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Excerpt

Excerpt

Dying Scream

Chapter One

Tuesday, September 26, 7:15 a.m.

Adrianna Barrington ran down the center hallway of her house,
keys clenched in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, as she
wedged her feet in black leather flats and slid on a jean jacket.
Fatigue-strained eyes had refused contacts, so she’d settled
for tortoiseshell glasses. Breakfast was a banana muffin shoved in
her purse. Make-up was simply mascara and lipstick.

Last night she’d planned to go to bed early. She wanted to
be rested and ready to face this day. But an eleven p.m. call from
the hospital emergency room derailed those plans. Her mother had
arrived by ambulance and feared she was having a heart attack.
Adrianna had dressed quickly and rushed to the hospital.

Over the last few years, Adrianna had seen the inside of too
many hospitals. She’d grown to hate antiseptic smells,
beeping monitors, and panicked visitors who endured endless waits
for test results. She’d found Margaret Barrington in a back
cubicle arguing with a nurse.

“Mom.”

Margaret Barrington’s anger dissolved into tears. Adrianna
glanced at the nurse, who’d made a quick retreat.

“It’s okay, Mom. Don’t worry.”

And so they’d spent the night, Adrianna sitting next to
her mother’s bed on a round hard stool while her mother
slept. And the unanswered question that they had argued about just
two days ago remained wedged between them as it had these last nine
months.

Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted?

I don’t know. I’m sorry.

At five a.m. the doctors had pronounced Margaret healthy and fit
to go home. She’d simply had a panic attack.

Adrianna had taken her mother home where the waiting home nurse
had put her to bed. By the time Adrianna arrived home and showered
the grime and smells of the hospital from her skin and hair, it was
nearly seven.

And now she was late.

She scooped up her oversized Coach bag from the entryway table
and yanked her black lacquered front door open. Temperatures for
this Indian summer morning already nudged seventy degrees, and
humidity left the air thick and sticky. Browns and golds were
slowly replacing summer’s green leaves on the
one-hundred-year old oak in her yard.

Adrianna closed the door with unintentional force that made the
brass lion-head knocker clank. She dropped her keys into her free
hand and dashed down the front steps to her Land Rover, sloshing
coffee. She had a little over forty-five minutes to make a
fifty-minute drive in rush-hour traffic.

Always late. Always overscheduled. Always looking for the next
project to keep the bills paid.

Adrianna rushed past the FOR SALE sign in her front yard to her
car parked by the curb. She opened the door, tossed in her purse,
and slid behind the wheel. As she raised her cup to her lips for a
quick sip, she noticed the card under her windshield.

Groaning, Adrianna set her cup in the holder, got out, and
plucked the rich linen envelope free. Her name was written in a
bold, thick handwriting. Adrianna Thornton. Her married name, a
name she’d not used in two years. She ripped open the back
flap and pulled out the card.

Happy Third Anniversary. Adrianna, you are mine forever.

Love, Craig

Craig.

Her husband.

The unexpected endearment sent a bolt of fear and pain through
her body. Her heart pounded.

You are mine forever. Craig.

Time stopped. Remorse broadsided Adrianna as she traced a thumb
over the embossed CRT at the top of the card. The initials stood
for Craig Robert Thornton.

Good God, she’d forgotten today was her third anniversary.
How could she forget?

This was the kind of note Craig would have written her. Simple.
Endearing. Heartfelt. He’d always been writing her notes.
Love you, babe. You’re the best. Always yours.

But her husband couldn’t have written this endearment.

Craig Thornton was dead.

Tears burned in her eyes as she stared at the bold script. Her
hand slid to her stomach, hollow and empty.

Who could have left her this?

She glanced around at the University Drive neighborhood’s
neat brick one-level homes and well-manicured lawns half-expecting
--- even hoping --- to catch someone staring. In this moment,
she’d dearly have loved to channel her pain into a fight.

A Prada-clad neighbor dragging a green recycling bin to the
curb; an older man juggling a coffee cup and briefcase as he
lowered into his Lexus; and a thirtysomething mom hustling
elementary age kids into a van for the morning trip to private
school. It was business as usual. Painfully predictable. Nothing
out of place.

There could be only one explanation for the card. It was a
coward’s attempt to frighten her and throw her off balance
because she was selling the Thornton land and estate she’d
inherited from her husband. The Thornton estate, called the
Colonies, was a brick antebellum home in eastern Henrico County
that sat on twenty acres of prime riverfront property. It predated
the Civil War and was revered by historians. Selling the Colonies
would drag this forgotten pocket of land into the twenty-first
century. And there were some who didn’t like the changes on
the horizon.

Today not only was it her wedding anniversary, it was the day
contractors were scheduled to move the eleven Thornton family
graves from the estate. The land had been sold, and all that was
left was to move the graves. By day’s end her ties to the
Thorntons would be forever severed.

When she’d filed permits with the state to remove the
graves, she’d expected and braced for angry words, protests,
and even lawsuits. But she’d expected nothing like this.

“Jerk.”

She marched around the side of the house, opened the lid to a
trash can, dumped the note in the bin, and slammed the metal lid
down. The clang reverberated up her arm.

Adrianna turned her back on the trash and moved forward.
“I am not going to be scared off by a bunch of
cowards.”

Happy Anniversary.

Stillness sank into her bones and she felt sudden hot tears burn
her eyes. She tipped her head back, willing the sadness to vanish.
“It means nothing. Someone is just mes sing with
you.”

Happy Anniversary.

And yet the simple words scraped open old wounds she’d
prayed had healed.

Adrianna’s still damp hair brushed her face and clung to
her skin like a spiderweb. Suddenly she didn’t have the
patience for the thick mane. She combed her fingers through her
hair until it was off her face and tied it back with a rubber
band.

A measure of control returning, she got into her car, locked the
doors, and clicked on the radio. She cranked a Sheryl Crow tune.
The singer’s words and melody rolled over her and coaxed away
her fears. She wouldn’t think about the damn card. Her only
priority today was getting the graves moved.

Adrianna fired up the engine, backed out of her driveway, and
soon was skimming east down I-64. She elbowed aside thoughts of the
note and used the drive time to call clients on her cell.

She owned Barrington Designs, an interior design business that
specialized in home décor. A business that required not only
an eye for design and color, but a talent for managing thousands of
details that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. Fabric
colors. Shades of tile. Hardware. Furniture selection. All had to
be considered, chosen, and monitored. It took endless follow-up
calls to keep her projects on time and budget.

By the time Adrianna exited the interstate and wound down the
old country roads to the estate, she’d contacted two
painters, a wallpaper hanger, and a furniture company in North
Carolina. She concluded her last call as she reached the
estate’s white brick pillars.

The grass by the entrance was overgrown. The paint on the
estate’s columns was chipped and several of the top bricks
were missing thanks to age and a hurricane that had hit the county
in late August.

A savvy seller in this slowing real estate market would have
worried about curb appeal, but the estate had sold within hours of
being listed. The buyer, William Mazur, was a powerfully built,
fortysomething man with buzzed hair and sun-weathered skin. He had
explained that he had always loved the property and had dreamed of
owning it since he’d first moved to the area. He’d paid
her asking price and his only stipulation was that she remove the
family graveyard from the estate. Having graves on the property was
too unsettling for his new wife. She’d agreed
immediately.

Now as she drove through the pillars toward the house, she
fended off jabs of guilt. The Thorntons had treasured the Colonies.
So much family history. So much tradition. And she was selling
out.

Her mind drifted to the last time she and Craig had visited.
Just a week before their late September wedding, her
mother-in-law-to-be Frances Thornton had asked the couple to travel
to the estate and place flowers on the graves of the departed
Thorntons. Frances and Adrianna’s own mother Margaret
Barrington had been friends since college and Adrianna had grown up
loving Aunt Frances and would have done anything for the woman who
by then was weeks away from losing her battle with cancer.

“Craig, you really need to take this seriously,”
Adrianna had said as she’d knelt in front of the grave.

Craig’s thick blond hair hung restlessly over crystal blue
eyes and he reminded her more of a boy than a man. He wore khakis,
a white polo, and Italian loafers with no socks. “I am taking
this seriously, babe.” He checked his Rolex watch. “How
long do you think this is going to take?”

“I don’t know. We’re supposed to put flowers
on each grave and have a moment of silence.”

“What’s with the moment of silence?”

“I don’t know. This is your family tradition, not
mine.”

Adrianna laid the lilies on the grave and rose, brushing the
leaves from her designer jeans. “Now take my hand and
let’s bow our heads.”

His smile was loving, indulgent. “You worry about the
details so much, Adrianna.”

And he never worried. “Traditions hold families
together.”

“They suffocate me.”

“Craig.” The warning note in her voice reminded him
that she’d broken their engagement last summer. She’d
grown tired of the parties and the glib jokes. She had needed a
man, not a boy. Only a great deal of pressure from her mother and
his mother had brought her back to him at summer’s end. This
was their second chance.

Craig straightened his shoulders and his expression became
somber. “Okay, I’ll be more serious. I promise.”
He wrapped long fingers around her smooth, soft hand.

Placated, she smiled. “Just stand here for a minute in
silence.”

They stood in front of Craig’s father’s grave:
Robert Thornton, devoted husband to Frances and loving father to
Craig. She bowed her head and said a silent prayer for the
Thorntons and for the marriage she was about to enter.

Within seconds Craig started to squirm and tap his foot. She
opened one eye and peeked at him. “Didn’t your dad ever
talk about this ceremony?”

Craig tossed her a rueful grin. “You knew Dad. He
wasn’t the talkative type.”

Robert Thornton, unlike his only son, had been a serious, stern
man. “He had to have said something.”

“Dad wasn’t as much into the family legacy thing as
much as Mom was. You know how obsessed she is with the family.
Especially now.”

Adrianna desperately wanted Craig to take charge of this moment
and be a man worthy of her sacrifices. “And?”

He gave her a good-natured smile. “I honor the Thornton
family and the privileges they’ve bestowed. And into the
family welcome my new bride. We will be forever and always
together.”

She lifted a brow. “That’s what you’re
supposed to say?”

He leaned forward. “Close enough. And we’re supposed
to kiss.”

“Really?”

“Really.” He winked as he kissed her warmly on the
lips. “Now, I have a lovely bottle of Chardonnay and a picnic
lunch in the trunk of my car. Let’s enjoy this day and leave
the dead in peace.”

She let him wrap his arms around her and she sank into the warm
embrace, savoring the scent of his cologne. “Do you take
anything seriously?”

“I take you seriously.” Genuine emotion punctuated
the words. “I love you. I never want to lose you again,
Adrianna.”

The rapid beat of his heart drummed against her ear. Craig did
love her. And she cared deeply for him. She just hoped it was
enough and that marriage would help him settle down and mature.

“I’m pregnant.”

He hauled her back and stared into her eyes.
“What?”

She nibbled her bottom lip, now afraid that he wouldn’t
want the child. In so many ways he was a child. “Four
weeks.”

Craig’s mouth rose into a genuine smile. He hugged her
close. “Babe, this is great!”

“You’re okay with this? I know it wasn’t
planned.”

He chuckled warmly. “It’s the best news I’ve
ever heard! Life is going to just get better and better.”

Two months later a drunk driver had broadsided their car.
She’d miscarried and Craig had suffered irreparable brain
damage. He’d languished in a coma for two years before
he’d died last December.

A twin pair of cardinals flapped across the drive, startling her
and closing her mind to the memories that only made her
miserable.

A deep breath loosened the tightness in her chest as she drove
the half mile down the gravel driveway, which flowed into the
circular loop by the old house’s front door. Out of the car,
she glanced at her watch. With minutes to spare before the
scheduled meeting with the grave excavation team at the cemetery,
she had time to check on the progress in the house.

The place had been a showpiece just fifteen years ago, and had
hosted some of the state’s most powerful and rich.
She’d attended parties here as a teenager. Frances had even
hosted her sixteenth birthday party in this house.

But over the last few years, she’d not visited the
property. Her neglect showed in the rot that had eaten away at the
rounded columns, the mold that had dulled the whitewashed
clapboard, and the missing shingles damaged in the August
storm.

Adrianna climbed the front steps and moved into the central
foyer that led to a wide staircase and a long hallway that cut
through the first floor. Open doors leaked light in from the side
rooms to the hallway.

“Mrs. Wells,” Adrianna shouted.

Mrs. Wells peered out the front parlor. The housekeeper was a
sixtysomething woman with short curly red-gray hair and a plump
frame that filled out her blue sweatshirt and faded jeans. She and
her husband, Dwayne, lived just miles from here and had looked
after the estate for forty years. The woman dabbed red-rimmed eyes.
“Yes, ma’am.”

Concern gave Adrianna pause. “Is everything all right,
Mrs. Wells?”

Mrs. Wells sniffed. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. It’s
just so emotional closing up the old place. So many memories. Thank
you for asking, Mrs. Thornton.”

Adrianna tensed. “Please, just call me
Adrianna.”

Mrs. Wells offered a lopsided smile. “It just
doesn’t feel right calling you by your given name.”

The housekeeper was over thirty years Adrianna’s senior.
“This isn’t the nineteenth century, Mrs.
Wells.”

A hint of humor sparked in pale green eyes. “Now that
depends on who you ask. Some folks around here would strongly argue
that point. Fact, I suspect some are still thinking the Confederacy
will again rise.”

“I suppose you are right.” Adrianna smiled,
following her into the parlor.

White sheets covered the furniture and carpets had been rolled.
The furnishings would go with the house but the twenty-three
paintings, which now were crated and tilting against the walls,
belonged to Adrianna. They awaited transport to the auction house
where they’d be sold in a week. Auction proceeds would be
donated to the new Thornton Neonatal Unit at Mercy Hospital.

“It looks like you’ve made headway
downstairs.”

“All the furniture has been polished and covered in the
front two rooms. I’ve still to do the rest of upstairs
furnishings.”

“Are Dwayne and Ben coming today to move the furniture to
the warehouse?” Mrs. Wells’s husband and son, Dwayne
and Ben Wells owned a successful moving company that specialized in
antique furniture and artwork. Adrianna had used them on several
Barrington Designs jobs.

“Ben said to tell you it would be first thing tomorrow.
They had another small job today. I think antiques to a
dealer.” She smiled. “The paintings will go to the
auction house tomorrow as well.”

“You’ll have each piece cleaned by then?”

“Yes, ma’am.” “Great. The new buyer, Mr.
Mazur, had insisted the home’s interior be
pristine.”

“Excuse me for asking, but isn’t Mr. Mazur bringing
in contractors to renovate the wiring and plumbing?”

“He is. And you’re right, the contractors are going
to tear the place up when they modernize. Why Mr. Mazur wants the
house cleaned before a renovation is beyond me. But he is the
buyer.”

Mrs. Wells nodded. “Will do.”

She checked her watch. “I’ve got to get down to the
gravesite.”

“I saw that Dr. Heckman headed that way.”

Adrianna’s lips flattened. “No doubt he saw the
public notice in the paper.” The notice had been required by
the state.

Dr. Cyril Heckman had been a friend of Frances Thornton for
many, many years. During the last years of her life they’d
grown close. He now saw it as his personal mission to maintain the
Thornton estate as it had been for generations. He’d filed
suit in the spring to stop the sale but Adrianna’s attorney
had had it dismissed.

“You want me to call Dwayne or Ben and have them run him
off ?”

“Tempting, but I can handle him.”

Mrs. Wells blew a strand of hair from her eyes. “I
don’t like the man and I don’t care that Miss Frances
was partial to him.” Mrs. Wells was intensely loyal to
Frances Thornton’s memory. Frances had left Marie Wells the
caretaker’s cottage and surrounding land in her will.

“Once the furniture and paintings are gone, have Ben bring
the old drums up from the basement,” Adrianna said.

“Why do you want to fool with them? Let me go through them
and save you the trouble.”

“I think it’s best I do it.”

“Must be three generations’ worth of stuff shoved in
those bins. Good Lord, there is no telling what you’ll
find.”

“Yeah, no telling.”

Chapter Two

Tuesday, September 26, 8:15 a.m.

Anticipation and determination congealed in Detective Gage
Hudson’s gut as he drove down the rural road toward the
Thornton estate.

“Hudson, Thorntons are practically Virginia royalty, and
let’s face it, sport, you’re a good ol’ boy from
southwest Virginia.”

The comment came from homicide
detective Nick Vega, who propped his arm on the front seat of the
Crown Vic. Perfectly relaxed, he didn’t seem to have a care
in the world even as Gage pushed the speedometer higher and
maneuvered around a pickup truck.

Hudson was the lead detective in the missing persons division
and more often than he’d have liked, his cases resulted in
death. He’d consulted with Vega and the other members of the
homicide team over the years and had gotten to know work styles and
some habits. Vega’s jabs and digs were as much a part of him
as his love of cigars and jazz music.

“Didn’t you hear my briefing to the homicide
team?” His southwest Virginia accent deepened when he was
under stress.

Vega shrugged wide shoulders honed by regular body

building and amateur league baseball. About thirty, he had olive
skin, ink-dark hair kept short, not shorn. He preferred casual open
collars, loose pants, and bad jokes that disguised a
lightning-quick mind.

“Had to take a call. Missed the big finish.”

Gage tapped his thumb on the steering wheel. He wasn’t
accustomed to repeating himself. He’d been a cop for twelve
years and in missing persons for six. He was considered tenacious
when it came to finding the missing; some went so far as to claim
he was part hound dog.

No one questioned Gage’s competence, but many had wondered
why he’d chosen police work when he’d had a promising
football career.

Football—specifically quarterbacking—had set him
apart since he’d played peewee ball. A strong work ethic and
raw talent earned him the starting spot on the high school team and
eventually a scholarship to Virginia Tech. Freshman year, he was a
standout in the thirty-thousand-plus student body and by sophomore
year a genuine star after a big win at the Sugar Bowl. Then came a
quick marriage to the head cheerleader and a draft by the Atlanta
Falcons. For a brief time he was bulletproof.

Two weeks into training camp, he’d taken a hard tackle.
Tendons and bone in his shoulder had ripped and he’d ended up
on the injured reserve list. While his wife remained in Atlanta,
he’d returned to the home he’d recently purchased for
his parents and siblings to mend. He’d been dozing one
afternoon when his mother woke him up and asked where she could
find Jessie, his ten-year-old sister. She was three hours overdue.
He’d rattled the fog from his brain and started calling
around. No one had seen her.

And then the grueling task of searching for Jessie had begun.
For three days he didn’t sleep as he searched the woods.

And then on the fourth morning he had found Jessie in a
dilapidated cabin. She’d been tied to a chair. Drugged.

Covered in dirt. Scrapes on her legs. One shoe missing.

Jessie had looked up at him with hazy eyes.
“Gage.”

Even now the memory choked the breath from his lungs. He’d
rushed her to the emergency room and the doctors had confirmed his
worst nightmare. She’d been raped.

That day had changed the course of his life. He’d resigned
from the Falcons and joined the police department.

That’s when he’d learned how much others had been so
emotionally invested in his football career. Townfolks, his
parents, and his wife all resented the decision and eventually
abandoned him in some way. But Gage had never looked back. Never
regretted the move.

Gage cleared his throat.

“Three years ago, I worked the case of a missing woman.
Her name was Rhonda Minor. She was supposed to meet her brother for
a drink one Friday but she never showed. The brother called her
cell phone repeatedly, tried to figure out where she’d gone,
but she’d vanished along with all of her stuff. Her brother
said she was a hardworking, good kid. He admitted that they’d
fought a few days before but it wouldn’t be like her to just
leave. I spoke to neighbors, roommates, and friends, and each said
the same thing—she wanted to move to Italy to study
art.”

All hints of humor vanished from Vega’s eyes. “Is
that what she and her brother fought about?”

“Yeah. He didn’t like the idea of her leaving. Said
her boss had put fancy ideas in her head.”

“And her boss was?”

“Craig Thornton.”

Vega whistled. “Craig Thornton of the Colonies.”

“Right. Rhonda worked at the Thornton Art Gallery as an
administrative assistant. She had a degree in art from Virginia
Commonwealth University and was looking to get gallery experience.
Apparently Craig kept telling her how good she was and that she
should paint full-time.”

“That gallery’s been around forever.”

“Eighty-one years.” Gage’s jaw tightened a
fraction.

“So what happened? Was Thornton any help?”

Gage tightened his hands on the wheel. “No. The guy was a
glib son of a bitch, who acted like it was all a joke. The instant
I laid eyes on Thornton I suspected he was hiding secrets. He even
showed me a postcard she’d mailed from New York City. It
said: Thanks! Ciao.”

Rain had pelted the city that October afternoon when Gage had
gone to see Craig Thornton. He’d been in a foul mood and
itching for a fight. Gage had dated Thornton’s new wife
Adrianna Barrington the summer before. Adrianna had broken up with
Craig and said she’d been ready to move on with her life.
Dated. Shit. Who was he kidding? The affair had been hot and soul
searing. Gage had dreamed of a future with Adrianna. And then
he’d been pulled into a case midsummer. They’d not seen
much of each other in those last weeks of August. He kept promising
himself he’d make up for his long hours after the case was
solved. And then she’d told him she was leaving him,
returning to her ex, Thornton.

When Gage had walked through the doors of the Thornton Gallery,
those intense feelings for Adrianna still smoldered in his belly
like ashen coals.

Over the last four years, he’d trained himself not to
dwell on what he’d had with Adrianna. What he’d lost.
Most days he had no regrets.

“Thornton offer any kind of help?”

“None. And there was something else about him that
didn’t set right. A vibe. A sense that there was more between
Rhonda and him. I asked him if his wife had met Rhonda.”

Vega arched a brow. “And?”

“His face tightened a fraction and he said Adrianna
didn’t mix with his employees. She had her hands full with
her new  interior design business and the new baby on the
way.” Baby. That had been a kick in the gut for Gage.

Gage tightened his hands on the wheel. “I’d have bet
money that Thornton was having an affair with Rhonda.”

Vega grunted. “Why do you say that?”

“Something was going on between them. I just
couldn’t prove a connection.”

Vega opened the worn manila folder marked Minor on the tab. He
flipped open the front to a photograph stapled to the inside flap.
Dark brown hair, lush blue eyes, bright smile, and cleavage that
had him whistling. “Damn.”

Gage glanced down and back at the road. “Yeah. She was
stunning.”

Vega started to flip through Gage’s notes. “You save
files on all the cases you don’t solve?”

“The ones that bother me most.”

Vega nodded, accepting, not questioning Gage’s motives.
“So what happened?”

“I started doing a little digging. I didn’t have
cause to get his financial records but I started poking around in
his past. Rhonda wasn’t the first woman he’d known who
had vanished. His prom date had gone missing, but in her case no
evidence linked Thornton, who was out of the country when her
report was investigated. But the guy was hiding something. No links
and a well-connected family meant no arrest.”

Vega frowned. “Didn’t Craig Thornton have some kind
of car accident?”

“Yeah. It was about six weeks after I interviewed him.
Blindsided by a drunk driver. Really a freak accident. Impact
smashed in his skull. Banged up his wife pretty badly.”

“He didn’t die right off, as I remember.”

“Languished in a coma for over two years. He died last
December.”

Vega nodded as if the details were
coming back. “The woman driving ran a red light.”

“She blew a .26 when the officer at the scene checked her
blood alcohol.”

“Shit. It’s a wonder she could stand, let alone
drive a car.”

“She was convicted of drunk driving. It was her third DUI
conviction and she’s in jail now. Serving a three-year
sentence.”

Vega arched a thick brow. “You know a lot about this
family.”

“I don’t like unsolved cases.” He kept his
tone steady, his gaze ahead, his body relaxed. However, relaxed
wasn’t close to what he was feeling.

Gage had kept up with Adrianna through the papers. Notices about
her business. Her accepting the chair of the pediatric clinic
fund-raiser. The funeral. The public notice announcing the land
sale and grave relocation.

“So why are we headed to the Thornton estate?”

“Adrianna Barrington, Thornton’s widow, has sold the
estate, according to the public notice in the paper. As a condition
of the sale, she’s moving the family graveyard and clearing
the old house.”

“Okay . . .”

“Two missing women. What better place to hide them than in
a private graveyard?”

“You’re stretching this, aren’t
you?”

Gage had asked himself that question a lot in the last few weeks
since the notice appeared. Maybe he was. “I don’t think
so. I wanted to search the land three years ago but Thornton
refused. His attorney made sure I stayed out of his
business.”

“That doesn’t prove anything.”

“I know.” He shrugged. “Just seems to me when
you start moving rocks something is bound to crawl out.” He
ran his hands over his shorn black hair. “At the most,
it’ll cost us a morning of our time.”

Vega rubbed his hand over his freshly shaved chin. “You
know Adrianna Barrington is Detective Warwick’s sisterin-

law.”

That bit of information caught Gage short. “Detective
Jacob Warwick?”

“One and the same.” Warwick was an ex-boxer and
former army sergeant who’d proven himself a shrewd
investigator that tolerated little bullshit. He’d shocked
everyone this past winter when he and the metro area’s
leading reporter had married in a quiet ceremony.

So much he didn’t know about Adrianna. “You’re
talking about Kendall Shaw Warwick, the former news reporter with
Channel 10.”

“Yeah. They’re sisters. Just found out about each
other. Both adopted out as very young children.”

“That’s the first I heard it.”

“You know Warwick. He plays it close to the vest. And I
think Kendall asked him to keep quiet. She called in favors within
the media so the story never made it to light. Apparently no one
ever told Adrianna she was adopted. Kinda threw her for a loop when
she found out last winter.”

A kick in the teeth was more than likely. “Why the big
secret about the adoption?”

“The Barringtons had another daughter almost exactly
Adrianna’s age. She was also named Adrianna. She died and the
Barringtons just replaced her.”

“Damn. What happened to the other daughter?”

“The family doctor testified the kid died of crib
death.”

“Where was she buried?”

“Never found the baby’s grave. The burial was just
as secret as the adoption. In the end there wasn’t evidence
for the commonwealth’s attorney to prosecute.”

“A doctor’s twenty-seven-year-old testimony and no
body to examine,” Gage said.

“Just enough evidence to close the case but not enough to
solve it.”

“Explains the physical resemblance between the
women.” When he’d first met Adrianna, he’d joked
with her about the likeness. She’d said she heard the comment
a lot.

“When did you meet Adrianna Barrington?”

“I spoke to her after the car accident. I hoped Craig had
told her something about Minor.” His relationship with
Adrianna was ancient history and as far as he was concerned
didn’t impact the case, so he kept it to himself.

The Minor case had been the excuse Gage had given the
department, but in truth he’d needed to know Adrianna was
okay.

When he’d found her, Adrianna had been standing at the
glass window of the small neonatal unit at Mercy Hospital staring
at the babies. Thick blond hair swept over straight narrow
shoulders and accentuated a high slash of cheekbones bruised by the
air bag. She’d worn a robe. Her face was scrubbed clean,
pale.

Gage cleared his throat. “Adrianna?”

Adrianna didn’t look up at first.

“Adrianna?”

Sharp sapphire eyes met his and then darkened with confusion.
“Gage? What are you doing here?”

The nurses had told him she’d been three months pregnant
and had miscarried after the accident. Despite their history, his
heart ached for her. “I’m here on police business. Your
floor nurse said I could find you here.”

“Oh.”

“What are you doing down here?”

“Looking at the babies.” Adrianna glanced back at
the infants on the other side of the glass. She was tall for a
woman, maybe five foot eleven. Her straight-backed posture
telegraphed her pain.

He slid his hand into his pocket so he wouldn’t be tempted
to touch her. “I heard about the accident. The baby.
I’m sorry.”

For a brief instant, pain glistened behind the ice.

“How are you doing?”

“I’ll survive,” she whispered.

He searched for something comforting to say but feared any words
would sound ham-fisted. “What do the doctors say about
Craig?” He couldn’t bring himself to say
“husband.”

Adrianna turned her gaze back to the infants. “I’m
waiting on the last round of tests.”

“I know this must be tough.”

“Tough?” A bitter smile twisted her lips and for the
first time he glimpsed the anger and fear behind the facade.
“I lost my son. My husband is hooked up to a breathing
machine and God knows how many monitors. I’m waiting for the
doctor who is supposed to tell me if Craig is going to be a
vegetable or not. Tough? Yeah. It’s tough.”

Gage’s arms ached to hold her but remained at his sides,
stiff and tense.

Adrianna’s fingers clenched a shredded tissue in a
white-

knuckle grip. The nurses had said that some of Craig’s
friends and associates had drifted through but none had stayed
long, and they’d sensed Adrianna was more of a comfort to
Craig’s friends and coworkers than they to her.

“Do you have any family or friends that can come sit with
you? Your mother?”

Adrianna sighed. “Thank you for asking, Gage, but
I’ll manage.”

In that moment the barriers dropped. Tears brimmed in fragile
eyes and spilled down her cheeks. And whatever anger or chip
he’d carried washed away. He leaned into her a fraction and
in an even voice whispered, “You don’t look so
fine.”

His tone was riddled with pity and sadness. And that had her
swiping away the tears. “It’s one foot in front of the
other now.”

There was no self-pity in her voice. And that was what got to
him. “When’s the last time you ate?”

A half smile was weak and apologetic. “I don’t
remember.”

“Let me get you something. There’s a coffee shop in
the lobby. Let me help.”

As if she’d realized how close she’d been to
surrender, she stiffened. The ramparts slammed back in place.
“No, I’m fine, Gage. Please just leave. I don’t
want your help. You don’t belong here.”

Behind the nursery’s glass walls a baby began to cry.
Adrianna turned from him and looked through the glass.

Forcing his mind to business, he cleared his throat.
“I’m investigating the disappearance of a woman. Rhonda
Minor. She worked for your husband. She’s been missing a
couple of months.”

“Craig told me that you’d been stopping by the
gallery a lot lately. That you kept questioning him about one of
his employees.”

He’d been on a mission to solve this case and he believed
Craig was the key. “That’s right.”

“You could have saved yourself a trip. I don’t know
much about my husband’s business. He doesn’t talk about
it and I don’t ask questions.”

Gage reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a photograph of
Rhonda Minor. “Do me a favor, take a look at her
picture.”

She didn’t touch the photo, or move closer to him, but
glanced down. She studied the image. “I knew her. We met at a
couple of office parties. I said hi but we never really
talked.”

“Take another look. Think. She’s twenty-three. An
artist. Wants to be a painter. Was there anything that she said or
your husband said that would have seemed off to you?”

Adrianna glanced down a second time. “I’m sorry, I
don’t know anything. Honestly.”

“Do you know Jill Lable?”

She shook her head. “No. And I’m not in the mood for
a guessing game. Who is she?”

“She went to high school with Craig. She’s been
missing for twelve years.”

“What are you saying, Gage?”

Gage chose his words carefully. “Just following leads on
two women who were acquainted with your husband and are now
missing. I was hoping he might have said something. Men tell their
wives all kinds of things.”

“Like murder?”

He shrugged.

“Craig had his share of faults, but he was no
murderer.”

“I’m not so sure.”

Adrianna’s eyes flashed. Too much class kept her from
telling him to fuck off but her expression communicated the
sentiment. “I don’t know anything. Now please
leave.”

After that all leads had dried up. And then he’d read the
legal notice in the Richmond Times-Dispatch announcing the removal
of the Thornton family graves. He’d been given a second
chance.

Gage maneuvered around more a slow-moving van.

Vega rested his arm on his car door and tapped his thumb.
“You think Rhonda Minor is dead?”

“Yes. I think she was dead before Craig Thornton’s
accident. But I’ve never proven it. I never found that other
woman. But I promised myself I’d never stop looking.”
Uncertainty could tear a family in two. “Rhonda’s
brother still calls me about once a month to check and see if there
is any new evidence.” Last time Fred Minor’s voice had
cracked with anguish. September second would have been
Rhonda’s twenty-sixth birthday.

“Your turn is coming up,” Vega said.

Gage glanced at the green road sign ahead that read: HONOR.
“Right.”

He took the next left and wound deeper down the country road.
Unlike the west end of Henrico, the east end was relatively
undeveloped and rural.

Gage slowed as he drove through Honor. Dried up and forgotten,
Honor wasn’t more than a collection of antique stores and
novelty shops. A gas station. These days it was a bedroom community
to the city of Richmond.

Following the twenty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit, he passed
through town and down Route 60. Two miles beyond the town limits,
he spotted the long dirt driveway marked by twin white pillars. The
sign out front read: THE COLONIES.

“Imagine, being rich enough to have your own
graveyard,” Vega quipped. “Man, that’s
living.”

Gage reminded himself to take in air. To relax. “We can
all hope to aspire.”

Vega surveyed the wooded terrain. “Makes sense that if
Thornton killed those women he’d bury them here. It’s
remote and would have been his home turf.”

“Yeah.”

The car bumped and rocked when he turned down the furrowed road
that led them through tall oaks. When they hit a clearing, it was
easy to spot the collection of pickup trucks and the yellow
backhoe, which sat silent by the cemetery shaded by an old
tree.

Gage put the car in PARK and shut off the engine. As he got out
of the car, tension knotted his gut like it had before a big game
in college. He fastened his collar, tightened his tie, and shrugged
on his suit jacket as he scanned the crowd. No sign of Adrianna. He
wasn’t sure if he was more relieved or disappointed.

The memory of those three days Jessie had been missing had
branded him. Forever and always the case would always come first.
He’d remain vigilant until every grave was excavated and
every missing woman found. And any personal feelings he had for
Adrianna Barrington would stay buried.

Chapter Three

Tuesday, September 26, 8:30 a.m.

The Thornton family graveyard was located in a small field near
a stand of woods. A chipped black wrought-iron fence, partly shaded
by a hundred-year-old oak, encased a hundred-foot-patch of land and
eleven gravestones. Most were weathered, worn by wind and rain, but
the three graves that stood apart from the others belonged to
Adrianna’s late husband and his parents. Their marble
headstones had crisp clear lines and the brass plaques remained
clean and bright.

Adrianna had not realized last December when she’d buried
Craig she’d ever have to move his grave. Mountains of debt
had a way of realigning priorities.

She pulled off the dirt road, noting the collection of vehicles
parked on the grassy field: construction trucks, the backhoe, the
white Mercedes, the old Toyota, and the dark sedan. The trucks
belonged to Miller Construction, the Mer-

cedes to the land’s buyer, William Mazur, and the old car
to Dr. Cyril Heckman. He held a handmade poster that read: SAVE OUR
DEAD. Thankfully, Dr. Heckman hadn’t stirred media
attention.

The one car she didn’t expect was a dark sedan. Parked
away from the other vehicles, it lingered on the sidelines like a
spider viewing prey.

As she approached the site, two men in dark suits moved around
the front of the sedan. One wore scuffed cowboy boots. Their backs
faced her, but she didn’t need to see faces to know the
taller man. Gage Hudson. She recognized his braced stance and broad
shoulders that reflected confidence almost to the point of
arrogance.

Tension prickled her spine. What was Gage Hudson doing here?

“Damn it,” she muttered. The regrets she had in life
were few, but Gage Hudson topped the list. Her thoughts turned to
their last meeting and the questions he’d asked her about
Craig. This visit was not social or coincidence.

Squaring her shoulders, she made a direct line toward Gage,
opting not to run from trouble. Better to rip the proverbial
Band-Aid off in one quick jerk than peel it off slowly. Less pain.
She hoped.

“Detective Hudson.” Thankfully, her voice sounded
clear and direct. “What brings you out here?”

Gage’s mirrored sunglasses tossed back her reflection. The
subtle stiffening in his shoulders hinted at his dislike of her
formal address. She sensed gray, accessing eyes narrowed. So be it.
It was better this way.

“Ms. Thornton. I hope you don’t mind, but my partner
Here --- Detective Vega --- and I wanted to observe the grave
relocation.”

A hacksaw wouldn’t cut through that southwest Virginia
drawl now. “The name is Barrington. Why?”

He moved toward her with intentional slowness. “I think
you know why, Ms. Barrington.”

The two missing women he’d mentioned during their last
visit. He believed those women were buried out here. And the fact
that he’d not called ahead to announce his visit told her he
didn’t trust her. The sting of that realization had her
firing back before she thought. “Do you have a
warrant?”

Gage shook his head slowly. “No, ma’am, I
don’t. I’m just here for a casual visit. Do I need a
warrant?”

Menace reverberated off the words like a flashing yellow light.
If she had a bit more equilibrium where he was concerned,
she’d have recognized that he was just doing his job. This
was business. It wasn’t personal.

But it felt deeply personal, just like the questions he’d
asked her in the hospital a couple of years ago. As she had then,
she felt under attack.

Aware the gazes of Mazur, Dr. Heckman, and the construction crew
rested upon her, Adrianna managed a smile that generally disarmed
most. She’d eat dirt before she showed him any sign of
weakness. “No. You’re free to observe. Just don’t
get in the way of my crews.”

A hint of a smile tugged at the edge of his lips. “Oh,
I’ll do my best to stay out of the way, Ms.
Barrington.”

The honey coating didn’t mask the underlying message. Gage
Hudson would do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased.
“Thanks.”

Adrianna turned toward Mr. Mazur and the six-man construction
crew. Under Mazur’s paper-thin calm simmered a dark
intensity. Built like a medieval knight, he had come up hard and
made a fortune in real estate, she’d been told. Ruthless was
how her own attorney had described Mazur. “Not the kind of
guy you want to do business with,” her attorney had said.
“Buys his land tracts from the dead and dying.”

But beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Adrianna moved toward Mr. Mazur, smiling as she extended her
hand. “This is a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting
you.”

He took her hand, squeezed a bit too hard. “I told you I
might come. Why aren’t your men digging?”

“I don’t know. They should be working.”
Calmness in a storm was her specialty. Later, when she was alone,
she’d lower her guard and allow tears and fear. “Mr.
Mazur, you could have saved yourself the trouble of driving out
here. I would have given you a full report.”

He didn’t seem taken by her smile either. “I like to
see things for myself.”

“I see.” Like Gage, Mazur somehow expected her not
to come through. “Well, you are welcome to stay as long as
you wish. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll talk to my
construction crew and see about that holdup.”

“I asked but the foreman wouldn’t say. Said he
worked for you.”

Points for Mr. Miller. “I’m sure it’s
nothing,” she said, hoping she was right.

“That Dr. Heckman has been lurking around all morning with
that damn sign.”

“He’s harmless. I’ll handle him.”

“He says he’s going to call the press.”

“He’s tried several times. No one cares.”
Adrianna moved over the uneven land, but made it just a dozen steps
before Dr. Heckman cut across her path.

“Mrs. Thornton.”

She bristled. “The name is Barrington. What are you doing
here, Professor?”

“Looking out for the dead.” He wore a tweed jacket
with patched sleeves and what looked like tea stain on the lapel.
Dark pants, rumpled white shirt, and tennis shoes completed the
perfect stereotype of an eccentric academic. He smelled of
mothballs and peppermint.

“They’re just fine without you.”

He tucked his poster under his arm and rubbed long, thin hands
together. “You are desecrating the memory of this grand
family.”

“I don’t look at it that way.” She’d
paid more than she should for the gravesites in a lovely church
cemetery down the road. Moving these graves was the only way she
could save them. “Professor, if you’ll excuse me. I
need to talk to my foreman.”

A frantic energy radiated from his blue eyes. “You
can’t do this.”

“I can.”

“I will throw myself on the graves.”

“My foreman will throw you off this land if you so much as
make a move.” If Mazur weren’t here, she’d have
done it already.

Billy Miller, the grave removal company’s owner, was a
tall man with a broad chest and a big belly that hung over his
belt. Puffy cheeks and a ruddy complexion made him appear older
than his thirtysomething years. He’d come highly recommended
by several properties in Maryland and Northern Virginia and could
handle the logistical tangles of moving old graves.

“What’s going on, Mr. Miller?” she said.

“We might have a problem.” Miller chewed gum
constantly, which was an alternative to his former two-pack-aday
cigarette habit.

Adrianna felt Gage’s sharp hungry gaze. “What is it?
Permits? Do the Feds have more questions about protecting
groundwater contamination?”

Miller glanced toward the men behind her and frowned.
“It’s a little more complicated.”

The growing tightness in Adrianna’s chest threatened to
cut off her breath completely. “Explain.”

Miller drew Adrianna away from his crew, Dr. Heckman, and the
cops before he spoke. He glanced back to make sure no one had
followed. Satisfied, he planted his hands on his hips and kept his
voice low. “I swept all the land inside the cemetery fence
with ground-penetrating radar just like you asked.”

A cool breeze blew on her face. “Okay.”

“I found some irregularities in the soil in the corner
nearest the river.”

“What does that mean?”

“Means I might have found something we weren’t
expecting.” Gum snapped in his mouth.

“Like what?”

“Might be nothing.”

“Then why are we having this discussion?” Her words
rang brittle and impatient.

Miller looked surprised. Up until now, she’d been calm and
reserved during their few preliminary meetings. He glanced around
again to make sure no one was in earshot. “I think I’ve
found additional graves.”

A jolt of fear hit Adrianna. Temptation prodded her to see if
Gage was watching. But she didn’t. Instead of looking at him
or the cemetery, she glanced toward the band of trees that ringed
the field. The woods were thick and the underbrush overgrown.
“Where?”

“In the cemetery corner closest to the river.”

She turned slowly and studied the southeast section of the
family graveyard shaded by the thick leaves of the oak tree.
“I don’t see anything. It looks perfectly fine to
me.”

Miller’s voice was patient. “That’s because
you don’t move graves for a living. When a body decomposes,
it shrinks and the soil on top of it collapses a little. The
vegetation also grows back unevenly.”

“Is it a child’s grave?” She rubbed the back
of her neck with her hand, wishing she could ignore her
worries.

“No. Too large.”

Relief eased some of the fear she’d been holding.
She’d often thought that this cemetery could be the place
where her mother’s first daughter could have been buried.
Frances Thornton would have been the one her mother would have
called in a crisis. “Okay.”

Gum snapped as Miller shook his head and raised a slim T-shaped
instrument that he’d been holding, which until now
she’d not noticed. “This is a T-bar. I use it to take
soil samples. By looking at the sample I can tell whether the soil
has been disturbed or not.” The end looked like a cookie
cutter, and showed her a cross section of dirt. “The radar
and T-bar suggest something is buried in that spot.”

She thought about the reason for Gage’s visit.
“I’ve read that families like the Thorntons buried
servants close. A wooden marker would long have been eroded by the
elements.”

Miller shook his head. “These sites aren’t that old.
They’re less than a decade old.”

A decade. Was Gage right about Rhonda?

Excerpted from DYING SCREAM © Copyright 2011 by Mary
Burton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights
reserved.

Dying Scream
by by Mary Burton