Relentless - Vanessa Vale - ebook
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A fun weekend at a friend’s wedding in Denver takes a bizarre twist for Anna Scott when her rental car is pulled over due to an “anonymous tip.” In her trunk…a dead man linked to warring crime families in Denver and New York. It should be easy for an innocent woman to be cleared for an simple mix-up. But was it a mistake? The police aren’t so sure, and neither is the crime boss who wants vengeance for his son-in-law’s death. Suddenly appearing on the radar means that now Anna Scott is in real trouble. Two years ago, Anna Scott didn’t exist. The police think she knows way too much about criminal procedures and they’re determined to find out her secret. Their attention forces Anna to play a deadly game of cat and mouse with both the mafia and the police. This twist of fate could not only expose her, but place her, and anyone close to her in jeopardy. Jake Griffin is playing a deadly game. He’s spent the last few months undercover in the Moretti crime family. The mysterious and beautiful Anna Scott is a big problem. Moretti assigns him to find out who she is and what she’s after, and to kill her if she becomes a problem. Jake needs to focus on taking down Moretti, not risking his life and career protecting a sexy woman who is a complete mystery. Unfortunately, he can’t stop wondering about her. He knows she’s lying, but his gut instincts, and the bone deep desire he feels every time he sees her, won’t allow him to walk away. He discovers that he’s willing to go to war with the whole world for one alluring, yet vulnerable woman. He can’t seem to stop taking desperate gambles where she’s concerned. The most dangerous of all might be trusting her with the truth. This is a 112k stand alone romantic suspense that will melt your butter.  

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Relentless

Vanessa Vale

Relentless

Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Vale

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author's imagination and used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from both authors, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Cover Design: RomCon

Cover Photo: I-Stock, © Zastavkin

Contents

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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

About the Author

Also by Vanessa Vale

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1

Anna

If I had known how much fun it was to drive, how exhilarating it would feel, I would have done it sooner. Living in New York City didn’t require a car, but life required a government ID, so years ago I’d borrowed a Prius long enough to take the driving test and obtain a license. I hadn’t been behind the wheel since.

Until now. My dark sunglasses shielded against the bright Denver sun, the lowered window caused my long hair to whip around my face, forcing me to tuck it behind my ear to keep it out of the way. The air was hot, but the unaccustomed lack of humidity made it easily tolerable in comparison to the mugginess of Manhattan. The radio pumped out some local rock station and the highway was wide open; everyone was at work at eleven in the morning. Everyone but me, and surprisingly, it felt good to take a break. It was Friday and, for once, I wasn’t sheltered in my little home office designing away. Safe.

It had taken my friend, Zach, weeks of cajoling to talk me into being his date for his sister’s wedding. He needed a date—a female one—to keep his family in the dark about his not-out-of-the-closet status. Cruising down the highway with the Rocky Mountains, snow-capped even in July, as a backdrop, I was glad he’d been persistent. Tentative when we’d first arrived late last night, afraid I’d made a mistake about going away, I told myself over and over this was Denver. Like New York, it was safe. No one would know me.

I tapped my just dry nails on the steering wheel to the beat of the music. The subdued French manicure I’d gotten—at the small shop suggested by the hotel concierge—would be perfect for the rehearsal dinner later and the wedding reception tomorrow. With most of the day until I had to be dressed and ready to meet Zach in the hotel lobby before me, I felt carefree. I had no doubt he felt the same way, spending the day with other men in the wedding party playing golf. Glancing at the speedometer, I gave my rental a little more gas and laughed to myself as I maneuvered around a slow-moving semi.

The sound of a siren startled me out of my carefree moment and I darted a glance in the rearview mirror. Glaring red and blue lights, almost throbbing in their intensity, confirmed the police were directly behind my car. What had I done? Checking my speed, I wasn’t going much over the speed limit to warrant a ticket. Was I? A sick hit of panic shot through me, making my palms slippery on the wheel. My heart hammered against my ribs as if trying to escape.

It wasn’t twelve years ago. I wasn’t eighteen anymore. I wasn’t even in the same state. But what, then? What could they want with me? My foot tapped the brake and I jerked against the seat belt, unfamiliar with the sensitive car. Trying to find the blinker, I accidentally turned on the wipers. The back and forth rub of the blade against dry glass was loud once they turned off the siren. Flustered, I fumbled then switched the wipers off and maneuvered over toward the shoulder.

Coming to a stop, I put the car in park. The radio’s once fun tunes were now jarring and annoying. I jammed the button with my palm and the car went silent, leaving only the sound of passing cars and trucks. I watched as the cruiser slid in behind me, angled toward my far bumper, with the strobe lights continuing to pulse. I watched in the mirror for the police officer to get out as I focused on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Now was not the time to panic. To let them see I was scared. What was he doing back there? Why was he making me wait? My fingers were in a death grip around the steering wheel and I tried to relax them, to relax my shoulders that had crept up toward my ears. The overwhelming need to put the car back in Drive and make my escape was all-consuming. I didn’t trust the police, didn’t like them, but knew not to make the situation—whatever it was—worse by making them angry.

After long minutes, the man got out of his car. His uniform was dark and crisp, all sharp creases and starched collar. Walkie-talkie, pager and mace circled the utility belt. And then there was the very large gun in its holster. The man’s hand was positioned just above it as he approached, as if ready to shoot with the least provocation. His hair was cut high and tight, his eyes obscured by reflective sunglasses. I could see through the side mirror he wore a bulletproof vest beneath his shirt, giving him an appearance of a veteran linebacker. Positioning himself by the rear door behind me, he leaned in so his body was shielded by the car. He hadn’t moved his hand away from his gun.

“Ma’am, license and registration please.” His voice was deep and his tone serious. I didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t one of them. He couldn’t be. I was being silly. A tail light was out or something. No one had found me.

“It’s…it’s in my purse.” I licked my lips as I fumbled in my small bag on the passenger seat, only large enough for my wallet, my cell and a few other essentials. “Here.”

He took it from me, looked at it. Looked at me. “Registration.”

“Oh.” Right, registration. I shook my head to clear it as I reached over to open the glove box, pulled out a packet of papers, then handed them to the man. I pushed my hair back behind my ear with my fingers. Knowing they shook, I put them in my lap and clasped my palms together. Breathe.

“This is a rental car,” he stated.

“Yes.” I didn’t know why I was pulled over, but I knew to answer their questions succinctly and only provide the information they requested. I had firsthand knowledge of how they could use any babbling against me.

While he was looking at the documents, a second police cruiser pulled up and parked in front of my car. Oh God. Why would two police cars be needed for a broken tail light? This time a female officer emerged, similarly garbed and talking into the receiver of a walkie-talkie strapped to her shoulder.

I swallowed down the bile that inched its way up my throat. It was hard to be calm when my heart beat so fast, as if I were given a shot of epinephrine. The sun blazed through the window and my shirt was damp against the seat back. “Turn off the ignition and step out of the car, please, ma’am,” the policeman said.

The female officer watched me from her position by the hood of my car, her hand poised on her service weapon.

With fumbling fingers, I did as requested, disconnected my seat belt and opened the door. The man moved back to make room, but once I stepped from the car, he loomed over me, blocking the sun, and I had to tilt my head back to look up at him.

“Please follow me around to the other side of the car.”

I had no choice but to follow, thankful to be away from traffic. I took a peek at the tail lights. Not broken.

The female officer joined us, looked me over in my sleeveless white blouse, floral skirt and strappy sandals. “Please take off your sunglasses.”

Their words may have been polite, but they were all business.

I complied, squinted in the sunlight.

“Do you have any weapons on you, any knives or drug paraphernalia?” she asked.

I shook my head as I looked her in the eye. “No.”

“I’m going to frisk you. Please put your arms up and out.”

“Am I…am I under arrest?” I asked, my fingers fiddling with my sunglasses. I knew they had to have reason and I had to know what it was.

“No, ma’am,” she replied.

The other officer watched passively as I lifted my arms to stand in the shape of a T. When the woman efficiently confirmed I wasn’t concealing anything dangerous, he said, “We have reason to believe you have a dead body in the trunk of your car.”

My arms fell back to my sides.

“A…a dead body?” I had imagined many things he might say, but that was not one of them. Sweat dotted my brow, my upper lip. I used the back of my hand to wipe at it. I knew they were both gauging my reaction to their words, assessing my threat of being dangerous and even guilty in my every move and body gesture. “My car?”

“Yes, ma’am. The description matches the vehicle we’re looking for. We are going to need to search the car.”

I glanced over my shoulder and stared at the bland, maroon four-door sedan. As with most rentals, it was American-made, newer model and boring. It didn’t look like a car that would have a dead body in it, but then again, what one did?

I recognized my coping mechanism: humor. I needed to squelch that down so they didn’t think I was being blasé about something so serious. They had no idea how serious this was to me. I couldn’t panic, couldn’t get upset. I’d learned to hide my emotions, shield them so they couldn’t be used against me.

When I was seven, I’d learned quickly that it would bring me nothing but trouble. When I was eighteen, I’d refined the skill even more. Now, I had to override the panic, focus on something else besides what was happening to me. That’s when I noticed little yellow wildflowers in the dirt shoulder. I stared at them as they shifted in the soft breeze.

It was happening again. It was like twelve years ago. Someone was up to something. Out to hurt me. This couldn’t be a joke. Nothing was ever a joke.

I stared at the yellow flowers as I replied, “Search warrant?”

“Don’t need one. Probable cause,” the police officer shouted above the roar of a passing eighteen-wheeler. He didn’t offer explanation. I didn’t need one.

They must have a credible enough source to eliminate the need for a search warrant. Time was obviously of the essence. No doubt they couldn’t wait all weekend for a judge to sign one with the vehicle in question being a rental. Obviously, the owner—me—would be considered a flight risk.

It was time to switch my mind off. I needed to put the mental walls up, to remember how it felt to shelter my mind behind them, protecting myself from whatever was happening to me. I could only nod and watch the stupid flower.

The woman remained by my side while the man went around the car to the driver’s door, leaned in and popped the trunk. At the sound, I turned around. Watched him walk to the back, lift the lid and stood. Staring.

Giving a little shift of his head, the woman joined him. So did I.

“Oh my God,” I whispered, my throat closing up at the sight. There, in the trunk of my full-sized rental, was a dead man. Forty-something, receding hairline, overweight, suit and tie. Glazed eyes stared up at me. There was a bullet hole in his forehead. And he was starting to smell. God, the horrific scent lifted up in the breeze. It wasn’t powerful, yet. I assumed the only way I hadn’t noticed it was that the windows had been open.

I felt the blood rush out of my head. Little black dots danced in front of eyes, making it look like flies were crawling on the body. I pivoted on my heel as I felt my stomach revolt, vomiting all over the concrete. Once the dry heaves subsided, I stayed bent over, one hand on my knee, trying to catch my breath. I wiped the back of my hand over my mouth, wishing I had some water to wash away the acidic taste in my mouth. All this time neither officer hadn’t moved, the woman's black work shoes and creased pants in my periphery.

The police probably thought I’d thrown up because of seeing the dead body. I hadn’t. I’d thrown up because I knew I was in big trouble. It was happening again. All my fears, all my worries over the past twelve years had come to life. Or death, like the body in the trunk. God, I knew I shouldn’t have left New York, shouldn’t have left the safe structure I’d made of my life for a little fun. I didn’t do fun. I wasn’t allowed. Because the moment I had some fun, just a tiny little bit, this was what happened.

Slowly, I stood back up and discovered other police cars had pulled up. Three additional men were staring at me, two more in uniform, one in plainclothes with a badge attached to a chain dangling from his neck.

I tucked my hair behind my ears, lifted my chin. The walls were completely fortified now. I was on my own once again. I couldn’t get Zach involved; he had a family wedding to contend with. He couldn’t tell everyone his date was an accused murderer. He didn’t need to deal with this. I could do it on my own. I always did it on my own.

The female officer looked me in the eye, probably assessing whether I was going to throw up again. “You’re going to have to come with us,” she told me, taking my forearm in a strong grip. I was going to jail. Again. Going to be accused of murder. Again. I’d lived through the nightmare once. I wasn’t sure if I could do it again.

Protect yourself. You’re smarter this time. You know game. You know the rules. “I want a lawyer.” My voice was as dead as the man in the trunk.

2

Grif

“Okay, you got me in here. Now, what the hell do you want?” I asked, rubbing my five o’clock shadow that had gone around the clock an extra day. It itched and it was hot, but it had to stay to help me be Nick Malone. I considered it a prop in my act. “You said you had something interesting to show me. I don’t have time to be dragged back into the station about something that you thought I’d find interesting.”

“You’ve been undercover too long, Grif. You’ve lost all your manners.” Peters, a homicide detective I’d known for a decade, gave me the once-over. “Nice outfit. You look like shit.”

Grif. I hadn’t heard my real name used in a while. Jake Griffin. Who the hell was he again? I couldn’t remember anymore. I’d been undercover too fucking long.

“I just woke up and this—” I plucked at the black T-shirt one size too small, “—is what you wear when you run a nightclub. I don’t suppose there’s any fresh coffee around here?” The room was loud, the usual hustle of the homicide division. Phones rang, voices carried and the clack of fingers on keyboards was incessant.

Peters looked at his watch. “It’s one thirty.”

“Do you really want to know what I do with Moretti and his goons? Because this assignment’s not all fucking rainbows and sunshine.” My voice had an edge I couldn’t help. I was exhausted and more than ready to see the end of this never-ending assignment. I saw a full pot of coffee across the room in the little mini-kitchen area and veered over to it. When Peters followed, I added, “I was up all night dealing with employee issues at the bar. I’m a cop, not Human Resources.”

I poured a cup, took a sip of the coffee, winced, then gulped down the scalding swallow, hoping the caffeine would give me the jolt I needed to have patience for whatever Peters wanted.

“Yeah, I can see how being in the hottest nightclub in town with twenty-two-year-old women giving you their phone numbers written on their panties would be rough.”

I leaned against the counter, remembering that situation, and the shit I’d gotten from Peters and the others at the station for sharing that little gem. What was her name? Cathy? Karla? “Jesus, that was one time and I swear she had more plastic parts and oversized headlights than a Ford.” I took another swig of coffee, winced, and watched Peters chuckle. “God, I’m getting old, aren’t I?”

Undercover work was miserable at best. You had to give up everything to take on a role, a persona, for the duration of the assignment. In this case, I’d been infiltrating the Moretti crime family for over six months, getting in deep enough to be given the role of running Scorch, Denver’s newest nightclub—and Moretti’s latest purchase. It was where I needed to be, at the supposed pulse of the man’s money laundering. I just had to prove it. That meant going to bed at dawn and sleeping the day away like a fucking vampire.

“Bobby Lane. Name ring a bell?”

I perked up. “Moretti’s son-in-law. A mean little shit that handles the prostitution aspect of the family business. Not a believer in women’s rights, and I’m pretty sure that his wife knows that firsthand.”

“That’s the one.”

I just stared at him, waiting. He was enjoying this way too much. I circled my hand around in a circle to get him talking.

“He’s dead.”

I kept from spitting out the coffee across my friend’s shirt. Barely.

“When? How?”

Peters gave a little shrug. “Appears to have been late last night. Bullet to the brain.”

I grinned. “Bobby Lane was a fucking asshole and deserved whatever he got. I would have heard this through Moretti soon enough.” I took a sip of coffee, looked at him over the rim of the cup. “That’s not the only reason why I’m here.”

He pointed at me, smiled. “That’s why you made detective. His body was found in the trunk of a car.”

I shrugged. This wasn’t news. “So? Aren’t they usually?”

“This car got pulled over because of an anonymous tip. It was driven by a woman named Anna Scott. Heard of her?”

I shook my head. “Where is she?”

“Room four.”

I took my bad coffee and headed to the back where the interrogation rooms were located. I waved at a familiar face or two but didn’t stop to talk. It was quieter past all the desks of the bullpen, but the smell of stale coffee and Chinese takeout lingered.

“You’re sure this isn’t the hooker trick? I’m not falling for the hooker trick,” I mumbled, thinking back to the many pranks we’d all pulled on each other to keep the tension and stress levels down when dealing with harsh cases. I hadn’t heard about Bobby Lane’s murder so it could have been a ruse Peters used to have a little fun at my expense.

“This one’s not a hooker.” He opened the door to the dark viewing room. It was obvious when I looked through the large window into the next room that Peters was right.

There was no way in hell the woman sitting there, all prim and proper with her hands in her lap, was a hooker. Through the one-way glass she looked like Happy Suzy Homemaker, not a pro pulled off the street. “She killed Bobby Lane? No fucking way.”

The room was soundproofed, so she didn’t know she was being observed.

“She was driving the car.”

“Yeah, on the way to the PTA.”

“Whatever. Give me your first impression,” Peters said.

I assessed the woman with my detective eye. “Close to thirty and beautiful.”

Peters cocked an eyebrow but remained silent.

Shit, had I said the last out loud? What the hell, she was beautiful.

Her skin was so pale next to her straight, dark hair. It was long, loose over her shoulders. “Her hair’s nicely cut, which means she has money.” She had dark eyes fringed by even darker lashes, sculpted brows and minimal makeup. “Not overly vain. Her lipstick’s gone or she never wore any.”

Her clothes fit her slim frame perfectly; a skirt that was mostly orange with flowers all over it. “She’s modest.” I pointed at her. “Her skirt comes to her knees, even sitting down. It’s not skin tight.” I leaned in to get a closer look, even though she was only ten feet away. “Her blouse has buttons all down the front, but none are open to reveal cleavage. In fact, is that a tank top or something she’s wearing underneath? She’s not flaunting her assets.” She had assets all right. I couldn’t miss the lush curve of her breasts, even beneath her white blouse. “Moretti’s ladies flash a little more skin than that.”

“Go on,” Peters prompted.

“By the look of her arms, I’d say she stays in shape.”

“She’s not what I’d call a bodybuilder,” Peters added.

“No, but I bet she does more pushups than you to get triceps like that.”

We both stared at her in silence for a moment. I had no doubt Peters was considering his fitness regime.

“Strappy sandals. She’s a girly girl,” I continued. “But low heels indicate she’s practical. No stilettos for her.”

“I’m impressed. What about the toe polish?” Peters asked.

“Hidden vixen?” I asked, half joking, taking in the fire-engine red. There was more to this woman than met the eye—and she wasn’t showing much. She was too perfect. The real woman was hidden beneath the façade she had in place and I had to wonder what she was like. This façade, it was well fortified, well practiced, as if she was used to it being up around her like a castle wall. What would I have to do to pull it down, and what would I find once I did? I was getting a hard-on looking at her. And she was a suspect. One hell of a suspect. Jesus, it had been too long.

There had to be something wrong with me. The college girls in skimpy clothes with skimpy morals at Scorch every night didn’t even make my dick twitch. I never looked twice at any of them. This woman, and she was all woman, had me pressing uncomfortably against the zipper of my pants, even knowing she might have killed a guy. A total asshole who wouldn’t be missed by many, but still. My dick didn’t seem to really care.

“If hidden vixen is code word for murderer, then you might be right.”

“Self-defense maybe?” She didn’t look like a woman who’d been assaulted, especially by a misogynist like Bobby Lane. There wasn’t a mark or blemish on her creamy skin and Bobby didn’t play nice. Just the thought of her being touched by that bastard made me clench my fists. A bullet to the brain wouldn’t be enough.

“Doubtful, since she flew in last night,” Peters told me.

A surprising wave of relief washed over me. Shit, I’m in trouble here.

“Record?” Had she been in jail before? Arrested? Convicted of a crime? Speeding? Unpaid parking ticket? Unlicensed dog?

“Clean,” Peters replied.

I set my paper cup down on the table, leaned back against it and crossed my arms, my eyes never leaving her face. “There’s more to her than I’ve just said.” I stared at her for another moment. “She hasn’t moved since we came in. She’s staring at some spot on the wall in front of her. That crack or something. She’s too relaxed. She’s not sweating, she’s not panicked, she’s not fidgeting. And look. She’s got goose bumps on her arms. The AC’s cranked. She’s got to be cold and she doesn’t even realize it.”

Even in our small room I could feel the cool breeze from the ceiling vent. The HVAC system in the old building had two settings: too hot or too cold.

Her face was devoid of any type of emotion. I wondered how a smile would change her appearance, bring her to life. She might have a beating heart, but she didn’t really seem alive. She seemed closed off.

“Shock, maybe?” Peters leaned back against the table as well. “She lawyered up first thing when the traffic cop found the body. Hasn’t said a word since. Hasn’t taken her hands out of her lap. Refused the soda we offered. Doesn’t seem like she’s on drugs, either.”

The can was in front of her, the condensation a small pool of liquid on the table indicated it had been there a while.

“Did she call anyone?”

Peters shook his head. “She didn’t want her one phone call.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Pretty girl like her with no one to call. Afraid of her husband?”

“Single.”

“It looks like she’s…thinking,” I considered.

“Maybe.” Peters didn’t seem to buy that idea. “She’s from New York City and was driving a rental car,” he added. “A public defender met with her for about twenty minutes, is off conferring with someone or taking a bathroom break. Whatever. Told us she’s ready to talk. Here they come now.”

We watched as a woman dressed in a suit that screamed lawyer came and took a seat next to the suspect. This woman, Anna Scott, followed the lawyer with her eyes, but otherwise remained devoid of emotion. She didn’t look like she was on drugs—she definitely wasn’t amped up on meth, and if she was on some kind of downer or hooked on pain meds, she’d be unconscious or glazed over, not quiet and focused. I didn’t think she was in shock, even if Peters wondered just that. She just looked…in control.

I recognized the two detectives, Gossing and Werbler, who took seats on the other side of the table. They were good men and good detectives. If this woman had shot Bobby Lane, they would wheedle it from her.

Werbler began. “Do you know Bobby Lane?”

The public defender nodded at the woman. Anna Scott cleared her throat. “No.”

“Paul Moretti?”

“No. You know I’m from New York. I don’t know anyone here.” Her voice was soft, but deep with intent even though the speakers in the wall.

“Ever been to Denver before?”

“No.”

“Ever been to Scorch?”

“If it’s in Denver, then obviously I haven’t.”

“Come on, Ms. Scott, give us something to work with here, because otherwise I’m willing to believe you killed Bobby Lane.”

Anna Scott looked between the detectives. “You’re the good cop and you’ve drawn the short straw for bad cop. It’s not going to work. You know my name and all the other information about me you’ve been able to pull up on the computer in the past two hours I’ve been sitting here. You no doubt know I’m in town for the weekend with a friend for his sister’s wedding by seeing our hotel rooms were reserved for the wedding party.” She swallowed deeply, licked her lips. Why did I find that really hot?

“Boyfriend?” I asked Peters, keeping my eyes on the other room.

He shook his head. “Two hotel rooms, so I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure you don’t want some soda?” Werbler asked, pointing to the can.

“I’m not touching that can so you can get my fingerprints.”

Werbler’s mouth fell open, but he shut it quickly.

I lifted an eyebrow at her knowledge. She was a surprise. And a delight. I watched as the detectives shifted in their seats.

“Is she a lawyer?” I asked Peters.

“Records say architect. Runs her own business. Works from home.”

An architect that knew about the law.

“I flew in last night at eleven thirty, which I’m sure you know. Passenger records are easy enough to obtain, which I’m sure you’ve done. So being on a plane somewhere over Nebraska at the time of death with over one hundred other people is a pretty solid alibi.”

“Are you saying you know when he was killed?” Gossing asked. “Does that mean that you were involved, but maybe didn’t pull the trigger? Getaway driver, perhaps?”

The detectives were trying to fluster her. They’d made grown men cry before, but their attempts didn’t appear to be working now. Her hands hadn’t moved, her skin wasn’t flushed in anger. Nothing.

“I saw the man, you said Bobby Lane was his name? I saw him in the trunk of the car with the two traffic officers for about ten seconds. Rigor had set in because he was curled up in the fetal position. I don’t have to be an ME to know that means he’d been dead for at least twelve hours.” Anna tucked her hair behind her ear. Her first sign of movement. Her nails were short with a simple manicure. No wedding ring.

“Not a doctor? Parents? Anyone a doctor?” I asked Peters, my eyes focused on Anna.

I saw Peters look at a folder on the desk out of the corner of my eye. “Says her mother died when she was six, father when she was eighteen. No record of how. No siblings. No living relatives.”

I saw a small smile play at the corner of the public defender’s mouth. I could tell she was enjoying this. So was I. Holy hell, it was like watching a teacher scold two recalcitrant school boys. But I never had a teacher who looked like Anna Scott.

“Even if I had somehow shot him,” she continued, “I couldn’t have lifted him up from wherever I’d done it to place him in the trunk. I’m not big, or strong enough, to do it.”

I couldn’t tell with her sitting down, but she wasn’t more than five-five. Bobby Lane was a big man, well over six feet and hadn’t exercised in his life. The extra fifty pounds he’d carried around his middle was proof.

“Maybe you killed him when he was standing in front of the trunk and he collapsed into it after you shot him.”

“No blood. No bullet hole in the trunk. No GSR on my hands.”

“So you’re willing to test for gunshot residue?”

“I am.”

I had to know more. She was like a puzzle I had to solve. “Any information on IQ, medical records, being institutionalized?”

“What, you think she’s a psychopath? Sociopath? Schizo?”

“Doubtful, but she’s very smart, very knowledgeable…familiar with all this.” I waved my hand at the room around us. “How can she look so innocent and wholesome and be so…well versed in police proceedings? In death?”

“Ted Bundy looked pretty wholesome back in his day.” Peters shrugged. Not all answers were available. Some detectives had to dig for it. Sometimes they never learned all the answers. Peters was well aware of this. “All I know is that she acts like she’s got a stick up her butt.”

I cocked my head, watched her closely. “She acts like it. Act being the key word.” I looked at her eyes. Flat. Unfeeling, but focused. “She’s…scared. She’s hiding behind, what’s the word?” I snapped my fingers. “Aloofness. As if this isn’t affecting her. I bet she’s shitting a brick on the inside.”

Anna took a deep breath and I enjoyed watching her breasts rise and fall. Calm as can be, she continued. “As for the car, I put my rental agreement in my carry-on when I left the lot at the airport last night. I assume you checked with the company and know that car isn’t mine. Since I have an alibi, and the car isn’t mine, the only explanation is that my car is still in the lot at the hotel.”

It was the detectives’ turn to take a deep breath. The public defender tapped her pen on the table.

The answer clicked into place for me. She was right. She’d been in the wrong car.

“Valet,” I said.

“What?” Peters asked.

“The valet.” I pointed at her. “No way this woman parks her car in a dark hotel lot after midnight when she got in. She’s too smart to do something as dangerous as that. She flew in with a friend. I’m guessing he has his own rental since he’s part of the wedding party. Probably has wedding stuff she doesn’t have to do. A different schedule. He’s not her boyfriend. You said two rooms.” I paused, considered her through the glass. “She doesn’t trust him enough to drive her—definitely not a boyfriend or anyone close then. If he drove his own rental and they got separated from the airport to the hotel, she wouldn’t chance being alone in the lot. So she valets the car. She’s in complete control of everything. She has to be. She’s handling Gossing and Werbler like it’s their first day at the Academy.” I stood and paced in front of the window. “Fuck, it’s so simple. The valet gave her the wrong car. What kind is it?”

“Ford Taurus.”

I gave a quick bark of laughter, turned to look at Peters. “There are a million of them out there. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Before Peters could answer, Werbler spoke up. “Miss Scott, your rental is indeed in the parking lot of your hotel. It seems when you gave your ticket to the valet this morning he brought you the wrong car. They said you had a burgundy Taurus.”

“Maroon.”

“Excuse me?” Gossing asked, leaning his elbows on the table.

“My rental car is maroon, not burgundy.”

“You couldn't tell the difference when the valet gave it to you?” Werbler wondered.

She arched one elegant eyebrow. “I'm not suggesting the car in question and my rental car are two different colors. What I'm stating is that the valet you questioned is clearly color blind since he doesn't know the difference between the two. Perhaps he isn't the most reliable of sources of information. How many cars did he valet this morning? How many were a Taurus like mine? You're just wasting my time with this line of talk as you're both smart enough to have already validated everything by my rental agreement with the car company.”

Maroon and burgundy were the same to me, but I was no artist, so what did I know? I couldn’t help but grin at her don't-fuck-with-me tone and glanced over at Peters. The way she looked, all fresh and innocent, the way she dressed, all tame and soft, screamed prissy. But she wasn’t, because that type of woman did nothing for me. Annoyed the shit out of me. Anna Scott was…an anomaly. I read people. I was good at it. It was my job to be good at it. Saved my life a time or two. But I couldn’t get a bead on her. Which made her a challenge, and I loved a good challenge. And if said challenge happened to make me wonder what she was wearing beneath her prim little outfit, all the better.

I’d wager her appearance was all for show. Some kind of outward shell she showed to the world. Beneath, she’d wear soft lace and satin. Would her skin be as silky soft as it looked? Would her nipples be as pale pink as I imagined? I shifted against the table. “You’re right, this is interesting.”

“You’re telling me I’m sitting here in a Denver police station being questioned for murder because a valet didn't look at his ticket and gave me a supposed burgundy Taurus instead of maroon,” Anna Scott stated matter-of-factly.

Werbler and Gossing shifted once again, embarrassment keen on their faces. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Then I’m free to go.” It wasn’t a question.

She glanced at her lawyer who gave a quick nod. The woman hadn’t said a word. It seemed Anna Scott didn’t really need legal council, just the protection one afforded her by law. The protection of keeping her mouth shut until she’d gotten her ducks in a row to defend herself.

“Yes, you are,” Gossing told her. “After you submit to a GSR test.”

“All right.” Anna Scott shifted her seat back, the metal scraping against the linoleum floor and stood. I was right, about five-five. Standing, without the table to shield her, she looked…fragile. Even with her shoulders back, her dark hair like a waterfall, her chin tilted in a way to make her look like she had a stick up her ass, she was lovely. Almost innocent of the world, which was the strangest statement since she’d obviously had a run-in with cops before, regardless of what her record said. My mouth went dry just taking in my fill. I took a sip of my now cold coffee. Winced at the miserable taste.

Her thumbs brushed slightly against her skirt, but other than that she was still. No smile, no sparkle in her eyes at her victory over the police. I’d be dancing a jig after getting myself out of a possible murder charge. That, or I’d need new pair of pants. I moved closer to the glass for a better look. She was damaged. Something had happened to her, but I didn’t know what. Hadn’t we all? Anyone who made it to adulthood had to have something happen to them. It’s how you survived that mattered. And it appeared to me that Anna Scott was surviving. And that was it.

A strange emotion settled in my chest, one I hadn’t felt in a long time. I tamped it down. No way was I going to feel something, anything, for this woman. The fact that she looked so alone—so aloof surrounded by so many—made me want to pull her into my arms and tell her everything was going to be okay. To protect her. I shook my head at my crazy thoughts. Women like her and those protective feelings only brought me trouble I didn’t want.

“Who is…was Bobby Lane?” she asked.

The detectives had stood when she did. “Worked for Paul Moretti,” Werbler shared, watching her closely. So was I. “Head of a crime syndicate, gang, whatever, that deals in drugs, money laundering, prostitution, gun running and other sideline activities.”

She wasn’t giving away anything. It appeared she didn’t know Bobby Lane, but I couldn’t tell for sure. She was innocent of the crime against Bobby Lane. Her alibi was solid. The mixup was certainly plausible. Slightly ridiculous, but definitely plausible. But it was just as obvious she’d been interrogated by the cops before, which meant she wasn’t as innocent as she seemed.

“Bobby Lane was Moretti’s son-in-law and it was rumored he was being groomed to take over for him. Lane was last seen at Scorch, a nightclub downtown, owned by Moretti,” Werbler added.

I’d been at Scorch all night and hadn’t seen Lane, but that didn’t mean shit. It had been crowded and I’d had to deal with fucking pain-in-the-ass employees all night. If he’d been there, it wasn’t to see me. Thank Christ.

Anna nodded. “Thank you for sharing, but it all means nothing to me. I’d like my things and if you can please call me a cab, I have a wedding rehearsal to go to.”

Werbler opened the door for her. “We’ll have one of the officers give you a ride back to your hotel after the GSR test.”

Anna arched a brow at him. “I think I’m done with the police for today. Thank you.”

Once they left the room to have her hands tested for gunshot residue, I just looked at Peters. “Well?”

“There’s something not quite right about that woman,” he said, picking her folder up off the table.

“What? The fact that she knows police interrogation methods, that she knows about rigor mortis, that she doesn’t want her fingerprints checked?”

“Yeah, that.”

“She didn’t kill him. You know that as well as I. She was set up. Whoever the killer is must’ve panicked when they found out the car was missing. Shit, I would’ve loved to see that. They must have realized they’d been given the opportunity to offload the body—and the lengthy prison term that goes with one—onto someone else. They’re probably celebrating over drinks right now.”

Peters nodded, so I continued. “But they didn’t expect Anna Scott. She got her neck out of the noose on her own. The way she handled the interview, when Werbler told her Bobby’s name, she didn’t appear to know him, but she’s one cool lady. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t ever want to play poker with her.”

Peters quirked a smile and said, “This is where you come in. If she’s innocent, she goes to a wedding and flies out on Sunday. If she’s tied into all this somehow, then Gossing dropped Moretti’s name, Bobby’s name and Scorch. You’ll hear about the hit as soon as you go back in tonight, hear about her if she did it. You’re our inside man.”

“If she’s involved with Moretti, I’ll know soon enough. If she shows up at Scorch, I’ll be waiting.” With fucking bells on.

I wanted to know more about Anna Scott and whether she was mixed up in all this or not. If she wasn’t working for the bastard, then what was her secret? She sure as hell had one. She intrigued me, and nothing had intrigued me for a long time. Those warning bells were clanging in my head about not getting involved with a woman like her. It would be stupid, almost suicidal, to do so. She wasn’t a simple one-night stand I had falling all over me night after night at the club. The hard-on she’d brought about was only now starting to subside. If my dick reacted just by looking at her through a window, I could only imagine what it would be like when I got her into bed. I was going to find out. She flew out on Sunday. The clock was ticking.

3

Anna

I was able to hold it together until I returned to the hotel, taxi paid for with trembling fingers, and into the shower before my legs gave out. I started shaking and couldn’t stop, my muscles quivering and spasming, even huddled on the slick tile floor. I couldn’t get warm even beneath the hot spray, couldn’t get the smell, the feel, of the police station out of my head. I bent my knees and hugged my arms around them tightly as if it would keep me from flying apart. No amount of soap and scrubbing was going to wash away the day’s events. Nor keep the past from coming back. I could wash the dirt from my body, but never the searing thoughts from my mind.

When I saw the body in the trunk earlier, I’d thought Todd had found me. Had found a way to make me pay. To bring my worst nightmare back to reality.

No one is going to help you. You’re going to rot in jail like all of the other murderers. Self-defense? You really think the police will believe you? You’re nothing. Nothing.

I forced the words down, forced the feelings of loneliness, desperation and fear that had gripped me. It was the past. Over. They hadn’t found me. Just like at the police station earlier, I focused on my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. I couldn’t stay in the shower forever. I couldn’t hide, no matter how much I wanted to just stay in my room until it was time to go to the airport for the return flight. I’d tried getting out, going someplace new, something fun…freedom. It hadn’t worked. But Zach needed me and I’d rather go with him to the rehearsal dinner than explain why I wanted to hide. Once I got back to New York on Sunday I could hide again. I was good at hiding.

Tugging the belt on the soft hotel robe tightly about me, I wiped my hand on the mirror to clear the damp fog. My face was pale, dark circles smudged beneath my eyes. My hair hung in wet clumps around my face and down my back. I plugged in the straightening iron for it to warm, picked up my brush and began to comb the tangles from my hair.

Thirty minutes later, I zipped up my pale blue silk dress. It had a slim bodice with a high, straight neckline, sleeveless, with satin ribbons in the same soft color tied at each shoulder that held the front and back together. The skirt was a slight A-line, flaring at the hips and falling to mid-knee. Slingback pumps gave me a few inches of lift. My makeup was soft, my lips a pale pink. The top of my hair was pulled back in a clip, leaving the bottom long and sleek down my back. Small diamonds glinted at my ears.

Picking up my slim watch on the counter, I saw I had twenty minutes before meeting Zach in the lobby. I clipped it on my wrist as I walked over to check my email on my tablet while I waited. I clicked through and deleted the spam, sent a quick note to a client before I pulled up my news feed. I’d set my browser to pull up any information, updates or news with the keywords Todd Lawton and Grayson Edwards. Every time I checked, my nerves fluttered in tense and unpleasant anticipation. I usually received a few bits of news a week, mostly about their attending a dinner, a philanthropic donation or a boost in Edwards Enterprises stock shares. I didn’t expect the news that came through this time from the San Francisco paper, however.

Elizabeth Edwards, daughter of Mr. Grayson Edwards and his wife Victoria, became engaged to Mr. Todd Lawton over the weekend. Elizabeth recently graduated from the prestigious Montworth Academy and Mr. Lawton is Vice President of Operations with Edwards Enterprises. A Christmas wedding is planned.

Along with the text was a photo of the happy couple. I’d never seen a picture of my half-sister before, my father and his second wife sheltered her, and took a moment to stare at her. We looked nothing alike. While my hair was dark, hers was blond. She appeared to have a taller, slimmer build, similar to her mother’s. It had been over twenty years since I’d seen my stepmother in person, but I remembered her well. I only hoped Elizabeth inherited her good looks, not her personality. On the surface, she was really lovely. Young. Innocent.

Todd looked the same. Attractive in a tanned, tennis player sort of way. Groomed impeccably, indicative of his wealth and power handed to him by my father. At forty-five, his hair had receded a little, although I had no doubt that was a battle fought hard with medical intervention. He wore a blue suit and a tie that matched Elizabeth’s pale yellow dress. His hand rested on her shoulder. The background was out of focus, but appeared to have been taken outdoors. To anyone else, they looked like a happy couple, much in love. To me, knowing the real Todd, I could see the cold gleam in his eye, hidden until after the nuptials.

I remember posing for a similar photo, Todd’s hand placed identically on my shoulder, too. A chill ran through me remembering the feel of it. My dress had been a soft pink. Floral. I’d worn my hair differently then, letting the natural curl have its way across my shoulders, the color a few shades lighter. I’d been so excited, so enchanted that a man had been interested in me, found me desirable. Wanted me. I’d been shamefully wrong. Naïve.

I’d been so silly to consider Todd had anything to do with the dead body in the trunk of the rental car. While I’d been thinking he’d hatched a plan to ruin my life once again, he’d been busy in San Francisco becoming engaged to my half-sister. Why would he waste his time on me? He had a new victim.

I knew all too well what that meant. A loveless marriage, abuse, unhappiness, solely for money. Money for Todd. I’d survived his plans with my father, barely. I was older and wiser now because of it. But so were they. Elizabeth, the half-sister I’d never met, who probably hadn’t even been told of my existence, wasn’t as well versed in deceit. She was going to be the unwitting pawn and would be crushed. Ruined, then tossed away. Or worse, trapped. I’d managed to escape, but I had no doubt Todd and my father had learned from the experience and wouldn’t let it happen again.

I had to help Elizabeth, had to warn her. Save her. But how? The very idea of going back to San Francisco made me feel panicked, my heart beating frantically, my palms damp. I couldn’t do it. I’d gotten away. Changed my name, changed my look, made a new life. In hiding. There was no way I could go back. I’d bested Todd once. He’d kill me before he let me do it again.

Even if I did show up on my father’s doorstep and ring the bell, Elizabeth probably didn’t know who I was. She wouldn’t just go off with a stranger, nor believe one telling evil tales about her father and fiancé. If she’d been told anything about me, whatever she’d heard couldn’t have been good. They’d surely invented stories about how bad I was for never coming to the house. Sex, drugs, addiction, felony, prostitution. I didn’t doubt they’d used any of those words to describe me in harsh light.

How could I help her? I couldn’t just leave her to a similar fate, or worse. This was something I couldn’t do alone. I needed help. I just had to figure out who. And fast.

Glancing at my watch, I knew now wasn’t the time. I had to be in the lobby. Zach was waiting. Zach. Could he help me? No. Too nice, too sweet to deal with men like Todd and my father. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. It was time to go. To pretend once again.

Grif

It was ten and the nightclub was just starting to fill up. Friday nights were the busiest, the line to get in wrapping down the block and around the corner. The bouncer at the door was selective, letting in only those deemed worthy. To keep the high-profile members of society in, the VIP section full, Scorch made entrance a privilege to the masses, not a guarantee.

With the sleek polished chrome and leather interior, a large dance floor and intimate booths, it epitomized everything the owner, Paul Moretti, was not. He’d come from an impoverished family, a rough life built by the rules of the street, his mother giving up the fight for control in his rearing when he was a boy. Amassing his fortune was done punch by punch as a youth, then hit by bloody hit as an adult, Moretti was known in Denver and throughout the West as a man not to fuck with. Businessmen didn’t defy him. Women didn’t deny him. He got what he wanted and nothing—or no one—else mattered. The longer I stayed undercover, the more stories I heard. And none of them were good.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I got the call. I’d been waiting for it. Word of Bobby Lane’s murder had spread swiftly, as only bad news did. All of the employees of Scorch, from the newly hired server to the seasoned bartender, wondered who’d done it. And why. Had it been a hit? Payback for something, or someone, Bobby had done? He’d been a ladies’ man, even married, so if he dipped his wick in the wrong woman, a husband had a right to retribution. That was the way it worked. And that was just one reason among many that I didn’t dip my wick at all. Not while undercover. Not with a married woman, or any woman who worked, lived, or breathed near anything that belonged to Moretti. That kind of woman was dangerous beneath the covers. One slip-up and pillow talk could turn deadly. If I was going to be shot in the head and left in the trunk of a car, I wanted to be found by my colleagues on the force with my pants on.

That was why, when the bartender gave me the phone call hand sign from across the jammed dance floor, I knew who’d be on the line.

After battling my way through the throng to my office at the back of the building and shutting the door on the techno music—the beat still strumming along the floor—I picked up the line.

“You’ve heard, I’m sure,” Moretti said, his voice deep and gravelly like only a pack-a-day smoker could manage. He didn’t do social niceties like hello.

“Who hasn’t?” I dropped down into the desk chair, swiveled it so I could put my leather boots up on the cluttered surface. It would most likely be the only time I’d sit before closing. I rested my head against the high back, closed my eyes. “Should I offer my condolences?”

“I don’t know what my daughter Ginny ever saw in that bastard. He did good on the job, the girls have brought in more money since my son-in-law took over that racket.” He coughed. “But he sampled the merchandise more than he should’ve. I’m surprised his dick didn’t fall off.”

I didn’t want to even guess what Bobby’d shared with Ginny. I knew Moretti would say that was her mother’s problem, so I didn’t ask.

I gave a noncommittal grunt in reply. There wasn’t anything to say. I was just relieved my assignment was to bust the old man on money laundering, not prostitution. No way could I send women out on the streets like Bobby did night after night to line Moretti’s pockets.

“Regardless, someone whacked him. I want to know who.”

I waited a beat. “And?”

Moretti sighed. “I know your past. I know everything about everybody who works for me. You used to be on the force. Use that angle to find out what’s going on.”

My cover story was a mixture of fact and fiction. We knew going in Moretti would dig up what he could about me before being let into his inner circle. I had to have the right qualifications—in Moretti’s eyes—for the job. That included being dishonorably discharged from the Army for being tried for killing a fellow soldier, but acquitted on lack of evidence. I’d moved from the Army to a stint with the Denver PD where I was again removed from duty because of tampered evidence in a murder trial, although I couldn’t officially be pinned for the crime. Moretti looked on these imaginary, and very questionable, acts as a Human Resources department would an MBA from Harvard.

I really had been in the Army, doing two stints in Afghanistan before being medically discharged because of a bullet to the knee. I was still with the force, but making me look rogue, look like I could have accusations and even a murder slide off me like water from a duck’s back, made me a prime candidate for hire in Moretti’s eyes. It had worked.

“No problem. I have a few favors I can call in.”

“Good. Good.”

“And the girl?” No way would I let an innocent get hurt. Especially Anna Scott.Why I felt I had to protect her, I had no clue. I just did. And that meant keeping Moretti’s hands off her.

He chuckled. “She’s certainly a loose thread.”

I faked a laugh. “Whoever did the hit better get a lottery ticket. And send the girl some flowers.”

Moretti chuckled. “No kidding. They lost their body, then realized they could dump the whole problem on some unwitting schmuck. What are the chances? I couldn’t have done it better myself.”

“Did you? Did you do it yourself?”

“What the fuck do you think?”

I didn’t put it past the man to kill his own son-in-law. He probably did. They hadn’t been close. No one was close in this business. Moretti’s question was like a live grenade. I needed to put the pin back so it didn’t blow up in my face.

“So, the girl?” I repeated. If Moretti had killed Bobby, he might put a hit out on her since she most likely messed up his plans. She might be in danger. She might be heading back to New York on Sunday, but the man’s reach easily extended that far. Or, he could just forget about her since the heat was off. It was a toss-up to which way Moretti’d go with her.

“The cops know she’s innocent. Wrong place, wrong time. Think she’ll be a problem for us?” he wondered. Meaning, would the cops knock on Moretti’s door to help some random woman?

The bastard valued my opinion, which meant the months of work were paying off. I paused as if considering. “Bobby Lane is the one wronged here. You’re the grieving father-in-law. I doubt the police are going to look at you for this hit. I’d say you’re free and clear.”

“True. Still, I should have someone check on her. Discreetly. Confirm what we’re saying.”

“Your goons don’t do discreet.” It was a fact and Moretti knew it.

Moretti coughed long and hard, forcing me to remove the phone from my ear. “You do it. You’ve got finesse. A way with the ladies.”

My eyebrows went up even though Moretti couldn’t see. “I haven’t had my way with any of the ladies. None that you know about, at least.”

“See? Discreet.” He paused. “She’s yours. Check her out. Do her, fuck her. Whatever. Get her to talk using that finesse. See if she knows more than she’s letting on. Just make sure she’s not a problem.”

“Done.”