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"I'll bet there was less red at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre," Lt. Sam Holland said as she stood in the doorway to the Fraternal Order of Police Hall and surveyed the scene before her.
"Wow." Senator Nick Cappuano took a long look around the big room. "Wow."
Sam's sister Tracy joined them. "Oh. My. God. Celia and her friends went freaking nuts with the hearts and flowers."
Every square inch of the large room was decorated with red flowers, balloons and streamers.
"I've seen murders that were less bloody than this reception," Sam said.
"It is her first wedding," Nick reminded them. "She has the right to go all out."
Sam wondered if he'd expect his first wedding to be as elaborate. She'd been there, done that and had no desire to do it again. But for him.. Well, for him she'd do just about anything. However, she was drawing the line at hearts and flowers. She had a reputation to uphold.
"Holy shit," Sam's sister Angela said when she joined them. "Check out the ice sculpture. Jesus."
"Cupid, not Jesus," Nick said, smiling at the horror on the sisters' faces. "Be nice, you guys. Celia is so excited."
"I had no idea she had this in her." Sam battled her way through the streamers and balloon ribbons to get to the bar. She needed a drink, and she needed it now.
"You'd be well advised to keep her far, far away from your wedding," Tracy said.
"No kidding." Sam downed a glass of pinot grigio and gestured for another. "How much of this do you suppose Dad knew about?"
"None of it," Angela said, smirking.
"He's a smart man," Nick said, "so I'm sure he told her to do whatever she wanted."
"Is that what a smart man does?" Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Not this smart man. If I did that, we'd end up with beer and peanuts at O'Leary's."
"And that would be bad how exactly?"
Nick bent to kiss her. "We can do better."
Before Sam could tell him she didn't want to do better than O'Leary's, they were interrupted by the arrival of the bride and groom. Sam couldn't deny that her father and his new wife radiated happiness. How could Sam begrudge the woman who had married her paralyzed father the reception of her dreams? Her own wedding, Sam vowed silently, would be as low-key as she could possibly make it. In fact, eloping was starting to look really good to her.
Dressed in red satin bridesmaid gowns, Celia's new stepdaughters stood faithfully by her side while she cut the heart-shaped red velvet cake and fed a piece to her groom. They endured the speeches and the toasts and smiled for no fewer than a thousand photographs. The ultimate insult, however, still awaited them.
"She can't make us," Tracy said when the DJ asked the sisters, their husbands and fiancé to come to the dance floor.
"Dad can make us," Angela said. "He still has that look. You know the one I mean."
"I've never wanted to be called to a murder scene more than I do right now," Sam said through gritted teeth.
"Ladies," Nick said with that charming smile he'd been using all day to manage them, "it's one dance, and then you're done."
"I know I speak for my sisters when I tell you to shut up and stop defending Valentine's Day Bridezilla," Sam said.
Nick laughed at the dismay on their faces as the first notes of Bette Midler's "The Rose" filled the room.
"I'm going to puke in my shoes," Angela muttered. Three-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child, she'd been green for weeks.
"Those are my Jimmy Choos," Sam reminded her, "and if you puke on them, I'll kill you."
Angela scowled at her. "Would you rather I puked on those?" She nodded to the Manolos that Nick had bought Sam to wear the night they got engaged.
Sam glanced down at the precious shoes. "Don't even think about it."
"Mine are from Payless," Tracy said. "Puke away."
Nick took Sam's hand as Angela's husband Spencer and Tracy's husband Mike did the same with their reluctant wives. The guys made for a dashing trio in the tuxedos they'd worn as Skip's groomsmen.
Across the room, Sam's partner, Detective Freddie Cruz, Detective Tommy "Gonzo" Gonzales and some of her other detectives were sharing a laugh that was-no doubt-at her expense. She'd think of some way to punish them on their next shift. It didn't escape her notice that Freddie had brought his girlfriend Elin Svendsen or that Gonzo was there with Nick's chief of staff Christina
Billings. Sam didn't approve of either relationship, but no one had bothered to ask her opinion.
When she realized Nick wasn't going to let her escape the mandatory dance, Sam gave up the fight. Besides, being pressed against his muscular chest was one of her favorite places to be, so she may as well enjoy this obligatory moment.
At six foot four, he was one of the few people in her life who towered over her. Those broad shoulders, the chocolate-brown hair that curled at the ends, amazing hazel eyes, smooth olive-toned skin Sam had never known a sexier guy. And that mouth, whoa. Speaking of sexy
"There," Nick said, apparently sensing her capitulation. "Isn't that better?"
"I'm still mad at you."
"You can punish me later." Bringing his lips in close to her ear, he added, "All night long."
Sam smiled at his softly spoken words. She didn't want to because he was making her dance to the cheesi-est, most clichéd song her stepmother could've possibly chosen. But let's face it, she was slow dancing with Nick, and that definitely went a long way toward making things all better.
Nick's lovely chest ruined the moment by vibrating against her cheek.
"Ignore it," he said of the BlackBerry he'd stashed in his chest pocket. "No phones today."
"You won't hear me arguing." They still hadn't managed a full day off together in the nearly two months since they'd reconnected after U.S. Senator John O'Connor's murder just before Christmas. Six years after a memorable one-night stand, they'd picked up right where they'd left off. Nick had since been tapped to complete the last year of John's term in the Senate and was now in the midst of the campaign to win the seat on his own in November. They'd looked forward to this day off for weeks and had big plans for a romantic early Valentine's Day celebration after the wedding.
Nick's phone buzzed again. "Ignore," he said more forcefully this time.
"What if it's your dad or there's some sort of disaster in Virginia? You can't just ignore it."
"Yes, I can." With all the campaigning he'd been doing lately, she knew he needed the day off even more than she did but if there was one thing Sam couldn't stand, it was a ringing phone.
She worked her hand into his jacket to retrieve the buzzing phone. "Henry Lightfeather," she read off the screen. Even she recognized the name of the senior senator from Arizona.
"Work." Nick tightened his arms around her. "He can wait until Monday."
"He's called twice."
"He can wait."
"There's a voice mail message. Aren't you curious?"
"Okay, it's official-you're an even bigger workaholic than I am."
"Not possible. Hey, he sent a text-'Call me, Nick. 911.'" Nick stopped dancing and took the phone from her. "Now you've gone and done it," he said with a scowl.
"If you had ignored it, I never would've seen that text. Now I have no choice but to call him."
She grinned at him. "At least we can escape this nightmare dance before the seed becomes a rose."
Phone pressed to his ear, Nick stalked off the dance floor. Halfway across the room, he stopped, turned and signaled to Sam.
Curious, she walked over to join him.
"He's actually looking for you, Lieutenant." Nick handed the phone to Sam and went to have a word with Skip and Celia.
"Senator," Sam said. "This is Sam Holland. What can I do for you?"
"I need you to come here," Lightfeather said. He sounded rattled and undone. "Right now. I think she might be dead. I need you. Just you. No other cops."
"Regina." His voice broke. "Beautiful Regina."
"How can you tell she's dead?"
"There's so much blood, and she's cold."
"Where are you, Senator?"
He rattled off an address in Columbia Heights, a culturally diverse neighborhood located in the city's northwestern corner.
"I'm on my way. Don't touch her. Don't touch anything. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he said, his voice breaking. "Hurry."
After a quick trip to Nick's house so Sam could exchange the red satin bridesmaid monstrosity for jeans, Nick drove her from Capitol Hill to Columbia Heights. As he dodged the black BMW through traffic, Sam wondered when he'd started driving like a cop and how she'd failed to notice.
"What do you know about him?" she asked.
"He's a friend-one of the first to welcome me to the Senate, the first to tell me what I really needed to know, the first to offer his help."
"What else do you know that you're not sure you should tell me in light of current events?"
"There are times when it's terribly annoying that you know me so well."
"Likewise. Now start talking."
He glanced over at her. "I think he might be living in his office."
"Why do you say that?"
"I've seen him there at odd hours in sweats and T-shirts. He showers in the gym, but I've never seen him work out."
"If you're there at odd hours, why can't he be?"
"It doesn't seem like he's actually working, you know? I hadn't really given it all that much thought, to be honest, until right now."
"Why would he be living in his office?"
"A lot of people in Congress struggle to support two places-one in their home state and another here. As we both know, it's not cheap to live around here, and despite what people think, not everyone in politics is independently wealthy."
"Does he have a family?"
"A wife back in Sedona and five children, all adopted, a few of them special-needs."
"That could be why he doesn't have the money for an apartment in Washington."
"Wouldn't surprise me."
"He sounds like a nice guy."
"So what's he doing with a dead woman in Columbia Heights?"
"I have no idea."
Covered in blood, Henry waited for them on the landing outside Regina's third-floor apartment. Sam took a quick inventory of the senator: medium build, dark complexion, jet-black hair and eyes. He was younger than he appeared on television-late forties, early fifties at most.
"Hurry," he said when he saw them coming. "This way." Henry grabbed Sam's arm and all but dragged her into a shabby apartment. She let him lead her only because he was Nick's friend. Anyone else would have a broken hand by now. "In the bedroom."
Regina lay naked on the floor in two pools of blood, one by her head, and the other between her legs. Her throat had been slit from ear to ear. She had long dark hair, a slender build, small but firm breasts and smooth skin that was marred only by a few stretch marks on her belly, indication that she'd probably birthed at least one child or lost a tremendous amount of weight. Based on her slender body, Sam was betting on the baby. She judged the victim to be in her mid-thirties and was able to see past all the blood to determine she'd been quite beautiful.
When Nick saw the bloody scene, he gasped but at least he didn't seem faint as he had at previous crime scenes. The more time he spent with her, the more used to such things he seemed to become. Sam wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing.
Next to Sam, Henry broke down as he stared at the dead woman.
"How do you know her, Senator?" Sam asked Henry.
He was crying so hard he couldn't reply.
"She works for the company that cleans the Capitol," Nick said, his tone flat with shock. Sam had heard that tone far too often after the murders of Nick's friends John O'Connor and Julian Sinclair.
"Did you know her?" Sam asked Nick.
"I've seen her around."
She sensed there was more to it than that, but she decided to wait until they were alone to grill him further. To Henry, she said, "Senator, I need to call this in."
"I have to go," he said, panicked. "I can't be here when the police come."
"I'm afraid you'll have to stay, sir. You're a material witness at the very least." She glanced at his blood-covered dress shirt and then up at his dark eyes.
"At the very least? What does that mean?"
Well aware of the power this man yielded on Capitol Hill, Sam swallowed hard. "I have no way to know whether or not you're responsible for this without investigating further."
Outrage mixed with grief as Henry stared at her. "I called you because I thought you could help me! We have to find the person who did this to her!" He looked imploringly at Nick. "Tell her. You know me, Nick. You know I couldn't have done something like this!"
To his credit, Nick said nothing.
"I can't believe this! You actually think I could've done this to her?" He swiped ferociously at the tears cascading down his face.
She fixed her eyes on his bloodstained shirt. "I need to rule you out as a suspect. You can either help or hinder that process, but either way, you're not going anywhere, Senator. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," he said bitterly. "I get it."
"I'd like you both to move to the hallway." After they stepped out of the room, Sam reached for her cell phone. "This is Lieutenant Holland. I need to report a homicide in Columbia Heights."