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By Patricia Rosemoor
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTony Vargas slipped into the blackness of his room and leaned back against the door, hugging the laptop to him as if it could prevent his heart from exploding through his narrow chest.
Then a tic of nervous laughter spilled from him, and he flicked the switch next to the door. A small chandelier - proof that the halfway house on Chicago's south side had been a posh residence a century ago - lit the barren room with its twin beds, scarred high-boy dressers and rickety chairs. Home, such as it was, if not for long. He'd done it - he'd stolen the sanctimonious psychotherapist's computer practically from under his nose. Should be worth a couple of C-notes on the street ... if not more for what he might find inside.
And more jail time if you get caught, a little voice in his head taunted him as he threw himself on the bed, opened the laptop and turned it on.
"I won't get caught," he muttered. "Not this time. This time I'm golden."
This time everything was going his way. No more days in the kitchen because he was too scrawny for harder work, no more nights being someone's date because he wasn't strong enough or mean enough to defend himself. And soon he would be free of the halfway house with enough money to get him a decent place ... a car ...women ...
The operating system brought the computer up to speed and Tony went straight to the word-processing program, straight to a folder named Heartland. Just like the halfway house.
"Too easy, Doc," he muttered, opening the folder and finding a file on each of the dozen residents.
Eager to get the dirt on the other ex-cons living in the dump - something that could give him leverage if not cash - he nevertheless couldn't resist the file named Vargas. What had O'Rourke said about him?
No need to wonder. He opened the file and skimmed the notes about himself. Basically a shorthand transcript, these were from their last session only. Yada, yada, yada. Big deal. Only the final entry made Tony raise his eyebrows and curse himself for not learning to keep his mouth shut.
Then he snorted and shook his head. What did it matter what Dermot O'Rourke knew? He was bound by therapist-patient confidentiality. Kind of like that seal-of-the-confessional thing they'd had going years ago.
But he wanted to sell the laptop on the street, so getting rid of evidence against himself would be the smart thing. Wouldn't do to let someone have the goods to blackmail him. Before he could exit the file to delete it, however, the doorknob rattled.
Rattled himself, Tony shoved the still-running laptop out of sight under the bed. "Hey, Bingo, that you?" he called, wanting to believe his roommate had torn himself away from the television downstairs this early.
"Open the door, Tony."
Recognizing the voice, Tony cursed softly, then trying to appear as if nothing were wrong, made for the door and opened it. Far more casually than he was feeling, he asked, "Hey, what's happening?" His mouth was spitless and the words tumbled out in a rush.
"Did you think you could get away with it?" his visitor asked, pushing Tony back inside and locking the door. "Did you think I wouldn't know it was you?"
"Hey, it was a joke. I didn't mean -"
"Didn't you learn anything in that cell?"
Tony backed away nervously, gaze glued to the hands twisting a purple velvet rope like the ones holding back a crowd from a club entrance ... or inside a church. He used to put velvet ropes in place outside the confessional at St. Peter's, part of his job as an altar boy.
Tightening his hands into fists so he wouldn't make the sign of the cross and betray his fear, he asked, "Wh-what are you gonna do with that thing?"
A rhetorical question.
No one had to tell him he was a dead man.
"Tony knows better than to try blackmail ... has a death wish ..." Detective Mike Norelli looked up from the transcript. "What about it, Doc?"
Dermot O'Rourke sat back in his creaky wooden chair in the pasty-green Chicago Police Department interrogation room and took in the Violent Crimes tag team assigned to Tony Vargas's murder. Norelli and his partner, Detective Jamal Walker, were as different as night and day. Middle-aged and beefy, Norelli wore a bland, dark suit, white shirt and forced smile. Younger and fitter, Walker apparently had more interest in being a snappy dresser than friendly. Both men leaned over the table toward Dermot like two vultures ready to pick at carrion.
Not that he was officially under arrest.
But Dermot knew how this could go down. He was no stranger to the system, and they knew that. He'd done a couple of rounds in Juvenile Detention - the last time just for physically protecting himself from a rival gang member. That experience - added to knowing that next time he would be treated like an adult - had been enough to scare him straight.
If the Vargas case went bad, he wouldn't be so lucky this time around.
"What about it?" Dermot finally echoed. "I enter abbreviated session notes on the laptop to be more fully written up later for my files."
"Do you always threaten your patients?" Walker asked, pushing his dark face closer.
Dermot didn't so much as flinch. "I don't like your innuendo or your tone, Detective. Maybe I should call my lawyer?"
He was bluffing, of course - he didn't trust lawyers any more than he did cops. Too much bad experience. But he figured the threat sounded good.
"Do you have reason to need a lawyer?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Norelli said with a cheesy smile, apparently playing good cop. "We just need to know what you know about Tony Vargas. No accusations here."
Excerpted from Velvet Ropes by Patricia Rosemoor Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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