Who knew a crushed skull would bleed so much?
Jessica German looked down at her best friend. Karli’s dark hair was wet where her head had been smashed in. Blood pooled beneath her, soaking into the carpet and dripping from the ends of her curls. The formerly appealing smell of piping hot pizza Jessica carried into the apartment blended with the metallic scent of blood in the air.
So much blood.
What was she supposed to do? Try to stop the bleeding? She hurried to the kitchen and grabbed a towel, then pressed it to Karli’s head. The softness of her broken skull sent a sickening flush over Jessica’s body. That wasn’t normal.
Jessica reached down and pressed her shaking fingers against Karli’s neck. That’s what you were supposed to do, right? Did she suck at that, or was there no pulse? Jessica reached up to her own neck and felt the rapid thump of her heart beating. She repositioned her fingers on Karli’s neck. Nothing.
Jessica was supposed to be there to tell Karli all about her first date with Braden, a date that didn’t end until early that morning with a promise for date two very soon, but Karli was dead. Dead dead, not dead tired or dead drunk, but head smashed in, brains visible kind of dead.
Jessica’s stomach flipped and threatened to add to the messy scene. Instead, she choked it back and dug out her phone, her gaze never leaving Karli’s lifeless body.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”
“My friend is dead. She’s not moving.”
“Okay. What is your address?”
“Nine-thirty-seven Mist Avenue. Apartment Three-B.”
“I don’t know. I was just bringing dinner. Her head… There’s so much blood.”
“Why did you kill her?”
“What? I didn’t kill her!”
“Then why did it take you so long to call?”
“What are you talking about?”
“There are already officers on their way to the apartment. One of the neighbors said they heard shouting and a woman with short, dark hair ran out, covered in blood. Where are you, Ms. German?”
“How do you know my name?” Every hair on Jessica’s body stood on end. An icy chill swept over her. She looked around like she was being watched.
“The name the phone is registered to comes up when you call. Are you at home?”
“No. I’m…” Jessica stared down at Karli. She couldn’t admit she was at Karli’s. Then the police would arrest her. But they were already on the way.
“Ms. German, stay where you are. The police need answers from you.”
Jessica tapped her screen to end the call. She looked at her friend once more, choking back tears. Karli was dead.
Sirens echoed in the distance. Not close, but Jessica knew they were coming for her. For Karli. To try to save what was already gone. And to take her to jail for something she didn’t do.
She couldn’t sit there and wait. She did nothing wrong. They would figure it out. But she had to go. Now.
The hallway was empty when Jessica walked into it. There were stairs and an elevator, and Jessica chose the stairs. If she was lucky, she could get down them and out of the building before anyone saw her, and before the police arrived.
“Excuse me,” a man said, bumping into her as she turned the corner on the first floor. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”
“I’m fine,” Jessica said quickly, looking down at where Karli’s blood had stained her jeans and tee.
“Are you sure? That’s a lot of blood.”
Jessica ignored the man and kept going. She raced the rest of the way down the stairs and pushed the emergency exit door to go out into the alley next to the building.
She pulled her purse in front of the blood stain and rushed to her car. She’d just closed the door when two police cars and an ambulance screeched to a stop in front of the building.
Jessica didn’t waste time pulling away from the curb and turning in the opposite direction. She needed to change and find out what the hell was going on.
* * *
Braden Wright kept his phone next to him waiting for any piece of news. He hated leaving his bed that morning, especially when it was full of a warm, curvy, beautiful woman, but Jessica said she understood and didn’t hesitate to get up and leave when Braden’s closest friend, Wray, called and asked Braden to watch the boys.
Braden didn’t know everything that was going on with Wray and his wife, but he knew enough to know Stacey could be in deep shit. The one and only text Wray sent said he was heading to the police station because Stacey was arrested.
It was almost laughable to think of Stacey Allen ever hurting anyone, but people did crazy things when someone they cared about was in danger.
“Uncle Braden, can we play a game?” Joey asked.
“Absolutely, bud. What do you want to play?”
“Let’s go.” Braden smiled at the boys. He loved them like they were his own. Wray was his family, and his boys were Braden’s heart. After his tumultuous childhood, Braden wasn’t sure he’d ever have a family, but when Wray and Stacey got married, he was a little jealous. He wanted that, too, but he never admitted it out loud.
He’d also never met anyone he could picture a life with. Until last night.
“I throw to you, and you throw to Evan, and he throws to me,” Joey said.
Braden looked at three-year-old Evan and shook his head. “How about you throw to me, and Evan can toss back when he’s in the mood?”
Joey shrugged. He was a good big brother. Braden was the youngest of four and knew how important it was to have older siblings that were amazing. He had three of them. He was closest to Taylor, the oldest, but the other two were always there for him if he needed it.
Joey tossed the soft football to Braden, then caught it when Braden threw it back. Evan ran around in the yard, jumping up like he was going to catch the ball when it sailed over his head.
“Do you want to play?” Braden asked.
“Yeah,” Evan said. “I likes football.”
Braden nodded and gently tossed the ball to Evan. He reached for it and missed by a mile, the ball sliding between his arms and hitting him in the chest before landing on the ground. He picked it up and threw it back to Braden, then went to his swingset and scrambled up the stairs toward the slide.
Braden kept an eye on Evan and played catch with Joey. He stifled a yawn, the product of a long night between the thighs of Jessica German, and grinned.
“Why are you smiling?” Joey asked.
Braden quickly schooled his features, but it was obviously too late. “I was just thinking about something a friend said yesterday.”
“Her name is Jessica.”
“What did she say?”
Braden thought quick to come up with something other than the sexy words Jessica whispered when he sank into her the first time. “I’ve never come that hard.” His dick swelled with his chest when she confessed that. He didn’t think she meant to say it, but all it did was make him want to try harder to please her.
“She said she could throw a ball harder than me.”
“My mommy can’t throw very hard. She said she’s not that strong, but she can still carry my brother so I know she’s strong,” Joey said.
“Your mommy is very strong. She’s smart and creative and beautiful, too.”
“Do you like my mommy?” Joey asked.
“Very much. She’s a good friend of mine. I’m very happy she married your daddy because he loves her a lot.”
“He almost messed it up, but he fixed it again.”
Braden smiled. “Yes, he did. Are you guys hungry? Want a snack or lunch or something?”
Both boys cheered and raced for the door. Food was always a good distraction with them. They were always hungry.
It wasn’t too long after lunch when Wray and Stacey got home. Stacey went straight upstairs to shower, and Wray took over kid duty. He promised to get in touch later and give Braden an update. Braden understood that meant he couldn’t talk in front of the boys. And likely also meant Wray wouldn’t be in for their shift at the fire station that night.
Braden made his way out with the promise that he would always be there to help with the boys if Wray or Stacey needed him.
Sleep was important when Braden was working over night, but sleep evaded him. His pillow smelled like Jessica, and he couldn’t stop his mind from replaying their night over and over until his alarm went off.
Braden dragged himself into the shower, then headed to work. He sent Jessica a text, but by the time he got to work there wasn’t a reply. He pushed it out of his mind and started his shift.
There was a call early in the shift, then the team settled in for dinner. Braden went to the weight room to get out some of his pent up energy before eating. When he joined the rest of them, they were deep in conversation.
“Hey, Wright, why is your date on the news?” asked Marcinko.
“What are you talking about?”
“That woman who works for your sister? Didn’t you go out with her?”
“She killed someone. She’s on the news.” Powers pointed to the TV screen where the news was on as Braden opened his mouth to argue.
Then snapped it shut.
“Police are looking for a suspect in the murder of a local woman tonight. Karli Sloane’s body was found in her apartment this afternoon. She was an art therapist and loved by her patients. A woman named Jessica German was seen fleeing Ms. Sloane’s apartment shortly before the body was found. This picture was taken from security cameras in Ms. Sloane’s apartment building. If anyone has any information about Ms. German’s whereabouts, you are asked to call the police.”
Braden had seen some of the worst humanity had to offer in his years since joining the fire department, but finding out the woman he spent the night with was a murderer was more than a little shocking.
Braden’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He wasn’t sure he wanted to answer it, but when he saw it was his sister, he left the break room to find some privacy from his nosy coworkers. “I saw.”
“It’s not true, Braden.”
“How do you know?”
Jessica had been Taylor’s assistant for years. They were close, even more since Taylor’s boyfriend knocked down a few of the walls she used to keep people at bay. Braden would forever be grateful to Dex for how happy he made Taylor.
“She’s not that kind of person. You know this. You know her.”
“Do I? Do you? Come on Tay-Tay, do we ever really know anyone? Do we need to talk about Dad?”
“Dad is a monster. He’s different. This is Jessica. You were with her last night. How did she seem after your date?”
Braden hardened at the thought. Their date was supposed to be dinner. Braden thought she was sweet and smart and Taylor wore him down, saying she thought they’d be good together. Braden asked Jessica out to get his sister off his back. He never expected to connect with Jessica the way he did. To not want the night to end and invite her back to his place. Or to carry her to his room and taste every inch of her sexy, curvy body.
“Braden? Are you still there?”
“Yeah. I’m here. Sorry. She was fine. I don’t know what you want me to say. Did she look like she was going to leave my place and kill her best friend? No.”
“Whoa, wait. I thought you were meeting at the restaurant. Why was she at your house?”
“Hey! Give that back!” Taylor shouted, her voice far away.
“You do not have to tell your sister anything,” Dex said.
“She’s going to be pissed you stole her phone.”
“She’ll get over it eventually. Listen, for what it’s worth, I can’t see Jessica doing what they said she did. She’s too sweet of a person. She’s not the type to snap, and she’s not the type to plan something like this. Trust me.”
Braden really wanted to believe them. Taylor had a knack for seeing who a person truly was, which made her an amazing boss and business owner. Dex was a former SEAL with an undeniable talent for reading people.
But no matter how much Braden wanted to believe them, and how much he thought the same, what he couldn’t understand was… “Why did she run?”
Dex sighed, as if he expected the question. “I can’t answer that. Have you spoken to her?”
“Not since she left this morning.”
“This… I am not going to repeat that, but do you really think that little of the,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “woman you spent the night with?”
“I don’t know, man. I’m going to try to call her. See if she’ll talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I know you like to follow the rules, and I do, too, but you have to understand not everyone feels as though they can. We don’t know what was going through her mind, but maybe she’s a witness and doesn’t think she’s safe.”
“They said she’s a suspect.”
“I know, but Braden, don’t jump to conclusions yet.”
Dex sighed. “Do you want us on this?” Dex was part owner of a group of former SEALs who helped protect the borders.
“This isn’t what you guys do.”
“We find people, and we protect people, and we uncover the truth. We will help find Jessica if you want us to.”
Braden shook his head before he answered. “No, it’s fine. I’m sure there’s an explanation.”
“I’m sure there is. If we hear anything, we’ll let you know.”
“Thanks. And thanks for the wrath you’re about to face with Taylor.”
Dex chuckled. “I can handle it. Keep in touch.”
Braden nodded and hung up. He didn’t feel any better.
He called Jessica, but it went to voicemail. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it was still a disappointment to hear her recorded voice asking him to leave a message.
“Hey, Jessica. I don’t know what’s going on, but I hope you’re safe. If I can help you, call me.”
Braden hung up and sent a text with a similar message, then stared at his phone. Now what?
The voices and sounds of the rest of the crew filtered through the open space to him. Braden’s stomach growled. It was going to be a long night. Even longer if he didn’t eat.
He ignored the other guys and carried a bowl of chili to the end of the table. A few of them gave him a side-eye, but he focused on his food instead of them. When he was done, he put his bowl and spoon in the dishwasher and went to the bunk room to call Jessica again.
No answer. Again. He didn’t bother to leave another message.
Where was she? And why didn’t she talk to the police? If she didn’t kill Karli, why was she running from Karli’s building? With blood on her shirt and jeans.
He tried to lose himself in a movie on his phone, but he couldn’t focus, waiting for something from Jessica. He thought about going out to look for her, but he had no idea where she would be. The police had her name, which meant they also had her address, details about her car, her job, and had gone through her social media. Where would she go?
Braden shook his head. It didn’t matter. He was going to go looking for her. He was working. And leaving in the middle of a shift would put his fellow firefighters at risk.
His phone rang, and he dropped it. He scrambled to pick it up before the call went to voicemail and answered without looking at the screen. “Hello? Jessica?”
“She was just here,” Wray said.
“What? Why was she at your house?”
“She came to talk to Stacey.”
“She said she didn’t kill Karli. Stacey believes her.”
“That seems to be the common thread,” Braden grumbled.
“You think she did it?”
“I don’t know what to think. If she’s innocent, where the hell is she?”
“Stacey said she was scared. And covered in blood. She risked coming to our house because she is worried about Raina.”
“Who the hell is Raina?”
“Karli had a roommate. Someone who was at the shelter until recently. They were old friends, and when Raina left the shelter, Karli agreed to take her in. Safety in numbers. Anyway, Jessica came here to tell Stacey to get in touch with Raina.”
“That doesn’t sound like something a guilty woman would do.”
“That’s what I said, too. I agree she should have gone to the police, but she’s probably in shock.”
“All the more reason she shouldn’t be out there wandering around.” Braden told the battalion chief he had to run an errand and would be right back.
“What are you doing?” Wray barked.
“I’m going to find her. Make her go to the police station.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? You’re working.”
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to let a woman wander the streets alone? Why the hell did you let her leave your house?” Braden spat.
“I didn’t know she was here until after she was gone. She knocked on the backdoor when I was putting the boys to bed. Stacey was the only one in the kitchen.”
“How did she time that just right?”
“She was probably watching us,” Wray said.
“What were you saying about her being innocent?”
“Just because she was watching us doesn’t mean she’s a killer. She wanted to protect Raina.”
“Or she wants to draw her out.”
“Why are you going out looking for her if you think she’s guilty?”
Braden sighed and turned onto Wray’s street. He went slow, scanning both sides of the road for anyone walking around or hiding behind cars or trees or in backyards. He told himself he was too focused on his task to answer the question Wray asked.
“You know she didn’t do this,” Wray answered for Braden.
“I don’t know anything. But if people don’t follow the rules and trust the system, what good is the system?”
“I think you’re asking for too much. People are fallible. We do it all the time. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better, but it means we have to accept that we’re all different and we all screw up.”
“Are you talking about yourself or Jessica?”
“I’m talking about everyone. You’re not perfect either.”
Braden grunted. He knew he wasn’t. Far from it. But he wasn’t a killer.
“Jessica isn’t a killer,” Wray said as though he read Braden’s mind. “And until you talk to her, you can’t make judgements on what she did. Find her and get answers first.”
“And what if I don’t like the answers I get?”
“Only you know what you’re able to handle, Braden. But don’t go to worst case off the bat.”
Braden huffed. He didn’t like it, but Wray was right. First, he needed to find Jessica.