SCROLL DOWN TO READ CHAPTER 1 of FATAL RECKONING
When tragedy strikes, a cold case suddenly turns hot—and deadly
A peaceful morning is shattered when Washington Metro Police lieutenant Sam Holland’s beloved father succumbs to injuries from an unsolved shooting while on duty four years ago. As the community rallies around Sam and her family, one thing becomes crystal clear: her father’s death has turned the unsolved case into a homicide—and it’s on her to bring her father’s killer to justice.
But the case has been cold for years…until an anonymous tip that’s too shocking to believe leads Sam down a dark and dangerous path. Her husband, Vice President Nick Cappuano, knows if she can’t solve this case, it will haunt her for the rest of her life. She’ll need the strength of their bond to pull her out of the darkness before it’s too late, because as the missing pieces rapidly fall into place, Sam realizes the truth might just break her all the same—and that her father’s killer isn’t done yet…
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Fatal Reckoning, Fatal Series Book 14
By Marie Force
As she had every morning for seven days, Sam reached across the bed, looking for Nick, finding his side of the bed cold and unoccupied. He would be home from his trip to Europe later that today. Thank God. In his absence, she’d been forced to make due with rushed FaceTime conversations on their son Scotty’s phone, texts and the press coverage of the trip that had included an audience with Queen Elizabeth. Sam had been sorry to miss the chance to meet a woman she idolized, but she’d remained at home to care for their Scotty as well as Alden and Aubrey, the five-year-old twins who’d recently become part of their family after their parents were murdered.
She’d put the time to good use, getting “the littles,” as Nick had nicknamed the twins, back on a schedule that included a return to their preschool. Dr. Trulo, the Metro Police Department psychiatrist, had helped her find a qualified therapist who would work with the children together and individually to help them cope with their terrible loss. And she’d fielded phone calls from their mother’s family members, who were suddenly concerned about their well-being now that the men responsible for their parents’ murders had been brought to justice.
Sam couldn’t stand hypocrites and had gritted her teeth each time a member of a family that had initially expressed no concern whatsoever for the children called to check on them. Fortunately, their parents had made their older brother, Elijah, their legal guardian, and he’d asked Sam and Nick to serve as the children’s custodial guardians while he finished college at Princeton. What would happen after he graduated, Sam didn’t know and couldn’t think about. Not now when the children needed everything she and Nick and their devoted assistant, Shelby, had to give them to get their lives back on track, or as close to it as they could get without their beloved parents.
One step a time, she told herself, just as she often did while working a homicide investigation. The activity with the littles had been good for her as she served out a seven-day suspension for taking in the children of her murder victims, something she’d do again in a hot second. Was it a conflict of interest? Absolutely, but she hadn’t thought about that when she saw two babies in need of something she could give them. It had only taken a few days after she brought them home for everyone associated with their household to fall in love with the blond-haired twins.
She moved from her pillow to Nick’s, which bore faint remnants of his distinctive cologne, the scent of “home.” If her time-zone calculations were correct, he would be on Air Force Two by now, about to begin the seven-hour flight home from France. Her phone rang, and she wondered if it was him, telling her he’d be home soon. Greedy for anything from him that she could get after a week apart, she grabbed the phone and flipped it open without checking the caller ID.
“Sam!” Her stepmother, Celia’s urgent tone had Sam sitting up in bed.
“Morning. What’s going—”
“Sam, it’s your dad. Something’s wrong.”
“I’m coming.” Sam was out of bed and running before she gave a thought to the fact that she was wearing pajama bottoms, Nick’s favorite ratty Harvard T-shirt and no bra. She bolted from the bedroom, past the shocked Secret Service agent in the hallway and down the stairs as she held the phone to her ear and tried to beat back a tidal wave of panic. The agent working the front door opened it for her, thankfully without asking any questions. As she didn’t have Secret Service protection, Sam could come and go as she pleased, and the agents had gotten used to her mad dashes.
Barefoot and oblivious to the cold October air, she sprinted down the ramp Nick had installed so her dad could visit their home and covered the short distance between her home and her father’s in seconds, cruising up the ramp to his front door and bursting into the house.
“Back here,” Celia called.
Sam went from the living room through the kitchen to her father’s bedroom in what used to be the dining room. With one quick glance, she saw that his color was all wrong and his lips were blue. In that moment, none of her training or years of emergency experience was available to her. In that moment, she wasn’t a decorated police officer. She was only a daughter staring at the lifeless face of the first man she’d ever loved.
“Sam! What should we do?”
Celia’s frantic tone and her fearful expression nudged Sam into action. With shaking hands, she called 9-1-1 and requested help.
The operator asked for specifics.
“Sixty-four-year-old unresponsive quadriplegic.” She recited the Ninth Street address. “Tell the Secret Service that Lieutenant Holland said to let them in.”
“Of course, Lieutenant.” The operator perked up when she realized who she was talking to. “Do you know the victim?”
“Yes.” Sam tried to swallow around the huge knot of fear wedged in her throat. “He’s my father.” My touchstone. My hero. My best friend forever. “Please hurry.”
“EMS is on the way. Has your father had any recent health issues?”
“Nothing other than the paralysis.” He’d been doing better in the last year after surgery to remove the bullet that had remained lodged in his neck for three years. He’d regained some sensation in his extremities, but he’d become frailer with every month spent immobile. Sam walked around the hospital bed to comfort Celia, who was stroking Skip’s face and hair and begging him to open his eyes, to talk to her.
“Please don’t do this,” Celia said pleadingly between sobs. “Not yet. Don’t leave me.”
Debra Nixon, the lead agent on Scotty’s detail, appeared in the doorway, probably after having been told of Sam’s sprint. “What can I do?” She assessed the situation with sharp eyes.
Holding the phone to the side, Sam said, “Tell the agents at the checkpoint to let in EMS.”
“Done. What else?”
“Ask the agents at the house to keep an eye on the kids? Don’t let Scotty come over here.” Dear God, Scotty… He adored his Gramps. All at once, Sam couldn’t breathe as the potential magnitude of what was happening registered, leaving her staggered, her legs nearly buckling under her. Somehow, she remained standing, but only because Celia needed her to keep it together. Inside, however, she crumbled.
“EMS has arrived,” the operator said. “I’ll pray for your family, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you.” Sam slapped the phone closed.
Debra went to let in the paramedics, who brought equipment and badly needed competence. They immediately took over, tending to Skip as Sam and Celia stood with their arms wrapped around each other. Watching one of her worst fears play out, Sam wondered if she might be dreaming this. It had to be a dream because the possibility that this could be real was too frightening and heartbreaking to entertain.
The lead paramedic looked to Sam and Celia. “Has he had any recent health issues?”
“Nothing other than the paralysis and a persistent urinary tract infection.” Celia dabbed at tears with a tissue. “He’s been on antibiotic for that.”
“Has he ever been unresponsive like this?”
“No,” Celia said. “Never.”
Sam knew she should call her sisters but couldn’t bring herself to move or do anything other than hope and pray.
The paramedic listening to her father’s heart shook his head, and the other one sprang into action, setting up a portable defibrillator. Seeing the paddles and understanding what they were doing snapped Sam out of the dreamlike trance she’d slipped into as the surreal scene unfolded around her.
“No,” Sam said. “No.”
“Sam!” Celia cried. “What’re you doing?”
Sam stared at the face of the man who meant the world to her. “It’s not what he would want.” She knew it without a shadow of a doubt. In some ways, the most difficult decision she would ever make was also the simplest.
“Please, Sam.” Celia sobbed helplessly. “Please.”
Sam met the intense gaze of the lead paramedic. “He has a DNR.”
Hearing that, the paramedics stepped back.
Sobbing, Celia pulled free of Sam’s embrace to lean over her husband, kissing and caressing the half of his face that had retained full sensation after the shooting and the stroke that’d followed. Long after his injury, Sam and her sisters learned that for some time he’d been dating Celia, who became his devoted nurse and later, his wife.
“Lieutenant,” one of the paramedics said. “Would you like us to transport him?”
A lifetime of holidays, celebrations, parties and other events in this house ran through her mind in a flash. Skip Holland had lived there for most of his adult life. It seemed only fitting that his life should also end in the home he’d loved. If he was in pain, he probably couldn’t feel it. She took comfort in that.
“No, thank you.” Sam’s heart hurt, her hands trembled and her mouth had gone dry from fear. How would she ever go on without him?
The paramedics stepped out of the room.
Sam wanted to beg them to stay. She couldn’t handle this. She couldn’t bear it. Tracy. Angela. She had to call them. Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely make the call to her eldest sister.
“Are you losing your mind without your man?” Tracy asked in a teasing tone.
“What? Sam? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Dad. You need to come. Tell Ang too. Hurry.”
“What?” Tracy asked, frantic. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s… Just come. As fast as you can.”
“Call Angela and get over here. Now.”
“We’re coming,” Tracy said, sounding undone.
Sam moved around to the other side of the bed and gazed down at her dad’s face as he struggled to breathe. Tears threatened, but she fought them off, determined to stay strong for Celia, who was hysterical.
They’d been on borrowed time for almost four years now, during which Skip’s once-robust world had been reduced to three rooms. He’d been trapped in a kind of hell she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. All that time, she’d known that at some point his body would surrender the fight.
Knowing it could happen at any time didn’t make the reality easier, though.
Her sisters lived close by, so it didn’t take them long to get there, rushing into the room and bringing the scents of cold and wood smoke with them. They took one look at Skip and broke down into heartbroken sobs when they realized what was happening. Sam didn’t acknowledge them or do anything other than stare at the face of the man who’d occupied the very center of her life.
“What can we do?” Tracy’s husband Mike asked, as he stood behind Sam and her sisters.
“Nothing,” Sam said. “We have to let him go because he wouldn’t want heroic measures.” Later, she’d probably wonder where her composure was coming from. All she knew for certain was that her dad had lived long enough trapped inside the prison of his useless body, and it was up to them now to let him go with the grace in which he’d lived his remarkable life.
Angela went around the bed to try and comfort Celia, who was inconsolable.
Tracy wrapped her arms around Sam. Only with her sister’s warmth pressed up against her, did Sam realize how cold she was.
As she wondered if he could still hear them, Sam thought about what she should say to him while she still could. But there was no need for last-minute salvos. Nothing had been left unsaid between her and her father. He would leave this world knowing exactly where he stood with her and the rest of his family. Skip Holland had been loved and respected and adored by his wife and daughters and had returned those sentiments tenfold.
They were all there, the four people he loved the most, when Skip took his last breath at eight thirty-seven.
Sam noted the time, because she knew it would matter. For a long time after his chest stopped moving, she continued to stare down at him. Through the fog of the surreal, she understood what had happened, and in one tiny remote part of her, she felt relieved for him. She’d never been a particularly religious person. However, the thought of Skip walking tall and proud, freed from the god-awful prison of his egregious injury, into the kingdom of heaven, brought badly needed comfort.
But when she thought about Celia, herself and her sisters, Skip’s beloved grandchildren, devoted sons-in-law, colleagues and friends—the many people who had loved him—she ached for everyone who would be left to go on without him. And in the corner of her soul that belonged to her family in blue, she seethed with rage, directed at the nameless, faceless criminal who’d taken Skip from them far too soon.
On the way home at last, Nick thought, watching the Paris skyline get smaller as Air Force Two climbed to altitude. He had a million things to do, emails that had given birth to more emails while he’d been away, briefing documents to review before he returned to the White House on Monday and a press corps on board hungry for interviews.
But all he could think about was eight more hours until he could see his Samantha. That felt like an eternity after missing her terribly for an endless week apart.
They were absurd. He knew it. She knew it. They didn’t care who knew it. What had started as a crazy, wildfire of attraction the night they met, had been denied for six long years until they were reunited at a crime scene, of all places. Sometimes Nick thought they were still making up for lost time almost two years after finding each other again.
That was the best explanation he had for the absolutely ridiculous love they had for each other, the kind of love that made a life worth living. He was eager to get home to spend time with Scotty and the “littles” who had recently joined their family. But he was absolutely desperate to see his wife, to hold her, kiss her, make love to her, breathe her in and stare at her gorgeous face. He could do that for hours and never get tired of the view. Her face was his favorite view in the world.
A knock on the door that separated his cabin from the rest of the plane, drew Nick out of his thoughts. “Come in.”
His lead Secret Service agent, John Brantley Junior, stepped into the room, his expression serious and professional as always. Brant rarely cracked a grin or removed the all-business façade that made him such an effective agent.
“What’s up?” Nick asked.
“We received a call from Agent Nixon.”
As Debra Nixon was his son’s lead agent, Nick’s first thought was for Scotty. “What?” He fought back a burst of panic.
“What about him?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that he passed away a short time ago. Mrs. Cappuano, her sisters and stepmother were with Deputy Chief Holland when he passed.”
Sam. Oh no, no, no. “I need to speak to my wife.”
“We’re attempting to reach her now. She’s not answering her phone.”
“Call one of the other agents and have them find her.”
Nick’s entire body felt cold with shock and despair as he imagined Sam dealing with such an awful loss, and while he was hours away from her. He’d never felt more useless or despondent as he imagined what she must be going through.
Brant returned a short time later, speaking on a secure satellite phone. “Hold on just a moment. Here he is.” He handed the phone to Nick.
“I’m here.” Her dull, flat tone told him so much but nowhere near enough.
“Babe… I’m so, so sorry.”
“Thank you. I know you loved him too.”
“I did. So much. I would give anything to be there with you right now.”
“I wish you were here too.”
“Celia called when she couldn’t wake him. The paramedics came, but I told them he wouldn’t want to be resuscitated.”
Oh God, she had been the one to make that call? Nick closed his eyes, put his head back against the seat and released a deep breath, trying to imagine what it had cost her to make that decision on her father’s behalf. “What can I do for you?”
“It helps to hear your voice. I have to go tell Scotty, and the kids will be getting up.”
“I’ll see you when you get here, okay?”
“I love you so much, and I’m just heartbroken for you and Ange and Trace and Celia.”
“Thanks. I love you too. I can’t wait to see you.”
“Me too, babe.”
The line went dead, and he handed the phone back to Brant.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Brant said, visibly shaken. “Is Mrs. Cappuano…”
“She sounds… bad. Flat.”
“She’s in shock.”
Nick leaned forward, elbows on knees, head in hands. Skip is dead. Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his face, his thoughts full of Sam, Scotty and the rest of their family. This would be a devastating loss for all of them. And it was a devastating loss for him. Skip had been a friend and father figure to him since the day Nick met him. Even paralyzed from the neck down, Skip had managed to completely intimidate Nick with the formidable blue-eyed stare that had put him on notice. Take care of my baby girl, or you’ll deal with me. Few things had ever mattered more to Nick than keeping the promises he’d made to Skip Holland that first day.
“I’m going to ask Mr. O’Connor to step in, if that’s all right,” Brant said.
Nick nodded and used the sleeve of his shirt to mop up his tears.
Terry came into the cabin, shock etched into his expression. “I just heard the news. I’m so sorry, Nick.”
Nick insisted his chief of staff call him by name when they were alone. “Thanks.”
“Were you able to talk to Sam?”
“I won’t ask how she is.” Terry took a seat. “Did you hear what happened?”
“He was unresponsive this morning. They chose not to resuscitate him. He had a DNR.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Get me home to her as fast as you can. I don’t care what has to happen.”
“I’ll arrange for Marine Two to meet us at Andrews. We can land on the south lawn of the White House and have you home within minutes.”
“Thank you.” That would be quicker than being conveyed to the city via motorcade, but it was still going to take far too long.
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