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 nightlife, her cozy studio apartment-for this.

Crazy or in love, her sister Leann had said.

Bailey flushed and dropped her hair. Her sister didn't understand.

Bailey admired Paul, a bestselling crime writer. She was grateful to him for offering her a full-time job as his personal assistant when the small publishing house where she worked had folded its tents and stolen away in the night. But even though she lived under his roof now-okay, his wife's roof-their relationship was strictly professional.

She'd given up on personal relationships, anyway. 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, binge-watching Girls 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 she'd been voted Most Likely to Leave. The place where she swore she'd never return.

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 Helen-"

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

"You know Helen doesn't follow the news." Paul smiled. "Unless it's a headline in her Facebook feed."

Bailey flushed, uncomfortable at being invited to share a joke at Helen's expense. "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 gave him an uncertain look.

"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 white, single, thirty-year-old, Methodist, Southern professional.

Paul valued her.

He paid her.

She was still recouping from over-investing in her tiny studio apartment, from months of near unemployment, struggling to make ends meet. At least now she didn't have to pay rent on top of her mortgage.

And living with her boss beat moving in with her parents. She had a little more autonomy. And lots more 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 modem 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, Leann said, quoting one of those self-help books she liked. Ask yourself what you really want.

Bailey knew what she wanted. Or she used to. After she lost her job, she'd lost her faith in herself and the industry, too. It was hard to feel creative when you couldn't pay your bills, when a greasy ball of panic churned in your stomach.

She would find the heart to write again, she promised herself. Soon.

In the meantime, there was ice cream.

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. Facedown, 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 that his department had railroaded a murder investigation twenty years ago.

It was all before Steve's time, but his sympathies were with the department. 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 media showed up? Not just the local stations, either, the reporters from Raleigh and Durham and even Charlotte. Paul Ellis was a bestselling 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. There were guys already grumbling over Steve's hiring, detectives with more seniority who'd be only too happy to accuse him of hogging the limelight...or point their fingers if he screwed up.

Raising the yellow tape over his head, he walked in through the open front door.

Uniforms clustered at the other end of the long hallway. Beyond them, an arch opened up on some big room walled with glass. He'd get sketches and photographs of the layout later. For now, he focused on Wayne Lewis, the responding officer. Lewis, a fresh-faced rookie, was young enough not to resent him, and hadn't known him long enough to dislike him.

"What happened?" Steve asked quietly.

Lewis cleared his throat. "The homeowner-Helen Stokes?-was found drowned in the pool."

The majority of drownings were accidental. Most involved the use or abuse of alcohol.

"And you called me because...?"

Lewis turned red to the tips of his big ears. "The victim was fully clothed and has swelling and a slight laceration on the back of her head. She could have slipped and hit her head on the side of the pool as she fell. Or..."

Or she could have gotten an assist into the water.

Steve nodded. "Okay. Who's the R.P.?" Reporting party.

"The husband," Lewis said. "Paul Ellis."

"He find the body?"

"Negative. The deceased was discovered just after midnight by Bailey Wells, Mr. Ellis's personal assistant. She lives with the family," Lewis explained.

Steve followed the patrolman's gaze across the room, where a skinny brunette knelt beside a handsome, haggard man in a leather armchair. Her dark hair hung in lank strands around her pale face. Her plain black blouse clung to her narrow rib cage, revealing the lines of her bra and the shape of her breasts. Steve felt an unwelcome twinge of compassion. There was something vulnerable and appealing about her, even though she wouldn't win any wet T-shirt contests, for sure.

"Why is she wet?" he asked.

And why the hell hadn't anybody thought to bring her a towel?

"She pulled Mrs. Ellis out of the pool," one of the other cops volunteered.

Steve looked to Lewis for confirmation.

Lewis nodded. "Apparently she was trying to resuscitate her when Mr. Ellis called 911."

Well, that was natural, Steve conceded. Competent. Even heroic. It was just too bad the brunette's intervention had further fucked up an already compromised crime scene.

Despite her bedraggled appearance, she was talking soothingly to the man in the chair, patting his arm.

Steve narrowed his eyes. "Who's the guy?"

"That's Paul Ellis." Lewis sounded surprised he hadn't known. "The writer."

Like he was supposed to recognize him from his book jacket or something.

"Get her away from him," Steve ordered.

"She's comforting him," the second cop said. "The man just lost his wife."

Steve should sympathize. He'd lost his own wife thirty-one months ago. But however much he had railed against Teresa's cause of death, at least he'd known what killed her. He didn't know what had killed Helen Ellis yet. And he didn't like the fact that the two major witnesses at the scene had had ample opportunity to coordinate their stories.

He glanced again at the bereaved widower and the stringy-haired brunette, assessing their reactions. Ellis looked suitably distraught, like a man confounded by the accidental drowning death of his wife. Or like a man who had committed murder.

Beside Ellis's red-eyed display of grief, his assistant, Wells, looked pale but composed. Maybe too composed?

Steve admired self-control. He had no use for hysterics. But Bailey Wells had known the dead woman. Lived in her house. Discovered her body. He expected her to demonstrate some emotion at her death.

He studied Wells's white face, her dilated pupils. The result of shock, maybe. It definitely wasn't grief.

"She lives here, you said?" he asked Lewis.

"Yes, sir."

He watched Wells lean forward to murmur to Ellis and wondered. Just how personal an assistant was she?

"Have you notified the medical examiner yet?"

"No, I... the paramedics responded first and I-"

"Do it now," Steve ordered. He was too late to preserve the scene, but at least the ME could view the body. "I'm going to get consent from Ellis before I do a walk-through. Lewis, I want you to take pictures. We need to record the scene before the body's moved. In the meantime, separate those two until I can take their statements. And somebody bring that woman a towel."

Bailey was barely holding it together. She huddled on a kitchen chair, listening to the low voices and slow footsteps outside, feeling as if her head had disconnected from her neck and was floating somewhere above her body. Her body. Floating.

Bailey shuddered.

"You want another towel?" asked the female officer who had been banished with her to the kitchen. Like Bailey needed a baby-sitter.

Or a guard.

She shuddered again. She couldn't seem to stop shaking, bone-deep tremors neither the warm night or her now-damp towel were doing a damn thing to dispel.

"No, thank you," she said politely, because her mama had raised her children to be respectful to the law. Anyway, it wasn't the officer's fault Bailey was stuck in here while poor Paul wrestled his grief and guilt alone.

She'd felt better when she could comfort him. She'd felt useful. Valued.

And then she had despised herself because it was wrong to take satisfaction in being needed when he was hurting so and poor Helen was...

God, she couldn't believe it. Helen was dead.

Bailey hugged the towel around her shoulders as if it could shield her from the memory of Helen's flaccid face and vacant eyes. She had put her mouth on Helen's cold, slack mouth. She had blown her breath into Helen's unresponsive lungs. She'd done everything she knew how to do, over and over until she was dizzy, and it hadn't been enough.

Now she couldn't do anything. She couldn't see anything. The police had closed the kitchen blinds, leaving her to worry. And to wait. She sat, shaken. Depleted. Her hands twisted in the towel. Her mind tumbled and spun like a double-load dryer at the laundromat.

Maybe she should call her parents? Or a lawyer. But she felt too guilty to face her mother's eyes, and she wasn't guilty enough to need a lawyer.

If she'd only gone downstairs half an hour earlier. Could she have saved Helen? Or would she have precipitated exactly the kind of scene she was trying to avoid?

Lately, Helen had dropped several comments about Bailey's continued presence in her house. And even though Bailey was only here temporarily, even though Paul told her not to be so sensitive, she knew she was imposing.

There had to be something she could do.

Bailey stirred on the hard wooden chair. "Do you want some tea? Sweet tea?" she added, in case the cop thought in this house of death and Yankees she might not be served the proper syrupy beverage that lubricated the South.

The woman-Officer M. Conner, read the nametag on her uniform-looked surprised, as if the chair had spoken.

Bailey saw the "no" forming in her eyes and offered, "Or I could make coffee."

"I guess I could drink coffee," the other woman conceded.

Relieved, Bailey stood, forcing her knees to support her, her hands to uncurl, her mind to focus on the mundane task of spooning grounds into a paper filter. She had just put the pot under the drip when the door slid open and the tall, plainclothes detective came in from the flood-lit patio.

Bailey remembered him because he stuck out-older than the officers who had first appeared on the scene, younger than Paul, and confident in a macho way that raised her hackles. Beneath his loose sport coat and heat-wilted shirt, his body was solid. Muscled. His eyes were black and bold, his features harsh and so aggressively masculine he was almost homely.

She thought at first, stupidly, he had been attracted by the smell of the brewing coffee.

He nodded once to Conner before his hard, cop's eyes sought Bailey. "Miz Wells? I'm Lieutenant Burke." His deep-timbred twang plucked her nerves. "I'd like to ask you a few questions."

Bailey nodded, her teeth chattering. She couldn't think. She needed time. She snagged a mug down from the cabinet, unable to control the trembling of her hand. "Coffee?"

"No, thank you, ma'am." He didn't smile.

Her head still felt light. Her heart was racing. "Do you mind if I get some for myself and Officer Conner?"

"You all go right ahead," he said, just as polite, but with a rasp in his voice.

She poured two coffees, added milk to her own, and put the cream and sugar within easy reach of the female officer. The whole time, Lieutenant Burke watched her, a glint in the back of those eyes, like he wasn't used to being put off.

Bailey sat back down, leaving her coffee untouched on the table. Burke had taken the chair opposite hers, his bulk cutting her off, hemming her in, creating an island of privacy in the brightly lit kitchen. His knees were large and square. And too close.

She gave him a look. He didn't budge.

Well. He was no worse than some guy man-spreading on the subway. She could deal.

She folded her hands to hide their shaking and waited.

"All comfortable now?" Burke asked.

Asshole. "Yes, thank you."

He pulled a notebook from his breast pocket. She braced herself to relive the horrible moments with Helen in the pool. "Where are you from, Miz Wells?"

Shouldn't he be asking about Helen? About the accident? But he was the investigator. She pulled herself together to answer. "I've spent the past four years in New York."

Lieutenant Burke didn't look impressed. She wasn't trying to impress him, she reminded herself.

"And you moved here..."

"Over three weeks ago." Her throat relaxed as she swallowed. Maybe his questions were intended to put her at ease.


Why did it matter? "Because Helen wanted to," she answered evenly.

And Helen always got what she wanted. With her children grown and flown and her prize-winning husband receiving the lion's share of attention in New York, Helen wanted to go home.

Burke made a sound, a masculine grunt that could have been challenge or acknowledgment. "Helen. That's the deceased."

A statement, not a question. Bailey nodded anyway.

"What was your relationship with her?"

I stay out of her way. Bailey tightened her hands in her lap. "I work for her husband."

"And what is it you do, Bailey? May I call you Bailey?"

Despite the drawled intimacy, she didn't think he liked her. Her sister would have known how to make him like her. Maybe they even knew each other. He looked about her sister's age.

Bailey nodded again. She felt like one of those plastic dogs in the rear window of a car, her head bobbing with every bump in the road. She stiffened her neck. "I'm his assistant. I manage promotions, handle social media, update the website, beta-read his manuscripts. Whatever he needs."

Burke didn't look impressed by that, either. "For how long?"

"Two years."

"So you've known Helen Ellis ..."

"Two years," Bailey repeated, bewildered. Uneasy.

Those hard, dark eyes met hers. Bailey felt the jolt in her stomach. "Did you like her?"

Bailey's heart pounded. Helen-self-absorbed and dissatisfied-wasn't an easy person to like. Bailey sometimes wondered if her marriage to Paul-younger, brilliant, feted-had only exacerbated her need for attention.

But Bailey was living in Helen's house. Working for Helen's husband. Whatever Helen's faults, she did not deserve Bailey's criticism.

Especially now that she was dead.

Bailey moistened her lips. "I'm sorry she's dead."

Burke was silent, his gaze still narrowed on her face. She stared back, feeling like a possum caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

"All right." He flipped a page in his notebook. "Tell me what happened here tonight."

Relieved, she did her best to cooperate. Prompted by his questions, she told him about dinner-just the three of them, cold chicken and a salad she had picked up earlier in the day from the natural foods market-everything as usual, everything fine.

She wasn't stupid. She knew he was trying to establish whether Helen's death was an accident, just as she knew that over sixty percent of the time, female homicide victims were killed by a spouse. But even the indignation she felt on Paul's behalf-poor Paul, what must he be feeling?-was muted and blurred, as if she were still struggling underwater. She clung to facts as if they were lifelines tossed to her by the grim-faced, deep-voiced detective.

After dinner, they had followed their regular routines. Paul had gone to his study to work. Helen had gone to bed.

"Did you see her go to her room?"

Bailey forced herself to remember. "No. I took a walk. I usually take a walk."

"Anybody see you on your walk?"

Dazed, it took her a moment to realize he was asking if she had an alibi. "I don't...No."

"You don't know?"

She was so tired. "I didn't see anybody."

"How about when you got back?" he asked. Casual. Relentless. "Did you see anybody then?"


"Mrs. Ellis? Mr. Ellis?"


"Wasn't that unusual?"

"Not really," she said, adding with weary humor, "It's a big house."

He didn't smile.

She tried another answer to satisfy him. "I don't like to intrude on the Ellises in the evening."

"But they weren't together, you said."

"No." She didn't think so.

"Do you remember what time it was?"

"Late. After nine."

Burke glanced at his notes. "And Mr. Ellis was still working?"

"Yes." She was pretty sure.

"Why didn't you go to his study? To see if he needed you?"

Her mouth went dry. She reached for her coffee, but it was cold. She took one sip and put it down. She never sought out Paul at night. Because she knew how that could look. Would look. Even if he'd never been anything but kind. Even if she'd never been anything but professional.

"You're his assistant," Burke continued in that deceptively laid-back voice. "It would be only natural for you to check in with him."

"I went to my room," she said firmly. Too firmly. "To read."

Burke sighed. "And where is your room?"

She told him. She was used to organizing facts. Good at remembering details. She told him the layout of the house and the view from her window and the exact time she had left her room to get ice cream.

"Butter pecan," she said before he could ask. "It's my favorite flavor."

His mouth didn't so much as twitch, but there was a gleam in those dark, dark eyes. Humor, maybe. Respect? Or suspicion. Bailey didn't know him well enough to guess. She didn't want to know him.

"Why two spoons?" he asked.

Bailey felt faint. Her pulse pounded in her head. "Excuse me?"

Burke's face was like a rock. His voice grated. "We found two spoons by your broken bowl. Who was the second spoon for?"

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