By Sandra Brown
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Sandra Brown
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455501557
The rat was dead, but no less horrifying than if it had been alive.
Bellamy Price trapped a scream behind her hands and, holding them clamped against her mouth, backed away from the gift box of glossy wrapping paper and satin ribbon. The animal lay on a bed of silver tissue paper, its long pink tail curled against the fat body.
When she came up against the wall, she slid down it until her bottom reached the floor. Slumping forward, she removed her hands from her mouth and covered her eyes. But she was too horror-stricken even to cry. Her sobs were dry and hoarse.
Who would have played such a vicious prank? Who? And why?
The events of the day began to replay in her mind like a recording on fast-forward.
“You were terrific!”
“Thank you.” Bellamy tried to maintain the rapid pace set by the publicist for the publishing house, who functioned as though her breakfast cereal had been laced with speed.
“This show is number one in its time slot.” Her rapid-fire speech kept time with the click of her stilettos. “Miles ahead of its competition. We’re talking over five million viewers. You just got some great national exposure.”
Which was exactly what Bellamy wished to avoid. But she didn’t waste her breath on saying so. Again. For the umpteenth time. Neither the publicist nor her agent, Dexter Gray, understood her desire to direct the publicity to her best-selling book, not to herself.
Dexter, his hand tightly grasping her elbow, guided her through the Manhattan skyscraper’s marble lobby. “You were superb. Flawless, but warm. Human. That single interview probably sold a thousand copies of Low Pressure, which is what it’s all about.” He ushered her toward the exit, where a uniformed doorman tipped his hat as Bellamy passed.
“Your book kept me up nights, Ms. Price.”
She barely had time to thank him before being propelled through the revolving door, which emptied her onto the plaza. A shout went up from the crowd that had gathered to catch a glimpse of that morning’s interviewees as they entered and exited the television studio.
The publicist was exultant. “Dexter, help her work the crowd. I’m going to get a photographer over here. We can parlay this into more television coverage.”
Dexter, more sensitive to his client’s reluctance toward notoriety, stood on tiptoe and spoke directly into Bellamy’s ear to make himself heard above the Midtown rush-hour racket. “It wouldn’t hurt to take advantage of the situation and sign a few books. Most authors work their entire professional lives—”
“And never receive this kind of media attention,” she said, finishing for him. “Thousands of writers would give their right arm for this. So you’ve told me. Repeatedly.”
“It bears repeating.” He patted her arm as he steered her toward the eager people straining against the barricades. “Smile. Your adoring public awaits.”
Readers who had become instant fans clamored to shake hands with her and have her sign their copies of Low Pressure. Being as gracious as possible, she thanked them and smiled into their cell-phone cameras.
Her hand was being pumped by an enthusiastic fan when she spotted Rocky Van Durbin out of the corner of her eye. A writer for the daily tabloid newspaper EyeSpy, Van Durbin was standing slightly apart from the crowd, wearing a self-congratulatory smirk and giving instructions to the photographer accompanying him.
It was Van Durbin who had uncovered and then gleefully disclosed that the writer T. J. David, whose first book was generating buzz in book circles as well as in Hollywood, was, in fact, Bellamy Price, an attractive, thirty-year-old woman:
“Why this native Texan—blue-eyed, long-legged, and voluptuous, and isn’t that how we like them?—would want to hide behind an innocuous pen name, this reporter doesn’t know. But in spite of the author’s coy secrecy, Low Pressure has soared to the top of the best-seller charts, and now, apparently, Ms. Price has come out of hiding and gotten into the spirit of the thing. She’s eschewed her spurs and hat, abandoned the Lone Star state, and is now residing in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park on the Upper West Side, basking in the glow of her sudden celebrity.”
Most of that was a lie, having only filaments of truth that kept it from being libelous. Bellamy did have blue eyes, but she was of average height, not noticeably tall, as his description suggested. By no one’s standards could she be considered voluptuous.
She did have a cowboy hat, but it hadn’t been on her head for years. She’d never owned a pair of spurs, nor had she ever known anyone who did. She hadn’t abandoned her home state, in the sense Van Durbin had implied, but she had relocated to New York several years ago, long before the publication of her book. She did live on the Upper West Side, across from the park, but not in a penthouse.
But the most egregious inaccuracy was Van Durbin’s claim that she was enjoying her celebrity, which she considered more a harsh glare than a glow. That glare had intensified when Van Durbin wrote a follow-up, front-page article that contained another startling revelation.
Although published as a novel, Low Pressure was actually a fictionalized account of a true story. Her true story. Her family’s tragic true story.
With the velocity of a rocket, that disclosure had thrust her into another dimension of fame. She abhorred it. She hadn’t written Low Pressure to become rich and famous. Writing it had been therapeutic.
Admittedly, she’d hoped it would be published, widely read, and well received by readers and critics, but she had published it under a non-gender-specific pseudonym in order to avoid the spotlight in which she now found herself.
Low Pressure had been eagerly anticipated even before it went on sale. Believing strongly in its potential, the publishing house had put money behind its publication, placing transit ads in major cities, and print ads in magazines, newspapers, and on the Internet. Social media outlets had been abuzz for months in advance of its on-sale date. Every review had been a rave. T. J. David was being compared to the best crime writers, fiction and nonfiction. Bellamy had enjoyed the book’s success from behind the protective pseudonym.
But once Rocky Van Durbin had let the genie out of the bottle, there was no putting it back. She figured her publisher and Dexter, and anyone else who stood to profit from sales, were secretly overjoyed that her identity and the backstory of her book had been exposed.
Now they had not only a book to promote, but also an individual, whom they had deemed “a publicist’s dream.”
They described her as attractive, well educated, well spoken, not so young as to be giddy, not so old as to be boring, an heiress turned best-selling author. She had a lot of “hooks” to draw upon, the chief one being that she had desired anonymity. Her attempt to hide behind a pen name had, instead, made her all the more intriguing. Rocky Van Durbin was relishing the media frenzy surrounding her, which he had helped create, and, never satisfied, continued to feed the public’s voracious curiosity with daily tidbits about her, most of which were either blatantly untrue, speculative, or grossly exaggerated.
As she continued to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans, she pretended not to have noticed him, but to no avail. He rudely elbowed his way through the crowd toward her. Noticing his approach, Dexter cautioned her in a whisper, “Don’t let him get to you. People are watching. He’d love nothing better than to goad you into saying something he could print out of context.”
When the so-called journalist came face-to-face with her, making it impossible for her to ignore him, he smiled, revealing two rows of crooked yellow teeth, which she imagined him filing in order to achieve that carnivorous grin.
Looking her up and down, he asked, “Have you lost weight, Ms. Price? I can’t help but notice that you’re looking thinner.”
A few weeks ago she’d been voluptuous. Tomorrow she would be suffering from an eating disorder.
Without even acknowledging his sly question, Bellamy engaged in conversation with a woman wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt and a Statue of Liberty spiked crown made of green rubber foam. “My book club is reading your book now,” the woman told her as they posed together for a snapshot taken by her equally enthusiastic husband.
“I appreciate that very much.”
“The rest of them won’t believe I met you!”
Bellamy thanked her again and moved along. Undaunted, Van Durbin kept pace, furiously scribbling in a small spiral notebook. Then, stepping between her and the next person waiting for her attention, he asked, “Who do you see playing the lead roles in the movie, Ms. Price?”
“I don’t see anyone. I’m not in the movie business.”
“But you will be before long. Everybody knows producers are lined up to throw money at you for the option on Low Pressure. It’s rumored that several A-list actors and actresses are campaigning for the parts. The casting couches have never had turnover this brisk.”
She shot him a look of pure disgust.
“No opinion on the subject?”
“None,” she said, stressing the word in such a way as to discourage any more questions. Just then a man wedged himself between two young women and thrust a copy of her book at her. Bellamy recognized him immediately. “Well, hello again. Hmm…”
“Jerry,” he said, smiling broadly.
“Jerry, yes.” He had an open, friendly face and thinning hair. He’d come to several book signings, and she’d spotted him in the audience when she lectured at a bookstore on the NYU campus. “Thank you for coming out this morning.”
“I never pass up an occasion to see you.”
She signed her name on the title page, which he held open for her. “How many copies does this make that you’ve bought, Jerry?”
He laughed. “I’m buying birthday and Christmas presents.”
She suspected he was also starstruck. “Well, I and my publisher thank you.”
She moved on and, while Jerry fell back into the crush, Van Durbin boldly nudged people out of his way so he could stay even with her. He persisted with the question about a possible movie based on her book.
“Come on, Ms. Price. Give my readers a hint of who you see playing the key characters. Who would you cast as your family members?” He winked and leaned in, asking in a low voice, “Who do you see playing the killer?”
She gave him a sharp look.
He grinned and said to the photographer, “I hope you captured that.”
The rest of the day was no less hectic.
She and Dexter had attended a meeting at the publishing house to discuss the timing of the release of the trade paperback edition of Low Pressure. After a lengthy exchange of opinions, it was decided that the book was selling so well in the hardcover and e-book formats that an alternate edition wouldn’t be practical for at least another six months.
They’d gone from that meeting to a luncheon appointment with a movie producer. After they dined on lobster salad and chilled asparagus in the privacy of his hotel suite, he’d made an earnest pitch about the film he wanted to make, guaranteeing that if they sold him the rights, he would do justice to the book.
As they’d left the meeting, Dexter joked, “Wouldn’t your friend Van Durbin love to know about that meeting?”
“He’s no friend. T. J. David’s true identity was supposed to be a carefully guarded secret. Who did Van Durbin bribe to get my name?”
“A publishing house intern, an assistant to someone in the contracts department. It could have been anybody.”
“Someone in your agency?”
He patted her hand. “We’ll probably never know. What does it matter now who it was?”
She sighed with resignation. “It doesn’t. The damage has been done.”
He laughed. “ ‘Damage’ being a matter of opinion.”
Dexter had dropped her off at her apartment building with a warning: “Tomorrow’s going to be another whirlwind day. Get some rest tonight. I’ll be here at seven a.m. to pick you up.”
She’d waved him off with a promise that she wouldn’t be late, then entered the lobby of her building. The concierge had called to her from behind his desk. “A package for you was delivered just a little while ago.”
It had looked innocent enough when she’d set it on her dining table along with a stack of mail. The box had been sealed with clear packing tape. She’d noted that the label was printed with her name and address, but not the sender’s information. That was curious, but she didn’t think too much of it as she split the tape, folded back the flaps, and lifted out the gift-wrapped box inside.
She never could have prepared herself for the hideous surprise it contained.
Now, sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, she lowered her hands from her eyes and looked at the box with tissue paper blossoming out the top of it. That festive touch was so incongruous with the contents it had to have been planned that way as part of the joke.
Joke? No. This wasn’t funny. It was malicious.
But she couldn’t think of anyone whom she had offended, nor of anyone who would hold her in such contempt. Would Rocky Van Durbin, even having Sleazy as a middle name, do something so low-down and dirty as to send her a dead rat?
Slowly she worked her way up the wall, sliding her spine along it for support as she unsteadily came to her feet. Standing, she was able to see the rat nestled in the shiny paper. She tried desensitizing herself so she could look at it. She tried to objectify the corpse, but because each of its features was so grotesque, they seemed extraordinarily detailed.
She swallowed bile, chafed the goose bumps on her arms, and by force of will pulled herself together. It was only a dead rodent, after all. Rats were a common sight in the subway stations. Seeing one scuttling along the tracks had never caused her to have this kind of violent reaction.
She would replace the lid on the box and carry it to the garbage chute at the end of the hall. Then she’d be rid of it; she could forget about it and go on about her business, having refused to let the prankster get the best of her.
Steeling herself, she took a step forward, and another, and another, until she was almost upon it.
And then the rat’s tail flicked.
Dent answered the phone with a grumble. “What?”
“You’re still in the sack?”
“What time is it?”
“You sound drunk.”
“Do I need to be sober?”
“If you want the job.”
“Soon as you can get here.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that. Is it worth my trouble?”
“Since when can you afford to turn down a charter?”
“Okay, okay. How much?”
“Two thousand, down and back.”
Dent sat up and placed his feet on the floor, testing his level of sobriety. He raked his fingers through his hair then left his hand there, palming his muzzy head. “Twenty-five hundred plus fuel costs.”
“The guy’s sick. He’s going to MD Anderson for chemo.”
“Twenty-five hundred plus fuel costs.”
An unintelligible mutter about greed, then, “I think I can swing that.”
“You do, and it’s a deal. What’s the weather like?”
“Hot, muggy, Texas in May.”
“Possible scattered thundershowers late this evening. Nothing you can’t dodge, nothing scary.” After a hesitation, “You’re sure you’re okay to fly?”
“Gas up the plane.”
On his way to the bathroom, his bare foot hooked the electrical cord of the gooseneck lamp and pulled it off the nightstand. It fell with a thud, but fortunately the bulb didn’t break. He kicked the lamp and a heap of discarded clothing out of his path and stumbled into the bathroom, cursing the cold glare when he switched on the light.
He shaved by feel in the shower, brushed his teeth bent over the sink, and decided to let his hair dry naturally rather than use the dryer. Any grooming inconveniences these shortcuts imposed were preferable to looking at himself in the mirror.
Back in the bedroom, he dressed in his flight uniform: jeans, white oxford cloth shirt, black necktie, which he knotted but left loose beneath his open collar. He stamped into his boots, then scooped his wallet, keys, and aviator sunglasses off the dresser. At the door he paused to look back at the naked woman in his bed. She, whatever her name was, was still out cold. He considered leaving a note asking her to please lock the door when she left the apartment.
Then his bloodshot eyes swept the place, and he thought, Why bother? There was nothing in it that a thief could possibly want.
Morning rush hour was over, so traffic was reasonably light. The one remnant of Dent’s former life was red, equipped with an after-market-enhanced 530-hp engine, six-speed transmission, long tube headers, and a Corsa titanium exhaust. Punching the Corvette up to eighty whenever he had a clearing, he sped it beyond Austin’s northern city limit to the private airfield.
He could have kept his airplane at a fancier FBO, one with a control tower, but there were loyalty issues to take into account. Besides, this one suited him better.
His airplane was parked on the tarmac, which formed a concrete apron in front of the corrugated metal hangar. It had seen better days. It had seen better days twenty or so years ago, when Dent had first started hanging around.
Johnsongrass grew like fringe around the base of the rusted exterior walls of the hangar. The faded orange wind sock was the only one Dent had ever seen there, and he figured it was the original that had been attached to the pole shortly after World War II.
Parked in back, out of keeping with the rundown appearance of the building and Gall’s beat-up pickup truck, was a shiny black Escalade with darkly tinted windows.
Dent drove the Vette into the hangar, jerked it to a stop with a squeal of tires, cut the engine, and got out. Gall was seated behind the cluttered desk inside the hangar office, which amounted to one cloudy glass wall overlooking the hangar’s interior and three other walls constructed of unpainted, untaped Sheetrock. The enclosure was ten feet square, and it was jam-packed.
Maps, diagrams, topographical charts, and yellowed newspaper clippings of aviation stories were thumbtacked to the walls, which were pocked with pinholes. Outdated flight magazines with curling covers were stacked on every available surface. Sitting atop a rusty, dented file cabinet was a stuffed raccoon that had cobwebs over its glass eyes and bald spots in its fur. The calendar above it was from 1978 and was stuck on Miss March, who wore nothing except an inviting grin and a strategically placed butterfly.
When Dent walked in, Gall stood. Planting his fists on his hips, he looked Dent up and down, then harrumphed in undisguised disapproval and rolled his unlit cigar from one side of his stained lips to the other. “You look like hammered shit.”
“Got my money?”
“Then spare me the insults and let’s get to it.”
“Not so fast, Ace. I brokered this charter and take responsibility for the safety of the three passengers.”
“I can fly the goddamn plane.”
Gall Hathaway was unfazed by Dent’s tone. He was the only person on earth Dent would answer to because Gall’s opinion was the only one that mattered to him. The old man fixed a baleful stare on him, and he backed down.
“Come on, Gall. Would I fly if I wasn’t fit to?”
Gall hesitated for a few moments more, then slid a folded check from the pocket of his oil-stained coveralls and passed it to Dent.
“It’s good. I already called the bank.”
Dent unfolded the check, saw that it was drawn on a Georgetown bank for two thousand five hundred dollars payable to him and signed. All seemed to be in order. He put the check in his wallet.
“I pumped in ninety gallons of gas,” Gall said. “She’ll cover the fuel bill when you get back.”
Dent gave Gall a hard look.
“I trust her. She left her credit card as collateral.” Gall opened the lap drawer of his metal desk. In it were stubby pencils, bent paper clips, orphaned keys, a Bic pen with a fuzzy tip, and an American Express Platinum card. “She assured me it was valid. I checked anyhow. It is. For two more years. What FBO do you want to use? She left it up to you.”
Dent named the one he preferred.
“Cheaper fuel?” Gall asked.
“Fresher popcorn. Ground transportation?”
“She asked me to arrange for a limo to be waiting. That’s done.”
“They’re waiting in the Escalade?”
“She said it was too hot and stuffy inside the hangar.”
“She seems to be running the show.”
“I guess you could say.” Gall was suddenly having trouble looking him in the eye. “The old man is awful sick. Be pleasant.”
“I’m always pleasant.”
Gall snuffled. “Just remember, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Anything else? Mother?” Gall snarled, but Dent headed off whatever he was about to say with a question about coffee. “Still hot?”
“Ain’t it always?”
“Tell them I need twenty minutes, then we’ll take off. Anything they need to do in the meantime, go to the bathroom, whatever—”
“I know the drill.” Gall mumbled something Dent didn’t catch, which was probably just as well, then he added, “Before they see you, squirt some of that stuff over your eyeballs. They look like road maps.”
Dent went into the hangar proper and sat down at a table where the computer stayed linked to his favorite weather Web site. He made a note of the storms forecast for that evening, but the skies were presently clear.
He had made the flight to Houston Hobby many times. Nevertheless, he reviewed the information he needed for the flight portion of the trip as well as for the airport. He had Garmin in the cockpit. The Airport Facilities Directory for each state, plus FBO data, were downloaded onto his iPad, which he could access from the cockpit. But as a safety precaution he always printed out and carried with him information pertaining to takeoff, the destination airport, and an alternate airport. Lastly, he called ATC and filed a flight plan.
Outside, he went through the preflight check of his airplane, even knowing that Gall already had. He got under the wings to drain gasoline from five different locations, checking the glass tube to be sure no water had collected in the fuel tanks. It was a time-consuming chore, but he’d known a guy who’d failed to do it. He’d crashed and died.
Satisfied that his plane was ready, he signaled Gall with a thumbs-up. “Good to go if they are.” He went into the restroom, where he splashed cold water on his face and washed down three aspirin tablets with the dregs of his coffee, which hadn’t been as hot as Gall had boasted but was double the recommended strength. And, as advised, he put in eye drops guaranteed to get the red out. All the same, he put on his sunglasses.
When he emerged from the building, his three passengers were waiting for him on the tarmac, standing shoulder to shoulder.
It was easy to pick out the patient. The man was tall and dignified, but had the yellowish-gray complexion of someone suffering from cancer and its harsh chemical treatments. He was dressed in casual slacks and a sport jacket, both of which looked several sizes too large. A baseball cap covered his bald head.
In the middle of the trio was an attractive woman, slightly younger than the man, but well into her sixties. Something about her…
Dent’s footsteps faltered, then he came to a dead standstill. His eyes swung back to the man and tried to picture a healthy version of him. Son of a bitch. It was Howard Lyston.
There could be no mistake because beside him stood his wife, Olivia, looking as well put together as Dent remembered her. She was a pretty woman who took the time and trouble to stay that way. She was still trim, although her weight was distributed differently now, a little more around the middle. Her hair was lighter. The skin around her mouth and beneath her chin was looser than it had been nearly two decades ago. But her haughty expression was the same.
Dent stared at them for several moments, then swiveled his head around. Gall was lurking in the doorway of his office, obviously watching to see how this scene would play out. Under Dent’s glare, he scuttled back into the office and closed the door. Dent had some choice words for him, but they could wait.
He came back around and regarded the Lystons with contempt. “Is this a joke? If so, I fail to see the humor.”
Olivia turned her head and spoke to the younger woman standing on the other side of her. “I told you this was a dreadful mistake.”
The younger woman took two steps toward him. “It’s no joke, Mr. Carter. We need to get to Houston.”
“There’s a superhighway that runs between here and there.”
“Daddy can’t travel that far by car.”
She removed the large, dark sunglasses that had been covering easily a third of her face. “I’m Bellamy. Remember?”
Yeah, of course he remembered, but this was Bellamy? Susan’s kid sister? Like a nervous cat, always ducking out of sight whenever he came around. Skinny, gawky, braces on her teeth and pimples on her face. This was her?
Her bony frame had since been padded in the right places. Her complexion was now unblemished, her teeth straight. She was dressed casually but expensively, and there were no split ends in the dark, glossy ponytail that was draped over one shoulder. Altogether a nice package.
But you couldn’t melt an ice cube on her ass.
She emanated the same snooty attitude as her parents. Directed especially toward Denton Carter. Olivia was looking at him as though he hadn’t showered that morning. The old man was either too sick or too indifferent even to speak. As for Bellamy, she had an imperious manner that rubbed him the wrong way, and they’d only exchanged a few words.
He wasn’t going to take their shit. Not a second time.
“There’s a commercial airport southeast of downtown,” he said, addressing Bellamy. “Maybe you’ve heard of it? Big shiny airplanes? They fly them several times a day to and from Houston.”
She responded to his sarcasm with a smile that was equally caustic. “Yes, well, thank you for the suggestion. But it’s an ordeal for Daddy to go through airport security and all that that entails. I was told”—she glanced beyond him toward the hangar, where Gall was playing hide-and-seek—“I was told you have an airplane for charter. I’ve agreed to your terms and paid in advance for your services.”
Dammit, he needed that payment.
Two and a half grand was pocket change to the Lystons. To him it meant electricity, groceries, and a loan payment on his airplane. He could have kicked himself for not charging more. He could kick Gall even harder for not telling him who his paying passengers were. Setting him up to be blindsided like this, what was the old fart thinking?
For that matter, what were the Lystons thinking? Why had they selected him out of all the charter options, including private jet service, which they could well afford? He doubted they wanted to form a friendship circle.
He sure as hell wanted nothing to do with them.
But, unfortunately, what Gall had said about gift horses applied here. If they could stand his company, he could stand theirs. Houston was a short flight.
Dent turned to Howard Lyston, forcing him to acknowledge his existence. “What time is your appointment?”
“I’ll have you there with time to spare.”
“Good,” Bellamy said. “If there’s nothing else, could we please get under way?”
Her condescension was all too familiar, and it made Dent feel like grinding his teeth. Instead, he smiled and indicated the steps leading into the cabin of his airplane. “After you.”
The flight was smooth. The only difficulty they encountered was getting Howard Lyston into and out of the airplane. Not only was he so weak he could barely muster the strength to move, it was apparent to Dent that he was in pain. When he settled into the backseat of the limousine that was waiting for them when they arrived, he seemed pathetically relieved to have gotten that far. Olivia slid in beside him, solicitous and protective, just as she’d always been.
Bellamy held back with Dent, shouting to make herself heard above the noise of airplane engines and a stiff Gulf wind. “Invariably the staff and doctors are running behind schedule, so I can’t predict how long we’ll be.”
The opaque sunglasses were back in place, but the lower part of her face was taut and tense, which, Dent supposed, could be attributed to concern for her father. Or maybe she had the same low regard for him that her parents did. God only knew what she’d heard said about him over the past eighteen years.
“I’m on your clock, so I’ll be here whenever you get back.” He gave her one of his business cards. “My cell number is on there. If you give me a heads-up when you leave the hospital, I’ll have the plane ready to go by the time you get here, so we can take off immediately.”
“Thank you.” She hesitated for a moment, then opened the deep shoulder bag she was carrying, dug out a hardcover book, and extended it to him. “Have you read this?”
He took the book from her. “Low Pressure. T. J. David.”
“A.k.a. Bellamy Lyston Price. Did you know I’d written a novel?”
“No.” And he wanted to add, Nor do I give a damn.
But he withheld that because she was looking up at him, her head tilted at an inquisitive angle. He couldn’t see through the lenses of her glasses into her eyes, but he got the feeling she was carefully gauging his answer. “No,” he repeated. “I didn’t know you’d become a writer. Price, you said?”
“My married name.”
“So why T. J. whatever?”
“I picked it out of the phone book.”
Olivia called to her through the open door of the limo. “Bellamy? Coming?”
To Dent, Bellamy said, “The book may help pass the time while you wait for us.”
With that, she turned and joined her parents in the limo.
As it pulled away, Dent stared after it, cursing beneath his breath. Entering the building, he took out his cell phone and speed-dialed Gall, who answered with, “Make it fast. I’m busy.”
“What the fuck, Gall?”
“You can afford to be particular about passengers? In this economy?”
“It should be up to me who I fly. Had I known it was them, I’d have stayed in bed.”
“You’re scared of them.”
“Why are you trying to piss me off even more than I already am?”
“You needed the charter. Their money is good. Tell me where I’m wrong.” After a silence, he grunted with satisfaction, then said, “I got work to do,” and hung up.
In days past, Dent had loved hanging out at airports of any kind, be it a major hub or a county airfield with a grass landing strip used mostly by crop dusters. He liked nothing better than talking shop with other pilots.
Now, he avoided conversation with them. Nor would any want to talk to him once he introduced himself by name. He went into the pilots’ lounge only long enough to grab a couple of newspapers, then made himself comfortable in an armchair in a remote spot off the main lobby. He read both sports sections. Tried to work a crossword puzzle, but didn’t get very far. He idly watched a five-year-old soccer game being telecast on ESPN.
When lunchtime rolled around, he picked up a cheeseburger at the grill and took it outside to a patio eating area. He ate the burger while watching planes take off from Hobby. Each time one soared off the runway, he felt that familiar and thrilling tug deep in his gut. As much as anything, maybe even more than anything, he missed the adrenaline rush of jet propulsion, the thrust that was virtually sexual. It had been like a drug to him, and he’d quit cold turkey.
Eventually Houston’s sultry heat drove him back into the air-conditioned building. He returned to his spot and, out of sheer boredom, opened Bellamy Price’s novel and began to read.
The prologue left him numb with disbelief. After five chapters, he was angry. By the time he came to the last chapter, he was seeing red.
It was the calm before the storm, otherwise known as dinner at Maxey’s.
Sister restaurants in New York and Boston had already established its reputation, so almost as soon as Maxey’s Atlanta opened fifteen months ago in the tony Buckhead area, it became a choice spot for the well-heeled and beautiful—and wannabes—to see and be seen in.
Co-owner Steven Maxey was seated at the brushed-chrome bar, reviewing the chef’s specials for the evening and mentally gearing up for the onslaught that would begin as soon as the doors opened at five-thirty. When his cell phone vibrated, he glanced at the caller ID and, with a sense of dread, answered. “Hello, Mother.”
“I know you’re busy.”
“Never mind. Is it Howard?”
“We’re in Houston. We came down to see what our options are in terms of further treatment.”
Their viable options were dwindling, but neither had the heart to say so out loud. “Give him my best,” Steven said.
“I’ll be sure to. He’s napping now. Bellamy’s sitting with him. I just stepped out to phone you.”
He could tell she had more to say, although for several seconds a hollow silence was all that came through the line. Then, “We flew down in a private plane.”
That statement, while seemingly innocuous, vibrated with a portentous note. Steven waited.
“Bellamy chartered it. Guess who the pilot was.”
Steven’s gut clenched. “Please tell me you’re not about to say—”
He placed his elbow on the bar, bent his head toward his hand, and rubbed his forehead with the pads of his fingers in an attempt to ward off the migraine this information would no doubt bring on.
“I tried to dissuade her,” Olivia continued. “She was determined.”
“For crissake, why?”
“Something about getting closure, mending the past. You know how your stepsister is.”
“Ever the mediator.”
“She wants everything to be… nice.”
“Nice? No. No happier to see us than we were to see him.”
“Then why did he agree to fly you?”
“That old man who owns the airfield—”
“He’s still alive?”
“He arranged it, apparently without telling Dent who’d booked the charter. When he realized who we were, he was as unpleasant and arrogant as ever. There’s no love lost on either side.”
“Did he know about Bellamy’s book?”
“According to her, no. But he might have been pretending, or being obtuse. Who knows? We have to fly back with him when we’re finished here.” Steven heard a sniff and realized just how upset his mother was. “I never wanted to see that boy again.”
She continued to bemoan what an untenable situation it was. Steven understood how she felt. His emotions ran the gamut from dismay to alarm to anger, as they’d been doing since the day Low Pressure was published. His anxiety had worsened when Bellamy’s identity and the biographical nature of the book became public knowledge.
William Stroud, his business partner, tapped him on the shoulder and signaled that it was time to open. The receptionist had moved into place inside the door. Waitstaff were scattered throughout the dining room, putting finishing touches on the table settings. The sommelier was standing by to answer questions about the extensive wine list.
“Mother,” Steven said, cutting in, “I’m sorry, but I must go. We’re about to open for dinner.”
“I’m sorry, I should have realized—”
“No need to apologize. Naturally you’re upset. Bellamy shouldn’t have subjected you to seeing Denton Carter, not on top of everything else.”
“She’s apologized a thousand times, Steven. She never intended for anyone to know that her book was based on… fact.”
“I’m sure her apologies are sincere, but what good are they? She chose to write the book. She risked her identity becoming known. But she also risked exposing the rest of us. That was very unfair.”
“She realizes that now,” Olivia said around a heavy sigh. “But in any case, it’s done.”
“Yes, it’s done. But the last thing you needed was another reminder in the form of Dent Carter. Put it out of your mind and focus on Howard. Don’t forget to give him my regards.”
He hung up before more could be said, then moved to the end of the bar to make room for eager first arrivals. Unobtrusively, he asked one of the bartenders to pour him a vodka on the rocks. He watched the dining room fill, watched the bar become three people deep. After the initial flurry of activity, William joined him and must have discerned from the drink and his broodiness that the recent telephone call had rattled him.
“Your stepfather took a downward turn?”
Steven related the latest about Howard’s condition. “That’s bad, but there’s more. Denton Carter has now entered the picture.” William knew the history, so there was no need to explain or elaborate on why that was disturbing. “At Bellamy’s invitation, no less.”
Steven told him how the reunion had come about. William shook his head in disbelief. “Why on earth would she contact him now? Since leaving New York and returning to Texas, she’s suspended all the publicity for her book and virtually disappeared from the public eye. Why is she stirring things up again?”
“For the life of me, I don’t know.”
Concerned, William asked, “What are you going to do?”
“What I’ve been doing most all my life.” Steven tossed back the remainder of his drink. “Damage control.”
Bellamy guessed Dent had been watching for the limo from inside the building. Even before the car glided to a halt, he was there, beating the chauffeur to open the rear door. As soon as she alighted, he brandished the copy of Low Pressure in her face.
“I want to know why in the name of God you wrote this damn thing.”
She wondered if his bristling anger was a good sign, or bad. Good, she supposed, because it indicated that he’d told her the truth when he claimed not to know anything about her novel, which made it unlikely that he was the one who’d sent her a rat wrapped in silver tissue paper.
But he was irate, and she needed to defuse him before attention was drawn to them and someone recognized her. She’d returned to Texas to get out of the spotlight. So far she’d succeeded.
She walked around him and entered the terminal. “I apologize for not calling you as I left the hospital. It slipped my mind.” Noticing the tables near the snack bar, she said, “I’ll wait over there while you do whatever it is you have to do before takeoff. Let me know when you’re ready.”
She started in that direction, but this time he sidestepped, blocking her path. “Don’t brush me off. I want to know why you wrote this.”
She glanced around self-consciously. “Will you please lower your voice?”
“To make money? Daddy’s fortune isn’t enough for you? Or did your husband blow through your inheritance?”
“I’m not going to talk to you about this, not in a public place, and not with you yelling in my face.”
“I want to know—”
“Now isn’t the time, Dent.”
Maybe it was her raised voice and sharp tone, or perhaps the use of his name, or he could have seen the tears start in her eyes and that made him realize that she was upset and had returned alone.
He backed away, shot a glance out the window toward the departing limo, then came back to her and stated the obvious. “Your parents aren’t with you.”
“Daddy was checked into the hospital. Olivia stayed with him.” He said nothing to that and she took advantage of his momentary calm. “I’ll be waiting over there.”
She went around him and didn’t even look back to see if he was following. Angry as he was, he might take off without her, leaving her stranded and forced to return to Austin on a commercial flight. That would be all right, too. In fact, it would probably be best.
As Olivia had remarked several times throughout the day, reconnecting with him after all these years had been a mistake. Bellamy had thought it necessary to her peace of mind, but now she regretted not having taken Olivia’s advice to leave well enough alone. She’d made another enemy.
At the dispensing machines, she filled a paper cup with ice and Diet Coke and sat down at one of the tables, relieved that no one else was currently in the snack bar area. The day had been emotionally draining. Her nerves and emotions were raw. She needed a few moments of quiet in order to reinforce herself before the inevitable clash with Dent.
Through the large windows, she watched as he went through his preflight check with her book tucked under his arm. She knew nothing about airplanes, but his was white with blue trim and had two engines, one on each wing. He oversaw the fueling of it and checked something on the left wing. He squatted down to inspect the tires and landing gear. Standing, he dusted off his hands and walked around the wing to the tail section. All his motions were practiced and efficient.
How old was he now? Thirty-six? Thirty-seven?
Two years older than Susan would have been.
Bellamy had been curious to see how the years had treated him, if he had developed a paunch, if he’d gone bald, if he was letting himself settle comfortably into middle age. But he bore no drastic signs of aging.
His light brown hair was still thick and unruly. At the corners of his eyes were squint lines from staring into the sun through cockpit windshields for the better part of his life. Maturity—and no doubt years of hard living and late hours—had made his face thinner and more angular. But he was no less attractive now than he’d been at eighteen, when he’d made her tongue-tied and self-conscious of her acne and braces.
Check complete, he gave the ground crew a thumbs-up, then, in a long and purposeful stride, walked toward the building. A gust of wind accompanied him inside, causing the young women behind the reception counter to stop what they were doing and watch appreciatively as he impatiently jerked his necktie back into place and smoothed it down over a torso that was still trim and flat. He removed his sunglasses, carelessly raked his fingers through his windblown hair, then made his way over to where Bellamy was waiting.
He got himself a cup of coffee and brought it with him to the table. As he sat down across from her, he dropped the book onto the table. It had the heft of an anvil when it landed.
For a momentous amount of time, he just stared at her, still seething. His gray-green eyes she remembered. Flecked with brown spots, they were the color of moss. Those qualities were familiar. The anger in them was new.
At last, he said, “He’s bad off?”
“Daddy? Very. His oncologist prescribed another round of chemotherapy, but it’s so debilitating he and Olivia are wondering if it’s worth it. Either way, the doctor thought he was too weak to return home tonight.”
“More chemo might help.”
“No,” she said softly. “It won’t. With or without it, he’s going to die soon.”
He looked away and shifted uneasily in his chair. “I’m sorry.”
She took a sip of her Coke and waited until he was looking at her again before saying, “Don’t say things you don’t mean.”
He ran his hand over his mouth and down his chin. “Gloves off? Okay. It’s a shame anybody has to go out like that, but your daddy never did me any favors.”
“And vice versa.”
“What did I ever do to him? Oh, wait. If I need to know, I can just read your book. It will enlighten me.” He gave the book an angry poke.
“If you read it through—”
“I read enough.”
“—you know that the character patterned after you—”
“Patterned after? You did all but use my name.”
“—comes across as a victim, too.”
He’d been leaning across the table toward her, but after that succinct statement, he flung himself against the back of his chair and stretched out his legs, not even apologizing when his foot bumped hers beneath the table.
“Why’d you dredge it up?”
“Why do you care?” she fired back.
“You have to ask?”
“It happened a long time ago, Dent. It impacted your life for what, a few weeks? A couple of months? You moved on, went on with your life.”
He made a scoffing sound.
“Do you have a family?”
“You never married?”
“You own your own airplane.”
“Working toward owning it.”
“You’re obviously still close with Mr. Hathaway.”
“Yeah. Until today. Gall is currently every name on my shit list.”
“He didn’t tell you it was us?”
“No. Not even when he gave me your check.”
“The name Bellamy Price didn’t mean anything to you?”
“I only looked to see if the amount was right.”
“I thought you might have seen me on TV.”
“You’ve been on TV?”
She gave a small nod.
“Talking about that?” He hitched his chin toward the book on the table.
Again, she answered with a nod.
“Great. That’s just great.” He raised the cup of coffee to his mouth, but set it back on the table without drinking from it and pushed it aside so hard that coffee sloshed out.
“For several weeks, there was a lot of media coverage.” In a murmur, she added, “I don’t know how you missed it.”
“Just lucky, I guess.”
Nothing was said for a full minute. People drifting through the lobby for one reason or another moved on without coming into the snack area, as though sensing the hostility between them and affording them privacy to sort it out. Each time Bellamy glanced toward the women working the counter, she caught them watching her and Dent with ill-concealed curiosity.
It was he who finally broke the charged silence. “So why’d you book a charter with me? You could have got your daddy down here some other way. Private jet. You didn’t need me and my lowly little Cessna.”
“I wanted to see how you’d fared. I hadn’t heard anything about you since the airline… thing.”
“Ah! So you know about that?”
“It made news.”
“I know,” he said drily. “You gonna write a book about that, too?”
She gave him a look.
“I can supply you with lots of material, A.k.a. Let’s see.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “How about the time the young widow chartered me to fly her to Nantucket? Long way from here. By the time we got to the Massachusetts coast, it was a dark and stormy night. Nobody got murdered, but the lady tried her best to fuck me to death.”
Bellamy flinched at the word, but refused to let him rile her, which she knew was his intention. Keeping her features schooled, and with deliberate patience, she said, “I hired you because I wanted to learn if you’d read my book and, if you had, what your reaction to it was.”
“Well, now you know. Cost you two-point-five grand plus fuel costs to find out. Was it worth it?”
“Good. I want my passengers to feel like they get their money’s worth. The widow sure as hell did.” He gave her a goading grin, which she ignored. Then his grin reversed itself and he swore under his breath. “If Gall thinks he’s getting his broker’s fee off this charter, he’s sadly mistaken.”
“Maybe he didn’t tell you because—”
“Because he knew I’d say no.”
“Because he thought it would be good for you to see us.”
“How could it possibly have been good for me?”
“It gave us all an opportunity to mend fences.”
“Yes. To put it behind us. To forget—”
“Forget?” He leaned forward again, this time with such angry impetus he made the table rock. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the past eighteen years. At least it’s what I’ve been trying to do. You said it happened a long time ago. Well, not long enough, lady. Not long enough for me to put it behind me. To forget it. To have everybody else forget it. And now you, you come along and write your freaking book about that Memorial Day—”
“Which was published as fiction. I never intended—”
“—and the whole ugly business is out there again for everybody in the world to gnaw on. If you wanted to write a story, fine. Why didn’t you make one up?” He thumped his fist on the book. “Why did you have to write this story?”
She resented having to account to him and let him know it by matching his anger. “Because I want to forget it, too.”
He gave a bark of humorless laughter. “Funny way of forgetting, writing it all down.”
“I was twelve years old when it happened. It had a dramatic effect on me. I overcame a lot of it, but I needed to expunge it.”
“Expunge?” He raised a brow. “That’s a five-dollar word. Did you use it in your book?”
“I needed to write it all down so it would become something tangible, something I could then wad up and throw away.”
“Now you’re talking. Be my guest.” He gave the book another shove closer to her. “You can start with this copy. Pitch it in the nearest trash can.” He stood up and turned toward the door, saying over his shoulder, “Let’s go.”
“Do you see…? Dent? Are we okay?”
Those were the first words his passenger had uttered since she’d climbed aboard. In case she needed to talk to him during the flight, he’d instructed her on the use of the headset. “All you gotta do is plug this into here, and this into here.” He demonstrated with the cords attached to the headset. “Put the mike near your mouth, like this.” He moved it to where it was almost touching her lower lip. “And talk. Got it?”
She nodded, but he figured it didn’t matter if she understood or not; she wouldn’t have anything to say. Which was fine with him.
But now, about twenty minutes into their forty-minute flight, they had encountered some light turbulence and she was speaking to him in an anxious voice. He turned so he could see into the cabin. She was gripping the arms of her seat and staring anxiously out the window. Heat lightning was showing up on the western horizon, revealing a bank of thunderclouds. They were flying parallel to them, but she was on edge.
He was well aware of the weather system, knew from consulting the radar where it was and the direction and speed at which it was moving. He had filed his flight plan accordingly. “Nothing to worry about,” he said into his mike. “Those storms are miles away and won’t amount to much anyway.”
“I just thought… maybe we could take another route?”
“I filed a flight plan.”
“I know but… Couldn’t we fly farther away from the storms?”
“We could. But I’d rather dodge a thunderstorm than have an MD80 that doesn’t know I’m there fly up my ass.” He turned around so she could see his face instead of the back of his head. “But that’s just me.”
She gave him a drop-dead look, yanked the cords from the outlets on the wall near her chair, and removed her headset. He focused his attention on the job at hand, but when the turbulence became even rougher, he looked back to check on her. Her eyes were closed and her lips were moving. She was either praying or chanting. Or maybe cursing him.
Gall, whom he’d notified of his approach, had turned on the runway lights. He set the airplane down with the ease of long practice and skill and taxied toward the hangar, where he could see Gall silhouetted in the open maw of the building.
He brought the airplane to a stop and cut the engines. Gall came out to put chocks on the wheels. Dent squeezed himself out of the cockpit and into the cabin, opened the door, then climbed out first and turned to help Bellamy navigate the steps. She ignored the hand he extended.
Which piqued him. He reached for her hand and slapped a sales receipt into it. “You owe me for the gas I got in Houston.”
“Mr. Hathaway has my credit card. Excuse me. I need the restroom.”
She hurried into the building.
Gall rounded the wing and glanced into the empty cabin. “Where are her folks?”
“They stayed in Houston.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. The old man looked like he was on his last leg. Otherwise, how’d it go?”
“Don’t make nice with me, Gall. I’m mad as hell at you.”
“You’re richer tonight than—”
“I want a straight answer. Did you know about her book?”
“A book. You know, like people read.”
“Does it have pictures?”
“Then I didn’t know about it.”
Dent searched Gall’s eyes, which were rheumy but free of deceit. “I’ll kill you later. Right now, I’m ready to put up my airplane and call it a day.”
While he was going about it, Bellamy and Gall conducted their business in the hangar office. But he kept an eye on them, and, as she came out of the hangar, he placed himself directly in her path.
Stiffly, she said, “Thank you.”
He wasn’t about to let her getaway be that easy. “I may not use words like ‘expunge,’ but I know how to fly. I’m a good pilot. You had no reason to be scared.”
Not quite meeting his gaze, she said, “I wasn’t afraid of the flying.”
Together Dent and Gall got the airplane into the hangar. Dent climbed back in to retrieve his sunglasses and iPad, and spotted the copy of Low Pressure lying in the seat Bellamy had occupied. “Son of a bitch.” He grabbed the book and, as soon as he cleared the door of his airplane, made a beeline for his Vette.
Gall turned away from the noisily humming refrigerator, a six-pack of Bud in his hand. “I thought we’d crack a couple of—Where are you going?”
“What do you mean, after her?”
Dent got into the driver’s seat and started the engine, but when he would have pulled the door closed, Gall was there, the six-pack in one hand, his other braced against the open car door. “Don’t go borrowing trouble, Ace.”
“Oh that’s funny. You’re the one who set me up with them.”
“I was wrong.”
“You think?” He gave the door a tug. “Let go.”
“Why’re you going after her?”
“She left her book behind. I’m going to return it.”
He yanked hard on the door and Gall released it. “You should leave it alone.”
Dent didn’t acknowledge the warning. He shoved the Vette into first gear and peeled out of the hangar. He knew the road well, which was fortunate, because while he drove with one hand, he used his other to wrestle his wallet from his back pocket, fish the check from it, and, after reading the address, accessed a GPS app on his iPad. In a matter of minutes he had a map to her place.
Georgetown, not quite thirty miles north of Austin, was known for its Victorian-era architecture. Its town square and tree-lined residential streets boasted structures with gingerbread trim.
Bellamy lived in one such house. It sat in a grove of pecan trees and had a deep veranda that ran the width of the house. Dent parked at the curb and, taking the book with him, followed a flower-bordered path to the steps leading up to the porch. He took them two at a time and reached past a potted Boston fern to ring the doorbell.
Then he saw that the front door stood ajar. He knocked. “Hello?” He heard a noise, but it wasn’t an acknowledgment. “Hello? Bellamy?” As fast as he’d been driving, she couldn’t have been that far ahead of him. “Hello?”
She appeared in the wedge between the door frame and the door, and it looked to him like she was depending on it for support. Her eyes were wide and watery, and her face was pale, bringing into stark contrast a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks that he hadn’t noticed before.
She licked her lips. “What are you doing here?”
“Are you okay?”
She gave an affirmative nod, but he didn’t believe her.
“You look all…” He gestured toward her face. “Was it the flight? Did it mess you up that bad?”
“Then what’s the matter?”
He hesitated, wondering why he didn’t just hand her the book and tell her to shove it where the sun don’t shine, as he’d come here to do, then turn and walk away. For good. Forever and ever, amen.
He had a strong premonition that if he stayed for one second longer, he would live to regret it. But despite the impulse to get the hell out of there and away from her and all things Lyston, he gave the door a gentle push, which she resisted. He pushed harder until she let go and the door swung wide.
“What the hell?” he exclaimed.
The central hallway behind her looked like it had been the site of a ticker-tape parade. The glossy hardwood floor was littered with scraps of paper. Brushing past her, he went in, bent down, and picked up one of the larger pieces. It was the corner of a page; T. J. David was printed on it, along with a page number.
“You found it like this when you got home?”
“I was just a few minutes ahead of you,” she replied. “This is as far as I got.”
Dent’s first thought was that the intruder might still be inside the house. “Alarm system?”
“The house doesn’t have one. I only moved in a couple of weeks ago.” She gestured toward sealed boxes stacked against the wall. “I haven’t even finished unpacking.”
“Your husband isn’t here?”
The question seemed to confuse her at first, then she stammered, “No. I mean… I don’t… I’m divorced.”
Huh. He tucked that away for future consideration. “Call nine-one-one. I’ll take a look around.”
“I’ll be okay.”
He set the copy of her novel on the console table, then continued down the central hallway past a dining room and a living room, which opened off of it on opposite sides. The hall led him to the back of the house, where he found the kitchen and utility room. The door to the yard was standing open. The locking mechanism dangled from a neat round hole in the door.
A striped cat curiously peered around the jamb. Upon seeing Dent, it skedaddled. Being careful not to touch anything, he stepped out onto a concrete stoop, where a bag of potting soil and a stack of terra-cotta flowerpots stood against the exterior wall of the house. One of the pots had been broken. Pieces of it lay on the steps leading down to the ground. The fenced yard was empty.
He figured the house-breaker was no longer a threat, but he wanted to check the upstairs anyway. He retraced his steps through the kitchen and back into the wide hallway. Bellamy was standing where he’d left her, cell phone in hand.
“I think he came and went through the utility room door. I’m gonna check upstairs.”
He climbed them quickly. The first door on his left opened into a spare bedroom, which she obviously planned on using as an office. The computer setup on the trestle table appeared to have been left undisturbed, but, as in the entryway below, pages of her book had been made into confetti and strewn everywhere. He checked the closet, but there was nothing in it except boxes packed with basic office supplies.
Midway down the hall, a quaint pair of doors with glass panes stood open. He walked through them into Bellamy’s bedroom. Here, he drew up short. The room had been vandalized, but not with confetti.
Hastily he checked the closet, where he found clothes and shoes, several unpacked boxes, and a lingering floral scent. The bathroom was likewise empty except for the cream-colored fixtures, fluffy towels, and feminine accoutrements on the dressing table.
He returned to the bedroom’s double doors and called down to her. “Coast is clear, but you’d better come up.”
Moments later she joined him, doing exactly as he’d done when he walked in. She stopped dead in her tracks and stared.
“I take it that’s not part of the decor.”
“No,” she said huskily.
Scrawled in red paint on the wall was: You’ll be sorry.
The paint had run, leaving rivulets at the bottom of each letter that looked like dripping blood. In lieu of a paintbrush, a pair of her underwear had been used to write the letters.
The significance of that escaped neither of them.
Dent motioned toward the paint-soaked wad of silk lying on the carpet. “Yours?” When she nodded, he said, “Sick bastard. Police on their way?”
She roused herself, pulled her gaze away from the message on the wall, and looked up at him. “I didn’t call them.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I don’t want a big deal made of this.”
He thought surely he had heard her wrong, and his expression must have conveyed that.
“It was a prank,” she said. “When I moved in, a neighbor warned of things like this happening in the area. There’s been a rash of it. Teenagers with not enough to do. Maybe an initiation of some kind. They scatter trash across lawns. Knock over mailboxes. I’m told they hit a whole block one night last month.”
He looked at the vandalized wall, the garment on the floor, then came back to her. “Your panties were used to paint a threatening message on your bedroom wall, and you put that on par with scattered trash and banged-up mailboxes?”
“I’m not calling the police. Nothing was taken. Not that I can tell, anyway. It was just… just mischief.”
She turned quickly and left the room. Dent went after her, clumping down the stairs on her heels. “When I got here you were shaking like a leaf. Now you’re passing this off as a prank?”
“I’m certain that’s all it was.”
She rounded the newel post and headed for the kitchen, Dent only half a step behind her. “Uh-uh. I ain’t buying it. What are you going to be sorry for?”
“I have no idea.”
“I think you do.”
“It’s none of your business. What are you doing here, anyway?” She dragged a chair from the kitchen dining table into the utility room and pushed it against the door to keep it closed. “The neighbor’s cat comes to visit uninvited.”
When she turned back, Dent was there, blocking her. “I’ve a good mind to call the police myself.”
“Don’t you dare. The media would get wind of it, and then I’d have that to deal with, too.”
“Too? In addition to what?”
“Nothing. Just… just please let it go. I’m waiting for the call that my father has died. I can’t take on any more right now. Can’t you understand that?”
He understood that the woman was on the verge of a meltdown. Her eyes were stark with something. Fear? Her voice was unsteady, like it was about to crack. She was holding on to the ledge by her fingernails, but she was holding on, and he had to give her credit for that.
He softened his approach. “Look, thanks to your family, I’m no fan of cops, either. But I still think you should report this.”
“They’ll show up with lights flashing.”
“No thank you. I could do without the circus. I’m not calling them.”
“Okay, then a neighbor.”
“Ask if you can crash on their sofa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“A friend? Someone who could come—”
“Then call the police.”
“You want to call them, you call. You can deal with them. I won’t be here.” She pushed him aside and made her way back into the hall. “I’ll be at my parents’ house.”
“That idea gets my vote. You’d be crazy to stay here alone. But wait an hour. Let the police come—”
“No. I want to make the drive before the storm gets here.”
“It’s not coming here.”
She glanced toward the window. “It may.” She leaned down to retrieve her shoulder bag from the floor, where she’d apparently dropped it when she came in. She hauled the strap onto her shoulder. “You still haven’t told me why you followed me home.”
“To return your lousy book.” He pointed toward the console table where he’d left it. Then he moved his boot through a heap of torn pages. “Seems somebody else likes it even less than I do.”
She was about to speak, but faltered and looked away from him, then turned abruptly and opened the front door.
Dent reached beyond her shoulder and pushed the door shut. She came around angrily, but he was the first to speak. “This is about the book. Right?”
She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Her expression said it all.
“You’re good and truly spooked, aren’t you?”
“Because you know as well as I do that this wasn’t a teenager’s prank.”
“I know nothing of the kind.”
“What else would you have to be sorry for? You wrote that book, and it made somebody real unhappy.”
“I never said—”
“Unhappy enough to threaten you, and you’re taking that threat seriously. I know that because you’re scared. Don’t deny it. I can tell. So what’s going on? What gives?”
“What do you care?”
“Call me a nice guy.”
“But you’re not!”
There was no arguing that. For seconds they glared at each other, then her head dropped forward and she kept it bowed for several moments. When she raised it, she brushed back a strand of hair that had shaken loose from her ponytail.
“Dent, I’ve had a perfectly rotten day. First I had to encounter you, when you were so obviously hostile and rejecting of any olive branch. I had to stand by, uselessly, in that cancer ward and watch my dad, whom I love more than anyone in the world, suffer untold pain and indignity.
“I didn’t want to leave him, but he invented a business matter that needs to be dealt with tomorrow morning as soon as the offices open. But the real reason he sent me back was to spare me having to see him like that.
“Then, during the flight home, I had to talk myself out of having a full-blown panic attack, which was not only terrifying, but humiliating because you were there to see it. I got home to find my house wrecked, and then you showed up and started giving me grief. I’ve had it. I’m leaving. You can stay, or leave, or go to hell. It makes no difference to me.”
On her way out she flicked a master switch that turned off every light in the house, leaving Dent in the dark.
Ray Strickland was a man better avoided, and he worked at making himself appear so.
He had come by his mean countenance naturally, but he had developed mannerisms to match his appearance. A thick, low brow formed a perpetual scowl that kept his deeply set eyes in shadow. His wide shoulders and muscled arms would have made him look top-heavy if his legs weren’t equally stout.
He didn’t shave his head, but buzzed it closely with an electric razor every few days. An iron cross, like the German war medal, was tattooed on his nape. Other tats decorated his arms and chest. He was especially proud of the snake, bared fangs dripping venom, that coiled around his left arm from shoulder to wrist.
The serpent hid the scars.
Attached to his belt was a leather scabbard that held a knife he kept honed and ready in case somebody didn’t heed the advertising and decided to mess with him.
He gave off an aura of Leave Me the Hell Alone. Most anyone who crossed paths with him was happy to oblige. Tonight he was in a particularly fractious mood.
The bar where he had stopped for refreshment was crowded and hot, the band lousy and loud. Every new arrival that came through the opaque-glass entrance increased Ray’s irritation. They encroached on his space and sucked up his air. He’d left his leather vest open for ventilation, but he still felt constricted.
He signaled the waitress for another shot of straight tequila. She was wearing a black cowboy hat with a feather band, a black leather bra, and low-rise jeans. Her navel was pierced with a silver ring, and attached to it was a chain that dangled right down to there.
Ray let her see that he noticed. “I like that chain.”
“Thanks,” she said, with a silent Drop dead added. After pouring his drink, she turned her back to him and sashayed to the other end of the bar, giving him an eyeful of a heart-shaped ass.
The rejection made him mad as hell. Not that he wasn’t used to it. Women just didn’t seem to take to him, not unless he plied them with enough cheap liquor to urge on a little friendliness and cooperation. He never inspired their lust.
He just didn’t have the gift. Not like his big brother, Allen. Now there was a ladies’ man for you. All Allen had to do was crook his finger at a female and she’d come running. In no time flat, Allen could sweet-talk his way past her bra and into her panties. He’d loved women and they’d loved him back.
Only one had ever turned Allen down.
After that bitch, there had been no more women for Allen. No more nothing.
Ray reached for his shot glass and slammed back the throat-searing tequila.
If it hadn’t been for Susan Lyston, Allen would be with him tonight, chasing tail, getting drunk, having fun like they used to. ’Course they’d been a pair of wild and crazy kids back then, but Ray had no reason to think they’d be any less fun-loving now than they had been eighteen years ago. But he would never know, would he? No. Because of Susan Lyston.
Now her little sister was continuing in that same destructive vein. She’d written a book about it, for crissake! Oh, she’d changed the names, even her own. She’d set the story in a fictitious city. But those thin disguises weren’t for shit if you knew the true story. Her characters were easy to match up to the real people.
It made Ray burn every time he thought of how she’d described the character representing Allen. She’d called him “smarmy.” Ray wasn’t sure what that meant, but it didn’t sound good. His big brother was being ridiculed and reviled all over again in the pages of that goddamn book. And to make certain of it, Susan’s sister, who was all grown up now and ought to know better, was on TV talking it up, profiting off of Allen and the event that had ruined his life.
No way in hell was that right. Ray wasn’t going to let her get away with it.
Soon as he heard she was back in Austin, he’d started a campaign to make her rosy life a little less so. He’d wanted her worried, nervous, afraid, like Allen had been when he was arrested. Like Ray had been when Allen was arrested.
Then, after having his fun with her, he was going to make her regret she’d ever written a single word about his brother.
Today, he’d decided to send her a warning. Even though he hated making her more money off her book, he’d bought a copy and had enjoyed shredding the pages with his knife. At an Ace Hardware store, he’d bought a can of red paint and a brush. Getting into her house had been easy and so had finding her bedroom.
And this was the best part: At the last minute, he’d gotten the idea of using a pair of her panties instead of the paintbrush. He’d found her undies folded into neat stacks in a bureau drawer. He’d taken his time to choose the pair he liked best. They hadn’t absorbed the paint so good, but they’d got the job done.
When he’d finished, he moved into the kitchen, where he settled in to wait for her to come home. The afternoon wore on. The temperature rose, as did the humidity, but he didn’t turn on the AC. For some reason, it seemed important that he be uncomfortable. He didn’t want it to be easy. He was doing this for Allen.
Night came on, but the temperature didn’t go down along with the sun. He had sweat through his jeans, and his leather vest was sticking to his torso by the time he finally heard her car wheel into the driveway. He listened as she unlocked the front door and knew the instant she saw the mess in the hallway. Her gasp of surprise made him want to laugh out loud.
He was tempted to come charging out of the kitchen giving a rebel yell and scaring the living daylights out of her. Instead, he played it smart. He waited, straining to hear where she’d go or what she’d do before deciding what his next move would be.
Then the low growl of a car motor reached him. A door slammed. Footsteps on the walk.
Shit! Ray had grabbed the plastic bag containing the paint can and gotten the hell out of there. He hadn’t even paused to close the back door. He jumped over the flowerpot he’d broken while jimmying the backdoor lock. He vaulted the fence and ran through a neighbor’s backyard.
Eventually he covered the few blocks to where he’d left his pickup. He was panting and leaking sweat from every pore by the time he reached the truck, but he was more angry than scared. Somebody had interfered with his plan.
He took a risk by driving past her house, but men like him were into danger and taking risks. As it turned out, this one had paid off. He had identified the motherfucker who’d spoiled his fun.
At first Ray couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw him standing under the porch light at Bellamy Price’s front door. But there was no mistaking him.
“Cocky flyboy,” Ray muttered now as he hunched over the bar and rolled the empty shot glass between his hands. Resentment bubbled inside him. Dent Carter was one of those lucky sons o’ bitches who could be dragged through shit but somehow always came up smelling like roses. Ray knew he’d suffered some hard knocks over the years. He’d gotten fired from an airline. Something about a near crash.
But, true to form, Dent had rebounded. Parked at the curb in front of Bellamy’s house was a sexy red Corvette, and Ray had seen for himself Dent being welcomed inside. Why wouldn’t he be, when, in her book, she’d all but labeled his character a superstud?
The whole thing made Ray spitting mad.
He signaled the waitress and pulled a wad of bills from his front pocket. Warmed up by the sight of cash, she came right over to him, bringing the bottle of Patron with her.
“Another for you, handsome?”
Oh, now he was handsome? Money sure had a way of changing people’s minds. He wondered how far it would get him with her. How friendly would she be if he reached out and yanked her chain? Literally. She’d probably scream like bloody hell.
“Make it a double.”
She reached for a second shot glass and filled it. “What are you celebrating?”
“I’m holding a private wake.”
“Oh, sorry. Who died?”
“Nobody.” He raised his glass to her. “Yet.”
Dent fumbled for his ringing cell phone, squinted at the caller ID, and answered with a snarl. “Are you kidding me? Two mornings in a row?”
“Get your ass out here.”
Gall hung up without saying anything more, which wasn’t like him. He lived to argue. He reveled in arguing with Dent. Something was up.
Dent threw off the sheet and repeated the procedure of the day before, except that he didn’t shave and substituted a chambray cowboy shirt for the white shirt and necktie. He was out the door within five minutes.
In under twenty he got to the airfield, where Gall was inside the hangar, standing beside Dent’s airplane. His hands were planted on his hips and the soggy cigar was getting a workout between chomping teeth.
As Dent walked toward him, Gall motioned with disgust toward the aircraft, but Dent had seen the damage the moment he got out of his car. The cockpit windshield had been cracked. There were dents as large as softballs in the fuselage. The tires had been punctured. A blade on one of the propellers had been bent. The worst of it were the gashes cut into the top of each wing, like they’d been taken to with a giant can opener.
He made a slow circuit of the aircraft, surveying the vicious handiwork, his outrage mounting. When he rejoined Gall he had to unclench his jaw to ask, “Mechanical?”
“I haven’t checked anything yet. Thought I ought to leave it as it is till the insurance man sees it. Called the sheriff’s office, too. They’re sending somebody out. The wings alone, or the propeller by itself, either one would ground you for a spell. But both…”
Dent looked at him.
He shrugged, saying ruefully, “A month, at least. Probably longer.”
Dent swore elaborately. To him this wasn’t just an airplane. Or just his livelihood. This was his life. If he’d been attacked with a hammer and sharp blade he couldn’t have felt it any more personally. “How’d he get in?”
“Used bolt cutters on the padlock. I’ve been meaning to replace it with one of the newer kind, but, you know… never got around to it.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Gall. You didn’t do this. If I ever get my hands on the person or persons who did—”
“Promise to save me a piece of the son of a bitch.” He tossed his cigar into the fifty-gallon oil drum that served as a trash can. “Here comes Johnny Law.”
The next hour and a half were spent with the investigating deputy, who seemed capable enough, but Dent could tell this crime wasn’t going to get top priority when it came to detective work. The deputy’s questioning implied that the vandalism was retaliation for which Dent was responsible.
“You have any unpaid debts, Mr. Carter?”
“I’m not talking MasterCard. A bookie, maybe? Loan—”
“Any enemies? Been in any arguments lately? Got on anybody’s fighting side? Know of any grudges against you?”
He looked Dent up and down as though unconvinced of that, but, discouraged by Dent’s scowl, he didn’t press it. He began directing questions to Gall while Dent joined the insurance adjuster, who’d arrived shortly after the deputy.
Stiff, starched, and buttoned up, the kind of corporate team player Dent despised, the adjuster asked a lot of questions, most of which Dent thought were unnecessary or stupid. He made a lot of notes, took a lot of pictures, and filled out a lot of forms, which he snapped into his briefcase with annoying efficiency but not one word of commiseration.
“They’ll cheat me,” Dent said to Gall as the guy drove away. “You watch.”
“Well, I’ll hike up the cost of parts and repairs, so it’ll even out.”
Dent smiled grimly, grateful that he had at least one ally who understood how deeply this affected him, and not only financially. He didn’t have a wife or kids, not even a pet. The airplane was his baby, the love of his life.
“Go over her with a fine-toothed comb. I’ll check back later for the prognosis.”
He headed for his car but Gall stopped him. “Hold your horses. Come into the office for a minute.”
“You haven’t had your coffee yet.”
“How can you tell?”
Gall just snorted and ambled toward the cubicle, motioning with his arm for Dent to follow. He was eager to get away but knew that Gall felt bad about the flimsy padlock. He could spare him a few minutes.
He filled a chipped and stained mug with the industrial-strength brew, carried it into the office, and took a seat in the chair facing the desk, being mindful of its unreliable back leg.
“I know what you told the deputy,” Gall said. “Now tell me if you have any idea who did this.” He was avoiding eye contact and tugging on his long earlobe, a sure sign that he was leaving something left unsaid.
“What’s on your mind?”
Gall unwrapped a fresh cigar and anchored it in the corner of his mouth. “Before I left my house this morning, I saw her on TV. Early, early show. They said it was a prerecorded interview.”
Dent didn’t say anything.
“The book she wrote… Low Pressure?”
The older man sighed heavily. “Yeah.”
Dent sipped his coffee.
Gall shifted his cigar around, then said, “I didn’t know anything about it, or I never would’ve scheduled that charter. You know that, don’t you?”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Gall. I would have found out about the book sooner or later. In fact she said she didn’t know how I’d missed hearing about it.”
“Nice of you to let me off the hook,” the older man said, “but I could kick myself into next month for not hanging up on her when she called me wanting to book a flight with you.” After a pause, he asked, “You read the damn thing?”
“Most of it. Skimmed the rest.”
“Does it tell the whole story?”
“Pretty close. The ending is ambiguous.” Dent paused a beat. “Just like the true story.”
“It wasn’t ambiguous to my way of thinking,” Gall grumbled.
“You know what I mean.”
Gall nodded, his expression grim. “No wonder you looked ready to kill her when you tore out of here last night. Did you catch her?”
“I did, but it didn’t go quite as planned.” Dent described what he’d found at Bellamy’s house. “The bastard had used a pair of her underwear to paint the words on the wall.”
“Jesus.” Gall pushed the fingers of both hands through his sparse hair. “You think that was an intentional reference?”
Dent frowned his answer and caught the look Gall darted toward his damaged airplane. “Right. Her house. My plane. Same night. It would be a real stretch to think that’s a coincidence.” He set his empty coffee cup on the desk and stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“To talk to her about this.”
“I know what you’re going to say. Save your breath.”
“I told you eighteen years ago to stay away from that Lyston girl. You didn’t listen.”
“This is a different Lyston girl.”
“Who’s apparently just as poisonous as her big sister.”
“That’s what I’m going to talk to her about.”
Bellamy’s heart leaped when her cell phone rang. She’d kept it within reach all night as well as this morning, dreading a call from Olivia but at the same time eager to get an update. “Hello?”
“Where are you?”
“Who is this?”
He didn’t deign to respond.
“What do you want, Dent?”
“My airplane came under attack last night.”
“Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in under half an hour. I’m coming in, and I’m coming up, and don’t even think about denying me entrance.” He disconnected.
Lyston Electronics was housed in a glassy seven-story building that was one of a group of contemporary buildings comprising a business park off the MoPac. Their communications products were high-tech and highly coveted, so everyone who worked there wore an identification badge, and security was tight.
Bellamy called the guard in the lobby and made arrangements for Dent to be admitted. “Please direct him to my father’s office.”
Twenty minutes later he was ushered in by her father’s receptionist, whom Bellamy dismissed with a nod of thanks. She remained seated behind the desk while Dent gave the large room a leisurely survey, his gaze stopping on the mounted elk head and on a glass cabinet in which her father’s collection of priceless jade carvings was displayed. He took particular notice of the family portrait that dominated one paneled wall. He walked over to it and studied it at length.
The photograph had been taken during the last Christmas season that the family was intact. Posed in front of an enormous twinkling Christmas tree was Howard, looking every inch the proud patriarch. Olivia, gorgeous in burgundy velvet and canary diamonds, had her arm linked with his. Steven, a recalcitrant fourteen-year-old, had his hands jammed into the pockets of his gray flannel slacks. Susan was sitting on the Oriental rug in front of the others, her full skirt spread around her. She was smiling broadly, confident of her beauty and allure. Bellamy was beside her, unsmiling because of her braces, virtually hiding behind the black Scottish terrier she was holding in her lap.
Dent turned to face her. “What happened to the dog? Scooter?”
“He lived to be thirteen.”
“Your brother? What’s he doing now?”
“Technically Steven is my stepbrother. I was ten, he was twelve, Susan was fourteen when Daddy and Olivia married. Anyway, Steven left Austin after he graduated from high school. Went to college back east and stayed there.”
All he said in response to that was an indifferent huh. Continues...
Excerpted from Low Pressure by Sandra Brown Copyright © 2012 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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