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Excerpt - Midnight Caller by Diane Burke

Camy here: I love featuring debut authors, and this month, it's my pleasure to introduce this new author with Steeple Hill's Love Inspired Suspense line! Enjoy the excerpt!

Midnight Caller
Diane Burke

Three deaths, one connection—the anonymous calls all three women reported in the weeks before they died. Detective Tony Marino wants to close this case before another woman disappears. Especially when he meets a fatherless little boy whose mother is being stalked. Single mom Erin O'Malley tells Tony about her anonymous caller's heavy breathing and unnerving silences. And the feeling of being watched—constantly. Now, after years of thinking he had nothing to offer a wife and child, Tony will do anything to protect the family that feels like his own. Because Erin is next on the killer's list.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Friday, 3:30 p.m., Florida

His fingers tapped an angry rhythm against the handle of the scalpel hidden in his pocket. Where was she? He checked his wristwatch for the third time in as many minutes. Her shift had ended thirty minutes ago. She should be standing in that doorway by now.



A boom of thunder, like cannon fire, shook the ground. A stinging stream of water hit his face, but still he didn't move from beneath the tree. He simply raised his umbrella and continued to stare at the entrance to the hospital.


A petite woman in her early thirties paused in the doorway of Florida Memorial and frowned at the weather.

What kept you, sweetheart? What's the matter? Afraid a little rain might hurt you? He chuckled at the irony of his thoughts. He shoved his hand back into his pocket, grasping and releasing the weapon. His pulse quickened. His skin quivered in anticipation.

From a distance, he watched as she rummaged through her tote bag and pulled out a magazine. A grin twisted his lips. Like that's going toprotectyou. Like anything could protect you now.

Eyeing the storm once more, the woman placed the magazine over her head and dashed to the parking lot.

He shadowed her at a discreet distance, not that it would have mattered. She was so busy trying to save herself from the storm, she was oblivious to her true danger.

She fumbled with her keys and dropped them. Seeming to realize the futility of trying to stay dry, she lowered the magazine, scooped up her keys and unlocked her car door. Her blond hair, wet and matted, hugged her skull.

He took out his own keys and slipped into the truck parked behind her blue minivan. Adjusting the rearview mirror, he watched her back out of her parking space. Her brake lights glowed at the stop sign before she signaled and turned into the late-afternoon traffic.

He turned the key in the ignition.

Hurry, little one, this way and that. None of it will matter because death is right behind you.

"I hate cops!" The kitchen door slammed shut behind Erin O'Malley. Seeing her aunt and son sitting at the table, she grinned sheepishly. "Sorry." She deposited the groceries in her arms on the counter.

Aunt Tess chuckled. "Sounds like someone got another speeding ticket."

"Yeah, going forty-five in a thirty-five zone. I'm a genuine NASCAR driver."

"Mommy, it's not nice to say you hate cops," Erin's five-year-old son, Jack, mumbled through a mouthful of cereal. "Cops are the good guys."

Good guys? One of those good guys had raised her, teaching her all she needed to know about secrets, pain and loss. And Jack's dad had been one of those "good guys," too. But it didn' t stop him from hightailing it out of their lives when Jack was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. No, thank you very much. She'd had enough of those "good guys" to last a lifetime.

"You've packed so much cereal in your mouth that the pressure has clogged up your ears, little man. Mommy said she ran into some 'great cops.'" She kissed her son's forehead and ruffled his hair. "Besides, what did I tell you about talking with food in your mouth?"

"Oh-kay." Jack gulped and swallowed his last bite. "I'm ready. Let's go."

Erin was daydreaming about a day off and almost didn't hear her son. A day of rest. Puttering around in her garden. Reading a book from her growing to-be-read pile. Maybe even sneaking in a bubble bath. The temptation to indulge herself brought a smile to her lips.

"Now, Jack, I think your mother might be a bit tuckered out." Tess patted his hand. "Why don't you and I have a picnic in the backyard and let your mother get some rest."

Jack turned to face her, his eyes wide. "But, Mommy, you promised."

The urgency in his voice snagged her attention. She blinked and just looked at him while her brain scrambled to get out of daydream mode and process what he said. She remembered now. They'd been planning to attend the annual Wish for the Stars fundraiser and today was the big day.

This year it coincided with the upcoming Easter holiday. Carol Henderson, her best friend and member of the planning committee, told them the opening ceremony included a parade led by the Easter Bunny and more than five thousand eggs hidden away for the hunt. Later, there'd be music, hot dogs, hamburgers, soda and chips. All for a nominal price of admission.

Jack grew more excited as the day approached. His excitement must have stemmed from the thought of having a whole afternoon to play with Amy, Carol's daughter. Best of friends just like their moms, they had fewer play dates due to crazy work schedules now that the hospital was transitioning to the new building.

Or maybe he was excited because he loved picnics.

Either way, Erin had to admit she was looking forward to the event herself. She'd been antsy lately. Feeling unsettled. Wary. And not sure why. Probably because winter had clung longer than normal to Florida this year.

Or maybe she felt unsettled because she hadn't been sleeping well lately because of prank calls throughout the night.

Erin's gaze fell upon the small walker beside her son's chair and her heart clenched. No matter how tired she was or how inviting a relaxing day at home might be she knew she couldn't let her son down. After all, asking to go on an Easter egg hunt wasn't unreasonable. She glanced at her watch. If they hurried, they'd be just in time for the parade.

"Finish your milk and we'll go," Erin said.

Jack reached for his glass and knocked it over.

Erin grabbed a dish towel and started to sop up the liquid.

"I'll get Jack changed," Tess said.

Erin nodded. "Thanks, Tess. Don't know what we'd do without you."

"Never mind that," she said, but blushed beneath the compliment. She shooed Jack toward the bedroom.

Erin glanced at the empty doorway and thought about how lucky she was that Tess had moved in to help after Erin's father, Tess's brother, had died. It had taken years for her father and Erin to reconcile but she had been devastated when he was killed. She didn't think she would have made it through without Tess and her newfound faith to comfort her.

The phone rang.

Lost in thought, the trilling sound startled her. It rang a second time. She stood perfectly still, staring at the instrument like it was a dagger poised to strike. Please, God, not another one.

She hugged her arms to her body. Uneasiness crept up her spine. She was surprised she was letting a few anonymous telephone calls make her this jittery. It had to be that boy down the street. He had harassed the neighborhood for days last year until his father discovered what he was doing. He was probably up to his old tricks. She needed to get a hold of herself. And she needed to go have a chat with the boy's dad.

Erin grabbed the phone on the fourth ring.




No reply. She'd answered at least a dozen calls over the past three days, half of them waking her in the middle of the night.

"I know you're there." Erin pressed the phone tightly against her ear. Straining to hear something. Anything. The breathing grew heavier, but still, no one spoke.

"Quit calling here or I'm going to call the police." She slammed the phone in the cradle. Yep, it had to be a bored teenager playing a prank. Absently rubbing her arms, she continued to stare at the instrument. But it didn't feel like a prank. She didn't hear muffled giggles on the end of the line. She heard—She didn't know what she heard. She only knew that her instincts blared an inner warning that something was wrong and she had learned through the school of hard knocks to trust those instincts.

"Ready, Mom?" Jack rolled his walker across the room and grinned up at her, wearing his favorite green-striped shirt with the dinosaur logo and a pair of jeans.

Shaking off her anxiety as the result of lack of sleep, she leaned down and hugged him. "You bet. Let's go."

Less than an hour later, while they waited by the side of the parade route, Erin's sense of uneasiness returned. Crazy as it was, she couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching them. Goose bumps shivered along her arms. Glancing over her shoulder, her eyes roamed the crowd. Children and adults formed two lines up and down the parade route. Some of the parents had brought folding chairs. Others stood. Children sat cross-legged in the grass. A young couple chased a laughing toddler bent on escape.

Nothing sinister. Nothing ominous. Why couldn't she shake this feeling?

Erin recognized many of her coworkers from the hospital. She couldn't identify everyone by name, but she'd passed them in the halls or had ridden with them on an elevator. She waved to the ones she did know and nodded to others. It seemed like half the hospital staff came. Dr. Clark and his family. Shelley from the cafeteria crew. Mr. Peters from housekeeping. Even Lenny, the lab tech, had come. But that was no big surprise. The hospital cosponsored the event and all personnel had been encouraged to buy a ticket.

She turned her head and her eyes lit on her friend. She waved for Carol to join them. Erin banished her anxiety when Carol elbowed her way through the crowd and stood beside her.

"Can you believe this?" Carol asked. "I knew we'd have a crowd, but this is twice as many people as I expected. Times are tough. Money is tight, but it didn't stop folks from reaching into their wallets to buy a ticket for a good cause, did it?"

Carol scooped Amy up into her arms. The child's soft blond curls framed a little round face which held a smiling mouth and the slightly slanted eyes of a three-year-old Down syndrome child.

"You've done a great job, Carol."

"Not just me. The committee worked hard and it looks like it paid off." Music began playing and the excitement of the crowd became palpable. The sound of children's laughter and yells of excitement tinkled in the air like wind chimes.

"The parade's about to begin. Look," Carol said, pointing to her right. "Here comes the Easter Bunny."

He steadied the camera and clicked a picture. Then, he took another. He cursed when people moved in front of him and obstructed his view of her. Move. All of you. Get out of my way. He elbowed his way through the crowd until her image filled the camera lens again. Click. She threw her head back and laughed. Click. She shaded her eyes against the sun while she talked. Click. Click. Click.

Her son waited for his mother's attention. The child leaned heavily on the walker, shifting his weight from one leg to another. But his mother was too busy flapping her gums to pay any attention to him. The boy tugged on her shirt. She glanced down, signaled for the child to wait a minute and returned to her conversation. He knew it. He knew he was right about her. She was self-centered and selfish. A rotten excuse for a mother.

He wasn't at all surprised when the boy wandered away. The woman didn't even notice he had gone. A deep hatred flowed through his veins like molten lava. She was like all the other women. Soon he would make her pay. Click. First he had to finish the job he started last night. Click. She'd pay, all right. Click. Click. She deserved to die.

* * *

The sun beat down without mercy as Tony Marino looked out over the crowd from his vantage point on top of the picnic table. Not even a hint of a breeze. This kind of weather you expected in August in Florida not April. Remember spring, Lord? Supposed to be warm and balmy, not hot and sticky. But it was hot. Miserably hot. And he wasn't any closer to finding a lead on this case.

He wanted to curse so badly his lips twitched. Five years ago when Tony had found the Lord and decided to mend his ways, cursing seemed the easiest vice to attack first. He was wrong. As a detective for the Volusia County sheriff's office cursing had been a natural part of his daily conversation. No different than any other word. He started out promising himself to say a prayer and put a dollar in a jar each time he uttered a curse word. When his prayers took hours and his jar collected enough money to buy a small car, he knew it was going to be more difficult than he first believed.

But he succeeded.

Not one errant word in five years.

Until today.

Sweat rolled down the back of his neck and beaded on his forehead. All he could think about was the case. He wanted to call his partner. See if there were any new leads. He wanted to get back to the files on his desk. Maybe he'd missed something. He wanted to be anywhere but here. What a colossal waste of his time, babysitting a stupid rabbit.

He glanced at the cage resting beside him. The rabbit didn't look hot or uncomfortable despite the crazy multicolored cape tied to its body. It just chomped away on a carrot totally oblivious to the world. Lucky rabbit.

He couldn't believe he'd been roped into this job in the first place. Carrying the "Easter Bunny" at the head of the parade and officiating at the opening of the Easter egg hunt. He knew the captain liked his men to volunteer in the community. Winters had played Santa for the kids in the hospital. Garcia, dressed as a super hero, had toured the schools and talked about the danger of drugs. But when his number had come up on the volunteer list, what did Sarge assign him? Easter Bunny duty at the fundraiser for the Wish for the Stars Foundation. Great foundation. Fulfilled dreams for sick children. Good for the kids. The pits for him.

Tony had agreed to do it not just because it was his turn. Or because it was for a charity he deeply believed in. But last night another woman had gone missing. He planned to mingle with the crowd. Keep his ears open to idle conversations. Keep his eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. Because something was very much out of the ordinary. A monster had invaded their peaceful community. They'd already discovered two bodies and now a third woman was missing.

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