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EVEN AMONG THE MASSES POPULATING West Palm Beach, Florida, Nolan Garrett found hundreds of places to be alone: in a packed corner deli, in the crush of tourists on a Sunday afternoon by the seawall, in his vintage Mustang on a deserted midnight street with the gas pedal down and the city’s finest asleep at the wheel. Tonight, in this seedy bar where the Latino beat was sultry and loud, the beer flowed as free as air, and smoke hung like rotor wash in a drop zone, he made sure he stayed alone.
The sharp crack of a cue sent a dozen pool balls scattering across worn green felt. He tuned out the sound of the game along with the music and the raucous laughter, thick with undercurrents of the streets. The stench of stale spilled beer faded to background scent as well, as he wrapped his fingers around the shot of bar scotch sitting directly in front of him on the scarred table.
Slumped back in the chair, he spared a glance at the blatant invitation from a leggy blonde with hungry eyes and a black leather skirt that barely covered her crotch. Her Barbie breasts, loosely harnessed in skimpy black lace beneath a white see-through blouse, pressed provocatively against his shoulder as she squeezed slowly by him. A do-me smile tilted the cherry red lips she moistened with a suggestive sweep of her tongue.
He dismissed her with a long, cold look. It not only dimmed the wattage of her smile; it startled a shocked wariness into her eyes and sent her scrambling toward the other side of the room for action. What he wouldn’t let himself find in the booze he sure as hell wasn’t going to find in her—no matter how clear she made it that she not only came cheap, she came often, and in ways that guaranteed him several shots at mindless, numbing oblivion.
If he’d been looking for oblivion, the table would be littered with a dozen empty shot glasses instead of one full one. He stared at the scotch, imagined the drugging taste of it on his tongue, the welcome burn as it slid to the pit of his belly.
On a slow breath, he unclenched his fingers and made himself focus on the big-screen television suspended above the congested bar. It wasn’t the evening news that drew his brooding attention; it was the woman delivering it.
She was publishing mogul Darin Kincaid’s darling daughter; she was bona-fide Palm Beach royalty and local television’s answer to Diane Sawyer. And even cloaked in the journalist persona she played to the hilt in her Worth Avenue suit that most likely cost enough to finance a small third-world coup, she also played a leading role in every straight man’s X-rated fantasies.
Through the medium of television, he knew her famous face well. Knew the auburn and ginger hue of her long, lush hair, knew the multifaceted shades of her clear, bright eyes that transitioned from sea to forest green like the Atlantic shifted colors beneath a hide-and-seek sun. He knew the shape and the fullness of the lips she sometimes wrapped around a line of professionally delivered copy. Often she wrapped them around an exposé that made strong men squirm. Regularly she made a man with a weakness for dewy-eyed debutantes imagine those lips wrapped around something that didn’t make for polite table conversation.
Until this morning, everything he’d known about Jillian Kincaid had been limited to the media. That had been just fine. He hadn’t wanted to know any more about her. The fat dossier locked in his glove compartment along with his gun, however, had fleshed out the picture in three-dimensional color.
And now it no longer mattered what he had or hadn’t wanted to know.
On a breath that was weary and weighty and resigned, he rose, dug into his hip pocket for his wallet, and tossed some bills on the table. After one last look at her incredible mouth, he headed out the door.
In less than an hour he was going to invade Jillian Kincaid’s pricey City Place penthouse with his Beretta locked and loaded. And then he was going to wish he’d drained that shot of scotch.
“YOU KNOW, A TRUE FRIEND WOULD ARGUE my side on this, Rachael,” Jillian muttered into her cell phone as she stepped out of the Town Car her father had insisted on sending to drive her home from the station. “She wouldn’t be aligning herself with my father like he spoke with the voice of reason.”
She bid Arthur good-bye with an I’ll be fine now, thanks smile and a friendly wave. Her father’s longtime chauffeur had dutifully delivered her to the front door of her building after her eleven o’clock newscast for the fourth night running. Jillian tolerated it more for Arthur’s sake than for her father’s. Arthur was a sweetheart and she didn’t want to get him in trouble on her account.
“That’s because your father is the voice of reason . . . at least on this.” Rachael Hanover sounded both weary and concerned on the other end of the line as Jillian walked briskly through the front door.
“Evening, Ms. Kincaid.” Eddie, the security guard, looked up from his desk in the small alcove to the left of the main doors. “You’re home a little early tonight.”
She’d give Arthur that. He made good time. When she drove, she generally didn’t make it home before the stroke of midnight. Arthur had whipped in and out of traffic and delivered her home by 11:45.
“Hey, Eddie.” Jillian stopped in the foyer and tilted the phone away from her mouth while Rachael ran on about risk and credible threats. “Emily still holding out on you?”
Jillian had lived in one of City Place’s penthouses overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway for two years now. Eddie Jefferies, with his blond good looks, perpetual Florida suntan, and American pie smile, had been the night security guard when she’d moved in. During that time, he’d gotten engaged, gotten married, and now, at the tender age of twenty-three, he was about to become a father.
Eddie tried to hide his jitters behind a dimpled grin. “If that baby doesn’t pop by next week, Doc says he’s going to induce.”
“She’ll be fine.” Jillian walked over to his desk in the alcove and squeezed his arm in reassurance before she headed toward the single bank of elevators. “They’ll both be fine. Your shift about over so you can go home to her?”
Eddie shot the cuff on his blue uniform shirt and checked his watch. “Another half an hour and I’m outta here.”
“Tell her I’m thinking about her, OK?”
“Will do, Ms. Kincaid. And thanks.”
“Good night, Eddie.”
“G’night, Ms. Kincaid.” Eddie’s voice trailed behind her as Jillian punched the up button.
“Surfer boy’s not a daddy yet?” Rachael asked, making Jillian realize she’d tuned out her friend completely.
“Not yet.” Jillian stepped into the cab and hit the button for the penthouse level. “They seem so young,” she added with a frown.
“And at thirty, you’re what—Methuselah?” Rachael speculated, clearly amused.
“I’m not bringing another human being into the world.”
“OK. Hold it. When, exactly, did this train derail? We were talking about your problem. Or was I just filling dead air with my opinion on your stalker while you chitchatted with your doorman about his personal population explosion?”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Jillian pressed an index finger to her temple as the elevator cab gave a gentle lurch and started rising. “And it’s not my stalker. If there even is a stalker.”
Rachael responded with a long silence.
Jillian closed her eyes and leaned a hip against the elevator cab’s wall, recognizing that silence as concern.
“I hate this,” she said on a deep sigh. “I really, really hate this.”
“I know.” Rachael’s voice softened with sympathy. It didn’t, however, stop her from pressing the issue. “So, did you knuckle under to your father and agree to the bodyguard?”
“Agree? Sweetie, it’s not open for debate. There’s not going to be a bodyguard. Trust me. If you’d grown up with one riding herd on you, you’d feel the same way. You remember how it was for me.”
Horrible and humiliating. That’s how it was. It had been a price she’d paid for being Darin Kincaid’s daughter. Security gates, surveillance cameras, and personal bodyguards had been the norm from the time she had memories.
“What was his name again?”
“My old bodyguard? Hector.”
“Right. It’s coming back. Big as a lighthouse, stoic as a monk, and as clingy as sweat in August.”
Jillian pushed out an indelicate snort. “That would be Hector.”
The memories of Hector’s infringement on her childhood and of being the most popular ransom bait in southern Florida riled a resentment Jillian worked hard to keep under wraps. She’d felt as violated as if she had been kidnapped. His hulking shadow had always been lurking in the background, running roughshod over everything she’d done. Nothing had been sacred. Birthday parties, school dances, dates . . . and Hector.
It had been years since she’d thought of those days—and yet some things were always with her and nudged her right back into defensive mode.
“I’m not sixteen anymore, for God’s sake, and here I am—still fighting to keep my father from controlling my personal freedom. It’s too much, Rach. It’s not going to happen. Not again.”
Jillian heard the bitterness in her voice but wasn’t able to curb it. She’d scrapped like a street brawler to build a credible career in TV journalism based on her own credentials and hard work—and she’d fight again to ensure that whoever was leaving messages on her answering machine and sending threatening e-mails didn’t jeopardize her control over her own life. She’d worked too damn hard to get here.
“He’s just concerned,” Rachael reminded her, bringing her back to the moment. “Like any father would be in this situation.”
“Fine. That’s fine. I understand concern,” she said. “But let him give me credit for knowing how to handle myself. City Place isn’t exactly a tiki but on the beach, you know. I chose this complex and this particular building because of its tight security. And I’ve taken other precautions. When I bought that gun several months ago, I learned how to use it. I don’t need my father intervening or undermining my decisions on how I protect myself.”
She felt the dull throb of a headache coming on and, what the hell, added that to her list of complaints against her father. It wasn’t only her freedom at stake here. She’d had to fight her entire life to prove her worth wasn’t measured in terms of the currency that came etched with Darin Kincaid’s name on it. She still fought it, but she’d at least thought the battle with his overprotective streak was behind her.
“God. I wish I’d never told him about the threats,” she muttered, then reined in her thoughts, recognizing she was coming dangerously close to whining. “It’s just some sicko’s idea of a bad joke anyway.”
“Death plus threat don’t equal joke in my book, so don’t expect me to apologize for suggesting you fill your father in. I wouldn’t have been a true friend,” Rachael added, mimicking Jillian’s earlier inflection on the word, “if I hadn’t.”
“I know,” Jillian agreed, feeling very tired suddenly. “And I’m not blaming you. You are a friend, Rach. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Yeah, well, it helps that I mix a mean martini,” her longtime partner in crime added with a grin in her voice.
Over the years, they’d been there for each other. Friends. Confidantes. Allies. Rachael had even tried out for the U.S. gymnastics team the year Jillian had made the Olympic squad. Most recently, Jillian had seen Rachael through a nasty divorce that had rocked the Palm Beach social scene and broken Rachael’s heart. That had been six months ago, and Rachael was still recovering.
The elevator cruised to a smooth stop. When the doors slid open on a nearly soundless sigh, Jillian stepped out into the subtle lighting of a wide hallway carpeted in champagne-colored plush.
“You still with me?” Jillian asked after she was met by another long silence.
“Yeah, I’m here.” Rachael’s voice had grown soft. “And it goes both ways. You’re my friend, too. I care. And I worry, you know?”
Yeah. Jillian knew. Their long-term friendship was rare in a Palm Beach matriarchal society that had elevated the air kiss to an art form and appeared vapid and benign on the surface. The underlying jealousies, competitiveness, and egos, however, proved it was anything but and were among the reasons Jillian had distanced herself from the whole high-profile social scene. Though it puzzled her that Rachael seemed to find some sort of solace as an integral part of it, she would never question her friend’s motives.
Not that TV journalism was without its own peccadilloes. If Jillian wasn’t struggling with her producer’s indecisions over airing one of her investigative reports or vying for studio time with Erica Gray, the weather girl, then Grant Wellington, her coanchor, made it a point to be her very own personal pain in the tush.
“Did you catch what Grant did tonight?” Jillian asked in a blatant ploy to steer away from the subject of weird voicemail messages and e-mails.
“You mean during the closing segment when he stepped on your lines in an attempt to throw you off-balance? Oh yeah—but only because I was looking for it. You covered it like a blanket on a baby.”
“What is it with that man?” Jillian keyed her code into the touch pad of her security system and, when the little green light flashed, swung open the door to her penthouse. Once inside, she reset the lock and with a groan of pleasure slipped out of her red Ferragamo pumps.
“Other than the fact that he’s an aging prima donna who knows his glow is fading, a card-carrying chauvinist, and an all-around Clydesdale’s ass?”
Rachael’s apt, if irreverent, take on Grant Wellington finally pushed out a laugh. “Yeah, other than that. I don’t want his job,” she added, sobering. “Why can’t he get that through his ego-inflated head?”
Flipping on the foyer light, she stripped off her suit jacket and tossed the cranberry linen over her navy blue leather sofa as she went by. The white Italian tile felt wonderfully cool beneath her bare feet.
“You don’t have to want his job,” Rachael assured her. “Apparently you just have to show up to make him feel threatened.”
Jillian hit the switch for the track lighting over her kitchen counter. Light flooded the lemon yellow walls of the galley kitchen and cast shadows into the open dining and living area. “I don’t threaten people. I never threaten people.”
“True,” Rachael agreed, then added with meaning, “People threaten you.”
“You managed that segue well.” Jillian reached into the fridge for the bottle of chardonnay she’d opened last week. “But we aren’t going to talk about threats or notes or bodyguards anymore, capice?”
“That line would work so much better for you if you were Italian.”
Again, Jillian laughed. “So sue me.”
“You’re already being sued,” Rachael reminded her with a smile in her voice.
Jillian hipped the refrigerator door closed. “Yeah, but that will all go away when the indictment comes down.”
She wedged the phone between her shoulder and ear and started working the cork. When she’d popped it, she reached up and slid a wineglass from the rack suspended beneath a bank of cupboards.
“When’s it scheduled, anyway?”
“The indictment proceeding on Councilwoman Abramson? Next month.” She filled her glass three-quarters full.
“Ought to be a real sideshow.”
“Don’t we both know it.” Jillian sipped, savored, and then swallowed. “Look, sweetie, I’m bushed. I think I’ll hit the shower, then call it a wrap. The weekend has never looked so good. You have any plans?”
Which meant Rachael was involved with some Angels of Charity social function.
“How’s that going?”
Jillian heard the fatigue in Rachael’s voice. “You work too hard.”