Carlotta Wren’s world is crumbling beneath her well-shod feet. One of her closest friends has been arrested as the Charmed Killer, but Carlotta refuses to believe it. And to prove her friend’s innocence, Carlotta goes against her boyfriend Peter’s wishes and resumes her after-hours body-moving duties.
Peter pressures her for an answer to his proposal
Her troubled brother Wesley goes missing
And the madman stalking the city strikes again, this time a little too close to home.
But when Carlotta finds herself in the clutches of the Charmed Killer, is she destined for her own body bag?
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Way back in third grade, Jake Meredith decided that only a complete fool would set himself up for failure. Thank God he'd learned that lesson early on.
It was a game plan that had served him well over the years.
Until fate threw him a curve.
Surveying the barn and corrals, Jake stood at the kitchen sink of the main ranch house and shook his head. Buckaroo Ranch. What a waste of good land and stock.
He'd had his fill of this place years ago and left home on his eighteenth birthday. But now, in spite of his distaste for city slickers and dude ranches, the whole kit and caboodle was his.
And since his sister had taken deposits for reservations a year in advance, and he didn't have a clue what she'd done with the money, he was stuck running the place until the guests had a chance to play cowboy for a week.
But that wasn't the bulk of his problems.
He glanced across the kitchen at the eighteen-month-old boy who was making a godawful mess with his bowl of spaghetti. When their eyes met, the toddler flashed a big grin, oozing with red-tinged slobber. Jake wasn't sure whether Sam was pleased with the taste of marinara or just plain happy to smear sauce and noodles in his hair and all over the high chair.
Rosa was going to have a hell of a mess to clean up, but she wouldn't complain. She never did. He supposed the nanny loved Kayla and Sam like her own children, which was lucky for them.
Not that Jake didn't love his niece and nephew, he did. They were the neatest kids he'd ever known, and he had always indulged them like a good uncle should. But one day, the girl and boy who adored him would learn he was a fraudsomething they were bound to find out soon, now that he was their full-time guardian.
He took one last look at the court documents that had just arrived, the legal ruling that sealed the fates of his sister's kids, as well as his own. He shoved the papers back into the manila envelope and tossed the whole legal package on top of the fridgeout of sight, but certainly not out of mind.
Jake combed a hand through his hair. He wasn't any good at family stuff. Never had been.
Hell, everyone he'd ever loved had failed him, one way or another. Even Sharon, his sister, who'd died and left him in a lurch.
When he and Sharon were kids, she'd tried to look out for him, to keep him on the straight and narrow. He'd grumbled and complained about her nagging, of course, but it had been comforting to know she loved him in spite of his rebellious nature. And that she'd always be there for him.
Times like today, when things were really piling up on him, he would always touch base with his sister. Dying wasn't her fault, but he'd felt deserted, just the same.
Of course, he'd come up pretty damn short on the dependability scale himself. He'd never been one to check in with his sister on a regular basis, so by the time Rosa finally tracked him down at a rodeo in Wyoming and relayed the grim news of the car accident, it was too late to attend the funeral services for Sharon or her husband.
The phone rang, interrupting his thoughts. He snatched the receiver from the wall. "Hello."
A woman's voice on the other end seemed to stutter and falter. "Jake?"
"It's me, Maggie."
Thoughts of Maggie Templeton brought a slow smile to his lips. In his mind, she was still seventeen, tall and awkward, with hair the color of corn silk and a splatter of freckles across her nose. As a teenager, she'd been the best friend he'd ever had. His only friend, he supposed.
They hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, but they talked on the telephone periodically, catching up on major life events like marriage, divorce and death.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
Jake looked at five-year-old Kayla, then at Sam. What was he going to say in front of the kids? That he was struggling to be the kind of father his sister would want him to be? That he was scared spitless he wouldn't measure up? "I'm doing okay."
"Is Rosa still working for you?"
Jake didn't know what he'd do without the woman who'd taken care of Sharon's kids since birth. Rosa wasn't just his babysitter, housekeeper, office manager and reader of bedtime stories; she was a blessed saint. "I doubled her salary, just to make sure she wouldn't quit."
"That's great," Maggie said. "I uh " She seemed to hesitate over the words, so he waited for her to speak. For a moment he thought the line had disconnected.
She blew out a sigh. "I need a date on Saturday night. And I thought that, if I purchased your airline ticket, you might come help me out."
"Be your date?" He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.
"Yes. As a favor to me."
It wasn't like Maggie to ask for help, and he figured this phone call hadn't been easy to make. "Are you still living in Boston?"
"For the time being. I'm going to be moving to California in a couple of months."
Something didn't add up. He'd never been one to pry, although he did wonder about the details. "Don't they have any eligible men in Boston? Why are you asking me?"
"Because I want a friend to escort me to a benefit dance, and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather go with."
Jake glanced at the Spaghetti Kid, just as Sam chucked a Melmac plate across the kitchen, littering the floor with noodles and splatters of sauce. Several strands of pasta dangled from his downy-fine hair, and Jake couldn't help shaking his head and smiling at the happy little boy.
At the kitchen table, five-year-old Kayla slowly sucked a long string of spaghetti into her mouth while concentrating on a picture book illustration of a bunch of roller-skating bugs parading through a strawberry patch. She'd been grumpy when he wouldn't read to her and Sam while they ate, something Rosa often did.
But Jake refused to read out loud. It put too damn much pressure on him to perform, and it brought back too many memories of childhood.
He looked at the spaghetti-riddled floor. Escaping Texas and going to Boston for a day or two suddenly sounded very appealing. "Okay."
"Are you sure? What about the kids?" she asked.
"Rosa's good with them, and they love her. Shoot, she's already raised three boys and a girl." Sam and Kayla were far better off with Rosa than a bachelor uncle who didn't know squat about kids.
"You're sure you don't mind?"
Mind getting away? Mind seeing Maggie again? "Not at all. I'll line things up around here, then let you know what time my flight arrives."
Dr. Maggie Templeton paced in front of the walkway that led to the terminal gate. What made her think she could call a man out of the blue and ask him to do a favor like this?
Desperation, that's what. And a hospital benefit she didn't want to attend.
Maybe she should have feigned an attack of appendicitis. Or put a cast on her leg. She could have called the dentist and scheduled an unnecessary root canal. How was that for desperation?
She blew out a ragged breath. No matter how plausible the excuse, it didn't matter. Dr. Margaret Templeton would arrive on time, dressed to the hilt, looking comfortable on the outside, while childish insecurities ran amok on the inside. At least she'd have Jake at her side. But Maggie wasn't sure that seeing him again would make her feel any more secure.
A voice over the intercom announced his plane had arrived from Houston, and her steps faltered.
He was here. Would she recognize him after all these years?
Maggie stood transfixed, searching the steady stream of disembarking passengers for someone who resembled the gangly teenager who'd once been her best friend.
Did he still wear his hair long and slightly unkempt? Had he finally grown taller than her? Did he still prefer Wrangler jeans, a worn Stetson and scuffed boots?
As a tall, lean cowboy, dressed in black, sauntered through the door, her breath caught. Jake?
Bright blue eyes, the color of a Texas summer sky, crinkled in amusement, and he flashed her a reckless smile. "Hot damn, Maggie. You grew up good."
"So did you," she managed to say.
Jake Meredith now stood six-two or more, broad at the shoulders and narrow at the hips. Sporting a black suede jacket and Stetson, the man caused more than one head to turn for a double take.
He hadn't shaved this morning, she noticed, but the dark stubble looked good, giving him an intriguing, rugged appearancea look even her most conservative side found appealing.
A small, jagged scar marred his left brow. The physician in her wondered how it had happened.
The woman in her wanted to trace it with her finger.
Whoa, she told herself, pulling out of the awkward trance. Jake was her friend, her escort. She had no intention of stretching their relationship beyond that. Sharon, his sister, had said he was a charmer, a real ladies' man, and Maggie wasn't about to become another notch on his bedpost.
"Thanks for coming," she said, trying to remember her manners as well as hide her surprise.
"I'm glad I could help out." He brushed a soft kiss on her cheek and gave her a hug. The scent of peppermint, leather and musk lingered long after he released her.
"How much do I owe you for the airline ticket?" Maggie asked.
"Don't worry about it." He placed a hand on her back and ushered her through the terminal. "This wing-ding must be a big deal."
"It is," she told him. But she doubted he really understood.
She'd worked hard to see the new pediatric ICU become a reality, as had Rhonda Martin, another pediatrician in her office. Tonight's formal event, El Baile Elegante, was a gala intended to thank donors and secure their ongoing financial support. Even though Maggie could no longer stand being in the same room with Rhonda, professionalism demanded she attend.
"There's got to be a hundred guys in this city who'd love to take you to that shindig. I still don't understand why you asked me."
"Because I want a real friend to accompany me, and there don't seem to be too many friendly faces in Boston anymore."
His expression sobered, and he paused before responding. "I'm not like the people you usually hobnob with, Maggie. And I hope you don't expect me to be."
She didn't. When they'd first become friends at Buckaroo Ranch, Jake had been a rebel, a James Dean on horseback. And Maggie had been a young Marian the Librarian. She doubted he'd changed much, if at all, which was all right with her. Jake had a way of making life seem simple and uncomplicated. And he'd had a way of making her smile when life seemed unbearable.
She slid him a quick glance. The skinny kid had sure filled out. And grown up.
They continued toward the exit, walking along with other travelers who'd made Boston their destination.
"I'm sorry about your divorce," he said, his soft Southern drawl washing over her like a warm summer rain. "Are you doing okay?"
Not really, but she was making progress. "My pride took a bigger hit than my heart, but I'll be all right."
Jake didn't comment, and she was grateful. Lord knew she'd psychoanalyzed herself enough in the past six months.
Learning that her husband Tom and Rhonda had conceived a baby had hurt, particularly since they hadn't waited until Maggie and Tom had officially separated to do so. Still, the split had been somewhat clean and amicable, but only because Maggie refused to make a scene or act as though Tom's affair had bothered her more than a broken nail.
She'd fought long and hard to become a professional, and that's the only behavior she expected from herself.
The voices from the past that sometimes nagged at her, jeered at her now, pointing out her shortcomings and hanging them out to dry.
What's wrong with you, Maggie? Stupid girl. Can't you do anything right?
She'd grown up with insufferable criticism. Her mother's third husband had been a drunk. An alcoholic, her clinical side corrected, although either diagnosis seemed to fit.
Oftentimes he'd said things that were cruel and untrue, but Maggie had proven him wrong. The valedictorian at Valley View High had gone on to receive a full academic scholarship at Radcliffe, then transferred to Harvard Medical School, where she'd graduated number two in her class. Dr. Margaret Templeton wasn't stupid.
Or a failure.
And she hoped appearing at El Baile Elegante with Jake would show her colleagues that the failed marriage was merely a joint decision to end what wasn't working. Maggie Templeton, they would realize, was doing just fine without a husband.
She glanced to her side and found the handsome cowboy perusing her with a crooked grin and a glimmer in his eyes.
Jake couldn't help but admire the pretty doctorin more ways than one. She'd achieved everything she'd set her mind to. And what's more, the quiet teenage girl he'd once called Magpie had grown up to be a real head-turner, the kind of lady a man couldn't help but notice.
Her hair, no longer the color of corn silk, had darkened to a golden blond. And those caramel-colored eyes still held a tender heart, as well as a sadness few people could see.
Fifteen years ago, she'd been all knees and elbows, but she'd become womanly, with the kind of gentle curves a man liked to run his hands along all through the night.
"How are you, Magpie? Or should I call you doctor?"
"Just Maggie will do." She adjusted the shoulder strap of her purse. "I sure appreciate your coming out here like this."
For three long-ago summers, her grandma had shipped her off to Buckaroo Ranch, where Jake lived with his sister and tough-as-rawhide uncle. The sad-eyed bookworm had become the only friend he'd had growing up.
He gave her elbow a gentle squeeze. "I owe you one, remember?"
She'd protected him from a beating when he was sixteen by saying a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniel's had belonged to her. It hadn't, of course. Maggie had always been a moral crusader when it came to alcohol, unlike Jake, who'd thought drinking and smoking made him more manly and grown-up.
Because she was a paying guest at the ranch, his uncle had merely poured the whiskey onto the dirt, then threatened to send her packing if it ever happened again. Uncle Dave wouldn't have been that easy on Jake.
And Jake hadn't had any other place to go home to.
"Are you talking about that bottle of Jack Daniel's?" she asked.
"My uncle would have given me the boot. He never did appreciate having to raise his brother's ornery son." Nor did he ever let Jake forget what a disappointment he was.
"You did have a rebellious streak, Jake."
She laughed. "I don't doubt it. But your uncle wasn't that bad. He never gave your sister a hard time."
"Sharon was a straight-A student. Like you, Magpie."
"Maybe you should have tried harder."
"Maybe so, but I never liked school." Any of them. He'd lost count of all the schools he'd attended in the early years. So by the time he was old enough to ride a bike, he began playing hooky every chance he got. Folks just thought he was a truant and a troublemaker, but Jake saw it as a means of self-preservation.
Chasing away the painful memories, he focused on Maggie. At one time, he'd actually had a crush on her, a sort of younger guy-older woman thing. He doubted that she'd ever picked up on it, though, since he'd been shy around girls back then.
He wasn't shy anymore.