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Piper snapped awake at the first annoying clang of her Donald Duck alarm clock. A long-ago birthday present from her sisters. They knew how she loved keeping her life in order and on schedule. Donald had gotten her to class on time through four years of college and three years at Georgetown Law School. He was still going strong. The clock had no batteries, no power source, and all it required to silence it was a strong, determined whack. She gave it one. And since Donald provided no snooze option, she sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. Then she ran her hand through her hair and automatically reached for the scrunchy she'd left on her night-stand. Her mind was already clearing and her vision would, too, in a couple of seconds. In the meantime, she tossed off the covers and reached for the gym shorts she always laid out at the foot of the bed. Swinging her legs to the floor, she pulled them on, then groped for the sports bra and T-shirt. By the time she'd managed socks and her running shoes, she could find her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Her next stop was the coffeemaker in her kitchen. Unlike Donald, it required a power source, and thanks to top-of-the-line technology, it had already brewed a pot of strong coffee. The coffeemaker had also been a gift from her sisters. She poured a quarter of a cup and inhaled the fumes while she stretched and then slipped on the wristlet that held her apartment key. Finally, she took her cell phone off its charger and slipped it into her pocket.
Her morning routine never varied. But then variety wasn't her goal. Order and routine were. Life got messy. Piper had learned at an early age that controlling the parts she could gave her more time to fix up the messy ones.
And lately, her professional life had gotten very messy.
Not yet. Firmly, she blocked the thought while she blew on the coffee and managed two swallows that burned her mouth and nearly cauterized her throat. It was a sacrifice she made each morning to the caffeine goddess.
Then she headed for the door of the flat she leased above a ritzy women's clothing boutique in Georgetown, shut the door, tested the lock, then hurried down the steps and along the short alley to the sidewalk. At 6:00 a.m., the street was still mostly free of traffic. Mr. Findley who ran the coffee shop down the street was washing his windows, while a customer sat at one of the outside tables reading a paper. The sun was up and the humidity tolerable. The scent of stale beer and fresh bread baking mingled in the still air. Perfect.
She ran because it was an ingrained habit from her high school and college years, when she'd been on cross-country teams. But she also ran because it was the best way she knew to clear her mind and get ready to face the day.
Which promised to be another busy one. Her current job as a research assistant to prominent law professor and celebrity defense attorney Abraham Monticello was one she worked hard at. She'd accepted his offer right out of law school because it would look good on her resume and because it offered her a unique chance to get a background in criminal law.
It was turning out to be unique, all right, and it was causing her to question her career choice. Her main reason for choosing law as a profession was that she believed in justice and in the power of the legal system to help people find it. But recently .
No. Not yet. while she took the first block at an easy pace, she used a visualization technique her aunt Vi had taught her when she was very young. First, she pictured all the chaos of her upcoming day and her self-doubts being sucked into a bottle in much the same way Aladdin's genie had been sucked into the lamp. Then she jammed the cork in with the same energy she'd used to whack Donald. Whenever things got really bad, she let herself remember the really chaotic time in her life right after her mother died. She'd been three, her older sister Adair four, and Nell had been a baby. They'd been too young to really understand the lossexcept that their mother wasn't there anymore. And neither was their father. He'd hidden away in his studio and used his art to escape from his grief. Then their Aunt Vi had moved into the castle with them, and life had finally taken on some order again. That's probably when her love of routine had taken root.
As she reached the end of the second block, Piper shifted her focus to the details of her surroundings, taking the opportunity to speed window-shop in the stores that stretched along the street. She saw changes in the displays and made a mental note to take a closer look at a pair of red sandalswhen she had the time. And she'd have to make time to call Nell and tell her that her first published children's book, It's All Good, was still on display in the window of the bookstore.
When her younger sister had last visited, she'd made a good friend of the owner and now Nell's story was selling well in Georgetown. Piper had to admit she was impressed. Nell had inherited their father's creative talent, except she'd chosen writing rather than landscape painting as A. D. MacPherson had.
But she certainly hadn't inherited their father's reticence. Currently, Nell was using a federal grant to travel across the country, offering writing classes to children in underprivileged schools, and at the same time, establishing a network for her own writing.
As Piper turned down a residential street, her muscles began to warm and perspiration sheened on her forehead. She settled into a rhythm. If Nell was surprising her, her older sister Adair had truly shocked her.
During the past eight months, Adair and their aunt Vi had turned Castle MacPherson, their family home in the Adirondacks, into what was becoming a very successful wedding destination spot. Adair had always been an idea person, and when they'd been growing up, Piper and Nell had been more than willing to go along with most of her schemes. But whenever Adair's plans had gone awry, it had always been Piper's job to do the cleanup, which usually included negotiating with Aunt Vi, and on some occasions, even with their father.
No wonder she'd always been drawn to the practice of law. What did lawyers do except clean up the messes people got themselves into?
Only this time, the mess was of her own making.
Not yet. She was not going there yet.
The biggest surprise from the castle was that her sister and Aunt Vi had discovered one piece of their several-times-great grandmother, Eleanor Campbell MacPherson's, priceless missing dowry: a sapphire earring that had reputedly been worn by Mary Stuart on the day she'd taken the throne. And during the same weekend, Aunt Vi had gotten engaged to Daryl Gar-nett, who ran the domestic operations unit of the CIA here in D.C. Even more astounding was that Adair, the practical queen of the five-year plan, had fallen in love, too. With Cam Sutherland, of all people.
Piper ran in place at the corner until the traffic cleared, then found her stride again. She hadn't seen any of the Sutherland triplets since her father had married their mother seven years ago. The MacPherson sisters and the Sutherland triplets, Reid, Cameron and Duncan, went back a long way to a summer of play-dates when the boys had opened up a whole new world of gamesbad guys versus good guys, sheriff and posse, pirates and treasure, along with rock-climbing on the cliff face, a place where she and her sisters had been forbidden to play.
Then the Sutherlands had completely disappeared from their lives until they'd returned to the castle on the day their mother, Professor Beth Sutherland, married A. D. MacPherson beneath the stone arch. Since she had an eye for detail, Piper had duly noted that the scruffy, annoying Sutherland boys had morphed into tall, gorgeous and hot young men.
Especially one of them. Duncan. He'd really caught her attention that day with that tall, rangy body, the dark unruly hair and the mesmerizing green eyes. She'd felt those eyes on her during the ceremony when they'd been standing with their parents beneath the stone arch, and she'd felt a kind of tingly awareness that rippled along her nerve endings and heightened all of her other senses.
Intrigued, she'd met his gaze directly, and for a span of time, her vision and her mind had been totally filled with him and nothing else. Only Duncan. Heat had flooded her, melting her, muscle and bone, right to her core. The experience had been so new, so exciting, so terrifying. No one had ever made her feel that way beforeor since.
Not that she'd had to worry about it. The triplets had flown in for the wedding and had returned to their respective colleges that night. She and her sisters had done the same the next day. Just as well. A man like Duncan Sutherland would likely wreak havoc on a girl's life, something she didn't have time for. She had enough problems to deal with in her work life.
Work. Her mind veered back to the coming day.
No. Not yet.
Increasing her pace, Piper ran full out for the next two blockspushing herself into a zone where all she had to do was enjoy the speed and the wind whipping past her face. The next corner marked the halfway point of her run. As she circled to head back, she moved into a slower rhythm and allowed herself to finally uncork the work bottle and face her demons.
Mentally, she made a list, one she'd been making almost every day lately. Good news first. She loved working for Abe Monticello, and up until a few months ago, she'd loved everything about the job. The only irritation she'd had to face was one of her fellow research assistants, Richard Starkweather. He wanted to date her and was having difficulty taking no for an answer. But she could handle that.
And working for Abe Monticello was more than worth a minor hassle with a colleague. He was a larger-than-life man with a larger-than-average talent. At sixty-five, he had the sharpness of mind, the looks and the creative imagination of a man half his age. If he'd been half his age and unmarried, Piper might have fallen in love with him.
Everything had been perfect until Abe had been hired to handle the appeal in a highly publicized case. It involved a man on death row who'd been convicted of murdering a young woman, but suspected of killing several others. Many, including the FBI, believed Patrick Lightman was the serial murderer the press had dubbed the RPK, or the Rose Petal Killer.
Piper had been thrilled when Abe had assigned her to do the research for the appeal and write a brief. She'd worked on Lightman's case for two straight months. She'd studied the court recordings, read the media coverage and she'd viewed the crime scene photos of Suzanne Macks, the woman he'd been arrested for killing. Her killer had taken the time to arrange a little picnic setting. A white sheet had been spread across the floor of the living room of her apartment. Suzanne had been lying on top of it, her eyes closed, her hands folded across her chest and her long dark hair fanned out from her head. Rose petals, hundreds of them, had been strewn everywhere.
The Rose Petal Killer had left all of his victims exactly that way.
Everyone had believed Lightman guilty. The jury had taken only an hour to bring in a verdict.
But Piper had uncovered exactly what her boss had been hoping forseveral procedural errors in the trial. She'd done the job and she'd done it well, but the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life was to hand her findings, along with the brief, over to her boss. Then a month ago, Abe had used what she'd written to successfully argue the case before the appeals court. And Patrick Lightman had been set free.
A man who'd been convicted of viciously murdering a young woman and who might very well have murdered seven others was walking the streets and could possibly kill again. Piper figured it was the biggest mess she'd ever gotten herself into.
For a couple of weeks, the media had created a circus surrounding the release of the Rose Petal Killer. Abe had taken all the heat. He was the one who'd received hate mail.
But she was the one who had the nightmares. In them, she pictured Patrick Lightman out on the streets, following another young girl with long dark hair. If Lightman was the Rose Petal Killer, he could even now be selecting his next victim. And Piper would be responsible.
Abe had taken the time to have a heart-to-heart talk with her. He'd reiterated his belief in the basic right of every citizen to a vigorous defense. The law always had to be applied meticulously and fairly in order to ensure justice. Piper believed that, too. In theory. But she was discovering there was a world of difference between theory and practice. What if Patrick Light-man killed again?
The only answer Abe had on that one was that prosecutors and defense attorneys couldn't afford to let the job get personal. Then he'd encouraged her to throw herself into the next case, one he was set to argue in court within the next month, and he'd invited her to sit in the second chair. It meant more work, but it would get her mind off Patrick Lightman. Just what Abe had intended it to do.