Home Before Midnight

Chapter 1

Bailey Wells lifted her heavy brown hair off her neck. Outside her window, a willow drooped, pale in the moonlight, listless in the heat.

For better or worse, there was no place like home. And nothing hotter or lonelier than a Carolina summer night.

Even with the windows locked and the thermostat lowered to sixty-five degrees, the air gripped the house like a warm, damp fist. The grinding whine of the cicadas swelled the night and buzzed in her blood. She had to be crazy to leave New York--the exciting career opportunities, the sophisticated night life, her cozy studio apartment--for this.

Not crazy. The thought slipped in like a breeze under the window sill, stirring her mood. In love.

Bailey flushed and dropped her hair. No, that wasn't right, either.

Anyway, she could admit--to herself and the cicadas, at least--the career thing hadn't gone exactly as planned. She had hoped her job as personal assistant to a bestselling crime writer would give her a break from tweaking other people's manuscripts and the time and motivation to work on her own. But after two years of working for Paul Ellis, she was no closer to submitting her own novel. Oh, admit it. She wasn't even writing.

As for her night life... She had burned out on bars and blind dates. She was sick of guys who were never as young or as tall, as emotionally available or financially stable as their on-line profiles promised. She was tired of drinking bad wine and cheap beer to blur the edges of her evenings, thankful she didn't generally wake up with anything worse than a headache. Most nights she chose to spend alone in her fourth floor East Village walk-up, watching Friends re-runs and throwing shoes at whatever scuttled from beneath the minifridge.

At least the cicadas made a change from cockroaches.

She stared out at the moon-dappled lawn and the fancy new streetlights of the town where she'd once been voted Most Likely to Leave. She hadn't given up, she told herself. Not yet. She'd just...grown up.

Enough to come home.

Paul had broken the news. "I would never insist that you come with us," he had said, with one of his special looks. "But this new book is a wonderful opportunity for you. And you're from around there, aren't you? Stokesville, North Carolina? You probably even remember the Dawler killings. It was quite a scandal at the time."

Nineteen years ago.

"I was seven," Bailey said. "Maybe your wife--"

His wife of five years was Helen Stokes Ellis, a wealthy Magnolia-in-exile who preferred her bourbon on the rocks and her relatives at a distance.

Paul shrugged dismissively. "You know Helen never reads the paper. Or pays attention to the news, if she can help it."

Bailey squashed the satisfaction she felt at his small disloyalty. "But she's from the area. I mean, the town is named after her family. She knows people."

"But she doesn't understand my work. I want you, Bailey."

Bailey's heart beat a little faster.

"We both want you," he had added. "Helen will be glad for the company, and I need your help with this book."

Bailey doubted Helen would deign to notice her existence. But it was irresistible to be needed. To be valued for something other than her ability to attract and keep the right man. The right man, as defined by Bailey's mother, being any single, thirty-year-old, white, Methodist, Southern professional.

Maybe Paul didn't meet her mama's specifications.

Maybe he didn't feel Bailey's writing was ready to show anyone else yet.

But he needed her. He'd said so.

After the move, he'd even insisted she make her home with them, with Paul and Helen, in Helen's house. God knew, he had said with a droll look, there was enough room.

The old Stokes place had been built in the 1930s for a large and prosperous family. The sweeping verandas and imposing columns in front were balanced by two thoroughly modern additions in back, the master suite and a kitchen-and-dining wing, flanking an artfully landscaped swimming pool.

Bailey had her own room and bathroom in the original part of the house, with high ceilings and heavy wood trim that more than made up for the uneven floors and cramped shower. Maybe she didn't have a view of the pool, but she was welcome to use it whenever Helen wasn't entertaining or sunbathing or, well, there.

She wouldn't be there now, Bailey thought, glancing at the clock. It was almost midnight. On her "at home" nights, Helen went to bed early and fell asleep with the television on. No one would notice, no one would care, if Bailey snuck down to the kitchen and fixed a snack to eat by the pool.

Unless Paul was up, working.

Bailey pushed the thought away.

She made her way downstairs in the dark, refusing even to look in the direction of his study to see if his lights were on. All she wanted was to sit by the pool and watch the cool gleam of the water and the bugs committing suicide in the patio lights while she smothered her restlessness in ice cream. Stress eating, Dr. Phil called it. Ask yourself what you really want.

She knew what she wanted.

And what she couldn't have.

Ice cream was better. Safer.

In the kitchen, she dug deep into a round carton of Edy's butter pecan. The heaped ice cream looked lonely in the bowl, so she added sliced strawberries and then a squeeze of chocolate syrup and then--on impulse--a second spoon.

Two-fisted eater? her conscience mocked.

She ignored it. Carrying her spoils, she slid open the patio door, flipped on the lights...and froze. Apprehension squeezed her chest. Something big drifted below the surface of the water, dark against the submerged lights. Something big and dark, with floating hair.

Bailey took a step forward, dread backing up in her lungs.

Helen was not in her room.

She was in the pool. Face down, at the bottom. Faint, dark swirls curled upward through the luminous blue water. Bailey's bowl slipped from her hands and shattered against the Mexican tile.


Lieutenant Steve Burke hadn't worked the graveyard shift since he was a wet-behind-the-ears detective. Most investigative work took place during the day, when folks were awake and around to talk to. But in a small department, rank was no protection against a shit assignment. Somebody had to be on call through the midnight hours, and it was usually the new guy. Steve didn't mind. It meant flextime, some time, to spend with Gabrielle.

Of course, Gabby wouldn't be happy if she woke and found him gone, but he'd left a note. With any luck, he'd be back before breakfast.

He pulled up the long drive and parked his truck behind an ambulance and a pair of black-and-whites. The big house was lit up like the folks inside were giving a party, which, from what he'd heard, wouldn't have been unusual. Not that he'd ever been invited. He grimaced and got out of the truck, grabbing his kit from the passenger seat. Helen Stokes Ellis might have married a man who was Not From Around Here, as folks delicately and pointedly referred to Yankees. But now that she was back home, she didn't socialize with people who were Not Her Kind.

Steve had never met Paul Ellis, the husband, but he'd heard stories about him, too. The briefing room was thicker with gossip than the barbershop or his mother's Wednesday morning Bible group. Ellis was a real pain in the ass. He'd recently pissed off the chief of police by implying his department had railroaded a murder investigation from twenty years ago.

It was all before Steve's time, but his sympathies were with Chief Clegg. He had no patience with self-styled experts. And no reason to believe Ellis wouldn't be equally critical of the police's handling of his wife's death.

No wonder the patrol officer on duty tonight had been anxious to pass the buck to Steve.

Steve prowled up the walk, carrying his kit. Yellow crime scene tape was strung around the house like bizarre party decorations. That would get the neighbors' attention in the morning. How long, he wondered, before the press showed up? Not just the local press, either, the papers from Raleigh and Durham and even Charlotte. Paul Ellis was a best-selling true crime writer. His wife was a wealthy older woman who'd spent years maneuvering on the social pages. This case had the potential to blow up in Steve's face. And the explosion could attract national media attention.

His lucky night.

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