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Albert Moser sat in his worn easy chair with his daughters' photo album on his lap. It bulged with photos, snapshots and small remembrances of happy times and places.
Christmas Leigh and Autumn Lynn, each named for the time of year they were born. Moser slid his fingers along the edge of the pages. The first half of the album was about his daughters' lives. He'd devoted the last half of the book to something else entirely.
He looked up at the calendar he'd hung on the wall next to his TV so he could watch the months, the weeks, the days go by. And they had. Somehow, he'd made it through another year. Somehow, it was October again.
He flipped over to the back of the album, where he'd pasted newspaper clippings, notes and baby photos. Behind them, stuck between two pages, was a small stack of insurance forms. Four years ago, the stack had seemed huge. During his career, he'd sold a lot of life insurance policies to parents for their newborns. Then, when Rudolfo Gomez had retired, Albert had taken over his customers, too.
Once he'd culled out the males and the people who had moved away or died, the stack had dwindled to ten. He counted. Only six were left. Six policies taken out at birth on six baby girls. Now they were grown. Young women with their lives ahead of them, just like his Autumn.
And like his daughter, they had no idea that one of them had only a few days to live.
Albert Moser sighed. He didn't want to do it. The weight of the women's lives was heavy on his shoulders. He wasn't sure he could stand under the weight of another one. It had been four years.
For a brief moment, he considered turning himself in and begging them to find his daughter's killer. He'd tried begging. But the police had dismissed Autumn's murder as a mugging. He knew it wasn't. He just knew it.
The telephone rang. Albert started and almost dropped the album. He didn't have to wonder who was calling. It was Christy. His older daughter was the only one who ever called him. He picked up the handset.
"Dad? Hi. How are you?"
"I'm okay. How're you doing? Is it cold in Boston?"
"Always," she said with a laugh. Her low, slightly husky voice reminded him of her mother. "So how are you doing? Are you eating? Taking care of yourself?"
"I'm doing okay."
"Dad, you need to get out. Why don't you call some of your buddies and play some golf?"
Albert didn't answer. Christy had been pushing him ever since Autumn's death to get out, get some exercise, see some of his old friends.
"Well, I just wanted to call and see how you are, and"
"Autumn's birthday's in six days," Albert interjected. "She'd be twenty-six now, you know."
"I know." Christy sighed. "Dad, I called tonight because I'm leaving for Germany tomorrow. I'll be gone for a week. I'm speaking at the Children's Health Issues Summit in Munich."
"Think about coming to Boston for Christmas, Dad. I can't get time off. Christmas is always a busy time for pediatricians. But we could sightsee, go to some good restaurants."
"I'll see," Albert said. He shuffled the insurance forms he held, looking at the birth dates on the policies. "You know, Christy, the police still aren't doing anything about Autumn's murder."
"She was murdered. You know how scared she was of that man she was seeing. He killed her. I'm sure of it."
"Dad, please stop trying to figure out who it was. It's eating you up inside."
"You're right there. It is."
"Think about coming up here for Christmas."
"I'll think about it."
Christy said goodbye and hung up, leaving Albert feeling more lonely than he had before she called. Her voice echoed through the empty house.
It's eating you up inside.
Yes, it was. And there was only one thing that would stop the gnawing pain.
He had to continue his crusade. Eventually, the police would look back and know he'd been right all along. Autumn Moser was murdered. Then they'd realize that these young women wouldn't have had to die if they'd paid attention to him. They'd be sorry they'd dismissed him.
Detective Ryker Delancey polished off the last bite of Coquilles St. Jacques and took a final sip of wine. He sat back and glanced at his watch. Almost eleven o'clock. Closing time. Only a few late diners were still lingering over coffee or dessert at L'Orage.
It hadn't been easy to adapt to eating dinner so late, but with the anniversary date about to roll around, Ryker wasn't taking any chances with his only living victim.
Speaking ofa familiar figure in a white coat emerged from the kitchen. Nicole Beckham. She smiled as she greeted a couple a few tables away. Ryker had no trouble hearing their conversation in the subdued, intimate atmosphere of the upscale continental restaurant. The two were regulars, and they always asked to speak to the chef. Nicole always responded the same way.
"I'm so happy you enjoyed it. It's always wonderful to see you." Nicole's green eyes sparkled with genuine pleasure. Her pixieish face lit up when she smiled. She acted as if the couple were the only people in the room.
Ryker glanced around at the lingering diners. A woman he'd seen a few times before was reading what looked like a legal brief as she ate. As he watched, she glanced up at Nicole, then pulled out her cell phone. She spoke briefly then set it down beside her plate and went back to her reading. Three tables beyond her a young couple were feeding each other white chocolate bread pudding and kisses. Ryker knew how their evening was going to end.
His gaze traveled to the last patron, a regular in his mid-fifties who was looking at his watch and wiping his mouth at the same time. The man glanced up and met Ryker's gaze. He nodded, then folded his napkin and reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
Ryker glanced back at Nicole, just as she turned toward the kitchen. Her gaze met his and just like every time she saw him, her eyes widened for an instant, and then her smile faded.
Ryker's mouth twisted wryly. No warm greeting or dazzling smile for him. She didn't want him in her restaurant. He couldn't blame her. She'd informed him in no uncertain terms the first time he'd showed up here that seeing him brought back the memory of her attack a year ago. He regretted that. But he wasn't about to leave her alone and unprotected. Especially now, only one week before the anniversary date of her home invasion.
Since that first confrontation, she'd been polite, but aloof. He'd never gone out of his way to speak to her. In fact he rarely saw her because she rarely emerged from the kitchen.
Still, he knew she was there, and that made him feel better. If she was there at the restaurant, cooking, then she was safe.
As he set his napkin beside his plate and glanced around for his waiter, he saw her turn on her heel and head his way with a determined glint in her eye. Leaning back casually, he waited to see what she was going to do. She wouldn't make a scene. She was executive chef. It would be in bad taste.
"Detective Delancey," she greeted him in her low voice.
"Call me Ryker," he offered, as he had on each of the few occasions she'd spoken to him.
"I hope you enjoyed your dinner." She crossed her arms and lifted her chin.
She no more hoped he enjoyed his dinner than she hoped he'd come back tomorrow night, and the next and the next.
"I did," he said politely. "My compliments to the chef."
Her lips tightened. "You've been coming in later the past two weeks or so." It sounded like an accusation.
"I'm flattered you noticed."
He smiled. "I've been working later. We're short-handed."
A flicker of her eyelids told him she didn't like that answer. Or believe it.
He wondered how she would react if he told her the whole truth. Yes, they were shorthanded, but the real reason he'd been dining later was so he could wait outside the restaurant until it closed, and watch her until she was safely inside her apartment three blocks away.
She was his only living connection to a killer he was convinced had committed three murders of young women in the past four years. Each killing had occurred during the fourth week in October, and the only reason the killer wasn't four for four was because Nicole's roommate had come home early and interrupted him.
But with all the evidence he had, he still couldn't convince his chief that the murders were the work of one man. Deputy Chief Mike Davis needed more than just the coincidence of the dates.
"May I sit?" Nicole asked, gesturing to a chair.
He nodded. What was she up to? Judging by the tiny wrinkle between her brows, she was worried about something. He hoped it was her safety.
She sat on the edge of the chair and rested her clasped hands on the tabletop. "I don't mean to be rude, but why are you here every night?"
"I'm not here every night."
She glared at him. "Practically. You sometimes miss Thursdays, and we're closed on Mondays, but the rest of the week " She shrugged. "I mean, the food here isn't exactly cheap. Or low-calorie."
"Are you calling me fat?"
"Of course not. I"
"You're wondering how a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office detective can afford to eat like this every day?"
Her cheeks turned red.
"I told you I'd keep an eye on you."
"And I told you that wasn't necessary."
He glanced down at her entwined fingers. The knuckles were white. She spread her fingers, then squeezed them again.
Finally she spoke, her voice muted. "I heard what you said that night, about the other women."
Ryker cursed silently. He knew exactly what night she meant, and what conversation. She was referring to the night the killer had broken into her apartment. He hadn't meant for anyone there to overhear his telephone conversation, certainly not her, the victim. He'd been trying to talk his chief into letting him combine the cases, now that he had a live victim. "You weren't supposed to hear that. It had nothing to do with you."
That was a lie. It had everything to do with her.
Her gaze told him she knew it. "I'm not stupid, Detective. You talked about combining murder cases. You said I was damned lucky to be alive. And you said my attack was the fourth in four years, all during the fourth week of October." She paused and her eyes bored into his. "You think the man who broke into my apartment killed those other women."
Ryker clenched his jaw. How was he supposed to answer her? He'd been given specific orders by Deputy Chief Mike Davis to drop his crusade to connect the murders.
"Obviously, next week will be the fourth week in October. If you're right about him, that means he'll kill again." Her eyes narrowed. "You're here because you think he'll come after me, aren't you?"
Ryker opened his mouth, but immediately closed it and gritted his teeth. He couldn't deny her words, but he didn't want to confirm them, either. He wasn't sure why the killer hadn't tried again to kill Nicole. He'd like to think it was because the man didn't know where she was, but that was highly unlikely. Her name had been in the paper and on television the day after the break-in.
Across from him, Nicole swallowed audibly. "Why hasn't he come after me already?" she asked as if reading his mind.
Ryker's own mouth went dry at her question. He shook his head. "I don't know. He's obsessive. The fact that he only kills once a year attests to that. For whatever reason, the last full week in October has some extremely important meaning for him."
"This week," she muttered. "What do you suggest I do?"
"Get out of town, preferably permanently, but at least for the next week or two."
"I can't do that." Nicole bit her lower lip and looked down at her hands, then peered up at him, her green eyes hard as jade. "I bought double-locking dead bolts, even for the balcony doors. If you want to, you could check them. See if they're strong enough. I could make you a cup of coffee."
Ryker grimaced inwardly. There were very few things in the world he'd rather do than get to know Nicole Beckham better. He couldn't deny the sexual attraction he'd felt for her ever since he'd first seen her a year ago, when he'd responded to the 911 call about the break-in.
Nicole Beckham was stunning in an understated way. Her hair was the color of old gold, and cut weirdlyshorter in back than in front. It suited her small, sharp features and heart-shaped face. If things were different, he'd accept her invitation in a heartbeat.
But things weren't different. He was a detective with the major crimes division of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, and she was the victim of a crime. There was no way they would ever have any other relationship than that.
As much as he wished he could say yes, he shook his head. He couldn't go with her to her apartment for more than one reason. If the killer was watching her, he'd be tipped off that she had a bodyguard. Not to mention that the guy may have seen Ryker before, at other crime scenes. Serial killers were notorious for visiting crime scenes in the guise of an innocent onlooker. The killer might recognize him as a detective.
"Who installed your locks?"
"I called a locksmith from the phone book. He said they were the top-of-the-line residential locks."
"Then I'm sure they are. Look. I know you don't want me in your apartment. Just accept that I've decided this is the best restaurant in Mandeville, and you're the best chef."
Nicole pushed her chair back and stood. "Have you always eaten all your meals out?"
"Ninety percent anyway. I'm not much of a cook."
"So where did you eat before you started coming here?"
Ryker smiled up at her. "The Lakeview Diner," he said blandly, naming a fly-specked dive down near the lake.
Nicole bit her lip. It looked as if she was trying to keep from laughing. "Well then, thank you for choosing L'Orage, Detective Delancey."
"Call me Ryker," he said.
"Good night, Detective."
Ryker sat in his parked car on the side of the road about three-fourths of a block east of the restaurant. He watched the time. As always, by ten minutes after eleven, Nicole appeared. Her golden-brown hair shone in the light from the streetlamps as she walked confidently along the sidewalk with a tote bag slung over her shoulder.