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The Night In Question
By Harper Allen
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe looked nothing like he remembered.
Max Ross studied the unnaturally still figure of the woman sitting across from him while their waitress carelessly slapped down a couple of cups of coffee on the stained tabletop.
"Anything else?" The waitress's nametag said, Hi! I'm Cherie - Have a Great Day! There was a smear of ketchup on the collar of her uniform, and her mouth was bracketed with two dissatisfied lines. Max doubted if she could make anyone's day great. Certainly she wasn't having an uplifting effect on the silent woman across from him. Except for pulling the thick cup and saucer closer toward her with one finger, Julia hadn't given the slightest indication that she was taking any notice of either him or the incongruously named Cherie. It was as if there was an invisible shell around her, a shell that nothing was allowed to penetrate.
So what? He didn't give a damn if Julia Tennant never had a good day the rest of her life, he thought coldly. Just walking around Boston as a free woman was way more than she deserved.
"That's all, thanks." Without raising his eyes he held out a twenty. "Keep the table next to us empty for half an hour."
The twenty was plucked out of his hand, but the waitress didn't move. "No guarantees, mister. Ifone of my tables is free then I lose out on tips. Making a living is tough these days, right, girlfriend?"
This last was addressed to Julia in an attempt at female solidarity. When Max saw the chipped red nails rest lightly on Julia's shoulder he started to say something.
He was too late. "Get the hand off. Now!" She was still staring down at her coffee cup and he could swear those pale lips hadn't moved, but the words had hissed out in a shockingly threatening undertone and the spoon she'd been using to stir her coffee was clenched in her fist. Before he could intervene, Julia lifted her eyes to the frozen waitress.
"I'm not your girlfriend, honey. And I don't like being touched." A lank strand of hair fell into her eyes but she ignored it. "If you want to sweeten the deal you can probably get ten bucks more out of him, but don't push your luck."
No one else in the place seemed to have noticed the incident, and Max wanted to keep it that way. He handed the shaken Cherie another bill. "Half an hour. This is private, okay?"
"Okay." The white-faced woman flicked a frightened glance at Julia, now hunched over her coffee again as if nothing at all had occurred. "Private. Sure, mister."
She turned and made a beeline for the swinging doors to the kitchen, ignoring the disgruntled looks of other customers who were trying to get her attention.
"Lousy coffee." Julia patted the breast pocket of the cheap windbreaker she was wearing and pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes. Sticking one in her mouth, she lit a match with the economical movements he was beginning to associate with her, squinting against the smoke. She didn't leave the pack on the table, Max noticed, instead tucking it securely back into the pocket it had come from.
"You didn't smoke before, did you?" he asked. As soon as the words were out of his mouth he felt stupid. She glanced up as if sensing his discomfiture.
"No, Mr. Ross, I didn't smoke before," she said flatly. "I've picked up a few bad habits in the last two years. And I've lost a few too - like pretending I give a damn about small talk." The corners of her lips lifted humorlessly, but her eyes were opaque, giving no clue to her real feelings. "What do you want from me?"
The Boston papers had called her The Porcelain Doll, and the name had been apt, Max recalled. Her skin had had the pearlescent glow of delicate china, her fair hair had brushed like a swath of spun silk against the shoulders of the discreetly expensive black suits she'd worn and her eyes had been the bluest he'd ever seen, fringed with thick dark lashes. Much of the time they'd been spilling over with tears, and that had reminded him of a doll too.
God, she'd been able to turn on the waterworks at a second's notice, he remembered with sudden anger - trembling, crystalline drops that hadn't been real enough to smudge her mascara. At the time of her trial he'd been thirty-one, and no gullible FBI probationer but a ten-year veteran of the Agency. But even he had found himself wondering once or twice if there was any way he'd made a mistake about her. Julia Tennant had been on the stand for three gruelling days, and at the end of the third she'd looked as breathtakingly beautiful as if she'd just choked up watching a particularly emotional rendition of La Bohème, rather than being mercilessly cross-examined on multiple murder charges.
Actually, her nickname had been The Porcelain Doll Bomber. Those slim and still-delicate fingers had handed over a gift-wrapped package to her husband, Kenneth Tennant, just minutes before he'd boarded his executive jet. Those blue eyes had probably widened in well-rehearsed horror as, only seconds after takeoff, the resulting explosion had rained flaming debris through the night sky.
But in the end, despite her tears and the protestations of innocence that even days of grilling couldn't shake, the twenty-three-year-old widow had been found guilty of the murders of her husband and the three other unfortunate souls who'd been on the aircraft with him that night. Justice had been done, Max thought with grim satisfaction. His only regret at her sentencing had been that she didn't have four lifetimes to spend in prison - one for each victim she'd callously snuffed out.
A few days ago he'd been told she was about to be released. Considering the date, he'd thought it was a bad April Fools' joke at first.
"If we're just going to sit here gazing into each other's eyes I've got better things to do, Mr. Ross." Julia ground the butt of her cigarette out in an ashtray and pushed her coffee cup away from her as she started to rise from her chair. "It's my first night of freedom. You're not how I planned to spend it."
"Sit down." His voice revealed nothing of the outrage simmering inside him, but for a moment he saw a flicker of apprehension behind that blank gaze. Tucking a stray strand of lusterless hair behind her ear in the first extraneous gesture he'd seen her make, she sank back into her seat.
From the tables around them came a buzz of noisy conversation. Cherie hadn't reappeared, but the two other waitresses working the floor called out their orders to the short-order cook at the counter and exchanged sarcastic banter with the customers. Max hardly noticed. Under the harsh lighting Julia's skin was unhealthily pale and the smudges beneath her eyes looked like bruises. Her fingers were laced tightly together on the table.
She still looked like a doll. The unwanted thought darted through his mind. Except now she looked like a doll that someone had discarded a long time ago - the expensive paint chipped away, the pretty dresses lost over the years, the glamour gone. The sapphire eyes that had once sparkled with diamond tears stared at him expressionlessly. Julia Tennant didn't cry anymore, he realized with sudden certainty.
There was no reason why that should bother him. When he spoke his voice was harsher than he'd intended.
"You're never going to see her again. You understand that?"
"Don't worry." She looked away. "They told me."
He continued as if she hadn't spoken. "If you think that anything's changed just because you manipulated the system, forget it. If there was any real justice in this world, you'd still be upstate making mailbags with the rest of the twenty-five-to-life sewing circle instead of being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. You got away with murder, Julia." He kept his voice even with an effort. "But if I even suspect that you're trying to find her -"
Excerpted from The Night In Question by Harper Allen Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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