The Darkest Hour (Poppy McGuire Mysteries #4)

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Poppy and Alex come up against their toughest case yet, and they may never be the same again.

When someone close to both Poppy and Alex is found brutally murdered, all the clues point to Alex as the killer. But Poppy knows in her heart that her partner could never commit such a heinous crime. As the evidence begins to mount against him, Poppy must race against the clock to prove that the man she trusts with her very life isn’t the murderer, even as everyone around her is convinced of his guilt.

But if Alex isn’t the killer, who is? As the mystery unravels, the past and present finally meet in Sunset Ridge.

READ AN EXCERPT

The sound of my Jingle Bells ringtone woke me from a sound sleep, startling me from a recurring dream of me running and stopping only to be buried alive in sand. I’d begun having the dream right after my mother died, and whenever my subconscious felt helpless, the dream crept back into my nighttime mind. This was the first time I’d had the dream in months, though.

As I opened my eyes and looked across the room to see the frost framing my bedroom windows, I had no idea why the dark recesses of my mind thought I should feel helpless or lost. The holidays had been a flurry of good times with my father, and things between Alex and me had never been better. We hadn’t gotten as serious as I’d hoped to yet and still hadn’t slept together, but I chalked that up to his inability to let the past go. I’d known he was haunted by the ghost of his wife when I kissed him that night in October, so I worked to quietly temper my desire for more.

All of this ran through my mind at lightning speed as my phone continued to jingle on the nightstand next to me. Forcing my eyes to remain open, I rolled over and grabbed it without looking at the caller ID. There really was no reason to look anyway. Only two people in the world called me in the middle of the night, so it was either my father or Alex whose voice would hit my ear momentarily.

“Hello?” I groggily mumbled, silently asking why they’d interrupted my sleep.

“Poppy, it’s Derek. I’m sorry to wake you, but something’s happened.”

Hearing his deep voice instead of my father’s or Alex’s surprised me. Pulling the phone from my ear, I looked at the time. 4:17. Why was Derek calling me at four o’clock in the morning?

“What do you mean something’s happened?” I asked as my brain tried to recover from sleep mode.

“I need you to get down to the apartment building across the street from The Eagle. Hurry, okay?”

“What? What are you talking about?” I asked, slowly coming out of my fog, but it was no use. He was gone already.

I hopped out of bed and quickly dressed as my mind kicked into full panic mode and questions exploded one after another. Why was the police chief of Sunset Ridge calling me about something happening in the early hours of the morning? He had officers who handled the overnight shifts and hadn’t worked one since becoming chief nearly a year ago. What awful event had roused him from bed before his usual nine AM arrival at the station?

Then a horrible thought tore through my brain and made tears fill my eyes. Derek would only call me if something had happened to my father. Nothing else would make him involve me in one of his cases.

As I raced down the stairs to head out to my car, I called my father but it went directly to voicemail. That wasn’t normal. My father’s phone was always left on. He was one of those people who never let his phone run out of a charge. Over and over, I called and every time my heart sank a little lower when his comforting voice intoned that same voicemail message he’d had for as long as I could remember.

I backed out of my driveway like a bat out of hell and tore down the road toward the apartment building on Main Street where Derek waited to break the news that I’d lost my father. I wiped the tears rolling down my cheeks, warming the ice cold steering wheel with them. What had happened to him? Why would he have been at that building instead of at his place over the bar? My father hadn’t told me about anyone new in his life recently. Had he met someone at McGuire’s and gone back to her house?

A million ideas flashed through my mind. He’d been told by his doctor right before the holidays that he needed to lower his blood pressure, but his love of salt had continued unabated through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Had he had a heart attack and been found dead?

The last words I said to him echoed in my head as I parked my car a block away because of the police barrier. He’d called right before nine to remind me to turn on my humidifier since the heat had been running in my house and it tended to make it almost unbearably dry. I’d brushed him off because I was thinking of something Alex had mentioned about going to Baltimore for dinner one night this week and told him I’d be sure to get the humidifier running, the idea leaving me as soon as the words left my mouth. I’d then said goodbye and that I loved him, but it had been more rote than anything real and full of feeling.

How could I have been so thoughtless? My last words to him and they’d been nothing more than a daughter’s dismissiveness to the only real family she had left.

I wiped the tears from my cheeks and steeled myself for what Derek had to tell me. Craig stood in the middle of the street redirecting curious onlookers away from the apartment building about a block away and smiled at me when I approached him, but it wasn’t his usual happy smile. His face told me this wasn’t just some crime scene like usual.

And then he spoke and I knew it was bad.

“Poppy, I’m sorry. I know you two were close.”

Tears welled in my eyes again. Close wasn’t the word for what my father and I were. I had no grandparents left alive, and after my mother died, he was all I had in this world.

I thanked Craig with a gentle pat on his shoulder and made my way to where Derek stood on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. As I walked toward him, my legs moving as if on their own since my brain was occupied with thoughts of how I’d go on without the man who’d been there every day of my life, I tried to decipher Derek’s expression to figure out what had happened. His frown made him look much older than his thirty odd years, and in his eyes I saw real sadness like when he lost his brother.

Reaching out, he put his arm around my shoulders and quietly said, “A neighbor found her sitting in her car. I want to warn you, though. It’s bad.”

I leaned against him, thankful for the support, and then stopped dead in my tracks as his words finally made it through all the other thoughts in my brain. “Her? This isn’t about my father, Derek?”

He shook his head. “No. Why would you say that?”

Relief washed over me as tears of joy now filled my eyes and began to roll down my cheeks. I wiped them away and smiled. “You didn’t tell me what had happened, so I naturally thought my father had been hurt or worse.”

“No, it’s not your father. As far as I know, he’s home safe and sound in bed, like I wish I was.”

My eyes dry now, I stood there confused by Derek’s still sad look. “Then why am I here at some crime scene and speaking of that, where’s Alex? You know I do my amateur sleuth thing with him.”

Derek didn’t cheer up at all from my attempt at being cute. “Not on this one, Poppy. Come with me.”

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