Law and order had been drilled into Elise Dalton’s head since she was old enough to understand what it was. According to her father, being the daughter of the chief of police left her with a bigger responsibility. She was supposed to set an example. Live her life on the straight and narrow—and for the most part, she did. The only time she took the detour road was for the man she thought she’d spend her life with—Flash Arquette.
During the freshman year of high school, the Arquettes had moved down the block from her and shook up the once quiet, small town. Mr. Arquette was a drunk who thrived on trouble and violence. If he wasn’t causing a disturbance at the town’s only bar, he was at home beating his sons, Rocco and Flash. How many times had her father locked Mr. Arquette up? Each time, his sister, who lived a couple of towns over, would come and take care of the boys until he was released, only to have the cycle repeat itself within a few weeks.
Now, standing in the front yard of the house she grew up in, she glanced toward the old Arquette place. Twilight was quickly turning to dark, making it hard to see anything except the outline of the house. No one had lived there in years and in the day, the neglect was clear. Tall grass, weeds growing through the cement driveway and around the walkway, the broken window, and missing siding made it clear to anyone that it had been abandoned for years. Just glancing at it made her wonder why her father hadn’t done something all those years ago. Maybe if he could have locked Mr. Arquette up for longer than a few days, the boys would have had a fighting chance. Maybe their aunt would have taken them in and raised them right. If only her father had acted more on the situation, maybe he’d still be alive.
Silent tears rolled down her cheeks while inside, her temper raged. She wanted revenge but she could almost hear her father’s words in her ear. Let the justice system do what it’s intended to do. It takes time but it works. Did it really? If so, it would have saved the Arquette boys. It would have given Mrs. Arquette justice. And Flash…
Hearing her name spoken brought her out of the past. She glanced in the direction of the sound. A sleek black town car was parked at the end of the driveway but it was the man getting out who caught her attention. His sun-kissed skin and black wavy hair reminded her of someone she couldn’t place—though the perfectly tailored suit, and the fact he was being driven by a chauffeur, told her he didn’t belong there.
“It’s a bad time. You’ll need to come back…” She wanted to say ‘never’ but she doubted that was an option. Whatever this man wanted, she didn’t have time for it. She had just come from the funeral home where she’d made plans for her father’s funeral. Right now, all she wanted was to be alone, not to deal with people. She took a step back toward the house, quickly finding her key.
“I only need a moment of your time.” His voice sounded closer, nearly right behind her, but she didn’t turn back to look.
“I don’t know who you are, but right now I don’t care. I’ve asked you to leave once and if you’re persistent I’ll have to call my fa…” Tears sprang to her eyes as she slid the key into the lock. Silently, she fought back the tears, refusing to cry in front of him.
“I told you, now’s not a good time.” The door opened and she stepped into the doorframe, forcing herself to look at him. His brown gaze caught her attention and for a moment she thought she was looking into someone else’s eyes.
“Five minutes, that’s all I need.” Stepping closer, he placed his hand on the door, crowding her space.
“Fuck, man! Don’t you get it? I can’t do this now. I just…he’s…”
“I get it, but I have a message that can’t wait.”
The anger over this man’s persistence was quickly being replaced by fear. Something about a message made her want to reach into her bag for her gun. She wasn’t on duty so she hadn’t put her gun on her belt. Instead, she’d left it in her bag.
“Are you listening to me?”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I don’t want any trouble.” Her father was dead; why would anyone be after her? She had nothing to do with whatever he was investigating. They might have been in similar career fields but they didn’t discuss their work. They were both committed to their jobs, often bringing their work home with them, but it didn’t impact their time together. Hell, she hadn’t even been in town in over a week. I missed the last days of his life…
She watched the man’s lips move but her brain refused to focus until the last word. El. “What did you say? What did you call me?” Her knees went weak, forcing her to wobble and take a step back to regain her footing.
“You need to sit down. Let me help you inside.” He grabbed hold of her arm and she went stiff under his touch. “You don’t recognize me, do you? Shit, Elise, I thought you said you didn’t want any problems because you knew who I am.”
“Sir.” A bulky man in a dark suit came up the sidewalk toward the porch.
“Everything’s fine. Watch the house. I’m taking her inside.” Before she could argue, he swooped her into his arms and strolled into her house. He kicked the door shut behind him as he carried her toward the living room.
“Put me down,” she demanded, even though she wasn’t sure if she could stand. Her body felt as if it was liquid—nothing felt right.
He sat her down on the sofa and grabbed the patchwork quilt off the back, draping it around her shoulders. “I’m not surprised you still have this, but I am surprised you have it out. It must have driven your old man insane.”
“You know…” Her words faded as he leaned over and flicked the light on. For the first time, she was able to completely take in the man before her and her gaze fell on the jagged scar across his cheek. “No…it can’t be. Rocco?” Terrible thoughts crossed her mind as she realized Flash’s brother was in her house. She quickly wondered if he was there to kill her before she realized she hadn’t done anything wrong. She hadn’t been in town when her father was killed, so they couldn’t be concerned she’d been a witness to any of it.
“The one and only.” He squatted down in front of her. “Flash called me.”
“Flash…” She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry or scream at the mention of him; either way she wanted to do it alone. “I think you should leave.”
“I’m innocent, El, I swear. That’s the message I came here to deliver. That’s what I tried to tell you earlier but I don’t think you were listening to me. You just stared past me.” He placed his hand over hers. “Elise, I’m truly sorry. This is one of those situations that all the money in the world doesn’t fix. You have to know, I would if I could.”
“Really? Because if you’re in town, I’m betting you’ve hired a lawyer for him. A high-powered lawyer…someone who could get him off or at least procure a lighter sentence. You don’t care about me or my father. You’re only here to lighten the load on your conscience.” She pulled her hand out from under his.
“You’re damn right; I hired him a lawyer because—”
“I don’t need to hear your excuses. He murdered a police officer and could be looking at the death penalty.” Her chest tightened at the very thought but she forced herself to continue. “He’s your family. I understand you want to save him, but I don’t need to hear it.”
He rose to his feet, grabbing hold of her wrist and pulling her up with him. “Didn’t you hear me when I gave you his message? He didn’t do it.”
“Bullshit.” She tried to pull her wrist from his grasp but he held tighter.
“When have you ever known Flash to fight against the charges? Even the computer fraud charges, when we both know he didn’t do that. A newborn baby has more computer sense than my brother.”
“Is manufactured,” he supplied before she could finish. “Flash would give his life to protect you. He wouldn’t want to see you like this. Your old man could be an asshole, but he was your family. Flash respected that. Your father would have never approved of him and for that reason he took himself out of the equation so you wouldn’t be hurt.”
He broke my heart. Yet, she refused to admit that aloud. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“The evidence they have could put him away for life, if not land him on death row.” She didn’t want to admit it but if Rocco was telling her the truth, then her father might never see justice for his murder. He believed in the system. Now, if she believed the man standing in front of her, the wrong person was going to get convicted and her father’s real killer would go free. She didn’t know what to think.
“Elise, I know you’re upset right now but before you allow this to erase the good times you’ve shared with Flash, give us time to prove his innocence.”
“That’s not how this works.” She dropped down onto the sofa, forcing him to let go of her wrist, because her energy was gone. “You’re not supposed to have to prove you’re innocent. They’re supposed to prove you’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Your father stood for the law and he taught you to believe in the system. Now that you’re older, you’ve had to realize it doesn’t always work that way. The police here have been gunning for Flash for years. They’ve picked him up for little things, never the bust they want. Flash is far from innocent in many things, but murdering your father…no.” He stepped back from the sofa.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Can’t you trust me on this for now? I’ll get you the proof. I just need some time.”
She sat there in silence for a moment debating what he said before finally shaking her head. “No, Rocco, I’m sorry. I can’t. My father was murdered; if not by him, then by someone else. If it really was someone else, he could be getting farther away as we speak. If you want me to believe you, then give me something—anything.”
With every word, she could feel the desperation getting heavier. She wanted to believe him, she wanted Flash to be innocent, but she couldn’t believe any of this on Rocco’s word. She didn’t know him well enough to know if he was lying. If Flash had been standing before her, she might believe it, maybe because she wanted him to be innocent—but more than that she’d know if he was lying to her. Years earlier, she realized he had a tell, allowing her to know whenever he was lying.
“Twenty minutes before the…” He paused, as if he didn’t know what he wanted to call the murder of her father. “He was with me. A confidential business meeting. Shit, Elise, that’s all I can give you. I’m in violation of my contract by telling you that much. I need a few hours and I’ll have the red tape cleared enough that he’ll be alibied.”
“Twenty minutes before? Are you serious? That’s not a strong enough alibi.”
“It is when the meeting happened in New York. There was no way Flash could have gotten back into town in twenty minutes.” He dragged his hand through his hair. “I pulled Flash into this because I needed his skills. It’s going to save his life; otherwise they’d send him up the river until they could shove a needle in his arm, ending his life. Trust me when I tell you he’s not just in this mess because of the life he’s chosen to live. I’ve made enemies in my business and they can’t come after me personally—I’m too well protected—so they go after the only one left to them.”
“What kind of meeting?” she pressed, needing more.
He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and ignored her question. “I’ve got someone working on the traffic cameras. They’ll find further proof he wasn’t anywhere near Pinewood when this happened.”
“Twelve hours.” From his pocket, he pulled out a business card. “I need you to trust me for twelve hours and I’ll have Flash out of jail. Once that’s taken care of, I’ll help you find the person responsible. My cell number’s on the back; call me if you need anything. I’m staying in town until this matter is resolved.” He started to walk away from her.
“You never answered my question.”
“I can’t.” He glanced back at her. “Elise, you mean a great deal to my brother, and if I could tell you I would, but I can’t. The information I’ve already told you puts us both at risk. Anything further would be disastrous. I can tell you this: the same organization that signs your check also signs the ones for me and Flash.”
Without another word, he was gone, leaving her more confused than she had been. Leaning back against the sofa, she let the first tears fall. Her gaze scanned the pictures displayed above the fireplace but her mind couldn’t focus on what she was seeing. She was too full of grief and unanswered questions to appreciate the memories called by the images before her. What the hell did Rocco mean? The same organization? That wasn’t possible. Was it?
More confused than before, she pulled the quilt into her lap and stared down at it. The worn quilt had been her favorite since that rainy afternoon she’d spent making it with her mother. Dad had always thought it was precious to her because of the time she’d spent with Mom. Little did he know it was because of the small cloth squares. Each one represented a memory she’d made with Flash. Their first date, first kiss…she even had pieces of the shirt she’d worn as they were moving in to the house down the street. It was so full of memories and on every visit home, she used it. She always figured she chose to leave it there because it was where she could use it the most. After all, she spent more time in Pinewood than at her own condo, but now, she realized, it was a small jab at her father. To have this as a centerpiece of the living room and their time together was a reminder she never stopped loving Flash. He had always been there with her, even once he took himself out of the picture. She ran her fingers over the soft material. How did things get so fucked up?
It wasn’t the first time Flash Arquette had found himself behind bars. Still, he flinched as the bars slammed shut behind him. With the life he lived, he’d expected to be back after his last stint in prison, but he never would have dreamed it would happen with a murder charge hanging over his head.
Most people in Pinewood considered him a good for nothing criminal but they didn’t know him. Every decision he made seemed to be the right one at the time. If a woman was getting the shit beat out of her by some asshole, he couldn’t stand around and do nothing. He’d seen it too many times when he was a child—when his father had beat his mother and he’d been too young to stop it. Now, he wasn’t. It had cost him a few years in prison for attempted murder, but those years proved worth it when he found out the woman had managed to get out of the situation and was now living her life in Florida. If only someone could have helped his mother like that, maybe she wouldn’t be dead.
“This place is a second home to you, isn’t it, Arquette?” The guard chuckled as he removed the cuffs. “Get used to it. You’re not going to slither away this time.”
Glaring at the guard, he refused to comment. Anything he could say would make the bastard think he was getting under his skin. Everyone at Pinewood Police Department was pretty happy with themselves for taking him down, but soon they’d be put in their place. He had to trust Rocco and his people to get this taken care of.
The guard retreated, leaving him alone in his cell to think on his sins. He rubbed the red marks from the handcuffs. The metal cuffs were tight enough to dig into his skin but he refused to give them the satisfaction. “Fucking bastards.”
The police force had fixed eyes on him for more than a year now, determined to lock him up before his crew had a chance to do any further damage to their peaceful town. Even the town residents had decided he was guilty, no matter the charges. Now they’d want his head. It seemed they weren’t satisfied with him behind bars; they wanted him dead.
Prison was no easy ride, but it was part of his life. Before this mess, he would do his time without a fight. Not this time. This time, he was innocent—and this wasn’t the kind of fake, meaningless claim half the people in prison made. No, this time he hadn’t even been in town when the crime happened.
This wasn’t just a small crime that maybe he’d do a few months or even years for. This was murder and they were already talking about the death penalty. Chief Dalton had been murdered in cold blood and they were pinning it on him.
“Fuck!” Anger overwhelming him, he slammed his fist into the cement wall. “El…” He sank down onto the small metallic frame with a worn-out mattress on top and allowed his thoughts to turn to Elise Dalton. His El, the only woman he’d ever loved.
Did she believe he was capable of the pending charges? They both knew he was capable of murder but did she believe he’d kill her father? No matter the cost to himself, he would have never done that to her. El meant more to him than his own life.
He wasn’t sure if he was angrier about the police department trying to pin the murder on him so they could get him out of the picture, or whether the system both her and her father stood for was failing her when she needed it the most. She believed in the system and fought for justice, but now it was robbing her by arresting the wrong person. With him in jail, they weren’t out there searching for the actual murderer. “I’m sorry, El.”
Her father had never liked him. Flash had never been good enough for his daughter. He knew he didn’t deserve El, but he loved her, and even though Chief Dalton had been determined to keep them apart, he couldn’t stop them. In the end, it was Flash’s own actions that caused him to lose her. She was his everything. The one soft spot he had. To this day—if she called him, he’d be there.
She needed him now more than ever, but where was he? Behind bars accused of killing her father. I’m coming, El. Don’t give up on me, sweetie.