Darkness. Far more often than I cared to admit, it enveloped me, swallowed me whole until I could scarcely breathe.
Sometimes the thoughts of my past—the slaying of my husband, the murder of my unborn child—threatened to turn me inside out until I couldn’t even consider what the next minute or hour, let alone day, would hold.
But sometimes, the smallest ray of light changed everything.
From the front porch of the Julep Hill Inn, I watched the leading edge of nature’s early September light show in the distance. Lightning flashed. Storms threatened the quiet and stillness of the night. The wind blew just enough at times to turn the leaves inside out, which, according to my grandmother and Farmers’ Almanac, meant rain was imminent. And when the rain came and the wind picked up, the guests at tonight’s celebration would scatter and try to make it home before the worst of the thunderstorms hit.
The live radar app on my phone told me we had about forty-five minutes—an hour, tops—before the main force of it arrived.
Declan O’Roark, local billionaire, and the man who had shaken up my life since I’d come to Kentucky, stepped up behind me and slid his arms around my waist. He leaned his face into my neck. “What are you doing out here all alone?”
“I love thunderstorms,” I said, biting back the dark thoughts of my past while allowing my excitement at the impending weather to creep into my voice. “I don’t love their destructive force, of course, but I love the energy that comes with the flashes of lightning, and the drama of the booming thunder.”
Declan turned me around to face him. His face held a sly grin. “If I didn’t know better, Miss Fairfax, I’d say you’re turned on by our approaching storm.”
I tilted my head side to side. “I don’t know if it’s the heat wave we’re experiencing, the utter joy on Carrie Anne’s face tonight, the storms, or a certain Irishman who can’t keep his hands off of me, but I could certainly embrace being ‘turned on.’”
“In that case, let’s say our goodbyes and get you home.” He grabbed my hand and started to tug me forward.
My phone chimed. I pulled it from the pocket of my sundress and frowned.
“What is it?”
“The governor is worried. He’s getting alerts from the National Weather Center out of Louisville. A series of severe storms are lined up one after the other, with dangerous lightning, potential golf ball-sized hail, wind gusts up to seventy miles an hour, and the potential for tornados. The storms are expected to get stronger throughout the night. They’re going to pummel the state for hours.”
“He said all that in a text?”
I laughed. “Lily and the kids are out of town. I’m guessing he’s texting from a computer in his office.”
Ever since I’d been named director of Homeland Security in Kentucky, I had been the first person Governor Mac Kale contacted whenever the safety of the people of his state was threatened. He had been texting me all evening.
“Any chance the meteorologists are exaggerating?” Declan asked.
“I’ve seen the radar; it looks bad.”
“How long do we have? I’d like to be home before it reaches us.”
“I’d say at the rate the storms are moving east, less than an hour.”
“Let’s make the rounds, then.” Declan leaned in and pressed his lips to mine. “I want us home, safe and sound, and in bed before these storms hit.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“You just want us in bed.” I laughed.
As I let him kiss me again, the front door of the inn opened. Out walked Aidan Gallagher, the thoroughbred horse trainer for Declan’s entire stable of racehorses. His thick, bronze-colored hair and those hazel eyes made most women swoon. I wasn’t easily impressed, however.
He had just flown in from Saratoga, New York, where he’d been for the late summer race meet. Marti said he’d moved up his flight especially for Carrie Anne’s reopening of the inn, and my hunch was that his real reason for coming was to see Marti—Carrie Anne’s daughter and my friend. But neither Aidan nor Marti was about to admit their relationship to me just yet, which I supposed was understandable, seeing as Aidan and I still butted heads from time to time.
“I just got off the phone with our night watchman at Kensington,” Aidan said without so much as a hello or nod in my direction.
Declan cleared his throat and lifted his head in my direction with little subtlety.
“Oh, sorry. Hello, Brooke,” he said in his lovely Irish accent. “How are ya tonight?”
“I’m fine, Aidan,” I said blandly, then leaned into Declan and kissed his cheek. “I’ll let you two talk horses. I’m going to start saying goodbye.”
“You were saying?” Declan said to Aidan as I started for the front door.
I walked slowly so that I would hear Aidan’s report.
“Everything is quiet at the track barns for now. I called in a few of the hot walkers and another night watchman to make sure the horses don’t get too excited and harm themselves during the storms.”
Declan had more than twenty horses stabled at Kensington Race Track for the September horse sales and the upcoming race meet. Barns, dry straw and hay, and million-dollar horses didn’t always fare well during cascading electrical storms, so it was good that they had extra help in case there was trouble.
As I entered the inn, I immediately spotted Marti talking with Ty. I made my way toward them, politely declining the offer of champagne from a server along the way.
Though I had already spoken with Marti several times this evening, she threw her arms around my neck. “Did you see the cottage?” she asked with a hiccup.
“Marti, have you already forgotten you and your mom gave me the grand tour yesterday?”
“Oh yeah.” She giggled, cupping a hand over her mouth.
I laughed when she nearly knocked me over. “How many of those cosmopolitans have you had?” I widened my eyes in Ty’s direction.
Ty only shrugged and tipped back his own glass of bourbon. “The cottage is gorgeous. And you know what’s interesting? Marti was just telling me that an anonymous donor donated a substantial sum of money to the Historical Society, earmarking it for the ‘Julep Hill Inn, Cottage, and Café.’ That was how Carrie Anne and Marti were able to both rebuild the cottage after the fire and renovate parts of the main inn.” Ty arched a brow at me. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
I furrowed my brow in warning and refused to confirm that Declan had been the one to make sure Carrie Anne had the money to rebuild my former home—though I was sure Ty didn’t really need my confirmation. I felt indirectly responsible for the damage to the cottage—since, after all, it only occurred because a member of a local outlaw motorcycle gang wanted to burn me alive—and Declan hadn’t wanted that on my conscience.
In fact, he’d donated enough money so that Carrie Anne could do more than just restore everything the way it was. With the addition of a second level, the cottage was now twice its original size, and Carrie Anne and Marti no longer had to live inside the inn. They could escape to their own brand new home behind the main building.
“No,” I said to Ty, but then turned to Marti, “but I think that is amazing. Whoever did such a thing must love the historic buildings of Midland, and must respect you guys enough to know how much tourism you bring to the area.” It sounded rehearsed, but it was true.
“Damn straight,” Marti said. “My mother and I work hard to bring visitors to the area.” She slurred the last few words, and Ty and I laughed. I was thankful Marti didn’t have far to go tonight. She was certainly in no condition to drive. I just hoped she wasn’t too hung over in the morning to come to work.
Marti was my latest hire at Kentucky’s Office of Homeland Security. She had been ready for a change, and I was looking for someone who was organized and good at handling the public. Governor Kale had given me free rein to build my team, so I made Marti an administrative assistant to Ty and me.
My phone buzzed again, and I checked the text. Another storm is hitting Western Kentucky. F2 tornado touched down just outside of Paducah.
Ty lifted a brow. “The governor?”
“Yeah. The storms are getting worse. I think it’s time to get Carrie Anne to start steering the conversations toward final goodbyes. A tornado just touched down. It was more than two hundred miles from here, but they’re heading our way. Let’s get everyone headed home before the worst of the storms get closer.”
“Oh, no!” Marti said. “You can’t leave yet. The party’s just gettin’ started.” The more Marti drank, the more her southern drawl came out.
“I know, honey, but the storms are going to be bad. And I think it’s time you turned in.”
“Party pooper,” she laughed.
“I’ve got her.” Aidan sidled up beside Marti and put an arm around her to steady her.
There was something about the way he handled her so gently that had me doubting my instinctive dislike for him. I also wondered if maybe their relationship was becoming less of a secret.
Carrie Anne approached us. “Oh, dear. Looks like my sweet daughter has had a bit of fun this evening.”
I smiled. “It was a lovely party, Carrie Anne.” I draped an arm around her in a side hug. “The inn looks beautiful. And the cottage is amazing.”
“As much as I love the new cottage, I would give it all back to know you didn’t have to suffer in the old one’s destruction.”
“I know, but I’m fine.” I smiled. “And now you have a retreat to call your own. You deserve it.”
“Thank you, honey. And I expect you here for breakfast Saturday when we reopen the café.”
“Declan and I wouldn’t miss it.”
A low rumble of thunder made the glasses vibrate on the food table in the dining room.
“I think that’s my cue,” I said. “Carrie Anne, you should encourage your guests to start making their way home—or you’ll be making room for them all in your basement. These storms are packing quite the punch already.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I know how to use my southern charm to end a party.” She winked at me. “Now you and Declan be safe gettin’ home, ya hear?”
After she left us, I turned to Ty. “All these texts from the governor are probably because he’s bored without his family at home. But I also think these storms are going to wreak havoc across the state. Keep your phone close.”
“I will. James is back in DC, so I’m available for whatever you need.”
“Hopefully, I’ll just see you for work tomorrow.”
* * *
Declan had just opened the passenger door to the SUV for me when I heard someone call my name from behind.
“I’m sorry to stop you, Miss Fairfax.”
Kentucky Senator Thad Reiner approached Declan and me. He wore khaki dress pants, a crisp white button-down oxford, and a traditional navy blazer. A little formal for tonight’s affair, but I’m sure he saw any public event as an opportunity to schmooze with his constituents. He was new to the Kentucky Senate, after all.
“Hi, Senator,” I said. “I saw you across the room tonight. I apologize that I never got a chance to say hello.”
“Quite all right.”
I touched a hand to his arm. “Let me introduce you to Declan O’Roark.”
The senator shook Declan’s hand. “Nice to finally meet you, Declan. I’ve heard great things about your work in eco-friendly fertilizers, and, of course, your success on the Kentucky race tracks has been incredible.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Senator.”
Senator Reiner turned back to me. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet me over at the capitol one morning next week.”
“Of course. Call me Monday and we’ll schedule something.”
“I’ll do that.”
“You mind telling me what we’re meeting about, so I can be prepared?”
“I’d like to bend your ear about the danger our electric grid is in. Maybe discuss some legislation I’d like to propose during the upcoming session.”
“Oh. Okay.” I had heard whispers of the crazy senator from Gable County—one county over from ours—who thought our power grid was vulnerable to terrorist attacks. He had claimed in a recent speech that with just a few keystrokes our country could be taken back to the Ice Age. “I look forward to the conversation,” I said.
The western sky lit up in multiple flashes of light. “Well,” said the senator, “I’ll let the two of you get on the road before these storms hit. Careful gettin’ home, now.” He nodded to us both, then turned and left.
When Declan and I were inside his SUV and on the road, he cast a sideways glance my way. “You be careful meeting with the good senator.”
“Why? What do you know about him?”
“I know he likes his young ladies.”
I smiled. “Are you serious? You’re actually concerned about that fifty-something-year-old man with a protruding beer gut hitting on me? He’s old enough to be my father.”
“Let me ask you this: How did you meet Senator Reiner?”
“I met him when he recommended Alli to me.” Alli Krueger was my amazing intern, who had been working for me since May.
“And who is Alli to him?”
I thought back to my conversation with Senator Reiner at the time. “They met when they were both stranded at Reagan National. He’d been in DC on business, and she was on her way back to take a summer class at the Sanderson School. She was looking for a summer internship that would give her experience in her field. She’s incredibly talented. I’m lucky to have her.” I sounded more defensive than I’d meant to.
“That doesn’t change the fact—”
“That she’s a beautiful young twenty-something woman who Senator Reiner just happened to meet in the airport and connect with.”
“You said it, not me.”
I smiled. “You’re crazy. That was just an incident of a smart woman being in the right place at the right time.”
“Don’t be naïve, my dear Brooke.”
“He is good-looking. Sort of. If I liked older men.” I grinned at Declan.
My phone chimed again. Another text from the governor. “Mac’s blood pressure must be sky high right now,” I said. “Maybe I better call him and talk him down.” I dialed the governor’s number.
“Are you watching this?” Mac said in answer.
“I’m watching the lighting approach. Is that what you’re talking about?”
“No. Have you seen the radar?”
“Not in the last twenty minutes, but I’m on my way home, and I’ll pull up the radar when I get there. Kentuckians know how to prepare for thunderstorms, Mac. The meteorologists, the news reporters, and my team at Homeland Security made sure everyone was aware of the potential seriousness of these particular storms. All of our first responders are on standby. Now get some sleep. You’ll receive a call if we need to take action on anything before morning.”
He sighed. “You’re right. I think I will get some sleep.”
“Good. I’ll speak to you soon, Governor.”
I started to hang up, but then heard Mac again. “Brooke?”
“I’m glad you decided to head up Homeland Security. I feel safer with you there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And stop calling me sir or Governor in private.”
I laughed. “Goodnight, Mac.”
When I hung up, Declan smiled at me. “He’s going to have a long night.”
Declan drove us along the bucolic back roads of prime Kentucky horse country on our way to Shaughnessy Farm. A streak of lightning zigzagged in front of us, followed instantaneously by a piercing clap of thunder. Sparks and splinters flew from a tree that had been struck less than a quarter mile away.
“I’m afraid we all might,” I said.
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