When she turned around, it was like her face slapped me hard.
"What the fuck?" I whispered. "Briar?"
She drew in a huge breath. "Oh my God. August."
Every fiber in me seemed to explode. It was like seeing a ghost come back to life. More so than when I'd discovered Beau. I didn't have words. I just stood there, staring, not believing she was alive and well and...
"Sweetheart, go get something to eat, okay? I need to talk to this nice officer for a minute."
"Okay, Mommy. Do you want a bagel?"
"Sure, sweetie. Anything."
And a mother. The little girl looked exactly like her when she was a kid. My stomach felt as if a huge bolder pitched into it. I couldn't process the gravity of her presence. How it might connect with Daniel. Or even Beau.
But as soon as the girl skipped away, my mind caught up and anger burned inside. I crossed my arms and stared hard at her, not saying a word.
She looked guilty as hell which infuriated me. How could she do that to us? To Beau? He was beside himself at losing his twin. I was a wall of indignant rage, more for my fiancé than myself.
"Why?" was all I could say.
"I just...it's a long story, August. I don't think this is the time or..."
My voice was a low growl. "If you don't explain yourself to me now, I'll have no choice but to arrest you on suspicion of two murders. So I suggest you try."
Just then, my partner came up behind us. "Hey, August, is everything okay?"
"Yeah, just give us a minute." I shot a look at him that said, "Get lost."
He nodded. "I'll just be right over here if you need me." He pointed behind the huge dog memorial in the center of the park.
As Ronan jogged away, Briar brushed her hand over my arm. I jerked it back.
"Oh, August...there's too much...I'm so sorry. I am. I found out I was pregnant with your child back then and I panicked."
Another slam. "What?" I hissed.
She winced. "I-I would have told you but Daniel would have gone on a rampage. I was afraid he'd beat me until I aborted or done something to you. I just couldn't take the chance, so...I staged my death. I would have contacted you later but someone murdered Daniel and wrote me this note, threatening you, Beau, everyone I loved if I ever contacted you or Beau again. I just couldn't risk it. Not ever. I couldn't lose you or Beau or...our daughter."
Emotions overwhelmed me as I realized what she must have gone through. She had been pregnant with my child and couldn't even tell anyone? And then raised her all the while the killer lived, watching. I swept her into my arms as she cried.
"I'm sorry, August. I really am. You don't know how much I've thought of you over these years. How often I wanted to find you. To find Beau."
I held her tightly, wishing I could zip back in time and make things right between us. There was so much regret. But one thing I could do was find out who did this to us.
Who would want us separated?
I led her over to a park bench where she told me how Amber, Etoile, and Wilder helped stage her death. Wilder coordinated with some men to use Amber's boat. Etoile made sure one girl witnessed Briar jumping. "So, you see, I don't trust any of them. They were the only ones who knew where I was staying, and that note came shortly after Daniel's death. I've pretended I don't suspect them, but...I just keep to myself with a different identity. Wilder gave me some money to keep us afloat until I could get back on my feet. Since Daniel died, I had nothing to fear except the murderer. I'd hoped one day you or Beau would come back to Brindleton Bay. But still...I'm scared they'll find out we've connected."
"I'm going to catch who did this, Briar, and they'll go to jail. Don't worry. Did you know what happened to Beau at the time of the murder?" I asked.
She nodded slowly. "I...I went back to my apartment that night to collect some of my things. There, I saw Daniel dead on the floor in a pool of blood. And beside him was Beau. I didn't know what had happened but was worried Beau may have killed Daniel. I knew a friend who was a doctor. She saved Beau's life. I was going to visit him, but I got that threatening paper. My friend told me Beau left in a panic once he'd recovered. I was so helpless and scared, August. I still am. What if they see us right now? Oh, God..."
Briar put her face into her hands.
"Mommy? Why are you sad?" the little girl asked.
Wiping her face, Briar feigned a smile and said, "I'm okay, honey. Just talking with this nice man."
"I'm a friend of your mom. What's your name?" I asked, not believing this pretty girl was my daughter. It was so surreal.
"Lexie. Are you a cop, mister?"
"I'm a federal agent." When she squinted like she had no clue what that was, I added, "You know...like a spy. Have you ever heard of Secret Agent 007? That's kind of like what I do."
Her face beamed. "Oh, yeah, I know what that is. You shoot up scary guys, huh?"
I chuckled. "I try not to shoot anyone, but yeah, I do chase down scary guys sometimes."
At that, Briar popped up and said, "Mommy and the nice man need to talk a little more, sweetie. Would you eat your breakfast at that table over there? I'll join you in a minute."
"Okay, Mommy!" she said, brightly.
Briar gave Lexie a huge hug. I felt a little out place as sadness washed over me. I was just a stranger to Lexie, not a father.
"She's cute," I said. "I want to get to know her better, you know."
Wincing, Briar said, "But August. It's too dangerous. I don't even like us being here together. What if they see?"
"They couldn't have eyes all over town," I said, then I stopped. It was as if the Brindleton Bay fog had lifted, and I could see clearly. "My God...why didn't I put the pieces together before?"
"I think I know who did this. Listen, I want you to take Lexie home. I'll send someone out to guard you, okay?"
She blinked wildly. "O-Okay...what are you going to do?"
I clutched her hands. "I'm going to catch the killer."
Dusk settled over the Brindleton Bay mountains as the wind seemed to pick up. Clasping me on the shoulder, my partner said, "Are you sure you're ready to do this?"
"Hey, it's me," I said, "What could go wrong?"
"Dude, wasn't that Custer's last words before he was killed at Little Big Horn?"
I laughed. "I don't think anyone knows that, Rone. I'll be fine. I know what I'm doing."
"Okay, well, I got your back...just in case."
"I wouldn't want it any other way, brother." We knuckle bumped as nervous jitters fluttered within me. I'd never been so shaky in a sting before. Maybe because this was personal. It meant everything to me. To Beau. To Briar and Lexie.
I wouldn't let them down.
"Good luck," Ronan said.
I gave a curt nod then turned toward the modern mansion as a roving lighthouse shone a light along my path.
The moon rose ominously over the three story home.
I drew in a deep breath, determined that nothing would go wrong.
Knocking forcefully at the door, I said a tiny prayer as I waited for the door to open.
I was greeted with a surprised look by the owner. "Oh, August. I didn't expect you here."
Giving a knowing stare, I said, "Neither did I."