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Authors: Anne Stuart

Tags: #Romantic Suspense / romance, #Adventure, #kickass heroine, #rock and roll hero, #Latin America, #golden age of romance

Darkness before the Dawn (3 page)

BOOK: Darkness before the Dawn
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“Had to say about what?” Maggie asked, wiggling her bare toes.

“Studio business,” Caleb said, staring at her toes with unwilling fascination.

“About budgets,” Kate said at the same time, watching Caleb watching Maggie’s feet and not looking pleased. “Francis was way over budget on
The Revenge of the Potato People
, and his figures didn’t add up. Caleb decided to see me about them instead of going directly to Francis.”

“You’re in charge of production, Kate. It’s your job,” Caleb replied with maddening patience.

“You’re in charge of finances—it’s just as much your job to find out where the money went,” Kate snapped.

“I don’t want to argue about it. I want to know what Francis had to say.”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Maggie inquired smoothly, curling her bare feet under her and rolling her sleeves back up.

Caleb cast her an irritated glance. “Don’t you think I haven’t tried? He hasn’t been home all evening. I’ve called—I even stopped by—but there was no one home.”

“Why didn’t you ask him this afternoon before he left work?” Maggie persisted gently.

“Because he disappeared right after he and Kate had their battle in the lunchroom, and he didn’t bother to leave word with anyone about where he was going,” he said, telling Maggie exactly what she wanted to know. He turned back to her sister. “I need answers on this, Kate. The end of the fiscal year is only a month and a half away, and I—”

“You know what you can do with your fiscal year, Caleb,” Kate said sweetly.

Time to take a hand, Maggie thought, stretching her feet out in front of her and rising with all the languid grace she could muster—which wasn’t much, given her recent activities. She smiled up at Caleb McAllister, who had to be six foot four or five at least, and was pleased to see that she could still summon forth an appropriate male response. It had been years since she had tried, but right now she needed to get Caleb out of there and Kate settled down with a good book and a Valium.

“Why don’t you ask him tomorrow morning, Caleb?” she inquired, dropping her voice a note or two. “It’s after eleven already. By tomorrow, I’m sure Francis will turn up with all the answers. He’s probably just spending the night at a girl friend’s—”

Kate shook her head. “Boyfriend’s,” she supplied.

Maggie shrugged. “Anyway, I’m sure everything will be cleared up in the morning. As you said, you have a month and half to get the answers. Surely a few more hours won’t make any difference?”

Caleb looked torn. Maggie’s low, soothing voice was having a predictable effect, and he was warming to it while still trying to keep his attention on her embattled sister. “You call Mrs. Stoneham,” he ordered Kate.

“Did she send you out here?” Kate demanded. “I don’t believe you.”

“She was worried about you, Kate. When she called me tonight, she asked me to check on both you and Francis. She said she’d never seen you as angry and upset as you were in the lunchroom.”

“Then clearly she’s never seen me around you,” Kate said angrily, and once more Maggie intervened.

“Mrs. Stoneham can wait till tomorrow, too,” she said, taking Caleb’s strong arm in her hand and pulling him gently toward the door. “I don’t see what all this fuss is all about. Life must be extremely peaceful at Stoneham Studios if a little lunchroom argument can cause so much worry.”

A reluctant smile creased Caleb’s expression, and the change was a revelation. Maggie cast a surreptitious look back at her sister to see if she had any reaction to that glorious smile, but Kate was looking, if possible, even angrier.

“Peaceful, it isn’t,” he said. “All right, it can wait till tomorrow. Be in my office at nine, Kate, and bring Francis with you.”

Maggie coughed at the sudden vision, but Kate rose to the occasion magnificently. “Caleb, I’m not your employee, I’m your co-worker. If you want to meet with me tomorrow, you can check with my secretary for an appointment, and you can damned well find Francis and bring him along yourself!”

Caleb sighed ostentatiously. “You could learn some manners from your sister here. I’ll be in your office waiting for you at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Be there.”

The apartment was very quiet once the door had closed behind him. Maggie turned an inquiring gaze back to her sister and was amused to see temper still lurking around her eyes. At least it chased away the haunted, frightened look that Francis had engendered.

“I think he’s charming, Kate,” Maggie said mischievously.

“You can have him,” she snapped back. “He’ll be the death of me yet.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I had thought he might be the most likely suspect, but now I’ve changed my mind. He might kill someone in a white-hot temper, but he wouldn’t go to all the trouble of hiding the body and then framing someone else.”

“Caleb?” Kate echoed. “Caleb wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

“Then what’s your problem?”

“He wants me,” Kate said in a depressed tone of voice.

“So I noticed. I still don’t understand the problem.”

“I don’t want him,” Kate said. “I’ve had enough of men to last me for quite a while, thank you. Brian soured me for a good long time. I’m not about to go from a marriage to motherhood to a divorce to a custody battle to marriage again in the space of one year. Forget it.”

Maggie smiled. “I don’t know if Caleb will. He looks like someone who’s used to getting his own way.”

“Not this time,” Kate said firmly.

“Even if it’s what you want, too?”

Kate cast her a frustrated glance. “You don’t have to be so know-it-all. Why don’t you wash your face and find us what’s left of that bottle of whiskey while I check on Chrissie? It’s going to take a lot of Jack Daniel’s to get me to sleep tonight.”

“Me, too. Okay, little sister. We’ll get drunk together, and you can pour out your girlish heart,” Maggie offered.

“Stuff it,” Kate replied sweetly. “Bring the Scotch, too. It’s going to be a long night.”

“It has been already.”

“Amen to that,” Kate said. “And no ice.”

three
 

It took her a moment to remember where she was. The guest room in Kate’s apartment was large, and Maggie had kept the bedside light burning all night. It hadn’t kept the nightmares at bay, though—throughout her disturbed sleep, Francis Ackroyd had waltzed, pale and macabre, doing a graceful dance of death that left her clawing at the pillow and sweating in her sleep. And then, strangest of all, Randall had invaded her dream.

It had been years since she’d even thought of him, longer still since she’d dreamed of him. Randall Carter was one of the weak, unpleasant parts of her life, symbolic of stupid mistakes that she’d always regret. She’d learned long since that the only thing you could do with hideous, embarrassing mistakes was to accept them and then dismiss them. She’d done that with Randall and had been happily free of him since she’d met Mack. Why he’d suddenly returned to haunt her dreams was beyond her comprehension.

Still, she had to admit he was a better nocturnal companion than Francis Ackroyd’s restless ghost. She’d rather dream of Randall than remember the pale corpse she’d spent too much time hauling around town. She could almost be grateful for the distraction. The thought made her laugh ruefully as she pulled herself out of bed. Never in a million years had she thought she’d be grateful to Randall Carter. It just went to show that you couldn’t be certain of anything in this life.

There was no sign of Kate when Maggie staggered sleepily into the deserted kitchen. It was well past nine—she must have dropped Chrissie off at the baby-sitter’s and headed to
the studio to face Caleb McAllister. Maggie only hoped she’d be able to keep her cool. Caleb was so enamored of Kate that it would be a simple enough matter to distract him, but that seemed like the last thing her sister was willing to do.

The coffee was made, and Maggie wandered around the kitchen, sipping at the unaccustomed bitterness of the milk-less brew. Not once did she make the mistake of opening the refrigerator door. Kate had left a note—an early call to the building superintendent had resulted in prompt repairs while Maggie had slept the sleep of the just. The appliance stood there, a mute white monolith, a silent reproach; it made her want to return to the quiet guest bedroom. But Maggie was made of sterner stuff than that. She made toast in the kitchen, sipped her coffee, and ignored the temptation to glance over her shoulder. But then she grabbed the grapefruit marmalade that she and Kate shared a passion for and headed into the living room. She didn’t notice until she had settled herself on the overstuffed white sofa that she had been holding her breath.

Thank heaven they had rescued the marmalade when they’d emptied the refrigerator! The tart flavor soothed her with its familiarity. She could remember Mack teasing her about her fanatical devotion to it. For that matter, she even remembered that Randall had once presented her with a couple of jars of it when they had been trapped together in a dingy little apartment outside of Gemansk. God, why was she thinking of Randall again?

She drained her coffee and for a moment thought longingly of a refill. But the coffeepot was on the counter next to the refrigerator, and not even for another much-needed jolt of caffeine did Maggie feel like returning to the kitchen. The coffee could wait. In the meantime there were things to be done.

She moved over to Kate’s delicate Louis Quatorze desk and picked up the telephone. She punched in numbers that she knew by heart and wished she didn’t have to use. But this time she didn’t see any alternative.

“Central Intelligence Agency,” the anonymous voice announced smoothly.

Maggie considered hanging up. But there was no choice—not this time. “Bud Willis, please.”

It was a mercifully short conversation. “Hi there, sweetcakes,” his hatefully familiar voice drawled over the line from Langley. “How’s the black widow doing?”

“Just fine.” She’d inured herself to his jibes years ago. “I need something from you.”

“Listen, any part of me is yours for the asking. I’ve got more than enough to go around.”

“I’m sure you do. What I need is information. I need to know if you have any information on a Francis Ackroyd, or a Stoneham Studios in Chicago.”

“Now why would you want to know that, honeylips? You interested in becoming a movie star like your mama? You don’t have her knockers.”

“Willis, Third World Causes has an agreement with the government, and you’re part of it. You’re supposed to help me—no questions asked—when I need it. I need it, and you can stuff your damned questions.”

“Whatever happened to that sweet, ladylike demeanor?” he drawled back. “Not getting enough lately, that’s your problem. You just take a little trip to my apartment, and I’ll fix you up so you’ll be walking bowlegged for a month.”

“Charming. I’ll leave you my phone number, and I’ll expect to hear from you in the next twenty-four hours.”

“Or what?” Willis taunted.

Maggie nobly controlled the very graphic revenge that immediately formed in her mind. “Or you’ll be sorry, Willis,” she said gently.

“Oooh, I’m frightened. Don’t worry, Mrs. Pulaski,” he said, mocking the married name she’d always been too stubborn to take. “I’ll find out what you need to know. I may even have the information hand-delivered.”

“Willis, I don’t want to see your ugly face—”

“Not me, sweetlips. I’ve got too many things going on. I’ll be in touch.”

The man was pond scum, Maggie thought, stretching out on the sofa and looking at the Chicago skyline. But useful pond scum. She never did understand why he had decided to go back and ally himself with the CIA again, nor did she care. What mattered most was that she could, for some reason, trust what he told her. If Francis Ackroyd were involved in anything, Bud Willis could find out what it was. And Maggie’s oddly reliable instincts told her there was something going on.

“How are you surviving?” Kate’s voice was on the telephone, hours later, and if the edges were a little ragged, only Maggie knew her well enough to recognize it.

“Fine, but I’m not on the front line. How are you doing?”

Kate sighed. “Okay, I guess. Things are absolutely crazy around here—so crazy that no one notices if I’m a little distracted. They probably just figure it’s the court case.”

“What do they think happened to Francis?”

“No one knows. Someone’s been calling his apartment hourly, but of course there’s no answer. To top it off, Alicia Stoneham has shown up with a new investor, and we all have to make nice to him. The studio’s in deep financial trouble, and no one can afford to be rude, but he picked a hell of a time to make a visit.”

“Well, that’s not your concern. How soon can you get home?”

“I don’t know.”

“Take your time. Everything’s under control. I’ve called a contact I have in Washington, and he’s promised to look into it and let me know.”

“Look into what? What’s Washington got to do with a murder?” Kate demanded.

“Shhh, darling. No one knows anyone’s been murdered. At least, not yet. And it’s just a hunch I have. If there’s anything to know, Bud Willis can find it out. I’ve also called our dear
mother.” Maggie’s voice had the fondly mocking tone it always took on when she referred to Sybil Bennett.

“What for?”

“I thought she might come in handy looking after Chrissie. You know Sybil—she loves to pose with pretty infants, and Chrissie is a very pretty infant. I thought that if things got rough, the baby might stay with her. She’s getting a suite at the Mandrake and bringing her usual retinue, including Queenie. Chrissie couldn’t be in better hands.”

“I suppose it’s a good idea,” Kate said morosely. “God, I feel as if I’m caught in a nightmare. Listen, I’ll be home as soon—oh, no!”

“What?”

“Mrs. Stoneham just appeared in the hall outside my office. She’s clinging to Caleb’s arm and weeping. And there’s a policeman with them.”

“Looks like they found Francis,” Maggie said.

“Looks like they did. ’Bye.” The phone went dead. Maggie sat and looked at it. It did feel as if they were caught in a nightmare. But Maggie had dealt with nightmares before, and she’d deal with this one, too. In the meantime all she could do was sit tight and wait for Bud Willis to get back to her.

It had taken all her nerve, but she’d gone out and restocked the refrigerator. Kate had already done the dirty work the night before—she’d cleaned both it and the bathroom while Maggie had been hauling the steamer trunk to and fro. The newly repaired handle worked perfectly. Thank God there was no trace of the late Francis in the refrigerator—only some grapefruit marmalade that clung to the pristine white walls had escaped Kate’s eagle eye. Maggie had scrubbed it off, then refilled the fridge with every treat she could think of, from Hostess Twinkies to fresh-baked croissants, from French yogurt to chocolate milk. And then she had spent the afternoon sitting by the telephone and eating all the food she’d bought.

She still stayed away from the now-spotless guest bathroom; she’d even locked the door. Not that the room looked
suspicious, although the brand-new shower curtain didn’t quite match the decor. Maggie simply couldn’t bring herself to examine the tub more closely, either, trusting in her sister’s efficiency.

She was in Kate’s bathroom, applying enough rouge to make her look cheerful, when she heard her sister return home. She raced into the hallway, about to demand what happened, when Kate’s loud voice forestalled her.

“Maggie, I’ve brought someone home with me,” she announced. “Come out and meet Stoneham Studios’ new investor while I make us some drinks.”

Damn
, Maggie thought, slowing her headlong pace. Just their luck to be saddled with some star-struck magnate when they needed to make plans. “I’ll be right there,” she called, darting into her own room to slip on a pair of sandals and grimace at her reflection. The blond hair was a flyaway mane around her narrow face, and her aquamarine eyes were defiant and slightly scared. Well, all she had to do was charm the investor, and that was something she could do with only half her brain. Then they’d get rid of him as soon as possible.

The living room was in shadows—the sun was sinking behind the city skyline—and at first Maggie didn’t see their visitor. But then, over by the window looking down on the city, she saw a tall man clad in an impeccable gray suit that fit his body better than any suit had a right to. His dark hair was cut to shape his beautiful head. In fact, everything about the man who was turned away from her was perfection. But a sudden flash of horror and denial swept through her as she recognized that perfection. And she would have rather seen Francis Ackroyd propped up in the living room.

She hadn’t made a sound. Her sandaled feet were silent on the thick carpeting, and even if her heart had slammed to a stop and then began to race, there was no way he could have heard. But he turned, very slowly, and she knew he had been expecting to see her.

“Hello, Maggie,” said Randall Carter. And for the first
time in six years, she looked into the still, dark eyes of the man she hated most in the world.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Somewhere she found her voice. It came out scratchy and raw, but it was there all the same. She didn’t move any closer but just stood staring. A distant part of her marveled at the fresh waves of hatred that washed over her. She wasn’t a hating woman, and yet here she was, immersed in hate, awash in it, hating Randall Carter as if it were only a week ago that he’d broken her heart and smashed her ideals without the slightest feeling of remorse. There was no remorse in him now—just a waiting, watchful expression on his narrow, clever face.

“I thought your sister told you,” he said. His low, even voice brought other memories of rage and pain. “I’m thinking of investing in Stoneham Studios. I decided to come here and check them out.”

“When did you decide? Sometime after ten this morning, I suppose?” she demanded. Willis must have sicced him on her—he
must
have.

Randall shook his head. “I’ve been in Chicago for three days now, Maggie.”

Kate bustled in, a tray of drinks in her slightly trembling hands. “I see you two have met,” she said brightly. “I’m so glad—I hate to make formal introductions.”

“We’ve met,” Randall said quietly, his eyes still unfathomable as they watched Maggie. “Did your sister tell you about the excitement at the studio today?”

“Excitement?” Maggie echoed innocently.

“One of my co-workers was found murdered,” Kate said, and if her voice shook slightly, that was an understandable reaction. “His name was Francis Ackroyd. I don’t think you ever met him, Maggie. Someone shot him.”

“How perfectly ghastly,” Maggie said, taking the proferred drink and forcing herself to sip it lightly. She was experienced at dissembling; she was much better at it now than she’d been when she’d first known Randall. But somehow those dark
eyes of his made her feel suddenly gauche and uneasy. “Do they know who did it?”

Kate shook her head. “They’ve ruled out robbery—nothing was taken from his apartment.”

“Is that where he was killed? In his apartment?”

“That’s where he was found, Maggie,” Randall said, and she told herself that she was only imagining the wealth of meaning in his slow, deep voice. She moved away and turned her back on those eyes that she hated.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Kate broke it with sudden chatter. “Everyone was completely freaked out, Maggie! The police were all over the place, asking questions, and Alicia Stoneham was prostrate—”

“The poor woman,” Maggie tried to interrupt her sister’s nervous spate of words. “She’s been through so much the last few years, what with losing her husband and trying to keep the studio together. She doesn’t deserve this sort of thing.”

“No one does,” Randall said. “I would think it would be harder on the victim.”

“I don’t know. At least it’s all over for the victim. He doesn’t have to deal with the horrible aftermath of violent crime. He’s well out of it.”

“I think I’d prefer to deal with the horrible aftermath,” Randall said.

“You
would,”
Maggie shot back. Kate stared at her in sudden surprise, no doubt shocked by her rudeness to the supposed stranger. Maggie considered explaining to Kate that she’d known Randall in her scarlet past; she considered it, and then dropped the idea. Kate didn’t need anything new to worry about, not when she looked as if she were on the edge of collapse already. It could wait until Maggie found out why Randall really was there. His story about investing in Stoneham Studios was so farfetched, it was a joke. Randall never did anything that didn’t make piles of money, and it would be a long time before Stoneham turned a profit once more.

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