Authors: Starr Ambrose
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Suspense
That might be hard to do, considering she’d thrown the first punch, but she was holding out her hand, fingers wiggling impatiently, and damned if he wasn’t curious to see how this played out. Besides, he couldn’t leave her alone until she understood just how much danger she was in.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket, and she snatched it away. Dialing rapidly, she tapped her foot while she waited. Finally, she straightened. “Hi, Zoe, it’s me.”
She winced, and he bit back a smile. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who found her aggravating. “I’ll explain, just let me in the door by the kitchen. I don’t want anyone to see us.” When her eyes flicked up to his, he knew her sister had asked who was with her. “The guy who kicked Mr. Universe in the gut.”
Smiling sweetly, she snapped the phone shut and handed it back. “Follow me.”
She marched off without a backward glance. He narrowed his eyes at the swing of her hips under her short black skirt, and weighed his options. His cover was blown. Red had just jumped into more danger than she knew and—taking a wild guess—she was bound to make it worse.
Shit. Shoving the phone in his pocket, he marched after her.
Her name was Maggie. He gathered that much during the enraged tirade from the highly polished, younger version of her that was her sister Zoe. To be fair, it was probably the official hotel management duds that made Zoe look so prim and proper—navy-blue skirt and blazer, white blouse, and strawberry-blond hair identical to her sister’s but pulled into a neat bun. Maggie’s loose, stylish bob went a long way toward erasing any hint of prim and proper.
So did her attitude.
“I tried not to start something, I swear,” she claimed, brushing by her sister to head down the hall. Cal trailed them to what was apparently Zoe’s office. Maggie paced before the desk, hands alternately combing hair off her neck and gesturing as she talked. “I told him to get lost several times, but the little perv wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Since Zoe didn’t ask who the perv was, he figured she’d already heard some version of the incident.
me.” Maggie glared, looking like she’d like to smack De Luca again. “And even then I controlled myself, Zoe. I didn’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“But you did.” Zoe stood with arms crossed, unmoved by her sister’s anger.
“Yes, and you know why?” Maggie put her hands on her hips, pretty pink lips pressed into a tight line. “He said he could give me what I wanted, and he knew I’d like it—because I’m one of the Larkin girls.”
Zoe’s arms dropped. “Oh.” A pained look crossed her face. Cal definitely had to look into the significance of their last name.
With all the energy sucked out of her anger, Zoe’s gaze finally shifted toward Cal. “Who are you?”
“Cal Drummond. I hauled your sister’s ass out of there before it got really ugly.”
Maggie planted her hands on her hips. “I was handling it.”
“Bullshit,” he scoffed. “You were asking to get killed. Rafael De Luca is a dangerous man.”
Her eyes narrowed, a look he was getting used to. “Thanks a lot. I brought you along to back me up, not throw me under the bus.”
“It happened just like she said,” he confirmed to Zoe, then turned a hard look on Maggie. “And it was incredibly stupid.”
“Hey! I stood up for myself. I was brave, damn it.” She was seething.
Brave . . . and reckless. The words hit him like an icy splash of water. He’d been attracted to that mix once before and knew how deadly it could be; how devastating. It was something he never wanted to go through again. “There’s a fine line between brave and stupid, lady, and you plowed right over it.”
Zoe looked ready to side with him. “Couldn’t you have been a little more diplomatic? I’ve got half my staff out there trying to soothe some very powerful, very pissed-off customers. I’ll probably have to comp their meals and rooms for several days just to keep them from suing the resort.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Cal said.
She arched a condescending eyebrow. “Oh, really? Why not?”
“Because you shouldn’t let the De Lucas put you on the defensive. And when I say the De Lucas, I mean their lawyers, because that’s who you’ll be hearing from. You could have easily called the cops on their precious boy and his hired ape, but you didn’t. Be sure to point that out. Forget the sexual harassment part—”
“Sure, that’s not important,” Maggie muttered.
Cal ignored her. “It’s too hard to prove and you’ll only get conflicting stories. But the big guy they employ pulled a gun in a crowded room. Maybe he only planned to scare your sister with it, although I wouldn’t bet on it. He had two drinks while I was there—seriously unprofessional for a bodyguard. He’ll probably get fired for letting something happen in the first place, but if I were you I’d point out what you
do. You didn’t call the cops and make an official report, you didn’t have their gun-wielding bodyguard Breathalyzed, and you didn’t have Rafe held on charges of harassment. Maybe none of it would stick, but it wouldn’t matter because it would already be headlines, and not the kind they want. You know it, and they know it. Rafe caused the mess and
minimized the damage.”
Zoe stared at him for several seconds, then gave a curt nod. “Thanks, I can use that.”
Maggie peered at him. “Who
“I’m a cop.”
“Oklahoma City. I’m with the state police, but I’m on leave.”
“And you just happen to be in an exclusive resort in the Colorado Rockies, watching me?”
He uttered a short laugh. “You? I was watching De Luca.” And okay, Maggie, too, which still irritated him enough to make him deny it. “I’ve been following him for three weeks.”
Zoe tilted her head, puzzling it out. “Not because you’re a fan, I imagine.”
“Hardly,” Cal scoffed. “Flexing and posing for the camera is only one of the things Rafael De Luca does. The other is less pretty.” He flicked a glance at Maggie. “He’s a killer.”
He watched their mouths open and their eyes go wide before Maggie blurted, “
Rafe De Luca
? Star of tabloids and reality TV, famous for being rich and obnoxious?” She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “The man can’t even go into Starbucks without causing a media alert. How could he possibly get away with murder?”
He noted that she hadn’t doubted he’d do it, just that he’d get away with it. At least she had no trouble reading the man’s character. “If I’m right, he’s gotten away with it several times. He has a violent temper, a lust for power, and a family that will go to any lengths to protect the reputation of their only son.”
“You’re kidding.” Zoe sank into her chair, staring at him in disbelief.
“I wish I were.”
Maggie seemed less shocked than skeptical. He didn’t know if that was due to his claim, or the fact that it came from him. “You can prove it?”
“Not yet.” It was a sore spot, since he wasn’t sure how he ever would, short of finding the bodies on Rafe’s property. He figured the odds of that were greatest right here, where the De Luca family had a huge estate and where two of the young women in question had last been seen.
“But you’re building a case? I can’t believe the Oklahoma police would let you trail him to Colorado. Are you working in conjunction with the FBI?”
She was sharper than he’d thought. “No,” he admitted. “I took a leave of absence, like I said. I’m doing this on my own.”
Maggie took several seconds to absorb the information, rubbing a finger over her lower lip as she thought, which he found distracting all over again. “Why?”
He dragged his focus away from her mouth. Her eyes had softened, and he knew she’d already guessed it was personal. “His last victim was my half sister Julie.” The corners of her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. “She lived in L.A. Her body was dumped in the hills. She’d been bound and her throat was cut.”
“Oh, my God,” Zoe breathed.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie murmured.
“Me, too.” He heard the gruffness in his voice, and hardened his expression to match it. Anything to keep the vise grip of guilt from immobilizing him now that he’d finally started making progress. When it came down to it, he’d barely known Julie, but guilt could be just as crippling as grief.
Scowling, he said, “Once I started looking into it, I saw a pattern of missing women leading back to Rafe. I don’t want to see it happen again. I took a personal leave after Julie’s funeral last month, and I’m not going back until I stop the son of a bitch for good.”
Maggie nodded once, as if approving his plan. “But he’s not going to do that to me.” The aggression was gone, but the naive, stubborn confidence was still there. “It would be a stupid move—there were too many witnesses. He’d be the first suspect.”
Cal heaved a sigh, his exasperation with her returning. “You don’t get it. You made him look bad in public, and the De Lucas
look bad. He’s going to fix it one way or another.” He stepped closer, making sure Maggie’s golden-brown eyes couldn’t look away from him. He needed her to understand. To
. “Don’t underestimate what just happened. Rafe is probably already huddling with the family lawyers, trying to figure out the best way to put a positive spin on your little incident.”
“You act like it’s headline news.”
“It is! Didn’t you see the cameras flashing? That place was full of paparazzi.”
“But they don’t know who I am.”
“By tomorrow morning they will.” A flicker of discomfort touched her eyes, and he went after it, ruthlessly driving home his point. “You’re going to be tabloid headlines, Maggie. They’ll have your name, and they’ll be digging hard to find mine. The incident will be blown out of proportion and so will the theories they come up with for why it happened. Have you ever read those papers? You’re in the shark tank, lady, and they smell blood.”
Worry lines creased her forehead. “I don’t have to talk to them.”
“That’s your best move, but it won’t be enough.”
She blinked, staring, and he saw real apprehension finally settle in. She licked her lips nervously. “Then how can I stop it?”
“You can’t. Rafe de Luca’s coming after you, and there’s nothing you can do but try to survive it.”
aggie couldn’t believe this guy. He was actually glad he’d scared her. How mean could you get?
But she suspected he was right about the press coverage. She remembered the camera flashes, making his scenario of headlines and wild speculation all too believable. Rafe wouldn’t take this well. She just didn’t know what he’d do about it.
“I’m going home,” she announced. “If reporters are going to be calling all day tomorrow, at least I can get a good night’s sleep first.”
Zoe opened a drawer and took out Maggie’s purse. Handing it over, she said, “Call me tomorrow.”
Cal pulled out his phone. “I’ll follow you home. Give me your number.”
She managed not to laugh. “I don’t think so—to both of those statements.”
He gave her a disgusted look. “I’m not hitting on you. I’m following you to make sure no eager reporters are tailing you. And if they do, I have to be able to call you so you can keep going and not lead them to your house. They’ll find it eventually, but you might as well make them work for it.”
He made it sound like swarms of reporters would be after her, when everyone in their small, nosy town knew there were only three or four at most hanging around the cast of
Trust Fund Brats
. Probably just another attempt to scare her. “I think I’d know if someone were following me.”
“Well, I don’t, so why don’t you humor me?”
She met his stubborn stare with one of her own.
“Makes sense to me,” Zoe said, turning traitor without hesitation.
Too bad. Maggie didn’t give out her number to just anyone, and she certainly didn’t let strangers follow her home. Maybe other women fell for his let-me-protect-you routine, but for all she knew Cal Drummond was worse than Rafe De Luca. Rugged good looks and flat abs weren’t enough to make her abandon common sense.
Heck, she didn’t even know if he was who he claimed to be.
Thrusting out her hand, she said, “Show me some identification.”
He said nothing, but his mouth twitched up on one side as he reached into his pocket and handed over his whole wallet.
It fell open to credit cards and photos. The picture on top showed a pretty dark-haired woman in a formal gown. Low-cut, with plenty of cleavage. A girlfriend? The sister? She didn’t look anything like him.
Quickly flipping the photos over, she checked the driver’s license. The same guy, but with shorter hair. She glanced up; the longer style worked better. Something worked, anyway, because if she overlooked the clenched jaw and hard stare, he wasn’t bad-looking. In fact, if he weren’t being such an annoying ass, she might . . .
“Here.” She thrust it back.
Tucking it away without comment, he held up his phone, thumb poised over the numbers, waiting. Zoe waited, too.
Maggie gritted her teeth and rattled off her phone number. Stalking toward the door, she added, “Feel free to lose it after tonight.”
She heard the muttered “Gladly” as she walked out with Cal on her heels.
She knew he was behind her on the winding drive down the mountain only because of the constant distance he kept between their cars, two headlights she couldn’t shake. When she pulled into her drive he slowed, idling down the street until she closed the front door behind her. When she looked again from the living room window, he was gone.
She didn’t sleep well, and blamed it on Cal. He’d been so sure she’d be a tabloid sensation by morning that she couldn’t relax, and kept waking every hour until she gave up and decided to open the store early. Saturday shoppers weren’t early risers, but she could always find paperwork to keep her busy.
Traffic was light at seven in the morning. Few downtown stores opened before nine, including hers. The town of Barringer’s Pass fit snugly into a narrow valley between three towering peaks, with the picturesque downtown crowded alongside a rushing snow-fed stream. The stream was high with May’s snowmelt, swirling around boulders and flashing in the morning sun. On the east bank, old brick buildings lined the main road through the pass, most dating back more than a hundred years, to the town’s first settlers. Maggie cruised by slowly, scanning the brick sidewalks and the pedestrian bridge over the stream that led to the public parking lot. Only a few people were out, drawn by the coffee shop on the corner. The other storefronts were dark.
Perfect. She could duck inside before any of Cal’s rumored reporters showed up, if they ever did, and spend a quiet two hours on inventory before she had to open the doors. Then, if a reporter showed, she’d be ready to give them a few minutes for a polite but brief “no comment.”
She drove around to the small employee lot, parking behind the back door of Fortune’s Folly. She’d named the store after the abandoned silver mine on Tappit’s Peak that had drawn settlers to this area. The mine had fizzled back in the 1930s, but Maggie’s store had struck gold. Her eclectic home and office decor found plenty of customers among the wealthy residents and visitors to Barringer’s Pass.
Locking her car, she headed for the back door and was halfway there when a car door slammed, and she turned to look. A man in a suit moved briskly on an intercept course, waving when he caught her eye. He didn’t look like a reporter. The suit was too expensive, and the portfolio under his arm surely wasn’t standard issue for paparazzi. She waited.
“Good morning, Miss Larkin.” He held out his hand, offering a business card. “Parker Jameson, with Finch, Hartley, Bass and Epstein.”
She glanced at the card, then at the three-piece suit, and finally met Parker Jameson’s smile with a more cynical expression. Cal Drummond had been right. “Let me guess—you represent Rafe De Luca?”
“My firm represents the De Luca family, yes. May we go inside and talk?”
She was tempted to say no, but the forty-degree breeze rippled her thin blouse and slipped beneath her skirt. It might be late May, but winter didn’t surrender easily at this elevation. She unlocked the back door, letting Parker Jameson follow her inside, but not into the shop itself. As clean and wholesome as Jameson looked, he worked for the De Lucas; she suspected that something slimy lurked beneath the surface. The back room was good enough. Tossing her purse on the packaging table, she turned to face him. “What do you want?”
Jameson zipped open his portfolio as he went into his pitch. “We are, of course, aware of the unfortunate incident at the Alpine Sky resort last night. The De Luca family would like to offer you reassurances that they believe no action need be taken against you.”
“That’s correct.” He stepped around her and laid a thin stack of papers on the fake wood grain of the worktable. “These papers have already been signed and witnessed, affirming that neither Rafael De Luca nor the De Luca family will bring charges against you or in any way hold you at fault for the unfortunate misunderstanding between you and Mr. De Luca.”
She stared at the papers, then at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Not at all. All you have to do is sign your name, and the matter is resolved.” He pulled a silver ballpoint from the portfolio and held it out to her.
Since he was going with the lawyerly façade that all parties involved were reasonable, intelligent people, she kept a civil tone. “There’s a slight problem, Mr. Jameson. It seems Rafe and I have differing explanations for what happened.”
His smile held a touch of condescension. “There are always two sides to any dispute, Miss Larkin. But in this case, the facts don’t matter.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s a unique approach to the law.”
“The particulars need not be discussed. In fact, the agreement states that both you and Rafael will refrain from commenting on the details of the incident. A brief statement will be released to the press by the De Luca family explaining that it was simply a disagreement between two passionate people that has since been resolved. A lovers’ quarrel, so to speak.”
? You can’t seriously expect me to tell people that I’m actually dating that scum-sucking piece of garbage!”
He didn’t even blink. “Miss Larkin, we expect you to say nothing whatsoever. People will think what they will, and you and Rafael need only carry on the charade for a few days before a mutual decision to end your relationship. This will, of course, be announced to the press, at which time the media will undoubtedly lose interest in you.”
So much for remaining civil. “Yeah, they’ll lose interest, but you will already have trashed my name. There is no relationship! I’m not going to pretend there is, so just forget it.” She picked up the papers and slapped them against his chest, forcing him to grab them.
“Miss Larkin, you may want to rethink that decision.”
“I doubt it.”
“If you don’t want to go along with what I assure you is your best option, then the De Lucas will be forced to handle this on their own.”
“Fine, whatever.” She moved toward the door, a broad hint that he should follow.
He didn’t. “Since they will be forced to assume you are opposed to protecting their best interests, they will not be able to protect yours.”
His tone was as businesslike as before, but the words sounded threatening. She tipped her head, watching him through narrowed eyes. “What does that mean?”
He shrugged. “I believe it means if you are not with them, you are against them. I really can’t say what the actual details might involve.”
But it wouldn’t be anything good. The De Lucas maintained a home in the area, one of several all over the world. Thanks to their ownership of a major movie studio and record label, they were rich and famous on an international scale. Rafe’s playboy lifestyle had only added to the media’s fascination with the family. Opposing them wouldn’t be smart.
That didn’t negate the fact that going along with their version of events would be disgusting, dishonest, and just plain wrong. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself. “Thanks but no thanks,” she told him.
Parker Jameson tucked the papers back in his portfolio and zipped it shut. “You have twenty-four hours to think about it, Miss Larkin. I’ll contact you later.” He smiled, not attempting to hide his disrespect. “Unless, of course, you call me before then. If you’re as smart as I hear, you will.” He walked past her, opened the door, then glanced back. “Have a pleasant day. I believe there are some people here to see you.”
She caught the door before it closed and looked outside. Two men stood by her car, camera straps slung over their shoulders, and hands cupped around their eyes as they peered in the windows. Crap—only tabloid reporters could be that bold. Still, that didn’t mean she had to put up with fingerprints all over the glass, or scratches if one of those cameras banged against the side of the car.
“Hey, guys!” They looked up. “Hands off the car, okay?”
They straightened immediately. “Maggie! Could we get a quote from you about your fight with Rafe De Luca?” They both jogged toward her. “Is it true your fight was because he was upset about your police record?”
“What?” She scowled, mouth hanging open in astonishment. One of them chose that instant to raise his camera and take her picture. She snapped her mouth closed. “Who have you been talking to? I don’t have a police record.”
They kept coming, throwing out questions as they did. “How long have you and Rafe been seeing each other?” That was from the shorter one who’d taken her picture.
“Weren’t you the secret woman he was with in Hawaii last month?” asked the taller one as he, too, reached for his camera.
“No! We aren’t . . .” She realized she was falling into their trap, and shut her mouth, glaring. Another priceless Kodak moment was captured with a flash. “No comment!” She slammed the door.
Leaning against it, she took several deep breaths. Fists pounding on the outside vibrated against her back, and she jumped away. The reporters continued to shout questions, and she moved to the front of the store so she couldn’t hear.
She hadn’t handled that well, but they’d taken her by surprise with that crap about a police record. She needed to keep her cool and politely deflect questions with noncommittal answers. Next time she would be ready.
Maggie concentrated on calming her anger and her galloping heart. After a few seconds the pounding and shouting stopped, leaving the store in blissful silence.
Light streamed through the two big front windows, but with the overhead lights off, the area near the back wall was dim. Soothing. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling calm seep back in. Fortune’s Folly in the early morning was her favorite retreat from the world, and she let it work its magic on her now.
She was alone here, if you didn’t count the hundreds of corpses. “How’s it going, George?” Maggie ran her hand over the rippled black body where it hung on the wall, encased in its tomb of limestone. “Sorry about that lawyer. We haven’t all evolved to the same level.” The giant trilobite was silent, but she imagined tiny black eyes blinking kindly behind the protuberances on George’s fossilized head. George would understand—he was that kind of guy. In the four months he’d hung on her wall, they’d had many one-sided conversations, and he’d never once failed to agree with her.