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Fear clamped around her throat, leaving a cold, metallic taste in her mouth. Renee Mitchell Foster dropped the pen and stared at the initials on the check-in form for her great-aunt's safe-deposit box. All but the last set of initials were hers. The last entry was made at the end of March and the initials belonged to her husband, Marc, who'd died last month.
Marc had no legitimate reason to have access to Aunt Gert's safe-deposit box.
The cool air from the air-conditioning vents and her crisp linen pantsuit couldn't touch the hot wave of fear that had her trembling in the vault of the National Bank of Alabama.
She tried to take a deep, calming breath like she'd learned from years of yoga class. A technique she'd used many times in the past.
Marc couldn't have gotten access to the box, she thought, trying to alleviate her fears with cold, hard reason when deep-breathing exercises didn't work.
Her hands shook as she set the card on a table. Slowly she reached inside her purse and took out her Palm. With a few taps of her stylus, she opened the file that listed all the items inside the safe-deposit box and set the organizer on the table.
She lifted the hinged top and looked inside. The thin, black velvet jewelry case, which usually sat on top of all the saving bonds, insurance papers and the deed to her great-aunt's house, was gone. She could feel the blood drain from her face.
"Oh, God, Marc. How could you take it?"
Renee closed her eyes and leaned her shoulder against the wall of locked boxes to keep from falling. She pressed her cheek against the cold metal. The diamond necklace that her great-aunt treasured and loved was gone. The necklace that she'd placed around Renee's neck when she was six and made her feel wanted when her parents had left her in boarding school. The necklace was more than a piece of jewelry. It was the one thing her great-aunt had left from the man she'd loved.
She'd never let anyone wear it except Renee. Now, it was gone.
She pushed against the wall and stood up straight. Maybe I just overlooked it. Even as the thought materialized, she didn't believe it in her heart.
She took out every item inside the box, hoping the jewelry case was there under the papers. When she'd pulled out the last item, she realized that her husband had betrayed her yet again. Everything was accounted for except the diamond necklace. Renee added the savings bond, which Aunt Gert received yesterday, to the large stack of bonds inside an envelope marked Savings Bonds. She put everything back inside and checked the table to be sure she hadn't forgotten anything.
Reluctantly she closed the box and lifted it to put it in its proper place. The one-carat diamond solitaire and matching wedding band flashed under the fluorescent lighting. She would have traded the ring and everything she owned for the missing necklace. She looked at the wedding band then took the box back down and opened it.
Renee slowly slid the solitaire and wedding band off her finger. Her marriage had been a sham and she should have stopped wearing the rings weeks ago. As she put the rings in the box, she wondered what it was about her that made the people she cared for abandon her.
She hadn't married Marc for love. Theirs had been a marriage of mutual interest. Marc had agreed with her belief that love develops and grows during marriage and she'd been in love with the idea of loving him. Now, she knew that was lie. He'd lied about everything. She closed the box and placed it in the empty opening in the wall.
A few minutes later, she braved the heat and walked to her car. Through the windshield, she watched the heavy, gray clouds billow and roll in the hot Birmingham sky. The dark, rolling clouds matched her mood as hurt and fear circled and expanded inside her.
"Damn him. Damn him," she said. Her voice was husky as she put the key into the ignition. The V-8 engine roared to life and she pressed the buttons on her door and lowered her windows letting the hot air escape.
Why had Marc taken the necklace? she wondered.
Marrying Marc Foster had been a mistake. She didn't mind taking responsibility for her mistakes. Hadn't she taken it like a big girl when she learned her husband of less than a year had not one but two other wives, Danielle Timmons Foster and Alexandria Lord-Wright Foster? Hadn't she swallowed her pride and agreed to join forces with Danielle and Alex instead of waging war like she wanted? They'd worked together to learn the truth about the man they'd married and to untangle his web of lies. During the past month, the three of them had become friends instead of enemies.
Danielle and Alex couldn't help her with this.
She'd married Marc and if he'd taken the necklace then she was partially responsible for its disappearance. It wasn't fair that her great-aunt would be hurt by her mistake.
Renee turned the air-conditioning on high, letting the rapidly cooling air blow on her face. What was she going to tell her aunt Gert?
She brushed away the tears on her cheek, leaving dark stains on the sleeve of her jacket. It was no use crying. Crying never solved anything. If it did, she would have been the girl her parents wanted her to be. She would have been the wife Marc wanted her to be.
What she needed was a plan, she thought. Renee shifted into Reverse and backed out of the parking spot. She maneuvered her way into the afternoon traffic. By the time she got on I-459, she had a sketchy outline of a plan. If she could avoid telling her great-aunt that the necklace was missing, she would. She was going to find the necklace. It was her fault it was gone in the first place. If she'd never married Marc, this wouldn't have happened. Since his death, she'd had nothing but heartache and one unpleasant surprise after another. She realized she didn't know the man she'd married but she did know her aunt Gert. Renee knew what that necklace meant to her. Marc had known it, too.
Renee pressed her lips together. Marc had hurt her but she wasn't going to let him hurt her aunt. She was going to find that necklace. One way or another she would.
The office of Smithstone&Wasson was exactly as Chris Foster had imagined: traditional, Southern and intimidating as hell. It was a good thing that he wasn't easily intimidated. Chris leaned back in the large leather chair and scanned the quiet waiting area. It wasn't a room but more like a den with leather chairs and sofas, thick brown carpet and he'd bet his salary that the furniture was antique. The place said money and a lot of it. Renee Foster hadn't scrimped when she'd sicced the junkyard dog of a lawyer on him or rather Marc Foster's estate, he thought.
Chris rubbed his hand over his chin. His brother, Marc, had never been one to do things the easy way, even in death. He'd grieved when he'd gotten a call from the police in South Carolina telling him his older brother was dead. He hadn't seen or spoken to his brother in over two years. They hadn't been close for more than ten years but despite that Marc had been the only family he had left. Marc had become a perpetual liar. It had gotten to the point where he trusted very little Marc told him and his lies had been the major reason they had drifted apart. Chris curled his lip and brushed aside the memory.
Essentially he'd been on his own since he was fourteen. But part of him remembered his older brother who would beat the hell out of anyone who messed with him, the brother who would bring him sandwiches from the diner where he worked when there was hardly any food in the house. Those images conflicted with the selfish bastard who'd married three different women. Chris hated the situation Marc had put him in.
He could have walked away. Hell, he'd wanted to say "to hell with this" many times in the past month. But he'd given his word, and once he gave his word that was that. Now, he was in Birmingham, Alabama, to meet with Renee Foster's lawyer. They wouldn't have needed lawyers if she'd been reasonable. The estate could have been settled and he would have been out of this mess and gone on with his life.
A dark paneled door across the room opened and a young Asian woman walked out. "Mr. Foster?"
"Yes," he said and stood.
The woman smiled. "Mr. Smithstone will see you now. Please follow me."
She led him through a quiet hallway filled with paintings and other artwork. Thick carpet muffled the sound of their footsteps. He gave an inward nod of approval to the discreet cameras and motion detectors. The lawyer had hired a good security firm. He wasn't surprised.
The woman opened a door at the end of the hall and stepped into a large room where an older woman stopped typing and gave him a smile. The woman who'd led him there closed the door quietly behind them. She walked to another door and knocked twice before opening it.
Chris stepped inside and paused. A large, dark wood conference table dominated the room, and all but two chairs stood empty in the room. Chris barely glanced at the suit, who he assumed was Terrell Smithstone; it was Renee Foster who captured his attention.
Chris kept his expression blank as he watched his brother's widow. There was nothing classically beautiful about her features. Her skin was a light brown, which reminded him of his favorite milk chocolate candy. Her eyes were dark brown and somber. She had an air of vulnerability around her that made him want to protect her. The thoughts were quickly dispelled when her lawyer stood.
"Mr. Foster. I'm Terrell Smithstone. I believe you know my client, Renee Foster."
Chris shook the man's outstretched hand, noting the rough calluses. He had the hands of a man who did manual labor, not the soft hands of a desk jockey or a lawyer. Chris would have to add that bit of information to Smithstone's file. He'd investigated Smithstone and all of Marc's wives.
Renee cleared her throat. "Terrell, would you mind if I spoke with Chris alone?" Her voice was smooth like honey. Chris mentally raised a brow at the use of Smithstone's first name and at the tone of her voice. It was a tone used with friends. He wondered how well the two knew each other.
Chris didn't like the feel of this situation. He'd worked as a special agent for the FBI for almost six years and before that he'd worked three years as a cop in California. He'd developed a radar for trouble and right about now his radar was telling him things were about to hit the fan.
"I don't think this is wise," Smithstone said. "As your attorney, I'm advising you to rethink this."
Renee folded her hands on the table and leaned forward. "I've made up my mind," she said softly.
Chris watched the interaction between the two. He didn't know what was going on but if her lawyer was against it maybe she'd decided to be reasonable. Maybe he could put this whole mess behind him.
Who the hell was he kidding? Renee Foster hadn't made a damn thing easy.
Smithstone picked up a folder on the table. "If you need me, just tell my secretary." He walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.
Chris returned his gaze to Renee.
"Please have a seat, Chris," she said, nodding to the chair on the opposite side of the table. Chris walked to the chair and sat down across from her and waited. If she was nervous, she didn't show it. Her expression was serene and carefully blank. She'd learned to hide what she was thinking and he wondered what was going on in her head.
"What do you hope to accomplish with this meeting today?" she asked.
This was a surprise, he thought. He'd made his plans clear to all three women. He wanted to settle Marc's estate in a way that was fair to everyone.
"The same thing I'd hoped to accomplish for the past monthto settle Marc's estate. Why the sudden interest?"
She held his gaze and studied him with the intensity of a starving man at a buffet. For a brief moment, he could sense the turmoil behind the polite expression. He tensed, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Renee studied her hands, surprised they weren't shaking or clenched. She was taking a risk. A big risk. It would be worth it, she thought. It had to be.
Meeting Chris Foster again was harder than she thought it would be. He looked nothing like Marc, for which she was grateful. She didn't know if she could go through with her plan if he'd remotely resembled his brother.
She could do this, she thought. She would do this. She lifted her head and met his steady gaze. His eyes were the color of pale amber framed by long, black lashes. They reminded her of a panther she'd seen on a television documentary. The panther looked like a lazy cat but later proved that looks could be deceiving. The cat had been a dangerous and deadly predator. She hoped Chris Foster wasn't.