Easterly, the Bradford Family Estate, Charlemont, Kentucky
There was someone trespassing down in the garden.
In the lazy, hazy Southern night, beneath the flower-tasseled fruit trees, and between the saucer-sized tea roses and the squads of trimmed boxwood hedges, a figure was inside the ivy’d walls, moving over the brick paths, heading for the back of the mansion like a stalker.
Jonathan Tulane Baldwine squinted and leaned closer into his bedroom window. Whoever it was . . . they were in a crouch and sticking to the shadows, and the efficiency with which they chose their way suggested they knew what they were doing and where they were going. Then again, it wasn’t that hard to find a twenty-thousand-square-foot white birthday cake of a house in the dark.
Turning away from the wavy old glass, he looked to his bed. Lizzie King, the love of his life, was deeply asleep in the pillows, her blond hair gleaming in the moonlight, her tanned shoulder peeking out from the silk sheets.
Funny, these moments of clarity, he thought while he pulled on a pair of boxer shorts. As he considered who it might be, and came up with nothing good, he realized without a doubt that he would kill to protect his woman. Even though she could take care of herself, and he felt like he was relying on her now more than ever . . . if anybody tried to hurt her?
He would put them in a grave faster than his next heartbeat.
With that resolve, he went silently across the Oriental rug to an antique bureau that had been in his family since it had been made in the 1800s. His gun was in the top drawer on the left, under the rolls of finely woven socks he wore with his tuxedos. The nine millimeter was compact, but it had a laser sight, and it was fully loaded.
He disengaged the safety.
Letting himself out into a hall that was long as a city street and appointed with all the grace and formality of the corridors in the White House, he kept the weapon down by his thigh. Easterly had twenty or so family and guest bedroom suites under its prodigious roof, and as he passed by doors, he counted who was inside—or should have been: His younger sister, Gin, although not her new husband, Richard, who was away for business; Amelia, Gin’s sixteen-year-old daughter, who had yet to go back to Hotchkiss for finals; Jeff Stern, Lane’s old college roommate and newly appointed CEO of the Bradford Bourbon Company. And then of course, Lane and Gin’s mother, Little Virginia Elizabeth.
It was possible that any of them could be down there for a two a.m. stroll. Well, except for his mother. In the last three years, Little V.E. hadn’t been out of her room for anything other than his father’s visitation mere days ago—and even though that occasion had warranted the effort, seeing her dressed and on the first floor had been a shock.
So it was unlikely it was her.
And as for staff? The butler had quit and none of the maids stayed overnight—well, and the maids had all been let go anyway.
No one else should have been on the property.
Halfway down the hall, he walked through the second-story sitting area and paused at the head of the formal staircase.
The security alarm was not going off down below . . . but he hadn’t put the system on when he and Lizzie had gotten home from the hospital.
Hell, had he even bothered to lock the thousand or so doors on the lower level? He couldn’t remember. It had been nearly midnight and his brain had been a mess, images of Miss Aurora in that ICU bed tangling him in knots. Dear Lord . . . that African-American woman was more his mother than the neo–Daisy Buchanan who had birthed him—and the idea that the cancer was taking Miss Aurora away from him organ by organ was enough to make him violent.
Descending the grand stairs, which were right out of Tara’s playbook, he bottomed out on the entry foyer’s black and white marble floor. There were no lights on, and he stopped again and listened. As with all old houses, Easterly talked when people moved through its rooms, its beams and boards, hinges and handles, conversing with whoever walked around.
Pity. Kentucky law provided a homesteader defense if you killed a trespasser in your house—so if he was going to shoot somebody tonight, he’d prefer to do it inside rather than out. That way, he wouldn’t have to drag the body through some doorway and arrange things so it looked like the sonofabitch had been breaking in.
Continuing on, Lane went through the shadowy rooms in the public part of the house, the antiques and old paintings making him feel like a security guard checking a museum after hours. Windows and French doors were all around, bracketed by great swaths of vintage Fortuny, but with the lights off throughout the first floor, he was as much a ghost as whoever in that garden was.
In the rear of the mansion, he went to one of the doors and stared out across the flagstone terrace, searching through the wrought-iron loungers, chairs, and glass-topped tables, seeking that which did not belong or was in motion. Nothing. Not around the slate skirt of the house, at least.
Somewhere out in the greenery, however, a person was stalking his family.
Turning the brass handle, he gently opened the door halfway and leaned out, the mid-May night embracing him with warm, heavy air that was fragrant as a bouquet. He looked left. Looked right. The gas lanterns that ran down the back of the mansion threw flickering light, but the peachy pools of illumination did not carry far.
Narrowing his eyes, he scanned the darkness as he exited and carefully shut things up behind himself.
As with all homes of its stature, the great Federal manse had extensive formal gardens sprawling around it, the various layouts and planting zones forming landscapes as unique and distinct as different zip codes in a city. The unifying element? Elegance at every turn, whether it was the Roman statuary striking poses in the midst of miniature hedge patterns, or fountains that sprinkled crystal clear water into koi ponds, or the pool house’s wisteria-covered arbor.
This was Mother Nature subjected to the will of man, the flora cultivated and nitpicked and maintained with the precision one would use to decorate an interior room. And for the first time in his life, he thought of the cost to keep it all going, the man-hours, the plant material, the constant mowing and weeding and pruning, the worrying over those two-hundred-year-old brick walls and walks, the cleaning of the swimming pool.
Craziness. The kind of expense that only the super rich could afford—and the Bradford family was no longer in that stratosphere.
Thank you, Father, you sonofabitch.
Refocusing on his mission, Lane put his back against the house and became a deer hunter in a stand. He didn’t move. Barely breathed. Stayed quiet as he waited for his target to present itself.
Was it Max? he wondered.
His parents’ loveless marriage had produced four children— a shock considering his mother and father had rarely, if ever, been in the same room together even before she had taken to her bed three years ago. But there was Edward, the golden eldest son, who had been hated by their sire; Max, the black sheep; Lane, who had turned being a playboy into an art form—at least until he’d been smart enough to settle down with the right woman; and finally Gin, the promiscuous rule thwarter.
Edward was in jail for the murder of their dreadful father. Gin was in a hate-filled marriage for money. And Max had finally come home after several years of being unreachable, a bearded, tattooed shadow of the frat boy he had once been, who despised everyone, including his own family—to the point where he was staying in one of the staff cottages down at the back of the property because he refused to be under Easterly’s roof.
Maybe Max had come up here to the big house for . . . God only knew what. A cup of sugar. Bottle of bourbon. Perhaps to steal some silverware?
But how could he have gotten into the gardens? How could anybody? Two sides of the acres of flowers and lawn were protected by that brick wall, which was twelve feet high and had barbed wire on the top and two padlocked gates. The third side was even more difficult to get through: His father had converted the old stables into a state of the art business center, from which the Bradford Bourbon Company had been run for the last couple of years. God knew you weren’t getting through that facility, not unless you had a pass card or the codes—
From over on the right, a figure darted down the alley of blooming crab apple trees.
Gotcha, Lane thought as his heart kicked into high gear. Shifting his position forward, his bare feet were silent over the flagstones as he rushed across the terrace and took cover behind an urn big enough to take a bath in.
It was definitely a man. Those shoulders were too broad to be a woman’s.
And the bastard was coming this way.
Lane leveled his gun at his target, holding the weapon steady with two hands as he straight-armed the autoloader. As he kept himself perfectly motionless, he waited for the trespasser to funnel down that pathway and come up this set of side steps.
He waited . . .
. . . and waited . . .
. . . and thought of his extremely estranged, soon-to-be ex-wife, Chantal. Maybe this was a private detective sent by her, coming to get some dirt on the financial scandal at the BBC, some information on how bad the bankruptcy was, some angle that she could use against him as they ground their non-existent relationship into dust.
Or perhaps Edward had broken out of jail and was coming home.
Doubtful on that one.
The trespasser made a last turn and then was coming right for Lane. But his head was down, a baseball cap pulled low.
Lane kept tight until he was absolutely sure he could hit the chest. Then he squeezed the trigger halfway, the red laser sight slicing through the night and forming a little dancing spot right where the guy’s heart was.
Lane spoke up, loud and clear. “I really don’t care if I kill you.”
The man stopped so quick, his feet skipped on the brick. And those hands popped up like whoever it was had mattress springs in their armpits.
Lane frowned as he finally saw the face. “What are you doing out here?”
Copyright © 2017 by J.R. Ward. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.