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By one o'clock on Tuesday morning, Belmar, Mississippi, was pretty much asleep. The stoplights on Main Street were turned to flashing yellow, the bars had had last call, and nothing remained open for business but the twenty-four-hour convenience stores and gas stations on the east and west ends of Main.
"This will never work," Jessica Randall murmured as she cruised down a deserted street, making mental notes of places Jen had already told her about—the grocery store, the hair salon, the bank, the church she had attended with Taylor and, of course, the house she'd shared with him, as well as the police station. One place Jessica couldn't avoid—and one she would try to stay hell and gone away from.
"Of course it will." Jen's face smiled at her from the screen of the cell phone mounted on the dash. "We're identical, all the way down to the matching appendectomy scars, though I think mine is neater than yours. Besides, look at all the times we took each other's places growing up—and we never got caught."
"Me going out on a date for you is one thing," Jessica retorted. "Trying to fool your husband—"
"—is totally different."
"Taylor knows I have a sister, but he doesn't know we're twins. He also knows that we've kind of lost touch since the wedding. You won't have any problem. Now, I've told you about the apartment, the house and the people. I have some things in a storage unit on Breakers Avenue. I don't think I would have hidden anything there, though. I mean, it's so obvious, and Taylor does tend to pick up on the obvious."
Jessica's mouth tightened. Kind of lost touch? For twenty-five years they'd been as close as two people could be, and it had taken less than a week for Taylor Burton to come between them. A stupid Caribbean cruise—that was where they'd met, where he'd charmed her into marrying him before the ship returned to Miami. And it wasn't even supposed to have been Jen on the cruise. Jessica had made the reservations for herself, but when business had called her to Hong Kong, she'd persuaded Jen to go in her place.
It was fate, Jen had all but cooed when she'd finally resurfaced to tell Jessica—by phone, no less—that she'd gotten married, and without her twin.
Shouldn't fate be good for more than three lousy years? Shouldn't it take longer than thirty-four months for Prince Charming to turn into a toad? And a criminalscum toad at that.
"Jess? Are you listening to me?" "Yeah, I'm listening. You haven't remembered anything else? What I'm looking for? Whether it's bigger than a bread box?"
"Not a thing." Jen sounded regretful. "I wish I knew, I wish I could retrieve it myself. But…"
She couldn't. And because she couldn't, the solution was obvious: Jessica would. She was the older—even if only by three minutes—the bolder and the braver.
She turned onto the other main street, Ocean Street, then moved into the right lane. All her driving and she hadn't seen a single police officer out on patrol, though there had been three cars parked in the reserved lot behind the station. It looked as if when the town called it quits for the day so did the police department. Did the criminals also call a nighttime moratorium? Or in Belmar were the police and the criminals one and the same?
If their chief was anything to judge by, the answer to that was a resounding yes.
The Sand Dollar Apartments had once been the Sand Dollar Motel, until competition from the newer motels on the east and west sides of town had put it out of business. The building had been renovated into apartments, small, plain, nothing fancy. Jen's was on the back side of the building, facing a narrow parking lot and a park complete with playground, soccer fields and noisy children on most nice days.
What had once been twelve units on the ground floor was now six one-bedroom apartments, with four twobedroom apartments on the second floor, and every third parking space had been turned into a tiny patch of yard with spindly trees in some, flowers in others. She parked in front of #8 and cut off the engine. She'd seen Taylor's three-hundred-thousand-dollar house, and yet Jen had spent her last two months in Belmar living in a converted thirty-dollar-a-night motel. How intolerable had the house—or, rather, the marriage—gotten?
Jessica hadn't brought much with her—her laptop, a small bag with toiletries. She would wear Jen's clothes, her perfumes, her jewelry. She'd already had her hair cut to match Jen's short, sleek style and had indulged in fake fingernails in Jen's usual pale pink to disguise her own shorter nails.
She was there and she was ready to begin the charade. As soon as she got a good night's sleep.
Streetlamps at the corners of the parking lot drew halos of insects that buzzed ceaselessly. The air was muggy, both temperature and humidity higher than she was accustomed to. Dim lights burned in a few units, but there was no sign of life. No televisions blaring, no parties going on, no traffic on the street out front.
She gathered her belongings plus a grocery bag. Bring snacks, Jen had warned, and she'd stopped at one of the convenience stores for that and water. Singling the key from the others on the ring, she fumbled it into the lock, then swung open the door.
Musty. Unbearably hot. Stale. The apartment had been locked up since the hurricane, the air-conditioning off. Wishing she'd bought a can of air freshener or scented candles, Jessica flipped the light switch next to the door, but nothing happened.
The weak illumination from the parking lot lights showed a pale shadow about the right height for a lamp shade in the near corner. Jessica felt her way toward it, found a lamp, turned the knob—and again nothing happened.
Okay, Jen liked balance. If there was a lamp at one end of the couch, there would be another at the other end. Jessica eased her way along the edge of the couch, making it halfway before stubbing her toe on something. Glass toppled with a crash, then rolled off the edge of what seemed to be a coffee table and landed on the carpet with a thud.
Damn, she should have brought a flashlight—and worn tennis shoes. Her big toe was throbbing, and she'd probably chipped the polish, after subjecting herself to a pedicure at Jen's insistence.
Finally she reached the end of the sofa, finding another table and another lamp that didn't work. Great.
Surely the kitchen had an overhead light. She headed that way, bumping her hip hard into a side table on the way, knocking over something more substantial. Swearing softly, she extended both arms in front of her in the hopes of preventing any more damage to herself as well as Jen's furnishings. Her hands connected with the smooth surface of a countertop, swept back to the wall, then up. She'd just found a couple of light switches when something hard pressed against the base of her skull.
"Police. Who are you and what are you doing here?" The voice was male, deep, menacing, and it made swallowing all but impossible over the lump that had suddenly appeared in Jessica's throat. Showtime, Jen whispered inside her head, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out but a squeak.
She was the older, the bolder and the braver, she reminded herself.
And he's got a gun!
As the protest formed, the pressure on the back of her head eased and she felt the space between them widening. He was backing off—the better to shoot her without getting blood and brains on himself, the hysteric in her warned. "Hands in the air, then turn slowly."
Her left hand was already in the air, she realized. She drew the right back from the light switch, raised it, as well, then turned slowly, as he'd instructed.
With the dim light at his back, all she saw was shadows, but that was intimidating enough. He was at least six foot two, with shoulders broad enough to fill the doorway. Hulk was the first word that came to mind. He had a gun and he worked for Taylor the scum.
And she was pretending to be Taylor's wife.
She drew a breath, straightened her shoulders and said, "You protect and serve even in the middle of the night. I'll be sure to tell my husband how diligent you are."
For a moment the air in the room seemed to vibrate. Just as quickly, the moment passed, and there was a rustle of movement, the click of a switch, then light flooded the dining area. The enemy stared at her and she stared back.
She'd been close with hulk but definitely one letter off. This guy was a hunk. Tall, broad, great chest, narrow hips, long legs, muscular and golden brown all over. She could see that because he wasn't wearing anything but boxers that rode low on the aforementioned hips. He didn't need a weapon to make a woman swoon; just one good look at him in his current state of undress would do the trick nicely.
Tall, dark and hot. That meant he was Mitch Lassiter, and she'd been right on one point. He was the enemy.
His expression was impossible to read. Shock? Dismay? Suspicion? Doubt? He could be feeling anything or nothing, and she'd never know, thanks to the utter blankness on his features.
Feeling as if she were taking a chance she shouldn't, she lowered her arms and crossed them over her middle instead. "I suppose you have a reason for harassing me inside my own apartment."
He moved as if to put the gun away, but there was no place to put it. He settled for laying it on the glass dining table a foot to his left. "Other than the fact that you're supposed to be dead, no."
"Dead." Holding her arms out to her sides, she turned in a slow circle. "I assure you I'm very much alive, Officer Lassiter." Jen had never encouraged familiarity with any of Taylor's employees, though she'd had little choice with Billy Starrett, the assistant chief. He and his wife, Starla, had constituted the bulk of their socializing.
Starla Starrett. Can you imagine? I'd've kept my maiden name.
His gaze narrowed as he studied her. His hair was dark brown and so were his eyes. If eyes were the windows to the soul, this man's soul was hard. "Where have you been?"
"I wound up in a hospital, then a shelter. My sister came back to the U.S. after the hurricane, and I spent some time with her."
"And you never thought to call your husband?"
The same husband who'd punched his wife and held her head underwater? It would be all Jessica could do to see him without smacking him hard. "Estranged husband," she pointed out.
"Does he know you're back?"
"I'm sure he will once you scurry home and call him like a good little police officer."
His gaze narrowed even more, and a muscle clenched in his beard-stubbled jaw. I don't like Mitch, Jen had said. Though she hadn't mentioned it, the feeling was evidently mutual.
"He's been worried about you."
"So worried that he tells people I'm dead?"
"You were seen leaving the apartment with your car loaded. Your car was found a few days after the storm where it had washed off the road near Timmons Bridge, with everything still in it. You didn't call anyone."
"I called my sister."
He looked as if he wanted to say something to that, but she didn't give him a chance. "It's late, Officer Lassiter. I'm tired. And I'm sure you're just dying to get to a phone so you can report in to Taylor. Please close the door on your way out."
A moment passed before he finally picked up his pistol, then turned to the door. His muscles were taut—heavens, he had a great back and backside, too—and his movements graceful as he stalked across the room, walked outside and left the door standing open.
Another moment passed before Jessica was able to move. Lacking his grace and trembling more than a little, she hurried over, closed and locked the door, then put on the security chain for good measure. Not that it would stop someone determined to come in, but it gave her a small measure of extra comfort.
As she righted the items she'd knocked over in the dark—a vase on the coffee table, a statue on the side table—she admitted that she was probably going to need whatever comfort she could get in the days to come.