HIS BEST FRIEND'S BABY
Harlequin Heartwarming (November 1, 2012)
On a beautiful spring night Mindy Fenton went to bed thinking all was right in her world. Before the night was over everything had changed.
Mindy was awakened by Brendan Quinn with the news that her husband had been shot and killed. Now Mindy was alone, nearly broke and pregnant. And Quinn—a man who had never hidden his contempt for her—was the only one she could turn to. For the sake of his best friend, Quinn was offering Mindy and her child a future…if she could accept it.
Brendan Joseph Quinn was off duty when he found out his best friend was dead. Drink in hand, waiting for the microwave to beep, he'd settled in front of a Sonics game he'd taped from earlier in the evening. He was so tired his eyes kept crossing. He hadn't slept except for a snatched hour or two in days. That's what he did when a case was fresh, when every detail was vivid in his mind, when the memories of witnesses were new and relatively uncorrupted. If an arrest was ever going to happen, it was likeliest in the first two or three days. He and his partner had cleared this homicide by canvassing the neighborhood until they found a kid who'd seen someone hammering on the front door of the murdered woman's house and had been able to identify the ex-husband.
Booking and paperwork had dragged on, and it was now two in the morning. He intended to gobble the burrito heating in the microwave and then fall into bed. He might last a quarter.
When the phone rang, Quinn stared at it in disbelief. Muting the TV, he dragged himself from the recliner and snatched up the receiver.
"Quinn. This better be good."
"It's not good. It's bad."
His sergeant could sound neutral when the streets were filled with rioters tossing cherry bombs. At the heaviness in his voice, Quinn stiffened.
"Dean Fenton's dead."
"What?" he said again, but in disbelief this time. Denial.
"We got a call an hour ago from one of his security guards. Burglary in progress. By the time a unit got there, the perps were gone and the guard had been shot. Only, turns out it wasn't one of his employees. It was Dean. We don't know yet why he was handling a routine night shift himself. Somebody probably called in sick. Bad luck."
There had to be a mistake. Dean Fenton was his best friend, the only good to come from a bleak childhood. Quinn quelled the wave of sick fear with control he'd learned early, when his mother went out at night and didn't come back for three days.
No. Not Dean.
Dean Fenton had joined the force with Quinn. They'd gone through training together, risen in the ranks at the same pace. But Dean had a craving for the nice things that money could buy, and he'd turned in his badge to start his own security company.
"Who got the call?" Quinn asked.
"Lanzilotta and Connors. Lanzilotta was pretty shaken up when he recognized Dean."
Bernie Lanzilotta had played softball with Quinn and Dean. Bernie would know their first baseman.
Quinn shook his head hard. No! Bernie had seen the uniform, maybe the guard was Dean's age, general build. He'd jumped to a conclusion. Dean was home in bed with his pretty nitwit of a wife right now, not knowing one of his employees had taken a bullet.
"No," Quinn said.
That same heaviness in his voice, Sergeant Dickerson said, "I asked Bernie if he was sure. He said he was."
"I'm going out there." Dickerson extended the comment like an invitation.
"Where?" Quinn flipped open his notebook.
The address was in the industrial area at the foot of West Seattle. "I'm on my way."
The microwave beeped as he let himself out the front door.
Even before he exited from the West Seattle bridge, he saw the flashing lights. Heading under the bridge, he drove the two blocks to the scene. Chain-link gates stood open to a storage business, the kind with four long windowless buildings containing locked units where people could stow their stuff when they downsized or moved. This place also had an area where customers could park RVs or boats. It was back there that the activity centered.
Numb, his exhaustion forgotten, Quinn parked and walked past squad cars with flashing lights. Ahead was a white pickup with the Fenton Security logo painted on the doors. The driver-side one stood open.
Dickerson, a bulky, graying man, separated himself from a cluster of uniforms and came to Quinn.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Fear and rage shifted inside Quinn, like Dobermans just waking.
"No," he said. "No." He kept walking, circled the back of the pickup.
The body was sprawled on the pavement. Lamps had already been set up, bathing the scene in pitiless white light.
"No," Quinn whispered, but his eyes burned and the fear swelled in his chest. His best friend, his brother in all but blood, lay with his cheek against the ground, blood drying in his mouth, his eyes sightless. Dead. A few feet from the body, Quinn dropped to his knees. A freight train of grief roared over him, the wheels clattering, metallic and deafening.
He hadn't known he could cry, but his face was wet.
Strong hands lifted him, steered him out of the harsh light into the darkness, where he slammed his fists against the brick wall of a storage building and let the sobs rack him.
The doorbell brought Mindy Fenton awake with a start and an automatic flush of heart-racing apprehension. Half sitting up in bed, she turned to Dean's side before remembering that he'd worked tonight. Her wild gaze swung to the digital clock—3:09 a.m.
Had she dreamed the bell? Nobody would come calling in the middle of the night! Unless Dean had locked himself out. But he had the garage-door opener.
Sitting upright by this time, she strained to hear anything at all. Breaking glass. If an intruder had decided she wasn't home because she hadn't come to the door?
The bell rang again.
Really scared now, she turned on her bedside lamp, slipped on her bathrobe, and went downstairs, flipping on lights as she went to make it look as if several people were home.
Dean had left the porch light on. Through the stained-glass sidelight, she could make out a dark shape.
"Who's there?" she called.
The muffled reply was "Quinn."
Her heart somersaulted. Fumbling with the dead bolt, she thought, Why? Why Quinn? Why now?
Two men, not just one, stood on the porch. With Dean's best friend was Sergeant Rycroft Dickerson. She remembered him from her wedding. Six foot four or so and brawny, his graying hair buzz-cut, he wasn't the kind of man you forgot.
Not that you could forget Quinn, either, she thought irrelevantly. With his straight dark hair, vivid blue eyes, stark cheekbones and contained air, he would never go unnoticed.
"Is...is something wrong?" she squeaked.
Neither face softened.
Quinn asked, "Can we come in, Mindy?"
"I...of course." She swung the door open.
Quinn first, the sergeant second, they stepped in to the foyer, filling it with a threat of?something. Something she didn't want to hear.
"I could put on coffee."
Quinn shook his head. "Mindy?"
"It's the middle of the night."
"Mindy." His voice, she realized, was scratchy, rough. "There's no easy way to say this."
She backed away, talking fast. "Uh? Dean isn't home. He will be by seven. I can tell him you need to see him. Or I can leave a note." She said the last as if it were a super idea, a solution to some dilemma that her inner self knew didn't exist. "He worked tonight."
The sergeant reached out. "We know."
She wouldn't let him touch her. Clutching the lapel of her gown, she said in a high, breathless voice, "I don't understand why you're here."
Quinn's blue eyes were almost black. "He's dead, Mindy."
"Don't be silly! He's not a cop anymore. And he drives so carefully." She laughed, convincing no one. "What could have happened to him?"
"He interrupted a burglary." A muscle jumped in Quinn's cheek. "Somebody shot him."
Dean? Shot Dean? Her Dean? The idea was ludicrous, impossible, unthinkable.
"Have you tried his cell phone? What makes you think."
Dark and melancholy at the best of times, Quinn waited her out, his eyes bleak. When her voice hitched and died—no, not died, what an awful choice of words!—trailed off, yes, trailed off, he said in that thick voice, "I saw him. I didn't want to believe it either.
But he's dead."
A keening sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Not until Quinn's face contorted and he stepped forward to draw her into his arms did she realize she was making the sound. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face against Quinn's chest despite the smell of sweat that wasn't Dean's. She wrapped her arms around his waist and held on, because otherwise she wouldn't have remained upright.
She was still crying out, still muffling that dreadful, shrill, unending scream in his dark shirt. She stayed stiff, her fists filled with his shirt, and tried to smother herself against him.
Quinn muttered brokenly, "Mindy. I'm so sorry."
Perhaps shock was wrapping her in thick batting, because abruptly all strength left her, stealing the cry from her throat. She sagged, clinging. Still, Quinn held her. Strong arms, a body more solid than her lanky husband's. She hadn't known what he would feel like. He'd never hugged her, never kissed her cheek, never touched her at all. She'd always known he didn't like her. But for Dean's sake, they were polite.
She heard the men confer, but made no effort to decipher words. Footsteps, and finally Quinn lifted her like a child and sat her on the couch in the living room. Mindy began to shiver.
"Don't you have a throw?" he said in frustration.
She squeezed her arms against her body and rocked herself, hardly aware when he disappeared and then reappeared with a comforter he must have torn from the bed in the guest room. Even inside it, she continued to shiver. Her teeth chattered.
A weight settled on the couch beside her and Quinn held a mug to her mouth. Tea. Clumsily, with his help, she drank. Hot liquid ran down her chin, joining the tears that wet her face.
After a moment she took the mug from him and gratefully wrapped cold fingers around it. She drank again, letting it scald her mouth, aware it was sweeter than she would have made it but not caring. The heat sliding down her throat felt so good. Her shivers abated.
Finally she lifted her head. The sergeant stood a few feet away, looking down at her with concern. Quinn still sat beside her, his thigh touching hers, his face so close she could see individual bristles on a chin that was normally clean-shaven.
"You're sure?" she asked. Begged.
"We're sure," Dickerson said.
Still pleading, although no longer with them, Mindy said, "What will I do?"
There was a momentary silence, and then Quinn stood. "What will you do?" He sounded harsh, the man who had always condemned her without knowing her at all. "I'm sure Dean left you taken care of."
"I didn't mean?" she tried to explain.
"Do you have someone we can call?" Sergeant Dickerson interrupted. "Family? A friend?"
She instinctively rejected the idea of calling her mother. Selene was her best friend, but?she was such a talker. She wouldn't know how to hold Mindy without exclaiming over and over and wanting to dissect the tragic events. And who else could Mindy phone in the middle of the night to say, "My husband is dead. Can you come hold my hand?"
Mindy shook her head. "I'll wait until morning." Until then?until then, she didn't know what she'd do. She couldn't go back to that lonely bed. Perhaps she would just huddle here and try to imagine the man she loved gone. Erased as if he hadn't existed.
"We've only been married a year." She heard her voice, high and petulant, as if Dean had broken a promise. But he hadn't. Till death do us part. It just wasn't supposed to be so soon!
The two men were talking again as if she wasn't here.
"I want to work this one," Quinn said. "Who pulled it? Sawyer and Asavade?"
"Dobias and Williams. And the answer is no. You're dead on your feet. And you're too involved."
"He was my best friend. I need to make this collar."
"Uh-huh. You going to do it dispassionately? Read 'em their rights? When what you really want to do is kill them?"
Quinn paced, fury and grief radiating from him like heat from a woodstove. Mindy felt it without having to watch him.
"Don't shut me out!"
"No." The sergeant didn't move. Like Quinn, he seemed to have forgotten her. "Dean radioed in a license-plate number. There may have been an arrest already."
She listened without real comprehension. Dean was dead? It made no sense. She would have worried if he'd still been a cop, but he owned his own security company. He hardly ever took a shift as a guard anymore. He met with property owners and businessmen, did payroll and billing, grumbled about how hard it was to find and keep good employees.
"They all either want to be cops or prison guards." He'd made a sound of disgust. "They like the idea of swaggering around in a uniform with a gun in a holster. They find out how boring it is patrolling warehouses and apartment complexes at night, they opt out."
Mindy came back to awareness of the present when she realized that Sergeant Dickerson had sat on the coffee table. Quinn stood to one side.
"Mindy? You with me?"
"Do you know why Dean worked tonight?"
She nodded again. "A new guy called in sick. Dean was really mad, because it was last minute. The dispatcher offered to go out, but Dean said he'd do it. He liked to once in a while, you know."
"Any good businessman gets down in the trenches. He'd be a fool not to."
"I wish?" Tears leaked out although she'd thought herself cried dry. "I wish somebody else had been there. But I feel guilty wishing they were dead instead."
Dickerson covered her hand with his. "It's natural, Mindy. You didn't know them."
"I do know Mick Mulligan. He's the dispatcher." She tasted the tears. "He's married, and he has two little girls."
That thought caused a lurch within her, of fear, of renewed guilt, of raw grief. Dean had really wanted to have children. She was the one to put pregnancy off.
"Let's wait a couple of years," she'd coaxed. "Let's be selfish and just have each other for a while first."
Quinn said explosively, "What if it was a setup? Come on, Dickerson! Let me work this one."
"Go home. Go to bed."
A vast, terrifying emptiness swelled within Mindy. They'd both leave any minute. She'd be alone in the house. It was a big house, bigger than she liked, with a cavernous three-car garage and bedrooms they didn't use, a den and a family room. She could feel those empty, dark rooms around her, echoing her inner fear.
She made a sound—a sniff, a gulp. Still engaged in their argument, both men turned their heads to look at her. She looked down at her hands, clutching the comforter.
"We can't leave her alone." Quinn sounded irritated. "I'll stay."
That brought her head up. "No! You don't have to." But she wanted him to stay. He made her feel safe, and tonight she was terrified of being alone.