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The woman sat alone at a table near the narrow stage at the front of the bar, nursing a strawberry daiquiri and feigning interest in the alt–rock cover band currently grinding its way through an old Pearl Jam classic. Now and then she took a sip of her drink but mainly watched the crowd, her eyes alert.
Daniel Hartman studied her from his seat at the bar, curiosity distracting him from his own agenda. There was an odd stillness about her, a composure that set her apart from the rest of the restless liquor–soaked crowd in the small club in the heart of Birmingham's Five Points South.
Who was she? What was she looking for? The door opened and a man in a striped shirt and leather jacket entered, pausing in the doorway. Daniel dragged his attention away from the woman to give the newcomer a quick once–over. He was pushing forty, a little paunchy though his clothes hid it well. The wedding ring on his left hand quickly went into his pocket.
The paunchy man in the leather jacket approached her table, on the prowl. Of course he'd choose her—a pretty woman all alone in the middle of a bar was too much temptation. Daniel sat forward, curious to see how she'd handle being hit on. Would she notice the imprint on his left ring finger where the wedding band had been? Would it matter?
She looked up at the man, her brow furrowing as he spoke to her. Her gaze drifted to the hand resting on the back of her chair and the furrowed brow smoothed, replaced by a cool, neutral mask. She murmured to the man, who stepped away with a frown. Muttering something that made the woman's lips tighten, he moved on to the bar and ordered a bourbonneat.
Daniel looked back at the woman and found her watching him. When she didn't immediately look away, he lifted his glass and nodded.
Her frown returning, she looked down at her glass, stirring the red slush with slow, deliberate strokes. Her chin lifted, followed by her eyes. She locked gazes with him, her expression impossible to read. An electric shock zigzagged through him as he took the full brunt of her attention.
Was it an invitation? A rebuff? He didn't know, and he'd always prided himself on being an accomplished reader of women. Of people, in general, given his chosen profession.
He could look around this bar and guess, with accuracy, the stories behind the faces surrounding him: The balding salesman with the desperate come–on sitting with the aging beauty queen who'd accepted his offer of a drink because she was desperate for the attention she used to command without effort. The raw–nerved coed drinking to forget her cheating boyfriend and her unfinished term paper. The tax accountant sipping a trendy dark ale and trying to look as though he was just one of the guys. Daniel could read them all.
But not her.
She looked across the room and caught the eye of a waitress, who came at once. They murmured an exchange and the waitress went toward the back, soon returning with the check.
The woman paid her bill and rose from the table, darting a glance in his direction. He followed her with his gaze, memorizing the curve of her hips and the dip of her narrow waist, the way her calf muscles flexed as she navigated the crowded club and pushed her way through the exit door into the cool October night. His skin felt hot and tight.
Part of him wanted desperately to follow her, to see where she went next. What was she looking for? Would she find it?
But he had a job to do here, a job that didn't include tailing pretty brunettes with great legs. He stayed where he was, waving at the bartender to pour him another Coke. The bartender complied, giving him a black look because he wasn't buying pricey liquor to go with the soda. Daniel couldn't blame him—the bar didn't make money off designated drivers.
But he needed his wits about him tonight.
ROSE LOCKED THE CAR DOOR behind her and closed her eyes, giving in to the tremor in her legs.
Was he the one?
She thought she'd know it immediately, that the rage and violence roiling inside him would surely show on his face, but the man at the bar had looked so normal. Attractive, even, with masculine features, eyes the gray of a winter sky and a lean swimmer's build. The kind of man she might have smiled at a year ago, encouraged to join her in a drink and some friendly conversation.
But she wasn't that woman anymore.
She put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine purred to life, the heater vents blowing cool air in a blast that amplified her shivers.
She tightened her sweater around her and turned on the CD player.Allison Krauss's clarion voice flowed from the speakers, a plaintive plea to a potential lover to let her touch him for a while. She punched the power button off with a growl, glancing at her rearview mirror, where the front entrance of the Southside Pub reflected back at her in garish neon. Part of her expected the door to open and the man from the bar to emerge, seeking her out.
Another part of her was disappointed when he didn't.
She glanced at the dashboard clock. Only nine–fifteen on a Friday. The night was young. There were at least half a dozen more bars just in the Five Points South area she could visit before closing time.
Her chest tightened at the thought, but she tamped down her reluctance and pulled her Chevy into the moderate traffic on Twentieth Street, heading for the next bar on her list.
She found one of the last parking places on a side street where two bars sat side by side, as different from each other as day and night. Hannity's, an old–fashioned Irish pub complete with green neon shamrocks in the window, occupied the corner. Next door was Sizzle, unmistakably a dance bar with flashing lights and a driving bass beat she could hear from her car.
She headed for the dance bar, steeling herself for the noise and light. Southside Pub had been sedate in comparison. Sizzle's clientele was a good decade younger and twice as loud. At twenty–seven, she was one of the oldest women in the place. Her skirt was at least five inches too long, her silk blouse not nearly tight enough and her upswept hair prim compared to the flying tresses of the women gyrating on the dance floor.
She quelled the urge to head right back out the door, reminding herself that Elisa Biondi had last been seen at this very bar the night she died.
He came to places like this. He looked for women on their own. Easy targets.
She felt an invisible bull's–eye sitting between her shoulder blades as she weaved through the restless crowd and found a seat at the bar.
"Virgin daiquiri," she ordered, ignoring the bartender's arched brow. Had the woman never heard of designated drivers?
The bartender mixed the drink, leaving out the rum, and slid it down the bar to Rose. "Knock yourself out."
Ignoring the mild gibe, Rose paid for the drink and sipped the sweet slush through her straw, turning her gaze toward the club floor. Dancers filled the cramped space, most of them moving with more enthusiasm than skill, their focus on seduction rather than rhythm. Faces blended into one another, merging into an undulating mass of color and motion.
The sound of her name drew Rose's attention away from the dance floor. She turned to find Melissa Bannerman, her current client, sitting at a table nearby, sipping a margarita. Melissa motioned her over.
Picking up her daiquiri, Rose crossed to the table, relieved to see a familiar face. "No Mark?" she asked Melissa, referring to her client's fiancé.
Melissa hesitated before responding. "He's in Knoxville for the Bama–Tennessee game. I have a stack of unread manuscripts to get through this weekend, so I couldn't get away." Melissa's family owned a small publishing company. "Have a seat. I promise we won't talk wedding business."
Rose took one of the empty seats. Melissa was obviously not alone; someone's drink sat on the table in front of one of the other chairs. "I shouldn't barge in on your night out—"
"Alice won't mind." Melissa waved toward the dance floor. "We'll be lucky if we see her the rest of the night. She just broke up with her scummy boyfriend and I think she plans to dance with every guy in this place. Therapy, you know?" A hint of bitterness tinged Melissa's words. She'd almost ended her engagement a year earlier after catching Mark cheating. Mark's promise never to stray again had kept the engagement intact. Rose wasn't sure Melissa had made the right decision.
The true–love veils had made it so much easier to know if a couple was about to make a big mistake.
"Look at her go," Melissa said with a chuckle. Rose followed Melissa's gaze and spotted a tall, curvy woman with wavy brown hair. Her back was to Rose and Melissa, her body grooving to the pounding bass coming from the giant speakers on the wall. Her dance partner could barely keep up, but he didn't look unhappy about it, his eyes wide with male appreciation as his partner danced off her frustrations.
Alice turned her back on him, a not–so–subtle reminder that she was here for the music, not the man. She looked at the table where Rose and Melissa sat, waggling her fingers at them.
Rose sucked in a swift breath.
Alice's face was covered with a shimmery silver veil.