Caitlin Jeffreys was no exception. Her interest was more than just a hormonal response to the handsome silhouette, broad shoulders, and faintly arrogant swagger.
It was well past midnight, a fact she had cursed just seconds before he silently slipped through the double glass doors which bore the name of the prestigious law firm in elegant gold script. After taking two or three steps into the reception area, the man stopped. He pulled a pair of gloves from the front pocket of his jeans and slipped one over each large hand. It was then that her brain began to receive the first frantic messages of impending danger.
Her heartbeat accelerated, pounding against her chest and echoing in her ears. Her throat grew dry and tight. As if anticipating his next move, her feet carried her two steps back, into the safe haven of the shadows. His eyes scanned the precise area where she had been working. Caitlin sucked in her breath, praying he wouldn't notice the steam rising from the Styrofoam cup nested among the voluminous pile of documents that was responsible for her late night presence.
Just when she was convinced he had somehow detected her huddled in the darkened corner, he turned his attention else-where. The intruder moved away soundlessly, making it nearly impossible for her to judge his location.
Caitlin remained motionless for a few seconds, terrified that he might double back and find her. She considered making a dash for the safety of the elevator just a few yards outside the office. If he didn't catch her in the act of escaping, Caitlin knew she would be exposed to detection for nearly a minute while waiting for the elevator to make its accent from the lobby.
"The Lobby!" she whispered, feeling a small wave of relief wash over her trembling body. Cautiously, Caitlin inched her head out of hiding. It was a clear shot to the telephone, and she took immediate advantage. She crouched down and crawled across the room like some sort of raiding nocturnal animal. After pulling the entire phone assembly from the credenza, Caitlin closed her eyes tightly and tried desperately to remember the number which would summon the night security force.
It seemed like an eternity before her memory gave the number to her fingers. Caitlin frantically punched the numbers, her eyes darting nervously around the room.
"Fred!" Caitlin breathed into the receiver, one hand cupped over the instrument and her mouth to muffle the sound. "Someone's up here. Please come quick!"
Realizing the intruder might see the flashing light on any one of the dozens of extensions in the office, Caitlin replaced the receiver on the cradle. Bracing her feet against the floor, she pressed her body tightly against the wall, her pale eyes maintained a constant vigil for any sign of the dark man.
It took a second for her brain to decipher the rhythmic succession of thuds. Heavy foot steps were coming in her direction. Caitlin shored herself and awaited certain discovery. The sound of his approach became thunderously loud, drowning out the hammering of her heart.
He rounded the corner with such momentum that papers fluttered on the desk tops. Barreling through the doors, he no longer seemed to care about maintaining his cloak of silence, and left them to swing freely, squeaking on the hinges. She detected a brief pause in his progress followed by the distinctive sound of the metal fire door that led to the stairs opening and closing with a resounding bang.
Caitlin, frozen with fear, remained paralyzed in a stilled mass on the floor. Slowly, she became aware of a chill settling over her being. Her chest heaved with each intake of breath; her hands, still clutching the telephone, felt damp and clammy. A subtle, and not altogether unpleasant scent reached her nostrils. It was a clean smell, more fresh than antiseptic, and oddly comforting. At least it was better than the stench of abject terror.
She scrambled to her feet at the welcomed sight of the uniformed guard, guided by a beam of light, slipping into the office. Springing from the conference room, she stopped short at the sight of the drawn weapon trained in her direction.
"It's me!" she wailed.
Fred blinded her with the strong ray from his flashlight. "Sorry," he whispered, "where is he?"
"Gone," Caitlin breathed. "He ran into the stairway a few seconds ago."
Fred unhooked the radio from his shoulder clip and delivered the information to the voice at the other end. "Anybody else working tonight?"
Caitlin's hand flew to her mouth. "Mr. Traynor's in his office."
"Wait here, while I check the back offices," Fred directed, his voice as shaky as the hand holding the revolver.
"No!" Caitlin screamed. "I'm not staying here by myself. What if he comes back?"
Fred's eyes darted in the direction of the doors. He was far too apprehensive to be much of a protector. He wavered. "I'm not sure procedurally, if you're allowed to accompany me on an inspection."
Caitlin rolled her eyes. "Fred, this isn't an inspection. You have a gun. If the intruder comes back, you and I and the gun will be far better off if we all stay together. Okay?"
Fred shrugged, "I suppose. But stay behind me."
Caitlin was all too happy to comply. She suspected it was safer to be behind the barrel of Fred's gun. She followed him down the hall, in the direction of a triangle of light spilling from the executive office at the far end.
The sound Fred made was her first inkling that something was wrong. Caitlin stood in the doorway to the office as Fred went over and touched the still body of Doug Traynor slumped in his chair. His lifeless eyes remained open, staring into a nothingness that sent a shiver the full length of her spine. Except for his eyes, he looked the same in death as he had in life. Caitlin turned away from the gruesome image.
"Don't touch anything," Fred instructed. "Go into one of the other offices and call 911."
"He couldn't have left any fingerprints," Caitlin informed him. "He was wearing gloves."
Fred poked at the body, even going so far as to touch the tiny, crescent shaped cut on Traynor's left cheek, still crusted with dried blood. Caitlin called the police from the phone on Traynor's desk. That accomplished, she surveyed the contents of the posh office. As a lowly associate with the firm, Caitlin was only invited into the domain of the managing partner for the occasional chewing out. Absurdly, she found herself more at ease standing there in the presence of his corpse than she ever had during their meetings while he was alive.
A neatly framed collection of awards hung in testimony to the fact that Doug Traynor had been a powerful and productive force in the legal community. Interspersed among the certificates of appreciation and accomplishment were candid photos of him pressing the flesh with people of local as well as national prominence. Caitlin, as well as everyone else at Traynor-Wentworth, knew Doug had political aspirations. It was ironic to think a late night prowler, and not educated voters, had meant an end to Douglas Traynor.
Caitlin glanced at Fred, disgusted by his fascination with the dead body. Fred was too engrossed in his survey to accurately read the apathy in her expression when she ventured a quick glance at the lifeless form. Caitlin was a lot of things, both good and bad, but she wasn't a hypocrite. She would hold any disrespectful words about Doug Traynor until a more appropriate time. But she would not shed a single tear over his loss. Death would not erase the contempt Caitlin had felt for the man.
She jumped when the radio on Fred's sleeve crackled to life. "No sign of anyone on the stairs . . . Over."
Fred looked up at Caitlin and offered an apologetic shrug of his shoulders. "There's been some trouble up here. The cops are on the way . . . Over."
"What kind of trouble . . . Over."
"The dead kind . . . Over," Fred responded glibly, scratching the top of his bald head. He looked from Traynor, to Caitlin, to an empty Styrofoam cup on the desk top. But the cup wasn't completely empty. There was just a trace of pale liquid they both knew was coffee with heavy cream, a Traynor trademark. Doug, who was not really fond of the taste, had a habit of adding a significant amount of cream to his coffee. His secretary, a likeable, middle-aged woman, was forever hounding him about the high cholesterol level in the half-and-half he consumed at the rate of a quart a week.
Like a swarm of insects, the local authorities invaded the building, along with a paramedic crew, and a representative of the Fire Department. Caitlin could justify the plethora of patrolmen and detectives, and even the paramedics. The local policy requiring a response by a fire engine to the scene of a murder seemed utterly ridiculous.
Someone took her name and then instructed her to wait in her office for one of the detectives. Caitlin was on her way there when she stopped a young, pencil-necked officer to ask if it would be all right for her to call Raymond Wentworth with the news. The gaunt-faced uniformed man hesitated just a second before telling her in a high pitched voice that he didn't think there would be anything wrong with her notifying the survivor of the founding partners.
Her office was a welcoming sanctuary from the buzz of activity and static of hand held radios. The clock read a quarter to two in the morning. That knowledge inspired a sudden feeling of exhaustion in every muscle in her body. One pink-tipped finger flipped through the Rolodex on her desk until she found the number and dialed.
Caitlin was startled to have the call answered on the first ring. "Uh, Mr. Wentworth, this is Caitlin Jeffreys."
"Yes, Miss Jeffreys." His voice was clear and lucid, amazing given the late hour of the call.
"I'm here at the office," Caitlin hedged, then, realizing there was no appropriate way to deliver such news, she gently explained her purpose. "We had a break-in here and . . . Well, I'm afraid Mr. Traynor was killed by the intruder."
"An intruder?" came the stunned reply.
"Yes," she answered.
"I'll dress and be there shortly." Raymond Wentworth hung up.
Caitlin held the receiver long after her employer had broken the connection. She felt the beginnings of a headache at her temples, no doubt the result of too much caffeine and too little sleep. She leaned back in the soft leather chair, rubbing her eyes, which were neither green nor blue, but an exotic blending of the two. Then she massaged her temples and pushed the strands of honey colored hair off her forehead.
The door, which she had partially closed for privacy, swung opened simultaneously with a light rap.
"Ms. Jeffreys?" the man asked after glancing down at a small pad cupped in the palm of his hand.
"Caitlin Jeffreys," she returned with a polite smile.
Anchoring a pen between his teeth, the man paused for permission to sit in one of the upholstered chairs angled and facing her desk. She judged him to be in his late thirties, perhaps even early forties. His face was pleasant enough and he appeared fit beneath the slightly rumpled suit. A gold badge dangled from the breast pocket of his jacket as he lowered himself to a sitting position. There were a few faint specks of gray in the brown hair he wore tapered above his ears.
"I'm Detective Franklin," he extended his hand, which Caitlin accepted. "I understand from the guard that you alerted him to the possibility of an intruder?"
Three years of trial experience alerted her instantly to his emphasis on the word possibility. "I was working in the west conference room . . .," she began.
"Working on what?" he interrupted.
"I was indexing depositions for an upcoming trial." He noted her response in his book and indicated she should continue. "A man dressed in black came in . . . ."
"Why wasn't the door locked?" the Detective asked.
She was annoyed by the second interruption. Caitlin let out a breath and began to think back to the time before the intruder had arrived. "Most of the staff left promptly at five, normal behavior for a Friday afternoon. Raymond Wentworth, the senior partner, and one of the other associates, Michael Mason, worked maybe an hour or so after that. About seven-thirty, Doug Traynor came in and went straight to his office."
Caitlin paused briefly, recalling the preoccupation on Traynor's face as he'd brushed past her without even acknowledging her presence. "I buzzed him on the intercom about a half-hour later, to tell him I was going out for dinner, and to ask if he wanted me to bring him back anything. I went to the carry-out place around the corner sometime around eight. I don't recall locking the door when I came back from dinner," she admitted, feeling a surge of guilt race through her veins. "I was so distracted with the trial preparations and the depositions that I must have left it unlocked." Her voice was soft, her eyes troubled. Caitlin could almost feel the detective's reluctance to accept her version of the evening's events.
"Was Traynor still in his office working?" Franklin asked.
Caitlin nodded. "The phone lines lit up a few times, so I know he was back there making calls."
"And no one came in or out until you claim this intruder broke in?" This time the Detective hadn't even made an attempt to mask the accusation in his tone.
Caitlin bristled. "I am not claiming the man came in. He came in," she corrected. "I waited until he started down the hall, and then I called for security."
The detective listened, his head cocked off to one side. "You watched a guy break-in, and go for Traynor's office, and you did nothing to warn him?"
Caitlin lifted her arms and let them fall against the desk in an attempt to vent some of her growing frustration. "I was terrified, Detective," she told him through tightly clenched teeth. "It took me a minute to compose myself enough to be able to make the call for help." Caitlin knew he wasn't buying it, that much was apparent from the mockery she saw in his bland green eyes.
The Detective made another secretive note in his book. "How long was this man in Traynor's office?"
Her first instinct was to tell the detective that she had no way of knowing, at the time, that the intruder had gone into Doug Traynor's office. There were four other offices down that particular corridor. Caitlin figured he could work that out for himself. Maybe. "I was panicked, Detective, so it's hard for me to tell you exactly how long he was out of the reception area. Two, maybe three minutes."
"Then what did he do?" Franklin asked.
"He ran out." Caitlin told him in clipped syllables, "I heard him go down the fire stairs."
"Uh huh." The Detective scratched the brownish stubble on his chin. "Then how do you explain the fact that the guards in the lobby didn't see your intruder leave the building?"
"I can't," she told him honestly. "But he was here. And I got a good enough look at him that I'm certain I could identify him."
There was a sudden commotion in the outer room. As far as Caitlin was concerned, it was a welcomed interruption to her pointless interview with the idiot investigator. Raymond Wentworth appeared in the doorway. Caitlin detected a small measure of shock clouding his intelligent blue eyes. She felt a surge of compassion for the distinguished man. Raymond Wentworth was a member of the privileged class, completely ill-prepared for this invasion of violence into his otherwise charmed existence.
"Raymond Wentworth," he announced in a commanding tone that demanded respect. After exchanging social pleasantries, Wentworth surprised her by coming around the desk and placing a paternal hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right, my dear? All this must be quite upsetting for you."
Caitlin derived a small amount of pleasure as she watched the smug, satisfied expression drain from the Detective's face. The policeman was forced to face the fact that Raymond Wentworth was very clearly on her side.
"I'm fine," she answered with a weak smile. "I'm exhausted, but fine."
"Of course you are," Wentworth soothed, then turned his attention to the detective. "If you've finished with Miss Jeffreys, Detective Franklin, I think we should send her home."
"I do have one or two more questions," he admitted almost apologetically.
"Ask them so I can get out of here," Caitlin snapped.
"Ms. Jeffreys claims an intruder broke in and killed Mr. Traynor. Is that right, Ms. Jeffreys?" Franklin asked.
"Yes," she replied stiffly.
"There's a problem with that story." The detective paused long enough to make a production out of thumbing through his notes. "You see the medical personnel are sure that Mr. Traynor was poisoned." Caitlin's mouth dropped opened at the revelation. "Now, they won't know for sure until there's a full autopsy, you understand, but these guys are usually right on target, and they tell me Traynor's been dead for hours, probably died sometime around nine last night."
Caitlin was glad she was sitting down. The knowledge that she had been in the office with a dead body for four hours made her skin crawl. "Poisoned," she repeated, not conscious of the fact that she had spoken aloud. Slowly, the underlying message broke through the fog muddling her thought processes. "Then that proves I couldn't possibly have had anything to do with Mr. Traynor's death!"
It was obvious Franklin didn't see it that way. "How so?" he asked.
"Think, Detective!" she shouted. "Does it make sense that I would kill someone, and then hang around indexing depositions for four hours?"
Detective Franklin merely shrugged his shoulders noncommittally.
"I can personally assure you that Miss Jeffreys had nothing to do with Doug's death," Raymond Wentworth interjected.
It was comforting to have a man of such imposing stature spring to her defense. Caitlin thanked him with her eyes. "He must have come back," she suddenly exclaimed. "He must have come here earlier and killed Mr. Traynor, probably when I was out having dinner. Then returned the second time around midnight."
"Why would he come back?" the detective queried.
Caitlin tried to fit the pieces together, relying heavily on speculation. "I don't know." A frown creased her brow. "Maybe he wanted to see if the poison worked. Or, maybe he left something behind that might have been incriminating."
"Yeah, maybe." But it was apparent from the detective's tone that he didn't believe her possible theories any more than he believed in the existence of the intruder. "How do you explain the fact that he got in and out of the building, not once but twice, without being seen or heard by the security team?"
The security team, she almost laughed! Fred and his sidekick were nothing more than old men watching video monitors all night to supplement their monthly retirement checks. "How should I know?" Caitlin's outburst hushed the din of conversations among the officers lounging in the reception area. "But I do know that he managed to get in here at least once."
"There's only two ways into the building, right? Through the lobby, or through the garage entrance. I was told you need a special key to enter from the garage." Caitlin and Wentworth nodded. "Even if someone went to all the trouble to break in, why this building, and why this particular group of offices?"
"I don't believe either Miss Jeffreys or myself are in a position to respond to that, Detective," Raymond said in a voice that was tired and clearly edged with annoyance.
"This isn't the sort of building usually targeted by a professional burglar. If they're going to hit a business, they usually restrict themselves to places that have cash. Or merchandise that can easily be turned into cash." The detective turned his eyes on Caitlin, letting her know in no uncertain terms that the rest of his comments were meant exclusively for her. "And poisoning normally indicates premeditation for the crime. Your average petty thief doesn't carry vials of poison around in case he's interrupted in the act. Guns and knives are messier, but a whole lot more efficient."
"Thanks for your insights to the inner workings of the criminal mind," Caitlin spat. It felt good to let sarcasm drip off each clearly enunciated syllable. Her back stiffened, her eyes narrowed, and she treated the detective to a glacial stare.
"Well, we're still left with the fact that Traynor is dead. And since nothing in his office appears to have been disturbed, I've got a hunch the motive on this one is personal." The detective flicked his wrist, snapping the cover of his little notebook closed.
"That's crazy!" Raymond scoffed. "Doug Traynor was a well respected attorney. Beyond that, he was well liked by the people that knew and worked with him."
Caitlin nearly gasped aloud at the blatant misrepresentation. Surely Wentworth, omnipotent presence that he was, stayed tuned to the office rumor-mill. Most of the attorneys, and all of the support staff, merely tolerated Doug Traynor. That was a far cry from liking the man.
"Did you like him, Ms. Jeffreys?" The pointed question caught her off guard, leaving her feeling flustered and uncertain.
"I think Miss Jeffreys should defer answering any further questions until your department is in a position to lodge formal charges."
"Formal charges!" Caitlin yelped. The whole notion that their investigation would revolve around her was absolutely preposterous.
Detective Franklin accepted the dismissal and left the room. Caitlin had the sinking suspicion that it wouldn't be the last time she encountered the abrasive Detective. If he was one of Baltimore's finest . . . .
"Do you want me to drive you home?" Wentworth inquired.
Caitlin smiled up at him, her face a palette of raw emotion. "I appreciate the way you came to my defense." Wentworth simply inclined his silver head a fraction of an inch. There was an awkward moment when she considered hugging him. She would have liked a reassuring hug. Standing, Caitlin decided against acting on that impulse. "My car's down in the garage," she politely refused. "I'll pack up my stuff in the conference room and call it a night."
Caitlin was permitted to collect her files from the conference room under the watchful eye of a patrolman and an occasional monitoring by the detective. Having her actions scrutinized was insulting, degrading, and infuriating. She stuffed each manila folder back into place in swift, robotic motions, calculated to convey her growing annoyance with the situation. Both men seemed non-phased by her display of festering anger.
With her purse slung casually over one shoulder, Caitlin stomped toward the elevator. She passed the two security guards, perched on the edges of their chairs like eager students, listening to the exaggerated tales being bantered between the "real" officers. Caitlin pushed through the office doors and punched the button for the elevator with far more force than was necessary. She waited, eyes fixed forward.
She almost made it, too.
"Ms. Jeffreys." The detective appeared at her side just a split second after the offensive smell of his drugstore aftershave.
"What is it now, Detective Franklin?" Caitlin refused to look at him.
"I was just wondering," he lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. "Were you and Traynor . . . you know."
He made a disgusting motion with his hand and Caitlin fought to keep her temper under control. "If that vulgar gesture is your way of inquiring as to whether I was sleeping with Mr. Traynor, the answer is no." The elevator doors slid open offering safe haven from his insulting presence. "Have a nice night," she hissed, "ass . . . " The doors came together, preventing him from hearing the last syllable.
She watched the neon green readout above the door identify each floor as the elevator floated down. A couple of times, Caitlin felt a slight movement in the compartment. For that brief second, she envisioned the possibility of the cable breaking, plunging her to a quick, painful death. "O.D.'d on morbid imagination," she observed glibly, shaking her head to clear the irrational thoughts from her mind.
The scratching sound came first, followed by the amplified sound of the equipment. Caitlin threw her head back just in time to see the cover portion being removed from the top of the elevator. Two large, gloved hands hooked over one edge of the newly created hole in the ceiling. A scream rose in her throat, though no sound followed.
With athletic precision, he lowered himself down into the confines of the moving elevator. Her hands clutched her throat, trying to coax some sound from her body. He snatched one of her hands in a painful grip, spinning her so that her back was against him, her arm trapped in the V between her shoulder blades. His other hand came around and clamped tightly over her mouth. She breathed and tasted leather and soap. The vision of Doug Traynor's lifeless eyes staring into oblivion flashed across her mind.
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Red Hot Santa
“Oh shit! Santa’s dead.”
Meghan Beckham didn’t look up from the semi-cluttered desk in spite of her assistant’s panicked tone. Terri Smith - as she’d learned in the past three months - panicked easily and often.
“Not possible,” Meghan muttered, affixing her signature to a memo that would authorize her gaggle of attorneys to begin buying the buildings on either side of the store.
“Santa died yesterday,” she paused only to shove her reading glasses back into place. “We sent flowers to his widow, and you were right here when I called his wife and offered the whole family our condolences and anything they wanted from the store, remember?” The man had worked for Beckham’s for two seasons. She felt she owed his family that much at least. “So, yes, Terri, I’m aware he d-”
“No ma’am!” Terri cut in.
That got her attention. “Please stop calling me ma’am, it makes me feel old.” Meghan peered up to find the girl she’d hired out of necessity looking even more pale and flustered than usual. It wasn’t that Terri was unattractive, she was just, well, wrong. A trim and a few highlights would do wonders for her hair. Nice bone structure, so cosmetics that accentuated her pale brown eyes and cheekbones would probably do the trick. New clothes were easy. Beckhams was the landmark store in Palm Beach – had been since 1924. Surely Terri could use her employee discount and find something more flattering than that drab beige dress.
“He’s dead, ma– Miss Beckham.”
“Got that yesterday,” Meghan insisted. “Had a heart attack on his coffee break. The agency was supposed to send a replacement this morning.”
“The replacement Santa?”
Terri nodded. “As a carp.”
Meghan blinked then pressed her fingers to her temples. “This is not possible,” she repeated what was becoming her mantra de jour. “Can’t they screen these guys for heart disease, diabetes - something? Anything? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I can’t have Santas dropping like flies four weeks before Christmas.” Meghan suffered a pang of guilt.
“I mean, I’m sorry about the guy, but we open in -” she stopped and checked the time, “an hour and I need a Santa. One that is capable of breathing all day, please?”
“Miss Beckham?” Terri pressed, “He’s not just dead. It’s worse.”
She cocked a brow. “What could possibly be worse than dead? Very dead? Extremely dead?” Meghan was losing her temper. She had a million balls in the air and hiring a new Santa every day wasn’t supposed to be one of them.
“A knife. Sticking right out of his belly that no longer jiggles like a bowl full of jelly.”
Terri spread her arms. “A really big knife. A seriously big knife.”
A knife - God help her – was not death by natural causes. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Meghan stood so quickly she toppled her chair. “Have the police been called?”
She rounded the desk, catching the pocket of her vintage Chanel suit on the corner. She heard the riiiip of fabric, and cursed. “Please, Terri? Please tell me he isn’t propped up in the middle of the Christmas display where everyone can see him.”
“No, ma’am. I mean, no, Miss Beckham.”
Relief washed over her. That was something, at least.
“He’s in the front window.”
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Sky’s The Limit
“But one of my employees wants me wait. To give him an opportunity to raise the cash.”
Skyler McMasters used the seven-second tape delay to thumb through the astrology guide she had purchased that afternoon. Moving closer to the microphone, she said, “Jonathan, since your Mercury is in Aries, you have to make fast decisions.” She ignored the roll of Kyle’s amused green eyes. Kyle was on the opposite side of a glass partition that separated her broadcast booth from his engineering equipment. It was a good thing, since he made no secret of his feelings on her new show. Skyler couldn’t really blame him. She wasn’t exactly thrilled with her new career.
“You’re right, Sky. This is an opportunity I just can’t pass up.”
“The stars agree,” Skyler told him. “I think this sale will not only bring you financial gain, but also personal satisfaction. Taurus is an Earth Sign, Jonathan. Which means,” she paused to find the list of zodiac traits she had prepared earlier in the day, “you are practical and uninhibited.”
“Thank you, Sky.” Jonathan’s voice conveyed a sense of relief.
Maybe I’m not so bad at this after all, she thought. “I’m glad the starts could help guide you in your decision.” Again Kyle made a derogatory face. Again, she ignored it. “Let me know how it works out.”
“I will,” he promised.
“I’m Sky McMasters,” she said, lifting the headphones away from her ears. Grimacing slightly, she launched into the marketing slogan which was a requirement of her employment. “If you want the stars, call the Sky.”
Kyle slipped a cart in, starting a loop of commercials. “Way to go, ‘The Sky,’” Kyle teased.
She cast him a side-long glance then pressed the button which allowed them to speak back and forth during breaks. “We can switch places . . .you could be Kyle in the Cosmos.”
He laughed. “Benton doesn’t pay me enough.”
Skyler wasn’t being paid enough either, though after twelve months and seventeen days of unemployment, she couldn’t afford not to take this job.
She looked down at the control board in her booth and felt her shoulders slump forward. Red lights from the jammed phone lines flashed demandingly. “Doesn’t anyone sleep anymore?” she grumbled to her engineer.
“Get ready,” Kyle warned as he replaced his headphones. “Round two of Astrology for Insomniacs is about to begin. Grab your cheat sheets Skyler, because,” Kyle paused to open his microphone, “Mildred from Salisbury is on line one.”
“Hi, Mildred,” Skyler said with the enthusiasm required of her job as an on-air personality. “What can the stars and I do for you?”
“This is a privilege, Miss McMasters. I used to listen to you when you did political commentary in D.C.”
“Thank you, Mildred,” Skyler said. “The stars and planets are all lined up to give you advice. Which area of you life would you like to evaluate?”
A long cackle came over the phone line. “I don’t want any silly horoscope readings. I just want to know how you could go from interviewing the movers and shaker in Washington to selling terrestrial snake oil in the middle of the night.”
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He stood behind the safety of a thick tree trunk. His clothes were as black as the starless night sky. She was less than a hundred yards from him. Obviously the rouse had worked.
He'd caught glimpses of her face in the lamplights as she'd passed beneath them. He liked her body and spent a few seconds fantasizing about what he might do to her. While the temptation was there, he also knew his employer would frown on any freelancing. He was being paid too well to risk disappointing his employer. Not with another contract in the works.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he silently resigned himself to the fact that he was there to do a job -- period. She was less than fifty yards away now. He could hear the faint squish of her sneakers against the macadam.
"Damn!" he cursed softly and backed up to allow a jogger to pass from the opposite direction. "What kind of nut jogs in Central Park in the middle of the night?" he grumbled as he moved out of his hiding place when the jogger was no longer a threat.
She was close enough now so that he could see the small rectangular object clutched tightly in her hand. Her other hand protectively held the strap of her shoulder bag. It made him smile.
He caught the pleasant scent of her perfume just seconds before swinging the two-by-four. Her scull cracked with the first blow and he felt a spattering of blood against his exposed skin. She crumpled to the ground, dropping the diary and her handbag in the process. He thought he might have heard the jingling of keys, but it was too dark for him to be sure.
"Thank you," he said as he grabbed up the diary and stuffed it under his sweatshirt. "And thank you again," he said as he grabbed her purse. Straddling her body, he lifted the bloodied club high above his head. "How about a few more for good measure?" he said with pure menace in his deep voice. "My employer will be doubly pleased when I . . . ."
He looked up to see the jogger moving back toward him.
"Sorry, Sam, ol' girl. Gotta go!" As he ran through the woods, he could hear the joggers frantic screams for help. He knew she was beyond help though. Patting the concealed items, the man emerged from the woods and got into the rental supplied as part of the contract price.
Removing the diary and the purse, he carefully placed them in the glove box. He next removed the soiled black clothing and shoes and placed them in a pile on the floorboard, replacing them with the fresh items from the back seat. He started the car and headed for New Jersey, tossing the bits and pieces of his bloodied clothing out the window at various points along the Turnpike.
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The Best Man in Texas
“It doesn’t matter,” Sara said, closing her eyes. “Marriage is a lifelong commitment.”
“Only when it’s made honestly,” Violet counseled. “When your hank Allen stood in front of God and promised to love and honor you ‘till death do you part,’ he was lying. Seems to me your commitment was based on false promises.”
“I can’t leave him,” Sara insisted. “I have absolutely no money, no assets. I tried to leave him once.”
“Hank Allen reported the car stolen. Everything is in his name. I’m not even authorized to write a check.”
“There are places that can help you. Organizations that –“
“He’d find me.”
Violet thought about her next move for less than a minute. “Let me help.”
Sara’s eyes flew open and she jerked her head around – a movement that obviously caused her some pain. Wincing, she said, “You don’t even know me. I can’t –“
“All the better,” Violet interrupted. “I’ll give you some money to get yourself away from this mess.”
“He’ll go crazy. Besides, I can’t take money from a total stranger.”
“I’m Violet Mitchum from Pinto, Texas. There, now we aren’t strangers.”
“You know what I mean,” Sara argued. “This isn’t your problem. I’ll deal with it. But, thank you.”
“There’s a fine line between being stubborn and being stupid, Sara.”
“I’m being neither,” Sara said. “I’m being practical. When the time is right, I’ll leave Hank Allen.”
“But when that time comes, will you still be breathing?”
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"What do you mean missing!" Danielle Baylor screeched, clutching the front of the man's shirt.
Buck's expression lightened and his faded blue eyes no longer held the hint of trepidation which had served as her initial flag of warning. His rough hands came up and closed over hers as he spoke in a gravelly, hushed tone.
"Don't go all crazy now, Missy," the aged ranch hand comforted. "You know as good as anybody that your sister's inclined to up and disappearing."
"Not for five days," Dani countered with a shake of her head. Releasing her grip, she ran her hands over the resulting wrinkles in his shirt as she looked around the interior of the small terminal. Several pairs of curious eyes were turned in her direction. Embarrassment caused a faint stain to burn into her cheeks.
"Did Jen tell anyone she was leaving?" she asked in a voice quieted as control overcame shock.
Buck shook his head and shrugged his weary shoulders. She heard his expel of breath as he leaned down and collected the small bag she'd dropped upon hearing why her sister had failed to meet the plane.
"I'm sure she's just holed up in the mountains. Why, she's most likely taking pictures of some critter. Just lost track of time is all."
While Dani admitted that was a possibility, she had serious doubts that her sister would be so irresponsible as to miss meeting her flight. When she and Jennifer had spoken by phone two weeks earlier, her sister had said she was looking forward to their visit. She even hinted that she was planning some sort of surprise for Dani.
So why did Jen suddenly decide to go off into the mountains?
"Don't look so worried. Hell, she's probably back to the house right now, waiting on us to fetch you home." Buck tugged her in the direction of the baggage claim area. It was actually little more than a section of the terminal cordoned off with a length of velvet rope purchased at a discount when one of the town's movie theaters closed down.
The sound of a conveyer belt filtered into the room on a cool burst of air as an outside slot was opened. Her green eyes fixed on the opening while her brain pondered the situation. She could only hope Buck was right. Jennifer must have innocently gone off on one of her prolonged nature binges and simply lost track of the time.
A smile curved the corners of her mouth as she conjured a mental picture of her older sister. About the only thing they shared was their last name. Beyond that, Dani and Jennifer were as unalike as two people could be. Jennifer was in her glory camped on some deserted mountainside with nothing but the sound of the wind or the howl of an animal as company. Conversely, Dani loathed any activity more primitive than a night at a Holiday Inn.
"Those two are mine," she said to Buck, pointing to the expensive set of luggage which bore her monogram.
She was in the act of leaning forward to retrieve the first suitcase when a dark hand came out of nowhere and grasped the shiny handle of her bag. Her eyes fixed on the hand for a split second before traveling upward, over a well-defined, muscular arm encased in a faded plaid shirt-sleeve. Continuing, her eyes roamed the breadth of his chest, up over the vast expanse of his shoulders, to his face.
Her breath caught in her throat and her expression must have registered the shock which had rendered her body suddenly paralyzed.
Hoisting the case off the belt, he set it down in the small space which separated them. Dani smiled her thanks to the handsome stranger, unable to find her voice.
If his sudden appearance caught her off-guard, it was nothing in comparison to the openly hostile glint in his rich brown eyes.
"Missy, this here is Tyler Cantrell. Ty - Danielle Baylor."
He nodded, though it looked as if even that small display of civility had been difficult.
"Ma'am," he drawled. His eyes narrowed disapprovingly.
"Ty's our new foreman."
Dani's smile evolved into a more aloof expression as she tilted her head back in deference to his superior height. The way he was staring down his slightly crooked nose at her made her bristle. Something about the arrogant thrust of his marvelously clefted chin stiffened her spine. She had more pressing things on her mind than a large man with an even bigger chip on his shoulder, even if that shoulder was the broadest she had ever seen.
"Mr. Cantrell," she returned frostily. Forcing her attention away from his face, she saw her other suitcase disappear behind a curtain of dusty, shredded fabric. Great! she fumed silently, knowing full well she would have to wait for the conveyor to make a second trip around.
A new and distracting scent raided her senses as she stood between the two men. It was fresh and hauntingly masculine. Dani knew it was his. The knowledge annoyed her almost as much as his inexplicable animosity. She could almost feel contempt radiating from him but hadn't a clue as to its origins.
The conveyor belt jerked to a sudden, fatal halt. Dani rolled her eyes and let out a disgusted sigh. Murphy's Law had definitely followed her to Montana from Atlanta.
"Buck," she said and turned to the smaller man. "Why don't we get the car? Mr. Cantrell can stand here and wait for the rest of my things."
Without waiting for a reply, Dani slipped her hand through Buck's arm and ushered him in the direction of the exit.
"It ain't fair to Ty to leave him there. No way of knowing when they'll get that thing running again."
"I know," Dani acknowledged with a devilish light in her emerald colored eyes.
Buck seemed perplexed by her attitude. His brow wrinkled into a series of deep crevasses. "Now, don't go getting the wrong idea, Missy. I know Tyler can be a mite standoffish, but - "
"Combative, Buck," Dani corrected. "I don't like surly cowboys. Never have. You know that."
"Tyler isn't surly," Buck defended.
While she took issue with his assessment of the other man's character, Dani wasn't in the mood to argue the point. Aside from that, she knew once they got to the Circle B, Tyler would go his way and she hers. The ranch was big enough so that, with any luck, they'd rarely cross paths during her stay.
Buck told her to stay by the entrance while he got the car from the lot. She waited at the curb, shivering against the cool evening air. According to the calendar, summer was just a few weeks off, a fact apparently lost on the frigid breeze whipping scraps of paper around her feet.
The area where she waited was deserted, save for a man standing a few yards away. His head was trapped inside the folds of a road map.
She took in a deep breath, savoring the taste and smell of the crisp, clean air. She smiled unconsciously as the scent brought back a flood of memories, some pleasant, some disastrous.
Her lashes fluttered closed against a sudden gush of wind which rustled the hem of the skirt. Automatically, her hands moved to the fronts of her thighs in an attempt to keep her skirt from blowing to an immodest height.
"Doing a Marilyn Monroe impression?" a deep voice asked.
Hearing the derisive edge to his tone, she opted not to turn and look in the direction of the sound. Try as she might, Dani couldn't think of a single retort so she stood stiffly at the curb and made a production of scanning the parking lot for some sign of Buck.
"Construction," he said after a brief, tense silence. "The lot's being renovated. Waste of good tax dollars if you ask me."
She thought about the archaic terminal and doubted any improvement could be construed as a waste. The airport hadn't changed so much as the color of the paint for more than twenty years. She was going to tell him exactly that but when she turned and saw his profile, the words stuck in her constricted throat.
His Stetson, which was a pale shade of gray, was pulled low over his forehead. It accentuated both the size and intensity of his dark eyes. They appeared very nearly black in the low light, edged in long, thick lashes. She swallowed as her eyes surveyed the unyielding set of his mouth. Disdain appeared to radiated from every inch of his handsome face.
She had been so engrossed in her moonlit perusal of him that she started when the piercing sound of a horn exploded next to her.
Her heart fell into her toes when she spied the pick-up. It meant she would have to suffer through thirty miles of Tyler's surly attitude inside the small confines of the utility vehicle.
Buck came around from the driver's side and assisted Tyler in securing her bags into a compartment in the flatbed. Dani looked nervously inside the cab. The bench seat seemed small and inadequate for a man of Tyler's height and breadth.
She was right. A few seconds later she found herself sandwiched between the two men.
"Sure is good to have you home, Missy," Buck said.
Grinning at his kind sentiment, she chose to ignore the disgusted snort from the man to her right. Just as she chose to ignore the heat from his thigh where it rubbed against hers. Just as she chose to ignore the solidness of his body whenever the truck negotiated a turn and the centrifugal forces molded her against him.
She could not, however, ignore the musky, masculine scent of his cologne, not when it teased at her senses. Nor could she ignore the way her body seemed to be reacting to this man.
"Comfortable?" Tyler taunted against her ear. His breath was warm where it washed across the sensitive skin at her neck.
"Delightfully," she returned sweetly, fighting the urge to reach up and wipe away the tingling feeling at the side of her throat. She shifted closer toward Buck, silently reminding herself that she was a grown woman, not some sort of sex-starved spinster.
"How long's it been?" Buck asked.
Dani choked on her own saliva. Buck attempted to drive and pat her on the back at the same time. It didn't work, not in the small confines of the passenger compartment. Leaning forward, she struggled to contain the coughing and the tears, which were her biological punishment for self-induced choking.
The feel of a large hand at the center of her back had a miraculous effect. His fingers seared through the fabric of her blouse, leaving a fiery imprint just between her shoulder blades. Patting gently, Tyler's touch soothed the spastic muscles in her body long enough to allow Dani to regain her composure.
She was grateful, it was too shadowy for him to see her face clearly. Her cheeks were damp from the tears and she felt herself blushing with total humiliation from the roots of her hair all the way down to her feet.
"You okay?" Buck asked, his voice soft with concern.
"Fine," she whispered. She retrieved a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her eyes.
Tyler unhurriedly slid his hand away from her back, allowing his fingertips to linger a mere fraction of a second longer than necessary.
Suddenly, the truck tire found a deep rut in the highway, tossing Dani about the cabin and bouncing her even closer to Tyler.
"Would you like to sit on my lap?" he asked softly.
"If you're uncomfortable, you can always ride in the back," she tossed at him with a forced smile. Dani shifted herself so that her body touched as little of his as possible.
Buck appeared to notice the wall of tension separating his passengers. "Now don't go biting at Ty. I know you're worried about Jen. But like I told you, I'm sure she's remembered herself and she's waiting up to the house."
"I'm hope you're right," she mused softly. "Has anyone gone out looking for her?"
She watched as Buck bobbed his head. "Ty spent most of the day out and about trying to track her down."
Dani turned and met the full force of Tyler's eyes. "Did you find any sign of her? A campsite? Anything?"
He nodded slowly. The strands of blond hair framing his face caught the light. "Found several places where she's been the past few days."
"Was anything out of the ordinary?"
He watched Dani's brow wrinkle. It was obvious she held out hope for something that might explain her sister's sudden disappearance.
Tyler was fascinated by the emotions playing across her face. Apparently the depth of her concern piqued his interest.
Shrugging his shoulder against hers, he said, "Nothing that would indicate anything out of the ordinary."
She didn't challenge his answer. Dani was nothing like her sister. He was certain of that. This one was more controlled, yet he sensed the control was hard won. He had the feeling she was somehow vulnerable. That realization only made him feel worse.
"You went and choked yourself half to death before you answered my question, Missy. How long's it been since your last visit?" Buck asked.
He heard her let out a slow breath before responding. "Nearly two years," she answered finally.
Buck whistled. Tyler placed one large hand on his knee and began to tap out a rhythm against his jeans. He was trying not to notice the feminine scent that clung to the silky strands of hair framing her face. Just as he was trying not to notice the perfect shape of her incredible body.
"I knew it had been a while. I'm surprised you let so much time pass. Why, when you were a little girl you used to swear you'd never go no farther from the Circle B than the back fence."
Her expression seemed to softened, to lingering somewhere between sadness and amusement. "I'm not a little girl anymore, Buck."
Tyler's thumb stilled at her words, his eyes taking in her profile in the flash of oncoming car lights. He noted she held in her breath. She must have been acutely aware of his eyes roaming over her face before traveling lower, to take in the silhouette of her body through the thin, silk blouse which outlined every feminine inch of her, including the wispy lace at the edge of her brassiere.
The expression in her eyes caused a tight knot to form in the pit of his stomach. He felt guilty for the sadness but was impressed by the twinkle of amusement. Danielle was the most intriguing woman he'd encountered in some time. Certainly the most intriguing in Brock's Pass.
He could see by the vibration of the tiny vein at the base of her slender throat that her pulse quickened under his frank assessment. His baser instincts kicked in and he swallowed his smile. Deliberately, Tyler shifted in his seat, brushing his leg against hers. She edged closer to Buck. Next, he pretended to scratch his chin, but his real goal was to feel the soft material of her blouse. He liked watching her cool exterior melt. He especially liked the way any intimate contact knocked her off balance. It was a bit of knowledge he decided to store for future use.
A feeling washed over Dani, something vague and indefinable, but nonetheless disturbing. Taking her lead from Buck and Tyler, she pushed any and all negative thoughts from her brain. Dani comforted herself with the knowledge that they had only a short distance left to travel. She could hardly wait to see her sister and she'd had quite enough of Tyler - and those eyes the color of expensive imported chocolate.
The road surface became noticeably worse when they turned on to the stone drive which led up to the house. Still, Dani was grateful that this endurance test was about to come to an end.
For the last five or so miles of the trip, she could have sworn Tyler had gone out of his way to make her as uncomfortable as possible. If he wasn't rubbing his leg against hers, then he was lifting an arm, brushing his tight, sinewy muscles against her until she'd been forced to squirm and wiggle in the seat to maintain distance.
The moon slipped behind the house, outlining the two-story home that dominated a large portion of the landscape. The weathered log exterior and full porch were bathed in lights that began over the front door and continued in a semi-circle around the front lawn. The flood lights only added to the majestic feel of the place.
Dani's sense of excitement rose as she waited for Tyler to exit the vehicle. Once he no longer served as an impediment to her progress, she bounded from the truck and up the stairs, taking them two at a time. The buttery scent of baking greeted her just a second before her hand closed on the cool metal knob of the door. Pushing it open, she was welcomed by two smiling faces. The third face in the hallway looked just as sour and unfriendly as ever.
"Aunt Sandra," she acknowledged the stiff, unpleasant woman first in order to get it over with.
"Lupe!" Dani exclaimed with genuine enthusiasm. Moving forward, she wrapped her arms as far around the woman as Lupe's girth would allow.
"Look at you!" Lupe countered, using the corner of her apron to dab at a tear in the crease beside one brown eye. "If you aren't the image of your Mamma." The woman shook her head and rested her hands against her ample hips.
"Do you have a hug for your favorite uncle?" a male voice chimed.
Matthew rushed forward, placing a fatherly kiss on her forehead and giving a gentle squeeze where his hands clutched her upper arms.
"Of course I do," Dani said, pulling the distinguished man to her. His affection was genuine and very comforting.
They held each other at arms length for a brief time before her uncle spoke again. "Danielle, you get prettier with each passing year."
She smiled up at him, amazed by the changes apparent since last they were together. It seemed as though during the course of her long absence Uncle Matt had aged ten years. Dani sneaked a peek at her aunt and decided Sandra was basically the same. Still attractive, still cool, still aloof, and still Dani's least favorite person on earth.
"Has there been any word from Jennifer?" she asked as she locked arms with her uncle and they proceeded in the direction of the spacious kitchen.
Uncle Matt, along with everyone else, seemed totally unconcerned by Jennifer's disappearance. Shrugging his shoulders, her uncle led her through the richly paneled hallway.
It was a long room, decorated with many of the rustic utensils and hand-carved implements owned and used by the Baylor family when they had first settled the land more than a century earlier. Dani's great-great grandfather had made his way through the territories to western Montana and personally staked out what was now the Circle B Ranch. The house had changed over time, additions to accommodate children; then again to accommodate modern conveniences; then finally, to accommodate luxury. It was something of a showplace and starkly different from her humble though functional condominium back in Atlanta.
Seated at one end of the large oak table that dominated the room, Dani tried to keep her worries at bay. Still her eyes went to the huge window and looked out at the unforgiving, moonlit landscape beyond.
Aunt Sandra glided into the chair opposite Dani, and clasped her hands in front of her on the table. To Dani, she looked actually bored, but still somehow managed to silently convey the fact that she was less than pleased with Dani's appearance at the ranch. The fact that Dani and her sister each owned forty-five percent of the ranch was conveniently ignored by her aunt. Sandra lorded over the place like royalty.
"How's the thesis coming?" Matt asked as Lupe placed a tray of steaming coffee mugs at the center of the round table.
"Slowly," she admitted. "I've finished all my research. Now it's just a matter of pulling everything together into a coherent presentation."
"What is it you hope to accomplish with this thing?" Sandra injected.
"Earning my Ph.D.," she responded in a flat tone that matched her aunt's.
Tyler sauntered into the kitchen. Dani was surprised to see that he apparently had free run of the house. The practice of allowing the ranch hands access to the house had ended with the tragedy more than twenty years earlier.
Dumbfounded, she watched as Tyler made his way over to the tray and helped himself to a cup of coffee. Next, he turned the chair backwards, scraping the legs noisily across the floor, and mounted it. Removing his hat and hanging it on the chair, Tyler gave Lupe a playful wink before taking a sip from his cup.
"We appreciate you going with Buck to collect Dani," Matt said. "I'm sure he welcomed the help."
"No problem," Tyler responded smoothly. His voice, when not tainted with sarcasm, was rich, deep and utterly sexy.
Dani looked down into her mug for fear her expression might reveal the carnal nature of her thoughts. Fatigue, she admonished. She was exhausted from the time change and that explained her reaction to a man who openly, and for no apparent reason, disliked her.
"Is she just worried about Jennifer, or is she always this quiet?" Tyler asked as Lupe placed a freshly baked fruit pie on the table, followed by the requisite number of plates and forks.
"I am worried about my sister, Mr. Cantrell," Dani corrected through thinned lips. "It isn't like Jen to not meet me. We're very close."
"Is that why you haven't been back to visit in two years?"
Dani stiffened in response to the question. While everyone at the table exchanged shocked looks, Dani stared hard at the man.
"Mr. Cantrell," she began in a deceptively calm voice. "Is there something about me that bothers you, or are you just naturally obnoxious?"
His eyes met and held hers. Gold sparks emanated from the light reflecting in his pupils. His jaw thrust forward and his chest rose and fell with each breath. She noted his large fingers gripped the mug just a bit too tightly.
"Danielle," her aunt's voice cut through threads of tension weaving between Dani and the cowboy. "Would you please try and refrain from causing any unpleasantness? I'm sure Tyler didn't mean anything by his comment. And you must admit that you've taken very little interest in this place, or any of us, since you went off to college."
Dani turned her attention to the woman who had acted, albeit unwillingly, as a surrogate mother since the time of her parents tragic death. "We've been over this before, Aunt Sandra. I don't see what there is for me to do here. Uncle Matt manages the business aspects. You seem to have a handle on the household, as well as all the charity matters. I don't see what I have to contribute."
"Your sister certainly doesn't think like that," Sandra countered in a tone implying that Dani would always be inferior to her sibling.
"No, she doesn't," Dani agreed quickly. Glancing down at her watch she acknowledged a new world record in Baylor family discord. Why, she and her aunt had exchanged harsh words during the first ten minutes. As was par for the course, Lupe and Uncle Matt leaned back in their chairs and pretended not to notice the friction between the two women.
The behavior was part of a ritual which had begun at some point during Dani's seventh year of life. It was the year Dani had first challenged Sandra's authority and had continued, uninterruptedly, through the years. The other members of the household simply pretended to ignore the spats. It was safer than taking one side over the other. Especially for Uncle Matt. While he adored his nieces, he was the one that suffered the wrath of Sandra whenever he dared to side with Dani or Jennifer against his wife. In the end, it had become easier for him just to feign deafness.
Dani took a deep breath and shifted in her seat.
Lupe's round face contorted into a mass of exasperated frustration. Her uncle's expression was more disappointed than anything else. But it was Tyler's expression that riled Dani.
Leaning forward, resting his forearms against the chair-back, Tyler appeared to be enjoying the volley of verbal lashes. His lips turned up slightly at one corner, into something dangerously close to a satisfied smirk. With his blond head tilted to one side, his eyes brimmed with unspoken challenge. It was obvious that he would have derived great pleasure out of having Dani and her aunt air all the dirty family linen as his evening entertainment.
Refusing to rise to the bait, and in the interest of maintaining some sort of personal dignity, Dani forced herself to smile at the arrogant man. "My aunt is right, Mr. Cantrell. I apologize if you felt I was rude to you."
A flicker of disappointment flashed in the depths of his dark eyes before being replaced by a more utilitarian expression. His head dipped fractionally, as if her hard won self-control had actually scored a point with the argumentative creature.
Not that I care, she told herself as she unselfconsciously reached for a generous slice of pie. Dani wondered what it was about the light haired cowboy that had her second guessing her every word and deed.
A period of silence followed as everyone enjoyed the pie. Dani found herself alternately peering out the window for some sign of Jennifer's return and fighting the urge to stare openly at Tyler. She may not care much for his attitude but Dani was forced to acknowledge to herself that he was one very attractive man. With the exception of his hair, everything about him was dark and rather mysterious looking. Each feature, excluding his nose, looked as if it had been lovingly sculpted into place. She suspected the slight misalignment of his nose was the result of some injury gone untreated. A broken nose wasn't an uncommon thing. Over the years, Dani had encountered many of the men working at the ranch had suffered the same fate at least a time or two. Instead of leaving the usual unsightly bump, the slight imperfection only served to enhance Tyler's vastly masculine appearance.
"I'm sorry," Dani gushed after hiding a yawn behind her napkin. "I think Lupe's wonderful food has lulled me into a state of utter contentment."
"I know what you mean," Uncle Matt agreed, patting the flabby distention of his stomach where it protruded over the waistband of his jeans. "I always sleep better at night on a full stomach."
"Your stomach's always full," Sandra pointed out, her obvious censure apparent as she gazed upon her husband's rounded midriff.
"True," Matt countered, heedless of his wife's apparent displeasure.
Dani shook her head, suddenly remembering why she had allowed so much time to lapse between visits. The Circle B wasn't home - it was a battleground! At least it seemed that way without Jennifer there to act as a buffer between the various warring factions.
"Did Jennifer tell any of you that she was planning a trip into the mountains?" Dani asked no one in particular.
"No. And you'd better believe she'll hear about that, too," Lupe said, waving her wooden spoon in the air. "That girl ought to have more sense than to take off when she knew good and well you were due in today."
"It's not like her," Dani readily agreed.
"It sure isn't, but that girl's been acting strange as all get out lately."
Dani gaped at Lupe, unaccustomed to hearing the housekeeper utter something that wasn't totally complimentary toward a Baylor girl. Her light brows arched in surprise. "What do you mean strange?"
"Strange," Lupe repeated as if it were explanation enough. "Your sister's mind has been off somewhere where her body just wasn't."
Running one artfully manicured fingernail around the rim of the coffee cup, Dani stared down into the empty vessel. All sorts of frightening thoughts entered her head and she felt a rush of trepidation well inside her. "Have any of you considered calling the authorities?"
Sandra dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. Uncle Matt turned the handle of an engraved spoon between his thumb and forefinger as if actually contemplating the idea. Lupe nodded instant agreement. Tyler only stared at her, his face void of any discernible thought or emotion.
"If Jen's been out there for five days without radioing in, anything might have happened to her." Dani's voice cracked at the end of the statement, as if stating the very real possibility that something awful had happened could somehow make it a reality.
"Don't be an alarmist, Danielle," Sandra instructed. "Your sister is completely capable of taking care of herself. Why, Jennifer is one of the most cautious, level-headed people I know. I'm sure she's just lost track of the time. If you call the sheriff's department, you'll only embarrass this family . . . again."
Her cheeks burned with a mixture of anger and discomfiture. Mentally she tried to calculate just how long her aunt could continue throwing the past in her face. Sandra was twenty years Dani's senior, which meant, if they both lived to the national average of about seventy-six, Dani could count on having that unfortunate incident flung in her face for approximately thirty more years. It was a grim thought. And it had been Sam's fault. No matter what Sheriff Cassidy and his band of bozos thought.
"No, Aunt Sandra. I was just suggesting that something should be done. After all, Jen might be hurt . . .."
"Tyler's been up to the mountain. He found a few campsites. No one's reported seeing any flares or signal fires," Matt said.
Somehow her uncle's speech failed to completely eradicate the unpleasant thoughts mulling around in Dani's brain.
She rose, carefully side-stepped Tyler and placed her soiled dishes in the sink. "I'm exhausted from the trip," she admitted. "I think I'll call it a night."
"I'm a bit tuckered out myself," Matt chorused.
She felt a pair of brown eyes boring into her as she exited the kitchen.
Rain pounded against the window pane, rattling the glass in harmony to the wind howling like a big animal. Dani's eyes remained open, staring past the darkness to the silhouettes of her dolls and toys. Their lifeless eyes sparkled each time a white bolt of lightening flashed through the room. She knew it was silly to be scared. After all, she'd just turned six, and six year olds were too big to be scared of the dark.
Hugging Scruffy against her flannel gown, Dani's ears picked up the muffled sounds of voices wafting up from below. Clutching the pilled toy more tightly, she closed her eyes and tried to ignore the rain, the darkness and the angry voices growing louder with each passing second.
"I wish Mommy and Daddy wouldn't fight," she whispered to the bear. The crash of yet another bolt jolted her into a sitting position. Forgetting the fact that she was sure to get her fanny swatted, Dani scooted off the bed and padded toward the door. The knob was high and hard to turn so she had to put Scruffy on the floor and use both hands. She heard a popping sound just as the door creaked open, blinding her with bright light. Rubbing her eyes to get rid of those funny red spots, Dani collected her bear and dragged him silently behind her as she quietly moved down the long hall, as quietly as she could. Her fingers skidded the surface of the wall. It felt cool and smooth as she made her way down the corridor.
At the top of the stairs, her heart sang when she heard the angry voices grow still. If they weren't fighting, maybe they wouldn't spank her for getting out of bed.
The bears legs thumped against the tread as she carefully took each high step. She smelled something funny and crinkled her nose in response. It smelled a little like the fires they built out by the holding pens. Dani wondered if you could brand cattle indoors. Maybe, if it was raining really hard, like now.
At the bottom of the stairs she nearly lost her balance on the polished wood floor. Skidding into the corner, she could see directly into the shadowy living room. Daddy was laying on the sofa, one leg bent under his body. He looked a little like the woman Dani had seen at the circus - the one who could tie herself up like a pretzel. Mommy was there too, sitting very still. It wasn't like Mommy to sit still.
A sudden flash of lightening illuminated the room. There was a large boo-boo on daddy's head, just below where his hair met his forehead. Something dark and reddish was running from his fingertips into a puddle on the floor.
Panic welled in her body. Frozen, she pressed herself tightly against the wall and waited for the next flash of lightning. When it came, she saw clearly a black handled knife. Dani's breath caught when she sensed someone moving inside the room.
There was another flash, but it wasn't from the storm outside. It was quick and filled the air around her with more of that stinky, smoky smell. With the next crash of lightening, Dani stared dumb-struck at the scene before her. Daddy's boo-boo was worse and yucky stuff seemed to be splattered everywhere. Dani opened her mouth to scream just as she saw -
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ROSE TATOO Series
"Have you called the police?"
Shelby nodded as she gulped in air. "They're on their way."
"Where's Cindy?" Rose asked as she placed her hands on Shelby's trembling arms.
"I think she went into the kitchen," she answered. "As soon as I realized the baby was gone, I really lit into her."
"I should hope so!" Rose shrieked. "What was she doing? How did they get in?"
Shelby glanced over her shoulder and saw the teenager hunched over the kitchen table. The muffled sounds of her crying filtered into the living room.
"She put him to bed around nine. She said she never heard as much as a peep."
"Peep my foot!" Rose huffed. "You mean to tell me someone waltzes in here and snatches our baby and that one didn't even feel a draft from the door?" She waved her thumb in the direction of the girl.
"The window was open when I went in to kiss him good-night." The memory of that horrible moment brought with it a renewed flood of warm tears. All at once her mind filled with all sorts of possibilities. None of them good. "What am I going to do?" she managed to choke out.
"I don't know," Rose answered in her usual candor.
The police arrived then. A virtual army of men and women in all ranks, shapes and sizes. Rose brought one of them over to where Shelby stood next to the window. She peered out over the bustle of activity. She couldn't stand the thought of Chad being out there. With God only knew what kind of stranger.
"I'm Detective Greer, Mrs. Hunnicutt."
"Shelby," she corrected automatically.
"Shelby," he repeated in a soothing voice. "I need to get some information from you as soon as possible."
"Anything," she told him.
He smiled wanly and touched her elbow, directing her to the table in the center of the room. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small notebook. As he flipped it open, he pushed the vase of cut flowers off to one side.
She was only vaguely aware of what was happening in her own home. Rose was on the sofa, talking to one of the female officers. There was a man in the kitchen with Cindy. Still others moved past her toward the stairs, stopping only long enough to ask about the rooms on the second floor.
She tasted the remnants of salty tears as she moistened her lower lip.
"The FBI will be here soon, so I'll need to get some background."
"Chad is nine months old. He weighs twenty-two pounds and has some dark hair just beginning to grow. His eyes are blue, but not the same color as mine. He --"
"We'll get a recent picture," Greer interrupted gently.
She nodded and said, "I just had some done at the mall. I'll get them."
"No," Greer said as he placed his hands over hers. "Just tell me where they are."
"On the kitchen counter," she said.
"Do you live here alone?" he asked.
"And your husband?"
"I'm not married."
"Then the baby's father?"
One of the detective's brows arched in an unspoken question.
"He isn't," she insisted.
"Give me his name and address," he stated as he poised his pen above the page.
She looked around then. There were at least a dozen people in the house. Judging from the beams of bright light flickering in the window, several officers were positioned outside as well.
"His father couldn't have had anything to do with this," she insisted.
"We won't know until we talk to him," Greer prompted.
"It isn't like that," she said. "Chad's father doesn't even know about him. I left without ever telling him I was pregnant."
The detective leaned back in the seat. His head tilted to one side as he regarded her for several long seconds. "If you're keeping information from us . . .."
"I wouldn't do that! My son is gone."
"Will you at least tell me the guy's name?"
A young, uniformed officer came over and whispered something to Greer. He then placed a small plastic pouch in the detective's hand before retreating back out the front door.
"Do you recognize this?"
She reached out and took the bag. Inside was a small round silver medallion on a broken chain. Instantly, she remembered . . .
"This is very nice," she murmured.
She could smell the faint traces of his cologne. The medallion was between his thumb and forefinger. Her eyes remained transfixed as she watched him absently run the silver object along its chain.
She sensed the change in him. The knowledge brought with it a flood of anticipation which swirled in stomach. Her nerves were electrified; her awareness acute. All these weeks of waiting, wondering, dreaming, seemed near an end.
"What are you doing?" she asked through a smile when he moved around behind her.
"Protecting you," he murmured against her neck. His hands wound around her waist, his large fingers splayed against her abdomen.
"Is this part of your job description, Dylan?"
Her fingers laced with his.
"I know someone who wears one like this. His name is Dylan Tanner. He's an agent with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But I haven't seen him for a long time," Shelby finally answered. She retained her hold on the medallion and remembered all too vividly what it looked like nestled in the dark matte of hair on Dylan's chest.
"Is this Tanner guy the baby's father?" Greer asked pointedly.
Shelby looked directly into his eyes but said nothing. The front door burst open and Helen Hopewell was ushered in by a pair of officers. Cindy, her eyes rimmed in damp red circles, went running to her.
Helen clutched the girl but she was looking at Shelby. "I don't know what to say," Helen began, her expression pained.
"I never heard a sound!" Cindy wailed and then dissolved into another fit of loud sobs.
Helen explained to Greer that she was the sitter's mother and that she lived in the house three doors down the street. The officer who had been talking to Cindy was furiously scribbling notes as Helen spoke.
Greer motioned to one of the officers, whispered a directive, then dismissed him. As Shelby watched him leave, the shock of what had happened to her baby was slowly evolving into a sort of numbness, tinged with a certain amount of denial. The room was filled with the telltale scent of baby powder and other small reminders of Chad. Part of her mind insisted on believing that this was all some sort of nightmare. Eventually she would wake up and he would be there, smiling, drooling, even crying.
It was almost two hours later when an officer poked his head in the front door and said, "He's here."
"Chad!" she screamed as she looked in the direction of her front door. A flood of bright lights silhouetted the long shadow of a man.
"Is it Chad?" she repeated anxiously as she jumped to her feet.
Rose, who had been standing with her supportively, shoved one of the officers to one side to allow Shelby a unobstructed view of the door.
"I'm sorry, Shelby," Greer said.
She actually swayed when he came into the room. He was wearing jeans and a pale blue polo shirt. His federal identification badge hung from one of his belt loops. He looked exactly as she remembered, tall and distractingly handsome. He walked with such arrogant authority that he was able to reach her in two long strides.
"Shelby," he said softly as his hands gripped the bared flesh of her upper arms.
"I'm Detective Greer, Agent Tanner," the smaller man inserted as he thrust his hand forward.
Dylan didn't take the hand, he simply said, "Greer." His eyes were trained on her. "You have a son?" Dylan asked.
Shelby nodded, then lowered her eyes. Why was he here? Who decided to bring Dylan into this? She couldn't deal with him now. Chad had to be her only concern.
"Do you recognize this?" Greer asked as he passed the bagged medallion to Dylan.
He turned away from her and accepted the item. His dark brows drew together as he turned the bag over in his palm.
"I did have one like this. I lost it about six months back," he told the detective. "It does look like mine."
Greer nodded and took back the evidence bag. "We found it in the bushes below the nursery. Can you think of any way it could have gotten here?"
"You thought I might have had something to do with this?" Dylan asked Shelby.
She was standing so close that he could smell the faint scent of her perfume. But it wasn't like the last time they'd been together, he thought as his hands balled into fists. Her contagious smile was gone, replaced by the tormented expression clouding her blue eyes. The hair framing her face was as dark as his own, though it fell in soft waves to her slender shoulders. Even in grief, Shelby was beautiful.
"Of course she doesn't," Rose piped up.
"Who are you?" Dylan countered, bracing his feet shoulder width apart as he crossed his forearms in front of his chest.
"Rose Porter," the woman responded. "I'm Shelby's business partner."
Dylan turned away from Rose's narrowed green eyes and gave his full attention to Shelby. "Business partner? So you did break with Nichols?"
"He bought me out," she answered as he watched her move fractionally closer to Rose.
"Hey, Greer!" Rose bellowed. "Are you still in charge here? Or have you decided to let this guy run your investigation?"
The police official bristled at Rose's decidedly sarcastic tone. "What is it you'd like me to do?" Greer retorted.
"Find the kid," Rose volleyed back.
"That's what we're trying to do," he defended. "That's why I sent a car for Mr. Tanner."
"You're wasting time and resources," Shelby insisted. "You heard Dylan. He didn't even know I had a son."
"No," Dylan agreed quietly. "I didn't."
Shelby felt his eyes on her and she held her breath. Would he put it all together? How long would it take for him to realize the obvious?
"Have you wasted the last couple of hours tracking him down instead of looking for Chad?" Rose demanded. Her arms flailed at her sides, dislodging the animal print blouse from the thick black patent leather belt cinching her waist.
Her loud, distinctive voice garnered the attention of the officers and technicians. Greer blanched and a red stain seeped up from the neck of his rumpled, white shirt.
"I'm following up on the only lead we've got. That's how we do things, Mrs. Porter. We look at everything."
A flash of something passed between the two of them that Shelby wasn't able to decipher. While she considered Rose her dearest friend, she also recognized that her outspoken tendencies didn't always endear the raucous woman to strangers.
"What else have you got?" Dylan asked the other officer.
Greer shrugged and said, "The neighbor across the street thinks he may have seen a strange car parked up the street. We're showing him catalogues now to see if he can come up with a make or model year."
"Have your men checked out Nichols?" Dylan barked.
"Nichols?" Greer repeated.
Dylan turned back to Shelby, his eyes bore into her. "Ned's the father, right?"
Shelby shifted her weight from foot to foot. She wanted to scream the truth but something told her now was neither the time nor the place. Her only answer was her silence. She couldn't lie to Dylan. Not directly at least.
"Ned Nichols was her business partner. ATF's been investigating him on and off for almost two years," Dylan explained.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me this?" Greer thundered at Shelby.
She started at the harsh question and was grateful for Rose's hand on her shoulder. "I haven't seen or spoken to Ned in more than a year," she answered stiffly, careful to keep her eyes averted and fixed squarely on one of Chad's stuffed elephants.
"Where can we find him?"
Shelby hesitated, then said, "Ned could not possibly be involved in this."
"He's slime," Dylan countered. "If you think being the kid's father would make a difference to a guy like Nicholas, you're dead wrong, Shelby. "Christ," he swore. "The guy's old enough to be your father."
"Where can we find this Nichols?" Greer asked.
"Charleston Import Company," Dylan supplied, then rattled off the address.
Greer took the information and moved away.
"Would you mind leaving us alone for a minute?" Dylan asked Rose.
Shelby could sense her friend's misgivings. "It's okay, Rose."
"Chad means everything to Shelby," Rose warned Dylan before she turned toward the kitchen.
The scent of coffee lingered in the air between them. Her entire body tensed under his close scrutiny. At any second she expected the light to dawn. What then? her mind screamed.
"You look tired," he said as he guided her to the chair. "Do you want to go up and lie down for a while."
"I couldn't," she insisted. "The FBI told me that kidnappers usually make a ransom demand in the first few hours."
"I'm sure they'll find him, Shelby."
"He's only a baby!" she choked. "What if he's hurt? What if -"
"Don't do this to yourself," he soothed, kneeling in front of her. His square-tipped fingers rested on top of her knees. "I'm sure they'll have him back here before morning."
She looked into his eyes, hoping to draw on his confidence. His angled features were set in what she suspected was an artificially optimistic expression.
"Ned wouldn't take Chad," she told him.
Dylan's handsome features immediately hardened. "I know you've always wanted to believe the best about that guy, but -"
"He doesn't even know about the baby," she admitted, carefully watching for his reaction.
It wasn't good.
"You mean to tell me you never told the man he had a son?" Dylan demanded in a harsh whisper.
"I didn't tell Ned about the baby," she stated simply, feeling her face warm under the weight of her evasiveness.
"I thought the way you dumped me was cold," he observed. "I never would have thought you were capable of doing something this dishonest."
"My son is missing, Dylan! The last thing I need from you is a lecture on my decision making. You don't have the first clue what you're talking about. And besides, this doesn't really concern you."
"What is going on here?" Rose asked in time with the rhythm of her spiked heels hitting the floor.
"Nothing," Shelby answered quickly.
"Well, it doesn't look like nothing," Rose grumbled. "Just what did you say to her?" she asked Dylan. "Her hands are shaking and she's crying again."
"Sorry," Dylan mumbled.
"I'm sorry your mother didn't eat you when you were born," Rose spit at him. Placing her hands on her rounded hips, she arched one neatly plucked brow toward the pile of coifed blond hair which added height to her small frame.
"Look, lady," Dylan said as he rose slowly. "I didn't mean to upset her."
"You did," Rose told him pointedly.
If his size intimidated her, nothing in her expression gave it away. Rose simply squared her shoulders and offered him one of her wilting looks. Shelby had seen it work magic on the most unruly patron. It didn't seem to be having much of an effect on Dylan.
"I really am sorry, Shelby," he said to her. "I was way out of line."
"Forget it," she breathed as she picked up one of the dozens of photos strewn across the table. A lump formed in her throat the instant she looked at those big eyes smiling back at her from the picture. They were nearly the same electric shade of blue-gray as the man standing just a few inches away. She felt the wetness as tears flowed soundlessly.
"They'll find him, Shelby, honey," Rose said. "You gotta have faith."
"I do," she lied. What she had was a deep, consuming pain in her chest. It was hard to keep her mind from wandering into those unspeakable places. Hard to keep her imagination from producing horrible scenarios.
"I know most of these guys, Shelby," Dylan said as he again kneeled in front of her. "They'll find your little boy."
She nodded, afraid to speak for fear of what she might say.
She lifted her head when she heard her front door open. One of the plain clothesmen walked in and whispered something to Greer. The detective's head moved fractionally and it appeared to her as if his guarded expression lightened just a bit.
Dylan rose and placed a hand on her shoulder as Greer strode over.
"I don't want to get your hopes up," he began.
"Ned Nichols isn't at his house or his business. One of his neighbors saw him leave his house around midnight."
Shelby held her breath and swallowed.
Greer continued, "He was carrying something wrapped in a blanket."
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J.D. Porter. She knew the initials stood for Jackass Deluxe, and he was sitting at her table!
A definite frown curved the corners of her mouth downward as she donned an air of false confidence. Brushing the few strands of light hair away from her eyes, Tory Conway pushed through the hinged kitchen doors, a tray clamped tightly over her chest.
With practiced aloofness, she held her breath as she marched past where he sat hunched over a mound of paperwork. The pleasant mix of his decidedly masculine cologne and coffee chased her behind the bar, threatening her resolve.
After placing the tray on the polished wooden surface of the horseshoe-shaped bar, Tory bent down and began collecting the salt and pepper shakers.
Her motion was halted in mid-stream when she felt long, tapered fingers close around her wrist. She rose slowly, trying not to devote too much time to the devastating feel of his touch.
Their eyes collided - hers wide from the shock. His were a deep, penetrating gray, the same shade as a South Carolina summer sky before a violent storm. She swallowed against the irrational belief that those eyes could see through her clothing. His lopsided, sexy display of even white teeth hovered somewhere very near a leer.
"Good afternoon, Miss Conway."
Not from where I'm standing, she thought. She didn't speak immediately, mostly because she had this sinking feeling that her words might come out in a squeaky, helium-high voice.
"No greeting?" he taunted, one dark brow arched questioningly. "You wound me."
"No," she returned with a sweet smile. "But I'd be happy to as soon as I've finished my set-up."
"Ouch," he returned easily, placing his hand over his heart.
Or, she thought with satisfaction, where his heart would be if he actually had one.
annoyance crept up her spine when he refused her subtle request to be released when she gave his hand a small tug. "I have work to do," she insisted through tight lips.
"So do I," he said in that annoyingly calm voice that was just too smooth, too velvety to have emanated from such a massive man.
"Then why don't you do it?"
The smile widened, accentuating the chiseled perfection of his angled features. "Would you like to do it? I'm game if you are."
Tory groaned and sucked in an perplexed breath. The man was infuriating. "Not in your lifetime, Sparky."
The sound of his laugh was deep, rich. It caressed her ears and made her skin tingle. "Haven't you heard of sexual harassment?" she managed between her clenched teeth.
"Doesn't apply," he returned easily. "You don't work for me."
"Thank God and anyone else responsible," she grumbled. His hold on her arm was getting on her nerves. She didn't like being touched, especially by the visiting Neanderthal.
"You aren't very friendly for a waitress, Miss Conway."
"Depends on the customer," she volleyed back.
"No wonder you can't live off your what you earn in tips."
She bristled, and might have stiffened her spine had it not been for the unfortunate fact that she had not yet fastened the top button of her uniform. The last thing she wanted, or needed, was to give Mr. Deluxe an eyeful of cleavage. Especially since he'd no doubt take it as a come on.
"I live just fine," she promised him. "And thanks for asking. Your concern is touching."
"I'm not concerned, but I'd be happy to touch." The last half of his statement was delivered in a low, sensual pitch that made her want to scream.
"Come on, J.D.," she pleaded after a brief pause. "Can the double entendre and let me get ready for the lunch crowd."
His eyes dropped to where his dark fingers encircled her small wrist. She followed his lead. His tanned, weathered complexion was a stark contrast to her pale skin. The grip loosened until all she was aware of was the feather-light stroke of his fingertip as it traced the pattern of small bones in her hand.
Tory snatched her hand away, feeling her face flush as the sound of his chuckle reached her ears. He was infuriating! she fumed as she slammed various containers on the top of the bar. He was egotistical. He had enough arrogance for ten men, and, he was the most attractive man she'd seen in all her twenty-five years.
My hormones are probably suffering from some sort of deprivation reaction, she reasoned as she arranged the half-empty jars and bottles on her tray.
Trying to ignore J.D.'s presence as she worked was like trying to ignore a space launch. Her peripheral vision was filled with images of his broad shoulders and that unruly mass of jet black hair he kept raking his fingers through as he quietly studied the piles of documents spread before him on the table. The worn fabric of his denim shirt clung to the definition of well-muscled arms. One booted toe kept time to the Elvis tune coming from the juke box.
She didn't like him - hadn't from that first day. J.D. was one of those stuck-up, abrupt sorts. His expression was always cool, aloof. Giving her the impression that he somehow felt he was superior to the whole world. She guessed his attitude might have something to do with the truckloads of money he earned as one of Florida's premiere architects. Or, she thought glibly, it could just be the result of being one of the most gorgeous men on the face of the earth.
She turned in the direction of the familiar female voice, her eyes honing in on her boss's harsh features. Rose Porter leaned against the kitchen door, her heavily jeweled hand patting the stiff mass of blond hair lacquered against her head.
"There's a guy here for you."
Tory ignored the apparent interest of the man seated at the table. Rose's stiletto heels clicked against the wooden plank floor as she held the door open wide.
Tory smiled as she caught sight of Dr. Mitchell Greyson, Dean of Student Services at Oglethorpe College. Dr. Greyson shuffled in, his small body listing to the side where his hand toted a sizable briefcase. The scent of witch hazel reached her a fraction of a second before the rumpled, balding man.
"Miss Conway," he greeted in his proper southern accent. "I'm sorry to trouble you at your place of employment."
Tory's grin grew wider. She was a waitress, not the CEO of some fancy corporation. Greyson acted as if he'd interrupted important merger negotiations.
"No problem," she told him brightly, tucking a dish towel into the waistband of her apron. Gesturing to one of the chairs, Tory offered him a seat as she glared at J.D.. He was leaning back in his chair, watching her as if she were the main feature at the theater.
His expression didn't falter when their eyes briefly met. That bothered her.
"I'm afraid I have some rather distressing news," Dr. Greyson began as he placed the case on the table and slowly extracted a crisp, white sheet of letterhead.
Taking the letter, Tory's eyes scanned the neatly typed print. She read it again, sure she had somehow misconstrued the meaning.
"This isn't possible," she managed in a strangled voice.
Rose came over then, standing behind her with one hand comfortingly resting on Tory's shoulder.
"What does it mean?" Rose asked.
"I'm dead," Tory answered as the full impact of the news settled over her like a heavy blanket.
"Not necessarily," Dr. Greyson cut in. "I've brought along a directory," he said, pulling a tattered paperback from his briefcase.
"I've been all through that," Tory groaned. "I couldn't find a single one I qualified for."
"Perhaps there are some new listings?" Greyson suggested.
"Maybe," she responded dismally.
"You know," Greyson said as he patted the back of her hand with his pudgy fingers. "You can take a year or so off. Perhaps by then, the forces-that-be will reinstate the program."
"Maybe," Tory repeated.
"I'll keep my ears open," Greyson promised as he scooted his chair back and rose to his modest height. "Perhaps the Board of Trustees . . . "
Of course she knew the Board could do nothing on her behalf.
"I'm finished," Tory whispered on an expel of breath.
"Can we help?" Rose asked, taking the seat Greyson had vacated. "Shelby and I -"
"Are hardly in a position to cough up seventeen thousand dollars," Tory finished. "Shelby has Chad and another baby due any minute. And I know you have all your cash committed to the rehab of the dependencies."
Rose's painted-red lips thinned and she adjusted the black leather belt cinching her waist. She reached forward and grabbed for the directory of college funding Dr. Greyson had left behind.
"Forget it," Tory shrugged. "I've already maxed-out my eligibility for student loans, along with every grant and scholarship known to mankind."
"But you haven't tried," Rose argued with a snort.
"Rose," Tory began slowly. "All you'll find in that directory is a bunch of weird stuff. Scholarships for blue-eyed women with Spanish surnames born in the month of May. Grants for anyone born under the same star as some philanthropist's Maltese."
She followed the sound of the deep, throaty chuckle. Having J.D. Porter laugh when her whole world was shattering didn't sit well.
"Amused?" she asked tartly. "I'm so glad you find my crisis funny." She stood and braced her hands on her hips. "I need some air," she told Rose. "If I don't get away from him, I might just take my frustrations out on your useless son."
She stormed out of the room, the vision of J.D.'s dancing gray eyes vividly etched in her brain. He had laughed at her! she recalled as she stepped into the early June humidity. What kind of unfeeling jerk would laugh at a time like this? "Jackass Deluxe," she grumbled as she stalked through the overgrown gardens.
The tall, damp grass licked at her ankles above her socks, leaving a sheen of moisture on her white aerobic shoes. The air was thick with the scent of the wild vines growing along the brick exterior of the dependency.
The scent inspired memories from the past. Memories of when her family had owned the property. She had been a ten year old princess and this was her kingdom. Her hand reached out to touch the coolness of the weather-beaten stone wall. A small lizard skittered along the surface, then disappeared behind the growth of vegetation threatening to overtake the dilapidated building.
She was thrilled that Rose and Shelby had decided to restore the outbuilding of the Charleston single house. The dependency, which had once served as both kitchen and servants quarters, had been neglected for more than a hundred years. Her only misgiving was the man hired to do the work.
J.D. Porter was an architect known for his dramatic, modern structures. She frowned, imagining what Mr. Steel-and-Glass Towers might do to this historically significant structure. Cringing, she allowed her fingers to admire the stone. J.D. didn't appreciate or even understand historical preservation. He didn't appreciate Rose, either. He was charging his own mother an hourly rate for the renovation. "That man is a piece of work."
Tory spun around and her hand flew to her mouth. Wide-eyed, she looked up into the relaxed face and instantly felt her cheeks burn. "I didn't hear you," she stammered.
J.D. shifted so that his large body cast a long shadow over Tory. Deep lines appeared on either side of his eyes as he squinted against the sunlight.
"I take it you're being squeezed out of the world of academia."
Tory felt her shoulders slump forward. "It seems that way."
"What will you do?"
She shrugged and dropped her gaze to the front of his shirt. It was a stupid move, she realized too late. Her eyes lingered at the deep 'V' where he'd neglected the button his shirt. A thick mat of dark hairs curls over solid, tanned skin. She swallowed and forced her eyes to the ground.
"I may have to wait a year or so until I can get another grant."
He shifted his weight again as his thumbs looped into the waistband of his jeans. "What about your family? Can't they help with your tuition?"
"Interesting concept coming from you," she said as she met his eyes. "I don't really have any family." Needing to change the subject, Tory asked, "How can you charge your own mother top dollar?"
His expression grew dark, and something vaguely dangerous flashed in his eyes. "I'm a businessman, Tory. Not a philanthropic entity."
Heartless creep! her mind screamed. "She's your mother."
"Biologically," he corrected.
"It still counts," Tory told him with a saccharin smile.
Lifting sunglasses from the breast pocket of his shirt, J.D. placed them on the bridge of his slightly crooked nose. Tory was left to view her own reflection in their mirrored lenses.
"Want to give me a hand?"
"What?" she fairly squealed.
Her voice caused an immediate smile to cut the sharp angles of his face. "Assist me?"
"Doing what? Exactly?"
"I'm opened for suggestions," he countered with a wolfish grin.
"And I'm outta here," she answered as she took her first step.
"Hey," he said as his large hand closed around her arm. "I was just teasing you. No need to get huffy."
"I don't care for your brand of teasing, J.D.. Everything out of your mouth has some sort of sexual meaning behind it."
"I'll behave," he promised, one hand raised in an oath.
"I'll bet," she told him wearily.
"Honest. I just want you to hold the tape while I measure." He produced a shiny metal tape measure in support of his statement. "I need to get the dimensions of the outhouse so I can finish that ream of paperwork the Historical Society requires."
"It isn't an outhouse. It's called a dependency. And the forms are necessary," she told him with great hauteur in her voice. "We have to maintain the historical fabric of the city."
His mouth thinned in a definite sneer. "Just because something is old, that doesn't make it worth saving."
"I'd save you, Mr. Porter."
"Think I'm old, huh?"
"Not old," she said with an exaggerated bat of her long lashes. "Historically significant."
The skin of her upper arm tingled where his fingers gently held her. It was annoying, but she silently vowed not to show any reaction. She suspected J.D. would enjoy knowing his touch affected her - and she wasn't about to give him that much power.
"What?" she answered, wondering if he had psychic powers in his arsenal.
"Help me measure."
"It's almost noon," she hedged. "The lunch crowd cometh."
"So does Susan."
"Susan isn't working this shift."
"She is now," he stated. "Rose thought you might like to take the afternoon off in light of your sudden financial upheaval."
"How is losing a day's tips supposed to make me feel better?"
Nodding his dark head, J.D. used his free hand to stroke the faint growth of a beard on his deeply-clefted chin. "Good point. Tell you what," he sighed as if he was about to announce a change in world leaders. "I'll pay you the going rate for helping me measure."
"How generous," she gasped. "Sure you can spare seven-fifty an hour?"
He leaned down, so close that Tory could feel the warmth of his breath against her ear. "For you? Anything."
Her resolve not to react to this man disintegrated when the scent of his cologne lingered in the mere inches separating them. Shrugging away from him, Tory could still feel the imprint of his callused fingers against her skin. A smart person would cut and run. But then, a woman with less than a hundred dollars in the bank didn't always act intelligently.
"Has your mother already called Susan?"
"Yes, Rose called."
She stifled the urge to ask him why he wouldn't call Rose mom, or mother. "Then give me the tape."
Reaching behind him, J.D. again produced the measuring tape as well as a folded sketch of the dependency's exterior. "Here," he said, handing her the drawing and a mechanical pencil. "We'll start on the south wall."
"Fine," Tory said. She kept the bent end of the tape between her fingers as he took long strides through the dense foliage. He had a great derriere, she mused. Tight and rounded above those long, muscular legs. Absently, she fanned herself with the sketch, trying to convince herself that the heat she felt in the pit of her stomach was probably nothing more than too much coffee.
The strip of metal tape acted like an umbilical cord, connecting her to the large man. Dutifully, she followed his instructions as they spent the better part of an hour documenting the contours of the old building. She attributed her dry throat to the stifling early-summer heat. It couldn't possibly be from the way her eyes seemed riveted to his body. She wasn't the type to be interested in things like the washboard-like muscles of his flat stomach; or the gentle slope of his back where his broad shoulders tapered at his waist. No - such things were irrelevant to a woman like Tory.
"You look hot."
"I beg your pardon?" she yelped.
His smile was slow and deliberate. "I was referring to the temperature." He swabbed his brow with the back of his hand. "It must be near ninety."
"Must be," she agreed as she swallowed her guilt.
"Need a break before we tackle the interior?"
"Not me," she told him. She wanted to get this over with - quickly. "The inside is a disaster."
"I know. I took a quick look when I was putting together the budget for the project."
"I'm sure your estimate was high," she said without looking at him.
"I'm sure it was reasonable."
Ignoring the slight edge to his voice, Tory moved to the near rotten door and grasped the knob. The door wouldn't budge.
"Let me," J.D. said, coming up behind her so that his thighs brushed her back.
Tory stepped out of his way almost instantly, feeling branded by the outline of his body.
J.D. wrestled with the humidity-swollen door for a short time before finally pulling it free of the frame. Reaching into his back pocket, he produced a small flashlight and directed the beam in front of them.
The air inside the building was stale and musty. "Lets start on the left," J.D. suggested.
The interior was a long, rectangular shaped space with bowed stone walls and a few rotted timbers piled down at the far end. Bars of yellow light filtered in from the boarded windows, imprisoning J.D. as he placed the measure against what was left of the old flooring.
"Sixty three feet, seven inches," he called.
Tory was about to mark the diagram when she noted the inconsistency. "The tape must be twisted."
She heard his boots scrape as he checked the length of the tape. "Nope."
"Then that back wall is three feet deep," she told him.
J.D. took the sketch from her, his brows drawn together as he looked from the drawing to the room, then back to the paper.
"This doesn't make sense."
"You must have measured incorrectly."
He offered her a baleful stare before walking off to the back of the room. "Hold this," he called, handing her the flashlight as she came up behind him.
Using a combination of his pocket knife and his fingers, J.D. loosened the stones by scraping away the limestone mortar.
"What are you doing?" Tory asked.
"I'm trying to find the other three feet."
An oddly unpleasant odor accompanied the shower of small rocks as he created a small opening in the wall.
"Give me the light."
J.D. stuck his arm through the opening, then she heard him suck in a breath.
His arm came out of the hole and he faced her slowly. His expression was hard, his eyes wide. "We'd better go back up to the Tattoo."
"Why? What's behind the wall?" she asked, frustration adding volume to her litany of questions.
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The flight from Miami to Charleston went smoothly, except for Destiny's lingering anxiety over the gifts she'd received the previous evening.
"Hopefully he'll stay in Miami," she said to Gina as they sat in the back seat of the cab.
Gina frowned. "Don't bet on it," the other woman scoffed. "He's managed to make all your club dates for the past six months."
A shiver racked her small frame but she said nothing. Gina, her personal assistant, was already suggesting that she cancel this last engagement just to be on the safe side.
"Maybe he's tired of hearing the same material over and over," she said, forcing some lightness into her tone.
"Maybe that detective David hired will figure out who he is."
Destiny felt the corners of her mouth turn down. The detective had missed their last meeting, so she had little faith that the rumpled detective had come up with anything substantial.
"Forget my fervent fan," Destiny told her friend. "I chose to focus on the hope that the network will pick up my pilot."
Gina sighed and leaned her head against the back of the seat. "I could get used to L.A.," she said wistfully. Her hand went to her right leg, rubbing the carefully hidden scar Destiny knew ran the full length of her thigh.
"The weather out there will do my leg some good. Might even take up roller blading."
Destiny laughed. "I think your doctor would nix that idea."
She watched as Gina's expression grew sad. "From graceful model to limping lump all in one night."
Destiny said nothing. There was nothing to say. Nothing she hadn't said time and time again during the four years since the accident.
"That's Fort Sumpter," the driver announced as they weaved their way over the uneven streets of Charleston.
"Maybe we'll take a day and sight-see," Destiny suggested.
"You never sight-see," Gina countered. "You're always too busy working on perfecting your routine."
"Right," Gina huffed. "And I like David."
Rolling her eyes, Destiny wasn't in the right frame of mind of rehash the long-standing rivalry between the duo. David and Gina were her friends as well as her employees. Besides, Gina, she had learned, didn't like too many people. She was Destiny's exact opposite. And a definite thorn in David's side. Sometimes she had the distinct impression that Gina went out of her way to make David's job harder. This trip was a perfect example. David had arranged for them to stay in one of the swankiest hotels in downtown Charleston. Gina had made arrangements for them to rent a beach house outside the city. Of course it left Destiny in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the two. It was a no win situation, and she was currently on David's list because she'd chosen the beach over the city.
"Wait!" she called out suddenly.
The cabby brought the car to a screeching halt.
"What?" the driver and Gina said in unison.
"There's the Rose Tattoo," she said, pointing to the historic building with the wooden sign in front. "Let's stop in."
"What about our luggage?" the ever practical Gina pointed out.
"You go on to the beach, then come back," Destiny instructed as she opened her door. "Take as long as you need. I'd love to get a feel for the place."
"You can do that tomorrow," Gina was still grumbling when Destiny closed the door and walked across the black and white checkered tiles leading up to the front door.
Her hand closed on the highly brass handle and she gave a tug. Nothing. She tugged again as her eyes found the hours listed on a rectangular sign listed on the window, then checked her watch.
"Great," she grumbled, squinting against the early morning sunlight. Destiny was about to turn back toward the street in search of a cab when a deep, definitely sexy voice stopped her dead.
"It's you," he said as he pulled open the door.
She had to concentrate to keep her mouth from dropping open in an appreciative response to this gorgeous man. "Must be sun stroke," she said under her breath before flashing him her brightest smile.
His stomach knotted as if an elephant had kicked him - hard. She was even more beautiful than the photograph hanging above the bar. On more then one occasion, Wesley Porter had cynically remarked that the picture had be retouched. It wasn't possible for any living creature to be that beautiful, that perfect. He was wrong.
"Destiny Talbott," she said as she offered him her dainty hand.
Her skin was warm and soft, and a perfect compliment to the deep tan that naturally heightened the unusual shade of her eyes. And the way the sun shimmered off those long tresses of pale blonde hair - Wesley swallowed as he reluctantly dropped her hand.
"Do you have a name?" she asked, a teasing look in her eyes.
The fraction of a second it took him to recall his own name seemed to amuse her all the more. Feeling his cheeks warm slightly, Wes gave her his name and ushered her inside the empty restaurant.
His palms were actually moist by the time they reached the bar, where his books were stacked high next to a mug of long-forgotten coffee.
"We weren't expecting you until this afternoon," he said.
Sliding on to one of the barstools, Wesley battled to keep his eyes off the incredibly shapely legs peeking out from beneath her skirt.
"Spur of the moment," she explained. "When I saw the place I just couldn't resist taking a sneak peek."
He felt one of his brows arch high on his forehead. "Do you always act on your impulses?"
She smiled again. "Is that a question? Or a really bad come-on line?"
"Sorry," he mumbled, studying the backs of his hands. "I guess it's all this scholarly pursuit. I tend to ask questions a lot."
"A bar owning psychiatrist?"
"My mother owns the place. I'm just helping out while I study for my boards."
"Rose," she said, nodding. "David's mentioned her."
"My manager," she said as she boldly slid off the stool, went behind the bar and poured herself a cup of coffee.
Wes wasn't sure what bothered him more. The fact that she seemed so at home in a strange environment, or that he'd been so enthralled with her legs that he hadn't even thought to offer her the most basic of hospitalities.
"This is great," she said, hugging the mug in both hands. "I should have been entitled to a refund from the airlines for that stuff they foisted off on Gina and me this morning."
"My personal assistant," she said as she came back and took the seat next to his. He smelled the faint scent of her perfume and the words utterly feminine floated through his thoughts as he watched her feline-like movements. No wonder she was a popular performer, he thought. As far as he was concerned, she didn't have to tell the first joke. He'd probably pay good money just to watch her walk down the street.
"So," she began with a wicked light in her violet eyes. "Do you just ask questions, or do you occasionally talk all on your own?"
"Depends," he returned, feeling the corners of his mouth respond to her ever present smile. "I guess I've had my nose in these books for so long that I'm sort of out of practice."
"You?" she scoffed.
His head fell slightly to one side and he regarded her for a protracted second. "Meaning?"
"Hang on," Destiny answered. "What exactly are you studying for?"
"You're a shrink?"
"Lord," she mumbled just before bringing the mug to her bow-shaped lips.
"I'll take that to mean you aren't fond of my profession?"
Her initial response was a small shrug of her shoulders. "Not my call," she told him. "I just think there's something perverse about delving into people's private lives."
He smiled at her. "This from a woman whose private life manages to grace the tabloids on occasion?"
"Point," she conceded. "You read the tabloids?"
"Only when I'm standing in the check-out line at the store."
"That's what everybody says. Except that those rags have higher circulation numbers than the New York Times."
A shrink, she thought to herself. Too bad. The first nice looking doctor she ever meets turns out to be a psychiatrist. Heaven knew the very last thing she needed in her life was analysis.
Wowa! her brain screamed. This man wasn't 'in her life'.
"Can I see the rest of the place?" she asked, wondering why she felt such an overwhelming sense of regret. It hardly made sense. She would be in Charleston all of six weeks. Then, hopefully, she'd be off to Los Angeles and her own television show.
"Sure thing," Wesley answered, reaching into the front pocket of his jeans and producing a ring full of keys. "Follow me."
Depositing her empty mug on the polished bar, Destiny silently admired the physique of the man ahead of her. His shoulders were broad beneath the preppy-styled polo shirt. His waist and hips were trim, though he didn't impress her as the type to spend hours working out. He did, however, impress her as one heck of a sexy man.
With the exception of Walter, her world was filled with over-weight, cigar-chewing club owners. This dark haired intellectual man with those bedroom-blue eyes, hidden behind the tortoise shell glasses was refreshing. It had also jump-started her hormones in ways she had long-ago suppressed.
Wesley led her through an immaculately clean kitchen and out the back door. The aroma of wisteria competed with the less than pleasant odors coming from the dumpster.
"It's very deceptive from the street," she said, quickening her step to keep pace with his long strides.
"Charleston Single Homes were built on these long, narrow lots in order to capture the breeze coming off the water. Think of it as eighteenth century air conditioning."
"Good line," she laughed. "Can I steal it for my routine?"
Following him along the stone path, Destiny was immediately impressed by the condition of the long, rectangular sign hanging over the double doors. She was also vainly impressed by the large photograph of herself plastered above the door. After all this time, the words 'Appearing Nightly' still gave Destiny a thrill.
The thrill faded quickly when she first caught sight of the large box near the front door.
"Not again," she groaned.
"Not again, what?" Wesley asked her, genuine concern in his deep voice.
"I hope you have a girlfriend Dr. Porter," she said, trying to keep her tone light.
"Because," she began as they reached the package covered by bright green floral wrap. "She'll think you're wonderful. But if I were you, I'd lose the card first."
Wesley began to reach inside the paper when Destiny automatically grabbed for his hand. His skin was heated beneath her palm, momentarily distracting her.
"Don't bother," she said.
But apparently this man had a mind of his own. Destiny's hand fell away as he gently removed the envelope and pulled the card from inside.
His brows drew together as he read what she new was the neatly typed message:
SOME DIE LAUGHING.
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Handsome as Sin
The coats were all piled in a small closet near the exit of the Rose Tattoo. Everyone was bundled up, wrapping layer upon layer of mismatched winter gear on their bodies. Ellie smiled but said nothing. She guessed these southerners would freeze to death inside a week back in Albany. This was a simple snow shower. They were dressing as if Charleston was about to experience a blizzard instead of the predicted inch and a half.
“The front door,” Rose said with a groan as she’d hoisted Chad and ten pounds of boat, hat, mittens and scarf into her arms. “I forgot to lock up after that Jake fellow.”
“I’ll get it,” Ellie offered.
Thanks to years as a criminologist for the New York State Police, Ellie was quite comfortable walking through a strange place in dim lighting.
There was, however, just enough light spilling through the windows for her to see him well. Too well.
Jake Devereaux was behind the bar, with both hands in the cash register.
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The Tall Dark Alibi
Jonas Revell climbed the stairs at a slow, deliberate pace. His footsteps echoed through the darkened interior of his new home on East Bay. Just thinking of the house and its purpose brought a dark scowl to his face. Damn but he hated what he was about to do, what he had already done.
The chimes from the hall clock signaled the late hour. It felt much like a curse, this night. How Jonas wished he had stayed in England, or perhaps settled someplace other than Charleston as his father had suggested. Either of those options would have saved him from the task at hand he thought with a dejected sigh.
His mind produced vivid images of the evening past. Images of Cecelia in her ornate white gown and hand-embellished veil. The beautiful Cecelia Grisom had made an expectedly beautiful bride. Her wide eyes had followed him quietly throughout the long, nerve-wracking day. Yes, she was a beautiful bride. His bride.
Jonas hesitated on the landing, mustering the strength for the difficult task awaiting him. His proud heritage as well as his sense of duty urged him on. The British portion of his genealogy insisted that he seal his pact with the Grisom family. Yet the seeds planted by his half-Navajo mother made him lament the loss of his free will.
That same sense of duty had been the driving force behind the construction of this home and the commissioning of the locket. Taking in a breath, he recalled the look in Cecelia’s eyes when he’d slipped the necklace around her throat. His brow furrowed as he recalled the incident. Cecelia had shown no emotion, though he was quite accustomed to his wife’s lack of response. It had punctuated their association. With just a small dose of conceit, Jonas pondered her reaction. Or more accurately, her lack thereof. He prided himself on his rather well deserved reputation with the women of Charleston. He shied from utilizing the description of lady in reference to his companions, since he had a strict policy against pursuing the tittering, manipulative young women so common in Charleston society.
Cecelia’s reaction to Jonas was something that had caused him some measure of curiosity during their brief courtship. She showed absolutely no interest in him. Her eyes followed him but there was a distance in her gaze.
Jonas stiffened. He couldn’t help but wonder if her guarded expression was because she knew. Or maybe she simply sensed. His fingers went out and gripped the knob to the bedroom door. He hesitated again, hating what he was about to do, what he had to do. There was no alternative, no other option.
A few seconds later, Cecelia’s final scream reverberated through the house.
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The Silent Groom
“I can not believe that you actually hired the first attorney you found in the phone book,” Shelby groaned as she placed her hand on Rose’s slumped shoulder.
“She wasn’t the first, I made it all the way to the Bs.” Her friend and business partner attempted a smile, though a night in jail dulled her expression. Shelby, along with everyone else at the Rose Tattoo, was terribly worried. In almost four years she had never seen Rose Porter so upset.
Rose patted the rather lopsided mass of her hair with a nervous hand. “I won’t have J.D. shelling out any more money on my account,” she announced, her ferocious pride hung on each word. “Having to call my son to wire the bail money is about all the charity I can stand.”
Shelby moved over behind the bar and poured two mugs of fresh coffee. Through the mirror behind the neatly aligned bottles of liquor, she could see Rose tilt her head back and close her eyes.
“I’m sure you can meet this woman tomorrow,” Shelby suggested as she returned to the table. “By then I’ll have enough time to finish filling Gabriel in on what’s happened.”
Rose’s green eyes flew open, then narrowed. “I thought I said I didn’t want you to do that. I can’t afford to pay Mr. Langston, too. I’ll bet private detectives are expensive as hell.”
Shelby shrugged. “Dylan can’t personally help you on this,” she explained. “And Gabe has been nothing but gracious and friendly ever since he moved in across the street. Besides, he spends so much time here, he’s probably desperate for the work. He doesn’t seem to have any clients yet.”
“How am I supposed to pay Langston and an attorney?” Rose fairly shouted. Strain was evident in her tense features. “I still haven’t finished paying off my loan to Mitch Fallon.”
Reaching across the smooth surface of the table, Shelby covered Rose’s hand with her own. She felt a small tremor. “Don’t worry about the money, Rose. Your future is more important than money.”
“But I didn’t do it. When the police and that jackass of a prosecutor finally figure that out, I’ll be buried beneath so much debt I’ll probably have to sell my interest in this place.”
“We need to focus on getting you out of this. We’ll worry about the money later.”
Rose snorted. “That’s easy for you to say, you aren’t the one writing the checks.”
“But I would,” Shelby said quietly. “You were there for me when Chad was kidnapped. I asked Gabe to help you. I’ll make sure he’s paid for his services.”
“I don’t like charity,” Rose warned, her chin thrust out proudly. “I’m already into my son for a hundred thousand, and I have to give this woman a check when she gets here.”
“Maybe you should just talk to her first,” Shelby said. “See if you think she’s the right one to defend you. I’ve never heard of Joanna Boudreaux. I still think you ought to take J.D.’s suggestion and hire someone with -“
“I have already heard this from both my sons,” Rose interrupted. “I’m sure she’ll do just fine. Why should I pay some high-priced name when I’m innocent? Nothing but a foolish waste of money,” she concluded as she rolled her head around on her shoulders. “Money I don’t have.”
“You know Wesley and J.D. will do anything for you, Rose. And neither of them would expect you to repay them.”
Rose sat forward and leveled her green eyes on Shelby. “How can I ask them for help when the State of South Carolina claims I just murdered their father?”
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The Wrong Man
Haley Jenkins hopped out on to the porch, letting the thick wooden door slam behind her as she fought a valiant battle to pull the strap of her sandal over her heel. Her curse was muffled by the shoulder strap of her purse, which dangled precariously between her teeth.
The energy-zapping humidity that settled over her like a blanket didn't help her mood, nor did the fact that she still hadn't managed to get her shoe on properly. Heat floated from every surface, making her feel as if she was looking out at the world through a lens beneath dull, gray water.
"Thank you, Claire," she grumbled as she pulled her cluttered key chain from the depths of her handbag as she reached her car.
The car's interior was even more stifling and she could feel beads of perspiration begin to trickle between her shoulder blades.
Glancing in the rear view mirror she was sure of two things - it was safe to pull away from the curb and she was having a very bad hair day. "I'm moving north!"
Her car sputtered once before darting forward, leaving a trail of bluish smoke she was pretty sure was a bad car omen. The air conditioner spewed hot, musty smelling air for the first few miles before finally offering some much needed relief from Charleston in mid-August. She maneuvered her way through the early evening traffic, heading for The Rose Tattoo. The heat followed her.
Haley secretly resented being summoned out on a night like this. I should have called Claire and Susan and begged off but the wuss in her prevented her from doing it.
"Thank you, Mother," she grumbled, knowing full well that her talent for ladling herself with guilt was directly traceable to her early childhood training to be kind to others.
Not only had Claire directed Haley to appear at the Rose Tattoo at seven fifteen sharp, her message also included a directive that she go completely out of her way to collect Barbara.
Haley’s mood began to improve now that the air conditioning was working. By the time she turned on to the tree lined cul-de-sac where Barbara lived, her smile was more felt than forced.
Pulling into a spot in front of Barbara’s condo, she honked the horn. The front door opened even before the sound had echoed and died. Barbara, dressed in her usual brightly colored, perfectly tailored suit emerged from number 401. She was having a good hair day. Her long red hair was neatly braided and tied into a bun at the nape of her neck. She looked every inch the efficient upwardly mobile advertising rep.
"We must be entering the first stages of Armageddon," Barbara said as she dabbed at the small droplets of water above her lip. "Did Claire say what this dinner is all about?"
"I didn't talk to her - she left a message."
"How'd she sound?" Barbara's tone lingered somewhere between cautious and callous. “ I know today was The Day.”
"Happy. No, excited, I think." Haley steered her car back in the direction of the ozone-hidden haze of town.
"You know that can only mean one thing," Barbara said.
Haley watched as her friend’s features folded into an expression of acute disgust.
"Cut her a break. She’s looking for something to make her feel useful and loved.”
"Then she should get a dog. You'd think she would have better things to concentrate on - Like all that money." The laughter they shared was tainted slightly, by deep-seeded envy.
Claire’s inherited fortune had always been the barometer Barbara and Haley used to rank their successes. Of course, Claire had tons of money, but her wealth was tempered by a long history of disastrous personal relationships.
They arrived at the Rose Tattoo. It was one of the most beautifully restored Charleston Single Homes, even if the proprietor was a little left of center. Haley grinned when she thought of Rose Porter. She couldn’t imagine anyone but that cantankerous woman employing her long-time friend Susan.
Susan came rushing forward as soon as they had managed to push through the line of unhappy people waiting for tables.
“You’re on time!” Susan exclaimed. “I’ve got ten more minutes on my shift, but there’s a table reserved for us out on the porch.”
“The porch?’ Barbara moaned. “It’s got to be a hundred degrees out there.”
Susan’s mouth puffed into a pout. “Rose wouldn’t let me reserve one of the inside tables and Claire was really insistent when she called this meeting.”
“Then where is she?” Haley asked.
“She’ll be here,” Susan promised with her usual acceptance of the flaws of others.
Haley suspected that Susan’s easy acceptance of the short-comings of others was due to the fact that she was aware of her own eclectic leanings. Susan’s latest fixation had something to do with spiritual house cleanings and white witches. Hopefully it would be an improvement over pyramids, channeling crystals and auras.
After five minutes of enjoying the air-conditioning, and with Claire was nowhere to be found, Barbara and Haley went to their table and settled in with a bottle of moderately priced wine.
The time passed slowly and Haley’s stomach growled louder with each second.
"I'm giving her another ten minutes, then I order," Barbara announced.
"Claire might be stuck in traffic," Susan suggested as she joined them, poured herself some wine and swirled the contents of her glass.
"Knowing Claire, she's probably stopping people on the street to give them the latest update on her quest for personal reproduction."
"Barbara!" Haley tried to sound affronted through teeth clenched tight in an attempt to stifle the giggle she felt bubbling in her throat.
"Oh, c'mon, Haley," Barbara waived her hand in a highly polished gesture that was probably an effective tool of hers in those sales meetings she often discussed. "I love Claire, but I'm sick to death of hearing the Ovary Oratory." Barbara clasped one hand over her heart and the other rested melodramatically flat against her forehead.
A chuckle slipped past the defensive line of Haley’s lips. "Okay, I'll grant you that she's been a little obsessive about the topic lately."
"Obsessive!" Barbara parroted. She leaned forward, resting her elbows against the linen table cloth. "I'm all for Claire having a baby. God knows it can’t be any worse then when she dropped out of school to marry Justin the Thief. I'm just sick of discussing it every time I see the woman. You watch," Barbara's pretty green eyes narrowed with accusation. "Twenty bucks says Claire will bring up the subject of reproduction within five minutes of her arrival."
Haley smiled as she thought of Claire, the old familiar feelings of inferiority washed over her. Claire Benedict, her childhood companion, her trusted confidant, had this uncanny ability to make her feel like a troll. And she was probably having an excellent hair day, Haley thought miserably. Claire always looked perfect and feminine, two areas which had always seemed to elude Haley, no matter how hard she tried.
Mark, the waiter who had spent the better part of a half hour topping their wine glasses, scurried over and presented Susan with one of the hand printed menus before pouring some Zinfandel into her glass.
"We'd better order," Haley said.
Mark shot her a grateful look over his shoulder.
In her peripheral vision she watched Barbara's normally complacent features strain. "I’ve had a long day. Whatever it is she wanted, she can tell me over dessert. I’m not waiting another second."
When Susan's features froze with obvious hurt at Barbara's sarcastic tone, Haley looked heavenward and prayed for peace. Her hopes for a nice, quiet dinner were slowly being replaced by a real and fervent hope that her two good friends wouldn't be reduced to a shouting match in the middle of the restaurant.
“Please, Barbara?” Susan pleaded. “Don’t start. Rose will have a fit if you cause a scene when Claire shows up. And you know she’ll get here, she just gets side-tracked sometimes. Besides, I’m sensing an awful lot of red in your aura, Barbara. You really should try to get that under control.”
“I’ll work on it,” Barbara said without even a hint of sincerity.
"Is there something wrong with consulting specialists?" Susan asked Barbara, using the inflection in her tone like a gauntlet.
"Of course there's nothing wrong with it," Haley insisted. She was uncomfortable. Then again, playing peace-keeper always made her feel like June Cleaver. "I'm sure Barbara doesn't think so either."
"There's nothing wrong with consulting specialists, per se," Barbara agreed. "I just think deciding to become a single parent with her track record is absurd. Justin was a criminal, and she’s told me nothing but horrifying stories about her latest guy." Barbara turned to Haley and asked, “Have you talked to her about him? He sounds dangerous from what little I know.”
Haley nodded. “She’s finally agreed to get a restraining order. We’re supposed to get together later this week and I’m going to help her with the paperwork.”
“Good,” Susan breathed. “I saw what Destiny went through when she had that crazy man after her.”
Haley forced a lightness to her tone. “Claire has been pretty tight-lipped about it, but I think he’s finally done something that’s pushed her over the edge.”
“Do you know his name yet?” Barbara asked, then turning to Susan with a playful grin she added, “Wait, we don’t need to ask his name, can’t you tune him in on one of your channels? Like the Psycho Channel? Or the Stalker Channel?”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Susan answered. “It’s not channels, it is channeling.”
“Forgive me,” Barbara said. “My mistake.”
The air had grown somewhat thick just as Mark returned, pad and pen poised. "Are you ladies ready to order?"
"If you two are going to bicker, I'm going to ask to be moved to a table for one."
Her companions looked contrite and nodded, which she suppose meant everyone was going to stay and play nicely in the sandbox.
"I'm sorry Susan," Barbara said. "I guess it just bothers me to think you might be stepping onto yet another treadmill. You do seem to belong to the psychic fixation of the month club.” Barbara reached out and patted Susan’s hand. The gesture was just enough to allow Haley to relax the knotted muscles of her empty stomach.
Mark stood with an air of impatience, glowering at Susan. After he deposited a basket in the center of the table, they took turns ordering. Without regard for her cholesterol level, Haley happily settled on a petite filet and ordered extra béarnaise, justifying her actions by mentally insisting that steak wasn't something she would normally prepare for herself. Then again, she considered anything that required more than three minutes on high in the microwave a major culinary undertaking.
“I wonder where she is?” Haley said as she glanced around the crowded restaurant. “Surely her appointment with that doctor couldn’t take this long.”
"Maybe she’s getting to know him personally,” Barbara joked. “If he’s cute and the timing is right, the two of them could just do it the old fashioned way.”
“That’s gross,” Susan wailed. “He’s a doctor and she’s his patient. They can’t do it. That would be unethical and I know Claire is taking this very seriously. She’s really checked this guy out and she’s committed to the motherhood thing.”
“Am I the only one who doesn’t hear the tick of her biological clock?”
Haley smiled but didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure what her feelings were. Until Claire had announced that she was going to have a baby by artificial insemination, Haley had pretty much left that part of her on the back burner. Now, though, she was suddenly more aware of the fact that she was entering the danger zone. That time when forty looms on the horizon and expressions like ‘if you’re going to do it, you’d better get going’ popped in and out of her head at the oddest moments.
It's probably a smart idea," Barbara admitted. "I hear artificial insemination is a big industry these days."
"How's business?" Haley asked Barbara.
"Pretty good. I just signed a contract with Citizens For Peace," she answered.
"Claire gives them a lot of money,” Susan said. “She hopes they're successful in getting at least some of those dreadful handguns off the street."
"I'm going to put together a half dozen thirty-second spots."
"That's really great," Haley said, reaching to uncover the basket of rolls. Taking one for herself, she passed them to Susan. "A real winner came across my desk this week." Leaning closer to the center of the table, she continued, "A client of mine is suing the City for making him ride a horse."
"Why is he suing the City?" Barbara asked.
"He's a Natural Resources Officer. The guy asked for a transfer to the Mounted Division, and now he claims his fear of horses has caused a back injury that prevents him from working."
"Did he fall off the horse during training?" Susan asked.
Haley shook her head and felt a mischievous light narrow her eyes. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "My Complaint says he's so afraid of horses that he developed irritable bowel syndrome. That condition then caused him to tense his muscles, which in turn caused the back injury, which in turn has caused him great anguish of mind, and, well . . . you get the picture."
"Wait a minute!" Barbara fought to keep her laughter in check. "This guy is suing the City because sitting on a horse gives him the runs?"
They laughed loud and long enough to earn baleful stares from the adjoining tables. By the time Mark arrived with the food, Haley was busy wiping the remnants of mascara-stained tears from her cheeks. “I’m going to call Claire,” she said just as her food was placed in front of her. “It won’t take but a minute.
It took less than a minute. “No answer at her house, not even the machine.”
“That’s weird,” Susan said.
“I tried her cell phone too, but she must have it turned off.” Haley didn’t like the fact that Claire was this late and hadn’t called.
"I don’t envy you all your careers," Susan said as she poked a chunk of chicken with her fork. “I’m glad I didn’t pursue graduate school, I like what I’m doing.”
“Like you could do anything else with a degree in philosophy,” Barbara observed dryly.
Haley was personally glad when they paid the check and left, even though she was questioning her qualifications as a friend. They’d lingered over dessert, and never once tried to reach Claire again.
By the time she got back home, the outside air temperature had dropped into the eighties. Without flipping on any lights, she made her way through the maze of construction to the stairway leading to the second floor. She wondered if the original builder of the house had encountered as many constructions problems as she had during the course of the renovations. This was the sixth month of restoration purgatory and the odds were running fifty-fifty on what would run out first - her patience or her money.
"Money," she acknowledged as she started up the stairs. By the seventh step, she was peeling clothes of her damp body. In the back of her mind she could hear her high school science teacher's long ago lecture on the inescapable rise of hot air. Her name was Mrs. Bagley, she recalled as she tossed her slip onto the chair next to the bed. Rolling on top of the covers, she reached for the remote.
"The miracle of cable," she sighed, flipping through the fifty odd channels at her disposal before settling on an old black and white film playing on one of the higher numbers. Setting the automatic timer to turn the set off in an hour, she began to relax, until she noticed the flashing red light on her answering machine.
Pressing the play button, she strained to hear the soft, almost inaudible sound of Claire’s voice.
She hit rewind and adjusted the volume. “Haley, you’ve got to help me. I’m -“
Her panic began where the message abruptly ended. Grabbing the phone, she dialed the emergency operator. She explained the situation and was politely but firmly told that her concerns would be assigned to a detective, who would get in touch with her.
“I don’t think you understand,” Haley argued. “Ms. Benedict missed dinner and this message sounds as if something terrible might have happened to her.”
“I don’t think you understand,” the bored voice answered. “We don’t send out patrol cars to investigate answering machine messages. Do you want me to pass this along to missing persons or not?”
“I want you to send someone over to her house to check on her,” Haley countered.
“It doesn’t work that way, ma’am.”
“Fine, I’ll do it myself then. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your help. I’m an attorney, so if I find anything out of the ordinary, I’ll be sure to mention your name personally when I file suit against the City Attorney.”
There was a brief pause before the voice relented and asked, “What’s the address?”
Haley gave the information as she pulled on a pair of jeans and stuffed her night shirt into the waistband. She left the portable phone on the table as she grabbed her keys and ran out the door, chased by a whole litany of fears.
Claire owned a huge estate on the outskirts of town and Haley ignored most of the posted speed limit signs getting there. To her surprise, she found a dark blue sedan parked in front of the locked gate.
A man stepped from the car and stood bathed in the flood lights that guarded the ornate iron gates. He looked about late thirties, maybe, with thick, unruly dark hair that seemed too long for to meet the regulations that went with the unmarked police car. Because of her recent hair-analysis phase, Haley noticed that before she caught the serious expression in his dark hazel eyes.
"Miss Jennings?" he asked.
As he said her name, Haley felt a kind of reaction she had never had before. Taking in his broad shoulders, casually arrogant posture and the angled, no chiseled perfection of his features, she found her palms moist. She didn’t offer her hand, she walked over and stood next to the keypad on the security panel. “I’m Haley Jenkins. Thanks for meeting me here. I’m really concerned about Claire after I got that message.”
In her peripheral vision, she watched as he shrugged off his jacket and tossed it into the car. He isn’t completely perfect. She noted the dark, horseshoe shaped perspiration stains beneath the arms of his shirt. Good, this gorgeous man isn’t a dream. Fantasy men don’t sweat, she told herself.
"I'm Detective Ross." Flipping his wallet out of the breast pocket of his shirt, he showed her an official looking gold shield.
"Detective," she said politely as she entered the code that opened the gates.
"What can I do for you?"
“Just come with me,” she answered, not really sure what she wanted him to do now that she was there. “Maybe she’s fallen or something and needs help.”
"Are you a close friend of Ms. Benedict?" he asked as he directed a flashlight beam against the driveway in front of them.
“Close enough to know the alarm codes and have my own set of keys,” she answered, sorry that it had come out sounding so flippant. “I didn’t mean to be rude,” she added as she sensed him following her up the horseshoe-shaped pavement. “I had a hard time convincing the dispatcher that this was important.”
The detective shifted his weight as he stood next to her while she fumbled with the keys, then disabled the alarm.
“Claire?” she called out into the total blackness of the house.
It was then that she felt the warmth of his hand where he gripped her upper arm in order to move ahead of her. It made perfect sense that he should lead the way. He was bigger, had the flashlight and when she heard him unsnap the holster of his gun, she actually shivered.
“You might want to wait here,” he said in a voice that was soft, but definitely a command.
“I’d rather come with you,” Haley said.
He turned once, meeting her eyes. She read caution and something that bordered on sympathy as he said, “That probably isn’t a good idea.”
“Why?” she asked as she half shoved him to peer inside.
There on the foyer, just inside the circle from his light, she saw it. Blood.
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Her Mother’s Arms
“Do you really think she’ll show?”
Leaning back against his high-backed leather chair, he quietly regarded his visitor as he pondered the question. “I think Miss Hannah Bailey poses a real threat, don’t you?”
His visitor began to squirm in the seat as small beads of perspiration formed on his brow and upper lip. “I don’t think she can find anything. Not after all this time.”
“Have you been able to determine which child she is?”
He shook his head. “Not yet, but I have it narrowed down to three or four probables.”
“Probables?” he repeated softly. “I paid you well to make certain nothing like this ever happened.”
“I know,” the man babbled.
He hated babbling. It was so weak.
“When will you know if she has, in fact, made good on her threats to come to Charleston?”
“I sent a man to New Orleans to keep an eye on her. He’s been here a week already.”
“I have a copy of her letter,” he said as he patiently unfolded the crisp, white document and passed it across his desk. “It would appear that Miss Bailey has contacted every social services agency and every courthouse in the state looking for answers.”
“It won’t matter. Even if she does manage to get something, the records were doctored even before they were filed. She can’t trace anything back to us.”
“Us?” He rose, sighing deeply as he did. “There is no us. There hasn’t been for nearly twenty years. I’m in no position to have the past come back to haunt me now. Do you understand?”
The man’s face flushed with anger, but he knew better than to go on the offensive. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stay away from me. I can’t have you dropping in on me.”
“What am I supposed to do if she comes snooping around here?”
“If Miss Bailey is so determined to trace her biology, it would seem only fitting that she meet the same fate as the others.”
The man’s flush drained until his face was nearly as white as his shirt. “You want me to kill her?”
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She opened her eyes and the first thing she noticed was the blood. The front of her dress was covered with a big stain. Instinctively, she felt her chest and stomach for wounds. That’s when she felt the knife.
A misting rain began as she reached into the pocket and carefully pulled it out by the handle. There was more blood. Panicking, she tossed the knife on the ground, then wiped her hand on the hard stone behind her.
The mist was quickly turning into a heavy rain as she stood up. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she looked around. She was alone in the cemetery and that was almost as scary as seeing the blood.
When the dark cloud opened, she raced for the nearest shelter, which happened to be a mausoleum. The rain had faded the stain, though her anxiety was stronger than ever.
Moving to where the rain fell from the roof in a waterfall fashion, she held out her clothing and rinsed it clean, then did the same with her hands. She was soaked and cold, so she huddled in the structure, eyes wide as she read the names and dates on the vaults.
They were unfamiliar. In fact, everything was unfamiliar. Then it struck her. She knew she was fifteen. She didn’t know how, she just knew it when she read the date on one of the plaques.
She also knew she was scared. Especially when she saw a figure coming toward her. A hooded slicker covered his face and all she could think to do was be as quiet as possible.
“I thought I saw someone down here when I was driving by,” he said as he pushed the hood off his head and shook off some of the rain. Water pooled at his feet and she had a flash of seeing another pool of liquid, only it wasn’t rain.
She cowered against the wall, terrified even though the elderly man was looking at her with kind eyes.
“Are you lost, honey? Where are your parents?”
She blinked, understanding the question but unable to answer. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to answer. She couldn’t.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asked with a smile.
He lifted the poncho over his head and said, “Let’s get you out of this weather. Mrs. Pendleton’s is just a few miles down the road. We’ll get you dry and warm until your folks come for you.”
He held the slicker like a tarp and waited. “You can’t stay in here, honey. You don’t need to be afraid,” he said as he took a step closer. “We’ll call your folks and get you home lickety-split. I’m Joe Gomez, but most folks just call me plain ol’ Gomez. What’s you name?”
The blood. The knife. She must have done something terrible! “DeLancey,” she said as she reading from one of the memorial plaques. “DeLancey Jones.”
She offered a weak smile as she moved toward him. He chuckled. “For a minute there I thought you’d forgotten your own name.”
She couldn’t look him in the eyes because the truth was, she had.
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“Is everything all set?”
“To the last detail.”
“Are you sure?”
“Quit worrying. I’m on top of things.”
“I don’t know why you can’t do this yourself. You aren’t exactly the most ethical person I’ve ever encountered.”
“I don’t remember you complaining when I took the money.”
“Money was one thing. This is different.”
“This will make us rich.”
“If we don’t get caught.”
“We won’t, but we will be rich.”
They shared a laugh in the moonless darkness of the secluded park.
“What about Landry? Will he be a problem?”
“Who else will be there?”
“All eight members of the board and some guests of the Prather woman. How are you going to do it?”
“The less you know, the better. Suffice to say it wouldn’t be prudent for me to do this alone. The few people who know are –“
“What! How many people are involved? More people means more opportunity for someone to point a finger at us.”
“Quiet! There’s no way for anyone to connect this back to us. It isn’t like I can pull the trigger myself. I had no choice but to hire a professional.”
“We’re going to get caught.”
“Not if you keep your cool and do exactly what I said. Everything else has been arranged.”
“When do I get my money?”
“In a hurry?” A humorless laugh accompanied the question.
“I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. I need the cash as soon as possible.”
“And you’ll get it.”
“When the target is eliminated.”
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The Night in Question
Revisit the Rose Tattoo with a Lawman in search of answers; and a woman in search of her identity.
FBI agent Matt DeMarco never thought his morning jog on the beach would draw him into a ring of cold-blooded killers. Or that one of the murder suspects would be the stunning, half-conscious woman he found washed up on the beach - dressed in an evening gown and dripping blood.
"Trust no one" was all she remembered. But as her memory of that night came back, so did an overwhelming fear and the feeling that she was in serious danger. With nowhere else to turn, she had to trust Matt with her life. And in an unguarded moment, he seemed willing to trust her with his darkest secret. But how long could they keep their mutual lust in check?
The Rose Tattoo - where the special of the day is danger for dinner . . . and romance for dessert.
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THE LANDRY BROTHERS Series
His Only Son
“I got here as soon as I could,” Sam said. “What’s the big emergency?”
Miles Johnson was wearing his lawyer face. That blank, unreadable expression he donned during negotiations. “Have a seat.”
Sam didn’t feel like sitting. Instead, he braced his hands on the back of the leather chair opposite Miles’s mahogany desk. He checked his watch. “I’ve got to pick Kevin up from the sitter in twenty minutes. If this is about the Littlefield merger, I’ve –“
“It’s about Kevin,” Miles said in a soft, even tone.
Sam’s heart skipped. He had feared this moment since the death of his wife eight months earlier. Four of his six brothers had warned him, tried to prepare him for this possibility.
Sam stepped forward and fell into the chair. “You found him? Kevin’s biological father wants him back?”
Miles shook his head. “No. The investigator I hired couldn’t find anything listed on the birth certificate you provided.”
Rubbing the late-day stubble on his chin, Sam tried to decide if that was good news or bad. Bad, probably. Part of him was glad the guy was nowhere to be found. Still, he knew he needed to find Kevin’s birth father to get the waiver. According to Miles, it was the best way to proceed with the adoption.
“So now we do the posting, right?” Sam asked. “Tell me what the notices have to say and, and I’ll get them to the newspapers by the end of the week.”
Miles cleared his throat as he shuffled some pages on his desk. “There’s a problem.”
Sam’s chest seized. “You found a blood relative?” You told me I could still go for the adoption even if you found someone with a biological link to Kevin. You said the courts would take into consideration the fact that Kevin’s lived with me since he was four months old. I’m the only father the kid knows.” Sam opened and closed his fists.
“Kevin’s finally adjusted to Lynn being gone. I’m not going to sit back and let some stranger with the right DNA yank him away from me.”
Miles lifted one hand. “Calm down, Sam. As far as I can tell, Lynn didn’t leave behind any living relatives. That much of her personal history has proven true.”
“What do you mean, ‘that much’?”
Miles slid a piece of paper across the desk. “Lynn was born in Ohio. Her father was killed during a military training exercise before her birth. Her mother died of complications from influenza when Lynn was seventeen.”
“I know all that,” Sam sighed as he briefly scanned the investigator’s report. “The courts emancipated her instead of putting her into the system.”
Miles shook his head. “Not according to Child Services in Ohio. Lynn was placed with a family in Canton.”
“Canton?” Sam repeated, surprised that it didn’t bother him more to discover that his late wife may have lied. “Okay, so she had a foster family. You aren’t suggesting that they have a legitimate claim for Kevin? Forget it.”
“Nothing like that,” Miles assured him. “But they did provide some interesting information. Sam, it isn’t good.”
He took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled slowly. “So tell me.”
“Do you know what endometriosis is?”
Sam shrugged. “Some sort of female thing.”
Miles nodded. “It’s a condition that causes painful scarring internally.”
“She wasn’t in pain when we got married,” Sam said. “So what does this have to do with Kevin?”
“Because of her condition, Lynn had to have surgery when she was with the foster family.”
“She had a scar,” Sam remembered. “She said it was from an appendectomy.”
“It was from an emergency hysterectomy.”
Sam laughed without humor. “How can that be? She didn’t have Kevin until she was thirty-six.”
“No, Sam. She didn’t have Kevin. She couldn’t.”
Sam’s gut knotted as he leveled his gaze on his attorney. “There has to be a mistake.”
“I verified the information with the hospital where the surgery was done. Lynn had a complete hysterectomy just before her eighteenth birthday.”
“So what are you telling me?” Sam demanded.
“Lynn could not have given birth to Kevin.”
Sam blinked as his mind raced. “Then who did?”
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Snow crunched beneath the boots as Sheriff Seth Landry cautiously made his way down the steep bank to the crime scene. Flurries still swirled in the air as he greeted his deputy, J.D. Lindsey.
“Has the coroner been called?”
J.D. nodded, then blew warm breath into his cupped hands. “As far as I know, no one has touched a thing.”
“Who called it in?”
J.D. pointed toward the Mountainview Inn, “One of the guests. Ken Updyke.”
Seth regarded the scene. The snowstorm had pretty much obliterated the area around the body. He stepped forward and knelt to get a better look at the victim. Judging from the small entrance wound at the back of the guy’s head, Seth figured the weapon was a .22.
He also noted the guy’s clothing wasn’t right. He was wearing a suit beneath a camouflage down jacket but didn’t have any gloves on. He made a mental note of that inconsistency.
“Looks just like the last one,” J.D. remarked.
Seth’s gut knotted at the mere suggestion. Jasper, Montana was a small, out-of-the-way town where everyone knew everyone else. Tourists passed through to visit some of the quaint shops and historic markers in the area. To date, none of them had turned out to be serial killers. If he actually had a serial killer on his hands.
The notion that there might be a deranged killer running loose in his town distracted Seth. He pulled out his notepad and started making some observations and listing possibilities.
By the time the coroner had arrived, done his thing and was ready to have the officers turn the body over, the ambulance crew and at least a dozen others gawkers had arrived. Seth silently hoped that when it came, his death would be much more private. Not some public spectacle like poor Harvey’s.
J.D. took the feet, the ambulance guys the midsection, and Seth took the head. With practiced precision, they turned Harvey over so he could be bagged, placed on the stretcher, then whisked away from the prying, curious eyes.
“What’s that?” Seth asked, pointing to Harvey’s left palm.
They all moved in for a closer look. The frigid water from the creek had washed away the writing until it was very faint.
“Savannah, 9-1-2,”” Seth read aloud.
“Looks like part of a phone number. Maybe an area code?” J.D. theorized, excitedly.
Seth was puzzled. If he recalled correctly, Harvey was from someplace in the east, which had 200, 300, and 400 area codes. He breathed a little easier. There had been no writing on the hand of the first victim. Maybe the two cases weren’t connected.
“I don’t think that’s a phone number,” came a voice from the crowd.
Seth turned and looked in the direction of the voice. It was a man in his early thirties. He had the dress and manner of a yuppie tourist. Seth went over to the man.
The yuppie shrugged. “I saw him last night in the bar.”
“He was staring at the clock.”
“When was this?” Seth asked.
“Maybe ten after nine, or so.”
“And you’re sure it was him?”
The yuppie insisted that it was.
“How can you be so sure? You aren’t a local.”
“I remember because of the babe who showed up to meet him. I mean, no offense to the dead and all, but that guy isn’t exactly GQ material and he managed to snag the prettiest woman in the place.”
“What did she look like?’
“Pretty brown hair, incredible green eyes, a body to die for – sorry, poor choice of words – I mean – “
“Did you happen to hear him call her by name?”
The yuppie nodded with enthusiasm. “That’s why I don’t think that writing on his hand is a phone number.”
“Because?” Seth prodded.
“Because he called the woman Savannah.”
Seth swallowed, hard. Savannah Wyatt.
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Dr. Chance Landry was in his office dictating notes about the patients he had seen that morning. In spite of the tedium of his chore, he couldn’t stop smiling.
One of his patients had been his sister-in-law, Savannah. It had been his great pleasure to tell her she was carrying his brother, Seth’s, child. Savannah made him promise not to say a word. She knew that Jasper was a small town and she didn’t want some gas station attendant telling Seth first.
His very large family was getting very much larger. Earlier in the year, his oldest brother, Sam, and his wife, Callie, had welcomed a baby boy, Samuel Sheldon Landry. He was their second son. The baby was called Sheldon. No one would dare refer to the baby as Junior, in Sam and Callie’s presence -- or out.
His cousin Cade and his wife Barbara had a seven month old, Jackson Prather-Landry. Chance tensed when he thought about Jack’s birth. Apparently the boy was as impatient as his father because he had come into the world almost three months early. Luckily, the neo-natal unit in Helena was able to nurse him through those first few difficult months.
Speaking of nurses, Chance checked his watch. He had a date with a particularly fetching redheaded nurse this very evening.
He picked up another file and tried to decipher his own scripted notes. It was no wonder Valerie was always on his case. His handwriting had become atrocious in his thirty-five years on earth. He set the file aside. He’d have Val translate it for him later.
His mind conjured a picture of his assistant, Valerie Greene. She’d been with him for six years, but he really didn’t know much about her. Except that she had a killer body and an incredibly exotic face. He knew she was part Native American, which wasn’t all that uncommon in Montana. He knew she had completed medical school, and then bailed after her internship. But he didn’t know why. He knew she believed in holistic medicine and some of the tribal cures she had learned as a child.
Val’s homemade remedies were basically harmless, so he didn’t care that she often handed them out along with his traditional advice to his patients. She was a puzzle to him. He wasn’t being vain when he said she was the only woman who had never come on to him. Thanks to the wonderful Landry genes, Chance was a pretty good-looking man. Coupled with the fact that he was a doctor seemed to draw women to him without requiring much effort on his part.
And he did love women. All women. Well, all except for one. She was the reason he’d go to his grave single and without a family. Some part of him of him still felt the pain of her abandonment deeply. The other part was afraid that he would repeat her actions.
Val stuck her head in the door. Her eyes, which he noted were an incredible kaleidoscope of color that included greens, golds and browns, appeared troubled. He hoped it wasn’t an emergency walk-in.
“Is someone here?” he asked.
She shook her head as she entered the office. “Stop turning the ringer off on your phone,” she chided as if he were some delinquent child.
Funny, she was the only one in the office who spoke to him with such candor. Maybe that was why he liked having her on his staff.
“The hospital is calling, pick-up line one. You’ve got a major problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Chance asked, annoyed. The small, community hospital just outside of town often classified something as simple as a hangnail a dire emergency.
“The kind that can end your career as a doctor.”
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Thunder crashed outside. Inside, the framed photograph of her parents rattled against the mahogany nightstand. A bolt of lightening crackled. The shadows in her bedroom were frozen in a flash of bright-white time.
Victoria DeSimone grumbled and yanked the extra pillow over her face in an attempt to soften the harsh sounds of the storm raging well into its second hour.
The violent weather wasn’t all that uncommon for Montana in September. A war was being waged in the black skies above the mountains in the distance. Air, heated that afternoon by an unusually warm sun was pitted against cooler air rolling down from the north. The battle had produced one of those freakish moments – thunder snow. More accurately, thunder slush. Huge drops of rain pelted against the window, and then clanged against the downspout. Intermingled with the rain came periods of heavy, wet snowflakes. She reminded herself that large flakes were good. They meant the snow wouldn’t amount to much if anything.
And that was good. Especially for a non-native. She kicked at the quilt bunched around her legs. She hated thunder snow. She hated rain. Most of all she hated Montana.
Seven years ago, it had seemed like a great idea. Move out into the shadow of the Rockies. Do something dramatic. Commune with nature. Experience the freedom of the great outdoors. She didn’t recall reading anything about thunder snow. Or the reality that the fresh, crisp air was freezing.
The great outdoors was great unless you needed a quart of milk. Whoever wrote the Chamber of Commerce welcome brochure left out the part about distance.
Tory missed Baltimore. She missed walking to grocery stores. She missed feeling like she was part of a neighborhood. She missed pizza delivery. Hell, she missed pizza period. Montana had great barbeque sauce, but she hadn’t met a single person who could make red sauce.
She was beginning to think that no matter how long she lived in Montana, she would forever be an outsider. Like most Americans of Italian decent, she talked with her hands. In Montana, people worked with their hands. Many only talked when they absolutely had to. You needed pliers to get a simple “hello” out of some people.
She stilled when she heard a noise out in the living room. Soundlessly, she listened intently. Nothing but the sound of her own breathing beneath the cushion of the pillow.
“Must have been the storm,” she muttered. “Or those friggin cats!” One of her neighbors ran something akin to a shelter for strays. It didn’t seem to matter to the woman that she lived on the second floor. Nope, she just rigged a two-by-four out of her bathroom window allowing the cats to jump from the nearby tree onto the board. Then they could mosey on in whenever the mood hit.
It was a nice sentiment, but the woman apparently didn’t realize that not all cats were acrobats. The noise Tory just heard was probably one of the less-gifted animals falling onto the roof of the trash shed. The cats didn’t seem to mind. They would land, regroup, then scurry up the tree again, making the leap toward a warm blanket and free food.
Burrowing deeper beneath the pillow when another bolt hit, Tory began making a list of possibilities. She would move someplace warm. Very warm. Amazingly warm.
With warm water fit for swimming. The lakes in her area were fed by mountain streams. You couldn’t swim in Montana. You could take a dip. A very quick dip. Natives called the water refreshing. Tory called it intolerable. Water below fifty-five degrees was painful.
Yes, warm water, warm air, and air conditioning. Maybe even steamy, like Louisiana. That would definitely be a change. Good food, parties, crowds. Yes, maybe Louisiana.
It was definitely time to do something. In the four years since the trial, she hadn’t exactly adapted. She had promised herself she would give it time – see if it would grow on her. It had. It grew old. She hated shoveling mounds of snow just to find her car. And winters that lasted to Memorial Day and returned in August.
She made the brash, bold decision to move west. She had long since admitted to herself that it had been a bad decision. The problem now was fear of taking another bold, brash step into the unknown.
She shoved the pillow aside at the same instant another flash of lightening filled the room.
“It could be worse,” she whispered.
Then she saw the outline of a man.
A man holding a knife.
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Film at Eleven
Molly Jameson considered ways to kill herself.
Figuratively at least.
She wasn’t shy so much as intensely private, which made her current situation disconcerting.
She was vain enough to wonder for the umpteenth time if her clothing was right. Hopefully, the dark navy suit would convey professionalism to the audience. She’d pinned her long, blonde hair into a loose twist but several strands had fallen free. Her stomach flip-flopped yet again as she tried to smooth the hairs back into place.
“Five minutes, Dr. Jameson,” a masculine looking woman in jeans and a tee shirt said as she adjusted the microphone attached to her bulky headset.
Molly nodded and smiled. Outwardly, she hoped to appear cool and calm and tried not to think that she might be the very first person to vomit live on Montana’s most popular morning news show.
Her eyes darted around the chaotic television studio. He leaned against the desk in the center of the large room. He had an easy, engaging smile and seemed completely comfortable.
And why wouldn’t he? Chandler Landry was WMON-TV. His image was splashed on busses and billboards all over the place. Tilting her head, Molly studied him from the relative obscurity of her position behind one of three large cameras positioned around the set.
It wasn’t any secret that Chandler Landry was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the greater Helena-Jasper area. He had it all – looks, breeding, money, class and confidence.
Molly gave him serious bonus points in the looks department. He was more than six feet of sculpted muscle and genetic perfection wrapped in a perfectly tailored, designer suit. His skin was deeply tanned but not leathery. His eyes were light brown, rimmed in dark, inky lashes. The only flaw – if she could call it that – was a slightly crooked smile. But it wasn’t really a flaw – nope, it was endearing and completely non-threatening. On any other man, it would have been a sneer. But on Chandler it added an innocent allure that gave him that air of boyish charm.
“We’re coming out of commercial,” headset woman said, motioning Molly toward the brightly lit set. “Follow me.”
Molly did, feeling all of her insecurities knot in the pit of her belly. Silently, she cursed Gavin Templesman. Only her beloved mentor could have conned her into doing this silly segment. Gavin knew how she felt about being in the public eye. He also knew how badly she wanted her book to succeed. She wanted to help people. That didn’t mean she wanted to sit under a circle of hot lights and have the intrusive camera trained on her face for the next half hour. She knew her stuff, saying something inappropriate or becoming tongue tied wasn’t going to be a problem for her. No matter how much she disliked the artifice of the television studio.
No, what she didn’t enjoy was the feeling of vulnerability and discomfort she felt as Chandler Landry strolled across the set toward her. She folded her hands loosely in her lap as she watched him approach, willing her erratic heart beat to slow and her breathing to remain even. Hard to imagine, but he was even better looking in person than on her twenty-seven inch screen at home.
She hoped he wasn’t a shaking hands kinda guy. Her palms were slightly damp. Which annoyed her no end.
“Dr. Jameson,” Chandler greeted with a smile that she felt all the way to her toes.
She subtly brushed her right hand on her skirt before taking the hand he offered and struggled to keep her knees from buckling. Up close, Chandler was a devastating sight to behold. The faint scent of his cologne was as intriguing as the fact that his palm was slightly calloused. Why would a pretty boy have callouses?
“Mr. Landry,” she greeted, forcing a lightness to her tone. “I feel like I know you already.”
“Most people do,” he replied easily. “The price you pay for being invited into the homes of viewers day in and day out.”
“We all have our crosses to bear,” she countered, dropping his hand.
“We’re back in fifteen,” a voice thundered through the studio.
Chandler held out a chair for her, presenting Molly with what she assumed was her first in a series of humiliations. In spite of her heels, she was forced to climb up on to the stool and her perfectly professional navy pumps fell about an inch shy of the foot bar.
“Ten seconds, Chandler.”
He rolled her into place. “Sit on the back of your jacket,” Chandler suggested. “It looks better on camera.”
“I thought I was here to give advice to your callers,” she said as she adjusted the bunched lapels of her suit.
He clipped a microphone to the creamy, silk tie that complimented his gunmetal gray shirt. “This is television, sweetheart. Ninety percent of it is how you look.”
“How positively shallow,” she muttered as she scooted the hem of her jacket beneath her hips. Sweetheart? What a condescending ass.
“People don’t tune in for ugly.”
“In five,” the body-less voice announced.
“Lucky for you.”
Chandler tossed her an easy smile. “Thanks, I think.”
Molly felt like a few thousand nerve endings wired for sound. While the studio was relatively quiet, everyone was watching the two of them. She felt like a zoo exhibit, and had to force herself not to fiddle with her hair and clothes. Something she rarely did. She was uncomfortably self-conscious and hoped to God it didn’t show. She took a deep calming breath and let it out slowly.
Her breathing was fine. It was her heart rate that was the problem. Nerves, anticipation, and damn it, the close proximity of Chandler Landry had her hyper aware. How did I allow myself to get talked into this?
Chandler patted her hand just as one of the large cameras wheeled closer to them. “Good luck, Doc.”
Headset woman brought her hand down and pointed at Chandler just as a large red light came on above the teleprompter attached to the camera lens.
“Good Morning again, Montana. I’m here in the studio this morning with author and psychiatrist Martha Jameson.”
Molly felt a trickle of perspiration dribble down between her shoulder blades. Part of it was the bright lights but most of it was palpable, intense fear.
“Dr. Jameson’s latest book,” Chandler continued, holding her book up as he spoke. “The Relationship Mambo, has just been released by University Press. Good Morning, Dr. Jameson.”
“Good morning,” she replied in a hideously scratched voice.
“I was reading your book last night and I was struck by the fact that you advocate casual physical encounters in this day and age.”
Leave it to a man to focus on the sex parts. Out of context, of course. This was going to be the longest fifteen minutes of her life. “Actually,” she began, treading the waters between being pissed and terrified. “You’ve misstated my position.” She ignored the dark flash in his eyes. “Sexuality is part of human nature. And while the ideal situation would be physical intimacy as part of a meaningful, committed relationship, that isn’t always practical. The chapter you referred to is a discussion of the double standard that exists in our society. I was simply stating my opinion that women should take ownership over their sexuality just as men have done since the dawn of time.”
“That’s great in theory, but doesn’t society frown on women being promiscuous?”
“I’m not advocating promiscuity, Mr. Landry. I’m acknowledging that women have the same physical needs as men.” And apparently the same homicidal tendencies, Molly thought, wanting to smack that smug smile off his handsome face. Strangely, her heart beat felt just fine and dandy now.
Great looking – yes. But smug, arrogant and very sure he was the be all and end all of any woman he met.
Nice try, Molly thought narrowing her eyes slightly, but no cigar. It would take a better man than you Gunga Din.
Chandler smiled and winked. “Let’s hope every woman out there adopts your philosophy. Dr. Jameson will answer any of your relationship questions. Call the number at the bottom of your screen.” Chandler flipped her book open to a pre-marked page. He glanced down, then looked at her under his brows as if surprised. “You also advocate divorce, Dr. Jameson.”
Molly’s blood boiled as she tried to maintain her fake smile. “Again, you’ve misinterpreted my position.” Read for comprehension, pretty boy! “I advocate divorce in situations where there is abuse, both physical and emotional.”
“Or lack of love,” he read.
“Which is a form of emotional abuse, Mr. Landry. Relationships are living things. They need fuel to survive. If there is no love, the relationship withers and dies.” Which is exactly what I’d like to happen to you!
“You don’t confine your advice to men and women,” he continued. “You write extensively about parent-child relationships as well. Do you have children, Dr. Jameson?”
“No. My book is based on research and almost a decade as a therapist.”
“Isn’t it hard for you to hold yourself out as an authority on children when you’ve never had any of your own?”
“Psychiatrists often can’t have firsthand knowledge of a given situation. For example, a doctor doesn’t have to beat his wife in order to understand the dynamic of spousal abuse.”
He gave her a slight nod of recognition. “We’ve got John on line one. Go ahead, John.”
“Yes,” a deep voice crackled through the studio. “My life sucks.”
“This is morning television, John,” Chandler warned politely. “Watch the language.”
“Anyway,” John’s voice sounded annoyed and tense. “I’ve got a crappy job. My mother’s always ragging me. The government screwed me.”
“Doctor?” Chandler interrupted. He gave Molly a ‘help me’ look.
“John, it sounds to me like you’re overwhelmed right now. I suggest you take some ‘me’ time.”
“I can’t. I need my lousy job to pay my bills. And my mother needs me. I do everything for her.”
Molly heard the anger and torment in the voice. “You have to make a choice, John. I hear your frustration. When we’re in that place, it affects everything we do. You have to take responsibility for your own happiness. If your job is making you miserable, then find another job. As for your mother, give yourself permission to take a break.”
“She needs me.”
“That may well be. But you need you, too. Once you’re happy and fulfilled, you’ll find that the other pieces of your life fall into place. Find something that will make you happy, John. One thing. Then do it.”
“We’ve got to take the next caller, John, good luck,” Chandler said, pressing one of the blinking lights on the phone in front of him. He greeted the caller by name as provided by his producer.
Chandler smiled over at the small woman with the authoritative tone. She was too damned cute to be such a tight ass. He’d actually found her book enlightening, insightful even. His producer had insisted he mention the section on sex. The plan had been to mention it once to please the higher-ups, and then move on. Then he saw Molly Jameson.
She was a prim, professional package at serious odds with the frank discussion on sexuality he’d read. This, of course, was far, far sexier. There was something incredibly appealing about this woman. He guessed she was much more than a pretty face hidden beneath a layer of navy linen.
Chandler had to struggle to look interested as the next few callers chimed in. Three women involved with losers who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop the cycle of the dead-end relationship. To her credit, Molly seemed to be taking it all in stride.
“. . . time for you to put a period on this relationship and move on,” Molly advised. “Don’t look at it as a failure, think of the two years you spent with Tony as a learning experience.”
Chandler listened as his producer’s voice boomed in his ear, then said, “Dr. Jameson, our first caller, John, is calling back.”
“Hello again, John,” she said.
Chandler watched as she wiped her damp palms across her lap. Odd that such a confident woman should be so uncomfortable on camera.
“I took your advice,” the caller stated.
“That’s good, John,” Molly replied, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Hey, John?” Chandler asked, “You only called ten minutes ago. How did you change your life in such a short period of time?”
“I did what she said,” John answered. “I just killed my mother.”
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Charmed and Dangerous
“I don’t need a babysitter, due respect, sir. I am fully capable of taking care of myself.” J.J. Barnes was not happy, and she made sure her narrowed glare made that point. The barely healed scar on her side itched and pulled. Maybe tomorrow she could compartmentalize and put the incident behind her once and for all.
F.B.I. Associate Director Terrance ‘Red’ Andrews didn’t seem impressed by her rhetoric. In fact, his white brows arched a caution in response to her tone.
J.J. immediately adjusted her attitude. Outwardly, at least. Inside, her stomach churned as waves of queasiness rocked through her. She covered by leaning forward to grip the back of the burgundy leather chair as if to argue the point.
“You’ve been released back to full duty, Agent Barnes. But that doesn’t solve the immediate problem.” He peered up at her above the rims of his half-glasses, his blue eyes stern and unyielding. “I would assume that after that debacle with the Visnopov matter, you’d be more . . . circumspect.”
“I am, sir,” she assured him. “Two weeks in the hospital and a month recuperating at home gave me plenty of time to analyze and review my actions. I realize now that I should have arranged for a follow team prior to the meeting.”
“It wasn’t a meeting, Agent Barnes. It was a beat down. The government has invested a great deal of time and money in this investigation. We’d like you to stay alive until the U.S. attorney gets in front of a grand jury. Understood?”
Andrews shuffled papers around on his cluttered desk until he found a thin folder and held it out for her. “You will accept a protective detail.”
“But, sir, -”
He lifted a finger, silencing her immediately. He smiled, the expression falling somewhere between grudging respect and utter exasperation. “Sit, Barnes.”
She readily followed the order. She was still sore from the surgery and the fatigue that just refused to go away no matter how many hours she slept. She didn’t know much about having a spleen removed, but she guessed the lingering maladies were side effects. Hopefully, they’d go away soon. J.J. prided herself on her fitness. She was the reigning female record holder on the obstacle course and now she was having trouble making it through the day without a nap.
She accepted the folder, but she didn’t open it immediately. It was accepted practice to wait for a superior’s go-ahead before diving into anything. If she’d followed that procedure, maybe Visnopov’s goons wouldn’t have . . .
“I know you, Barnes,” he said, raking his stubby fingers through his thick shock of white hair. “I knew you’d balk at the idea of protection, so I came up with an incentive for you.”
Her mood brightened slightly. “Sir?”
Nodding, he pointed at the folder. “We’ve lost three of the critical Visnopov witnesses so far,” he began as she perused color photos of the victims. “You were almost the fourth.”
J.J. wasn’t sure how to react. She could have argued that it wasn’t totally her fault. Her cover was blown the minute the first member of the Visnopov’s crew was arrested. It would have been nice if the U.S. Attorney would have coordinated the arrest. Given her a heads up. But arguing – in Andrews’s eyes – conveyed a complete lack of personal responsibility and she wasn’t about to give him any more reasons to question her abilities.
“The Visnopov’s are going to come after you again.”
A frisson of dread slid down her spine. She straightened her back and kept her gaze steady with effort. “I assumed as much.”
“The Marshal’s Service will handle the particulars.”
A groan escaped her lips before she could prevent it. J.J. hoped he hadn’t noticed it as she turned to the next page. Her interest instantly piqued. This wasn’t a picture of a criminal or a victim. This was an official, posed head shot of a U.S. Marshal. Turning to the back of the photograph, she read the particulars. Denise Howard, 51, 25 years with the Service. “These people are my protective detail?”
“No,” Andrews said as she continued to examine the file.
Martin Newell, 49. Lynn Selznick, 31. She looked more like a college coed than a federal agent. Then she saw the last picture and her heart skipped. He was as handsome as she remembered. “But?” She glanced up at Andrews and said, “I don’t follow, sir. These people are -”
“Suspects in the murder of Alex Maslonovic,” Andrews explained. “We have every reason to believe that someone inside the U.S. Marshal’s office is a mole. Your assignment is to find out which one is responsible.”
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The Last Landry
“Funeral services were held at the Jasper Community Church this afternoon for Caleb and Priscilla Landry, the wealthy Jasper couple whose remains were discovered last week in an abandoned well on the ranch owned by the family.
“Law enforcement officials have classified the gruesome discovery as an active murder investigation. Sheriff Seth Landry, seen here with his six brothers, is currently heading the investigation, though sources close to the story have indicated that the Montana State Police are planning to take over the investigation since the victims are the parents of the Jasper Sheriff.
“Captain Fitz Rollins, chief homicide detective with the state police, said in an interview following the funeral, that despite the crime happening fifteen years ago, several strong leads have been developed based on items recovered in the well along with the remains.
“Among the hundreds of mourners, many prominent Montanans attended the services today, including Governor Lawrence Greenblat and State Legislator Jack English. In the interest of full disclosure, we here at WMON also wish to express our condolences to the Landry family. As many of you may remember, Chandler Landry was an anchor here at this station for many years and we all send our sincerest sympathies to Chandler and his family during this difficult time.
“Switching gears now . . .
“Turn it off,” Callie groused as she rubbed circles on her very extended belly. Her feet were propped on one of the chairs, to ease some of the swelling at her ankles.
Taylor turned it off, then went into the office, returning with a pillow which she gently wedged into place beneath her friend’s knees. “You look beat.”
“No, I look like Shamu,” Callie whined. “I’m huge. I’m gigantic, I’m . . .”
“Eight months pregnant with twins?” Taylor smiled as she went back to the towers of plastic containers lining the counter. “I’ve got enough food here to feed a developing country. What am I going to do with it all?”
“It’s calving season,” Callie said. “Pick out what you want and send the rest down to the bunkhouse. I think Sam said they hired on twenty new temporary hands. Those guys are always hungry.”
“Good idea,” Taylor agreed, opening the top drawer and removing a roll of freezer tape and a marker. Thanks to her high heels, she could peek under the lids in order to write neat labels on each container. “I hope they like macaroni salad.”
“They’re men,” Callie reminded her. “They’ll eat anything they don’t have to cook for themselves.”
True enough. One thing Taylor had learned in her five years as the Landry’s housekeeper was that along with a Y chromosome came a healthy, hearty appetite.
Something that had been sorely lacking in the main house in the week since the bodies had been discovered. “How’s Sam?” she asked when she finished her task and joined Callie at the table.
The other woman shrugged. “You know my husband, his idea of dealing with anything is to soldier on. Then again, I think he’s always suspected they were dead.”
Who didn’t?, Taylor thought, though felt it was better to keep that to herself.
“Cody is taking it the hardest,” Callie added, “though Shane is running a close second.”
“That’s to be expected,” Taylor continued labeling the containers as they talked. “Until they pulled the skeletons out of the old well and Cody had proof otherwise, I think he honestly believed he would find them on some remote island, sipping umbrella drinks. I think Shane just wanted them to come back. Understandable, since he’s the youngest.”
Callie sipped a glass of juice. “Maybe now this family can finally heal.”
“I hope so. Think they’re ready for more coffee?” Taylor asked, hearing the muffled voices of the Landry brothers who were still huddled in the living room.
“Have you ever known a time when the they didn’t want coffee?” Callie remarked. “I miss coffee,” she sighed. “I miss sleeping on my stomach and I miss being able to stand up with some semblance of dignity. Now I hoist myself out of a chair like bulky cargo being off-loaded from a tanker. I’m supposed to be glowing. See any glowing here?”
Taylor patted Callie’s hand and chuckled. “Buck up. It’s almost over and soon you’ll have two beautiful babies to spoil.”
Callie’s pretty face brightened. “Kevin is so excited,” she smiled. “Sheldon The Child Wonder is a different matter. He’s already announced that the babies can’t come into his new room. Ever.”
“He’s two,” Taylor defended. “Jealousy is normal at this age. He’ll be fine.” She felt confident in the advice offered, thanks to the experience she’d gained courtesy of the three afternoons a week she volunteered at the Family Assistance Center of Jasper. The center that didn’t have the budget to hire her even after she had her degree in hand. The university wasn’t an option either. Their hiring freeze prevented even the hope of an opening any time in the near future.
Callie was grinning. “My friend the shrink.”
Taylor struggled to smile back. Barring an act of God, she’d have her PhD in six weeks. An accomplishment that should have filled her with jubilation. Instead she found herself dreading the reality of what it represented. No more excuses. Time to go out into the real world. Alone. Again. She’d think about that later. For now, she was still, by default, a part of this family. Better to make the best of it while she still could. “That would be ‘counselor’. A shrink is a M.D.”
“Between you and Molly, we’ll certainly have all our mental health needs covered.”
Taylor felt a stab of pain in her heart. So much for making the best of it. Molly was married to Chandler. She had a reason to stay. Taylor, on the other hand, had exactly five weeks and six days left in Landry Land.
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MIAMI CONFIDENTIAL Series
Las Vegas, 2003
It’s really hard to hide a gun beneath a wedding dress, Julia Garcia mused as she strapped the weapon into a leg holster high up on her thigh. Then she checked her reflection to make sure it didn’t show as she swallowed the lump of nerves in her throat. This wasn’t even remotely close to how she’d imagined her wedding day.
Too bad, actually. Luke seemed like a nice enough guy. And he was hot. Very hot.
They’d known each other for exactly one week. ‘Known’ was probably an exaggeration. You can’t so much know a person in seven short days. Hell, until she’d seen the application for the marriage license, she hadn’t even known his middle name.
That was by design. Her assignment was to learn everything she could about Joe Esterhaus. The fling with Luke was a kind of collateral damage. Esterhaus was using Luke. She was using Luke. The only person who didn’t know any of that was Luke.
Julia guessed he’d be pretty pissed when he found out. If he found out, she corrected. She checked the time again, feeling a knot of impatience in her stomach. “Where the hell are you guys?” she wondered.
Stepping over to the small door, she opened it a tiny crack, peering out into the chapel. Esterhaus was in the first row of chairs. On the groom’s side.
She didn’t see Luke. That should have filled her with relief. Instead, she felt a completely inappropriate twinge of annoyance. “I’m losing it,” she muttered softly as she soundlessly closed the door.
Tension. Nerves coiled in every one of her muscles. Where the hell were the agents?
Esterhaus was normally surrounded by a half-dozen, heavily armed men. But here, in the quintessentially Vegas wedding chapel, he was unguarded.
Everything was in place. Everything but the agents who were supposed to swoop in and arrest the son of a bitch.
If they didn’t take him now, they’d have no way of linking the drug shipment to him. The DEA needed to put Esterhaus in jail this time. Twice before, they’d been unable to make a case against the narco-trafficker. But this time, thanks to Julia, they would finally get him off the streets. Until three hours ago, the DEA had no idea how Esterhaus was getting his product into the country. Julia’s assignment had been to get close enough to the man to find a way to shut him down.
That way turned out to be Luke Young. Esterhaus was far from stupid. Three undercover agents had tried and failed to get close to him.
All they knew was Esterhaus used his custom home fixture business as a front. The DEA knew he’d been importing cocaine by the ton. Knowing it and proving it were two different things.
So, Julia had gotten close to the man by proxy.
Esterhaus had been spending a lot of time cultivating a business relationship with Luke both before and during the home improvement convention that had drawn them all to Vegas.
Esterhaus had created a brilliant system. He’d hide his drugs in plain sight. According to what Julia had learned, Esterhaus had the drugs pressed, then encased in porcelain bathroom fixtures. All of this was done by a series of off-shore shell corporations, making it nearly impossible for the DEA to connect the product directly back to Esterhaus.
Luke Young had unwittingly turned the tables. His insistence that Esterhaus provide a sample of the merchandise meant the DEA finally had the proof they needed to put the man in prison.
Agents were at the warehouse now, executing the search warrant. Another team was supposed to standing by to arrest the drug lord. And if they didn’t show up soon, she’d have to go through with the ceremony.
She whispered an impatient a curse, feeling her stomach lurch. Part of it was due to the fact that her whole system was on high alert. The other part was a result of trying to decide what her next move should the arrest be delayed.
“I get married,” she grumbled. If she didn’t, she’d surely arouse the suspicions of Esterhaus and his men. If that happened, there was no telling how long it might take for the DEA to get another foothold into the drug cartel.
But poor Luke. He really seemed like a decent guy. In another time and place, he was probably the kind of man she’d enjoy getting to know. Once he discovered he was nothing more than a pawn in all of this, he’d probably consign her to the depths of hell.
Julia drew in a deep breath to calm her pounding pulse. Again she went to the door and opened it, peering out into the small chapel. Esterhaus was still seated in place. Only now, Luke was at the altar.
Seeing him standing there in a dark tux caused her breath to catch in her throat. He epitomized the cliché of tall, dark and handsome.
Julia was 5’6” in her stocking feet, yet Luke towered over her by nearly nine inches. His shoulders were broad, his muscled body tapering down to a trim waist. He was very tanned, a testament to the fact that he was a very hands-on kind of boss. Julia couldn’t see his eyes, she didn’t need to, they were branded on her brain. Deep, rich brown, the color of Cuban coffee. Rimmed in dark, inky lashes the same shade as his slightly too long hair.
Julia suffered another pang of guilt. Intellectually, she knew using Luke was the means to a righteous end. That didn’t make it any easier.
She adjusted the wedding gown, tug the strapless silk bodice to a more modest position. She smiled wryly. Stupid time for her Catholic school upbringing to rear its ugly head. Maybe it wasn’t her nun-induced sense of propriety. Maybe it was just that she didn’t want her fellow agents bursting through the door and getting an eyeful of her cleavage.
If she had a couple of hours and a sewing machine, she could alter the dress. Julia rolled her eyes at the idiotic turn of her thoughts.
She jumped when a someone rapped gently on the door.
“We’re ready,” she heard the wedding assistant call.
Julia sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. Now what? If she stalled, Esterhaus might get suspicious. Depending on nothing more than hope, she grabbed up the pale pink roses tied with a satin ribbon and reached for the door.
Here Comes the Bride was piped in through speakers embedded in the ceiling as Julia began a slow walk down the aisle with her gun strapped to her inner thigh.
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LOST & FOUND Series
The Baby Exchange
The bomb wasn’t much. Unless, Zoey thought with a frown, you happened to be standing next to the remains of the mailbox, staring at the tattered scraps of charred paper which was all that was left of the day’s mail.
“Can you give us any names, Miss Kincade?” the middle-aged detective prodded just before touching the nub of his pencil to his tongue.
Zoey shook her head and let out a sigh of disgust as her neighbors began to slip from their houses, drawn by perverse voyeurism. “I know it was one of the K Street Dozen,” she told him.
He nodded. The police department was acutely aware of the local gang with the deceptive name. Zoey had spent the past six years of her life working with the young men and women who swore allegiance to the gang. The bombing was work related.
“I don’t know what we can do,” the detective began in an apologetic tone. “Unless a witness comes forward.”
Zoey shot him a sidelong look. “No one in this neighborhood will be in any great hurry to cough up one of the Ks.”
The detective bobbed his head and flipped closed his notebook. His dark, tired eyes fixed on the air just above her head. “The neighborhood’s changing,” he offered.
Her smile was slow and sad. “And I’m sure tonight’s little episode will do wonders for the property values.”
“Maybe you should think about moving out of here,” he suggested in a paternal tone. “Go hang out in the suburbs where those juvenile offenders can’t get to you.”
“They aren’t getting to me,” Zoey assured him. “The tagging and vandalism will stop as soon as Jimmy Craig gets out of the youthful offenders program.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“All this started when I reported Jimmy’s probation violation. It will end as soon as he serves his one hundred twenty days.”
“I hope for your sake you’re right,” the detective said as he offered his hand. Turning, he took two steps toward his car, stopped and turned to face her, his form silhouetted by the dusk. “I’d have better locks put on the doors and windows, Miss Kincade. It isn’t exactly a huge leap to go from a cherry bomb in the mailbox to something much more deadly.”
“Gee, thanks,” she grumbled under her breath. “I’ll certainly sleep better now.”
Zoey had reached her door when she heard the car squeal around the corner and come to a halt at the curb. Mitch Gray, her immediate supervisor at Health and Human Services came loping across the lawn.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” he teased as he took in the twisted metal and shredded paper.
“Thanks,” she managed as he placed his hand on her shoulder. “They probably blew up my ten million dollar winning sweepstakes entry.”
Deep lines of concern wrinkled his forehead and his eyes narrowed as he stared down at Zoey. “You’d be miserable with ten million bucks. Besides,” he continued as he draped an arm around her shoulder and steered her through the door. “You took a vow of poverty.”
“No, I am paid a poverty-level wage.”
“Take another mailbox out of petty cash.”
Zoey led the way down the narrow hallway of her narrow row home. Her pace quickened in response to hearing the tea kettle whistle. Grumbling an expletive, she ran to the stove, lifted the pot and cut the gas. “Shoot,” she yelped when she saw the huge scorch mark on the bottom. “I just bought this,” she told Mitch as she took it to the sink and ran water.
“Take a teapot out of petty cash,” Mitch offered as he pulled out one of the bar stools and hoisted his two hundred plus pound frame on to the stool.
“This is not my day,” Zoey sighed.
As she went to the cupboard to get baking soda for the blackened bottom of her new purchase, she was keenly aware of Mitch’s eyes following her intently.
“You’re staring,” she told him.
“I’m preparing,” Mitch corrected in an uneasy voice.
Zoey stopped in mid-action and gave her boss a pointed look. “You didn’t come all the way over here to lecture me on the dangers of living in the city, are you? The detective already sang that tune.”
“Zoey,” Mitch said her name on an expelled breath. Stippling his pudgy fingers, he leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “This is the fifth incident.”
“Incident?” she repeated with a nervous chuckle. “I wonder if my insurance company will continue to pay my claims if I call them incidents.”
Mitch’s smile failed to reach his eyes. “The tagging was one thing.”
“It would have been nice if they’d used a better color of spray paint,” Zoey told him as she reached into her refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine. As she pulled two glasses from the cabinet, she noticed the small tremor in her hands. Delayed reaction to the small explosion which had scared her to death at the time. “I think I prefer the graffiti to the fireworks.”
“That’s what I’m getting at,” Mitch said. “Having obscenities and threats painted all over your car and your house was one thing. Tonight’s incident was . . . dangerous.”
“I didn’t even get a scratch,” she protested.
Mitch simply shook his head. That single action was the catalyst for the large knot in her stomach. He was going to do it. She knew it the minute he lifted his face but his eyes wouldn’t meet hers.
“Please don’t,” she asked. Coming around the counter, she closed her hand over his forearm, struggling with the urge to give him a shake. “Don’t banish me, Mitch. Please? I’m no good with infants and they hate me.”
He still didn’t meet her eyes. “Sorry, Zoey. The transfer is effective immediately.”
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DELTA JUSTICE Series
In the Bride’s Defense
“May I help you?”
A woman in her late sixties stepped forward. Marie didn’t need a crystal ball –though she had one- to know what the woman was thinking. The amused light in her eyes was an instant giveaway.
“Do you have anything to spark up . . .”
“You’re looking for an intimacy enhancer?” Marie asked politely.
“I just want something to get Joe Rob away from the TV and into the sack. Got anything like that?”
Keeping her practiced smile in place, Marie reached behind the counter and took out a vial of cardamom oil. “This will bring a jolt of energy as well as increased sexual desire,” she explained.
The woman blushed and her friends cackled. “This isn’t illegal, is it?”
“No, but you have to mix it with a base oil.” Marie retrieved a larger bottle and placed it on the counter. “Blend five to seven drops of the cardamom in an eighth of a cup of the base oil.”
“What’s in the base oil?”
“It’s just jojoba oil,” Marie explained.
“Do I put it on hi . . .”
Marie grabbed an instruction pamphlet from next to the register and gave it to the woman. “You put it on yourself.”
The woman frowned. “I’m not the one with no get-up-and-go.”
“The oil is to inspire your husband to want you,” she explained over the howls of the others.
“If it works on Joe Rob, I’ll borrow some the next time that fellow from the electric company comes by,” one of the friends joked. The comment brought another round of hoots.
Marie took the woman’s money, reminding herself that she needed the capital. She wasn’t yet earning enough as an aromatherapist to risk offending the curious.
She checked her watch again and decided it was time to get David and send him back to work. He’d had a massage, and relaxation time.
The dozen or so bracelets she wore jingled as she walked back through the beaded curtain to where her client lay. “David?”
“David?” she tried again, touching his shoulder. It felt cold and clammy. “David!” she yelled as she struggled to ease him onto his side.
When she finally succeeded, Marie noticed the faint purplish tinge around his mouth, then looked into his wide, lifeless eyes.
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Someone to Watch Over Her
His eyelashes didn’t so much as flutter as his captured the man in his sights. But then, this was his specialty. What would his useless old man have thought if he could see him now? The old drunk often told him – between vicious beatings – that he’d never be good at anything.
His line of vision was blocked for an instant by the red-and-blue strobe lights on top of the cruiser. The instant it was clear, he squeezed the trigger.
Slowly, he swung the rifle until he found the next target. The woman was getting out of the car, no doubt still trying to figure out what had happened to her partner. Adrenaline surged through him as he got her in the crosshairs. His full attention on the task at hand. The task that would put fifteen big ones in his account.
The scope allowed his a quick study of her profile from a safe distance of a hundred yards. Thanks to his custom-made silencer, she would never know what hit her. But he would.
“Damn,” he muttered as she bolted around the squad car. He should have taken the shot when it was clear. No matter. Slowly, keeping the rifle trained in her direction, he squeezed the trigger. There was no sound. Just the jerk of the barrel as the bullet soared toward its target.
“Clean,” he whispered with a satisfied smirk when the woman spun from the force of the impact.
For a split second, he thought her eyes had found him. Stupid. There was no way the broad could see him in the dense pine underbrush. It didn’t matter, anyway, he told himself as he began disassembling the gun with swift, masterful precision. He placed the weapon in his nylon bag, closed the bag and hoisted it onto his shoulder, stopping only long enough to collect the spent cartridges.
It wouldn’t matter at all. She was already dead.
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