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Carlotta Wren shoved her head in the freezer, closing her eyes and allowing the frosty blast to cool the flush on her face and neck as she tried to absorb everything that had happened over the past few days.
A serial killer was on the loose in Atlanta. Dubbed The Charmed Killer by the press for his signature of leaving a charm in the mouth of his victims, the unknown assailant was racking up bodies at an astonishing ratefour women dead in a week, culminating in the murder of an assistant district attorney. According to Detective Jack Terry, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was joining the high-profile case.
And the Wren family was firmly in the middle of the fray.
She and her brother, Wesley, had been the body movers on the first two cases, and had been called in on the third, although Carlotta had had to step aside when she'd realized she had once crossed paths with the victim. Wesley had met the fourth victim, the deceased A.D.A., while settling his most recent legal trouble. And their father, Randolph "The Bird" Wren, a fugitive now for more than ten years for a white-collar crime, had been named a possible suspect. First, because one of the charms left behind had been a bird, and second, because one of the victims had worked in the same office building where he had once worked. Carlotta was sure she hadn't helped matters by handing over the charm bracelet her father had given her when she was a teenager to the police, but she was hoping it would help to clear Randolph.
Meanwhile, Jack had warned her she might have to take a polygraph to clear herself, due to her proximity to the bodies.
Minus ten points.
A moan from the living room roused Carlotta from her churning thoughts. She reached for an ice tray to fill an ice bag, but the trays were empty, of freaking course. When her gaze landed on a bag of frozen peas, she grabbed it, closed the freezer door and walked back to the living room.
Peter Ashford lay on the couch recovering from the stun-baton zap she'd inadvertently administered when she'd mistaken Peter for an intruder. After discovering that someone had been living in their guest bedroom unbeknownst to her and her brother, she'd been skittish.
Carlotta leaned over to brush aside Peter's blond hair with her fingers and place the bag of frozen peas on his forehead. "This is the best I can do. Feeling better?"
He was still pale, but his deep blue eyes seemed more alert. He nodded and reached for her hand. "It was stupid of me to come in the house unannounced. But the door was unlocked and I thought I'd surprise you."
She smiled. "You did."
"That'll teach me."
"And that'll teach me for leaving the door unlocked." She sighed. "I have to learn to be more careful."
"I'm so glad you've agreed to move in with me."
She bit her lip. It had been a decision she'd made once she fully understood that she wasn't safe in the town house, not with uninvited houseguests coming and going, and a mysterious black SUV stalking the curb.
Oh, and there was the matter of her Monte Carlo exploding in the mall parking lot two days ago when she was supposed to have been in it.
"I'm not moving in," she murmured. "I'm just staying with you until things settle down." But she could tell from the light in Peter's eyes that he hoped having Carlotta in his house would help her to fall in love with him, and with the lifestyle she might've had if Peter hadn't ended their engagement when her father had been indicted all those years ago. She was open to the idea of growing closer to Peter, but for now, all she wanted to do was feel safe.
She left his side to pick up her phone and dial Wesley again. Again, he didn't answer, and again, she left him a message to call her right away. He was probably out working his new job as a bike courier and couldn't hear his phone. When Wesley learned that fugitive Michael Lane had stolen the money that Wesley had won in a card game and had stowed in his sock drawer for repairs around the house, he'd be furious.
Peter tried to sit up, then winced and laid back.
"Take it easy," she admonished.
"What if that psycho comes back?"
"There's a cop in the driveway. Jack sent him over to keep an eye on things until he gets here."
"Did you see this Lane guy?"
"No," she said, gesturing toward the hallway. "I went into my parents' room and found the scrubs Michael had been wearing when he jumped over the side of the bridge." She swallowed hard, reliving the fear. "It looks like Michael was living here all the time we thought he was
Michael Lane was a former coworker of Carlotta's at Neiman Marcus. He'd headed up an identity-theft ring that had resulted in two women losing their lives
and when Carlotta had figured out what he'd been up to, he'd tried to kill her, too. He'd been cooling his heels in the psych ward at Northside Hospital until deemed fit to stand trial, but Michael had escaped and after a televised foot chase, he'd chosen to jump over the side of a bridge into the Chattahoochee River instead of surrendering to police.
But it appeared the presumed-dead fugitive had gotten the last laugh.
Peter made an angry noise in his throat. "I can't believe that madman was here while you slept. He could've murdered you in your bed."
"But he didn't," she said, trying to sound soothing.
It was true that she thought she'd dreamed someone was watching her at night, but decided it was best not to mention to Peter that Detective Jack Terry had inadvertently protected her one of those nightsby sharing her bed. Besides, she and Jack had both agreed that it would be their last
lapse. Jack wasn't looking for a relationship, and she needed someone with more stability.
"Has the feeling returned to your fingers?" she asked him.
He made a weak fist. "Getting there."
When she'd called Jack after realizing she'd zapped Peter by mistake, he'd said Peter would be fine in a few minutes. But what if he had a heart ailment or other condition? "Maybe I should take you to the emergency room after all."
"No, really. I'm already feeling much better." Then he gave her a wry smile. "Please don't make me tell total strangers that my girlfriend used a Taser on me."
She laughed ruefully and decided not to correct him on the "girlfriend" part. "I'm so sorry."
"I'll let you make it up to me."
A knock sounded at the front door. When Carlotta went to check, she was relieved to see Detective Jack Terry standing on the stoop, large and competent. Not stopping to analyze the rush of emotion that his presence triggered, she opened the door, her mood dimming at the sight of Jack's new partner, Detective Maria Marquez, standing behind him.
"Hey," Jack said, his rocky face solemn. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, come on in." She stepped aside and nodded to Maria as the woman walked by. Scant hours ago, she'd seen both of them at the memorial service for A.D.A. Cheryl Meriwether. When she'd first called Jack after she'd found Michael's clothes, he'd told her he was busy, but would be there soon. In the background, she thought she'd heard Maria and other noises that made her wonder if Jack had already found a new project for his tool.
The woman was stunning, to be sure, with honey-colored hair, almond-shaped eyes and curves all up and down the highway. Worse, the woman was smarta profiler who had recently relocated from Chicago. She was single and, based on a phone call that Carlotta had overheard while Maria had once babysat her, the woman had left an unhappy situation. She was ripe for the picking, and Jack had good hands.
The two of them made a spectacular-looking couple, Carlotta conceded as she closed the door behind them.
From the couch, Peter awkwardly pushed himself into a sitting position. The bag of frozen peas slid off his head and landed on the floor with a smack. Jack leaned over to pick them up and handed them back to Peter with a little smile.
"I heard that Carlotta lit you up with her stun baton."
Peter looked up at him, but the movement made him grimace. "She has good reflexes."
Jack looked back to her and smiled. "Yes, she does."
Carlotta gave him a warning glance.
"We need to take a look in your parents' room," he said, suddenly all business.
"Go for it," Carlotta said, leading them down the hall. Jack and Maria stopped at the closed door to pull on gloves and slip paper booties over their shoes.
Jack turned the knob and pushed open the door. "What made you come in here? Did you hear a noise?"
"No." She hung back in the doorway while they proceeded into the room that was pretty much the way her parents had left it, aside from being searched by the police after the couple had disappeared. Carlotta's gaze went to the box of dried-up cigars on her father's nightstand. One of the charms left in the mouth of a victim was a miniature cigar, and in light of the other suspicions leveled against her father, she had simply wanted to check out his stash
and maybe get rid of it, so the police didn't have any other circumstantial evidence against Randolph.
Jack followed her line of sight to the cigar box and nodded in mute understanding. In a shared glance, he telegraphed that Marquez didn't have to know
"When I walked in," Carlotta continued, "the room felt differentcleaner, for one thing. I could smell antiseptic. Then I noticed the scrubs and recognized them as the ones Michael had been wearing when he jumped off the bridge."
Maria looked incredulous. "How could someone have been living in here and you not know it?"
Carlotta bristled. Maria had accused her of being a little clueless in other areas of her life beforelike when it came to knowing things about her best friend, Hannah Kizer, for example. The woman must be convinced that Carlotta was oblivious to everything going on around her, and at the moment it was hard to argue the point. "I dust in here occasionally, but normally the room is closed off. There's really no reason for me or Wesley to come in here."
Jack walked over to inspect the door leading out to the deck. "This is how Lane got in and out?"
"Probably. We keep that door dead-bolted, and it was unlocked when I came in."
"Are there signs that he was in other parts of the house?"
Carlotta squirmed. "Uh, yeah. He did
Maria arched a beautiful eyebrow. "You mean, like washing dishes?"
laundry. And running the vacuum and
I think he might have mopped the kitchen floor."
Maria laughed. "He was doing housework, and you didn't notice?"
Carlotta gritted her teeth. "That's right. Are you annoyed, Detective, that this doesn't fit the profile you worked up for Michael Lane? You did say he'd kill me if he got the chance. Obviously, you were wrong."
"Lucky for you," Maria said pointedly.
"What's with the masks?" Jack cut in, nodding to the two colorful masks lying on the floora dog and a cat.
Carlotta stooped to retrieve them. "Peter brought them. He was wearing the dog mask when he came up behind me. That's why I used the stun batonI didn't realize it was him."
Jack frowned. "Why the hell was he wearing a dog mask?"
"It's a scene in a movie," Maria said, snapping her fingers.
"Breakfast at Tiffany's," Carlotta murmured, fingering the masks. The scene where Paul and Holly steal masks from a toy shop during their day-long love splurge. Her favorite scene, and Peter had remembered.
Jack looked utterly lost. "Does this have anything to do with our crime scene?"
Carlotta shook her head and backed away. "I think I'll let you two do your job. I'll be in my room if you need anything."
She turned and walked back down the hall to her bedroom, thinking of what she needed to pack. Her skin crawled anew at the thought of Michael strolling through their house, ransacking drawers, eating snacks and watching TV. Had he stood over her while she slept and considered finishing her off?
She walked into the girlish room that hadn't changed much since they'd moved in after her parents had lost their big home in the exclusive area of Buckhead, after her father had been fired from his job at an investments firm where he'd been accused of bilking clients. She hung the masks on the corner of her dresser mirror, then went over to the white four-poster bed to pull out a suitcase from underneath it, then set the bag on top of the coverlet. She'd be glad to get away from this room, away from this town house for a while. Staying with Peter would be like going on vacation
as long as she could keep things between them from moving along too quickly.
Carlotta removed clothes and shoes from her closet, packing the suitcase as tightly as she could, wondering how long she would be away and how this one decision might change her life forever.
At a rap on the door, she turned to see Jack stick his head inside. "Can I come in?"
"Sure." She turned back to her task of removing underwear from her dresser drawer.
"Going somewhere?" Jack asked.
She folded a pair of red lace panties and set them on top of the pile of clothes. "Peter invited me to stay with him for a while, and I accepted."
Jack picked up the red panties between thumb and finger to study them. "You're moving in with Ashford?"
"No," she corrected, still folding underwear. "I'm staying with Peter until things settle down around here."
"Until I catch The Charmed Killer?"
She nodded and instinctively wrapped her hand over the charm bracelet she wore. The charms were supposedly prophetic, but so far, they'd only proved to be disconcerting. After all, a killer was on the loose using the trinkets as his signature.
Jack pursed his mouth. "I think it's a good idea."
She gave a little laugh. "I thought you might since you said I should marry Peter."
"That's not why I think it's a good idea." He brought the panties to his face.
Carlotta snatched them away. "Then why?"
He shrugged, unfazed. "Because I'm sure that palace of his is a fortress. You'll be safe there. Which means I can investigate The Charmed Killer without worrying about your pretty ass being in harm's way. I'm sure Ashford will keep you busy with polo matches and dinners at the country club."
"Does this mean I won't be seeing you?"
"You'll miss me, huh?" Then he was suddenly serious. "Carlotta, I'm liaising with the GBI and your name keeps popping up in the investigation. We're going to have to get you cleared, although this new development with Lane is a big step forward."
"You think Michael is The Charmed Killer?"