked overtime to clear his name. Meghan Henry's constant questions and snooping had hindered the investigation and inflamed the citizens of Fitzgerald Bay with suspicion.
And now here she was, poking around at the one lead he had to go on in another recent murder case.
Burke Hennessy, a prominent lawyer in town, had been found dead in his home by his wife, Christina. At first glance the death appeared accidental or possible suicide. But the M.E. discovered evidence to suggest murder. And his wife was the prime suspect.
Burke had been running for the mayoral seat until his untimely death. The medical examiner found Burke had ingested a potent combination of drugs, enough to incapacitate him while the murderer suffocated him with a down pillow. Feathers had been found in his nose and throat and the official cause of death had been ruled asphyxiation. They found the pillow that had been used hidden in a closet in the Hennessy home. Christina's fingerprints were all over it. The D.A. thought he had a good case for murder. Now all Ryan had to do was find Christina and bring her into custody.
If Meghan hadn't already spooked Christina and sent her fleeing again.
Ryan was going to arrest Meghan for obstructing justice the second he saw her. He could imagine her wrinkling up her pert nose and daring him with her green-hued hazel eyes. The woman possessed a fiery spirit, for sure. A testament to her Irish heritage.
Like his sisters and mother.
"Stay with the car," Ryan said to the rookie in the passenger seat as he exited the vehicle. "Keep an eye out for anything suspicious.'
Officer Jackson nodded and climbed out to rest his lanky frame against the fender. He crossed his arms over his chest.
Ryan marched up the concrete steps and rapped his knuckles on the heavy-duty metal screen door. From somewhere inside a woman sang a lullaby, the sound melodic and pleasing. And familiar. He paused, searching his brain for recollection.
A second later a woman, mid-forties with frosted hair and an ample girth, appeared at the door. Since the Hennessys lived a few doors down from Ryan's family home, he recognized Helen Yorke, the Hennessys' former housekeeper.
Helen wiped her hands on an apron covered with red cherries as her brown eyes widened with surprise. She pushed open the screen door. "Deputy Chief Fitzgerald?"
"Hello, Helen," Ryan responded, trying to peer into the house over the woman's shoulder. "Is Christina Hennessy here?"
She shook her head. "Not at the moment. Why?"
Not a wild-goose chase after all. Things were looking up. When his youngest sister, Keira, a rookie officer with the FBPD, had suggested contacting the Hennessys' ex-housekeeper, Ryan had been dubious. He couldn't see Christina seeking refuge with a former employee. Looked like he owed Keira an apology for doubting her. And a chocolate sundae. His baby sis had a penchant for chocolate.
"Do you know where Mrs. Hennessy went? Did she have Georgina with her?" Ryan asked, keeping a sharp eye out for any sign of deception in the woman's face and demeanor.
"Christina showed up on my doorstep yesterday asking if I could keep little Georgina for a few days while she dealt with some personal business. She was so distraught over the death of poor Burke I could hardly refuse. What is this about, Deputy?"
Distraught, my eye, Ryan thought, but refrained from commenting. "Georgina is here, then." This, at least, was good news. The child was safe. When Christina had disappeared with her adoptive daughter, Ryan had feared for the little girl's safety.
Helen tucked in her chin. "She's in the other room. We were putting her down for a nap."
We. Meghan. Anger churned in Ryan's gut.
"Meghan Henry is here, then." He needed the confirmation. At Helen's nod, he asked, "How do you know Miss Henry?"
"We became friendly last January when she arrived in Fitzgerald Bay after her poor cousin was murdered. She'd been very supportive when I had to leave the Hennessys' employ to take care of my mother. Meghan stopped by today to see how I was doing. Wasn't that sweet of her?"
"Yes, very," Ryan agreed, because he'd been raised to be polite. Sweet had nothing to do with it. Meghan was chasing a story. Burke Hennessy's death was big news. The fact that he'd been murdered hadn't been released to the public yet. So how had she heard that Christina was the prime suspect so quickly? "Excuse me a moment."
Ryan jogged back to Jackson. "Call Dispatch. Tell them we have a bead on Christina Hennessy and need to stake out this address. Also, notify Child Protective Services that we are removing Georgina Hennessy from her current location."
Jackson nodded and moved to do as asked. Ryan returned to the front door of Helen Yorke's house.
Helen frowned, her gaze going to Jackson by the Fitzgerald Bay police vehicle. "What's going on, Deputy?"
He glanced up and down the deserted street. When would Christina return? Better to remove the child before any confrontation. "I am taking Georgina Hennessy into protective custody."
Helen's gaze snapped back to him and widened. "Custody?"
"May I come in?"
The woman blinked. "Not until you tell me what's going on."
Appreciating her protectiveness of Georgina, Ryan said, "It would be better if I explained to you inside."
She hesitated then stepped back. "Excuse the mess. My mother passed on and I've been trying to box up her things to get the house ready to sell."
Entering the home, Ryan mentally catalogued the interior. Taped boxes stacked in the corner. Halffull boxes littered the area rug over scarred hardwood floors. Three arched doorways led to other rooms and a hall opened to the left.
However, Meghan Henry was not in view. She must be with the child.
Helen set her hands on her hips and gave him a pointed look.
"Mrs. Hennessy is a suspect in her husband's murder," Ryan stated.
Shock flooded the older woman's expression. "What?" Helen shook her head. "No. Christina loved Burke."
"We have evidence implicating her. But for now I'm taking Georgina into custody," Ryan explained. "To protect her."
Doubt clouded Helen eyes. "You're sure of this?"
"It's still early in the investigation." He played on her maternal instincts. "The child's safety must be a priority. If Christina is innocent, she'll regain custody of her daughter quickly enough."
Placing her hand over her heart, Helen said, "Poor Geor-gina. Follow me."
Ryan made a quick walk-through of the kitchen, dining room and a bedroom, verifying Christina wasn't on the premises before joining Helen outside a room at the end of the hall.
As Ryan approached, she said, "I'll pack a couple of bottles and some finger food. She'll be hungry soon."
He allowed her to pass. When he entered the small bedroom, he halted abruptly. Meghan Henry cradled the sleepy toddler in her arms as she sang. The sound of her voice and the sight of her cuddling the child wrapped around Ryan's senses. His chest tightened.
Meghan bent close to coo as she bounced the sleepy little one in her arms. The red dress she wore heightened the color of her cheeks. Tenderness softened the brackets that had pinched the corners of her mouth the last time he'd seen herwhen she'd stormed into his office demanding to know what he was doing to solve her cousin's murder. The love shining in Meghan's hazel eyes was unmistakable. And curious.
The sight unexpectedly touched something deep inside Ryan.
Seeing this softer, calmer side of Meghan appealed to him on an elemental levelwhich set his teeth on edge. He didn't understand why the sight of her holding a baby would make his insides melt and his heart ache.
He'd been there in the hospital when his nephew Sean was born. Watched his sister Fiona care for her newborn boy, heard her make the identical cooing sounds that were now emanating from Meghan. He'd witnessed plenty of women attending to children of various ages. But he hadn't felt this same strange expanding pressure building in his chest.
He softly cleared his throat to announce his presence as much as to release the tension knotting his shoulders.
Meghan glanced up. There was no surprise or repentance in her tear-filled eyes. The gentle smile curving her lips hit him in the solar plexus like the business end of a nightstick.
His mouth went dry. Whoa, buster. Don't go losing perspective because of this woman.
He drew in air and forced himself to push back the warmth burrowing deep inside him.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, careful to keep his voice low so as not to upset the toddler who stared at him with bright blue eyes.
"Following a lead the same as you," Meghan replied in a soft tone.
Frustration roped a knot in his chest. "You're interfering in my investigation. If you had a lead, you should have come to me."
She arched an eyebrow. Distrust oozed off her in waves.
That rankled. "What do you know?"
"I know Christina and Burke Hennessy weren't the upstanding citizens everyone believed them to be," she said.
He frowned. It was no secret that there was little love lost between the Hennessys and the Fitzgeralds. Burke Hennessy had been a prideful bully but there'd never been any hint of illegal activity associated with the lawyer and his socialite wife. So what would have led Meghan to make such a judgment? Had she uncovered information critical to his case? "If you know something that will help in my investigation into Burke Hennessy's death, you'd better tell me."
"Keep your voice down," she instructed with a pointed look at the toddler in her arms now squirming to be set free.
Reining in his frustration, he forced himself to let the questions go. There would be time enough for that later. "I'm taking Georgina into protective custody."
In a low voice, she asked, "So you do think Christina's responsible for her husband's death?"
She nodded as if satisfied with his answer. "Do you have a car seat?"
His stomach sank. He hadn't expected to find Christina much less the toddler. "No."
"I do. So I guess we'll be taking my car."
She'd come prepared. Why? The question hovered on the tip of his tongue, but a strange sense of urgency tingled at the base of Ryan's neck. Pushing back his need for answers, he said, "We need to go."
"No one's going anywhere!" A woman's nasal voice invaded the room.
Meghan let out a gasp of alarm.
Ryan whipped around and found Christina Hennessy filling the doorway. The once-polished socialite now looked harriedher usually perfect blond hair mussed and her slacks and blouse wrinkled as if she hadn't changed clothes in several days. An almost wild fervor glittered in her green eyes setting off alarm bells in Ryan's head.
But the .38 revolver she held aimed at Meghan froze his blood.
A woman on the edge with a gun. A bad combination.
Beside her stood a muscle-bound thug with a nasty-looking scar running down the side of his face.
Anger directed mostly at himself shuddered through Ryan. He'd been so distracted by Meghan and the ridiculous soft emotions she had inspired that he'd let his guard down. He hadn't heard danger approaching. His instincts had kicked in too late.
His skills were rusty. Too much time spent at a desk and not out in the field.
Where was Jackson? Ryan could only hope the rookie wasn't lying dead outside.
Time to take control. Rapidly assessing the situation, he decided the best option was to keep everyone calm and his service weapon holstered. The quarters were too tight, the chances of someone getting hurt too great. He'd have a better opportunity of disarming Christina and dealing with her thug outside.
He slowly raised his hands in entreaty as he stepped in Christina's line of sight. Hopefully, he provided an effective shield for Meghan and the toddler. "Let's stay calm and talk about this."
"Give me the kid!" Christina demanded, gesturing the gun with jerky movements.
"No one's giving anyone anything." Except for when you give me that gun.
Ryan's heart hammered in his chest. Fear that she might accidently shoot one of them squeezed his lungs. He forced himself to remain calm, to sound composed. "Put down the gun, Mrs. Hennessy."
Her lips drew back, baring sharp white teeth. "You're a Fitzgerald. What are you doing here?"
"We were worried about Georgina." Ryan eased forward a step.
Christina stepped to the side. "She's fine. We're all fine."
Ryan mirrored her move. "Mrs. Hennessy, we need you to come in to the station house. We have some questions to ask you about Burke's death."
She frowned. "I've answered all your questions. I'm the one who found him."
There was something decidedly off about this woman. Ryan knew he wasn't dealing with a rational person. Best to appease her and keep this from turning into a deadly situation. "Yes, you did. We have just a few more things to clear up. Then you and Georgina can be reunited."
Christina jerked slightly. "Move out of the way," she cried. "I want the baby."
Odd how she kept referring to Georgina in such a distant manner. Not sure what to make of it, Ryan glanced at Meghan holding the now fussy toddler.
"Fine," Ryan said, keeping his voice low and composed. "We can all move into the living room, okay? It's a little cramped in here."
Instead of retreating, Christina moved fully into the small bedroom. The thug hovered near the door, blocking them in.
"Out," Christina said, motioning wildly with the gun.