chapter 1 - The Darkest Hour (KGI #1) by Maya Banks

CHAPTER 1

HE’D hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today. Instead his eyes popped open at eight A.M., and sunlight promptly fried his retinas.

Ethan Kelly threw an arm over his face and lay there as the reality of the day hit him square in the gut.

June 16.

He could say something incredibly corny like . . . June 16, the day his world irrevocably changed. June 16, the day everything went to hell. Truth was, it had done that long before.

The phone rang shrilly from the nightstand, and he quelled the urge to smash it. Instead he listened as each ring pierced his skull like an ice pick.

When it didn’t quit in a reasonable length of time, he reached over and yanked the cord from the wall. It could only be one of his well-meaning family members, and the last thing Ethan wanted today was sympathy.

If it was his dad, he’d give Ethan a lecture about how Rachel wouldn’t like the man he’d become. No, Rachel hadn’t liked the man he’d been. Huge difference there. He hadn’t liked the man he’d been.

Frank Kelly would go on about how it was time to get on with his life. Move on. He’d grieved long enough.

If it was one of his brothers calling, they’d ride his ass about when he was coming to work for KGI.

Try never.

Knowing there was no chance of him going back to sleep with a head that was split apart at the seams, he struggled to the edge of the bed and planted his feet on the floor.

He’d sought oblivion, but all he had to show for the alcohol binge was cotton mouth and a stomach that felt like he’d ingested lead.

And he still had to face today.

Eyes closed, he pressed his fingers into his temples and then covered his face with his hands. His palms dug into his eye sockets, and he massaged as if he could wipe away the cloud hovering in his vision.

Rachel.

Her name whispered through his tired mind, conjuring memories of his laughing, smiling, beautiful wife. They floated there like butterflies.

Just as quickly they shriveled and turned black as if someone had held the wings to fire.

Rachel was gone.

She was dead.

She wasn’t coming home.

He pushed himself up from the bed and staggered toward the bathroom. His reflection didn’t shock him, and he didn’t spare a moment to splash his face with water or wash out his mouth. He took a piss and stumbled back out, his tongue rasping over the roof of his mouth.

He needed a drink. Preferably something that wasn’t going to make him puke.

Mechanically, he walked barefooted across the wood floors into the living room. Everything was just as she’d left it. The room reflected her personality. Classy, elegant, and uncluttered.

He was a rough-around-the-edges slob.

With a heavy sigh, he wandered into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. Maybe his dad was right. Maybe it was time to put the past behind him. Get on with his sorry life. But he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself for pushing her away.

He stood by the coffeemaker, waiting for it to quit gurgling. He could sell the house and move to something smaller. It didn’t make sense to keep it since it was just him now.

He needed to move somewhere he wasn’t reminded of her at every turn, but then this was part of his penance. She didn’t deserve to be forgotten and discarded even if that’s what he’d done.

He thrust his cup forward and poured the steaming coffee from the pot. Then he ambled over to the glass table that overlooked the back deck. He sat and stared out over the landscape that had suffered over the last year. Rachel and his mom had painstakingly planned every detail, putting in long hours planting and weeding. Ethan had helped—when he was home.

He’d often been gone for weeks on end, the assignments always out of the blue, classified. He left Rachel with her never knowing where he was going or if he’d return. It was no way for them to live.

He’d resigned his commission after Rachel had miscarried their child. During the two years they were married, he’d failed her a lot, and he’d sworn he wouldn’t do it again. But he had.

He rubbed his eyes then let his hand rest lingeringly on the three days’ worth of stubble that resided on his jaw. He was a wreck.

A flash of peach caught his eye. He zeroed in on the vase of roses he’d bought yesterday. They were her favorite. Not quite orange, not quite pink, she’d always say. A perfect shade of peach. He should take them to her grave, but he wasn’t sure he could bear to stand over that cold slab of marble and tell her for the fortieth time he was sorry.

As quickly as the thought seared through his mind, he curled his lip in disgust. He’d go. It was the least he could do. In the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary of her death, he’d avoided the cemetery. It shouldn’t surprise him that he was all too willing to shirk his responsibility. He’d made a practice of it.

He shoved the cup of coffee across the table, sloshing liquid over the rim. Ignoring the mess, he went back into the bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He needed a shower and a shave, but he wasn’t taking the time to do either. If his appearance put people off, all the better. Making small talk and exchanging pleasantries wasn’t on his agenda.

Back in the kitchen, he paused in front of the vase of roses. With shaking fingers, he touched one of the soft petals. He hadn’t bought Rachel flowers in a long time. Not since the first year of their marriage. What did it say about him that he bought them now?

Regret was hard enough for a man to swallow, but to swallow the knowledge that he could never do anything to right the wrongs was more than he could bear.

He gripped the vase, his self-disgust making him more nauseous than the sour alcohol swirling around his belly. He grabbed for his keys and stalked toward the front door, determined to go to her grave, face the past and make his peace with the day.

As he opened the door, he came face-to-face with a FedEx deliveryman. He wasn’t sure who was more surprised, him or the FedEx guy, but judging by the way the man backed up a step, Ethan guessed he didn’t look too welcoming.

“Are you Ethan Kelly?” the guy asked nervously.

“Yeah.”

“Have a package for you.”

“Just leave it,” Ethan said, gesturing toward the rocker on the porch. He was impatient to be gone, and he looked pretty damn stupid standing there clutching a vase of flowers.

“I, uh, need your signature.”

Ethan caught the snarl before it escaped and set the flowers down on the porch railing. He gestured impatiently for the stylus and scribbled his electronic signature on the handheld unit.

“Thanks. And here’s your package.”

The guy thrust a thick envelope into Ethan’s hand and hastily backed down the steps. With a wave, he got into his delivery van and roared off down the drive.

Ethan glanced down at the envelope but didn’t immediately see any identifying information. He leaned back into the house and tossed it on the small

table in the foyer. Then he slammed the door and reached for the vase.

When he arrived at the small church his family had attended for decades, his gut tightened. It was old, whitewashed and situated off a gravel road well off the beaten path. The cemetery was adjacent to the church, and it was where his ancestors had been buried since the late 1800s.

He got out of his truck, swallowed and then made his way down the worn path to the fenced-in plot of land that made up the cemetery.

The roses shook in his grasp, several petals falling and then catching in the breeze. They swirled crazily and blew across the collection of marble headstones.

His mom had been here. Probably this morning. There were fresh flowers and Rachel’s headstone gleamed in the mid-morning sun.

Rachel Kelly. Beloved wife, sister and daughter.

They’d loved her. His whole family adored her. His brothers used to tease him, tell him if he wasn’t careful they’d lure Rachel away from him.

His gut churned. Acid rose, burning a path through his chest. Why had he thought he could return to the place where he’d said good-bye to his wife? His family had gathered round him that day, his mother’s hand on his arm, his father standing to the side, looking for all the world like he’d break down and cry any moment.

He hated this place.

He leaned down and placed the roses next to her headstone. Tears burned his eyes, and he clenched his jaw, determined not to allow his emotions free rein. He hadn’t cried. Not since he’d received her wedding bands in the mail. The only personal effects recovered from the crash. A crash that had taken the lives of the small group of relief workers flying home from South America.

No, he wouldn’t cry again. If he started, he’d never stop, and he might well lose his tenuous grip on sanity after all. Coldness suited him much better. He knew his family thought he was unfeeling. He’d never allowed anyone to see how profoundly affected he was by Rachel’s death. The truth was he couldn’t bring himself to share her memory with anyone.

He stood there, hands shoved into his pockets, staring at the place where Rachel rested. Overhead the sun rose higher, beating relentlessly down on him. But he felt frozen.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “If I could take it all back I would. If I just had one more chance. I’d never let a day go by that I didn’t show you how much I love you.”

The knowledge that he’d never have another chance crippled him. The fact that he’d f**ked up the best thing in his life . . . he didn’t have the words to describe the agony.

Unable to stand it another minute, he turned away and walked stiffly back to his truck. The drive home was quiet. He blocked out everything but the road in front of him. Numbness he could deal with.

He walked back into his house, absorbing yet more quiet as he shut the door. The FedEx package lay to the side, but he walked by it, his only desire right now to get a shower and rid himself of the smell of stale booze.

Twenty minutes later, he sat on the edge of the bed and hung his head as he tried to settle his roiling stomach. The shower had helped. Some. But it hadn’t rid him of the aching head and sick gut.

If it hadn’t meant facing his mom, he’d have gone over to get some of her soup. She didn’t deserve to see him hungover and looking like shit, though. It would upset her and make her and his dad worry more than they did already.

He flopped back onto the mattress and closed his eyes. Peace. He just wanted peace.

WHEN Ethan next cracked his eyes open, the room was dark. He sucked in a breath through his nose and tested the steadiness of his stomach. He didn’t immediately suffer the urge to puke, so he counted that as a victory.

He glanced over at the window to see that night had fallen. Somehow he’d managed to sleep the entire afternoon. Not that he was complaining. It meant he was that much closer to putting June 16 behind him.

His muscles protested when he crawled out of bed. He stretched and rolled his shoulders as he padded into the kitchen. His stomach growled, another thing he took as a positive sign.

He threw together a sandwich, poured himself a glass of water and made his way into the living room. Not bothering to turn on the light, he sat on the couch and ate in the dark.

He briefly considered finishing off the liquor he’d purchased the day before, but it would mean he’d start all over tomorrow and eventually his family would get tired of his avoidance and they’d come for him.

He’d shoved the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth when his gaze found the FedEx envelope hanging halfway off the table in the small foyer. He frowned as he remembered the encounter with the delivery guy.

Setting his glass on the coffee table, he walked over to retrieve the heavy envelope. As he returned to the couch, he ripped at the seal. He reached over to flip on the lamp, then flopped onto the sofa and slid his hand inside the sturdy Tyvek envelope.

He dragged out a stack of papers in varying sizes and shapes. Some were legal-sized documents while others were half pieces of paper. There were charts and stuff that looked like satellite imagery and GPS coordinates.

Had he gotten KGI stuff by mistake? Surely his brothers wouldn’t have made an error like that. No one they knew should even have his address, but this stuff looked official. It looked military.

There were photos. Several spilled over his lap and onto the couch. When he picked one up, his heart stuttered and all the breath left his chest in a painful rush.

It was a photo of a woman, obviously a prisoner in some shithole jungle camp. If Ethan had to guess, he’d place odds on South America or maybe Asia. Some f**khole like Cambodia.

Two men flanked the woman in the photo and both carried guns. One had a grip on her arm, and she looked scared out of her mind.

That wasn’t what blazed through his mind like a buzz saw.

The woman looked remarkably like Rachel. His wife Rachel. Rachel who was dead. Rachel who he’d just visited in the f**king cemetery.

What kind of twisted joke was this?

He rifled through the stack of paperwork looking for something that made sense. Maybe some haha note from some sick f**k looking for kicks.

When he came across the short handwritten note, he froze. All the blood left his face at the four simple words.

Your wife is alive.

It was a kick right to the balls. Rage surged through his veins like bubbling lava. He crumpled the note in his fist and threw it across the room. It skittered along the floor and landed under the television.

Who the hell would pull a stunt like this and why?

He snatched up the photo again and then another. He gathered them all, his hands shaking so bad the pictures scattered like a deck of cards.

Cursing, he got down on his knees to collect the photos from underneath the coffee table. Some had slid under the couch, and still more were wedged between the cushions.

Papers had also scattered everywhere. Charts, maps, a whole host of crap that made no sense to him.

© 2018