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By Brandilyn Collins
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Brandilyn Collins
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Chapter One"Really, is a heinous murder any reason to devalue such a glorious piece of real estate?"
The words rolled off the man's tongue in a luscious British accent and with a hint of tease, lending him a cocky James Bond air. He was dashingly handsome (a good British description, what?). Dark hair, rich brown eyes, a jaw cut just so-not too square, but firm. Carla Radling glanced at his left hand. No ring. But then he'd already intimated he was single. A real-estate developer, he'd said over the phone yesterday. And apparently rich, although no proper English gentleman would say so. He was "seeking a beautiful and private piece of property near water as a second home," and the half-page ad in Dream Houses had caught his eye. If he liked the place, he'd pay cash.
To think she'd complained about the high cost of the ad.
Behind them, the heavy wrought-iron gates of the estate that once belonged to the late actress Edna San closed with a muted clang. Carla steered her white Toyota Camry down the impressive driveway curving through forest. Her client, David Thornby-although James Bond fit so much better-dignified her front seat. His legs, in impeccable beige trousers, were confidently apart, his left arm draped over the console, fingers casuallydrumming. His navy sport jacket boasted a thousand-dollar weave.
Carla laughed at Thornby's "heinous murder" remark. "No devaluing here. But often that's what happens to the homes of celebrities caught in a scandal-or murder. Gives potential buyers the willies to picture the crime occurring in their living room."
"Technically, it didn't occur here, correct? Edna San was taken out of the home, with no one being sure exactly where she was killed."
That accent was just to die for. "Right. The news was where they found her, not where she was killed."
But enough of this morbid topic.
"The property has only been for sale a little over a year," Carla said. "That's not a long time given its price for this area. I told Edna's heirs I fully expected that someone out of the area would buy it."
Carla rounded a curve in the wide driveway, and the actress's magnificent two-story home of wood and stone swept into view. A front porch with thick round pillars ran its entire length, the arched and mullioned windows giving it a castlelike quality. Surrounded by twenty acres of forest, it included a smaller home on the property for a full-time caretaker or perhaps a gardener, whatever a well-bred English gentleman might prefer.
Thornby drew in a breath. "It's stunning. And look at that view."
Kanner Lake sparkled some three hundred feet beyond the backyard of the main house, its waters tinged crimson in the sunset. Carla caught a glimpse of it through the side yard as she pulled up to the front of the house.
"Yeah, isn't it great? Like the ad said, a large dock and two hundred feet of sandy beach. Plus, with the forest all around you, it's completely private. And you'll see plenty of wildlife. Deer, with their new spotted fawns each year, wild turkeys." No need to mention the skunks, coons, and occasional bear.
Carla slid another look at Thornby. He leaned forward, anticipation on his face. The man liked what he saw.
A vague warning twinged in her stomach. Such obvious excitement didn't fit the demeanor of a suave British gentleman, did it?
Carla pushed the thought away. Pure stereotype.
She stopped close to the wide porch steps and cut the engine. "Wait till you see the inside."
He smiled at her, and his eyes twinkled. Twinkled. Carla hadn't known a pair of eyes could do that-outside the romance novels she used to read as a teenager.
How old was this guy? Maybe forty? Not so much older than her thirty-two years.
Please, oh, please, buy this house, you handsome thing. Then marry me quick.
"Thanks for letting me leave my car outside the gate," he said. "This was a treat, being free to ogle while you drove in."
"We aim to please."
They mounted the three curved flagstone steps side by side, Thornby a good eight inches taller than her five-six frame. Power and control emanated from him, his back straight, chin high, and eyes alert. He ran his knuckles down the huge carved door as Carla, trying her best to appear unaffected by his charm, slid her key into the lockbox. She removed the lock, pushed back the door, and waved him inside. "After you."
He stepped over the threshold onto gleaming tile floor, Carla following. Thornby's head tipped back to admire the grand curving staircase to their left.
Carla hung back, giving him time to admire the sights-a formal living room on the right, furnished in leather couches and Persian rugs, rich wood wainscoting on the walls.
"Of course if you don't like Edna San's taste in furniture, you could always-"
"I do like it, very much. Makes it easier to buy a second home when it's turnkey."
"Well, that's good." Carla dropped her keys into her purse. "Since Edna's son and daughter didn't seem to care a whit about taking anything. Other than the crystal and china, that is, and the photos of Edna with Bette Davis and other movie cohorts."
"I thought Edna San hated Bette Davis." Thornby stepped into the living room and leaned down to inspect the fifteen-thousand-dollar rug.
Carla shrugged. "Didn't all the legendary female movie stars hate each other? It's a cat thing."
"Yeah, you know how women can fight over ..." Carla eased up beside him, and he looked at her with those incredible eyes. Carla pressed her lips together. "Never mind."
He flashed another smile, sending a tingle down Carla's spine.
"So." She pointed toward the entryway. "How about if I show you the kitchen and dining room?"
In the large kitchen Carla pointed out the amenities. Thornby stood back while she opened cabinets, the refrigerator.
Odd. Prospective buyers typically inspected every nook and cranny.
Must be a man thing. The guy probably didn't even cook.
He glanced at his Rolex watch more than once.
Carla tilted her head. "Are you in a hurry?"
"No, no, sorry. Just the habit of a businessman."
Down a short, wide hall off the kitchen they stepped into the formal dining room. A highly polished cherrywood table lay beneath a sparkling crystal chandelier, the matching hutch elegant despite its emptiness after Edna San's children had claimed its dishes and goblets. On the hardwood floor spread another luxurious Persian rug. Carla walked around to the other side of the table, gesturing toward the large back windows. "Great view of the lake."
Thornby put his hands on his hips. "Splendid." He gazed at her, mouth curving. "And so are you."
Carla blinked. Was he talking about her skills as a realtor?
Huh-uh-the look on his face said something far different.
He sighed. "It's such a shame."
Carla was half tongue-tied. This man was so ... mesmerizing. "What is?"
He spread his hands. "You. This place. That I can have neither beauty."
Whoa, where had that come from? She searched in vain for one of her typical witty comebacks. "You can't?"
"No. You see, unfortunately things aren't quite as I represented."
It took her a second to realize the glorious accent had vanished. The guy now sounded as American as her coffee-guzzling pals down at Java Joint.
Carla stared at him. What was going on? She thought of the things she'd chosen to ignore-his request to leave his car outside the gate, his obvious anticipation of ... something, the refusal to touch anything, the glances at his watch. Her spine tingled, but this time it didn't feel so exciting.
"You're not British." She would not let her voice tremble, even though the ten-minute drive to town suddenly seemed like a trip to the moon. What was she thinking, coming out here alone near dusk? After all the trauma Kanner Lake had seen in the past year.
But good grief, he'd sounded so normal. Not to mention anxious to buy.
His lips spread in a slow smile. "No."
Fear flushed through Carla-and that ticked her off. She raised her chin. "Well, how about that. So tell me how much you told me is true. Are you a real-estate developer?"
He shrugged. "It seemed like such a respectable line of work at the time."
"At what time?"
"When I called you."
She stuck her tongue between her lip and top teeth. "Okay, let's cut the games. Just what are you?"
His graceful right hand slid into his coat pocket. "To use the vernacular, vulgar though it is"-his voice carried a light, engaging tone-"I'm a hit man."
He pulled out a handgun and aimed it at her heart.
Excerpted from Crimson Eve by Brandilyn Collins Copyright © 2007 by Brandilyn Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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