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"—six, seven, eight . . ."
"—actually suggested we have another baby . . ."
"—she's really hot, but she wants to get married . . ."
Snatches of conversation drifted past Selena, as comforting as the shawl wrapped around her shoulders to protect against the cool October air. She was sitting in a chaise longue on the Ceola patio, with half the family scattered around in an impromptu get-together.
It didn't take much to stir up one of those with the Ceolas. That evening it had been nothing more than Tony and his brother coming over to mow their parents' yard one last time for the season. Selena, along with J.J.'s wife and kids, had come with them, Tony's sister and her family had stopped by, and before long younger brothers Dom and Matt had also appeared at the house. Anna had been happy to switch gears from dinner for two to fifteen, pulling pans of lasagna and garlic bread from the freezer, tossing salads, and whipping up zabaglione for dessert. A spur-of-the-moment party, and everyone was enjoying it, Selena most of all.
Anna sat down in the chair next to Selena's with a grunt, then smiled. "I sound like Nonna Ceola, making that old-lady noise when I sit down or stand up."
"You've done a lot of work this evening. You're entitled."
"Nonna used to say, 'When it's family, it's not work.' " Anna was silent a moment, then she shook her head. "Nonna was full of crap."
Selena smiled. She'd heard tales of Joe Ceola's mother, from the Italian Alps in the north, who'd viewed Anna's southern Italian blood with disdain. Nonna Ceola had forgiven her grandchildren their southern heritage, but not her daughter-in-law.
Now Anna was Nonna, grandmother to a handful of rambunctious kids belonging to her three older children. She was hopeful that the younger four would add to the brood, including Tony. The more Selena thought about the idea, the more she liked it.
After sipping rich espresso from the tiny cup she held, Anna asked, "How is your painting?"
"Fine. I just shipped three canvases to the gallery in Key West." Selena hid a smile. Like her mother, daughter, and daughters-in-law, Anna had always been a stay-at-home mother. Painting was something the kids did with finger paints. Standing at an easel for hours at a time seemed to her an odd way to earn a living, but for Tony's sake, she always showed interest.
Tony's five-year-old twin nieces ran past, giggling and shrieking as Joe lumbered after them, arms outstretched, doing a good imitation of a cartoon monster. He was grinning, having as much fun as the girls, his pleasure lighting eyes that were too often dull.
"How is Joe?" Selena asked quietly.
Anna's smile faded. "He has his good days. With the new medication the doctor's got him on, they're outnumbering the bad. He knew who you were this evening, didn't he?"
Selena nodded. The Alzheimer's that was slowly destroying Joe often left him in a cloud of confusion. Sometimes he remembered that Tony was his son and she was his girlfriend, though just as often he thought they were neighbors from long ago. But this evening he had remembered, had greeted them both by name and asked when they were finally going to get married.
Soon, Dad, Tony had said. The promise had sent a tingle of warmth through Selena that remained three hours later. Sure, they'd talked about getting married, but he hadn't actually asked and they hadn't discussed a date. Selena wasn't in a rush—she knew Tony loved her—but it was a wonderful thought for the future.
"This isn't what I wanted for my old age," Anna said softly. "But I wouldn't have missed a moment of the last forty-some years. Not even the bad ones. I'll make the best of his good days, and I'll love him through the bad ones." She reached over to squeeze Selena's hand. "That's all any of us can do, isn't it?"
With another of those old-lady grunts, she pushed to her feet, making it only a few yards before one of the grandkids attached himself to her. She swung the little boy onto her hip and continued across the patio. Selena watched her ruffle the boy's hair, nuzzle his neck, then say something to make him laugh, and she wondered . . .
"You look way too comfortable there." Tony slid into the chair Anna had vacated, then claimed Selena's hand, twining his fingers with hers. "What are you smiling about?"
"Am I smiling?" She was, of course. She'd been imagining another little boy in Anna's arms, one with the brown Ceola eyes and her own café-au-lait skin. Anna hadn't been thrilled the first time they'd met—Selena wasn't Catholic or Italian and was half black—but she'd gotten past it, and she would love any children Selena and Tony had every bit as much as her other grandkids.
"Are you ready to go home, babe?"
She could sit there all night, enjoying the evening and the family. But dinner was long over, the cleanup was already done, and a few quiet hours alone with Tony were a marvelous way to finish a good day. She nodded and let him pull her to her feet. Hand in hand, they circled the patio, saying their good-byes, before strolling around the house and out to the Corvette parked on the street.
The top was down, the heater on to take the edge off the chill. They didn't talk much on the way home, but the silence was comfortable. Tony broke it after turning onto Princeton Court. They were passing Selena's house and approaching his at the end of the cul-de-sac when he gestured. "There's a package at your door."
She glanced at the box. She wasn't expecting anything, but that didn't mean Asha, who was running the gallery for her, hadn't sent something.
Tony parked next to the white Impala assigned to him by the Tulsa Police Department. "Why don't you go on in? I'll get the package."
"Okay. Just set it inside the door, will you?" Whatever it was, it could wait until tomorrow.
She brushed against him when they passed at the rear of the car. In the fenced backyard, Mutt was barking excitedly, but everything else was quiet. There were only four houses on Princeton Court—hers, Tony's, and those of two neighbors, neither of whom was home this evening.
She unlocked the door, then opened it carefully. The cats Tony had taken in along with the dog were in their usual places—the calico disappearing up the stairs and the fat black cat waiting just inside the door. She scooped him, purring, into her arms before he could escape, typed in the code for the alarm, then went back to the driveway to watch Tony.
He climbed the steps to her small stoop and unlocked the door before bending to pick up the package. "No return address," he called. "Aren't you curious?"
"Not in the—" As he opened the door, the cat leaped from her arms, streaking toward the house. "Kitty!" she called, but he'd already passed Tony and dashed into the house.
The explosion shattered the evening, the ground shuddering, the very air vibrating with the blast. The concussion pushed against Selena, throwing her to the ground, her eyes closed, her head down against the cloud of debris following in its wake.
The tremors were dying away when she struggled to her feet, coughing, eyes watering. Most of the front central part of her house had been blown away, from the stoop all the way to the roof peak, and glass, bricks, and chunks of wood littered her driveway and yard. Lying unmoving in the midst of it was Tony.
"Tony . . . Tony!" The first came out a stunned whisper, the second a terrified scream. She raced across the yard, dropping to her knees beside him. "Dear God, please . . ."
He shifted beneath her trembling hand, then slowly lifted his head. Dust coated his hair and face and turned his shirt grimy. "Holy shit," he muttered. "That damn cat almost got me killed."
For a moment she stared at him, then she sank down, cupped his face in her palms, and kissed him hard. "That damn cat saved your life." She turned to look at the house. Flames were licking through the entry, dancing along the banister to the second floor and down the hall to the kitchen, sending wisps of smoke into the still-thick air. Upstairs her bedroom was tilted crazily, with much of the floor support blasted away.
Tony sat up, brushing away dust and a fine sprinkling of glass shards. He pulled his cell phone from his belt and called for both police and fire department assistance, while one thought kept repeating in Selena's head.
God, she'd thought it was over. William Davis—the man who'd saved her from life on the streets in Jamaica, whom she'd loved almost as much as she hated—was still incapacitated, in what his doctors called a persistent vegetative state. Damon Long, William's right-hand man, was on the run from the law. He hadn't been seen since the night two months ago when he'd escaped FBI custody. The other enemies Selena had made along the way, courtesy of William, were dead, locked up, or had bigger problems on their hands than her—or so she'd thought.
Tony stood, dusted himself off, then helped her up. His fingers tight around hers, he drew her to the farthest corner of his yard, away from the heat and the worst of the smoke, where he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.
She needed that more than she'd realized.
The fire engines arrived first. Seconds behind them came the first patrol car, followed over the next few minutes by another officer, a crew from one of the local television stations, and, last to arrive, Frank Simmons, one of Tony's fellow detectives and friends.
Simmons ran a hand through his reddish blond hair before shifting his gaze from the house to Tony. "Christ, Chee. Don't I have enough to do without you going out and almost getting yourself killed?"
"If I'd done it intentionally, I would've picked a night when someone who doesn't mind actually working had call."
"Hey, I work," Simmons protested. "I just don't see any reason to devote myself to the job twenty-four/seven. I have a life." He fumbled in his coat pocket, removed a notepad and pen, then shrugged out of the coat and tossed it on the grass. His tie followed a moment later. "See—this is me working. What happened?"
Tony told him in a few terse sentences.
"Anything unusual about the box? Any labels on it? Any writing?"
Tony shook his head. "Selena's address. No return address. Other than that . . . That damn cat distracted me."
"Sounds like the cat saved your life." Simmons made a show of sniffing. "I don't smell burnt cat hair. Either it's in pieces around here or it used up one of its nine lives and got away."
Selena's fingers tightened around Tony's as she gazed at the destruction. She wasn't overly sentimental. The cat wasn't cute and cuddly like the calico or Mutt, still barking wildly from the far side of the house, sheltered from the chaos. The black cat hissed at Tony every time he came around, and though he let Selena hold him, he remained aloof. Still, she hated to think that he had died because of her.
"Any idea who did this?" Simmons asked.
Tony looked at Selena. He had an idea, of course. So did she. The one person they didn't discuss—couldn't discuss—without risk of arguing. The look in his brown eyes was grim to match the set of his mouth when he replied, "If I had to guess, I'd say that Damon Long is behind it."
Selena shifted uncomfortably. Long had been at the center of the biggest homicide case of Tony's career. His criminal record was extensive—attempted rape, assault, breaking and entering, dealing drugs, and more murders than even he could account for. He'd committed nine of them in Tulsa County, all on the orders of William Davis—better known locally as Henry Daniels, chief of police . . . and Tony's godfather. Long had faced almost certain conviction and the death penalty, until the FBI had gotten him released from jail in order to help them with a sting operation. We'll keep him under control, the feds had promised. He'll be as much a prisoner with us as he was in jail.
They'd managed for nine days, and then he'd escaped.
Just as Tony had predicted.
Finally Simmons turned his attention to Selena. "You have any idea when the package was delivered?"
She shook her head. "It wasn't there when we left to go to Tony's parents'. That was about five."
"It'd be damn easy for someone to come in here," Simmons remarked, gesturing with both arms open wide. "Only four people living here, no damn traffic on the street, woods that back right up to the houses. What's on the other side?"
"The Marlowe Mansion," Tony replied.
"Any fences between here and there?"
Tony shrugged and Selena shook her head. When she'd first arrived in Tulsa, she had parked at the mansion and walked through the woods to the edge of Tony's yard, making note of the locations of the other houses, of his fenced-in yard and the dog snoozing there. She liked to know her surroundings . . . especially since, back then, she'd come to town with the intent to kill a man.
"Well, hell, son." Simmons flipped the notebook shut and tossed it on top of his suit coat. "Once the fire department finishes, CSU will gather evidence. Maybe they'll find enough of that cat for a proper burial. Why was it so eager to get in the house, anyway?"
"He used to live there." Tony's expression was somber. "I guess he was going home."
"Well, he's in his final home now. Better him than you." Simmons slapped Tony on the shoulder, then headed off to talk with the fire captain.
Selena sat down on the curb and, after a moment, Tony joined her. For a time they watched the firemen in silence. Finally, though, he glanced at her, his attention a weight she could feel even if she refused to look back. "You don't seem too upset that your house got blown up."
"I only lived there a few weeks."
"What about your paintings? Your brushes?"
"Brushes can be replaced." She hesitated, then risked a sidelong look at him. "You think Long's back in town."
His features took on the hard expression that mention of Damon Long always prompted. "Who else wants you dead as much as he does?"
"Do you really think he would risk coming back to Tulsa?" Long was at the top of the TPD's most wanted list, and the FBI was searching for him, as well.
"Do I think he's arrogant enough to believe he can come back here, kill you, and get away again? Yeah. On the other hand, maybe he hired someone. God knows, he's got the contacts."