Eighteen years ago
Beckett Wilde stumbled from his car and inhaled, taking fragrant honeysuckle-scented air deep into his lungs. Thunder rumbled like a far-off freight train. Brilliant streaks of jagged lightning lit up the ink-black sky. He took in another deep breath. Rain was coming. The drenching that had been threatening for days was finally on its way. And the humidity would be a thousand times worse. Summertime in Midnight was always hotter than a firecracker lit at both ends, but this year was breaking all sorts of records.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Beckett shook his head to clear it and then narrowed his eyes to focus on the large structure in front of him. Hopefully by the time he made it inside, he wouldn’t feel like he was going to throw up all that good Kentucky bourbon he’d just guzzled.
As he weaved toward the three-story mansion that had been his home since his birth, he cursed his lack of coordination. Time was when he’d been able to throw back a half dozen bourbons before he felt even the slightest difference. Tonight he’d begun to feel the effects after two. Damn, he was getting old.
Actually, it was probably his lack of drinking that had created his low tolerance. With Maggie and the girls, he didn’t feel the need to soften the edges of reality. They made getting up every morning something to look forward to—not dread.
The argument with Maggie at the country club had taken him off guard. Half the town had been there to witness their spat. By the time he got to Shorty’s Bar a mile down the road, the other half knew about it, too. Damnable busybodies.
A few drinks in, he had begun to regret leaving her there like that. A wise man would’ve taken her home and had an adult conversation. Problem was, he and wisdom only had a passing acquaintance. Most times he did dumb stuff and Maggie would roll her eyes, shake her head, and forgive him. Being the handsome and charming only child of one of the oldest families in Alabama, Beckett got out of trouble about as easy as he got into it. Somehow Maggie loved him in spite of all that.
She had been in a tizzy even before they’d left the house. Their triplet daughters, Savannah, Samantha, and Sabrina, had left for summer camp this morning, and the girls had almost driven her crazy with their excitement and anxiety. Since Beckett had left for work early, he’d missed the brunt of their exuberant enthusiasm. He couldn’t say he regretted that. He adored his young’uns, but three overexcited ten-year-olds and a frazzled, exasperated woman buzzing around the house in a frenzy was something he could handle for only a few minutes at a time.
Poor Maggie had been exhausted when he’d gotten home. He had hoped a night out at the country club would’ve put her in a better frame of mind. And it probably would have if he hadn’t flirted with the new cocktail waitress. But those kinds of antics usually floated off his wife’s back. She knew he wasn’t serious. Hell yeah, he’d been a rabble-rouser and womanizer years ago, but once he’d fallen for Maggie, he’d given up those ways. Didn’t mean he didn’t like to charm the ladies. He was Southern, born and bred—stuff like that was ingrained in him.
The girls were gone. Even his daddy, who lived in the guesthouse out back, was in Mobile for the weekend. They were alone . . . that hadn’t happened in a month of Sundays. Instead of drowning his troubles in bourbon, he should’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to woo his wife again. Didn’t she know she was his life?
Cursing his selfishness, Beckett sped up, almost running the rest of the way to the side of the house, where he always entered.
The lights were off, but since it was going on midnight, Maggie had probably gone on to bed. He pushed open the door, giving little thought to why it wasn’t locked. In Midnight, folks didn’t have to lock their doors—one of the many advantages to living in a small town.
Beckett was in the middle of the kitchen when the first hint of something not being right hit him. It was too quiet. He told himself that the absence of his daughters just made the house feel different.
Assured that his uneasiness was unfounded, Beckett took another step, then froze. No, it was more than an empty house. The silence was eerily quiet, almost ominous. He shifted his gaze to the left and saw that the light above the kitchen island wasn’t on. Since this was the only light in the house that was kept on at night, he began to wonder. Then he noticed that the fridge wasn’t humming and the whir of all the ceiling fans on the first floor was absent and the reason for the silence hit him. Hell, no wonder. The electricity was out—it was nothing more than that.
He dropped his keys on the counter. Though it was pitch dark, he knew every nook and cranny of this house. To the left of the counter was a small desk. Beckett opened the desk drawer and withdrew a flashlight. He clicked it on and pulled his cellphone from the clip at his belt. Maggie was probably asleep and didn’t even know about the outage. If the power company couldn’t come out till tomorrow, it was going to be a long, hot night.
As he punched in numbers, a sound in the next room stopped him. Lifting his head, he looked toward the entrance to the dining room. “Mags? How long’s the power been out?”
No answer. Frowning, Beckett stepped forward. “Are you still mad at me? I’m sorry, honey, you know how I—”
Lightning flashed through the large bay window, casting light in the room and revealing a huddled body on the floor. Maggie!
Beckett rushed forward. “Maggie? Honey? What happened?” He fell to his knees beside her, barely noticing the warm wetness that seeped through the fabric of his pants.
Fear spiraled through him as he touched her face, which was soft and warm. His fingers went to her neck, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. Shock and denial screaming silently through him, Beckett reached for the cellphone he had dropped. An ambulance . . . he had to call an ambulance. Maggie was young and healthy—whatever had happened, they could save her. Dear Lord, he couldn’t lose her . . . he couldn’t!
“Don’t do that.”
Beckett whirled around. A man stood at the door. Though it was dark, he had no trouble recognizing him—the man had been in his house many times over the years. “What did you do?” Beckett whispered hoarsely.
“I never meant this to happen.”
Rage and disbelief shot through him. “You bastard!” Jumping to his feet, Beckett lunged toward the man he’d once called friend. A searing pain in the back of his head stopped him mid-flight. Stunned, Beckett crashed to the floor.
A deep, familiar voice rumbled above him. “Go turn the power back on. I’ve got another idea. This will work out better anyway.”
Facedown on the hardwood floor, Beckett tried to move. The agony in his head intensified, stopping all movement. He closed his eyes and then opened them again when he heard voices. A small, insistent whisper in his pain-blurred mind told him to get up—that something had happened—but his brain wouldn’t function properly. The pain was unbearable.
“What . . . happened?” Beckett mumbled, barely able to recognize the voice as his own.
Bright light flooded the room. Beckett blinked; finally able to raise his head slightly, he tried to focus. “What happened?” he asked again.
The deep voice above him answered, “You killed your wife . . . that’s what happened.”
“What?” Beckett whispered.
“Nobody’s going to believe that,” another familiar voice whispered.
“They’ll believe what I tell them to believe.”
Beckett knew he had to get up. Something was seriously wrong. Maggie . . . he had to get to Maggie. Dear Lord, what had they done to his Maggie? He tried to lift himself from the floor. Another pain seared the back of his head, more agonizing than before. Beckett’s mouth opened to scream out with agony, rage, and betrayal . . . only a slight whimper emerged. Thick darkness blanketed his mind, cloaking him in its smothering, consuming embrace. Then nothing.
Eight years later
“Savvy, have you seen my pearl necklace?”
“I think I saw it on your dresser yesterday,” Savannah answered. A huff of exasperation followed. “My hair still won’t lie down.”
A soft snort of disgust and then, “I can’t believe you two are acting so silly over some dumb dance.”
Smiling, his arms crossed, Daniel Wilde sat patiently outside the bedrooms of his granddaughters and listened to their excited chatter. Tonight’s dance was a special event for all of them—a benchmark moment they would all remember.
Savannah, shy and much too serious about most things, had surprised them all last month when she had firmly announced that she would be going to the dance. As it was her senior prom, she’d stated, it was a rite of passage for any teenager.
Her sister Samantha had been delighted to hear that news. Of course, there’d never been any question of whether Samantha would attend. The most popular girl in school, she had turned down at least a half dozen invitations before finally accepting a date from the star basketball player.
Their sister Sabrina, rebellious and sure to do the opposite of what people wanted or expected, had adamantly announced that she would most definitely not be going. Thankfully, and with much coercion from her sisters, she had changed her mind.
Uniquely individual, but in many ways so wonderfully the same, the girls were the joy of his life. Dear Lord, how he loved them.
After Beckett’s and Maggie’s deaths, he had assumed responsibility for their care. Though the tragedy of his son’s and daughter-in-law’s deaths had made him want to lie down and die, too, he hadn’t been able to wallow in his grief. Three devastated ten-year-old girls had needed him. Little did they know that they had probably saved his life.
Raising the girls hadn’t been easy, but any sacrifices he’d made had been worthwhile. Other than the occasional advice he’d sought from some of his female relatives and friends, Daniel hadn’t wanted or needed help. People had come out of the woodwork offering their assistance. A few had even offered to take one or two of the girls to raise as their own. Daniel had vehemently refused. Not just because he didn’t want the sisters separated or because they were his granddaughters. He’d had to do this for Maggie and Beckett. He’d failed them in so many ways. Taking care of their daughters was the very least he could do. And though he still grieved over the loss, he didn’t regret one moment of raising these amazing young women.
Hearing the whispers and giggles go silent, Daniel called out, “You girls about ready? I want to get some pictures before your beaus get here.”
Savannah came from Samantha’s room. The girls’ bedrooms all connected with one another—something their mother, Maggie, had insisted on when she learned she was having triplet daughters. She had said they would be one another’s best friends. She had been right. Though each girl, especially Samantha, had her own friends, the sisters were extremely close.
Daniel beamed at the demure but lovely picture Savannah made. “You look beautiful.”
The uncertain expression changed to a glowing smile. “Thanks, Granddad. I’m glad you talked me into buying a new one instead of wearing last year’s recital dress.” Slender, graceful hands smoothed down the off-white satin. “I like it even better than I did when I tried it on at the store.”
Before Daniel could speak, Samantha, a vision in ice blue, came through the doorway. “That off-white color looks great on you, Savvy.”
Savannah threw her an appreciative grin. “Thanks for picking it out for me. I just wish I could do something with my hair.”
“You need to stop trying to tame it. Let it go free.”
“Or get it cut off, like I did.”
Sabrina exited her bedroom and Daniel almost swallowed his tongue. The girls had gone shopping by themselves and this was his first look at their attire. Savannah and Samantha had chosen to wear elegant evening gowns. Samantha’s off-the-shoulder dress was a bit more daring than Savannah’s square-cut neckline with thin shoulder straps, but still respectable. The outfit Sabrina had opted for was neither elegant nor subtle. The only description he could come up with was “harem costume.” In fact, the last time he’d seen this kind of costume was a rerun of I Dream of Jeannie. Though surely Barbara Eden hadn’t worn combat boots.
“Sabrina Sage Wilde, what in the name of all that’s good and righteous are you wearing?”
Everyone turned at the shrill voice behind them. Gibby Wilcox, Daniel’s second cousin twice removed, had arrived. He had deliberately told her to come half an hour late. Gibby was a good-hearted woman but her nervous fluttering could wear thin at the best of times. He hadn’t thought having her advise three teenaged girls on the proper attire for a prom was necessary. Now he wasn’t sure he had made the right decision.
“I think she looks fabulous,” Savannah defended.
Before Daniel could comment, Samantha nodded emphatically. “I agree. Very avant-garde.”
Always one another’s staunchest allies, as usual the sisters banded together. Daniel watched Sabrina’s expression. The tilted chin spoke of defiance and the sparkle in her eyes told him she was waiting for him to tell her she couldn’t go. He also recognized the vulnerability behind the bravado—an emotion she tried so desperately to hide from the rest of the world.
As the shock wore off, Daniel took a moment to reevaluate Sabrina’s costume. Even with her midriff showing, the outfit was actually much less revealing than both her sisters’. Though demure, Savannah’s gown hugged her slender figure like a second skin, and Samantha’s gown, albeit decent, showed a bit more cleavage than he was truly comfortable with. Thankfully the wrap around her shoulders gave her more coverage. Sabrina was known as the “Wilde child” and had worked hard to earn the nickname. Yes, she had a different look, but that was to be expected. She thrived on being unique.
That settled in his mind, Daniel nodded. “I agree. She does look quite fetching.”
“But, Daniel, surely you can’t . . . I mean . . . she’s a Wilde . . . I . . .” Gibby shut off abruptly, her mouth opening and closing silently like a fish on dry land. A speechless Gibby was a sight to behold. Truth be told, he didn’t think he’d ever seen that happen.
Unfortunately that didn’t last long and she regained her composure quickly. “Well, at least make her wear decent shoes. Those look like something she found on the side of the road.”
“Actually I found them at a Goodwill store in Mobile,” Sabrina said. “They’re very comfortable.”
Daniel clapped his hands to get attention off Sabrina. “Now that everyone’s ready, let’s go out into the garden and take some pictures before your dates get here.”
Giving him a look that told him he was going to get an earful once the girls were gone, Gibby rounded the girls up and herded them downstairs.
Daniel blew out a sigh as he followed behind them. No, raising three teenaged girls hadn’t been easy, but it was the best and most honorable thing he’d ever done. He pushed aside the melancholy. Tonight was for his granddaughters. When the house was empty, he’d take the time to write his daily letter. How his wife, Camille, would have loved tonight’s event. If life had been fair or just, the girls’ mother and grandmother would have both been involved in readying them for this momentous occasion.
After his letter, he’d pour his one bourbon he was allowed each night and raise a glass to his beautiful daughter-in-law and handsome son, and once again apologize for not being wise or courageous enough to do what should have been done.
Excerpted from Midnight Secrets by Ella Grace. Copyright © 2013 by Ella Grace. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.