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Claire Fontaine sneaked a peek at her watch. Time hadn't stopped but it was moving pretty darn slowly.
"I've given this a lot of time and attention, people," her boss said. He stood at the head of the conference-room table, his arms flailing around as if they didn't belong to his body. His hair stood on end and there was a little speck of spit in the corner of his mouth.
"The new tagline for Smith Pharmaceuticals is 'When You Count Your Blessings, Count on Us.' We'll feature a modern familya mom and dad both in business suits, three kids, all with smartphones, and lots of other technology in the background. We add an overlay, rolling across the screen, in old standard typewriter print. You know, High Blood Pressure, Type II Diabetes, High Cholesterol, Asthma. The contrast will be great. It'll hit home. No matter how things change, taking care of your family is what it's really about."
Claire looked around the table. Pete Mission, the most experienced designer, winked at her. Hannah, with whom she shared a cubicle wall, raised her auburn dyed eyebrows. They all knew it was her idea, knew that she'd been working even later than usual the last two weeks getting the idea into production.
But if her boss wanted to take credit, she didn't really care. She'd been lucky to get the job at Alexander and Pope. Not many advertising agencies were hiring and those that were all seemed to want at least five years of work experience.
Victor Santini beamed like a lighthouse. "Let's call it a night, people. We'll hit it hard again Monday." He pulled a rubber band off a stack of envelopes. "I've got your paychecks."
Nobody wasted any time. Claire reached for her check, folded the envelope and stuck it in her skirt pocket. She couldn't remember a Friday when Victor had let them escape early. Even if it was only twenty minutes, it was especially fortuitous because tonight she was going to confront Sam Vernelli.
Detective Vernelli. One of the city's finest. His picture had been in the paper a few weeks back. He and several other police officers had been honored at a luncheon and some reporter had decided that cops standing alongside the mayor was too good a photo op to pass.
It was terribly wrong that a man like him was responsible for enforcing the law. However, she wasn't naive enough to think she could change anything. The police hadn't been interested in what she'd had to say eleven years ago, so they certainly weren't going to be interested now. He was safe.
She just wanted him to know that there was somebody who knew the truth. Somebody who knew that he'd gotten away with murder.
Hurrying, she shut down her computer, packed it away, pulled her running shoes out of her shoulder bag and bent down to put them on. When she left the room, she opted for the seven flights of stairs instead of the elevator. Once outside, she walked fast and then waited impatiently for the do-not-walk signs at the busy intersections to flip over.
The mob of people on the sidewalk gradually thinned out as she left behind the commercial district and entered the residential streets, until finally after twenty minutes, she was the only one walking on the tree-lined sidewalk.
It was warm for late September and on any other day, the heat on her face, arms and bare legs would have felt good. But today, it made her hot and cranky and she was sweating and slightly out of breath when she reached Sam Vernelli's brownstone. She checked his house number against the crumpled-up slip of paper she clutched in her hand.
It had been ridiculously easy to find him. The internet was a wonderful thing.
She looked at the brick three-story that matched all the other brick three-stories that lined the quiet street. The houses were narrow and deep, but not as close together as she'd seen in some parts of the city. These people actually had yards.
There were three steps leading up to the front door. Mail had been delivered and envelopes peeked out of the metal box hanging on the side of the house. A big pot, with a sprawling gold mum that looked as if it needed watering, sat next to the solid-wood door. There was a huge tree in the front yard with leaves that were turning a deep red.
It looked normal. Nice.
Did his neighbors know that they lived next door to a killer?
Did they wander out in the evenings, intent on watering their small lawns, and end up making conversation with him? Did they invite him inside for a cup of hot chocolate after he helped them shovel snow? In a month, would their children trickor-treat at his house?
Did his past matter to them? To his coworkers? To anyone but her?
It wasn't much, but at least tonight he would be reminded that somebody remembered. She'd intended to come that very same night after seeing the photo. However, when she'd gotten home from work, she'd quickly realized that her new flat-screen, some jewelry and half her underwear had been ripped off.
Welcome to the big city, country girl. At least neither she nor Nadine had been home. She'd filed a police report, gotten a bigger bolt lock and reminded Nadine of the importance of making sure it was locked when she left.
But now it was time to deal with unfinished business.
Sucking in a deep breath, she knocked on the door. Her heart was hammering in her chest, making it hard to breathe normally. She waited, then knocked again. Then a third time. She watched the curtains in the windows, looking for some telltale sign that he was home but unwilling to answer the door, but there was nothing.
She sank down on a step. She wasn't leaving. She owed Tessa this much at least.
Sam Vernelli had been working twelve-hour days for the past month and today had been no exception. However, because it was Friday, he'd agreed to go get burgers and beers with Cruz. His partner and best friend was still reeling from the fact that six months ago his wife had accepted a big promotion and moved to Texas, walking away from their six-year marriage.
Fridays had been date night for Meg and Cruz Mon-toya. And for the first several months after she left, Cruz got so damn drunk every Friday that he was still hungover Monday. Lately, he'd been better, but Sam knew he was a foothold away from slipping back into the mud.
Tonight, he and Cruz had both stopped at two beers. It might be the weekend, but they had an especially heavy caseload and they planned on working until at least noon Saturday.
Now, as he drove down his quiet street, all he wanted was a shower, a bed and at least eight hours of sleep. He slowed the car and eased it into an empty spot less than thirty yards from his house. He was gratefulsometimes by this time of night on-street parking was scarce. He could park in the alley, but that would mean beaching his car in front of his garage, which meant that he'd be blocking in Dolores. The woman had been a great tenant for the past three years since she and her adult son had rented both the third floor and his garage, but she also had the most annoying habit of going to the grocery store before the sun had fully crested the horizon.
He killed his lights. Just about to reach for the door handle, he caught something out of the corner of his eye. Streetlights made it easy enough to see that someone was sitting on his front steps.
It was a woman. Short, dark hair. Slim build. He couldn't see her face because her head was down, as she huddled over her bent knees. No coat, short sleeves. It was barely fifty degrees outshe had to be cold if she'd been there any length of time. There was a big purse or some kind of bag on the steps next to her.
She was no doubt waiting for Tom Ames. Dolores had mentioned he had a new girlfriend and this woman looked to be about the right age. But because he'd been a cop for a long time, he didn't see a need to be stupid. He quietly opened the door. He cut through his neighbor's yard, got to the alley and approached his property from the rear. It wasn't until he circled the entire house, making sure that nothing looked out of place, or that others weren't waiting in the shadows, that he approached the woman.
"Hello," he said and couldn't help smiling when she jerked up and practically leaped off the steps. She was young, strikingly pretty, and while not exceptionally tall, she wore a skirt short enough that he still had a nice view of sexy legs.
Not a bad image to take to bed with him. And the next time he saw Tom Ames, he was going to yank his chain about leaving his girlfriend cooling her heels, or in this case, her tennis shoes on his front porch.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
She chewed on her bottom lip and Sam sensed the tension in her body. He moved slightly so that he could watch her for sudden movement and watch the street, as well. She stared at him, not blinking. He wasn't sure she was breathing.
"What's going on?" he asked, his tone still friendly.
The woman sucked in a deep breath and Sam was human enough that he appreciated the rise and fall of her full breasts under her lightweight shirt. But he was also very tired. "Look," he said, "let's cut to the chase. What are you"
"Waiting. For. You."
Her voice was low, sexy, and he caught a sense of determined purpose in her carefully spaced cadence.
"Sweetheart, that's a nice thought, but you're a little young for me," he said. He felt bad when she flinched, but quite honestly, he didn't have the time or energy to play games.
"My name is Claire Fontaine."
The edges of Sam's vision went black. Tessa's little sister. On his porch. What the hell? It had been eleven years since he'd seen her. He did the math and realized that she was twenty-four. Days before this woman had turned thirteen, Tessa had dragged him to the post office, insisting that her little sister's gift needed to be there on her birthday. Three weeks later, he'd met Claire Fontaine when he'd gone to Tessa's funeral in Nebraska.
She'd been a skinny, dark-haired, dark-eyed teenager with a mouthful of braces who'd mostly stayed in her room. He hadn't paid much attention to her. He'd been too busy looking out the living-room window, staring at nothing, wondering how he was supposed to go on without Tessa.
Now that she'd given her name, he could see some resemblance to that young girl in the stunning woman who stood before him. The same dark eyes and dark hair, although it was shorter now, curling around her face. Slim, not skinny and there were definitely curves in all the right places.
"What Why " He stopped and took a breath. His interrogation tactics were generally better than this. No doubt about it. The woman had knocked him off-stride. "What are you doing in Chicago?" he asked, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.
The Fontaines had let another daughter move to Chicago? He could hardly believe that. "Where?"
"In advertising," she said, answering, yet not answering the question.
For some crazy reason, he felt stupid. As if he somehow should have sensed that Tessa's sister was close. In so many ways, he still felt connected to Tessa. He'd loved her and had been so sure they'd be together forever. And then she'd been killed and everything had changed.
He'd barely been back from the funeral when the cops investigating Tessa's murder had started looking in his direction. He'd been stricken with grief and suddenly facing the prospect of life in prison. It had been the most horrible time of his life.
And it was all because of this woman.
Claire Fontaine had told the police that she'd overheard Sam and Tessa arguing on the phone. Sam had threatened her sister, telling her she was going to pay for something she'd done. Just that quick, he'd become suspect number one. And because he'd found Tessa and gathered her cold body in his arms, his DNA had been everywhere.
Even as a dumb kid, he'd known he was in big trouble.
Even so, he hadn't done much to help himself. He'd been too busy crashing and burning and would have either died, too, or spent twenty to life in the joint if his parents hadn't stepped in. They'd spent money they didn't have and hired a big-name defense attorney who found plenty of holes in how the police had handled the investigation. Ultimately, the state's attorney had either realized that Sam was innocent or had figured he didn't have enough to take the case the whole way. For whatever reason, the man had declined to press charges.
Sam had started piecing his life back together. It hadn't been pretty and it hadn't been easy and even after he'd officially been discounted as a suspect, it had taken years before he'd been confident that he could go on. Now, in the seconds it had taken for her to say her name, the memories threatened to take him under.
What the hell was she doing here? "It seems to me that I'd be the last person you'd look up," he said.
She considered him. The light wasn't quite good enough to tell for sure, but he thought he caught the glimmer of unshed tears in her eyes. He refused to feel bad. She was the one who'd come from nowhere.
"How could you have become a cop?" Her voice was rich with unspoken accusation.
It wasn't the question he'd anticipated. He wouldn't tell her the truth. "I heard they had good pension benefits," he said. Sarcasm was always his backup plan.
She shook her head. "This was a mistake," she muttered.
She wasn't going to get an argument from him. Nothing good could come from his having anything to do with Claire Fontaine. And while he knew better, he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Why? Why now?"
Now the tears ran down her cheeks. "Because eleven years ago, I stood at my sister's grave and made her a promise."
She stopped, apparently unwilling to tell him what that promise had been. Hell, he'd made plenty of his own promises over the years. Not at Tessa's grave. His were generally silent oaths uttered to an empty room. And more times than not, a vodka bottle played a prominent role.
Even when he'd been sober, it wasn't as if he'd ever made good on any of them. Tessa's murderer had never been caught.
She reached for her shoulder bag. "I've hated you for a long time," she said.
He'd been a cop for eight years. She wasn't the first to say it. Never before, however, had the words clawed at his gut. "Look, your sister, she "
He stopped. Tessa had loved her little sister, had always talked about how smart Claire was, how good of a student.
"What?" she challenged.
He shook his head. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained by going over ancient history.
"My sister was a beautiful woman, in the prime of her life." Her voice shook with emotion. "Not that I expect you to care," she added, her tone defiant. In a move that matched, she scrubbed the back of her hand across her face, destroying the evidence of her tears. She turned fast and practically ran down the steps.