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Slow & Steady #2: A Shameless Southern Nights Novel by J.H. Croix, Ali Parker (1)

Chapter One

Sonny

I witnessed a murder. The thought played on a loop in my mind. I witnessed a fucking murder.

The rapid tap of fingers flying across keyboards hummed around me at the station as my colleagues typed their weekly reports. Static burst from the scanner periodically with Zach’s voice instructing someone out on patrol where to go. Bright sunlight shone onto my desk, streaming through the windows beside me.

From the break room at the other end of the station, the smell of coffee wafted into the air along with the low murmur of officers chatting while they waited for a fresh pot to brew. A normal Monday morning at the station for everyone but me.

I was vaguely aware of what was going on around me as I stared out my window at the red brick walls of the community center next door. In my mind, every slam of a door was an echo of the gunshot I heard not too long ago. Every time I saw a guy in a suit, I idly wondered if they were responsible for the shot fired.

During my time as a cop and a SWAT team member, I’d seen blood and guts and gore. Plenty of it.

Not in Cypress Creek so often, since our small town was usually quiet and violence was mainly limited to a few drunken brawls after a game. Yet, we were called in from time to time to other areas to help with more serious situations.

Being no stranger to violence, I should’ve been able to shake the numb, stunned frame of mind I’d been in since it happened, but I couldn’t. I witnessed a murder.

And not just any murder, but the murder of the Internal Affairs agent who was after my best friend Zach and me for differing reasons.

Wayne Maclin was dead.

I saw it happen. How fucked up was that?

And if I said anything, everyone would assume that I did it.

I had my suspicions about his involvement in my father’s case, potentially a cover-up that led to an innocent man being jailed. There was no doubt the guy was corrupt, yet the last thing I’d expected was to witness his murder. The threads of questions I had now were a tangled mess. I had no idea how involved Maclin had been in whatever the hell was going on.

Now, there was no doubt he had been in deep. This whole corrupt mess was woven far more tightly than I could have guessed.

With Maclin’s role as an Internal Affairs investigator, people were going to realize he was missing. Soon. Once his absence was apparent, they would leave no stone unturned in trying to find him.

This was a shitstorm waiting to blow up in my face. My vantage point had been too distant to see who shot him. If pressed, I wouldn’t even be able to give an accurate description of the killers. I mentally weighed the pros and cons of approaching Yates. He obviously had information, and lots of it, but he wasn’t known for being forthcoming. Layering into the complication was he appeared to have his own involvement. He’d shoveled the dirt onto Maclin’s dead body for shit’s sake.

The chances of him giving me any information voluntarily were slim to none. Arresting him to make him talk was an option. Yet, if I were to arrest him under the circumstances, more questions would be raised than I could answer at this stage.

Rock, meet hard place.

Chief Harris knocked me out of the dizzying mental spin, his voice coming from the side of my desk. “Lovett. Have you seen Maclin around?”

Harris, my respected boss, knew I was tailing Maclin. He covered for me to be able to do it because he thought I might be right about Maclin being crooked. He’d also put his foot down with Maclin and asked him to leave the station last week.

“No, sir. Not today.” It wasn’t a complete lie since I saw Maclin get shot days ago. I was this close to telling Harris the truth every time I saw him, but I was holding back.

Biting my tongue was getting harder. I had to talk to someone about it, and Harris was the natural choice. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him though. I didn’t know who to trust anymore.

Harris’s pale blue gaze swept across mine, alert and curious. I tensed, wondering if he saw through my vague answer. If he did, he didn’t comment. Instead, he nodded slowly and dragged his hand over the scruff on his jaw. “Okay. Let me know if you do. Sounds like he’s ignoring his calls, and now it’s becoming my problem to get messages to him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. I’ll let him know to call you if I see him.”

Harris squinted down at me, still rubbing his beard. He and I both knew that last part was bullshit. Even if Maclin hadn’t been lying in an unmarked grave at the Cypress Creek Cemetery at this very moment, my following him wasn’t officially authorized. I would never simply walk up to him and tell him to call his office.

Harris glanced at the rookie officer sitting at the desk next to mine and nodded, clearly pretending to believe me when I said I would pass the message along for show in case the rookie was listening. So far, so good.

“Thanks, Lovett,” Harris called out as he turned and walked away.

Lying to Harris felt like hell. I had to get things figured out sooner rather than later before the pressure on me got too much.

In the meantime, I had to find someone else to talk to.

My options were limited though. If this mess went as deep as I thought it did, I had to be very, very careful about who I brought into the loop.

Which meant I was basically down to four people: my brothers. My oldest brother, Tyson, was the District Attorney for Cypress Creek, which ruled him out.

He would be as torn as I was, and the last thing I wanted was to put him in a situation like that, especially without having more facts. Tyson lived and breathed for facts, and I had few to offer.

Beau and Evan, brothers two and three, didn’t even want to think about anything concerning my father. They didn’t talk to, or about him, didn’t go see him, and generally tried to live their lives as if the whole thing with Dad never happened. As far as they were concerned, he did the crime and was doing the time for it. End of story.

Jeremy was the only one of us who talked to Dad regularly. He even went to see him every couple of weeks. We were close in age, being the youngest two, and as a result, we’d always been close.

Plus, Jeremy had been in some trouble himself not so long ago. I’d helped him out after things went south when he accessed some of the money our father had hidden away.

He was my only option and a good one at that. When Jeremy fell for Marie, he didn’t waste any time before swooping in to play the knight in shining armor in Marie’s custody battle for Austin.

Marie’s ex was a manipulative, lying bastard who’d sued Marie for custody of their son. His lies had drawn her into a messy, drawn-out custody battle she couldn’t afford. Because he’d do anything for her, Jeremy went to our father for help, correctly guessing ol’ Roy had some of the money that disappeared from our family trust stashed away. In going to Roy, Jeremy put himself on the radar of some of the people who were after our father for money he supposedly owed them.

All of which meant Jeremy was already involved, albeit from a different angle, with whatever was really going on with our father. Deciding to talk to Jeremy, I pushed away from my desk and grabbed my jacket to go see my brother. No time like the present to get this off my chest.

Jeremy had taken over the construction company he’d been working at for years shortly after meeting Marie. As I’d predicted, his truck was in the parking lot of the construction yard when I arrived. A massive, pitch-black dog slept at the stairs that led into Jeremy’s makeshift office. He barely lifted his head as I approached.

Bending over to scratch his head, I paused to greet my brother’s dog. “Hey, Arcadian. If you’re here, I’m guessing he’s inside, huh?”

Arcadian blinked his inky eyes, his tail wagging lazily as he rested his head on his paws again and dozed off. The gentle giant was Jeremy’s shadow.

“Sonny?” my brother called from inside. “Is that you?”

Walking over Arcadian’s sleeping form, I ascended the steps and leaned through the door into Jeremy’s office. “The one and only. Miss me?”

Jeremy laughed, the corners of his hazel eyes crinkling as he stood from his chair. He pushed his shaggy black hair from his forehead and crossed the office to flip the switch on his coffee maker. “Surprisingly, no. Not even a little. What brings you here?”

“I came for the coffee,” I told him, stepping inside and shutting the door behind me. I couldn’t be too careful about who overheard our conversation.

Jeremy pulled two mugs from a shelf above the small coffee station. His office was tidy and organized these days, complete with a brand new coffee maker and mugs with the name of his construction company on them, all courtesy of Marie’s influence. “I see Marie’s keeping things tidy around here,” I offered with a grin.

“Haha,” Jeremy replied sarcastically, finishing up with our coffee and handing me a mug. “There’s your coffee. You going to tell me why you’re really here?”

I settled into the chair across from Jeremy’s desk and took a gulp of coffee, savoring the bitter flavor. “Straight to the point, huh? No ‘how are you,’ or ‘it’s good to see you’?”

Jeremy coughed when he took a sip of coffee and chuckled at the same time, pounding a fist to his chest. “You didn’t come here for platitudes, but fine. How are you? It’s good to see you.”

“I’ve been better.” I blew out a breath, meeting my brother’s eyes as the whole story came spilling out. The moment I started talking, everything that happened from the first day I started looking into our father’s case tumbled out rapidly. There was no stopping it.

“And outside of all of that,” I ended by sharing my greatest concern. “I’m worried about Niki. I got her caught up in this shit all because she happened to work at the library where I went to review the files. It’s not fair to her.”

Jeremy took the shocking news well, as I’d have expected. He was a steady guy, not easy to rattle. His blue-green eyes were barely a fraction wider than they had been when I started, but I did notice that he’d hardly taken a sip of his coffee. “Let me start by saying I’m glad you came to me with this, but why didn’t you ask for my help earlier? Like when this Maclin prick started following you and things started getting dicey?”

“I was handling it,” I grumbled. “I still would’ve been, if it hadn’t been for the murder I witnessed.”

“Fair point,” Jeremy mused.

As was his way, he was quiet after that as he thought things over. He asked me a few questions and made some suggestions, but none of it got us closer to any solutions. Still, I felt better in knowing I wasn’t alone in this anymore.

“I’ll keep my ear on the ground, see what I can find out,” Jeremy said finally. “I’ll go talk to Dad too. He might have some information that could help us.”

“Thanks.” Having my dad’s input could be useful and with Jeremy asking him some questions, it wouldn’t be as suspicious, or as obvious if I showed up after all this time.

“I’m guessing it’s weighing on you who to talk to at the station. Anyone you can trust?” he asked.

I shrugged, taking another gulp of coffee. “No fucking clue. It’s driving me nuts. This is murder, and I don’t know who I can tell. I don’t know who else in the station is involved.”

Jeremy’s shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath as he shook his head. “Fuck. I’d say you should talk to Tyson, but if an IA man was tangled up in this, it’s hard to know if anyone at the DA’s office is. I’m not worried about Tyson, but the minute he knows about it, he’ll act on it. I don’t know if that’s best.”

“I don’t know what the hell to do,” I replied with a sigh. What a fucking mess.

“Tell me about this Niki girl,” Jeremy interrupted my train of thought, sending it careening right back to the track I struggled to keep it off of these days. “Marie likes her. She says you do too, and it looks to me like she’s right. Here I was thinking none of my brothers had the balls to fall in love. Welcome to the club.”

“Hate to break it to you, but just because you and Marie are all gaga doesn’t mean there’s romance in the air, brother. Some of us prefer to keep our balls in our own purses,” I said dismissively because I had no fucking clue what to do about how I felt about Niki.

Jeremy lifted an eyebrow, rolling his eyes at my stubborn refusal to admit anything was going on between Niki and I. He was right not to believe me. I didn’t believe myself anymore. I’d rapidly gone from telling myself I needed not to be involved with anyone, least of all her, to falling for her. Hard and fast.

“Believe whatever you want,” Jeremy said with a sly grin. “This denial, too, shall pass. I’d be willing to bet on it. Can’t wait for you to admit it.”

“I hope you’re nice and comfortable. It’s going to be a long wait.”

Jeremy chuckled, dropping his chin as he peered at me. “We’ll see about that. In the meantime, what are you going to do about Yates?”

“I’m going to go see him.” Though I was torn over it, I wanted to hear what he might have to say. I had no intention of letting the groundskeeper know I’d witnessed Maclin’s murder. “I’ll go under the guise of following up on his warning about Niki. See where it leads me.”