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By Evelyn Vaughn
Harlequin Enterprises LtdCopyright © 2003 Evelyn Vaughn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf his in-laws hadn't reached the cemetery first, Zack Lorenzo might never have learned the truth. Not about evil. Not about magic. Not about himself.
But when he rounded a corner in the old Santa Teresa Cemetery and saw the cluster of Romanos by his wife's three-day-old grave, he ducked behind an angel statue, shutting his eyes against the close call.
He was a big man, a cop. Until last week, he'd thought he could face anything. But he couldn't face this, or them.
He'd made it through the viewing, the rosary and the finality of the funeral in pure shock. His beautiful Gabriella ... dead? They'd had their problems, yeah, but what couple didn't? They would've worked them out, same as his parents, her parents, their neighbors and grandparents always had, right?
Now it was too late. Done. God didn't grant do-overs.
They'd argued that night about her weird new ideas. He'd taken a double shift, to stay away from her. And now ...
Zack couldn't face her parents yet. Sooner or later someone would ask why he hadn't protected his precious wife, and he wouldn't have jack to tell them. He didn't know, himself.
"Best leave the family to their grief, eh?" asked an accented voice, and Zack opened his eyes to see who else was avoiding the Romanos. The scrawny young man had two-toned hair and carried a backpack with the logo of a local college. "Pardon my intrusion. Are you here to see ... somebody?"
Zack hadn't brought flowers. In his pocket he had a blue beanbag bunny that had once been Gabriella's favorite; he'd won it for her on a date. She stopped carrying it everywhere sometime during their first year of marriage, he guessed, but he'd thought maybe wherever she was, she might want it....
To distract himself from the idea of putting a stupid toy bunny on his wife's new grave, Zack challenged, "Are you?"
"Oh no, I'm doing schoolwork, actually. This cemetery's my semester project. Did you know, Santa Teresa has served the Little Italy area of Chicago since ..."
Zack let his grief mute the kid's ramble. How was it people still attended college, took vacations, planned futures when his young wife was dead? Dead because he hadn't loved her better.
The student - British, Zack guessed - blathered on about tombstone rubbings and epitaphs and how different cultures ensured peaceful rests for their loved ones. Egypt's mummies. Mexico's Day of the Dead. Burial versus cremation. Then he said, "Like that new one over there, where that poor family is."
That new one?
"What about it?" Zack challenged, dangerous.
"That grave, Gabriella ..." The student drew some battered note cards from his pocket. "Gabriella Francesca Bianca Lorenzo, buried just last Saturday. Isn't it interesting, how people can take comfort in burying an empty casket?"
For a long moment, Zack could only stare, strangely dizzy - like part of him knew something the rest hadn't figured out yet. The wind off Lake Michigan shook the trees and made a Mylar balloon on a nearby grave bob and struggle at its tether. Finally, he went with the obvious. "Her casket's not empty."
"Oh, I think it may be. My equipment ..." But the young man's face paled with comprehension. "Ah. You knew her. My apologies for intrud -"
Too easily, Zack had the student face-first against the Gallo mausoleum, skinny arms behind his back. Now he just had to decide how bad to hurt the little ghoul. "Who are you?"
"My apologies." Marble muffled the kid's voice. "Cecil Taylor. How do you do? I'm studying Urban Archeology, and -"
"What the hell are you doing, desecrating holy ground?"
"Pardon?" Even with his face smooshed, Taylor sounded insulted. "I've desecrated nothing - if anybody respects the dead, it is I! Now if you would be so good as to -"
"You said equipment."
"Ah. Yes. That." Taylor remained surprisingly composed. "I apologize. I was taking readings on a different grave, you see - Ugo Casale, 1914-1978. I used nothing invasive - a metal detector and a, well, a portable sonar of sorts. It's rather like a fish-finder. I did not even stand on the grave. But as I turned away, I noticed readings from Ms. Lorenzo's ... plot ... which indicated the absence of a corpse, so I made note of it. That's all."
"Well you're wrong." Belatedly, Zack released his hold on the guy's skinny arms. "And don't call my wife Ms. anything. Gabriella wasn't one of those feminist types."
She hadn't even worked outside the home. Until a few months ago, she hadn't even had friends who weren't his friends, too. That's how things worked in their neighborhood. Then she'd up and decided to attend community college. She'd begun to explore New Age crap that had made Zack's Nona mutter under her breath.
He felt guilty for still hating those things even though she was dead.
"I am sorry for your loss," said Taylor gently, as if Zack hadn't just made a love connection between the student and marble. "And for intruding. But if you are indeed her husband, you should know that the casket buried in that plot is very likely empty."
Like hell it was!
Or was it?
Once the Romanos left, Zack made the Englishman use his equipment to show him those so-called readings, both on Gabriella's grave and others ... and he half wished he hadn't. It convinced him enough to risk the wrath of his friends and family by having Gabriella officially exhumed. Her father protested - but Zack was her husband. In this, at least, he had final say.
Nobody would stand with him for that except his elderly grandmother, the priest and Cecil Taylor, the latter as if seeing some unplanned duty to its proper conclusion. Zack set his jaw as the casket was opened, half afraid, half hopeful - for what, he still wasn't sure. Maybe just to see her one more time.
But somehow he'd failed her again. Even before Nona began muttering under her breath, either prayers or incantations, Zack knew that much.
The silk-lined casket was empty.
And when they reburied it, all it held was the last of Zack Lorenzo's peace of mind - and a blue beanbag bunny.
West Texas - Four Years Later
Jo didn't realize how deadened she'd become until she saw the man in her jail's only cell - and breathed.
Not that she hadn't been breathing all along. But this was the first breath she'd actually noticed in years. One quick, sharp inhalation, instead of just monotonous existing.
It unnerved her.
She distracted herself by getting a cup of coffee. Then she half leaned, half sat on her desk, eyeing the stranger and noticing what it felt like to breathe ... and wondering why anything should seem different.
The prisoner, who'd sat up on his cot at her entrance, stared expectantly back. For a brief moment, Jo felt like she knew him. Or should. Or would. His broad chest expanded and contracted under his button-up shirt. He was breathing, too.
Then the moment passed, and she just felt silly. Everyone breathed; it was a handy habit. If the air suddenly felt sharper than usual in her lungs, that was probably just spring coming.
Excerpted from Buried Secrets by Evelyn Vaughn Copyright © 2003 by Evelyn Vaughn
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.