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IT WAS easy to have regrets about the way she'd lived her life when a man's hands were wrapped around her throat, thumbs pressing insistently on her windpipe to cut off her oxygen supply. In truth, though, the excuses Audra had made for her bad behavior hadn't seemed valid for a while now.
It's not fair.
That thought registered even as her vision began to dim.
After all, she had been changing her ways — discreetly, which perhaps explained why the tabloids'most recent headlines had still labeled her a gold digger.
Audra didn't like the moniker, although she supposed she had been called far worse. Still, she had married for love and, after that, for emotional security. Wealth hadn't been the quality that had attracted her to any of her husbands, including the late Henry Dayton Winfield the Third. He'd been kind, undemanding. He'd been...safe. And she had been determined that this marriage would work despite the gap in their ages. She had been determined that this time she would not fail. Marriage number three would not end in divorce like the previous two, leaving her disillusioned and her heart a gouged-out husk.
"Lying, manipulative witch," spat the man squeezing her throat.
Audra was incapable of disputing his words. How ironic that when she had been capable of speaking out in her own defense, she hadn't bothered.
In general, she hadn't cared what other people thought about her or what adjectives they used to describe her, as long as they'd spelled her name right. She'd known her soul wasn't completely black even if the rag-reading public thought differently. Since her most recent marriage in particular, she'd taken steps to restructure her lifestyle and realign the egocentric pattern into which she had fallen since coming to Hollywood. She was no Mother Teresa, but she had found great satisfaction and personal fulfillment by becoming involved with children's charities in recent years, working quietly behind the scenes lest someone accuse her of exploiting the already-exploited in an attempt to salvage her flagging acting career.
While the tabloids might call her a gold digger — and the man trying to kill her clearly saw her that way — she had in fact made an appointment with her lawyer that very afternoon to rework her late husband's will so that his rightful heirs would inherit the vast estate.
She didn't need the money, nor did she feel entitled to it. She had amassed a fair bit of wealth on her own, thanks to a few smart investments. Still, she could understand why some people who didn't know her, and who only read tabloid stories about her, would see her as a candidate for stoning.
As she floated near the edge of consciousness, the past thirty years played through her mind like some poorly acted, made-for-television movie. That was galling, but apropos. She'd never made much of a name for herself in Hollywood, at least not the kind that could be repeated in polite company.
She'd caused her share of trouble and heartache, bitterness and outright rage, which, she thought with the brutal honesty of the dying, was exactly how she found herself in her current predicament. She'd pushed the envelope too far, thumbed her nose at convention one time too many.
At one point she'd felt she'd had good reasons for being a wild child, a rebellious teenager and then an adult who'd lived scandalously enough to become weekly tabloid fodder. Those reasons had ceased to matter, perhaps because Audra had finally realized they didn't absolve her from responsibility or translate into happy endings.
You reap what you sow. How often had she heard that advice while growing up? Yet it had taken her all this time to understand and accept the truth of those simple words.
And now it was too late to complete her metamorphosis.
As the saying went, the chickens had come home to roost, and the head cock now had his big hands encircling her neck. With each passing second his grip grew tighter.
I'm not ready to die.
Even as that panicky thought registered anew she prepared for the inevitable, praying for forgiveness from the God she'd only recently become reacquainted with, and wishing she could seek the same from the many people she had wronged over the years. Her sister topped the list.
I'm so sorry.
The words whispered through her mind, unable to make it past her gasping lips. Surrendering to the blackness rimming her vision, Audra accepted that her apology was too little, and, like her bid for self-respect, had come too late.
Through the telephoto lens of his digital camera, Seth Ridley watched the blonde open the door to her stepson. Now, there was a kicker. The blonde and the stepson were about the same age. But then, Audra Conlan Howard Stover Winfield was not known for being conventional.
Not many women could pull off four-inch red stiletto heels, but she did — he swallowed hard — a little too well. The skimpy excuse for a skirt covered just enough of her bottom to keep a man's imagination engaged and his libido working overtime. Her blouse was white, although nothing about it could be called virginal. The neckline scooped low, offering a tantalizing view of cleavage.
Sexy, he thought, unable to stop a low whistle as he clicked off a few shots. Some women would look cheap in that outfit, but he knew from the past couple of years of photographing Audra that the woman the tabloids had dubbed "Naughty Audie" was neither cheap nor easy. She was calculating, shrewd and clever, as her third marriage to the now deceased Henry Dayton Winfield the Third implied, even though the sixty-year-old business tycoon's death had been sudden and by all accounts, unexpected.
And she was beautiful — sinfully so.
Seth shook off his preoccupation with her looks, annoyed by the unacceptable jolt of attraction he always felt when he saw her. He had a score to settle and a job to do, which was why he was crouched down low outside her home, camera in hand, waiting.
Pictures tell the story.
Seth had always believed that. Pictures of Audra told of life lived in excess, although lately she'd seemed more subdued and almost introspective. Still, as a celebrity — he wouldn't call her an actress — she'd learned how to work the paparazzi. The camaraderie between Audra and the photographers involved give-and-take and perfect timing. Although Seth always stayed to the back of the pack with a ball cap snugged low over his brow, he had to admit Audra knew where to look, how to pose. His goal, of course, was to get her when she wasn't smiling or posing, or looking and acting her oddly likable, if outrageous, best.
Times such as now.
As he snapped a few shots of her clandestine meeting with Henry the Fourth, he felt a bit like a voyeur. As a member of the paparazzi, of course, Seth had been called far worse. At one time the disgust and self-loathing over his career switch from serious photojournalist to tabloid photographer had made him almost physically sick. Now he comforted himself with the knowledge that he wasn't really paparazzi.
Seth had far better reasons for doing what he did than pulling in a handsome paycheck. Personal reasons that surely elevated his new occupation into something almost noble.An editor at one of the rags where Seth regularly sold his work called Seth's dogged pursuit of Audra a crusade. Seth liked that designation, even if he would give anything — everything — to rewind the past two years of heartache and erase the shattering reason he wasonit.
Grief was a powerful motivator. He refused to believe that what drove him might actually be guilt.
He got lucky and Audra left open the curtains in the living room. With the lamps glowing and a fire flickering cheerfully in the hearth as evening settled in outside, the scene looked cozy and intimate and would be easy to photograph thanks to the 1000-millimeter lens on his Nikon D2H.
The grieving widow of six months was meeting with her stepson, no doubt to offer comfort and sympathy, and the word from Seth's sources was that the conversation between the pair would be limited to moans and grunts. As distasteful as Seth found that prospect, he nonetheless planned to document it.
He'd made a deal with Lucifer, although in this case the devil's name was actually Deke Welling, a tabloid reporter known for his liberal use of unidentified sources and paid informants in the poisonous articles he penned. Celebrities grumbled about libel, but since they had a hard time proving either that what Deke wrote about them was untrue or published with malice, they rarely followed through on their threats to sue.
Welling was a bottom-feeder, no question about it, but he was a highly effective one.At the moment he also was working on a Hollywood tell-all book in which Audra Winfield would be a featured attraction. Seth had promised to get revealing photos to go with Welling's revealing text. And he'd promised to pass on any juicy tidbits he uncovered about Audra along the way. The book would be the ultimate in exposure, Seth knew. A hardbound reminder of Audra's reckless living that would enjoy a much longer shelf life than any tabloid cover.
It was to be Seth's coup de grâce, and he told himself that afterward he wouldn't feel this aching anger that had all but consumed him for the past two years. Then he could hang up his paparazzi credentials and Scott Smithfield alias, and finally — finally — be free of the past.
As he watched through the viewfinder, Audra gestured dramatically and then backed away from her guest.
Playing coy? Audra? Something about the situation didn't seem quite right. Henry the Fourth, a heavyset man of thirty-three, wasn't put off, though. He moved forward.
Seth checked the aperture again and then waited for the shot that he wanted. The one that would expose Audra's duplicitous nature most clearly.
The stepson raised his hand.
He appeared to caress Audra's neck above the diamond choker she wore, and Seth's stomach lurched.
Don't let him touch you. The thought came from nowhere. As he watched, the man yanked off the choker and tossed it across the room. A gift from the old man, Seth decided.
"Yeah, pal, I wouldn't want a reminder of my dead father at a time like this, either," he murmured, pushing aside the weird press of emotions that had him wanting Audra to turn the stepson out of her home before things could progress.