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The body was found sprawled across Nicole Kidman's star on Hollywood Boulevard.
The tourists who'd spent all night partying, stumbled across what was left of Mary Alice Malone and ended their vacation with a whimper.
Sunlight glittered off camera lenses and shone down on the scene with a merciless glare. Pooled beneath the young woman's body, blood, in tiny dark rivers running from opened veins, crept into the gutter. The dead woman's wide blue eyes were frozen open in surprise, staring into the morning sky. Her left breast was gone, excised, as if by a talented yet depraved surgeon and her yellow silk blouse had been deliberately torn and arranged to expose the injury.
Belatedly a blanket was dropped over the body.
But Mary Alice Malone was long past appreciating the privacy.
Ghoulish crowds jostled for position, cameras clicked and the unfortunate tourists wept. Police strung yellow crime scene tape and hid the pity in their eyes.
In L.A., one murder more or less--even one this vicious--hardly merited more than a mention on the local news channels and a small article on page two of the newspapers.
One man took note, though.
One man stood at the edge of the crime scene, letting his gaze sweep over the gathered mob. He knew his quarry was near. He'd recognized the killer's handiwork. He'd chased him before. And won. Now he would be forced to do it again.
And he knew that this murder was only the beginning.
The party was in full swing and Julie Carpenter swiveled on her desk chair to impotently glare at the door separating her suite from the rest of the house. Eardrum-shattering rock music pumped through the place, the bass making the walls tremblelike a tired old man looking for a place to lie down.
Her head throbbing and her stomach growling, Julie surrendered to the inevitable. No way was she going to get any work done tonight.
"Thank you, Evan Fairbrook," she muttered and tossed her pen down onto the legal-size pad of paper in front of her. Letting her head fall back, she stared at the ceiling through gritty eyes and called down one more curse onto the head of her ex-husband.
He couldn't be just a liar and a cheat. Oh, no. Wasn't enough just to sleep with her best friend and God knows how many other women in Cleveland. Evan, it turns out, was a first-class weasel. Before Julie had caught on, he'd emptied their bank accounts and stolen her car. If she'd had a dog, he would have kicked it.
She couldn't stay in Cleveland. Not with everyone looking at her, whispering about her, wondering how such a bright woman could have been so knuckle-dragging stupid. Julie sucked in a gulp of air and reminded herself that moving to California had been a good thing even though she missed her folks and her younger brother. She was in a new city, with a new job, surrounded by people fortunate enough to have never even heard of Evan Fairbrook.
No more suburban split level for her, either. Now she shared a historic old house high in the Hollywood Hills with two women who had become good friends. And, she was reinventing her career. The career that had supported Evan while he got his software business up and running.
The same software business that had folded the minute Evan milked all the money out of it and took that plane to Barbados. Julie's only hope now was that he got melanoma from romping around buck naked in the sun with her ex-best friend Carol.
"On his nose," she mused, smiling. "He should get a big, black hairy mole on his nose. Or maybe another body part he's equally fond of. Yeah. And then it should rot and fall off. The body part, not the mole. Slowly."
As curses went, it was one of her better ones, she thought, enjoying the mental image of Evan standing helplessly watching as his prized member swayed, tilted and dropped to the sand. As for Carol, the treacherous witch, it was enough of a curse that she was with Evan in the first place.
Julie blew out a breath and snorted. "Good for me." A year after Evan had screwed her over, she was able to see the humor in the situation. Sort of. Her pride had been dinged a little--okay, crushed, stomped and spit on--but once Evan was gone from her life, she'd been forced to admit that she hadn't really missed him. So what did that say about her?
She shook her head. Man, it was way too late to do any soul searching. Instead she'd eat the last of the Coney Island Waffle Cone ice cream in the freezer. She got up and headed for the door leading from her suite to the hallway connecting it to the kitchen of the huge old house. The mother-in-law suite she occupied in the 1920's Craftsman-style house was way at the back of the building, usually giving her the privacy she preferred.
She'd been lucky to find this place. Number one, she hated apartment living. But more than that, being a freelance writer for the L.A. Times meant she needed a home base that was flexible. She did a lot of traveling and having housemates meant she didn't have to worry about her place while she was gone. Plus, she had company when she wanted it and privacy when she didn't.
Eventually, though, she'd like to move to the beach. And she'd take summers off. And do some damn sand frolicking herself.
Her cell phone rang before she could open her door and she checked caller ID before answering. "Hi, Kate."
"Hi." Kate Davies, one of Julie's housemates whispered into the phone, her voice almost lost in the slam of music still pounding through the house. "Hey, what do you want to eat tonight?"
Julie smiled. Living with two women who considered splitting an M&M a walk on the wild side had its fringe benefits. Neither Kate nor their other housemate, Alicia Walker ever ate if they could help it. And since they were determined to maintain their chic, skeletal look, whenever they went out on dates--which, let's face it, was a lot more often than Julie did--they brought a doggy bag back for her.
"Where'd he take you tonight?" Julie asked, hoping for a decent steak for once. If Kate or Alicia brought her back one more box of sushi, she'd sprout gills.
"Oh," Kate whispered, "you'd love it. Ruth's Chris. Just breathing in here I think I've gained two pounds."
"Thank God. Meat."
"So, what'll it be? Filet mignon?"
Julie sighed. "I think I just had an orgasm." Laughter spilled through the phone. "Baked potato or garlic mashed?"
"Please. Garlic mashed. Definitely." Not like she had to watch her breath or anything. "Order the steak rare to allow for heating up later. And if he's willing to spring for dessert, anything chocolate."
"It's been so long since I had chocolate," Kate half moaned.
"Live a little," Julie urged, catching sight of herself in the mirror across the room. Her favorite jeans were so old and faded, they were more thread than fabric. And her T-shirt covered a figure that was more rounded than was fashionable. But then, she wasn't trying to catch a man, was she?
She closed her eyes to her reflected image and concentrated on Kate again. "Eat something you have to chew for a change."
"I've got a shoot tomorrow, Julie. I can't eat." She rolled her eyes. "Right. Sorry. What was I thinking?"
"How's the party?"
"Haven't been out there yet."
Kate sighed. "Live a little," she retorted, throwing Julie's words back at her. "Go. Have a drink. Talk to people. Maybe a male people. Person. Whatever."
Julie pushed away from the door, shaking her head. "No, thanks. Been there, survived that."
"You're too young to be a nun."
"And you're too thin to diet."
"Tell you what," Kate said, her whisper hushing through the phone, "you get laid and I'll eat a sandwich."
"A whole sandwich?" Julie teased.
"Half," Kate compromised.
"I'll think about it."
"Good." A pause, then, "Oops. Gotta go. He's coming back from the bathroom. See you later."
"Right. Bye." Still smiling, Julie slipped her cell phone into the front pocket of her jeans and opened the door. Instantly music slapped at her. Thundering drums, wailing guitars and the crash of the bass that jolted through the floorboards and up through the soles of her bare feet.
She shook her head, winced and headed down the dark hall. Sounds of the party drew her through the shadows into the kitchen. The lights were on, glancing off the bright yellow walls and white cabinets, searing into Julie's eyeballs like needles. On one side of the room, a man and woman were wrapped around each other as tightly as shrink wrap on a new DVD.
A quick jolt of envy shot through her, but Julie squashed it.
If her hormones hadn't been doing the happy dance when she'd met Evan, none of this would have happened. Celibacy had to be better than letting your desires lead you down roads that only dead-ended.
Deliberately she turned her back on the couple, ignoring completely the muffled sighs and groans. But her insides twitched and a wash of heat ran through her despite all her efforts. To fight the neediness, she grabbed a spoon from the silverware drawer and headed for the one sensual delight that never let a woman down.
She yanked the freezer open and a chill blast of air wrapped itself around her. Snatching up the carton of ice cream, she took a moment to appreciate the fact that because she shared a house with a wannabe actress and a part-time model, the ice cream she bought was always in the freezer waiting for her. Smiling, Julie had the lid off and tossed onto the counter even before she swung the freezer door closed again.