Benoit and Dayne Mystery, Book 2
Release Date:

Jan 27, 2022

ISBN:

978-1-956387-78-0

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Hush, My Darling

by

Winter Austin

Sometimes, the past starts to bleed into the future…

Dark memories haunt Eckardt County Deputy Lila Dayne. Two years ago, she survived a serial killer’s attempt to add her to his growing list of victims in Chicagoland, but the fight cost her more than just time lost to surgeries and rehab. Now she’s finally beginning to connect with the people in this small section of southeast Iowa, even if she can still sense him watching her.

Sheriff Elizabeth Benoit has her sights on bringing down Eckardt County’s corruption when two bodies surface, both bearing striking similarities to the serial killer victims discovered along I-80—and one delivers a personal message for her department. Lila spirals out of control under the pressure, pushing everyone out of her life.

As Elizabeth and her deputies try to bring Lila back into the fold, the killer closes in, marking his next victim. Lila must shake free of her fears and trust those who have supported her—or the killer will finish what he started.

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Prelude: Saturday Night

Growing up in the Jackson Park neighborhood of Chicago, Lila Dayne didn’t have many good memories. The ones she did have were the nights when it rained. She’d open her curtains and watch the lightning ripple across the sky over Lake Michigan. If it was summer, she’d pry open her ancient bedroom window and let in the smell of electrified air. Storms hadn’t bothered her in those days. They were tame compared to her home life.

Years later, her love of rainstorms would forever be tainted.

A crack of thunder had jolted Lila from her nightmare. She slipped from the bed, careful not to disturb the lump next to her, and padded out of the bedroom into the kitchen. She would not sleep as long as it stormed. Hugging herself, Lila tiptoed up to the sliding glass door and peered outside.

Lightning lit up the backyard, creating eerie shadows from the trees and bushes. The momentary bright flash revealed the downpour. Thunder rumbled through the sky seconds later. Swallowing against the panic clawing at her throat, Lila turned from the sliding glass door. She headed toward the soft blue glow emitting from the living room.

Gerry, her pet beta fish, drifted aimlessly through his temperature-controlled waters. She bent over and peered into the tank. Seeming to sense her presence, he rotated and floated into her line of sight. They stared at each other for a moment, until Gerry got uppity and darted into his Easter Island statues.

“One day I’ll get you a woman and she’ll put you in your place,” Lila muttered at the taciturn fish.

Another crack of thunder left her shuddering. She grabbed a folded blanket from the sofa, shook out the large fleece throw, draped it around her shoulders, and flopped down in the middle of the couch. With her legs tucked up under her, she tried to burrow deep into her covering. At each flash of lightning and crack or rumble of thunder, she trembled.

But Lila refused to close her eyes. Doing so would have her return to that night. Her clenched jaw ached as she prevented her teeth from chattering. She dared to focus on the sound of the rain, but that, too, was a grim reminder.

He had used the storm to mask the sounds of his attack. Breaking into her home, throwing Lila into the fish tank, and thrusting that blade into her body and destroying what little bit of happiness she’d finally come to have. In the end, he hadn’t finished the job. He’d been spooked away, leaving Lila bleeding out next to her precious, dying koi.

She’d laid there among the shattered glass and puddles, unable to call out, listening to the rain pellet the front stoop through the open door.

She could still smell the fish tank water mingled with her blood. Feel the blood leaving her body. Sense her life fading as her fish gasped their last breath.

“Lila?”

The male voice slashed through the memories. She yelped, throwing the blanket aside. She bolted from the sofa and ran for the door.

“Lila, stop!”

Her frantic hands couldn’t make sense of the locks. She was trapped. He was going to kill her this time.

A hand on hers, and she froze momentarily, until the instinct to fight kicked in. She swung her elbow back, intending to connect with his abdomen, but instead he moved with her thrust and brought her around. The moment she was facing him, he released her and held his hands up in surrender as he stepped back.

“It’s me, Lila. Kyle.”

“Kyle?”

He lowered his hands. “Yes. Kyle.”

Clasping her hands over her mouth, she stifled a sob.

He closed the gap between them and dragged her into his arms. Lila pressed her face into his bare chest and gave in to her grief, curling into his body as if he were her lifeboat. Kyle embraced her tighter, caressing the back of her head, and said nothing.

How many nights in the last few months had he done this for her?

Her grief spent, she sagged against him.

“Is it gone?” he asked softly.

Her throat dried out from her ragged weeping, she merely nodded. Kyle untangled his arms from around her and dipped down. Lila was caught off guard as he picked her up, but instinct had her wrapping her arms around his muscled neck.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He grunted, then carried her to the bedroom.

“Kyle, I don’t—”

He stifled her protest with a kiss. Lila, too exhausted to push her protest further, gave in. After all, he’d seen her at her worst and hadn’t run. He broke their kiss to lay her on the bed and crawled in with her.

He pulled her into his arms and kissed the back of her neck as he spooned her body. “Go to sleep. It’ll be over soon.”

“Why?”

He rubbed his nose against her neck. “Why what?”

“Why haven’t you broken it off with me? I’m a train wreck.”

“Why are you questioning it?”

She turned her head to try to look at him. “Because people like me scare people like you.”

“Guess I’m not that scared.” He nudged her head. “Now sleep. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

Lila lay there, sinking into the feel of his arms around her and his warmth against her backside. Her tense muscles relaxed, and, eventually, the emotional turmoil dragged her to the cusp of sleep.

As she was drifting off, she realized the storm was over and the patter of rain against her bedroom window was all that remained. Though the residue of her flashback lingered.

Deep in the back of her mind, a voice whispered, “Heed the nightmares.”

Lila disregarded it.

Sheriff Elizabeth Benoit watched the downpour from the open doorway of The Watering Hole. The pounding of the rain mingled with the rock beats rolling from the antique jukebox that pumped through the bar’s sound system. The bar was deserted except for the owner, Elizabeth’s sister Marnie, and Elizabeth’s newly appointed undersheriff, Raphael “Rafe” Fontaine, and it had been that way for the last hour. When the first flickers of lightning rippled through the sky, the patrons had vacated the bar with hopes of making it home before the deluge started. Even the de-thorned king himself, disgraced ex-sheriff Kelley Sheehan, had abandoned his seat of honor for home.

The rain had been coming more and more often since the calendar flipped to August. Fields tall with corn and billowing beans were filling with water. Creeks were over their banks, spilling their excess into the rivers, which rose with each hour as the upriver dams allowed more water to escape. Flash floods were a daily threat. And the residents of Eckardt County were in emotional upheaval.

“National Weather Center says it should stop soon.” Rafe’s rough voice was a balm to Elizabeth’s own emotional upheaval.

“For as long and as heavy as this has been coming down, it has done its damage.” Elizabeth leaned against the wooden doorjamb and breathed in the wet air that smelled suspiciously like fish and mud. “We’ll be getting calls for washed out roadways when the sun rises.”

“All the more reason you should go home and sleep,” he said. “You’ve been here every night this week and getting home later and later.”

True. But what Rafe didn’t know was that when she got home, she might nap or doze off, but she wasn’t getting a full night’s sleep. Her brain refused to shut down, swirling with all the stresses that came with being the sheriff and now the problems with the flooding.

So far, they had not had to rescue anyone from flooded homes. Elizabeth’s proactive evacuation measures had forced everyone living in the flood plain, along with their pets and any livestock, to higher ground. Rafe’s wisdom and soothing tongue helped greatly when most of the residents argued with Elizabeth over the plan. Those who had listened and done what was expected of them were now singing her praises.

But was it enough? What about those who thought they might be out of harm’s way, still raising their pitchforks and hollering foul? And others pounding her with questions for things she just didn’t have the answers to. Worse, she was sensing a disturbance with her deputy detective, and Lila had begun to withdraw.

“Rafe, the same could be said for you.”

“Because I’ve been here trying to get you to go home.”

Elizabeth turned from the slowing rain and patted Rafe’s chest. “That’s what a good undersheriff is supposed to do.”

She moved to the bar where her sister was finishing her nightly cleanup. In a corner, lying on a special bed her second-favorite human had created for her, Bentley, Elizabeth’s devoted red border collie, lifted her head from her nap. Elizabeth wagged her fingers and Bentley resettled her nose on her crossed paws.

“He’s right, big sis. Go home. Sleep,” Marnie said, placing something on the bar top.

When her hand moved away, she left behind a small plastic packet. Inside were two small white pills.

“Are you seriously trying to give the sheriff drugs, li’l sis?”

Marnie scoffed. “As if. Those are melatonin. A natural sleep aid. Take them. You’ll sleep.”

“I do sleep.”

“Liar.” Marnie drained the water in the bar sink. “Those dark bags and deeper wrinkles say different.”

“I don’t have wrinkles.”

“Ha!” Her sister disappeared into the back.

Elizabeth picked up the pill packet. If Marnie wasn’t lying to her, these were safe. But would they really work?

“Wouldn’t hurt to try,” Rafe said as he came to stand beside her. “Bentley’s ready to go. I’ll walk you to the house.”

“It’s less than a half a block away.” Elizabeth pocketed the pills in her jeans. “You go home.”

“Ellie—”

She held up a finger like a scolding mother. “If you so much as play that macho card on me, I’ll smack you.”

“I was just going to say, use the umbrella this time.”

She smiled. “Fine.” Snapping her fingers brought Bentley to her side. “Come on, baby girl, let’s go home. Good night, Marnie.”

“Night!” came from the back room.

Elizabeth felt Rafe’s eyes on her as she exited the bar. Five years next month since she’d come home to Juniper, Iowa. Six years last month since she’d finalized her divorce with Rafe’s older brother, Joel, a Delta Force operative. In all that time, except for one heated kiss late last year, Elizabeth had not acted on her desire for Rafe. And he hadn’t on his desire for her. Even her ex-husband had given her permission to pursue that avenue. A lot of good it did when his own brother wouldn’t act on it.

She deployed the umbrella as she stepped out into the steady rainfall. Elizabeth trekked toward her house the next block over from the bar. Bentley, too tired herself, stayed glued to Elizabeth’s side. Together, they avoided the large puddles covering the sidewalk and spilling into the street.

Nine months into this job as Eckardt County sheriff and the newness of it had finally worn off. She’d wrangled more money out of the county to hire one more deputy, get Rafe into the position of undersheriff, and hire a nightshift dispatcher. Things were also easier after Elizabeth had put an end to a long-term drug problem in the county. But sadly, by shutting down one problem, she’d opened wide the barn doors on other long-term issues. Those had all taken a backseat when the flooding began.

Sighing, she mounted the steps to her porch. Once under the roof, Bentley shook the rain from her coat, splashing Elizabeth.

“Well, that defeats the purpose of an umbrella.” She shook the droplets free and closed the umbrella.

Ignoring her, Bentley trotted to the door and sat, waiting to be let inside. Elizabeth looked back toward the bar and watched as the undersheriff’s Charger rumbled to life and the headlights flicked on. A few seconds later, Rafe backed out of the parking space and pulled away, headed east toward his home. Elizabeth stood on the edge of her porch until the taillights faded from view.

Not for the first time in her life, she regretted the code of honor Rafe lived by.

Bentley huffed.

“Alright, I’m coming.”

Elizabeth unlocked the door and swung it open. Bentley darted inside. Elizabeth hesitated before entering herself and looked back at the rain. It had slowed to a soft patter. Over the drip-drip off the eaves an ominous roar reached her.

A violent urge to vomit hit Elizabeth with the same force as the floodwaters against the river levee. The Mighty Mississippi had wiped out Juniper’s last line of defense. She would be pouring into people’s homes and businesses and sweeping away anything not bolted down.

Elizabeth turned her back on the sound of rushing water and closed her door. Two little pills wouldn’t be enough to make her sleep tonight.

End of Excerpt

Hush, My Darling is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-78-0

January 27, 2022

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