EXPOSED IN DARKNESS (In Darkness Book One)
“With Exposed in Darkness, Heather Sunseri has crafted a sophisticated and absorbing thriller enhanced by a high-stakes horse-racing backdrop and a hard-won romance you’ll relish.” ~Kathy Altman, USA Today‘s Happy Ever After blog, author of Tempting the Sheriff (Read the entire review here.)
Just days before the running of the biggest thoroughbred horse race in the world, an act of bioterrorism kills Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, and former FBI Special Agent Brooke Fairfax receives a video of the murder from her long-time anonymous source. When Brooke discovers domestic terrorists are actually after the governor—her late husband’s brother—and that the radicals are eyeing more targets, she heads to Kentucky to stop the threat.
Shortly after the political assassination, the FBI zeroes in on one person: international mogul Declan O’Roark. Though Brooke has been out of the game since her husband was murdered, her former boss thinks she is the perfect candidate to connect Declan to the crime.
Despite the FBI clearly establishing means and opportunity, Declan remains unfazed; his motives have nothing to do with murder, but with getting closer to Brooke Fairfax. And Brooke finds the case becoming even more unclear as she falls for the FBI’s number one suspect.
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Read Chapter One
I ignored the first three pings—the annoying sound of emails hitting my inbox.
My computer was across the room, I was still on my first cup of coffee, and it was only eight o’clock in the morning—way too early to deal with whatever was coming in. Sinking further into an oversized leather armchair, I pulled my grandmother’s quilt up around my neck with one hand and took a sip of creamy, perfectly sweetened, French vanilla coffee with the other. As I watched the hosts of the morning newsertainment show taste some disgusting-looking fruity dessert with shaved coconut, my computer pinged again.
While I preferred this kind of “news”—the kind that involved the latest recipes for getting through the remaining cooler weather days—over the “real” news that favored the latest doom and gloom, I couldn’t help but keep one eye on the ticker scrolling across the bottom of the television with “Breaking News.” Out of habit, mostly.
Once upon a time, my job had required that I stay on top of all breaking news items. Both the ones that made the national and world headlines, and the ones that were a little more… classified.
My computer pinged again. I flinched a little this time.
I took another sip of coffee, then reached for my phone on the side table. Nothing there, no texts. Just my wallpaper—a photograph of one of my last happy memories before my life went to shit. I switched the phone out of silent mode, but mentally reassured myself that the pings were just evidence that my email’s spam filter had stopped working. Or my mother had finally resorted to hassling me via email rather than her normal incessant phone calling.
The newsertainment team moved on to a segment on fashion—something about transitioning from winter to spring and how to layer without downgrading your fashion sense. The ticker continued to run headlines.
Growing increasingly uneasy, I swallowed another sip of coffee. That’s when I saw it. His name stood out from the news ticker.
I sat up a little; the quilt slid down my arms. Dressed in only a thin camisole and silk pajama shorts, I felt my goose bumps swell as air hit my skin. I set my mug aside and shifted in the chair to dig for the remote control that had fallen down beside the seat cushion. I rewound the news by sixty seconds and read the ticker again. This time out loud.
“Lt. Governor of Kentucky Melissa Centers is dead. Kentucky State Police speculate Truman Spencer was target. Spencer will give live news conference shortly.”
I pushed up from the chair, let the quilt pool at my feet, and stared across the room at both the computer and the TV. A cold sweat formed across my neck.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
I padded barefoot across the hardwood floor until I stood in front of the computer, the screen black. My heart sped up at what might be lurking behind the darkness.
Draped over the back of the desk chair was Teddy’s cashmere sweater. I let the soft fabric slide through my fingers before I slid it over my head to envelop me in familiar warmth.
I brushed my fingers across the mouse pad, waking my computer screen. My hands trembled as I typed my password, one keystroke at a time. Slowly and deliberately. Then there they were: the words behind the pings. Subject line after subject line. Every one the same, and in all caps.
BROOKE, TIME TO GET BACK TO WORK!
I crossed my arms, hugging the softness of Teddy’s sweater around me, and swallowed.
Each of the emails had an attachment. My first instinct was to open one of the emails and the corresponding attachment, but I hesitated.
I knew the drill. I’d been through this many times before. The attachment could disappear after I opened it, and I’d be the only one to have seen it.
Or the attachment could give my computer a deadly virus and destroy more than just the accompanying attachment.
I pressed my fingers into my forehead and closed my eyes. “Think, Brooke. Think.” The sender of the emails obviously intended for me to have the information. “Just like all the other times,” I whispered.
But I was out of the game. I had left the FBI over a year ago, unable to continue in my role as an analyst. Or as a special agent, the job I’d held before that. Life had broken me, and I’d left. So why was someone sending me information now?
It didn’t matter. I had it, and I knew I couldn’t ignore it. I opened my eyes and stared at the repeated subject lines. And as if a gun had fired to signal the start of a race, I sprang into action and let instinct take over. I dug an external drive from my desk drawer, plugged it into my computer, and made a backup of everything on my hard drive. Then I started recording my keystrokes and everything that appeared on my screen, preserving whatever I saw next.
When I was ready, I returned to the email.
It was empty except for the file. I double-clicked the attachment, and a video popped up.
It was a dim room. People laughed. Men were dressed in suits. Flashes of color indicated women in dresses. It looked to be a ritzy cocktail party.
The video was shaky, probably taken from someone’s phone based on the low quality, and the image went in and out of focus. Then the camera zoomed in on one person in particular. A woman. “Melissa Centers,” I whispered. The lieutenant governor. I’d seen her on television before, at an event with Truman.
The people in the video raised their glasses in some sort of toast, then tipped back their beverages. Everyone cheered.
Several seconds passed.
The person filming the video moved closer to the lieutenant governor. The image became clearer. That’s when everything went south.
The smile on the lieutenant governor’s face faded. Her eyes widened. She stumbled, dropped her glass, and struggled to catch a breath. Her hands clawed at her throat, then stretched out to her side, grasping for something—anything—as she collapsed to the floor.
People screamed. Others rushed to her side.
The video zoomed in on her face, her wide, terror-stricken eyes. She was no longer moving. A trail of foamy liquid slid from the corners of her lips.
I slapped my hand over my mouth.
More screams erupted, and the video went black. At least it didn’t wipe my hard drive, as I had feared.
I grabbed my phone on my way to the kitchen. A single wine glass, stained with last night’s merlot, sat on the counter next to an empty wine bottle. I removed a clean juice glass from one cabinet and a bottle of bourbon from another. After pouring two fingers of bourbon, I turned the glass up and swallowed the amber liquid, closing my eyes and cringing through the burn. When I opened my eyes again, I eyed the glass warily, considering the image of the lieutenant governor doing exactly the same thing moments ago.
I picked up my phone and dialed.
“Donaldson.” Special Agent Mike Donaldson answered on the first ring.
“I need you.”
That was all it took. Three little words, and I was back in the game—a game I had no desire to play.
After asking Mike to come to my house—without offering any specifics as to why—I ended the call.
In front of me, sitting on top of a stack of mail, was a fancy piece of cream cardstock, embossed with curly script. I’d almost discarded it several times over the last week. It was an invitation to a party hosted by Kentucky’s Governor Truman Spencer, and it was scheduled for tonight.
I let well-trained muscles click into action. I raced through my quaint Virginia house, gathering laundry, both clean and dirty, and throwing it all on my bed. I removed Teddy’s sweater and stripped off my pajama shorts. I found a pair of jeans, slid them on, and pulled a black cardigan over my camisole. I slid some short ankle boots on my feet.
From the top of the closet, I got my suitcase and began stuffing it haphazardly with clothes from my bed, from dresser drawers, and from the closet. I darted to the bathroom and gathered an armload of toiletries.
When I’d filled one suitcase, I carried it to my car and stuck it in the back seat of my Mini Cooper. Then I returned to my bedroom closet, tossed boots, high heels, flip-flops, and anything else I thought I might need into a canvas bag, grabbed more clothes in my arms, carried them out, and stuffed the bag and the loose clothes into the car’s tiny trunk.
The last thing I did was grab the unopened box holding a new laptop from the top of my closet. I packed it into a computer bag, along with the drive I’d just used to back up my old computer. I loaded this into the car as well.
Back in the living room, I flinched at the sound of a car door.
The FBI had arrived.
Mike stood in the doorway, the look on his face difficult to read. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. Not since Teddy’s funeral.
He was bigger than I remembered. Taller. His dirty blond hair was longer, but still short enough to spike in the front. He rubbed his hand across a well-groomed beard—another change.
I frowned at the gold band on his ring finger. “You got married.”
His hand froze before he held it out in front of his face and stared at the ring, as if he’d forgotten it was there. His eyes found mine. “Yeah. Last month. We wanted to invite you…”
I shook my head and held up a hand. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what, Brooke?” The line in his jaw went rigid. “You haven’t spoken to anyone in over a year.”
That wasn’t exactly true. I saw people at the grocery store and places like that. And I had friends. And how would Mike know who I had or hadn’t spoken to? “You knew where I was,” I said sheepishly.
“Surely you didn’t call me to discuss my ability to find a missing person.”
“No.” I backed up and gave Mike room to enter. That was definitely not why I had called him.
His investigative gaze circled the room, profiling me in less than ten seconds. I wrapped my cardigan tighter around me and squeezed my arms across my chest. Mike spoke with his back to me. “I’m assuming you saw the morning news.”
“I saw the headline.” I was trained not to listen to information reported by the media about a case I might be called to investigate—for risk of tainting actual evidence.
He turned, studied me. Apparently he thought he saw something in my eyes that most certainly wasn’t there. “No.”
“No to what?” I asked. But I knew what he was thinking.
“No,” he said again. “The director is never going to reinstate you just because you feel guilty about Teddy. And what, now you want to save his brother?”
“That’s not what this is.”
“No? Then what are you up to?”
“He found me.” I swallowed hard, keeping my gaze pinned to his and refusing to show an ounce of the vulnerability I was feeling.
When he narrowed his eyes in question, I walked to my computer, woke it by touching the mouse, and entered my password. Staring back at us was a screen full of the same subject line repeated over and over.
“Is it Romeo?” he asked.
Romeo was considered a confidential human source, or CHS, on the last few cases I’d worked on with Teddy. I was an analyst with the Bureau at the time, but I was also Teddy’s backup when Mike wasn’t available. Romeo had chosen to provide me with information, and had refused to have contact with anyone but me. Other agents had named him Romeo—because of his apparent infatuation with me.
“Have you opened the attachment?”
I nodded. “It’s a video of the lieutenant governor at some event where she was poisoned.”
He clicked on one of the emails and opened the attached video. After watching it, he straightened. “Fuck.” He tapped on his phone and lifted it to his ear. “Get in here,” he ordered the poor soul on the other end. He turned to me. “I’ll take this from here.”
“What is that supposed to mean? He contacted me. How are you going to take care of it?”
A man pushed through my front door. By the way he was breathing, he’d sprinted from the car. “What’s up?” His eyes met mine. “Oh. Hi, Brooke. It’s been a long time.”
“Hi, Carlos. How’s it going?”
Carlos Salazar had become Mike’s official partner after Teddy died. He’d been with the Bureau less than a year at the time.
“Good. You?” he asked. He didn’t even attempt to hide the uneasiness he was feeling standing with Mike, me, and the giant elephant in the room.
“Take her computer,” Mike ordered, not giving me time to answer Carlos.
Carlos looked from Mike to me and back to Mike. “Okay, boss.” He headed for the computer.
I didn’t even pretend to object to them taking my computer. I had expected it, planned for it even. After Carlos unplugged my computer and carried it out the door, Mike faced me. “I’m going to put an agent on you twenty-four seven. We might need you to come in to make a statement.” I started to object on both counts, but he lifted a hand to silence me. “Look, Brooke, CHS or not, Romeo is dangerous… and if the lieutenant governor was truly poisoned—”
“Don’t be an asshole, Mike. I know firsthand what Romeo is capable of, and what this murder looks like.” My voice climbed steadily. “But you don’t know what Romeo wants any more than I do. Besides, I don’t need, or want, your protection. I might not be a part of your team any longer, but I’m not brain dead. I know how this works.”
Mike winced at the venom oozing from my voice. We both had our share of anger stored up. “I’m not suggesting you can’t protect yourself. But these guys—if it’s the same guys—won’t hesitate to take you out if they think you’re involved again. I don’t know why Romeo sent you those emails, but—”
“It’s a game to him. He wants me to take the bait and play again.”
“You did the right thing by calling me.”
I crossed my arms and stood in front of the window, looking out onto the front lawn. Clouds had moved in, and it looked to rain. “It would have been wrong of me to withhold evidence in an active investigation.” I faced him. “Thanks for coming.”
He took several slow steps toward me, touched my arm, then leaned in and kissed my cheek. “Take care of yourself, Brooke.” He retreated, keeping his dark eyes trained on mine. “But stay away from this case. I’ll have an agent here within the hour. For your own safety. Don’t fight me on this.”
When the door closed behind him and his car disappeared down the road, I grabbed my leather jacket, phone, and car keys, and headed for the garage where my car was already packed with everything I’d need for an extended trip to Kentucky.