Authors: Sharon Sala
Praise forNew York Timesbestselling authorSHARON SALA
“Spellbinding narrative…Sala lives up to her reputation with this well-crafted thriller.”
—Publishers WeeklyonRemember Me
“Wear a corset, because your sides will hurt from laughing! This is Sharon Sala at top form. You’re going to love this touching and memorable book.”
—New York Timesbestselling author Debbie Macomber onWhippoorwill
“Ms. Sala draws you in from the very beginning. She delivers main characters who will touch your hearts and quirky secondary characters who will intrigue you as you try to figure out whodunit.”
—Romantic Times BOOKclubonButterfly
“Whippoorwillis a funny, heartwarming story, set in a raw, untamed land and rich with indelible characters that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. I didn’t want it to be over.”
—Deborah Smith,New York Timesbestselling author ofA Place to Call Home
“Once again, Sharon Sala does a first-rate job at blending richly developed characters and inspired plotting into an unforgettable read.”
—Romantic Times BOOKclubonDark Water
Also by SHARON SALA
OUT OF THE DARK
MIRA Books is also proud to publishSharon Sala under the pseudonymDINAH MCCALL
Watch for Dinah McCall’s next novelof romantic suspense
When we are born into this world, we do not choose the family we are given, only the friends we yearn to keep.
Throughout my life there have been many, some fleeting, some steadfast, who stood, not by me, but with me, through the proverbial thick and thin.
I cannot name you all, but you know who you are, and I cherish my place in your life. You have unselfishly given me both your presence and your time.
I can only hope that, in return, I did not fail to return the favor.
You will suffer for the sin.
Caitlin Bennett took a deep, shaky breath as she reread the letter in her hand. No matter how many times she read it, the warning didn’t change. It was the latest in a chain of hate mail she’d been receiving for the past six months. Each one she received was worse than the last.
When they’d first started coming, she’d chalked it up to nothing more than a disgruntled fan. As C. D. Bennett, bestselling mystery author, it wasn’t the first weird fan letter she’d ever received. But when the second, and then the third, came, each with a similar message of retribution, she began to get nervous. Public figures were often murdered with less provocation.
Deciding to err on the side of caution, she had called Boran Fiorello, an old friend of the family and a detective with the 45th precinct. When she showed him the letters, he was most understanding but didn’t consider them truly threatening, and as she looked back, she could understand his reaction.
The first three letters were almost ambivalent, written in an “I don’t like you because” style. It was no wonder he wasn’t impressed. Fiorello had sent her home with a pat on the back and a promise to take her out to dinner sometime soon.
But the letters kept coming, each one a bit more threatening than the last and renewing her anxiety. Certain that Fiorello would take these more seriously, she called him again. That time his response had been brief, almost distracted. He’d told her that there was no law against not liking what she wrote and no law against telling her about it. Short of receiving an actual physical threat, which she had not, he didn’t think she had anything to worry about. Feeling suitably chastened, she’d given up, even though the tone of the letters continued to darken.
Now she had just over two dozen, and all very obviously from the same person. The last one had come this morning. The bright crimson of a felt tip pen on white paper was eye-catching; part of what the writer most likely intended. But it was the perfect bloodred drops added to the bottom of each word that gave her chills. The letters appeared to be seeping blood, and where there should have been a signature, there was an accumulating pool of blood instead. It was the perfect visual assault—horrifying without striking a single blow.
She was scared—as scared as she’d ever been in her life—yet there was nothing but words on which to base her fear. She’d never been accosted, never received a threatening phone call, never had one moment when she’d experienced physical danger.
A small clock on her desk began chiming the hour, and as it did, she jumped at the sound. Dismayed by the time, she put the letter in the file with all the others and then hurried to her bedroom.
In less than an hour, a car would arrive to take her to DBC Studios. Kenny Leibowitz, her publicist, had arranged her personal appearance on theLive with Lowellshow to promoteDead Lines,her newest release. She didn’t like the publicity part of the business, but she dealt with it. Doing television was her least favorite thing, especially when it was on the DBC network. She began a mental countdown of the interview as she put on her makeup.
Inevitably the host of this particular show seemed bent on bringing up the fact that her father was Devlin Bennett, who, among other things, had founded Devlin Broadcasting Company. After that, he seemed compelled to mention that when her father died, he’d left all his millions and his holdings, which included DBC, to Caitlin. Doing television meant she had to cope with the one-liners about owning the network and buying her way into fame. It didn’t seem to matter to the glib talk-show host that her books had an average eighty-five percent sell-through, which was phenomenal in and of itself. All Lowell was looking for was the laugh. She didn’t like his snide remarks, but she dealt with them in a witty and urbane manner, giving the host as good as he gave. To his credit, he loved it—and her. He didn’t know that Caitlin was cringing inside, or that she would much rather have been home watching videos of old movies and having her favorite snack, a peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich. To too many people in the world, she was a poor little rich girl who played at being a writer. Although her father had been dead for almost five years, Caitlin had been forced to accept the fact that she would forever live in his shadow. Not for the first time, she was wishing for a man in her life, and maybe children. She wasn’t just afraid, she was lonely. But wishing didn’t produce results.
Her makeup finished, she rummaged through her closet, snatching the first warm black outfit she came to, and began to dress. One good thing about being a writer—nobody expected you to look pretty. You just had to be smart. By the time her car arrived, she was ready and waiting.
“So…Caitlin…may I call you Caitlin, or should I say Ms. Bennett? After all, you are my boss.”
Caitlin smiled what she hoped was a forgiving smile and tried not to wince. God. Where did they get those people? Ron Lowell was an attractive man, but his brain seemed stuck on Rewind. This was the fourth time in as many years that she’d been on his show promoting a book, and he always started her interview in the exact same way.
“I don’t care what you call me, as long as you buy the book,” Caitlin quipped.
The audience roared, and Ron Lowell beamed. The interview was getting off to a good start. He picked up the book and made a pretense of flipping through the pages, although his focus was definitely on the swell of her breasts beneath the black knit dress she was wearing.
“So the new book is calledDead Lines.Tell us about it.”
Caitlin leaned forward. “It’s a murder mystery, Ron.”
He grinned. She’d fed him the perfect line.
“Which means you’re not going to tell us anything juicy?”
Another round of titters floated up from the audience. Although Lowell couldn’t see them, he thrived on the sound.
“I didn’t say that,” Caitlin said. “I will tell you that it has nothing to do with meeting a deadline. Picture this, if you will. A beautiful inn in the Adirondacks filled with people who’ve come for an enjoyable weekend. An early winter storm drops two feet of snow on the mountains, making the roads impassable and snowing everyone in. All the utilities go out. No phones. No electricity. No communication with the outside world. Then people start to die…and not from natural causes.”
“Oooh,I get it,” Lowell said. “Dead lines of communication.” Then he began wiggling his eyebrows in mock fright. “And the killer must be one of the guests, because no one can get in or out, right?”
Caitlin just smiled.
Lowell beamed back. “I know. I know. Read the book.”
“Ah…brains to go with all those good looks,” Caitlin said.
The audience laughed again, and Ron Lowell glowed in appreciation.
Minutes later they broke for commercial and Caitlin got up to leave. Lowell stood to shake her hand, and when he did, held it a little longer than usual.
“How about some dinner after the show?”
Caitlin smiled as she slipped her hand out of Lowell’s grasp.
“Ron, I would love it, but another time, okay? I’m on arealdeadline with my next book, and I need to work. Thanks for a wonderful interview, though, and I hope you enjoy the book.”
She was so smooth he never knew he’d been brushed off. By the time she got off stage, she was sick to her stomach from nerves.
“Caitlin, darling! You were marvelous, as always.”
Caitlin made a face at Kenny as he helped her into her coat.
“Next time you better ask me first before you book one of these things. I need more warning.”
Kenny kissed the side of her cheek, then winked. “Of course,” he said, straightening her coat on her shoulders. “It’s cold as a witch’s tit outside tonight. Looks like it might even snow.”
Caitlin shivered at the thought and ignored the fact that he hadn’t promised anything regarding her scheduling. She sighed, reminding herself that he was only doing his job, then shivered. She hated winter. If it weren’t for the promotions Kenny had set up here in the city for the new book, she would have gone south weeks ago.
As she began to button up her coat, Kenny caught her hands in his own.
“Let me, dear,” he said. “Your fingers are almost blue. Didn’t you bring gloves?”
“I think I left them in the car.”
“Poor baby,” Kenny murmured, as he buttoned her up, then clasped her hands in his, pretending to warm them.
What he wanted was to hold her hand, and Caitlin knew it. He had been making delicate passes at her for some time now, and it was all she could do to fend him off without ruining their working relationship.
“They’re warmer now. Thanks,” Caitlin said, and stuck her hands into her pockets as one of the producers led them through the backstage maze to an exit door.
The limousine was waiting just outside in the alley. Kenny opened the door before the driver could get out. Caitlin stepped into the interior, settling into the luxurious leather and bone-melting warmth with relief.
“Oooh,this heat feels so good,” she sighed. “Why on earth do they always keep those studios so cold?”
“Money, honey,” Kenny said, and slid as close to her as he could get. “Here, put on your gloves. I don’t want my best girl to get sick.”
Caitlin slid her fingers into the soft, creamy calfskin and ignored the “best girl” remark. After that, they rode through the busy streets in silence, and as they did, Caitlin’s thoughts returned to the letters.
A part of her wanted to tell someone, but her close friends were few and far between. Finding the right person to tell secrets to without having them wind up in the morning papers was a caution she’d learned at an early age. She glanced at Kenny, considering how he would take the news, and then discarded the idea. She didn’t trust him not to use the letters as some sordid hook to sell more books. She could see it all now: Mystery Writer Fields Own Death Threats.
She sighed again, and as she did, Kenny leaned over and cupped her face with his hand.
“What’s wrong, honey girl? And don’t tell me nothing, because I know you too well.” When Caitlin remained silent, Kenny persisted. “You can trust me.”
She smiled. “Nothing is wrong, Kenny, other than that I’m cold and tired.”
“Do you want some company tonight?”
Her smile felt as cold as her hands. Some men were so dense. How many times would she have to say no before he got the message?
“Thanks, but I just want a quiet evening alone. You understand.”
Leibowitz’s eyes glittered with a frustration he never verbalized.
“Sure, honey. No problem. Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning.” Then he glanced out the window as the limo began to slow down. “And it looks as if we’ve arrived.”
The driver got out and opened their door. Kenny stepped out first, then steadied Caitlin as she exited the car.
“Have a good night,” he said softly, and kissed the side of her cheek.
Caitlin waved goodbye and, as soon as the doorman opened the door, bolted inside the building. The security guard looked up from behind his desk and smiled.
“Good evening, Miss Bennett.”
“Good evening, Mike. How’s the family?”
Mike Mazurka grinned. “Good, good. My youngest boy, Tom, just had his first child. I’m a grandpa again. Can you believe it?”
Caitlin laughed. “How many does that make?”
“Seven. But who’s counting?” Mike said.
She waved goodbye as she continued toward the elevators. But when she got inside and slid her key card into the slot, apprehension returned. She wouldn’t feel safe until she was behind the locked doors of her own apartment. Even though this elevator took her straight to the penthouse without stopping on any other floors, she felt her vulnerability all too acutely.
She exited quickly, dashing across the foyer outside the elevator to her door. A quick turn of the key in the lock and she was inside, slamming the door and turning the dead bolt behind her. Slumping with relief, Caitlin leaned against the door, her heart pounding, her skin clammy. The longer she stood there, the more disgusted with herself she became.
“I will not live like this,” she muttered, and headed toward her bedroom to change, turning on lights as she went.
But who to tell? She thought of calling Fiorello again and then dismissed the notion. He hadn’t believed her the first time, and he’d blown her off the second. She wasn’t in the mood for more of his derision. Yet as she readied herself for bed, she accepted the fact that something had to be done, and the resolution had to come from her.
The steady rise and fall of a pair of scissor blades cast a shadow across Buddy’s newspaper, separating the article about C. D. Bennett from the rest of the page. He tacked it to his bedroom wall beside all the others, then stepped back.
Bennett pens another winner.
He sneered. Bennett had been a winner the day she was born.
A gust of wind rattled the windows, reminding him of the bitter cold outside, but he had no fear of freezing. The rage inside his gut would keep him warm.
His belly growled. He hadn’t eaten since noon, and it was almost midnight. Technically tomorrow was already here, but he was hungry now, and it was too long to wait for breakfast.
With the job that he had, regular meals were sporadic at best. Half the time he ate on the run; the other times, when he managed to sit down at a table, something or someone managed to interfere. God. He didn’t belong at this job—always at the beck and call of others. He should be the one calling the shots, not the one always being paged.
He glared at the wall, scanning the pictures and clippings. Caitlin Doyle Bennett. What the hell was she playing at, taking up shelf space in bookstores? There had never been a day of her life that she had needed money. She didn’t know what it was like to wonder where her next meal was coming from or if she would still have a roof over her head next week. If she had half a conscience, she would step aside for those more deserving.
His belly growled again, breaking his concentration, but when he strode to the refrigerator, the sight of food turned his stomach. He slammed it shut with a frown. He didn’t want to eat, he wanted to forget, and the best way to do that was a couple of drinks. The bar on the corner didn’t close for another couple of hours. That was what he needed—a drink or two, maybe some pretzels or nuts and a little conversation.
Grabbing his coat, he patted his pockets to make sure his keys were inside. The bulge of his switchblade was in his right pocket, the jingle of his keys in his left. The knife was a holdover from his childhood, one he was reluctant to leave behind. As a youth, it had saved him more than once from being beaten half to death, and as an adult, he found it a comfort against a possible mugging.
He let himself out the door of his fifth floor apartment and took the stairs down to the street. The first bite of wind took his breath away, but he began to acclimatize as he walked, relishing the frigid cleansing.
Despite the hour and the cold, the bar was noisy. He entered with a grin, and when someone called his name, he nodded and waved as he slid onto a stool and ordered a drink.
“Looks like I’m not the only cold fool in the city,” he said, grabbing a handful of pretzels from the closest bowl.
The bartender laughed. “Cold weather is always good for business,” he said. “What’ll it be?”
“How about a lager?”
“Any particular brand?”
“Just something dark and smooth.”
Moments later, the bartender sat a tall glass of brown liquid in front of him, which he used to wash down the pretzels. The cold bite of the brew tasted of yeast and hops and something wonderfully strong. He liked the scent almost as much as the taste as it slid down his throat. Glad that he’d come, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the bar and closing his eyes, letting the anonymous camaraderie of the place seep into his soul. For this moment, it was easy to pretend he was among friends.
An hour had passed when he got up to leave, tossing a handful of bills onto the bar then waving goodbye as he left. The cold seared his eyeballs, making them tear as he walked outside. It had gotten colder in the short time he’d been inside, and he quickly put on his gloves and pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears.
He paused, looking up at the sky and wishing he could see the stars. But in a city the size of New York, you couldn’t see night past the streetlights. A spurt of longing swept through him as he thought of his mother’s house on the outskirts of Toledo. Unwilling to go to bed with old ghosts, he turned in the opposite direction from his apartment, hoping to walk off the mood.
The sidewalks were almost deserted, although the street traffic was fairly constant. After a while he got weary of squinting against oncoming headlights and took a left onto a side street. There, in the lee of the wind, exhaust fumes from the traffic seemed suspended within the cold, and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. Now and then he caught a glimpse of himself in the windows he passed and was reminded that while he hadn’t been born rich, he couldn’t complain about his physical appearance. He was above average height, muscular in build, and had more than his share of good looks. With a little luck, he should have at least a good fifty years more on his side before he left this earth. He walked without aim, enjoying the power of his stride and the knowledge that he was Man, the superior animal.
The window displays were well-lit and cheery, even though the stores were all closed. They reminded him of the days when he was a boy and his mother had taken him into the city to look at the holiday decorations.
Look at that one, Buddy. Isn’t it marvelous?
He smiled to himself. His mother had been fond of superlatives. He used to tease her about them. Now he would give anything just to have her back. Losing her to cancer had been hard, but losing himself had been harder. She was the only one who’d called him Buddy, and he missed hearing it said. Everyone else knew him by another name, but in his heart, he would always be Buddy.
Lost in nostalgia, he was almost past the bookstore before it dawned on him what he was seeing. The elaborate display of C. D. Bennett’s latest release sent his thoughts scattering out of control. He started to shake, his fingers unconsciously curling into fists. Wasn’t there a single goddamned place in this city that didn’t bow at her feet?
Long minutes passed as he stood unmoving. By the time he came to his senses, he was freezing. Rage was hot in his chest as he turned away from the store. Tucking his chin against the cold, he began to retrace his steps toward home. It wasn’t until he heard the sound of women’s voices and then the heartbreaking tinkle of feminine laughter that he came out of his fugue.
On the stoop of a brownstone across the way, two women were hugging each other and then waving goodbye. As one of them came down the steps and started across the street, he stepped back into the shadows. He had no desire to speak, not even in passing.
He watched as the woman jumped the curb and passed under the streetlight, giving him a clear view of her face. She walked with her head up, her shoulders straight, as if she didn’t have a care in the world, her slim, youthful features framed by thick straight hair the color of chocolate.
She looked familiar, and he stared intently, wondering if he’d met her through his work. It wasn’t until she passed beneath the second streetlight that recognition hit. She looked enough like Caitlin Bennett to be her twin.
Breath caught in the back of his throat as he watched her approach. Bile rose in his mouth, as bitter as his thoughts. Without thinking, he stepped out of the shadows and grabbed her by the throat. He had nothing against her beyond the fact that she resembled the wrong woman, and introductions seemed unnecessary, since he’d made up his mind to kill her.
Choking off her screams, he encircled her throat with his fingers and dragged her out of the light into the shadows of the alley. About twenty yards from the street, he stopped and then let her fall.
With her larnyx crushed, she lay sprawled on her back like a small, broken doll, too traumatized to move. A thin trickle of blood oozed from the corner of one eye, where his ring had cut the flesh. Her gaze was wide and terror-filled as she struggled to breathe, but drawing air past her damaged throat was almost impossible. When she saw him unzip his pants, she closed her eyes and prayed to die.
The assault was brutal and his cleansing was great. The more she bled, the less pain he felt. By the time he was through, he was euphoric. He staggered to his feet, inhaling deeply as he pulled much needed oxygen into his adrenaline-charged body. His mind was blank, his body strangely relaxed. She was dead now, but he couldn’t bring himself to walk away.
He glanced at her again, as if seeing her for the very first time, then smiled in satisfaction. He’d taken that smug look off her face. But the longer he looked, the deeper he frowned. Her eyes, dark brown and still brimming with tears, were wide-open in silent accusation.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he snarled.
In a last act of violence, he pulled the switchblade, slashing her face in two intersecting diagonal strokes. The flesh parted beneath the knife, aptly quartering her features as if he’d cut up an apple. He wiped the knife on her coat, then carefully closed the blade and walked out of the alley as if nothing had happened.
Within the hour he was home. Later, he dreamed of Christmas and his mother standing by the stove stirring gravy, and smiled as he slept.
It was morning before Donna Dorian’s body was found, and by the time the police arrived, it had started to snow.
“Hell’s bells, this snow is really coming down,” Sal Amato said as he rolled his substantial girth from the passenger seat of the car, while his partner, Paulie Hahn, got out from behind the wheel.
A couple of patrol cars were already on the scene, and even at this early hour a crowd was beginning to gather behind the yellow crime scene tape.
Hahn turned up the collar of his coat and tugged on his gloves as he circled the car, wincing as he caught sight of the body in the alley, a short distance away. A uniformed patrolman lifted the tape as they ducked under.
“Hell of a way to start a shift,” the patrolman muttered.
Amato settled his hat a little more firmly on his nearly bald head and then glanced into the alley. Even at this distance, he could tell it was going to be brutal.
“At least you’re still breathing, Knipski. Do we have an ID on the victim?”
“Yeah. Her purse was about ten feet from her body. Name’s Donna Dorian. Her mother reported her missing this morning. Said she went to the movies with a girlfriend. Didn’t come home. Thought she was spending the night with the girlfriend and called over there this morning before she went to work, only to find out they’d parted company some time after 1:00 a.m. That’s when she called it in.”
“Who found the body?” Amato asked.
“Some jogger.” The officer turned around, scanning the crowd, then pointed. “That’s him. The one in red and black sweats, throwing up in the gutter.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Amato said. “Come on, Paulie.”
“I feel like joining that jogger,” Paulie said.
“We’ll wait until he’s through puking before we try and talk to him,” Sal said.
“Good idea,” Paulie said, and took his handkerchief out of his pocket as his nose began to run.
Paulie Hahn’s throat was sore and his head was pounding. He blew his nose and then tilted the brim of his hat just enough to keep the snowflakes from drifting into his eyes. Damn flu. It wasn’t even Christmas, and he was already sick. But when they reached the body, he wished he’d called in sick this morning like his wife had wanted.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, and then crossed himself before taking a deep breath of the cold air. “Sal, how many years we been partners?”
Amato frowned. “Since my second year as a detective, which I guess is about seventeen years now. Why?”
Paulie pointed at the body in disgust. “In the old days, people used to just shoot each other. You know…a nice clean kill. A couple of bullets. Some neat holes. Bang, you’re dead. So what the hell is with this mutilation shit? What kind of perverts do we have on our streets that feel the need to do this kind of thing? Ain’t it enough that he killed her?” He looked down at what was left of the young woman’s face and wanted to cry. “He didn’t have to butcher her like that.”
Amato’s frown deepened. “She was probably dead when it happened.”
“How you figure that?”
“The cuts are even and clean. You know…no struggle.”
Paulie took out his handkerchief and blew his nose again, then waved down another patrolman.
“Anybody called the Medical Examiner yet?”
“Yes, sir, on the way,” the officer said.
“Here come Neil and Kowalksi,” Paulie said.
Amato turned, nodding a hello.
The smile on Detective Trudy Kowalksi’s face slid sideways.
“Well, hell,” she muttered, as she glanced at the body and then looked away. “I hope she had some ID, otherwise it’s not going to be easy to get an identification.”
“The perp was kind. He left her purse,” Amato said.
J. R. Neil, Trudy’s partner, stood without moving, staring at the body.
“Obviously it wasn’t about her money,” he said. “From the looks of her, he was pissed. Anybody know if she had a boyfriend or a husband?”
“We just got here,” Amato muttered. “But since you’re so interested in helping, there’s a jogger puking up his guts at the mouth of the alley. Why don’t you go find out what he knows? And while you’re at it, take Red, there, and canvass the apartments above this alley and across the street. See if anybody heard anything last night.”
Trudy Kowalksi tossed her copper-colored curls and then winked.
“You’re just jealous because I have hair and you don’t,” she said, then nudged her partner. “Come on, J.R., you do the jogger, I’ll start on the apartments above the alley. That way Amato and Hahn can stand here looking important when the M.E. arrives.”
Neil grinned at the two older detectives and then walked away with his partner, laughing at something she said as they cleared the alley and parted company in the street.
Amato frowned as he watched them walking away. He liked Kowalksi. She was short and stocky and fiery as her hair, but she gave as good as she got. But he had to admit, when he was being honest with himself, that he didn’t like Neil all that much. It was hard to like a man who was tall, good-looking and still had all his hair.
Then a cold gust of wind whipped down from the sky, funneling the falling snow like smoke from a chimney. Paulie blew his nose again, while Amato squatted down beside the body, careful not to disturb any evidence until the crime scene unit had come and gone.
“As cold as it is, I’m betting they send the new assistant from the M.E.’s office,” he said.
“I’m not taking that bet,” Paulie muttered. “Because I’ll bet you’re right.” He looked back at the body, guessing the victim was close to his daughter’s age, then glanced up at Amato.
“You know what I never get used to?”
“What?” Sal asked.
“The fact that we can’t cover them up. This kid is nude from the waist down and her face is in pieces. Goddamn. We oughta be able to at least cover them up.”
Amato stood and clapped his partner on the back. “But what if it messed up the evidence we needed to catch the son of a bitch who did this to her?”
Paulie sighed. “I know. I was just thinking out loud, okay?” Then he glanced at the area again. “As for evidence, it’s not going to be easy, what with the snow and all.”
“Yeah,” Sal said, then turned to look toward the sound of arriving vehicles. “Looks like the M.E.’s here.” When he saw a tall, skinny black woman get out of the car and then heft a large black case from the back of the station wagon, he started to grin. “Looks like I would have won that bet. It’s Booker.”
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Angela Booker drawled, as she set down her case and then opened it up.
Sal had seen the contents of such cases a thousand times, and they still made him think of the science kit he’d gotten for Christmas one year. Lots of little instruments and slides that he never did learn how to use. “Got anything hot in there to drink?” Sal asked, as he watched her trading driving gloves for surgical gloves.
“Get lost, Amato. My hormones are raging and I’m not in the mood.”
They grinned at each other and moved back toward the mouth of the alley. It was time to start the business for which they’d been hired.
Caitlin woke with a start, her heart pounding, her eyes wide with fright. It took her a few moments to realize that her fear came from the nightmare she’d been having and not from within her own home.
But the dream had been too real for her to want to go back to sleep, so she swung her legs over to the side of the bed and got up, grimacing when she realized it was only fifteen minutes after six.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, she was wide-awake. Slipping into her favorite house shoes and her oldest robe, she combed her fingers through her hair and then made her way to the kitchen, telling herself that as long as she was awake, she might as well get an early start on the day.
As she entered the kitchen, she glanced toward the windows and saw snow swirling down on its way to the streets below. Thankful that her job did not take her beyond the warmth and familiarity of her own home, she ambled into her office and switched on the computer. While it was booting up, she went back to the kitchen and began scrounging through the cabinets. When she realized she was out of cereal and eggs, as well as milk and tea, she put a couple of ice cubes in a glass and poured it full of Pepsi. Half a glass later, the caffeine in the pop was starting to kick in. Toast was browning in the toaster, making her mouth water, but it wasn’t until she thrust a knife into a jar of peanut butter that she remembered the dream.
He’d come at her with a knife. Even when she spun and started to run, she knew she would not get away.
She shuddered, then took a deep breath and looked at the knife. In a defiant gesture, she pulled it out of the jar and licked it clean before thrusting it back into the peanut butter, coming up with another thick dollop, which she spread on her just-done toast. Adding a spoonful of orange marmalade to a second piece of bread, she slapped the two together, put the sandwich on a plate and tossed the cutlery in the sink. After topping off her glass of Pepsi, she ambled into the living room to eat.
She turned the television on out of habit, rather than from a need to know what was going on in the world. When some on-the-spot reporter began talking about a midnight murder, she grabbed the remote and channel-surfed until she found one showing cartoons. By the time she was through with breakfast, the Road Runner had dispatched Wile E. Coyote three times and her mood had been lifted.
After setting her dirty plate and glass in the sink, she headed for her office, promising herself she would get dressed as soon as she checked her e-mail. Hours later, she looked up to realize it was almost noon. Not only had she answered the mail, but she’d written ten good pages of the current chapter, as well. Hitting Save, she leaned back with a smile and was still grinning when her telephone rang.
“Caitlin, it’s Aaron. Are you decent?”
Her smile widened. If she had to pick a best friend, her editor, Aaron Workman, would be on the top of the list. The fact that he was also gay just made everything easier. Besides the books she wrote, the only thing he wanted from her other than friendship was her shoes.
“What do you think?” she asked.
She heard him sigh and knew he was probably rolling his eyes.
“I think you haven’t even brushed your hair, let alone your teeth.”
Caitlin laughed. “You know me too well.”
“Come have lunch with me,” Aaron said.
Caitlin groaned. “It’s cold and snowing outside.”
“It stopped snowing an hour ago, and you own a coat. Get dressed and meet me at the Memphis Grill at one-thirty. We need to talk.”
“Are you buying?” she asked, and heard him snort.
“Don’t make me come up there,” he muttered.
“Okay, okay, I’ll be there.”
“I’ve already called your driver. He’ll pick you up at one o’clock.”
Now Caitlin was the one snorting beneath her breath.
“What if I’d told you no?”
“But you didn’t, did you? Now be a good girl and get out of those horrible clothes and into something sexy.”
Caitlin grinned. “Sexy? Aaron, is there something you want to tell me…like have you had a change of heart?”
There was another faint snort in her ear, and then Aaron answered. “Hardly. However, one of these days you might actually meet the man of your dreams. I want you to be ready.”
Caitlin frowned. “You better not be trying to set me up again. You don’t know how close I came to ditching your ass when you tried to set me up with Mac.”
“How was I to know that my two favorite people in the whole world would hate each other’s guts? It’s not my fault that you and my stepbrother don’t get along.”
“We don’t get along because Connor McKee is six feet four inches of pure testosterone and an attitude that won’t quit. I’ll be there at one-thirty, and you better be alone.”
“If I’m not, the other guy at the table will be with me, so go make yourself pretty. I’m already hungry.”
Caitlin smiled as she hung up the phone. Even though it was miserable outside, a decent lunch with Aaron sounded like a good idea. Afterward, she would stop off at the market and pick up some groceries before she came home. Suddenly the day had become an adventure.
Kenny Leibowitz reached into the humidor on his desk, removed a long, thin cigar, then strode to the window, looking out as he lit up. Despite the snow, the streets were teeming with holiday shoppers, their arms laden with colorful bags brimming with purchases. When the end of the cigar was glowing, he took a slow puff, savoring the sweet bite of tobacco on his tongue. With careful precision, he puckered his lips and blew four perfect smoke rings into the air.
Watching them dissipate, he smiled to himself, remembering the long, rainy weekend of his sixteenth birthday and how sick he’d gotten smoking his first cigar. He’d come a long way since then. Although he’d sampled other vices since, he was thankful that none of them had stuck.
As he stood, he caught a glimpse of his reflection and absently combed a hand through his hair, settling the thick, wavy strands back in place. He considered himself fortunate that he was more than attractive, with few vices and no addictions.
Then he amended that thought. He wasn’t addicted to anything, but he was to someone. He had a thriving public relations business, with six very high profile clients and seven up-and-coming. He was good at what he did, and he knew it. The only problem was, he wanted more from Caitlin Bennett than her business. But she couldn’t see past their working relationship, and it was driving him nuts. He dreamed about her nightly and fantasized about her during the day, imagining what her naked body would look like and the way her eyes would go all sleepy as she lifted her lips for his kiss.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, and then took another puff on the cigar. This time, the perfect smoke rings gave him no joy. He knew what he wanted—what he’d needed for a long time now. Caitlin. She had everything he coveted. Money. Prestige. A name that people remembered. She belonged to him—to do with as he wished. All he had to do was make her see that. One day she would realize that she needed him for more than just to publicize her books.
In frustration, he turned away from the window and strode back to his desk. He flipped the page of his day planner and sighed. Nothing. No one wanted to plan anything around the holidays, which basically meant he might as well go on holiday, too.
He looked around his office and frowned.So why am I here?Impulsively he picked up the phone. This was the perfect time to ask Caitlin to lunch.
He dialed her number, smiling to himself in anticipation as he waited for her to answer. After fifteen rings and no pickup, he hung up in disgust. She hadn’t even turned on the answering machine. He flipped through his Rolodex until he found her cell number and dialed it. After being transferred to her voice mail, he slammed the receiver back onto the cradle without leaving a message and stubbed out his cigar. This was ridiculous.
Frustration replaced his good mood as he headed for the door. His secretary looked up and smiled as he came out of his office.
“Susan, I’m taking an early lunch.”
“Yes, sir. Do you want me to make a reservation for you?”
“No. I’ll take my chances.”
Shrugging into his overcoat and tossing his scarf around his neck, he exited the office with purposeful strides. If everyone seemed hell-bent on getting into the holiday spirit, then it was time he did, too, with or without his favorite client.
Caitlin smiled at her driver as he helped her out of the car. If all things were equal, she would have been the one helping him. Although John Steiner was almost seventy and suffering with arthritis, he took offense if anyone offered him help. He’d been with her father for more than twenty years, and at Devlin Bennett’s death he had taken it upon himself to work for her instead of retiring. Although she didn’t often use the family car, the fact that she owned it kept John Steiner happy and employed.
“Thank you, Uncle John. You don’t need to wait. I’ll catch a cab home.”
John frowned, causing his unruly eyebrows to undulate like fuzzy caterpillars.
“Now, missy, it’s too cold to be standing out in the street trying to hail a cab. I’d better wait.”
“That’s exactly why you’re going home. I’m lunching with Aaron, and you know how he is. There’s no telling how long we’ll be. Besides, Aaron had no business calling you in the first place, so won’t you please go home…for me?”
John tried another frown, but it didn’t quite make the grade. Caitlin Bennett was the daughter he’d never had. He loved her to distraction and had yet to tell her no and make it stick.
“All right, then, if you’re sure?”
Caitlin kissed him on the cheek, as she would have her father. “Thank you, Uncle John. Drive safely, and we’ll talk later.”
Then she waved goodbye and watched him drive away. Once inside the restaurant, she made her way through a small crowd of people waiting for tables. When she reached the hostess, she smiled.
“I’m Caitlin Bennett. I’m having lunch with Aaron Workman. Has he arrived?”
The hostess smiled. “Yes, Miss Bennett. Please follow me.”
Caitlin wove through the tables, waving across the room to a couple she knew as she followed the hostess.
Aaron saw her coming and stood, greeting her with a kiss on each cheek.
“Darling, you look gorgeous! Is that outfit new?”
“You know it’s not. The last time I wore it, you told me it made my skin look green, so what are you up to?”
Aaron ignored her as he pulled out her chair.
“Do sit down, Caitlin. The least we can do is get comfortable before you start yelling at me.”
Caitlin smiled at him sweetly.
“I don’t yell at you. Ever.” She picked up her menu. “I’m starving. What are you having?”
The change of topic suited Aaron. There was plenty of time to discuss why he’d called after she’d had a good meal and some stimulating conversation.
“I’m thinking about grilled salmon and one of their wonderful little salads.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like fish.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “I know that,” he drawled. “But I do, and the question was…what am I having, not what do I think you should have.”
She laughed as she leaned across the table and gave Aaron’s hand a quick squeeze.
“You’re so right, and I apologize for being such a beast.”
Mollified once he’d made his point, he grinned as he returned to studying the menu.
They ordered within minutes, and a short while later their food arrived. They ate as they talked, discussing print runs and the cover of the book on which she was working. It wasn’t until their waiter had taken their order for dessert and served them some coffee that Caitlin brought the cozy little scene to a halt.
“Okay, I’ve been fed and petted, and now I want to know why it was so important that I leave the comfort and warmth of my home to come have lunch with you. Not that your company isn’t great,” she added with a smile.
Aaron smoothed both hands down the front of his vest and then leaned forward, lowering his voice as he spoke.
“It’s regarding some fan mail we’ve been getting about you at the office.”
She felt suddenly sick.
“What about it?”
Aaron frowned. This wasn’t the reaction he’d expected from her. She was pale and trembling.
“Are you all right? If you’re not feeling well, we can continue this discussion at another time.”
She brushed off the question with one of her own.
“What about the fan mail?”
He sighed. He knew Caitlin well enough to realize that she would talk only when she was ready.
“Okay…but before I start, I want you to know that Hudson House Publishing is behind you one hundred percent.”
“Aaron…please get to the point.”
“Right. Within the last couple of months, we’ve received about a half dozen letters condemning us for publishing your books.”
Caitlin tried to laugh it off. “Probably some frustrated wannabe who got a manuscript rejected and is taking it out on me.”
“They don’t think so.”
“It’s not complaints. It’s threats.”
Caitlin stiffened. “What kind of threats?”
Aaron sighed. “The last one was a bomb threat.” He watched the blood draining from Caitlin’s face and wished they were not in such a public place. He could tell she was on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry, darling, but we felt you should know…just in case…well, so you could be forewarned. Understand?”
“Oh my God.” She looked around at the restaurant and the people in disbelief. How could they be carrying on in such a calm and happy manner when her world was falling apart?
“Caitlin. Darling. Talk to me.”
She looked back at Aaron, her gaze wild and unfocused.
“What do you want me to say? Oh darn? Oh well?” She reached for her purse. “You don’t understand. I’ve got to get home.”
Aaron grabbed her arm. “Listen to me. I think you’re overreacting. It’s not like the letters came directly to you.”
Caitlin gave him a frantic look and then laid her napkin on the table and shrugged out of his grasp.
At that moment, understanding dawned. She saw it in his eyes.
“Oh my God! You’ve been getting them, too!”
Caitlin pushed her chair back, but Aaron grabbed her arm again. Short of making a scene, she was stuck.
“Let me go,” she whispered.
“Not until you answer me. Have you or have you not been receiving threatening letters?”
“Yes. I have.”
Her voice was just above a whisper, but Aaron heard everything, including her fear.
“For how long?”
She sighed. “I don’t know…maybe six months.”
“My God! Have you lost your mind?” he yelped. “Why didn’t you tell someone?” Then he lowered his voice and tugged gently at her fingers. “Why didn’t you tellme?”
It was all she could do not to cry. Aaron looked so hurt, and that was the last thing she wanted.
“I don’t know,” she muttered. “At first they didn’t amount to much. Just the typical ‘I don’t like what you’re doing’ type of things. You know the kind. And I did seek advice. Twice.”
Aaron touched Caitlin’s face with his forefinger, then swiped a small tear from her cheek with his thumb.
“From whom?” he asked.
“Boran Fiorello. He’s a detective with the NYPD and an old friend of my father’s.”
“What did he say?”
Caitlin shrugged. “He told me not to worry, that it wasn’t against the law not to like what I wrote or to tell me about it. When the letters got worse, I called him again, and he pretty much blew me off. After that, I just kept them to myself.”
Indignant on Caitlin’s behalf, Aaron reached for his cell phone.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Calling that know-it-all detective and telling him his testosterone is sadly misplaced.”
Aaron’s exaggerations never failed to make her smile, and this was no exception. She shook her head.
“No, please don’t. It won’t do any good. Besides, you’re the one who has the most to worry about. My letters are full of vague threats like making me pay, which, unlike a bomb threat, is pretty non-specific. Has someone called the police?”
“Yes, but they are, of course, keeping it low-key. The last thing we need is to light a fire under every nut case in the city.”
Caitlin nodded, then covered Aaron’s hands with her own.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He made a face at her and then smiled. “Forgiven.”
She glanced at her watch. “I need to get home.”
“And I have an appointment in half an hour, or I’d take you there myself.”
Caitlin shook her head. “About my behavior…that was nothing but panic. I’m really okay.”
“Good girl. However, don’t assume anything. Be careful, and I’ll call you tonight. We’ll make a plan then.”
Caitlin grinned. “I’m trying to finish a manuscript. That’s my plan.”
Aaron canceled their dessert order, tossed some bills onto the table and helped her into her coat before following her out of the restaurant.
Outside, the bitter wind lifted the scarf around her neck and blew it into her face. She caught it, tucking it down inside her collar before pulling on her gloves.
“Wait here. I’ll hail you a cab,” Aaron said.
“No, you take the cab,” she said, then pointed down the street. “I’m going to walk down to that market and buy some groceries before I go home.”
He frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Well, I had Pepsi and peanut butter for breakfast and there’s no other food in my house.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Good Lord! Go, go! And while you’re at it, buy some fruit and vegetables. And some milk. Buy some milk. The next thing you’ll be telling me you poured Pepsi onto your cornflakes.”
Caitlin grinned. “It’s not so bad.”
Aaron covered his ears, as if pretending he couldn’t bear to hear what she was saying.
“You eat like a teenager,” he moaned. “Don’t tell me any more.”
“There comes a cab,” Caitlin said, and gave him a quick kiss goodbye as the driver swerved to the curb. “Thanks for lunch, and for the words of encouragement.”
“Just watch yourself until we figure out what to do,” he warned, and then he was gone.
The streets were still slushy, but the sidewalks were clear. Caitlin immediately turned to face the wind, ably dodging the heavy flow of pedestrians as only a true city dweller could do. She knew the neighborhood. There was a nice market on the corner only a few blocks up. She would buy her food there and then take a cab home.
By the time she got to the end of the block, the light had turned red, and she, along with a good ten or fifteen people, hovered on the edge of the curb, waiting for permission to walk.
As she waited, she began a mental grocery list, smiling to herself about Aaron’s demand to buy milk, which, of course, she would do. She’d never had Pepsi on her cereal in her life, but she wasn’t going to tell him that and ruin his image of her bohemian habits. She liked being thought of as a bit of an eccentric instead of the heiress to the Bennett fortune.
She glanced up at the light, her thoughts still on shopping, and heard a truck downshifting gears. She saw it coming from the corner of her eye and could see that the driver was trying to make the light before it changed. She turned her head, wincing as the truck hit a puddle of slush, and knew she was going to get splashed.
And then, out of nowhere, she felt a hand on her back. Before she could react, she was shoved headfirst into the street. Instinctively her arms flew outward as she braced herself for the fall. It wasn’t until she heard squealing brakes that she remembered the truck. In the split second before impact, she saw her own reflection in the truck’s chrome bumper and screamed. She was unconscious before she hit the ground.
“Miss…Miss…can you hear me? Can you tell me your name?”
Caitlin moaned. Someone was yelling in her ear when she needed to sleep. Aaron. It had to be Aaron. He was the only friend she had who was rude enough to wake her like this.
“Go away,” she muttered, and then winced as something sharp pricked her skin.
“Get a neck brace on her. Dave, bring the spine board before I start this IV.”
Suddenly she realized she wasn’t in bed. Before she could focus, someone began pulling at her arms, then her clothes, running their hands up and down her body in an intimate fashion. Panic sliced through her pain like a knife as she flailed blindly.
“Easy, miss, I’m a paramedic. My partner and I are trying to help you. We’re going to take you to the hospital and get you checked out, okay? Just relax and let us do our job.”
Caitlin flashed on the bumper of an oncoming truck, and then another wave of pain dashed her thoughts as the paramedics rolled her from her face onto her back. Somewhere in all the chaos, she realized she was being put on a stretcher.
“Wait…wait,” she begged, trying to remember what she needed to say.
“Easy, Miss,” the paramedic said. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”
“Can’t go,” Caitlin muttered. “I’m out of milk.”
The medics chuckled as they lifted her into a waiting ambulance.
“You can get that later,” the second one said.
She wanted to argue with them, but the words wouldn’t come. Doors slammed, shutting out most of the street noise. Now there was only the occasional question from the man who was sitting at her side.
“Let’s roll,” he yelled.
Moments later, the ambulance began to move. Then came the sirens, and Caitlin winced and tried to cover her ears, only to find she couldn’t move her arms.
“My arms,” she muttered, trying unsuccessfully to open her eyes. “I can’t move my arms.”
Someone touched her hand briefly, letting her know that he was there.
“That’s because we buckled you onto the stretcher so you wouldn’t fall off. Just relax.”
Caitlin’s body went limp, but her mind was in a panic. They didn’t understand. She couldn’t relax. She couldn’t be unconscious. It was too dangerous to sleep. Someone wanted her dead. She tried again to open her eyes, but the pain was too great. In the midst of her fears, the sound of sirens began to fade. Mercifully, she slipped into unconsciousness. When she woke, she was being transferred from the stretcher to a gurney.
“Miss, can you hear me?”
Caitlin moaned. “Yes.”
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Bennett. Caitlin Bennett.”
She heard a gasp, then a woman’s voice saying, “Oh my God. It’s C. D. Bennett. You know, the mystery writer.”
Before she could respond, they began cutting off her clothes as someone else put a hand on her forehead.
“Caitlin, I’m Dr. Forest, and you’re in the emergency room at New York General. Don’t fight the nurses. We need to check your injuries. We’re only trying to help.”
She moaned. The last thing she remembered was being put into the ambulance. Someone slid a stethoscope onto the middle of her chest. She gasped when the cold metal touched her flesh.
“Sorry, was that cold?” the doctor asked.
“Can you tell me where you hurt?”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“Someone pushed me. They wanted me to die.”
There was a brief moment of silence, as if everyone was absorbing the implications of what she’d just said, then the same doctor spoke again.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Caitlin said, then reached toward her eyes, wanting to feel her face, trying to figure out why her eyes wouldn’t open.
“Don’t move,” the doctor said. “I’ll clean your eyes in just a moment. Someone call the cops,” he said. “And get a portable X-ray machine in here.”
Caitlin sighed with relief. She didn’t have to worry anymore. The doctor was in charge.
“Caitlin, Nurse Carson is going to clean the blood from your face and then flush your eyes, so relax, okay?”
Immediately afterward, something cold touched her forehead, and she flinched.
“Miss Bennett, you need to hold still. You fell face first into the snow. The streets had been salted, and I suspect some of that is in your eyes. That’s why they hurt, and that’s why you don’t want to open them.”
Caitlin’s panic receded. Answers. That was what she needed, answers.
“Caitlin, is there someone you’d like us to call? Maybe a member of your family, or a friend?”
Caitlin answered without hesitation.
“Is he family?”
“I have no family. He’s my editor.”
She thought she heard someone mutter “poor little rich girl,” and then everything went black. When she woke up again, they were transferring her from a gurney to a hospital bed. Pain shot through her body from her head to her toes. She held her breath, willing herself not to scream until the feeling had passed. When she dared to move, she saw the nurses leaving and Aaron standing in the doorway, his face a study in disbelief.
“Caitie! Darling!” He kissed her forehead and patted both cheeks, as if he needed assurance that she was truly all right. “How did this happen? They told me you got hit by a truck as you crossed the street.”
Caitlin frowned. “No. No. I was standing at the curb. Someone pushed me.”
Aaron stilled, an odd expression on his face.
“You mean…you were jostled in the crowd, right?”
Caitlin grabbed his hand and started to cry.
“No. I was pushed.”
“How do you know? I mean…isn’t it possible that someone inadvertently bumped you and caused you to fall?”
“No, it isn’t. I know because I felt a hand in the middle of my back, and then I felt a distinct push.” Her chin began to quiver. “Please…Aaron, if you don’t believe me, then how—”
Aaron’s eyes glittered as he yanked a cell phone out of his pocket. “I’m calling the police. This could be linked to the letters.”
The sound of the man’s voice was startling. They looked toward the door. A tall man and a short, stocky woman were just entering the room.
The man pulled out a badge as he spoke. “I’m Detective Neil, and this is my partner, Detective Kowalksi. Are you Caitlin Bennett?”
“We got a call that someone tried to murder you. Is this true? And what letters are you talking about, and how are they connected?”
“Someone pushed me in front of a truck.”
Neil frowned slightly as he began to make notes. Then he looked up at Aaron, taking note of the fact that he and the woman were holding hands.
“You, sir. What’s your relationship to Miss Bennett?”
“I’m her editor, and a very good friend.”
“Mr. Workman, if you don’t mind, we’d like to speak to Miss Bennett alone,” Kowalski said.
“No!” Caitlin cried, clutching Aaron’s hand before he could move. “He stays.” Panic was thick in her voice as she turned to Aaron and pleaded, “Don’t leave me.”
“As if,” he said, then took off his overcoat and laid it on a nearby chair before sitting on the foot of her bed. The look he gave the detectives said he wasn’t budging.
Neil shrugged and came closer, his partner following.
Aaron glared at the man, reading his body language and not liking what he saw. The detective was too handsome for his own good, and from the way he moved, he knew it.
Caitlin suddenly moaned. “I’m going to be sick.”
Kowalksi grabbed the wastebasket, thrusting it under Caitlin’s chin as she leaned over the side of the bed.
“Get a nurse,” Kowalski ordered.
Neil bolted out the door, while Aaron ran to get a washcloth. Moments later, Caitlin’s nausea had passed and Aaron was gently wiping her mouth. J.R. came back into the room, followed by a nurse, who took quick stock of the situation and ordered everyone out.
“Miss Bennett has suffered a concussion, and she needs her rest. You people need to leave.”
“No,” Caitlin begged. “Please. Not until I talk to the police.”
Neil and Kowalksi identified themselves to the nurse, and she reluctantly relented.
“Tell it quick, or tell it to them tomorrow,” she said, and pointed at the trio around Caitlin’s bed. “After that, please leave.”
Neil eyed the burgeoning bruises and the scrapes on her forehead and chin.
“Miss Bennett, are you sure you’re up to this? We can come back.”
She took a slow breath and then exhaled softly. “No. Please stay.”
He smiled at her before turning his attention to Aaron. “Are you and Miss Bennett a couple?
Aaron’s fingers gently curled around Caitlin’s ankle beneath the covers, and then he patted her leg.
“No, but I like to believe I’m her best friend. Since her father’s death, she doesn’t have any living relatives.”
Neil glanced at Caitlin. “You have no one? Is this true?”
She nodded, and as she did, she moaned again and grabbed her head.
Immediately Aaron was at her side.
“Honey, are you feeling sick again?”
“No. It just hurts.”
“We’ll be brief,” Neil said. “Mr. Workman, where were you when this incident occurred?”
“We’d just had lunch together. I took a cab back to the office, and Caitie was going down the block to do some shopping.”
“I see,” Neil said, taking notes. Then he looked back at Caitlin. “Is there anyone you can think of who has a grudge against you?”
Caitlin groaned. “I don’t—”
“Let’s get this over with quick,” Aaron said. “And I’m going to start the ball rolling by telling you that our company has already filed a complaint with the police. They’ve been receiving hate mail for publishing her and, most recently, a bomb threat. Caitlin told me today that she’s been receiving similar letters for almost six months. Now this,” he said, waving his arms in the air. “Something has to be done.”
Trudy Kowalksi moved to the foot of Caitlin’s bed. “Miss Bennett, can you tell me exactly what happened today that led you to believe this wasn’t an accident?”
“Yes. I was standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change, when a large delivery truck came around the corner. It was going very fast, and I knew as it passed I was going to get splashed with slush. At that moment, I felt a hand in the middle of my back and then a distinct push. After that, I have only vague memories of falling and of seeing my own reflection in the bumper of the truck.”
Aaron shuddered in disbelief, unable to take his gaze off her bruised face.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Caitlin said. “It was on purpose.”
“Can you think of anyone who would have a reason for doing that to you?”
“No, of course not. I’ve never hired or fired anyone in my life. I just write my books and mind my own business.”
Trudy continued. “About your books. I have to admit I haven’t read them, but is there anything in them that would incite this kind of anger in a reader?”
Caitlin sighed. “I wouldn’t think so, but who knows?”
Neil had been silent the entire time his partner had been talking, just watching Caitlin’s face and listening to the panic in her voice. Suddenly he found himself caught in her wide-eyed gaze. The contact was brief, but startling. Almost immediately, he turned away, focusing his attention on Aaron.
“We’ll need to see the letters Miss Bennett has been receiving, as well as the ones your company had gotten.”
“I’ll get Caitlin’s tomorrow,” Aaron said. “And check with your bomb unit. Someone there already has Hudson House’s copies.”
“Right. We’ll check,” Neil said, then took a card from the inside pocket of his overcoat and handed it to Caitlin.
“Miss Bennett, if you think of anything…anything at all that might help us in this investigation, then give me a call.” His voice dropped. “Anytime. Day or night.”
He watched Caitlin read his name and number and then look up, studying him in a most uncomfortable way. He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something more, then nodded and left, leaving his partner to follow.
Caitlin heard them speaking briefly together in the hall, and suddenly she just didn’t care what they thought. She sighed and laid her forearm across her eyes.
“Aaron, be a dear and turn out the lights, will you? They’re making my headache worse.”
He did as she asked, but when he returned to her bedside, she seemed to have fallen asleep. He stood for a moment, absorbing the scope of her injuries. The darkening bruise on her left temple was horrific, as were the stitches they’d put above her eye. He kept thinking how close he’d come to losing her today and gently leaned over the bed rail and kissed the side of her cheek.
“You rest, Caitie. I won’t be far.”
He strode into the hallway, his cell phone in his hand.
Connor McKee stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel. It was the first full day of his vacation—the vacation he’d been promising himself for the better part of six years.
Wrapping the towel around his waist, he strode out of the bathroom and across the warm, carpeted floor of his bedroom to the windows overlooking the ski slope below. Colorado was a beautiful state, but in the winter it could be stunning. He’d owned this chalet in Vail for three years, bought with the first large profit his private security system had turned, but this was the first time he’d used it. Last night he’d christened it with a bottle of Cabernet and a cute little redhead he’d met at the lodge the day before. Now the redhead was gone, the bottle was empty and all he wanted was to fly down that powder until his feet were numb and his mind was free.
With a satisfied sigh, he undid the towel, drying himself off as he moved away from the windows. He had to admit, he felt pretty damned good. It had been a long, uphill struggle—going from a burned-out Atlanta cop to owning his own business and being responsible for the welfare of six employees. The first two years after he’d gone into business, he’d often wondered if he’d made a mistake. Then, a little over three years ago, everything had turned the corner. One of his security systems had been directly responsible for preventing the kidnapping of a child, who happened to be a member of one of Atlanta’s most prominent families.
After the media attention and the father’s public accolades for McKee Securities, Mac had known he was going to make it. Occasionally he still felt guilty that his success had come at the cost of a traumatized child, but he knew what would have happened had the system not been in place.
Tossing the wet towel onto the floor, he moved to his closet. It was time to get dressed, get some breakfast and then hit the slopes while the powder was still fresh.
Just as he was pulling a sweater over his head, the phone began to ring. Still thinking of the little redhead, he grinned as he picked up the receiver.
“Mac, it’s me.”
Mac smiled. His stepbrother Aaron had been the first to call him Mac, and the nickname had stuck.
“Aaron, how are you?” Then he laughed. “How the hell did you track me down? I told my secretary not to tell anyone where I was.”
“I told her it was a matter of life and death,” Aaron said.
Mac laughed again, remembering the drama with which Aaron went through life. He’d been the first person to know Aaron was gay and had accepted it without a second thought.
“Don’t you think that’s a little dramatic, even for you?”
But Aaron wasn’t laughing. “This isn’t a joke. We’re in trouble, and I don’t know where else to turn.”
Mac frowned. “Who’swe,and what kind of trouble are you talking about?”
“Caitlin Bennett. Someone is trying to kill her.”
At that moment, a thousand things went through Mac’s mind, including the urge to hang up. Ever since their first meeting three years ago, he had alternated between the desire to shake Caitlin silly and the equally strong urge to strip her naked and take her to bed. More often than not, the latter thought usually won out, which in turn made him mad. He didn’t want to be attracted to any woman beyond a one-night stand, but the sudden thought of her dead made him ill.
“What the hell do you mean?”
“I’ll explain it all when you get here,” Aaron said.
Mac exhaled sharply. “Damn it, Aaron, this is the first day of a vacation I’ve been promising myself for six years.”
“She’s in the hospital.”
The floor tilted beneath Mac’s feet. “What happened?”
“Someone pushed her in front of a truck.”
Shit.“It couldn’t have been an accident?”
“We received a bomb threat, promising to blow the place up if we didn’t stop publishing her, and she’s been getting threatening letters for over six months.”
Mac was still locked into the image of her lying beneath the wheels of a truck. It took him a few moments to realize Aaron was no longer speaking.
“How bad is she?” he asked, then realized Aaron was crying. “Damn it, Aaron, talk to me.”
“Bad bruises, some cuts and a concussion. She was lucky. This time.”
“I don’t believe in luck,” Mac growled. “Give me a few hours to get packed and catch a flight. I’ll be there by tonight.”
Aaron sighed. “Thank you, Mac.”
“You knew I would come,” Mac muttered. “But you’re gonna owe me big time on this one, little brother. Caitlin Bennett and I don’t exactly get along.”
“I didn’t ask you to like her,” Aaron said. “I just want you to save her life.”
Mac stepped off the elevator carrying his suitcase and the strap of his carryall slung over his shoulder. His stride was long and swift, his gaze steady as he counted off the room numbers he was passing. Caitlin Bennett’s image had been in his mind ever since he’d gotten Aaron’s call. His gut was in knots.Please God, just let her be all right.When he reached Room 420, he paused, then took a deep breath and walked in.
Almost immediately, he saw Aaron on the other side of the bed. When their gazes met, Aaron stood abruptly, his finger to his lips to signify quiet. Mac stepped inside and set his bags by the door, then glanced at the bed. The knot in his belly tightened. The woman who usually ripped a strip off his ego was lying far too still. Dark purple bruises shaded the left side of her face, giving her the appearance of being masked. A couple of stitches above her eyebrow were oozing, and her lower lip was swollen.
God almighty, Caitie girl, what have you gotten yourself into?
Then Aaron was throwing his arms around him and patting him on the back.
“You’re here. Thank God you’re here,” Aaron whispered.
“How is she?” Mac asked.
“She’s fine.” When Mac frowned, Aaron added, “Really, she’s fine…or at least she’s going to be. Nothing’s broken. Her concussion is mild. She’s bruised, on her face and her shoulder, and her wrists are sprained from the fall, but she’s going to be okay.”
“Have the cops got any leads?” Mac asked.
Aaron shook his head.
“Why isn’t there a guard on her door?”
Aaron rolled his eyes and then pulled his brother out into the hallway, so they could talk without fear of waking her up.
“Because they don’t see the imminent danger, that’s why,” Aaron said. “I called them a few hours ago, and they said that even though we have the letters and the bomb threat, they don’t consider what happened as anything more than an accident. They think she was jostled at the curb and, because of everything else, imagined she was pushed.”
“She’s been getting letters, too?” Mac asked, and then cursed when Aaron nodded.
Aaron grinned. “That’s one of the things I always admired about you. You have such a succinct way of stating the obvious.”
Mac managed a smile, then glanced back into the room where Caitlin lay sleeping.
“Go home, Aaron. I’m here now, and you look beat.”
Aaron hesitated. “I don’t know…if she wakes and I’m not here, I’m afraid she’ll feel as if I’ve abandoned her.”
Mac shook his head. “She can look at me instead. Maybe she’ll be pissed off enough to forget she’s afraid.”
Aaron sighed. “I don’t understand it,” he muttered. “You are the two people I love most in this world, and you fight like cats and dogs.”
Mac shrugged. “Chemistry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Go home. Get some rest. There’s a lot to be done tomorrow, and I’ll need your help.”
“You’re right,” Aaron said, then pointed to Mac’s bags. “Would you like me to take those to my apartment?”
“No. Take them to Caitlin’s instead.”
Aaron’s eyes widened. “But she won’t—”
“Hell no, she won’t like it, and frankly, neither will I. But someone’s going to have to play bodyguard until this mess is straightened out, and you’re afraid of guns.”
Aaron blanched. “So is she. You better not let her know you’re carrying one.”
“Just go home, little brother, and leave the woman-stuff to me,” Mac said, cuffing Aaron’s shoulder in a teasing manner.
Aaron sighed. “She’s going to kill me for bringing you into this.”
“Then we’ll just have to remind her that if someone hadn’t tried to kill her, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Right…. I’m going home now.”
“See you in the morning.”
Aaron picked up Mac’s bags. “Thank you again.”
“For always coming to my rescue.”
“That’s what family is for.”
Aaron looked back at Caitlin. From the doorway, she was almost invisible in the darkened room.
“It’s a damn shame she doesn’t have any,” he said.
Mac laid his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “She has you.”
“And now you,” Aaron added.
From the doorway, Mac watched his brother get on the elevator, then walked into Caitlin’s room, quietly closing the door behind him. The air in the room was still, broken only by the intermittent sound of her breathing. He moved toward the bed, then stopped at the foot, making himself look at the bruised and battered woman beneath the covers. He wished she was awake, spitting fire and spearing him with her dark, expressive eyes. Then he wouldn’t feel this horrible empathy, this need to gather her up in his arms and hold her close against the night.
He pulled off his coat and sat down in the chair that Aaron had been using, well aware that that put him at eye level with her—that when she awoke, his face would be the first thing she saw.
So be it.
She needed help, and he was here.
Let the games begin.
Buddy slipped through the fourth-floor exit door, pausing quietly at the doorway before moving any farther. He hated the smell of a hospital. It reminded him of the days and nights spent sitting by his mother’s bedside and watching her die. Money would have made such a difference in their lives and, in her latter days, in the type of care she received. But they’d had none to spare. His gut knotted. In this world, money was so unevenly distributed. The bulk of it rested in the hands of a few, while the majority of people never had enough.
He thought of the woman he’d come to kill and took a deep, calming breath. Death had no prejudices. It took rich and poor, young and old alike, and that was what he wanted—to put Caitlin Bennett on the same level as his mother. Caitlin didn’t deserve what she had, because she had what should have been his.
Satisfied with the lack of activity, he glanced at his watch. It was forty-five minutes after three in the morning. Except for the sound of an old woman moaning at the far end of the hall, the floor was silent.
He ran a nervous finger over the fake mustache he was wearing, tested his wig for security and ran his hand down the front of his borrowed lab coat. The name tag signified it belonged to a Dr. Frost. He grinned. When he was ten, he’d wanted to be a doctor. Tonight he was living out his fantasy. Then his focus shifted as he stared down the hall. At best estimate, it was less than fifty yards to Caitlin’s room.
Aaron Workman had gone home more than three hours ago. He knew, because he’d waited outside the hospital, watching as the man had gotten into a cab. And then he’d waited some more, making certain that the shift change at midnight had come and gone and the nurses were finished with all the bed checks and meds.
As he stood, a nurse came out of a hallway and headed toward the far end of the hall. He waited until she disappeared into a room, then made his move.
His soft-soled shoes made almost no noise on the highly polished floor as he hurried down the hall. When he reached Caitlin’s door, he pushed it open, taking comfort from the dark within.
Satisfied that she was sound asleep, he slipped inside and closed the door, looking back over his shoulder as he went. It wasn’t until the door was completely shut that he realized she was not alone. In the shadows, he could see the outline of a man sitting in a chair beside her bed. His head was bent, his posture slumped.
Shock coupled with a sudden need to urinate had him fumbling for the door, but before he could get out, the man suddenly lifted his head.
Buddy froze. Thinking more quickly than he’d realized he could, he said, “Dr. Frost. I’m here to check on Mr. Benton.”
“You’ve got the wrong room,” the man said and started to rise.
“Sorry,” Buddy said quickly, and turned and walked out the door.
The moment he cleared the room, he bolted down the hall toward the stairwell, afraid to look back. He ran down the stairs, then continued on to the basement, dropping the lab coat into a laundry cart as he passed. The basement door he’d jimmied was still ajar. Glancing back over his shoulder one last time, he smiled. Satisfied he wasn’t being followed, he slipped outside into the alley, then paused again, double-checking that no one was behind him.
To his intense relief, no one was in sight. But Buddy was a careful man, staying in the shadows as he walked away. Three blocks over, he tossed the wig and mustache into a Dumpster and headed for the nearest subway station. That had been a very close call. He thought he’d known everything there was to know about Caitlin Bennett, but he’d been wrong. He didn’t like surprises.
While Buddy was making his getaway, Mac was in the hall, looking for the nearest nurse. It had taken him a few seconds to circle Caitlin’s bed, and by the time he’d reached the hallway, the doctor was nowhere in sight. At that point, his instincts had gone into overdrive. The flesh on his arms was still crawling from the shock of awakening to find a stranger in the room, even though he knew that it could have been a simple error in names. Bennett and Benton weren’t all that different, but he had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. A nurse emerged from a nearby room, and he stopped her on her way back to the desk.
“Ma’am, I need to ask you a question.”
The nurse recognized him. “Is Miss Bennett all right?”
“Yes, she’s still sleeping. A few moments ago Dr. Frost came into her room looking for a Mr. Benton. Is there a patient by that name on this floor?”
The nurse frowned. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, and you must be mistaken about the doctor’s name, too.”
The skin started tightening on the back of his neck.
“Dr. Frost is an OB/GYN. He doesn’t have patients on this floor, and even if he did, they wouldn’t be male.”
“Shit,” Mac said, and headed toward Caitlin’s room.
The light was on over her bed, and she was reaching for the button to call a nurse. It was hard to say who was more surprised.
Caitlin gasped. “You!”
Mac sighed. “Yes, it’s me.”
Shock mingled with confusion. She’d fallen asleep listening to Aaron’s voice and woken up to find herself alone. And now Mac was here. If she hadn’t been in so much pain, she could almost have believed this was all a bad dream.
“What are you doing here, and where is Aaron?”
“I’m here because he asked me to come. And he’s at home, where I sent him.”
Caitlin’s eyes flashed angrily. “He asked you? Why?”
“I don’t needyourhelp.”
Ignoring the emphasis she put on the word, he shoved his hands into his pockets and glared back.
“Oh, I think you do. And if I wasn’t sure before, I am now.”
Caitlin knew as she asked that she wasn’t going to like his answer, but she asked it just the same.
“A few minutes ago, someone came into your room. I don’t think he expected me to be here.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Again she imagined the feel of that hand on her back, pushing.
“What do you mean?”
“I asked him what he wanted. He said his name was Dr. Frost and that he was looking for a Mr. Benton.”
“Our names are similar…Bennett, Benton. Maybe it was an honest mistake.”
“There wasn’t anything honest about it, Caitie girl. There is no patient named Benton, and the real Dr. Frost is a gynecologist.”
Caitlin ignored the diminutive he’d made of her name and focused on stifling a scream. She stared at Connor until her eyes filled with tears, and then she covered her face with her hands.
Mac groaned beneath his breath and crossed the floor in long strides. Struggling with an urge to hold her, he settled for an awkward pat on her shoulder instead.
“Don’t worry, kid. We’ll figure out what’s going on, and before you know it, it will be nothing but a bad memory.”
“I want to go home,” Caitlin whispered.
“Yeah, I know. Maybe in the morning, okay?”
She dropped her hands and nodded while looking away, still unwilling to let him see her cry. But when he turned, she grabbed his wrist before she thought.
Mac stopped, looking down at the fingers encircling his wrist and wondered if she screamed when she came. The moment he thought it, he felt ashamed. When he looked up, he got caught in her fear and knew he was a goner.
“What?” he muttered.
A muscle jerked in his jaw as he tried to smile.
“I’m going over there to get the cell phone out of my coat, okay?”
She nodded, and then, realizing she was holding his wrist, reluctantly turned him loose.
Yeah baby, I know just how you feel,Mac thought as he took the phone out of an inner pocket.
“Who are you calling?” Caitlin asked.
“The cops. Now close your eyes and try to get some sleep. Want me to turn out the light? I can go into the hall to make my call.”
“No, it’s okay.”
He nodded, then dialed Aaron’s number, well aware that he was going to incite a small panic in the process, but he wanted the name of the person to contact regarding Caitlin’s case. Aaron answered on the second ring, his voice thick with sleep.
“It’s me. Sorry to wake you.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Aaron mumbled, reaching for the lamp as he sat up in bed. The light came on at the same time he looked at the clock, and he groaned. “It’s freakin’ four o’clock in the morning. Couldn’t this have waited until daylight?”
“Someone came into Caitlin’s room, lied about who he was and why he was here, and disappeared before I could get into the hall to talk to him.”
“Have you called the police?”
“Not yet. I wanted the name of the person to contact before I made the call.”
“I could have told you that,” Caitlin muttered behind him.
Mac turned, eyeing her with trepidation. That slightly belligerent tone in her voice told him she was regaining her strength. Ignoring the frown on her face, he tried not to glare. It would seem that the honeymoon was over.
“Don’t worry,” Aaron said. “I’ll call them. You just stay with Caitlin. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
“I never turn my back on people who might like to slit my throat.”
Caitlin snorted softly.
“My God,” Aaron said. “She looks as if she’s been beaten all to hell and you’re already fighting?”
“Aaron. Please. Just shut up and call the cops.”
“Consider it done.”
Mac hung up the phone, then strode over to the chair in which he’d been sleeping and dropped into it with a heavy sigh.
Caitlin gave him one last look and then closed her eyes, as if she couldn’t bear to look at his face.
Mac sighed again. There was nothing left to do but wait for daylight or the cops, whichever came first.
It was almost daylight before Buddy got home. After finding out that his execution of Miss Bennett was going to have to wait, he’d taken out a little insurance, so to speak. It had been a simple thing, really, going across the rooftops to the Bennett Building. She occupied the penthouse, which meant he didn’t have far to go. A quick lock picking job, a thorough investigation of the setup, and after that it was a matter of finding the correct ventilation shaft.
He liked old buildings, but they were hell to get into. Their walls were often crumbling, and there was little or no access from floor to floor except for stairs and creaking elevators in dark, dangerous shafts. Even with their so-called security systems, it was the new ones, with all their modern conveniences, that made breaking and entering a breeze. He found the main ventilation shaft and, with a grunt and a jump, pulled himself up and then in, crawling carefully through the slick metal tunnels until he found where he needed to go.
Gaining access to her apartment was too easy. He was through the vent above her desk and into the room within seconds. Once his feet touched the floor, he stopped, listening to the quiet until he was satisfied he was the only one there. A quick scan of the area assured him there were no security cameras in view. After that, the place was all his.
There was a light on down a hall, giving him enough illumination by which to see the understated opulence. An original Degas hung on the wall by the door, and there was am antique Chinese vase on a pedestal next to a bookshelf. Nothing more than little splashes of color, intimate touches from a female point of view.
He looked and coveted and hated her for who she was, then moved from room to room, touching her things, moving clothes in her closet, fingering the toothbrush she used. Like a male animal in new territory, he was putting his mark on everything that belonged to Caitlin Bennett.
It was exhaustion that brought his foray to an end. That and the knowledge that he had to be at work by nine. After a quick sweep of the rooms, discarding one place after another as an option to plant a listening device, he walked back into the living room, looked up at the chandelier and smiled.
Using a kitchen chair and two phone books for a ladder, he climbed up on the stack and dropped a small, translucent bug into the bowl of one of the lights. He got down, then looked up and started to grin. He knew where it was and still couldn’t see it.
“Perfect,” he said, then put back the chair and replaced the phone books.
It took a little longer to get out than it had to come in, but he did it without leaving a mark on the walls. With careful precision, he replaced the screen over the vent, then crawled out the same way he’d come in.
Fifteen minutes later, he was on the street.
Trudy handed J.R. a cup of coffee as he walked into the precinct.
“What’s that for?”
“Just drink it,” she said. “You’re gonna need it.”
“Caitlin Bennett…the woman we figured was jumping at ghosts?”
“Yeah, what about her?”
“Someone impersonating a doctor got into her room last night and was scared off by her guard.”
J.R. set the coffee cup down on his desk. “You’re kidding.”
“The call was on my desk when I arrived. I’ve just been waiting for you to get here so we could go talk to her.”
“Damn,” J.R. said, then shifted his thoughts. “But then, there’s another way of looking at this. If someone saw him, maybe this is the break we needed.”
“So, let’s go to the hospital and see what she has to say.”
“I called,” Trudy said. “She’s no longer there. She checked out this morning and went home. This time we talk on her territory.”
“As long as we get the job done, right?”
Trudy grinned. “I’m thinking it’s not going to break your heart to see her again, either.”
“Just what are you getting at?”
“Oh, nothing,” she said, ignoring the frown on his face. “It’s just that you seemed rather taken with her before, and I thought—”
“You’re a good partner and a good detective, Kowalksi, but you’re also a female, which means you think too much. Save it and let’s get going.”
Trudy took a last drink of her coffee and set the cup on her desk. “Right behind you.”
Kenny Leibowitz stalked into the lobby of Caitlin’s apartment building and leaned over the desk, eyeing the security guard.
“I need to see Caitlin Bennett.”
Mike Mazurka looked up. “Is she expecting you?”
“No, but she’ll see me. Just ring the penthouse, please.”
Mike frowned. “She just got home from the hospital, and she don’t look too good.”
Kenny hit the counter with his fist. “I’m her publicist. Ring the damned penthouse.”
Mike frowned as he buzzed the penthouse. He knew who Leibowitz was, and he didn’t like him, but he accepted the fact that it was none of his business. A few seconds later, his call was answered.
“Mr. Workman, Mr. Leibowitz to see Miss Bennett.”
Aaron mouthed the wordKennyto Caitlin. When she rolled her eyes, he covered the phone.
“I can get rid of him.”
She shook her head. “No, let him come up. The sooner I get this over with, the better off I’ll feel.”
“Send him up,” Aaron said.
Mike hung up the phone and then nodded to Kenny, who immediately strode toward the elevator that went directly to the penthouse. Without a key card, he had to wait for Mike to use the console at his desk to send him up. When the doors closed, he turned to the mirrored panels, admiring his reflection. Even though he was pissed that Caitlin hadn’t bothered to call him, he wasn’t going to give Aaron Workman the satisfaction of knowing he was mad.
The elevator stopped and opened. He strode across the hall and rang the bell. Moments later, the door opened.
“Morning, Kenny,” Aaron said, and stepped aside to let him in.
“Workman,” Kenny muttered, then lifted his head like a dog testing the air for the scent of prey. “Where is she?”
“In her room, lying down. Follow me, I’ll show you.”
“I know where her bedroom is,” Kenny said, and pushed past him.
Aaron was right on his heels. He wasn’t going to give Leibowitz the opportunity to hassle Caitlin. Not today. She already had more on her plate than she could say grace over.
Kenny knocked once, then strode into Caitlin’s room without waiting for permission to enter. He’d practiced what he was going to say all the way across town, debating with himself as to whether he should admit to being insulted that she hadn’t called him personally or be completely sympathetic to her injuries. When he saw her face, he opted for the sympathy route.
“My God!” he gasped, then crossed the room to sit down on the side of her bed. “You poor, poor darling. Are you all right? Why didn’t you call me? I should have been there for you.” Then he glared at Aaron, as if it was all his fault.
Aaron ignored him and looked at Caitlin. “Want me to stay?”
Kenny spun, his face twisted in anger. “What the hell do you mean? I’m not going to pounce on her the moment your back is turned. Get out, before I throw you out.”
“Kenny, for God’s sake, lower your voice,” Caitlin murmured, clutching her hands to her head. “My head hurts, and I’m not in the mood to listen to you two fight.”
“Sorry,” he said. “But I won’t be treated like a—”
“The next person who raises a voice in this room is going out of here on his ass.”
Caitlin moaned and closed her eyes, shutting out the big man standing in the doorway. This was getting better by the moment. Aaron and Kenny barely tolerated each other, but it had never been a problem before. Now they were acting like two jealous suitors. Toss in the added distraction of dealing with Connor McKee and the sanctity of her home had pretty much been screwed.
“Really,” she muttered, glaring at Mac from the bed. “I fail to see the need to resort to physical violence.”
“I haven’t hurt him…yet,” Mac drawled.
Kenny paled. The man in the doorway was a stranger—a big stranger. And from the look on his face and the size of his hands, he looked as if he could make good on his threat. His mood shift was immediate as he laid a proprietary hand on Caitlin’s leg.
“Who is he?” he asked.
“He’s Aaron’s brother, Connor McKee.” She looked at Mac and spoke a little louder. “Mac, Kenny Leibowitz is my publicist.”
Mac did little more than nod, while Kenny’s eyebrows arched dramatically. His gaze slid from Aaron to Mac and back again.
“Well…it’s easy to see where all the testosterone went in your family,” he drawled.
The slight made the gleam in Mac’s eyes a little brighter, but Aaron just laughed.
“Kenny, Kenny, Kenny, methinks you doth protest too much about your own.”
Kenny stood abruptly, his fists doubled. At that moment, Mac took charge.
“You,” he said, pointing at Kenny. “Get out. Now. Aaron, explain the situation to Mr. Leibowitz and then show him out the door. If he has any more communicating to do with Caitie, he can do it by phone.”
Kenny’s face grew red with anger. “You can’t just—”
“Please, Kenny, I’m not up to this. The doctor told me to rest, not referee. Aaron, fill Kenny in on what’s happening and, Kenny, I’d better not find out you’re using any of it to publicizeDead Lines.”
Caitlin’s voice was soft and shaky, but it got the desired result. Leibowitz flushed as Aaron walked out of the room. He looked at Caitlin with something close to regret. He’d made an impression on her, all right, but nothing like he’d planned.
“Forgive me, darling,” he said softly. “Chalk all of this up to worry. I’ll be in touch.” He strode out of the room past Mac, giving him a cold, angry stare.
Other than a narrowing of his eyes, Mac’s reaction to Leibowitz was mute and hard to gauge.
Once they were alone, Mac found himself locked into another staring match, this time with Caitlin. After a few moments of total silence, he took a deep breath, started to speak, then cursed beneath his breath and walked away, closing the door behind him.
Caitlin reached for the bottle of pain pills and shook one out, only realizing afterward that her water glass was empty. Groaning beneath her breath, she swung her legs off the bed and sat up, knowing it was going to hurt like hell to stand. She leaned forward, hoping to use her body weight as leverage, and knocked the empty water glass off the nightstand. It hit the hardwood floor, shattering into pieces. Seconds later, Mac burst into the room.
“What happened? Are you all right? Hellsfire, woman, why didn’t you call for help?”
“I broke a glass, yes, I’m fine, and I only wanted to go to the bathroom to get some water so I could take a pain pill, because I hurt from my teeth to my toenails, and if you yell at me one more time, I am going to cry.” At which point, having stated the obvious, she burst into tears.
Connor McKee felt like the lowest of the low. He bit the inside of his mouth to keep from saying anything more and simply walked across the room, scooped her out of the bed and carried her into the bathroom, gingerly stepping over the broken glass as he went. Then he set her on her feet by the commode and walked out, quietly closing the door behind him.
Caitlin used the drinking glass on the sink to take her pill and then sat on the closed commode to wait. Mac hadn’t said he would be back, but she knew him well enough to know that since he’d brought her here, he would eventually come back to get her.
She sat, feeling sorry for herself for the mess she was in, and heard Aaron’s cry of surprise, then offer of help as he ran to get a broom and dustpan. When she heard the occasional clink of glass, she guessed Mac was dropping the shards into the wastebasket by her bed.
She sat without moving, straining toward the sound of their voices. They were too low for her to hear what was being said, although she knew they were talking about her. About the letters. And the bomb threat. And the fact that someone wanted her dead.
From where she was sitting, the full-length mirror on the inside of her bathroom door was both a help and a hindrance. She didn’t have to move to see the extent of the damage that had been done to her body. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to see it all at once. Her face was bad enough. If she hadn’t known it was her own reflection, she would not have recognized herself. Half her face was streaked with dark purple hues, and the eyebrow with the stitches was swollen to half again its normal size. Her lower lip was puffy, and there was a series of small abrasions on the left side of her cheek. Still curious, she unbuttoned the top three buttons of her pajama top and let it drop off her shoulder.
Her eyes widened in shock at the extent of the contusions. With shaking hands, she pulled her pajama top back in place and redid the buttons. It was difficult to accept that someone wanted her dead, but the facts were too blatant to ignore. She closed her eyes, willing herself to a calm she didn’t feel, and was sitting quietly, her crying spell over, when the knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” she said.
Mac opened the door. “Are you ready to get back in bed?”
“Yes, please,” she said, then held her breath as he came toward her.
He picked her up as if she weighed nothing at all and carried her back to her bed, laying her gently down on her pillows.
Caitlin winced as she reached for the covers.
“Let me,” Mac said, and pulled them up to her waist, where she could adjust them to her satisfaction.
“Thank you,” she said, and heard Mac sigh.
“You’re welcome,” he answered. He’d started to leave when he stopped and turned.
“I’m sorry…really, really sorry I made you cry.”
The tenderness was unexpected, especially from this man. And because it was so unexpected, she found herself unable to say much for fear of crying all over again.
“Yes…well, thank you,” she said, then turned on her side and closed her eyes, listening to the sound of his footsteps as he walked away.
A short while later, as she was drifting in a haze induced by the painkiller she had taken, the phone rang. She burrowed deeper beneath her covers, knowing that, for the time being, Connor McKee was standing between her and the world. She didn’t bother to consider why that didn’t seem as bizarre as it once might have, or why her opinion of him had changed. All that mattered was that he was here and, for the first time in months, she knew she was safe.
The next morning she awakened to the sound of strangers’ voices and a lot of hammering and banging. Swinging her legs to the side of the bed, she grabbed her robe and house shoes and bolted from the room, to find Connor and two men in a tangle of boxes and wires.
“Connor McKee, what on earth are you doing?” she demanded, eyeing the pair of strangers and the mess on her living room floor.
Mac grinned. Her hair was tangled, the belt of her robe was dragging on the floor and the house shoes she persisted in wearing were nothing short of a joke.
“Installing your security system.”
“Well, no one askedme,” she huffed.
“Caitie, if you want to be taken seriously, you’re going to have to wear another pair of shoes.”
She glanced down at her puppy slippers and then up at him in disgust.
“There’s nothing wrong with my shoes.”
“You need the security.”
She sighed. “You should have warned me.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Well, as long as it doesn’t happen again.”
“No, ma’am. It sure won’t.”
She twiddled with the end of her belt and then realized all three men were trying not to laugh. Disgusted with herself and with the male species in general, she pivoted sharply, and as she did, stepped on the ear of one of her puppy slippers. Staggering forward, she caught herself before falling.
“You all right?” Mac asked.
She wouldn’t turn around. It sounded like he was laughing.
“I’m fine,” she said, and stomped out of the room.
Seconds later she heard a choked, gurgling sound and then a soft guffaw. Damn them. Damn them all straight to hell.
She slammed the door, making sure that it echoed, and crawled back into bed.
When the doorbell sounded, Mac rushed to answer it before it awakened Caitlin. He knew who it was and why they were here, but they’d taken their sweet time in coming. He’d expected them to show before he and Caitlin had left the hospital. The men from the security company had long since gone, and it was almost noon.
Aaron had reported the fake doctor incident to the police. Knowing his brother’s penchant for dramatics, Mac figured he’d more than made his point that Caitlin Bennett was in danger and it was about damned time someone admitted it. With that thought in mind, he opened the door.
Neil flashed his badge.
“Detective Neil,” he said shortly. “This is my partner, Detective Kowalski. I understand there was another incident involving Miss Bennett?”
“I suppose you could call it that,” Mac said. “Come in.” Then he stepped aside to let them enter and closed the door. “This way,” he said, and led the way into the living room, then paused, gesturing for them to be seated. “What took you so long?” Mac asked.
Neil took one end of the sofa, while his partner took the other. He waited until Mac had seated himself on the opposite side of the coffee table before speaking. “We had an emergency call to answer. Sorry.” Then he shifted mental gears and pinned Mac with a hard look.
“I was given to understand that Miss Bennett doesn’t have any family,” J.R. said.
“Then who are you?”
“My name is Connor McKee. I own McKee Security, out of Atlanta. Aaron Workman, her editor, is my stepbrother. He called me. I came.”
Neil made a couple of notes and then looked up. “Where is Miss Bennett?”
“Asleep. She’s still in a lot of pain, and I’d rather not disturb her. Besides, if you’re here about what happened at the hospital last night, there’s no need to talk to her.”
“Why not?” Neil asked.
“Because she slept through it. I’m the one who woke up and saw the man standing in her room, and I’m the one he spoke to.”
“He spoke to you?” Trudy asked.
“Yes, but I think I surprised him. He came into the room sometime after three in the morning. When I stood up and asked him what he was doing, he gave me some cock-and-bull story that didn’t check out.”
“Exactly what did he say?” J.R. asked.
“He said his name was Dr. Frost and that he was looking for a Mr. Benton’s room.”
“That doesn’t sound out of the ordinary,” Trudy said. “The last names are pretty similar…Benton…Bennett. Maybe it was just a case of mistaken identity.”
“That’s what I thought at first, until I asked a nurse if there was a patient by the name of Benton on the floor. She told me there wasn’t, and then asked why I wanted to know. I told her a man identifying himself as Dr. Frost had been looking for his room.”
“And?” Trudy prompted.
“She said Dr. Frost is an OB/GYN. He wouldn’t have any male patients, no matter what floor they were on.”
“Oops. Looks like your intruder didn’t do his homework,” she said, then eyed him carefully. “But you did, didn’t you? What tipped you off?”
“Have you ever been hospitalized?” Mac asked.
“No matter what time of night it is or how soundly you’re sleeping, when a doctor or nurse comes into the room, they always turn on the lights, don’t they?”
Trudy’s red curls bobbed as she nodded again. “A couple of years ago I had an appendectomy. Didn’t get a wink of sleep until I got to go home.”
“Exactly. But this man didn’t turn on the lights or make a sound. In fact, he was halfway to Caitlin’s bed in the dark when I stood up.”
Neil leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “And why were you there?”
“How long have you known Miss Bennett?”
“A little more than three years.”
Neil took silent note of the way McKee answered—almost as if he was uncomfortable being on the receiving end of their questions.
“Have you always been in security?” he asked.
“No, I was with Atlanta PD for fifteen years.”
“Why did you quit?”
“Lost one too many partners. Watched one too many perps walk because of a legal technicality. You name it. I burned out, pure and simple.”
“Boy, do I understand that,” Trudy said.
But Neil wasn’t comfortable with the man’s presence and made it known.
“This is our investigation,” he said shortly. “We don’t need any vigilantes.”
Mac resisted the urge to smirk. “Miss Bennett will be pleased to know that you’ve finally admitted there’s something to investigate.”
The detective’s lips thinned in anger, but he kept his silence as Mac added, “I have no intention of investigating anything. I’m not a P.I. I own and operate a company that installs and upgrades security systems…period. I volunteered to stay with Caitlin until the man is caught, so the sooner you get your job done, the happier we’ll all be.”
“Can you give us a description of the man?” Trudy asked.
Mac frowned. “Not really. I only got a glimpse of him as he opened the door and slipped out. It was pretty fast, and I’d been asleep when he walked in. I do know that he was Caucasian, at least six feet tall. He had brown curly hair and a mustache, and was probably in his late thirties. However, if he was there to finish what he started, I would guess he was wearing a disguise.”
“Is there anything else?” Trudy asked.
“You’re pretty sure of yourself,” Neil said.
Mac shrugged. “Yeah, so I’ve been told.”
Neil’s jaw set as he handed Mac a card. “If you think of anything else, give us a call.”
Mac dropped the card into his pocket without comment.
“By the way, where is Aaron Workman?” Neil asked. “I expected him to be here.”
“He went to work. If you need to talk to him, he’s at his office.”
Neil stood up. “Thank you for your help. We’ll be in touch.”
“So will we,” Mac said, and ushered them to the door, then locked it behind them.
The two detectives heard the distinct click of tumblers and grinned before heading to the elevator.
“I wouldn’t mind being guarded by a man like that,” Trudy said.
J.R. arched an eyebrow. “Well, well, Kowalski, you never fail to amaze me.”
The elevator opened. They walked in, then turned to face the door as J.R. punched the button to take them down.
“Why?” Trudy asked, as the car began to descend.
“I didn’t know you were into oversize thugs.”
“Just because he’s bigger than you doesn’t make him a thug,” Trudy said. “Besides, I was always a sucker for men with dark hair and blue eyes.”
Neil shook his head in pretend disgust as the door opened. They exited into the lobby, their strides equally matched in spite of their difference in size.
“When we get to the hospital to check out the story, maybe I’d better have your blood pressure checked, too.”
Trudy hesitated, staring at him in disbelief. “You’re jealous!”
“You’re full of shit,” J.R. said as they crossed the lobby toward their car. “And I’m driving.”
“Good. I don’t like to drive in snow.” J.R. grinned. “That’s because you were raised in Mobile. Your blood’s too thin, Kowalksi. When I was a kid, I had a paper route and delivered papers in all kinds of weather. It was snowing the day I had my first driving lesson.”
She grinned at him as she got in on the passenger side of the car.
“Yeah, and next you’ll be telling me you cut your teeth on icicles and made your first snowman before you could walk.”
J.R.’s smile widened, but he refrained from comment. He knew Trudy well enough to know that she wouldn’t stop until she had the last word, even if it was wrong. He started the car and pulled away from the curb into traffic.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To the hospital. Maybe a security camera caught something we can use.”
“Yeah, I know,” J.R. said.
Trudy snorted lightly. “You are such an egotist.”
“But I’m good.”
Trudy rolled her eyes and laughed.
Caitlin opened her eyes and then groaned at the squall of a passing siren. Instinctively she started to stretch, then winced as sore muscles reminded her not to make any drastic moves.
“Oh God,” she muttered, pushing a hand carefully through her hair, then feeling the stitches above her eyebrow. They felt like thorns.
Her tummy growled as she rolled to the side of the bed and sat up. Her body was at odds with her pain. It didn’t seem possible that she could be hungry when everything hurt, but she was. Without making any sudden moves, she shuffled toward the bathroom, pausing to look at herself in the mirror. The bruises looked worse, but the swelling in her lower lip seemed better.
“One thing at a time,” she muttered, and turned away.
A few minutes later she came out, her face carefully washed, her hair combed and caught at the back of her neck in a bright pink scrunchie. She paused at the foot of her bed for her robe, knowing she would need all her defenses to keep Connor at arm’s length, including proper clothing. Even though her pajamas were sensible blue flannel, a robe seemed in order. Stepping into her slippers, she made her way to the kitchen and found Mac standing at the stove, stirring something in a pot.
“That smells good,” she said. “What is it?”
Startled by the sound of her voice, he banged the spoon on the side of the pot as he turned around.
“I didn’t know you were awake. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I wanted to get up,” Caitlin said. “Is that soup?”
“Yes, are you hungry?”
“I’ll bring you some, just please sit back down.”
Caitlin sighed. “I’m not that fragile.”
Mac’s eyes were dark and unreadable, but the husky tremor in his voice gave him away. “You could have fooled me,” he said. “Have you looked in the mirror?”
She made a face at him and then grimaced. “Oh, that hurt,” she muttered as she eased herself into a kitchen chair, refusing to admit he’d been right. Her legs were shaking.
“Then don’t try to bite the hand that’s going to feed you. Literally.”
Caitlin rested her chin in her hands and settled for a glare at his backside as he reached into the cabinet for a plate and a bowl. As she watched, it occurred to her that the last time she’d been in this kitchen there had been little in the way of food to eat.
“Did you buy groceries?” she asked.
She nodded. “Aaron thinks I eat like a teenager.”
Mac gave her a curious look. “Well, do you?”
Caitlin’s gaze caught and held on the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled and forgot what he’d said.
She blinked. “Hmm? What?”
“Do you eat like a teenager?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. How does a teenager eat?”
“Whatever is handy that’s salty or sweet and full of fat, ready in a minute or less, and comes in bulk.”
“I don’t put Pepsi on my cereal,” she said, without admitting to anything else.
Mac laughed aloud. “That’s a start.” Then he set the soup before her and handed her a spoon. “Eat up while it’s hot.”
His laughter caused a funny twinge in her stomach, which she chalked up to hunger. The idea of making friends with this man made her think of trying to tame a tiger, and she wasn’t that stupid. Instead, she leaned over the bowl, inhaling the aroma as her mouth watered.
“It smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Potato soup. I seasoned it according to my taste, so if it’s a bit too salty for you, I can add some more milk.”
“You mean this didn’t come out of a can?”
“Nope. Want a sandwich to go with it?”
“Sounds good, but I’d better stay with just soup for now…at least until my mouth isn’t so sore.”
Mac frowned. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Maybe I should run the soup through a food processor. You could drink it rather than chew.”
“That’s assuming I have a food processor, which I don’t,” she muttered, then slipped the first bite into her mouth, relishing the warmth as well as the flavor. “No need. This is perfect.” She waved her spoon toward the stove. “Aren’t you going to have some?”
He hesitated. Sitting at the table with Caitlin Bennett meant drawing some kind of a truce. He wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea, but he was hungry, and she had offered.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said, and dipped himself a hearty bowl, grabbed a handful of crackers and sat down in the chair across from hers without looking up.
For a few minutes there was nothing to be heard but the occasional clink of a spoon against a bowl. Caitlin was the first to finish.
“That was very good. Thank you.”
Mac shifted in his seat, uncomfortable with her congenial mood. “You’re welcome.”
“Somehow I never pictured you being so domestic,” Caitlin drawled.
Mac’s eyes narrowed sharply. Something told him that congeniality was fading fast.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, nothing,” Caitlin said. “It’s just that when I think of you, I picture underdone meat and knives with big blades.”
Mac leaned across the table and grinned. “Why, Caitlin, I didn’t know you thought of me at all. Just goes to show how wrong first impressions can be.”
Mentally cursing herself for getting personal with a man who pushed all her warning buttons, she scooted her chair back from the table and stood up.
“Where are you going?” he asked as she headed out the door.
“To my office to check my e-mail. Were there any calls while I was asleep?”
“No, but the police came by.”
She frowned. “Why didn’t you wake me? Now they’ll just have to come back, and I don’t want this to go on for—”
“They didn’t have anything new to tell you, and you had nothing new to tell them.”
“But the man in the—”
“Did you see him?”
She frowned. “Well, no, but…”
“Right. You didn’t even know he’d been there until I told you, so there was nothing you could have said that would add to the investigation. You needed your rest. I talked to them. Told them everything that happened.” And then he added, “For all the good it did. I’m not too impressed with either one of them, especially Detective Neil.”
“What do you mean?” Caitlin asked. “I thought he was nice.”
Mac resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “You would.”
Her chin jutted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s notsupposedto mean anything other than what I said. He’s a cocky, pretty-faced cop with a badge and a gun. From the way your nostrils are flaring, I’m guessing that turns you on.”
Caitlin gasped. “You are beyond belief! Mynostrilsare not flaring, and he did not turn me on! If I went for cocky, gun-toting males, then you’d be at the top of the list, wouldn’t you?”
Mac stuffed his hands in his pockets to keep from putting them around her neck and glared.
Caitlin sniffed delicately. Satisfied that she’d scored the last point, she walked away.
“Your nostrils did flare,” Mac said beneath his breath.
“I heard that,” Caitlin yelled.
“Christ almighty,” Mac muttered, then pivoted angrily, grabbed the empty soup pan from the stove and shoved it into the sink. Banging pans was the next best thing to wringing her neck.
Sweat oozed and ran from every pore on Buddy’s body as he pounded the heavy punching bag in the corner of the gym.
The blow jarred all the way to his back teeth.
The one-two made his right ear pop.
After the trio of rapid-fire blows, he tasted blood and knew he’d bitten his tongue. But he couldn’t stop. The need to punish was uppermost in his mind. Damn Caitlin Bennett for not dying. Damn her rich bitch self to hell.
“Easy there, fella, you’re gonna blow a gasket.”
But Buddy ignored the trainer and kept on punching until he was so blinded by his own sweat that he could no longer see the bag. Exhausted, he staggered backward until he came up against the wall, then bent forward, his gloves on his knees, struggling to stay upright.
“Is he dead?”
At the question, Buddy took a deep breath and looked up. “What did you say?”
The trainer tossed him a towel and grinned. “I asked you, is he dead?”
Buddy’s voice iced. “What the hell do you mean?”
“Chill, man, it’s just a figure of speech,” the trainer said. “You were nailing that bag so hard, I don’t have to be a genius to know somebody pissed you off. Right?”
Buddy sighed. “Oh…yeah…right.”
“Sit down,” the trainer said. “I’ll help you take off your gloves.”
Buddy straddled a weight bench and held out a glove. In a few moments, he was free of them both.
“Thanks,” he said, and stood up. “It’s been a long day. I’m going to shower and head for home.”
“Yeah, sure. See you around.”
Buddy was already walking away.
Half an hour later he came out of the locker room and headed for the door, taking the stairs three flights down to the street. The stairwell was cold, and as he started down, he pulled his coat collar up around his neck, wishing he’d had the foresight to bring a sock cap to cover his wet hair. Bracing himself for the worst, he took the steps down in a hurry, exiting the building onto the street. The cold air hit his lungs like a fist to the chest. Before he’d gone half a block, his hair was stiff, the moisture frozen from the rapidly dropping temperature.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, and hunched his shoulders up around his ears.
A light dusting of snow was falling, and from the looks of the sidewalks, it had been falling for quite a while, obliterating all but the deepest of tracks. A thin crust had formed on the surface, and as he walked, his steps made crunching noises that echoed in the air. Traffic was light but steady, and he forgot his discomfort in the monotonous motion of putting one foot in front of the other.
In the next block, he saw a taxi suddenly pull to the curb and let out a fare. The luxury of taking a cab home rather than the subway seemed like a wise investment, and he yelled for it to wait, but the driver sped away into the night. Cursing beneath his breath, he continued to walk. Only five more blocks to the subway station and he would at least be out of the snow.
Another block up, the lights of a diner spilled through the windows onto the snow. A couple emerged as he walked past the door, bringing with them the scent of warm food and hot coffee.
On impulse, Buddy did a one-eighty and went back to the diner. A hot meal seemed prudent, considering the fact that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He slid onto a stool at the counter and picked up a menu.
“Hey, handsome, how about some coffee?”
Buddy looked up. The waitress was young and smiling. He smiled back.
“Yes, please,” he said. “Black.”
She set a cup in front of him and filled it to within a quarter-inch of the brim.
“Do you know what you want to eat?” she asked.
“Got any chili?”
“Oh, yeah. Gus makes good chili. Hot, though. If you don’t eat your food spicy, you might not like it.”
Buddy leaned forward, flashing the young waitress another heart-stopping smile.
“Oh…I like spice,” he said softly. “In my foodandmy women.”
She giggled and went to fill his order, leaving him with his coffee and his thoughts. A couple of minutes later she was back with a steaming bowl of chili and a side of corn bread, along with a small bowl of diced onions.
“Do you want some cheese with that?” she asked.
“No, this looks good as is,” Buddy said, and scooped up a big bite, rolling his eyes as the first taste sensation hit. “Um, you tell Gus this is damned good chili, okay?”
She smiled and nodded, then moved on to tend to a couple who’d taken a seat in a booth.
Buddy ate without thought, simply savoring the warmth of food in his belly and the peace in his mind. He was both physically and mentally exhausted. Surely he would be able to sleep tonight, despite the fact that Caitlin Bennett still drew breath.
He was almost through eating when the woman came in. He saw her from the corner of his eye, watching as she took a seat at the counter, three stools down from where he sat. Her voice was low and husky, but her clothes and her demeanor screamed whore. She asked the time, then ordered a cup of coffee.
Thinking about the possibility of getting a quick fuck, he turned for a good look and then stifled a gasp. The food he’d just eaten threatened to come up. He stared in disbelief, watching her lift the coffee cup to her lips. She had dark shoulder-length hair and a mouth so like Caitlin’s that it caused him true pain.
He stood abruptly, threw some money down on the counter and strode out without looking back. The subway station was only a couple of blocks ahead. He found himself running toward it like a man hurrying toward salvation. But the closer he got to it, the slower his steps became.
Then he stopped. For several moments he stared down at the sidewalk, studying the snow on the toes of his shoes as his fingers curled and uncurled and then curled again into fists. He stood that way for what seemed like an hour, making a bet with himself that if she came this way, then she was his, but if she left the diner and walked north instead of south, then it wasn’t meant to be.
Several people passed him as he waited, his back to the diner. Every time he heard approaching footsteps, he held his breath, waiting to see if it was her. Then, when his feet were so cold he couldn’t feel his toes, he told himself, just one more person, and if it wasn’t her, he would go home.
Within a few seconds of the promise, he heard footsteps again, this time shorter ones, moving faster than those that had come before. His breath came in short, jerky puffs, like small white clouds beneath his nose. He lifted his head, then found himself turning—turning—and watching the concentration on her face as she tried to stay upright in the snow on those three-inch heels.
“You should have worn boots,” he said softly.
She pulled her coat a little closer around her slim body, then smiled. One more john before the night was over couldn’t hurt.
“Not when there are good-looking men like you to keep me on my feet,” she countered.
“But, honey, I don’t want you on your feet, I want you on your back.”
Her eyes narrowed as she raked him with a predatory gaze.
“You can have me any way you want me,” she countered, “but it’ll cost you.”
“Not as much as it’s going to cost you,” he said under his breath and grabbed her by the hand.
The squeal of brakes from the incoming subway train drowned out the sound of onlookers’ voices as Detectives Amato and Hahn ducked under the strip of yellow crime scene tape and moved to the end of the platform. The medical examiner was already packing up, but the photographer from forensics was still taking pictures.
Sal spoke to the coroner as he waited for the photographer to finish.
“What have we got?”
The warmth of the M.E.’s breath hit the cold morning air, giving him the appearance of “blowing smoke” as he picked up his bags.
“Trouble,” he said, and pointed toward the body with his chin. “She died here. The killer turned her body to the wall and covered her from the waist down with that newspaper. Probably so any passersby might think she was just drunk or sleeping. Best guess is she died around midnight, maybe a little later, and if I was a betting man, I’d say the same killer as before, but I’ll know more after I get her into the lab.”
Sal’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, the same killer?”
“They didn’t tell you?” the M.E. asked.
Amato shook his head.
“Look for yourself,” the M.E. said, and headed for the stairs as Sal moved toward the body. He cursed softly beneath his breath as he took his first look.
“Hell,” he muttered, then stood abruptly as his partner, Paulie Hahn, looked over his shoulder. “Christ almighty, just what we need.”
“This is only the second body. We can’t jump to conclusions with only two victims,” Paulie said.
Amato pointed to the woman’s neatly quartered face. “We can when they look like that. Call the lieutenant and tell him he’d better get down here fast. Someone is bound to leak this to the press, and when they do, the media will have a field day.”
Paulie took out his radio just as the doors of the train began to open. The noise level, borne of curiosity over an ongoing police investigation, made a call momentarily impossible.
“Can’t hear thunder here,” Paulie said. “I’m going to the far end of the platform to make the call.”
As Paulie moved away, Sal began taking notes from the patrolmen who’d been first on the scene, gathering any available information that might aid in their investigation.
“Hey, Sal, anything we can do to help?” Trudy asked.
Amato turned; he’d been unaware that Kowalski and Neil had arrived. He frowned as he pointed to the victim.
“Take a look,” he said.
Trudy gasped, her gaze immediately shifting to her partner’s face to see if he was drawing the same conclusion. When she saw his lips firm and his nostrils flare, she knew he had. She looked over at Sal.
“Was she killed here?” she asked, her gaze raking the far corner of the subway platform on which they were standing.
“The M.E. says yes.”
“Time of death?”
“Sometime around midnight.”
“Who found her?”
“Don’t know. The first officer on the scene responded to an anonymous call around 6:00 a.m. It’s anyone’s guess, other than that.”
“Got an ID on her?” J.R. asked.
Sal checked his notes. “Yeah. Sylvia Polanski, age 33. Got an address in Queens, although we haven’t checked it out yet.”
J.R. moved toward her body, silently observing the condition of her clothes.
“It will be hard to tell if this one got raped,” he stated.
Sal frowned. “Why’s that?”
“Looks like a hooker to me,” J.R. said. “Depending on the number of johns she had last night, she could be carrying multiple DNA.”
“How can you tell she’s a hooker?” Sal asked. “More than half her clothes are missing.”
J.R. pointed to her right foot. “I could be wrong,” he said. “But the only women I’ve seen walking around these snow-packed streets in three-inch heels are hookers.”
Sal nodded. “You might be right, and then again, she could have been coming from a Christmas party somewhere.”
“Maybe so,” J.R. said. “What do you want us to do?”
Amato sighed. “Hell if I know,” he muttered, then shook off the feeling of helplessness. “Well, it’s damned cold. You know where the homeless go when the shelters are full and it starts to snow.”
“Inside or underground,” Trudy said, well aware that there was an entire community of homeless people who lived beneath the city.
But the thought of prowling through the cavernous recesses gave her the shudders. Instinctively she felt beneath her coat for her gun, relaxing only slightly as she felt the bulge beneath her fingers.
Amato pointed toward the crowd. “You and Neil check around. See if you can come up with any witnesses, however reluctant they might be. It’s a long shot, but right now it’s all we’ve got.”
J.R. paused, glancing down as two men from the coroner’s office began putting Sylvia Polanski’s body into a bag. The photographer had finished and was nowhere in sight.
“Got any leads on the first victim?” he asked.
Amato shook his head. “Hell no. That would be too easy. Now go find me a witness. We need to get this sicko off the streets.”
“Come on, Red, let’s shake the mattress of Mother Earth and see what crawls out of the cracks.”
Trudy popped a piece of gum into her mouth and winked at Amato. “My partner is cuter than yours…and poetic, too.”
Amato chuckled at the delicate ribbing between Neil and Kowalksi, accepting it as the stuff that only partners could say to each other and get away with, and then watched the coroner’s men carrying away the body of Sylvia Polanski. As he turned, he saw Paulie heading his way.
“Did you tell the lieutenant?” he asked.
Paulie nodded. “He’s not a happy camper.”
Amato shuddered. “Hell, neither am I. We’ve got to go all the way to Queens to check out the vic’s address.”
Paulie pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears as they started up the stairs.
“Look at it this way,” he said. “Maybe there will be something in Sylvia Polanski’s apartment that will break this thing wide-open.”
Sal snorted beneath his breath. “Yeah, and maybe there will be a one-way ticket in my Christmas stocking to a place where it never snows.”
“I like the snow,” Paulie said as they exited onto the street.
Sal wrinkled his eyes in protest of the cold blast of air, then looked up at the gray morning sky with a shudder.
“Then you’re gonna be a bundle full of joy today,” he said. “It’s starting to snow again.”
Mac woke abruptly and sat straight up in bed, his heart pounding, his face covered in sweat. When he realized he’d been dreaming, he sagged with relief. He didn’t know where the hell that nightmare had come from, but he didn’t want to go back there again. He’d been dreaming of Caitlin, and as dreams went, it had been a doozy. Only she kept turning into a woman from his past, and that was where the nightmare had come in. Only once in his life had he considered marriage. Her name had been Sarah, and she’d died in his arms. He’d watched the cancer ravage her body until there had been nothing left but a shell. He’d sworn to himself never to care for another woman in that way again. Then he’d met Caitlin, and she’d haunted his dreams ever since. Most of the time he told himself he didn’t even like her. But then there were the times when he wondered if he would ever get enough of her. Staying in her home—under these conditions—was getting to him. He didn’t want to fall in love. It was easier and safer being in hate. As he sat, debating with himself about the wisdom of lying back down and trying for more sleep or making coffee instead, his focus began to shift.
Click, click, click.
The sound was faint and slightly familiar as he reached for a pair of sweats. After a quick trip to the bathroom, he finished dressing, then left his bedroom, following the faint, repetitive clicks into the hallway of Caitlin’s apartment. He paused outside a partially open door, then looked inside.
Slowly he relaxed.
It was Caitlin at the computer, and the sound he’d been hearing was nothing more sinister than the click of her keyboard as she typed.
He grinned at the way she was sitting. Perched on the edge of the chair, as if readying herself to bolt. Her knees were bent, her legs locked around the legs like a bareback rider on a pissed-off horse. An old chenille bathrobe hung over the back of the chair, as if discarded in a fit of disregard, while the blue flannel pajamas she was wearing bore a scattered array of white fluffy clouds. Her hair was piled up on top of her head, secured by a piece of brown plastic that slightly resembled the rib cage of a small dinosaur. Her bruises were turning green, and one of the stitches over her eyebrow poked out from her forehead like grass in need of cutting. If all his senses had been in good working order, he would have been bordering on a good laugh over her lack of fashion. Instead his thoughts were wavering between admiration and pure attraction.
He had to give it to her. She was tenacious. Aggravating, but tenacious. He liked that in a woman. And then, the moment he thought it, he flinched. He wasn’t supposed to like Caitlin Bennett. She damn sure didn’t like him.
Having settled that in his mind, he quietly backed out. But instead of walking away, he hesitated, listening to the steady click of the keys and wondering how a mind like hers worked, developing the intricacies of her bestselling stories without mixing up or losing track of all the facts. Even if they didn’t like each other, it didn’t hurt to admit that she had skill. That wasn’t giving her any slack. He was only acknowledging her place on earth, just as he would expect her to acknowledge his.
He had been a cop—a protector and purveyor of justice. She was a writer—a creator of worlds and magician of words. It was fair to say that they both had their place.
He frowned and walked away. It was just unfortunate that, for the time being, they were forced to carry out their roles beneath the same roof.
He turned up the thermostat as he entered the kitchen, then walked to the window and pulled the curtains aside.
Well, hell. It was snowing again.
His bones had gotten too used to Georgia winters to tolerate this much cold for long. As he ran water into the coffeepot and then spooned coffee into the filter, he kept reminding himself that he wouldn’t be here forever. But he knew that when he left, things would never be the same.
A short while later he was taking strips of bacon out of a skillet and laying them to drain on paper towels when Caitlin wandered into the room.
“You’re cooking,” she said, her eyes wide with interest.
Before Mac could answer, she had ducked under his arm and snagged a strip of bacon.
“Um,” she said as she took a bite, taking care to chew only on the right side of her mouth. “I love breakfast food,” she added, blessing him with an unusually friendly smile.
“Yeah?” he said, staring at a tiny bacon crumb at the corner of her mouth.
“That one’s burning,” Caitlin offered, pointing to the last strip still in the pan.
Mac cursed softly as he quickly retrieved the bacon from the burning grease.
“I’ll eat it,” he said, and laid it on his plate as he took the skillet off the heat. “Want some eggs?”
He reached over her head to the cabinet above and took out a small glass bowl.
“Sure. How many?” he asked as he started breaking eggs into the bowl.
Caitlin’s eyes widened. When she ate eggs, which was rare, she only cooked one at a time. And if she hadn’t lost count, he’d already broken six into the bowl.
“Oh…just one,” she said, pointing to the thick, yellow mixture he was beating into a fluff.
He paused and looked up. “One?”
His gaze slid from her face down the front of her body all the way to her sock-clad feet and then up, moving more slowly as he traced the faint outline of curves hidden beneath the baggy flannel pajamas.
“You need to eat more than that,” he announced, then poured the bacon grease into a bowl, dumped the eggs into the skillet and began to stir.
“Are you saying I’m skinny?” Caitlin asked.
The tone of her voice made the hair crawl on the back of his neck, but he held his ground.
“Did I say you were skinny?” he drawled as he dumped a good-sized portion of the cooked eggs on her plate and then emptied the rest onto his.
“No, but you—”
“Do you think you could eat toast, or is your mouth too sore?” he asked, completely ignoring the fact that she was pushing herself toward pissed.
“Um, I, uh…”
“Your eggs are getting cold,” he said.
Caitlin frowned. He made her so mad. He’d all but called her skinny, and now he was completely ignoring the fact that she wanted an apology. With a frustrated sigh, she snatched the plate from the counter, filched a couple of extra slices of bacon and headed for the table. It was hard to demonstrate an effective stomp when her body was this sore, but she did the best she could.
“You weren’t hired to be my cook,” she said and, the moment she said it, could have kicked herself all over the room.
He stiffened, then turned, his face a study in disbelief; he picked up his plate, his face red with anger.
“Actually I wasn’t hired to be anything,” he said, pointing a fork in her direction. “If you will remember, Aaron asked me to help. I did not come because I was being paid, nor do I want any money from you. Now, if you don’t mind, I wish you would take a deep breath and eat your breakfast without saying another goddamned thing to me.”
He strode out of the kitchen, carrying his food with him.
Caitlin’s eyes filled with tears as she watched him leave. She tried to take a breath but choked on a sob as she looked at her plate. A second passed, then another and another, while huge, silent tears rolled down her face.
Why do I feel this constant need to hurt his feelings? Why am I such a rampant bitch when he’s around? This isn’t me. This isn’t who I am.
To her dismay, she heard him coming back into the kitchen and scrambled for a napkin to blot her tears, but it was too late.
Mac had come back for his coffee but got a kick in the stomach instead. He took one look at the tears on her face and groaned. They’d done it again. His shoulders slumped, his hands twitching at his sides as he dropped his head.
“Goddamn it, Caitie, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
She looked up, her face still streaked with tears.
“I was rude. I had it coming,” she whispered. “I was raised with better manners. I don’t know why I behave this way around you.”
Mac sighed, then crossed the room and pulled her out of the chair and into his arms, taking care not to hold her too tight.
Stunned by the thunder of his heartbeat against her ear, she couldn’t find breath to answer. And then his hands slid across her back and she felt as if she were being cradled.
“I’m sorry, too,” she mumbled.
Mac leaned back, wanting to see her face, but she wouldn’t look up. Sighing, he tilted her chin with the tip of his finger until they were eye to eye.
“Truce?” he asked.
Another set of tears pooled and rolled as she nodded.
Mac’s gaze slid downward. He found himself staring at her mouth—at the slightly swollen bottom lip as well as the tremble in her chin. His resistance crumbled. Well, hell. He was already in trouble, but what he was about to do was going to make it worse. He exhaled softly, then lowered his head. The last thing he remembered before the floor tilted beneath his feet was thinking how unbelievably soft her mouth was and how well she fit in his arms.
It wasn’t until he heard Caitlin moan that he realized what he’d done. He tore his mouth from her lips and held up his hands in surrender. She looked as stunned as he felt. His voice softened, even though his words were still taunting.
“Don’t hit me, Caitie. You’re in no shape for me to hit back.”
Caitlin shuddered, then took a deep breath, as if coming out of a trance.
“You wouldn’t hit me,” she stated. “You don’t like me, but you wouldn’t hit me.”
Mac frowned. He didn’t want her to be forgiving.
“I don’t kiss women I don’t like. At least, I didn’t used to,” he muttered, then grabbed his coffee from the counter and stalked out of the kitchen.
Still reeling from the feel of Mac’s mouth on her lips, Caitlin sat down at the table, picked up her fork and started to take a bite of her eggs when Mac’s parting shot finally sank in.
“Oh,” she said, and then laid down her fork. “Oh my,” she mumbled, and looked up in disbelief. “Oh my Lord,” she moaned, and cast a frantic look toward the door where he’d disappeared.
When had animosity turned into attraction? Better yet, what in the name of God was she going to do about it? She was on the verge of panic when Mac yelled at her from the other room.
“Are you eating your breakfast?”
The bubble burst.
Attraction? That wasn’t attraction she’d felt. It was insanity. Chalk it up to the truck bumper colliding with her forehead.
“Are you minding your own business?” she muttered.
“I heard that.”
“Just proving your chest isn’t the only big body part you have,” Caitlin yelled, then rolled her eyes.
She’d been referring to his ears, but knowing Connor McKee, he was going to assume she was referring to what lay south of his belt buckle. If her lower lip hadn’t been so sore, she would have bitten it.
To her relief, he said nothing, although she was certain she heard him laughing. Completely furious that she’d let herself be baited, she stabbed a fork into her eggs and ate, not stopping until her plate was empty and her stomach was full. She felt better for having eaten the meal, even if she’d made a fool of herself in the process. Shoving her chair back from the table, she carried her plate and cutlery to the sink, then poured herself a cup of coffee with the full intention of going back to her office when her phone rang.
“Miss Bennett, Mr. Workman is here to see you.”
“Good morning, Mike. Send him up.”
“Good morning to you, too, miss. I trust you’re feeling better?”
She smiled. “I’m fine. How’s that new grandson?” She was picturing the security guard’s smile as she asked.
“He’s just great, and thanks for asking.”
Mac walked into the room behind her as she was hanging up the phone.
“Who was that?”
Caitlin turned, gauged the distance between them and decided it was safe.
“Aaron is on his way up. I’m going to get dressed. Please let him in.”
An eyebrow arched. “You’re dressing for him?”
Caitlin grinned before she thought. “He thinks I’m a heathen because I don’t get out of my nightclothes unless I’m going out.”
His other eyebrow arched. “You really stay in your pajamas all day?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes…well, most of the time, yes. So what? Just because I’m Devlin Bennett’s daughter doesn’t make me some social butterfly.”
He eyed the belligerent thrust to her chin and resisted the urge to grin. Damned if he wasn’t starting to understand her need to assert herself. It couldn’t have been easy being Bennett’s daughter. The man had been on the cover of every important national magazine, had been written up constantly in the newspapers, as well as serving as a constant source of news for the television network.
“Easy, Caitie. That wasn’t a dig. Actually, that could be considered quite sexy.”
Her eyes widened and her heart skipped a beat.
“What do you mean, sexy?”
“A woman in her nightclothes is a woman one step away from bed. Some men might take that as an invitation.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Caitlin said, praying that her shock didn’t show. “But some men also eat with their fingers and burp for their own entertainment, and it doesn’t endear them to me, so I’m thinking that the playing field is even. Just let your brother in when he rings and stop baiting me. My head hurts too much to argue with you.”
The devilment in his eyes faded immediately. “Did you take your pain medicine this morning? How long were you working before you stopped? Sitting at that computer can’t be good for you, with your side so bruised.”
Taken aback by his concern, Caitlin sputtered, then was saved from having to answer by a knock on the door.
“That’s Aaron,” she said, bolting out of the kitchen and down the hall.
Mac shook his head as he answered the door.
“Good morning, little brother,” he said, as Aaron sailed into the room.
“Good morning to you, too,” Aaron said. “Where’s Caitlin? Did she get any rest? Are you behaving yourself?”
“She’s getting dressed, and I suppose she slept…some, at least. I woke up to hear her typing in her office.” Then he frowned. “And just for the record, I resent the implication that I would behave inappropriately.”
Aaron sighed. “You know what I mean, so don’t be so huffy. I just want you to be nice.”
“If I was any nicer, I could be looking at getting sued for child support,” he muttered. “Want some coffee?”
Aaron nodded, too stunned to speak. He stared at the set of Mac’s shoulders as he strode from the room, then listened to the sound of slamming doors and banging crockery before he started to smile. He was still absorbing the child support crack when Caitlin entered the room.
“Aaron, how good of you to stop by.”
He blinked. Caitlin was coming toward him with a forced smile on her face. For once he didn’t even notice what she was wearing. He loved her as much as it was possible for him to love any woman. He couldn’t marry her, but Connor could. Of course, that all hinged upon mutual desire. But from the way Mac was acting and the fake smile on Caitlin’s face, something was up. He just didn’t know whether it was good or bad.
Sylvia Polanski’s apartment was a total surprise. It was chic, understated and obviously very expensive. Whatever Sylvia’s profession, she had been successful at it.
Paulie Hahn picked up a small porcelain statuette of a shepherdess and turned it over, looking at the stamp on the bottom.
“Dresden,” he said, and set it back on the table where he’d found it. “Sylvia Polanski might have been a hooker, but she had good taste.”
“We don’t know she was a hooker,” Sal said, as he poked through a desk drawer for something that might give them a clue as to who Sylvia’s killer could be. “Just because Neil said it, that doesn’t make it so.”
“You don’t like him much, do you?” Paulie asked.
Sal shrugged. “He’s all right. Just got too much hair.”
Paulie grinned. “We aren’t gonna find anything here to link the two women.”
Sal straightened and turned. “Why do you say that? Have you gone psychic on me?”
“Because the two women don’t connect,” Paulie said. “Donna Dorian was a twenty-year-old university student still living with her mother. Coroner said she was a virgin before the rape. Sylvia Polanski is in her thirties, right?”
“I think Neil was right. I think she was a hooker. You heard what the super said when he let us in. She slept all day and was out all night. She didn’t bring anyone here. This was home. So she’s either got a place somewhere in Manhattan where she takes her johns, or she uses their places.”
“We don’t know that,” Sal said, pushing a drawer shut and opening another.
Paulie shrugged. “Well, if sheisa hooker, she’s a high-class one. Lofts like these rent for a pretty penny. She was either independently wealthy or damn good at her job.”
“Hey, look at this,” Sal said, as he pulled a small leather-bound book from beneath a pile of receipts.
“What is it?”
Sal whistled between his teeth. “It’s what my old man used to call a ‘little black book.”’
“Let me see,” Paulie said.
Sal handed it over.
“Man, look at all these names and numbers.”
Sal studied it a moment and then handed it back to his partner. “Okay, so it looks like Neil might have been right after all.”
“Unless she’s their stockbroker or something, I’d agree.”
Sal turned, scanning the room for a new place to search when he saw a photo on the wall near the windows. He walked over for a closer look.
“This must be her,” he said, pointing toward the picture. “She was a fine-looking woman before that crazy son of a bitch got a hold of her.”
Paulie looked. “Yeah. Let’s take it with us. It’s a damned sight better than the one the coroner will send.”
Sal laid it beside his coat and kept on digging. A few minutes later, he turned up a small address book with what appeared to be personal phone numbers.
“I think I just found her next of kin,” Sal said. “What looks like her mother’s phone number is in here.”
Paulie frowned. “That’s the worst thing I hate about working homicide. It’s your turn to break the news.”
Sal sat down on the sofa and picked up the picture, staring intently at the woman’s face. Dark, shoulder-length hair and dark eyes—and a real pretty mouth. He laid the picture aside.
“You know, you have kids. Raise them the best way you know how, then they turn to shit like this. No woman I ever heard of made plans to give birth to a hooker.”
Paulie shrugged. “You think too much, Sal. Come on, this place is giving me the creeps. We’ve got her book. We can run the names and phone numbers from the office. Let’s get out of here.”
Two days later
Awakened by the sound of the wind, Caitlin quickly became aware of a distinct drop in the room temperature. She opened her eyes to darkness and then glanced at the clock. Almost 3:00 a.m. If she didn’t turn up the heat, it would be freezing in the apartment by morning. Reluctantly she turned on the light and then crawled out of bed, moving quietly through the house in her sock feet until she reached the living room. With instinct born of familiarity, she felt along the wall for the thermostat, upped it a couple of notches until she heard it kick on and then headed back to bed. But when she got to the hall, she stopped abruptly. Connor was standing in her doorway wearing nothing but a pair of sweat pants.
“It’s getting colder. I just turned the thermostat up a bit,” she said. “Sorry I woke you.”
“You didn’t wake me. I wasn’t asleep.”
When he took a step forward, the light spilling out of her bedroom wrapped around his body, bathing it in a warm, soft-white glow. Breath caught in the back of her throat. His chest rippled with muscles the weight lifters called six-packs, and his sweats rode too low on his hips for her comfort. Instinctively she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and took a slow breath, trying to remember what they’d been saying. Sleep. It was something about not being able to sleep.
“You said you couldn’t sleep, are you ill?”
“It’s almost three.”
Mac watched the panic on her face and wondered if his was as obvious. This attraction to her was scary as hell.
“I know,” he said, and took another step toward her.
Caitlin shrunk within herself, too scattered to move.
“Do you suffer from insomnia?” She thought she heard him sigh.
I’m suffering all right, but it’s not insomnia, you little witch, it’s you.
He eyed her tousled hair and fading bruises, as well as those ridiculous flannel pajamas, and wondered why in hell he kept dreaming about making love to her.
“I guess it’s something like that.”
“There are some sleeping pills in the bathroom,” she offered. “But don’t take more than one or you’ll sleep through tomorrow.”
“I don’t do drugs,” he muttered.
Caitlin felt herself bristling. “Are you insinuating that I do? Because if you are, I can assure you that—”
The next thing she knew, he had her pinned against the wall, his hands still gentle on her shoulders.
“I wasn’t insinuating anything, you ungrateful little wretch, but if you’re about to light into me again, then I may as well give you something real to be pissed about.”
Before she could answer, he lowered his head. She felt the warmth of his breath and then his hands sliding from her shoulders to her back, urging her toward him.
She put her hands between them in reflex.
It was a mistake.
Instead of pushing him back, she found herself stroking his chest, pausing as the ricochet of his heartbeat seared into her palms.
Then she made her second mistake.
She looked up.
“I warned you,” he whispered.
His lips were warm, the pressure gentle yet persistent. Caitlin lost all sense of self. The danger to her life, the blizzard outside—all of it was gone. Everything that had come and gone before seemed frivolous and shallow. Right now—at this moment—she felt reborn. She was starting over with just one kiss.
It wasn’t until she moaned that Mac came to his senses. He immediately turned her loose, certain he was hurting her.
“Oh hell, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Then he shoved his hands through his hair and looked away, unwilling to face any more of her accusations. “The only thing I seem to get right around you is an apology.”
Caitlin stared at him in confusion. Her head was spinning, her heartbeat out of control, as she tried to come to terms with what he was saying. The imprint of his mouth was so real she had to touch her own lips to assure herself he was gone. At that point, she drew a shuddering breath.
“I don’t know where you got your information, but I wasn’t the one complaining.”
Then she lifted her chin and walked into her room, quickly closing the door behind her before she followed her own impulse to invite him in.
Staggered by what he’d done, Mac stood in the hall, seriously considering the option of going in after her. Fortunately sanity returned. Cursing himself for a fool, he turned abruptly and strode into his bedroom, dropping to the side of the bed in quiet dismay.
He’d learned long ago that, between midnight and morning, caution had a tendency to go to hell. He’d come to protect her, not complicate her life even more. And, he reminded himself,hedidn’t want any complications, either. He wasn’t a settling down kind of man, and Caitlin Bennett wasn’t anyone’s one-night stand. The fact that their mutual attraction left her angry and confused and him hard and hurting was too damned bad.
But as the wind continued to shriek outside the building, his worries became true fears. How long could they hold out against this growing attraction when there was a blizzard snowing them in?
Buddy paced the floor of his apartment, wishing he’d gone in to work. It was just after daybreak, and even though he’d taken a personal day off, he thought about reconsidering. He paused at the window and frowned.
The wind was fierce, the snow blinding, slowing vehicles to a crawl. Pedestrian traffic was sparse, and those who dared to venture out spent more time holding on to their coats and trying to stay on their feet than getting to any particular destination. He shuddered as he turned away, revamping his previous thoughts. Work be damned. There were other ways to occupy his time besides freezing his ass off.
The euphoria of killing the hooker had passed, leaving him with the unpalatable fact that no matter how many substitutes he killed, his target still lived.
He moved from the living room to his bedroom, taking comfort in the newspaper clippings, as well as the pictures he had plastered all over the walls. A poster-size photo of her hung above his bed. The beauty of her face had been marred many times over, but the act had done nothing to assuage his rage. The fact that there was now a bodyguard between him and justice was a thorn in his side, but not a pertinent issue. There were plenty of ways to get to her, and he was a patient man.
As he stood, he became aware of the silence. Except for the occasional rattle of the windows from the storm, everything was muted, buried beneath the wind and the snow. He closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath, concentrating on the sound of his heartbeat. After a while, he crawled into bed and pulled up the covers, letting his mind go free. And as he listened, the race of thoughts with which he usually lived stilled and peace settled within.
He was on the verge of sleep when the silence in the room was broken by a series of scratching sounds, followed by one very distinct squeak. His eyes opened, his nostrils flaring in anger. A large part of his paycheck went toward the rent on this apartment. It was a nice place in a decent part of the city, and yet there was no mistaking what he’d heard. There was a rat in the walls. That was something that belonged with his childhood. He wasn’t going to live in that kind of poverty again.
He climbed out of bed, yanking on clothes as he went, then stalked out of his apartment. Just as he reached the elevator, the power flickered. Unwilling to chance getting trapped in the elevator he took the five flights of stairs down to the super’s apartment. By the time he arrived, he was furious. It showed in the fervor with which he knocked.
“Who is it?” the superintendent called.
“It’s me!” Buddy yelled. “The tenant in 505.”
Buddy heard locks turning and then the door opened on the chain. When the superintendent recognized Buddy’s face, he came out into the hall.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
Buddy’s voice was soft, a deceptive indicator of his state of mind.
“There are rats in the walls of my apartment.”
The superintendent’s eyes widened nervously. “Can’t be,” he denied.
Buddy inhaled slowly, maintaining his composure. “Oh, but there are. I heard them.”
The superintendent shrugged. “I ain’t sayin’ you’re right and I ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, but it ain’t my problem. I just work and live here, like you.”
“And part of your job is to see that the complaints of the tenants are dealt with. I expect traps to be set in the basement and the owner to be notified. You tell him to get an exterminator into this building before he finds himself sued.”
The superintendent frowned. “You ain’t gonna win no lawsuit because of rats. The city is full of ’em.”
Buddy’s fingers curled into fists. The urge to punch that smug expression off the superintendent’s face was overwhelming, but he held his ground, maintaining the hold on his emotions.
“Not at the rent I’m paying,” Buddy said. “You know what I do for a living. I know important people. I could make big trouble for you and for the owner. You think about that. You think long and hard. You hear me?”
The man nodded nervously, unsure of the tenant’s true power, but unwilling to push the issue.
“Yeah, I hear you,” he muttered.
“I’m going back to my apartment now,” Buddy said, then poked his finger into the soft flesh of the man’s chest. “And you’d better pray I don’t hear any more scratches or squeaks.”
Without waiting for the man to answer, he pivoted angrily and stalked back up the stairs and into his apartment, slamming and locking the door behind him as he went.
Mac stood at the window of Caitlin’s living room, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. The stress of being snowed in with her was driving him nuts. Half the time he wanted to throttle her, the rest of the time he was dying to take off her clothes.
“It’s still snowing.”
“I know,” Caitlin said, without looking up from the pages she was editing.
She thought she heard a muffled curse but ignored it. She understood Mac’s frustration but she couldn’t change it. The snow of the past few days had turned into a full-fledged blizzard sometime after midnight, but its power was nothing to the kiss they’d shared in the hall. Afterward, she’d run like the coward she was and, by daybreak, convinced herself it meant nothing. But now Mac’s predatory prowl was starting to bother her. And when he turned around, she realized she’d been right to worry.
“Caitlin, we need to talk.”
She marked her place on the manuscript with a small red check and then looked up.
“Something’s happening between us—something I didn’t expect.”
Taken aback by his openness, she didn’t quite know what to say.
“I don’t know…maybe it’s the close quarters we’re in,” he said. “And maybe it’s nothing more than compassion for what’s happening to you, but I’m not in the habit of wantonly kissing my clients.”
Her mouth snapped shut, her eyes narrowing. “I’m not a client. I didn’t hire you, remember? You are free to leave any time you feel the need.”
He sighed and shoved his hands through his hair in frustration.
“See? We don’t get along at all. You don’t like me and truthfully, I didn’t think I liked you all that much, either. But I don’t want to mislead you about what’s been happening.”
“I’m not misled,” Caitlin said. “You kissed me twice, both times in anger. I think you need counseling to rechannel your emotions.”
He stared at her for a moment and then burst out laughing. It was the last thing Caitlin had expected him to do.
“What?” she muttered.
He was still chuckling when he walked over to where she was sitting and absently ruffled the top of her hair, as if he was petting a dog.
“You know something, kiddo? You just might be right. It’s after two. Aren’t you hungry?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well, think,” he said, and grabbed her by the hand, pulling her off the couch and toward the kitchen. “I’m starving, and I’m bored. So feed me or take me to bed.”
She grinned and punched him on the arm, not realizing it was their first friendly exchange.
“It will be a cold day in hell before I go anywhere near a bed with you.”
Mac grinned back and pointed out the window. “Wrong choice of words, girl. Have you looked outside lately?”
She looked startled, then laughed as she moved toward the refrigerator, unaware that Mac hadn’t followed.
For Mac, movement at that moment would have been impossible. He’d been intrigued by her smile, but her laughter had struck him dumb. He caught himself watching the sway of her hips and the lithe motion of her body as she leaned forward to peer into the refrigerator.
Oh man…this isn’t happening. I won’t let this happen.
And then she turned around, a jar of peanut butter in one hand, a jar of dill pickles in the other.
“Do you like peanut butter sandwiches?”
He looked at the jar of oversize green dills with dismay. “With pickles?”
“I have jelly.”
She eyed him curiously. “Somehow I pictured you as a more adventurous sort of man.”
“Adventure is one thing, gastronomic disaster is another.”
She set the jars on the counter and reached back into the refrigerator for the bread and jelly.
Mac set his jaw and strode toward the sink to wash his hands. He wasn’t going to let this thing happen, and that was that. They would eat peanut butter. They would fuss. They might even have the occasional amiable conversation. But there would not be any more kisses, that was for damned sure.
The phone rang as he was drying his hands. Caitlin answered, balancing the phone against her ear and shoulder as she spread a dollop of peanut butter across a slice of bread.
“Miss Bennett, Detective Neil here. How are you feeling?”
Caitlin smiled, still holding the peanut butter as she leaned against the wall.
“Detective Neil, how kind of you to call. I’m doing quite well, actually. Of course, I won’t win any beauty contests, but then, I don’t think that would have been possible before the accident, either, so I can’t say all that much has changed.”
“I disagree completely,” J.R. said.
“Thank you, but I think you’re just being kind.”
From across the room, Mac watched the play of emotions coming and going on her face. The way she was cuddling that phone was disgusting, and that stupid smile she was wearing was a total disgrace. He yanked the jar of peanut butter out of her hands, slammed two pieces of bread on his plate, slathered one side with peanut butter, the other with grape jelly, and slapping them together just as Caitlin giggled. He didn’t care what she did. It didn’t matter to him who turned her on or off. All he wanted was some food and a plane ticket back to Georgia. Chewing angrily, he poured himself a cup of coffee and then stalked to the window, realizing as he did so that he’d done little else since he’d been here but get hard for Caitlin and stare out windows.
Damned snow. Stupid, eternally miserable damned snow.
She laughed again. His nostrils flared as he tore a bite from the sandwich, his eyes narrowing angrily as he dug a hunk of peanut butter from the roof of his mouth with his tongue, then began to chew.
Damned stupid peanut butter.Then he realized the phone call was coming to an end and turned just as Caitlin said her goodbyes.
“That would be lovely,” Caitlin said. “Yes, and thank you for calling.”
She hung up the phone, the smile still on her face, and looked around for the peanut butter to finish making her sandwich. Mac swallowed his bite as he watched her, listening to the clink of the knife against the plate, the soft, almost nonexistent sound of her breathing, and then inhaling the tangy scent of dill as she opened the jar of pickles. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Caitlin looked up, surprised by the tone of his voice.
“It was the cop, wasn’t it?”
“Oh…well, yes, it was, actually.”
“Did he have anything new on your case?”
She frowned as she licked a smear of peanut butter from the end of her finger.
“I don’t think so. Actually he called just to check on me. Wasn’t that nice of him?”
Mac slammed his half-eaten sandwich back on the plate and set his coffee cup down on the cabinet, a sarcastic smirk on his face.
“Yes, Caitlin, it was nice…so nice. In fact, I don’t think I can remember a time when anyone was nicer.”
Taken aback by his sarcasm, Caitlin was at a momentary loss for words.
“Well,” she muttered, and then got her second wind, “I think you’re behaving rather childishly. What’s wrong with someone asking after my health?”
“Then stop acting so weird,” she said, as she resumed making her sandwich. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous.”
“Not in this lifetime,” he said, managing a weak chuckle while his legs went weak.Oh God, oh God. I am.
He looked around frantically for something to do and, in a panic, picked up his sandwich and took another big bite. But the more he chewed, the more certain he became that his life was out of control. He’d come to help his brother, not fall for some straitlaced bookworm who treated him as if he was only one rung above a snake.
Caitlin cut her sandwich into four pieces, then carried her plate to the table.
“Mmm,” she said, rolling her eyes in satisfaction as she took her first bite.
Mac felt himself gulp. If he could figure out how to become as attractive to her as that damned peanut butter and pickle sandwich, he would be in like Flynn.
“I need to make a few calls,” he said. “Check on the business…that sort of thing.”
“Feel free,” Caitlin said as she took another bite.
“Nothing’s free in this life,” he murmured, and walked out of the room.
Mac tossed aside the letters and then stood, a deep frown etched upon his forehead. He’d just reread the entire file of threatening letters that Caitlin had received, and the acceleration of anger in each one seemed so obvious, he still couldn’t believe the police had ever hesitated. Even from the start, the letters had crossed the line.
Yesterday he’d faxed them to a friend who was a profiler for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now all he could do was wait to see if his personal analysis was right. His gut feeling was that Caitlin Bennett’s life was in imminent danger. But how to track a faceless enemy? He’d been a good cop, and he was an even better businessman than he’d believed he would be, but unless they got a really big break in this case, Caitlin was going to be just what she was right now—a sitting duck, waiting for the hunter to pull the trigger.
“What do you think?”
He turned. Caitlin was in the doorway, her hands on her hips, her head cocked to one side in a questioning manner.
I think you look good enough to eat.“I think you were right to be concerned. I think whoever is writing these is past crazy.”
Her face paled.
Though he hated the fear on her face, it was still only fair to tell her the truth as he knew it.
“I’m waiting for a call from a friend in the Bureau. Maybe she’ll be able to help us.”
“What kind of a friend?” Caitlin asked, her interest piqued.
“Oh!” Interest replaced her fear as she thought about her book in progress. “Do you think when she calls I might talk to her?”
Mac sighed. “Caitie, I don’t know if—”
“It’s this book I’m working on,” she said. “I’m stuck on this scene and I thought if—”
He started to laugh. “God, but you’re something, you know that?”
“What’s so funny?”
“You’ve got a crazed fan writing you death threats. You got mowed down by a truck. And all you’re interested in is getting research for a book.”
She grinned, a bit self-conscious. “Okay, so you’ve found us out.”
“Us, who?” Mac asked.
“Us writers. I’m afraid it’s a common failing we have, to take life experiences and store them like a squirrel stores nuts. It’s in our genes. Never know when we might need to use something in a book.”
He frowned. “Hell. I better not show up in one of those stories.”
She smiled primly. “Of course not…unless, of course, I ever need a male chauvinist character with tunnel vision toward women.”
“I don’t have tunnel vision toward women.”
She chose not to remind him that he hadn’t denied being a male chauvinist.
“I’m willing to bet you do,” she countered.
Interested in spite of himself, the words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. “What kind of bet?”
She thought a moment and then started to smile. “If I win, I want to go to the park and make a snowman.”
“Hell’s bells, Caitie, it’s freezing out there.”
“But it quit snowing.”
He sighed. “And if you lose, what’s in it for me?”
She hesitated, unsure how far to push the tentative truce under which they were living.
“I don’t know what sort of things you like.”
A slow grin spread across his face. “I like women.”
Her mouth pursed primly. “That’s not news. Aaron speaks often of your prowess with the opposite sex.”
This time he frowned. “I wouldn’t call it prowess. I’m just unattached. You know how it is when you’re single.”
“If by ‘unattached’ you mean promiscuous, then no, I can’t say that I do. I don’t sleep around, Connor McKee.”
“I know,” he said softly. “That’s part of my problem.”
Her eyes widened nervously. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in this situation before.”
“What kind of situation?”
“You want the truth?” he asked.
Suddenly she wasn’t so sure. “Oh…never mind the bet. I’m going out. You’re welcome to come along.”
“I don’t have tunnel vision when it comes to women.”
Her eyes narrowed as she looked him over.
“You like women with big boobs and round hips and little bitty waists, and if they giggle when they talk, so much the better. You’re partial to redheads but won’t turn down an invitation from a blue-eyed blonde.” Then she crossed her arms over her chest and grinned. “How am I doing?”
She had so nailed the redhead from the ski lodge that it shamed him. God, when had he become so shallow?
“I’ll get my coat.”
“So you’re admitting I won the bet?” Caitlin asked.
“Don’t push your luck, woman. I thought you wanted to go outside.”
“What about your feet? You’ll need protection.”
“Now that you’ve bullied me into having your way, you’re worrying about my anatomy?”
“Connor, so help me—”
He grinned. “I packed an old pair of boots. They’ll do.”
“I’m going to change clothes,” she announced. “I’d advise you to do the same. Wear layers of clothing. It’s warmer than one really heavy coat, okay?”
“I am not your mother, God rest her soul,” Caitlin muttered, and stomped out of the room.
And I thank the Lord for small favors.The way he was feeling, he didn’t want to be any relation to Caitlin Bennett at all.
“Where are you going? You just got here.”
Buddy turned, his coat draped across his arm.
“I’ve got some personal business to tend to. I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” he said.
He left before further explanations were requested, shrugging into his coat and pulling on his gloves as he took the stairs down two at a time.
As he stepped outside, he patted the bulky packet inside the pocket of his coat to make sure it was still there. It was.
As he looked up, he saw the drivers of a trio of cabs on a collision course with disaster, blasting their horns at each other as they came together at an intersection, each refusing to yield. He winced, expecting to see them collide and then laughed when they slid past each other in a flurry of snow and curses. He could only imagine what their passengers were thinking.
The city was digging out from beneath the blizzard and doing a remarkable job, but it was going to take at least another twenty-four, maybe even forty-eight, hours before things would be back to normal. In the meantime, he had a mission of his own to accomplish that had nothing to do with snow.
As he started up the street, the cold hit him like a slap in the face. He paused at the corner, the breath from his mouth forming small, perfect clouds. They refused to dissipate, as if reluctant to leave the warmth from which they had been birthed. Debating with himself as to whether to risk his life and take a cab or use the subway, which would take longer, the decision was taken out of his hands. A cab pulled up to the curb in front of him and let out a passenger. Taking it as a sign, he jumped in the back seat as the passenger paid off the driver.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Manhattan…Riverside Drive. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Then he settled in for the ride, taking care to buckle up as the driver pulled away from the curb.
As the driver sped over the snow-packed streets, Buddy got an unexpected view of a strange anomaly. The distinction of the buildings had been so blurred by the snowfall that they all looked the same. If it wasn’t for the street signs on the blocks they were passing, he might have believed they were going in circles. Snowplows were out in full force, but it would be nightfall before all the main avenues had been plowed and probably another thirty-six hours before the side streets were finished.
Shop owners were out on the sidewalks, trying to shovel pathways to their stores, and so much snow was drifted everywhere that delivery trucks had to park halfway into the street in order to unload their goods.
“Hey, buddy, it’s a real mess, ain’t it?”
Startled to hear a stranger call him by name, it took a moment for him to realize the driver was using it as a gesture of friendliness, rather than recognition.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“The snow. It’s a mess.”
He shrugged. “A reflection of life,” he said, and then suddenly leaned close to the bullet-proof partition. “Let me out on the next corner.”
The driver eased in toward the curb. Buddy paid and got out, cursing as the snow went over his boots. The cab pulled away as he stumbled toward the curb. Once on the sidewalk, he looked around, judging his location against his final destination.
When he got his bearings, he smiled. A block north, then a half a block east, and he would be in the alley behind the Bennett Building. Feeling his coat pocket to make sure the package he’d come to deliver was still in its place, he lowered his head and started walking.
There were more people out than he had expected, and the closer he got to the building, the more he wished he’d worn a disguise. Thanks to a friend at City Hall, he had a copy of the blueprint for the building, and he reminded himself that he had been inside before. All he had to do was follow the plan and he would be fine.
He glanced down at his watch, judging how long he’d been gone against the time it would take to deliver his little treat. When he looked up, his heart nearly stopped. Caitlin Bennett and her bodyguard were coming toward him from less than half a block away. Without thinking, he ducked into the nearest business, which turned out to be a stationery store.
“May I help you, sir?”
“Just looking,” he said, and stepped away from the door as Caitlin and her escort passed in front of the building.
He stood without moving, watching the animation on her face and resenting the way her smile curved upward in delight at something the man must have said. Her behavior puzzled him. He would have sworn she was more intelligent than this. How dare she be happy when her life was in danger?
By the time they were gone, he was shaking with anger. It was time to get serious. What he had in his pocket was just a taste of what he had in store for her. Oh, if he could only be a fly on the wall when she opened his little surprise. But since he couldn’t, he would have to be satisfied with the fact that it would surely wipe that smile off her face.
All he had to do was jimmy the maintenance door in the rear of the building, follow the map in his head to the elevator shaft leading to the penthouse, leave his little “gift” and be on his way.
Mac didn’t know whether to be glad that Caitlin was happy or pick a fight with her just to regain some emotional distance. Every time he thought about saying something rude, she would look up at him and smile, and he would forget what he’d been going to say. Finally he decided to just let the day be. They’d been snowed in too long for him to bring the outing to a premature halt.
“I’m starving,” Caitlin said, pointing toward an entrepreneurial vendor who’d dared the cold to sell his wares. “Let’s get a pretzel.”
“You eat from those things?” he asked, unable to keep shock out of his voice.
Caitlin rolled her eyes as she dug into her pocket for some money.
“You are such a wuss. How do you think you’re going to protect me from bad guys when you’re too chicken to eat a simple pretzel? Besides that, I forgot my money. You’ll have to pay.”
“I’m not chicken,” he muttered as they stopped at the push cart, standing behind a man with two kids. He eyed the vendor suspiciously, watching him handling the pretzels, then taking money and making change with the same hands. “I just like my food handlers to wash their hands once in a while.”
Caitlin grinned and leaned toward him, whispering in a conspiratorial tone, “Oh, I’m sure he washes now and then, don’t you think?”
Mac glared. “You’re making fun of me.”
Caitlin laughed. “You’re an easy mark, McKee. It’s hard not to bait you.”
He started to argue, then saw his own reflection in the mirrored surface of her sunglasses and felt his stomach drop. He looked like a lovesick calf.
“Damn it,” he mumbled, and looked away.
Caitlin frowned. “Don’t be mad,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“My feelings are not up for discussion,” he said shortly. “Tell the man what you want.”
Caitlin turned, only then realizing that they were next in line.
“We’ll have two pretzels, please.”
“Four bucks,” the vendor said.
“For pretzels?” Mac asked.
“Do you see a better deal?” the vendor quipped, well aware that he had a corner on the market today.
Considering the fact that Caitlin was already chewing the first bite of her pretzel, he handed the man the money, took his food and moved on.
“Another reason why I left New York City,” he said.
Caitlin frowned. “Street vendors?”
“No. The high cost of living.”
“You can’t put a price on the place you call home,” Caitlin said.
The profundity of her words brought him to a halt.
“What’s wrong?” Caitlin asked.
He looked at her then, with the weak sunlight highlighting the fading bruises on her face. He sighed.
“Nothing is wrong,” he said softly. “The pretzel is tasty and hot, and you, my dear Caitie, have a fine way with words. Did anyone ever tell you that you had the makings of a writer?”
His tenderness was as unexpected as the compliment, and she could only stare at him in mute disbelief.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
She shook her head no.
“Tell me when you want to start back,” he said.
She nodded, still too dumbstruck to speak. And so they walked and ate, occasionally talking of things they saw until the food was gone and Caitlin’s cheeks were a bright, rosy red.
“We’ve been out over an hour,” Mac said. “Time to start back.”
Mac took her hand to help her over a slick spot and didn’t bother to let go. The farther they walked, the larger the lump in Caitlin’s throat became. If she wasn’t careful, she might begin to think he really liked her. And if she ever deluded herself about that fact, she would be setting herself up for such a fall. Connor McKee wasn’t the kind of man women like her fell for—not unless they wanted their hearts broken. He’d said it himself. He wasn’t into lasting relationships, and she was not the kind of woman who could live with one-night stands. She wanted a forever kind of love, with a home and family. She dreamed of being a mother, sharing things with her children that she’d never had. Oh, she’d had everything money could buy, but little else.
If only Connor liked her, she could let herself believe something more than antagonism might grow between them.
By the time they got to the apartment building, her toes were numb and her cheeks were burning from the cold. Mike, the security guard, looked up as they entered.
“Have yourself a good walk, did you, Miss Bennett?”
“Yes, although I think I froze my nose.”
He smiled while eyeing the man beside her. “And how are you liking our fair city, Mr. McKee?”
Mac grinned. “Ask me that after the snow melts and I’ll have a better opinion.”
“It’s been a bugger, all right,” Mike said. “You staying long?”
“As long as it takes,” he said, then eyed Caitlin. “I want to talk to Mike about…stuff. Don’t you agree?”
Caitlin hesitated, then nodded. It would be foolish not to alert the security guard in her own building that her life was being threatened.
“Yes, but if you don’t mind, I’m going to go on up. The hems of my jeans are wet, and I want a hot shower and dry clothes, in that order.”
Mac started to argue, then stopped. She was going straight up to the penthouse. He would be right behind her. What could it hurt?
“Okay. I won’t be long.”
She waved goodbye to Mike and headed for the elevator, taking off her scarf and gloves as she went. Behind her, Mac began explaining the reason for Caitlin’s injuries and the danger she faced.
The almost silent upward motion of the elevator was expected, as was the elegant bouquet of flowers on the hall table beside the elevator doors. Pausing a moment to admire the arrangement and sniff a favorite flower, she took her mail from the mail basket and let herself in, disarming the alarm as she went.
The warmth of the rooms enveloped her as she shut the door. Absently dropping her wet gloves on the entryway’s black-and-white tiles, she shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the hall tree, tossing her red scarf over it. Her feet were so cold they felt numb, but her shoes were still wet, so she sat down on a bench and pulled them off, too, before taking her mail to the living room. The thought of a warm shower was enticing, but she wanted to check for threatening letters.
A quick look at the envelopes assured her she was safe. The dark block letters the writer favored were on none of them. Relieved, she tossed the envelopes aside and picked up the packet that had been with her mail. Curious, she turned it over to see who it was from and then froze.
There on the front, written in bold, black letters, was her name and a holiday greeting. She picked it up, testing the contents by squeezing, then turned it over, staring at the flap as if it might burst into flames.
Finally she took a deep breath and opened, then turned it upside down over the coffee table and gave it a shake.
The contents fell out in hairy, blood-soaked chunks. When the head fell out, she started to scream.
Mac felt good about the day. Their truce was working, at least most of the time, and getting outside had done both of them good. Also, warning Mike Mazurka was like adding one more soldier to the battle, which Mac knew was far from over. He entered the elevator with a spring in his step. As it began to rise, he started reminiscing about their outing, remembering the way the sunlight had highlighted the silky texture of Caitie’s hair and thinking to himself that he’d always been a sucker for a woman in silk, when he heard her screams above him.
For a few endless seconds it was like watching helplessly as someone you love dies, and then the elevator stopped and the doors slid open. He came out shouting her name and ran through the unlocked door, following the sounds of her screams.
It took him several heart-stopping seconds to see her crouched in a corner of the living room, her head bent to her knees, her hands clutching her head as if she were being beaten. Once, when he had still been a cop, he’d seen a man burning to death in a car, and his screams were not unlike what he was hearing now. The sheer terror of the sounds cut all the way to his soul.
Readying himself for an attack, he gave the living room a quick, frantic glance, only to see she was alone. In three strides he had her on her feet and in his arms. Frantically he searched her body for signs of injury, but he saw nothing but the terror on her face.
“Caitie! Honey…what happened?”
The moment she heard Mac’s voice, her eyes rolled back in her head.
“No you don’t! I need you to talk to me!” he yelled, shaking her quickly to bring her back to her senses. If there was imminent danger, he needed to be aware of the direction from which it might come.
Caitie moaned as consciousness hovered. She was trembling so hard Mac had to hold her upright, and her screams had turned to huge, gulping sobs.
He was scared to death. Something had threatened her, and he didn’t know where to look.
“Caitie, talk to me. I can’t help you if you don’t talk.”
She pointed and then covered her face, unable to look again.
Mac turned, looking without success for answers. His gaze raked the room, skipping twice across the furniture before he focused on the coffee table. And then he stared for a moment longer before he realized what he was seeing.
“Son of a holy bitch,” he said, then led her to a chair by the window. “Sit here, honey. I’ll be right back.”
He moved across the room, coming to a stop beside the table but not touching what lay on top.
“Did it come in the mail?”
“There’s no postmark,” she said.
Mac’s gut knotted. That meant he’d been here—at the least inside the building, at the worst outside her door.
He squatted down, looking inside the envelope without touching it and saw something white inside. He stood abruptly, took off his coat and gloves and laid them on a chair, and then opened his knife and squatted back down. Careful not to disturb anything more, he worked the small piece of paper out of the envelope and rocked back on his heels.
The message was brief.
He stared at the rat. It had been hacked to pieces.
The meaning was clear.
He flipped the note over with the tip of his knife, only to see it wasn’t a piece of paper after all, but the back of a photograph—a photograph of her.
It was the head shot used on the jackets of her books, only this one had been horribly defaced.
Mac’s stomach turned as he looked at the cuts on the picture, symbolically slashing her face into quarters. He’d seen enough of this during his years on the force in Atlanta to know they were dealing with a very dangerous individual.
He closed his knife as he stood, dropping it carefully into his pocket as he studied the gory message before him. Then he turned to look at Caitlin. The fear in his gut was turning to rage.
She looked at him then, her gaze on his face, searching for signs of hope, and he grunted as if he’d been punched. This wasn’t personal, it was worse. Those occasional twinges of jealously he’d been having, coupled with moments of unadulterated lust, had turned into something to which he’d sworn never to succumb.
He went to her and quietly took her in his arms. Somewhere between the sound of her screams and the moment she’d almost passed out, he’d fallen in love. He hadn’t meant for it to happen to him—not ever. But it had, just the same.
She curled into his embrace as if she’d been born to fit. He closed his eyes, resting his chin on the top of her head, and pulled her a little bit closer. Her voice was shaking, her words thick with unshed sobs.
“I know,” he said, rubbing her back as he would have a child’s.
“I don’t want to die.”
He felt cold from the inside out. Right or wrong, whether she liked it or not, she was his.
“You’re not going to die. I won’t let you,” he muttered. “I promise you, Caitie, I will make it all right.”
Kenny Leibowitz’s cell phone rang just as he entered the lobby of Caitlin’s apartment building. Pausing, he juggled the gift he was carrying to dig the phone out of his coat pocket.
“It’s Susan, Mr. Leibowitz. Your two o’clock appointment wants to reschedule for earlier today. You have an opening at one. Is that convenient for you?”
Kenny thought quickly, running down the places he was going after he left Caitlin and then answered.
“It’s cutting it too close,” he said. “See if tomorrow is okay. I won’t be back in the office today, so let me know.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and disconnected.
Kenny waved at Mike as he dropped the cell phone back into his pocket.
“She’s expecting me,” he lied, as he strode to the elevators.
“Yes, sir. I’m not surprised,” the security guard said.
Kenny frowned as he entered the elevator and pressed the button. Mazurka’s comment seemed odd, and then he shrugged it off, choosing instead to admire his reflection in the mirrored walls. Smoothing his hair, he smiled cockily at himself as the car rose quietly to the top of the building. It pleased him to have clients who occupied the entire floor of a building. It pleased him even more when the clients owned the building, which Caitlin did. What would please him even more was if she would see him as more than a publicist. But he was going to have to mend fences before that happened, which was why he’d come.
The gaily wrapped package under his arm was a combination Christmas and get-well present for Caitlin. He hadn’t talked to her since the day she’d been released from the hospital. The fact that they had parted under less than congenial circumstances still rankled. She wasn’t his only client. She wasn’t even his most lucrative client, although she was by far the wealthiest in her own right. But he’d invested too many years in getting close to the woman to give up now. Just because Connor McKee had stepped between them—even if only figuratively—there was no reason to stop his pursuit.
So when the car stopped, he shifted the present to his other arm, strode off the elevator and across the hall, then rang the bell. As he waited, he began practicing his smile and opening lines, but it was Aaron Workman who let him in, and he never got to put them to use.
Distracted by the latest development in Caitlin’s case and the police who were now in the living room, Aaron was less than congenial when he saw the publicist.
“Oh. It’s you. Did Caitlin know you were coming?”
Kenny frowned as he took off his coat, handing it to Aaron to hang up as if he were hired help.
“No. I just wanted to stop by and see how she’s doing. Is she in the living room?”
“Wait!” Aaron said, and grabbed him by the arm as he started to walk past him. “Don’t go in there.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
Aaron lowered his voice. “The police are here. If you want to wait, you’ll have to wait in the kitchen.”
Kenny frowned. “Police? I thought they’d already taken Caitlin’s statement at the hospital. Why are they here now?” When Aaron wouldn’t meet his gaze, his heart skipped a beat. “Workman…has something else happened?”
Kenny’s anger surged. It had, he knew it. And once again, it would seem he was the last to know what was happening to his own client. He grabbed his coat from Aaron’s arms and then thrust the present at him instead.
“Here,” he muttered. “Give this to Caitlin with my compliments, although I don’t know why I bother. It’s obvious that I’m continually the last person to know what the hell is happening to her, when I should be one of the first. How can I do my job when everyone keeps secrets?” He cursed beneath his breath as he thrust his arms into his coat. “Just tell Miss Bennett I was here. She has my number.”
He strode out of the apartment without looking back. Once in the elevator, he called his secretary.
“Susan, have you rescheduled my two o’clock yet?”
“No, sir. His line is busy.”
“Well, when you get him, tell him that one o’clock is fine after all. I assume it was to be at the same place?”
“Yes, sir. He was going to change the reservation if you could accommodate him.”
“Tell him I’ll be there,” he said and disconnected.
His face was a study in controlled fury as he rode the elevator down in silence. He was tired of being yanked around and tired of being figuratively gutted every time he was around her. A few moments later, the car stopped and he exited, still full of righteous indignation.
Mike looked up from reading the morning paper and smiled.
“That was quick.”
“Rejection usually is,” he muttered, and kept on walking.
Aaron frowned as he carried the present into the living room and set it down. There was something strange about Leibowitz’s behavior. It was too damned proprietorial, and as far as he knew, there was no basis for it. He reminded himself that he didn’t knoweverythingthere was to know about Caitlin. Maybe she and Kenny once had a thing going and Caitlin had called it off. Or maybe Kenny wanted more from Caitlin than she was willing to give. Then he shrugged. He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that Kenny didn’t like him. Maybe it was jealousy because he and Caitlin had more than a working relationship, or maybe Leibowitz was just homophobic. At any rate, it wasn’t worth a worry, because he didn’t like Leibowitz, either.
He slipped quietly into a nearby chair, noting that the detectives were still taking copious notes, especially the female, Kowalski. Neil seemed determined to connect with Caitlin on a personal level, but Aaron had seen the look on his brother’s face when Neil had taken the seat closest to her. If it happened, Mac wasn’t going down without a fight. Even more suspect, Aaron had seen Neil place a hand on Caitlin’s shoulder in a manner meant to be comforting. Personally Aaron thought he was stepping over the line.
Then he looked at Caitlin. She sat huddled in a corner of the sofa beneath her favorite afghan, her expression shell-shocked, her eyes brimming with tears. His stomach knotted. He loved Caitlin like a sister, and the threats to her life were escalating at a frightening rate. And they had no suspect—not even a glimmer of a clue as to who was behind them.
His frown deepened as he studied Caitlin’s hesitant, almost breathless answers to the questions the detectives were asking. Her fragility was evident. One harsh word, an unexpected noise, and she appeared as if she would come unglued.
He glanced at the large padded envelope on the floor near the female detective’s bag and shuddered. They were taking the rat to the lab, but he couldn’t imagine what they expected to find. It was a dead rat. Period. Granted, it had been hacked to pieces, but still…He shuddered again. What kind of a mind would come up with something like that?
His gaze moved from Caitlin to Mac, and as he watched, he saw something he’d never seen before. Always before, the antagonism between them had been palpable. But there was a difference now. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
Then suddenly she looked at Mac. Whatever passed between them brought Mac rushing to her side. He sat down on the sofa beside her, and when he did, Caitlin grabbed his arm as if the simple contact would keep her afloat. Tears came to Aaron’s eyes as he watched Mac smile, then carefully straighten the afghan back over her feet so they wouldn’t get cold. It seemed to Aaron that Mac had, both mentally and physically, put himself between Caitlin and the rest of the world, and God help whoever tried to move him. He scooted a little closer, curious as to what was being said.
Neil leaned closer to Caitlin, briefly touching her knee to draw her wavering attention.
At his touch, Caitlin turned, her focus shifting to the detective.
“Were you talking to me?”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
Satisfied that, once again, he had her undivided attention, he continued. “I know this is difficult, but did you happen to see anyone lingering around the lobby when you and Mr. McKee came back from your walk?”
“Mike was the only person in the lobby.”
Neil’s focus shifted to Connor.
“Mr. McKee, during your outing with Miss Bennett, did you happen to notice anything out of the ordinary…like seeing the same person several times or—”
“Are you certain? Think back. Was there anyone who—”
“Detective…I used to be a cop,” Mac said shortly. “I would have known if we were being followed.”
Neil’s expression didn’t change.
“Out of curiosity, what precinct did you work in?” Kowalksi asked.
“Not here. I live in Atlanta. I worked for the Atlanta PD for almost fifteen years before I started my own business.”
“Why did you leave the force?” Neil asked.
Mac glanced back at the detective and frowned.
“I wasn’t kicked off, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he said shortly. “Besides, what possible difference could it make what my career changes have been? You’re supposed to be investigating Caitlin’s background, not me.”
“Just covering all the angles,” Neil countered.
But Mac wasn’t through making his point. He resented the familiarity in the detective’s manner toward Caitlin and the condescension in his behavior toward him.
“I was at my ski lodge in Vail when I got the call that Caitlin had been hurt. Where the hell were you?”
Neil flinched, reeling from the unexpected attack as Kowalski stepped in.
“It’s not personal, Mr. McKee, and with your background, you should understand that.”
Mac turned a cool glance on the woman. “Detective Kowalski, isn’t it?”
“Ever been on the receiving end of an interrogation?”
“Neither had I until now, and I’ll tell you flat out, it’s an insult.”
“I’m sorry?” Kowalski said.
“The questions you’re asking…the way in which they’re asked…they’re insulting. Four times in four different ways, you and your partner have questioned Miss Bennett’s memory and sanity. If she said she didn’t see anyone, she didn’t see anyone. If she doesn’t remember, she doesn’t remember. If someone had been following us…trust me, I would have noticed.”
Then he stood and pointed to the padded envelope at Kowalski’s feet.
“Some son of a bitch wasted hours of his life catching and butchering a stupid rodent just to scare an innocent woman. Personally I think he’s watched too damned many horror movies. I also think he’s trying to take her down, both mentally and physically, because he knows he’ll never be able to rise to her level. Now, if there are no new questions, I’ll show you to the door. You’ll be wanting to interview the security guard, as well as check out the building. Oh…you might want to make a note of this. The security system inside Miss Bennett’s apartment is impenetrable. I know, because I designed it and had it installed. So…the nut can mail all the crap he wants, but he’s never going to touch her. Understand?”
“Bombs have been mailed,” Neil countered.
“People who hack up rats don’t have the intelligence to make a bomb. Besides, then the game would be over, wouldn’t it? And the game is what it’s all about.”
Caitlin had been silent throughout the conversation until Mac’s last statement. But she couldn’t let this pass.
He turned. “What, honey?”
“What do you mean, the game is what it’s all about?”
He threw his hands up in frustration.
“Think about it, Caitie. I’m betting that since those letters began, he could have killed you a hundred times over, but he hasn’t. He’s getting off on your fear.”
Caitlin’s eyes widened as Mac’s words sank in.
“You’re right,” she said softly. “You’re absolutely right. I’ve been out on the streets alone countless times. The opportunity has been there at every turn. And still, what does he do? He writes letters. Maybe the police were right all along!” She jumped to her feet. “Maybe I was imagining things. Maybe it was an accident when I fell into the street. Maybe my only contact with this nut has been the letters after all.”
Now everyone, including Aaron, was staring at Caitlin as if she’d just lost what was left of her mind.
“What are you talking about?” Mac asked.
“You said it. He writes. I write. But he only writes letters. I write books. It isn’t the subject matter of my books that sets him off. It’s the fact that I can create something more than fear.” Then she shook her head, trying to make herself understood. “It’s like this,” she said, as she began to pace. “When a writer begins a new book, he or she is creating a whole world, populated with characters with a varying set of conflicts and problems. And during the story, we the writers are in control of everything. Oh…sometimes the characters take over, but that’s beside the point. What I mean is…from a skewed point of view, we give life…though only to our stories. This man, whoever he is, has no power. No control. The only thing he can create is fear, and although the letters can’t hurt me, I’ve given him control by giving into the fear.” She slapped the table with the flat of her hand. “But no more! I will not be frightened anymore.”
Neil stood, following Caitlin across the room. “Please, Miss Bennett, I urge you to reconsider your attitude. Complacency is dangerous. Don’t bet your life on such a far-fetched theory. You don’t know what a man like this might do.”
“My partner is right,” Kowalski said.
Mac frowned. Both detectives were pushing Caitlin pretty hard. The look on her face was somewhere between frustrated and cornered. Without thinking, he stepped between them, breaking their focus and giving Caitlin some breathing room.
“Look,” he said, “right now, it’s a toss-up as to what will happen next. The only sure thing is if the little bastard tries to get to Caitlin, he’s going to have to come through me first.”
Caitlin’s gasp was soft, but Aaron heard it just the same. He started to tease his brother about his unexpected show of chivalry, then saw the look on her face. It occurred to him that there were far too many people in the room. Now it was time for the other brother to come to her aid.
“I’ll see you to the door,” Aaron announced, then waved to the detectives and sailed out of the room, giving them no option but to follow, and leaving Mac and Caitlin alone.
Caitlin was still in shock. She’d heard what he’d said, but the enormity of the vow was just starting to sink in. When she saw his expression and the cold anger in his eyes, her heart started to pound.
The grim lines softened slightly around his mouth as he answered. “What, honey?”
“Just now, when you said he would have to come through you to get to me? You were serious, weren’t you?”
His nostrils flared. “Damn right.”
“But why? I’ve been nothing but rude to you since you came. Until a day or two ago, I wasn’t even sure that you liked me.”
He took a deep breath, as if considering his answer, and then he smiled ruefully. “Until a day or two ago, I wasn’t sure if I liked you, either.”
“What changed?” she asked.
“It’s like this,” he said. “I’m not too crazy about your choice of foods, but I like your honesty. I think you have more guts than any woman I’ve ever met, you’re beautiful and sexy, and I like to kiss you.” His voice softened. “I like it a whole damn lot.”
Now her hands were trembling so hard she clasped them together in hopes he wouldn’t notice.
“I don’t see how you could think I’m sexy. My face is black-and-blue.”
“And a little bit green,” he said, pointing toward her eyebrow. “Especially around the stitches.”
She rolled her eyes. “Such a sweet-talking man. No wonder the women flock to you.”
“I’m not interested inwomen,just you.”
“I don’t want you to be interested,” she said quietly.
Mac took a step toward her, then cupped her face with both hands.
“Why, Caitie? Why don’t you want me to care?”
She looked up at him then, her heart in her eyes.
“Because it won’t last. It can’t. We’re too different. Besides, I don’t want to be hurt.”
“I would never hurt you,” he said softly, rubbing his thumbs across the edge of her lower lip.
A longing hit Caitlin in the pit of her stomach as his fingers grazed her lips, then her cheeks, and she shuddered, wondering, if she let this happen, how long it would take her to go up in smoke.
“You wouldn’t mean to, but you would. It couldn’t be any other way,” she said.
“I wouldneverhurt you,” he repeated, and then lowered his head.
His mouth was warm, bathing her lips in tenderness; then the pressure intensified. Caitlin reached for him then, wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning into his strength. He felt the trembling in her body and the hesitance in her kiss, and ached for so much more.
Suddenly aware of footsteps, they broke apart. When Aaron came back into the room, Caitlin was on her way into the kitchen and Mac was standing at the window with his hands in his pockets.
“What did I miss?” Aaron asked.
Mac turned, his expression blank. “What did you say?”
“Don’t play innocent with me,” Aaron said. “I saw the look that passed between you two. I may not be straight, but I know lust when I see it.”
“It’s not lust,” Mac said before he thought, and then cursed beneath his breath. “Oh God, Aaron, I’m in over my head.”
“What do you mean?”
“Caitlin. I do not want this to be happening.”
Aaron resisted the urge to clap his hands and continued to play dumb. “I’m not following you,” he said. “What don’t you want to happen?”
Mac turned then, glaring pointedly at his brother’s smirk.
“If I didn’t know better, I would think you set this whole thing up just to get us together. You’ve talked about it incessantly for years.”
Aaron’s smirk blossomed. “Is it working?”
Mac’s glare darkened. “If by working, you mean am I going out of my mind worrying about her, then yes. This needs to be over—and soon. We’ve got to find out who’s threatening her and stop it before I do something I might regret.”
The smirk faded, leaving Aaron with a worried frown.
“Stop speaking in riddles, damn it. For once, can’t you just say what you mean?”
Mac sighed. “I’m attracted to Caitlin.”
Aaron’s eyes widened. “I fail to see the problem there,” he said. “She’s a wonderful woman. Why is that bad?”
“Because I don’t do commitments, and you know it.”
“Well…I’ve heard you say that for years now, but frankly, I think that’s been your safety net. Sarah has been gone for years and now you date airheads who can’t even spell commitment. That precludes you having to invest anything of yourself in them.” He punched Mac playfully on the arm. “Hot damn, big brother, I think it’s finally happened.”
“What?” Mac muttered.
“You’re falling in love. Now I’m going to tell Caitlin goodbye and leave you two alone.”
Mac’s stomach knotted. “Come on, Aaron. Don’t leave now. Stay and have dinner with us tonight.”
Aaron hesitated, then shook his head. “I’ve got an appointment in less than an hour. As for dinner, I can’t do that, either. I have a date.”
Mac shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. “Have fun,” he muttered.
“You, too,” Aaron said. “And be nice, while you’re at it.”
“That’s just it,” he said. “Being nice and having fun have never been synonymous.”
Aaron laughed. “It’s a shame you’re so damned tall.”
Mac frowned. “What the hell does my height have to do with anything?”
“It’s just that much farther for you to fall.”
Mac sighed in defeat. “Weren’t you leaving?”
“On my way,” Aaron said. “Oh…just in case you want to do something to impress her, she likes—”
Mac interrupted. “It doesn’t matter what she likes,” he said. “This isn’t going to happen, no matter what you think. I’ll call you if anything breaks on the case. See yourself out. I’m going to make some calls. God only knows what’s happening to my business.”
“If you were so reluctant to have anything to do with Caitlin, then how come you dropped everything the moment I said she was in trouble?” Aaron held up his hands. “Never mind. You don’t have to answer. But think about it, will you? You know what they say about the fine line between love and hate. Personally I think there’s been something between you two all along, but you were both too afraid to acknowledge it.”
Aaron left with a flourish. Mac heard him calling out a goodbye to Caitlin and then heard the front door slam. Seconds later, the phone rang. He waited, knowing Caitlin would answer. A few moments later, he heard footsteps coming down the hall from her office. Holding his breath, he waited. She came into the room carrying the phone.
“It’s Atlanta…for you.”
“I’ll be working in my office for the next few hours. Order up if you get hungry.”
He’d been dismissed without fanfare. Glaring at her backside, he shoved the phone to his ear.
“How do I look?” Caitlin asked as she exited the doctor’s office. The stitches were gone, and two tiny butterfly bandages had been left in their place.
Mac glanced at her eyebrow and then into her eyes.
“You’ve been crying.”
She grimaced. “It hurt when he took the stitches out. I’m fine. How does it look?”
“Right answer, wrong tone of voice,” Caitlin said. “Just for that, you have to take me shopping.”
“Shopping? I thought we were—”
“It’s almost Christmas. I still don’t have Aaron’s gift, and I want to buy something for Uncle John and Mike.”
Mac frowned. “I didn’t think your father had any living relatives.”
“Then who’s Uncle John?”
Caitlin smiled. “John Steiner. He was Daddy’s chauffeur for years. After Daddy’s death, he refused retirement to work for me. He isn’t really a relative, but he feels like it in my heart.”
Envious of the tender way in which she spoke of the man, Mac popped off before he thought.
“So you inspire loyalty,” Mac said. “I am surprised.”
Caitlin waggled her finger in his face. “Strike two, mister. Now you have to buy me dinner, as well.”
“Don’t push your luck, honey, or you’ll be the one furnishing dessert,” he said, taking some measure of satisfaction in the blush on her face as he helped her into her coat. “So…where to first?”
“Are you going to argue with me the whole evening? Because if you are, you can just take yourself back to my apartment. I’ll do my shopping and eat dinner by myself. It’s not like it will be the first time a man has let me down.”
Mac glared. She’d been perverse all day. He suspected it had something to do with the kiss. Well, he had news for her. He felt like picking a fight with someone, too. She might not know it, but she wasn’t the only one floundering for footing in the turn their relationship had taken.
They reached the elevator in silence. Mac pushed the button and then, as they waited, noticed that the top two buttons of her coat were undone.
“You missed a couple,” he said, and gently turned her to face him, then did up the buttons. “It’s cold out. You don’t want to get sick on top of everything else now, do you?”
Suddenly the antagonism between them was gone.
“No,” she said, quietly watching the concentration on his face as he fastened her coat and noticing that there were tiny gold flecks in the blue of his eyes.
“There, that’s better,” he said, and then the elevator opened and he ushered her on.
As they exited the office building onto the street, Mac felt Caitlin slip her hand beneath his elbow.
“Do we take a cab?” he asked.
“No. FAO Schwartz is only a few blocks away.”
They started walking, sometimes moving with, sometimes against, the crowds on the street. Mac soon noticed Caitlin’s unusual silence, but when he glanced down at her, he knew something was wrong. Her face was chalk-white, her eyes wide and fixed upon the face of everyone they met. It hit him then that this was Caitlin’s first venture out in public since the rat had been delivered.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She nodded without answering.
A block passed, and then a second, before they hit a red light. They reached the curb and stood within the gathering crowd, waiting for the light to change. As they did, Mac could feel her trembling. Without comment, he lifted his arm and slipped it around her shoulder in a sheltering manner, pulling her close against his side.
It was his gentleness that was her undoing. Caitlin started to cry. Softly, without sound, she turned in his arms and buried her face against his chest, her shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs.
The light changed, but they didn’t move. Foot traffic parted and spilled around them like breaking waves, but he was too engrossed to notice. His first instinct was to protect her. Carefully searching the passing crowds for a sign of danger, he saw nothing that caused him alarm. When the crowd of people thinned, he pulled her back from the curb against a building, his arms tightening around her as her tears continued to flow.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “I tried, but I can’t make this work.”
“Make what work?”
She lifted her head, her face streaked with tears.
“Pretend it didn’t happen. I know what I told the detectives…that maybe it was an accident when I was pushed. But I don’t believe it. I felt the hand in the middle of my back. Someone wants me dead, and I don’t know why. I’m afraid. I’m so terribly, terribly afraid.”
Mac wanted to shout; he needed to rage against the injustice of what was happening to her. But all he could do was stay close.
“Come with me,” he said, grabbing her arm and bolting toward the curb just as a phalanx of taxis came speeding down the street. “I’m taking you home.”
The nearest cab wheeled toward the curb as Mac hailed it. Moments later, she was inside and he was beside her, pulling her close. Still shuddering, she laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes. All the way home she kept thanking God for the man beside her, because she couldn’t do this by herself.
A short while later they entered the penthouse. Mac punched in the security code, disarming the alarm before it was activated, then helped her out of her coat.
“Do you want to lie down? Are you hungry? I can make you something to eat.”
She turned, her eyes still glimmering with unshed tears, and put her arms around his neck. She saw the shock on his face and knew what she was about to do would make it worse.
“You asked me what I want. I want you to make love to me. I’m so tired of being afraid. I need to remember what it’s like to know joy.”
“Mac, for God’s sake, I know you’ve made love with women for less reason. Am I so awful that you can’t even sum up enough—”
He groaned. Seconds later, he lifted her off her feet and into his arms.
“That’s just the problem. I have been summoning up passion for you for some time now. What I want and what we should do are two entirely different things. I don’t just want to make love to you. It would be my pleasure. But it will change everything between us.”
“It doesn’t have to,” she mumbled.
“But it will,” he said softly, then lowered his head and kissed her tearstained cheeks.
Caitie shuddered on a sob. “I just need to feel something besides despair.”
Mac looked at her then, at the windblown tangles in her hair and her slightly swollen lips. At the tiny adhesive strips over her eyebrow and the very faint bruising still evident on one cheek. Never had a woman been as desirable to him, and never had it seemed so wrong. But he didn’t have it in him to deny her—not now. Not after he’d seen her cry.
“Then come to bed with me, love. It would be my pleasure to give you joy.”
He carried her down the hall and into her bedroom, then set her on her feet. Without speaking, he undressed himself first, instinctively giving her time to change her mind. But by the time he was down to his slacks, she was already minus her shoes and sweater.
“Wait, baby…let me,” he said, and gently removed the rest of her clothes, then pulled back the covers and laid her on the bed.
Caitlin’s heart was pounding, her skin tingling and flushed. His body was lean and muscular, his erection impossible to ignore. She reached for him, encircling him as he came down to her. She heard him groan, then felt the warmth of his breath on her face. After that, everything became a blur: Mac’s hands, his mouth, the weight of his body pressing her deep into the mattress, then the joining, filling not only her body, but fulfilling his promise.
The joy…the joy.
Caitlin dozed in the shelter of Mac’s embrace, her dark hair in tangles on his shoulder, her ear against his chest while he lay wide-eyed and stunned, staring up at the ceiling. He’d never considered himself prophetic, but he was about to change his mind. Thishadmore than changed everything. It had changedhim.He’d never wanted just one woman before—at least, never for long. But the thought of ever making love to anyone else felt like a betrayal, and the idea of giving her up to another man was obscene.
She jerked in her sleep, and he tightened his hold. There was a slight frown between her eyebrows and a tremble in her lower lip. He knew she was dreaming, and God only knew what horror was playing out in her head.
“Shh,” he said softly. “I’m here.”
At the sound of his voice, the tension in her muscles began to lessen.
“You’re safe,” he said softly. “You’re safe.”
She sighed as she rolled, curving her backside against him as one arm dangled off the side of the bed.
He turned then, spooning himself against her body and pulling the covers up over them both. She was warm and pliant, and his heart ached for her vulnerability. He slid his arm across her body and held her close, letting his hand rest just beneath the weight of her breasts. He closed his eyes. He felt privileged that she’d asked him to make love to her and guilty that he’d given in to her plea. She’d trusted him enough to let him into her home. Then she’d let him into her bed. Now there was something else—something she didn’t know—and he wasn’t sure when, or even if, he would ever tell her. But while he was playing the gallant bodyguard, he’d let down his guard and let her into his heart.
Buddy had been watching the clock for almost an hour. The moment it ticked over to six o’clock, he got up from his desk and headed for the door. Every leash he had on his emotions was coming undone, and he needed to be away from his colleagues before it showed.
On his more rational days, he accepted that learned experiences naturally became a part of the human psyche. But now there were far more days when rationality was not a part of Buddy’s world. The more he fixated on Caitlin Bennett, the more scattered his mind became. At work, he was the man in charge. People came to him to fix their problems. And most of the time he did. No one knew how much he struggled to remain calm and organized. He was beyond suspicion in every way, yet when he left the job, he left sanity behind.
Out on the street, sounds were magnified, colors bled and ran one into the other like a kaleidoscope. He saw people’s mouths moving and knew they were talking, but the words echoed in his head, blurring consonants and vowels until he couldn’t distinguish one from the other.
In a panic, his stride lengthened until he was running for the subway. Once on board, he slid into a seat and closed his eyes, letting his head loll back against the window. Someone slid into the seat beside him, roughly jostling his arm as the car lurched into motion. He couldn’t bring himself to look for fear he would come undone. When he heard his stop being called, he came upright as if he’d been catapulted from the seat, pushing and shoving his way out of the car. He moved with the crowd as it flowed upward toward the streets. Moments later he emerged from the belly of the city, taking short, jerky breaths, like a newborn baby testing the world into which he’d been thrust.
“Hey, mister, step aside please,” someone said.
“Sorry,” Buddy mumbled. He shoved his hands into his pockets, lowered his head against the wind and started walking.
By the time he reached his apartment, he was on the verge of screaming. Thrusting his key into the lock with shaking hands, he was inside within seconds. Slamming and locking the door behind him, he moved through the rooms; ignoring dust and dirty dishes, he aimed for the bedroom. As he entered, he hit the light switch with the flat of his hand, illuminating the true insanity. Caitlin was everywhere in here. On walls, on the ceiling, bits and pieces of her had even been strewn on the floor. Only his bed remained unsullied by her presence. He shed his coat and gloves, letting them drop to the floor where he stood. Next came his shoes, then his clothes, and finally he stood naked. Without a care for the pile of garments he’d just shed, he crawled into bed and pulled the covers up over his head. Sleep. He just needed to sleep. After that, everything would be okay.
“Buddy…Buddy…I can’t see you.”
“I’m here, Mother…right beside your bed.”
“Make it stop, Buddy. You have to make it stop.”
Buddy covered his ears, unable to hear her ask it again. Every day for the last month she had begged him to take away her pain. The cancer she’d been battling had finally gotten the upper hand. The tumors were huge knots beneath her flesh, their poison infiltrating vital organs—sucking the strength from her body with every breath she took. Short of putting a gun to her head, there was nothing left to do but wait for her to die. And oh God…as much as he loved her, he prayed for it to happen.
The guilt of thinking that was killing him, too, only by degrees. She was the only person who’d ever loved him—had sacrificed many times during her life so that he might have the superficial luxuries that his schoolmates had—and now he didn’t have the guts to grant her dying wish? How could this be? How could he be so weak?
She coughed and then moaned.
He stared at her face, holding his breath and praying she didn’t take another. But, like everything else in his life, his prayer wasn’t answered.
She gasped, her fingers curling into clawlike fists upon the sheets.
He laid his head down on the side of the bed and closed his eyes.
“Please,” he begged. “Please, God, no more. She can’t take any more…and neither can I.”
“Sir…is there anything I can get you?”
He looked up to see a nurse standing by his mother’s bed. He hadn’t heard her come in.
“No…no…there’s nothing I need.”
The nurse smiled gently and then patted his mother’s arm.
“This isn’t one of her better days, is it?”
Better days? He looked at her, wondering why people didn’t just come out and say it. For God’s sake, she was dying. Why couldn’t they just say, “Your mother is dying”?
“She’s in pain,” he said.
“Doctor is giving her the maximum dosage.”
The nurse sighed and then lowered her voice.
“She doesn’t have long, you know.”
Another minute is too long, he thought, but he didn’t say it aloud.
“Ring if you need me,” she said, and left the room.
His mother moaned. He stood abruptly and strode to the window, unable to look upon the colorless, wasting flesh.
“Buddy is Momma’s good boy.”
Her words hit him like a knife in the back. He looked past the windows into the night beyond the hospital walls. It was starting to snow. He hated the cold. When spring came he would—
His thoughts stopped. When spring came, she would be locked in some casket and six feet under. His mother’s springs had come and gone. This was the winter of her life—her last winter—and it would be over none too soon for him.
“I hurt, Buddy. Kiss away the hurts.”
He turned then, his face wreathed in torment, and walked to the side of her bed. The scent of death was all around her. He leaned down, ashamed to be holding his breath as he placed a quick, gentle kiss on her cheek.