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Heather recoiled with disgust and turned away from the couple in the dark corner, their gyrating bodies moving as wildly as the couples filling the dance floor. Every beat of the music hammered at her skull. The smoky haze had her eyes watering. And the rancid odor of the sweaty mass of people seething around her had nausea coiling in her stomach.
Normally a seedy bar wouldn't faze her. She'd been in nearly every major nightclub in northeast Florida, let alone Saint Augustine, because of her job. The free-flowing alcohol lowered inhibitions and made gathering information far quicker and easier than an old-fashioned stakeout ever could. But tonight wasn't about work. Tonight wasn't about snapping pictures of a cheating husband in a compromising position for a couple hundred bucks. Tonight was about finding her sister, going home and soaking away her pounding headache in a tub full of strawberry bubble bath.
She clutched her purse to dissuade any greedy fingers from trying to pilfer her wallet and fought her way to the bar, like a salmon swimming upstream. By the time she found an empty stool to perch on, she'd been groped and propositioned so many times she was seriously considering exchanging her tub of strawberry bubble bath for a tub of hand sanitizer.
The bartender stopped in front of her. But even though his lips were moving, Heather couldn't make out what he was saying over the heavy-metal music pumping out of the speakers. He motioned to her and she leaned forward.
"What are you having?" he shouted.
She shook her head. "Not drinking. Looking for my sister, Lily. She looks like me. Have you seen her?"
"Do you have a picture?"
"I am the picture. She looks exactly like me. We're identical twins."
He wiped his greasy hair out of his face and squinted at her in the dim light. His mouth curved in a lecherous grin, as if he was considering the possibility of a threesome. "Sweet."
Heather's stomach rolled. She hopped off the bar stool, but the bartender waved for her to wait.
"Check the bathroom," he said. "I might have seen her heading in that direction a few minutes ago." He pointed to the dark hallway just past the couple who'd been enjoying each other so enthusiastically earlier. They both had silly, sleepy grins on their faces now. The guy looked at Heather and winked. She shivered with revulsion.
After thanking the bartender, she braced herself for another battle and fought her way through the throng of people to the pink neon sign that read Females and hung over the women's restroom.
When she pushed the door open, the strong smell of urine and stale beer hit her with gale force. She coughed and waved her hand in front of her face. If her sister wasn't in this bathroom, she was leaving. She'd go home until Nick was finished with whatever emergency his boss had called him about. And this time, when he offered to help her get her sister into an alcohol treatment program, she'd listen.
Just thinking about her new boyfriend of only eight weeks, his sexy half smile, the way his deep voice made her toes curl when he called her darlin', had her feeling better. It was wonderful having someone like Nick in her life. She was so tired of having to be strong all the time, with no one else to share her burdens.
"Lily?" she called out. "Are you in here?" She let the door close and stepped farther into the room. The lighting was even worse in here than out in the main part of the club, for which she was extremely grateful. She didn't want to know what disgusting substance was on the floor, crunching and sliding beneath her feet. "Lily?"
She made her way down the row of stalls, knocking and using the toe of her sneaker to nudge each door open. When she reached the last stall, she heard a noise, like someone taking a deep breath. "Lily, it's Heather.
Is that you?"
"Don't come in here." The voice behind the last stall door sounded slurred, but there was no mistaking it.
Heather rolled her eyes. "Lily, are you drunk again? Is that why you called me to come get you?"
"I told you to come at midnight. You're early." Another sniff.
She shook her head in exasperation. It was just like her sister to expect Heather to rescue her, but only on Lily's timetable, on Lily's terms.
"I have to get up early in the morning to meet with a new client. If you aren't ready to leave right now, and you're too drunk to drive, call a cab." She turned and headed for the door.
"Wait," Lily called out, her voice sounding mildly panicked. "Just give me a minute. My car won't start, and I don't have money for a cab."
Because she'd already blown all the money Heather had given her? Money Heather couldn't afford to give her in the first place?
Heather curled her fingers around her frayed purse strap and stepped back to the stall door. "What are you doing in there? Drinking? Haven't you had enough already?"
"Just wait at the bar. I'll be right out."
The airy quality of Lily's words wasn't lost on Heather. Her sister sounded far worse than if she was just drunk. All kinds of scenarios flooded Heather's mind. None of them good. "Open the door."
Cursing sounded from inside the stall. "This is a bathroom. Give me some freaking privacy."
Heather hesitated. Arguing with her stubborn sister wouldn't do any good. It would just make her dig in deeper and fight harder.
"All right, I'll meet you at the bar." She walked to the door, her shoes crunching across the concrete. She stepped into the hall, turned around and tiptoed back inside, easing the door closed behind her. She quietly moved back to the row of stalls, pausing a few feet down from the stall her sister was in, so Lily wouldn't see her through the cracks around the door.
Loud noises sounded from outside the bathroom. Yelling. Feet shuffling. It sounded like people were running. What kind of craziness was going on out there on the dance floor?
Heather ignored the noise and waited. A moment later, the lock on the stall door slid back and Lily stepped out in her ragged jean cutoffs and tank top that showed far more than they concealed, including another new tattoo, a small pink dragon peeking out from the top of Lily's shorts. Her sister couldn't afford to buy her own groceries or gas money, but she could pay for a tattoo? Heather gritted her teeth. She was putting in eighty-hour workweeksminimumjust to keep up with her car payments and rent. She certainly couldn't afford a tattoo, even if she'd wanted one.
She was about to give her sister another lecture on being frugal when she noticed what her sister was holding. In one hand she clutched a dark blue nylon backpack. In the other, she held a baggie of white powder and a rolled-up dollar bill. Heather's stomach sank. Now she knew why her sister was making those sniffing sounds earlier.
Lily's eyes widened and her face went pale. Heather grabbed the baggie and ran into the stall. She tossed it in the toilet and pressed the handle.
"What are you doing?" her sister screamed. She dropped her backpack and shoved past Heather.
Heather stared in stunned amazement at her sister on her knees on the filthy floor, with her hands in an equally filthy toilet trying to fish out the baggie. Her heart breaking, Heather turned away, but a flash of white in Lily's backpack made her hesitate. She knelt down and pulled out a duct-taped brick of more white powder wrapped tightly in plastic.
Her hands started to shake. At least two more bricks of cocaine peeked out from the bottom of the pack. She couldn't even begin to imagine the street value of those drugs, or how many years in prison that would buy.
Lily looked back at her and cursed. "Give me that." She tried to get up, but her feet slid on the slippery floor.
Heather ran with the brick into the next stall and crouched in front of the toilet. She desperately ripped at the tape and plastic.
Lily stumbled in behind her, clawing at Heather's hair. "Stop, don't do it!"
Fire shot through Heather's scalp. She gritted her teeth against the pain and tore at the plastic, scooping the white powder into the toilet, flushing several times, using her body to block her sister until everything was gone but the tape and plastic.
Lily must have grabbed the backpack when she'd chased after Heather, because now she was cradling it against her, as if to keep Heather from taking the rest of her precious stash of drugs. She slowly slid to the floor, black mascara running in streaks down her face. "What have you done?" she moaned.
Sympathy and anger warred inside Heather as she stepped over her sister to get out of the stall. She was determined to leave her there, but she couldn't seem to make her feet move to the bathroom door. How many times had Lily dropped into her life over the years, staying just long enough to blow through Heather's totally inadequate savings account? How many times had Heather woken up to discover her sister gone again, moving on to the next sucker in her life, or her next big scam, or her next drinking bingeusually after stealing one of Heather's credit cards? How many times would Heather let her sister turn her life into a disaster and disappear until the next time Lily needed a place to crash?
Her shoulders slumped. She knew the answer to all of those questions. No matter how many times her twin hurt her, Heather would still love her, and she'd always be there for her. She couldn't walk away and leave her sister, the only family she had, not like this.
She sighed heavily and turned around. "Come on. Let's go home. We'll figure out what to do, together."
"I don't want your help," Lily spat out. "I hate you. I always have."
Her sister's words shot like an arrow straight to Heather's heart. She drew a shaky breath, steeling herself against the pain. "Hate me all you want, but I'm still not going to leave you sitting on this filthy floor." She reached her hand out to help her sister to her feet.
Lily jerked back, like a wounded animal perched on the edge of a cliff, afraid to trust the one person who could save it.
A loud banging noise sounded behind Heather. She whirled around to see the bathroom door being held open as a group of six men dressed all in black rushed inside. Heather instinctively positioned herself in front of her sister.
"Federal officers, freeze!" one of the men yelled.
Federal officers? The man closest to her trained his gun on her while two others hurried down the row of stalls, slamming the doors open, looking in each one.
Heather stared in horror at the three white letters printed across their black flak jackets. DEADrug Enforcement Administration.
Her boyfriend, Nick, was a DEA agent.
One of the men grabbed Heather and pulled her away from the stall. Another one grabbed Lily and pulled her out into the middle of the room. Lily keened a high-pitched sound and fought to get away.
"Hey, be careful," Heather yelled. "You're scaring her." She tried to yank her arm away from the man holding her so she could help her sister.
"Let her go."
Heather froze at the sound of the familiar deep voice behind her. The man holding her dropped his hands and stepped back. Heather turned around. The tall man filling the bathroom doorway, his short blond hair glinting in the dim light, was wearing the same dark clothes as the others and the same black flak jacket with the letters DEA across the middle.
Nick. Thank God. He 'd know what to do, how to help Lily.
The look of shock on his face was quickly replaced with anger. His brows were drawn down and his jaw was so tight his lips went white. He looked mad enough to strangle her, but at least he wasn't pointing his gun at her, like the others. He held his gun down by his side, aimed at the floor.
He was probably furious that she was in the middle of this, and she couldn't blame him for that. She should have taken his advice. She should have tried to convince Lily to go into an alcohol treatment program. Then maybe Lily wouldn't have gotten mixed up with whatever she'd gotten herself into now. Heather had naively insisted she could help her sister on her own, without taking such a seemingly drastic step. But obviously Nick had been right.
Nick holstered his gun and strode toward her.
Heather was so relieved she almost slumped to the dirty floor. "Nick, I'm so glad you're here. Lily is scared. She's not"
Nick roughly grabbed her arms and spun her around, shocking Heather into silence. He pulled her hands behind her back. She gasped at the feel of cold steel clamping around her wrists. A ratcheting sound echoed in the room, and he pushed her toward the door.
"What are you doing?" she cried out.
"Heather Bannon, you're under arrest." His voice was clipped, cold.
"What? Wait, what are you talking about?"
He paused beside the last sink and leaned down, pressing his lips next to her ear. "You've got cocaine in your hair, darlin'," he growled.
Heather's gaze shot to the mirror. A wild-eyed woman stared back at her, a cloud of white dusting her normally dark brown hair, making it look prematurely gray.
Her horrified gaze met Nick's in the mirror. "I can explain."
"Tell it to the judge." He grabbed her arms and marched her out the door.
In her high school years, Heather had thought rock bottom was getting an A-minus on her trigonometry final exam, knocking her out of becoming the valedictorian.
In college, she'd thought rock bottom was flunking the GMAT and failing to get accepted into the master's degree program at Jacksonville University.
Later, when she'd been denied the small-business loan she'd wanted to start a private investigation firm, she'd thought that must surely be rock bottom.
But none of those were rock bottom.
Rock bottom was being arrested by her former boyfriendthere could be no doubt about thatand being thrown in a concrete-block holding cell that reeked of vomit and urine. A holding cell that currently housed five other women who looked like they could kill someone every morning before breakfast and never bat a false eyelash.
Heather didn't know where her sister was. The police had refused to answer any of Heather's questions about Lily. And no one had come back to update Heather or even give her the infamous phone call prisoners on TV shows always got. Not that she had anyone to call. Lily was her only family. Her friends had given up on her long ago when she'd started working seven days a week to try to build a P.I. business. And Nick She shied away from that thought.
She was so tired. She wanted to rest her head against the wall behind her, but she was too afraid of lice, or something worse, that might be clinging to the surface. Instead, she stood a few feet away, trying not to touch anything, trying to pretend the speculative looks from the other women didn't send shivers up her spine. She was also trying her best not to give in to the urge to cry.
She was appalled that tears kept threatening to course down her cheeks. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cried, or the last time she'd even wanted to cry. She had Nick to thank for her jangled nerves. He'd judged her without giving her a chance to explain. He'd assumed the worst. Fine. Let him think what he wanted, but if there was any chance he was going to be the one to interrogate herif anyone ever did bother to interrogate hershe wasn't going to let him see her with red eyes and tearstained cheeks.
She didn't want him to know how much his betrayal had hurt her.