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The woman sat alone at a table near the narrow stage at the front of the bar, nursing a strawberry daiquiri and feigning interest in the alt–rock cover band currently grinding its way through an old Pearl Jam classic. Now and then she took a sip of her drink but mainly watched the crowd, her eyes alert.
Daniel Hartman studied her from his seat at the bar, curiosity distracting him from his own agenda. There was an odd stillness about her, a composure that set her apart from the rest of the restless liquor–soaked crowd in the small club in the heart of Birmingham's Five Points South.
Who was she? What was she looking for? The door opened and a man in a striped shirt and leather jacket entered, pausing in the doorway. Daniel dragged his attention away from the woman to give the newcomer a quick once–over. He was pushing forty, a little paunchy though his clothes hid it well. The wedding ring on his left hand quickly went into his pocket.
Daniel looked away, losing interest. This place was a bust. He took another sip of Coke and considered moving on to another club a few doors down. But his gaze drifted back to the woman with the daiquiri, and he stayed put, watching her through narrowed eyes as she took another dainty sip of her drink and clapped politely as the cover band crashed its way to the end of the song.
The paunchy man in the leather jacket approached her table, on the prowl. Of course he'd choose her—a pretty woman all alone in the middle of a bar was too much temptation. Daniel sat forward, curious to see how she'd handle being hit on. Would she notice the imprint on his left ring finger where the wedding band had been? Would it matter?
She looked up at the man, her brow furrowing as he spoke to her. Her gaze drifted to the hand resting on the back of her chair and the furrowed brow smoothed, replaced by a cool, neutral mask. She murmured to the man, who stepped away with a frown. Muttering something that made the woman's lips tighten, he moved on to the bar and ordered a bourbon neat.
Daniel looked back at the woman and found her watching him. When she didn't immediately look away, he lifted his glass and nodded.
Her frown returning, she looked down at her glass, stirring the red slush with slow, deliberate strokes. Her chin lifted, followed by her eyes. She locked gazes with him, her expression impossible to read. An electric shock zigzagged through him as he took the full brunt of her attention.
Was it an invitation? A rebuff? He didn't know, and he'd always prided himself on being an accomplished reader of women. Of people, in general, given his chosen profession.
He could look around this bar and guess, with accuracy, the stories behind the faces surrounding him: The balding salesman with the desperate come–on sitting with the aging beauty queen who'd accepted his offer of a drink because she was desperate for the attention she used to command without effort. The raw–nerved coed drinking to forget her cheating boyfriend and her unfinished term paper. The tax accountant sipping a trendy dark ale and trying to look as though he was just one of the guys. Daniel could read them all.
But not her.
She looked across the room and caught the eye of a waitress, who came at once. They murmured an exchange and the waitress went toward the back, soon returning with the check.
The woman paid her bill and rose from the table, darting a glance in his direction. He followed her with his gaze, memorizing the curve of her hips and the dip of her narrow waist, the way her calf muscles flexed as she navigated the crowded club and pushed her way through the exit door into the cool October night. His skin felt hot and tight.
Part of him wanted desperately to follow her, to see where she went next. What was she looking for? Would she find it?
But he had a job to do here, a job that didn't include tailing pretty brunettes with great legs. He stayed where he was, waving at the bartender to pour him another Coke. The bartender complied, giving him a black look because he wasn't buying pricey liquor to go with the soda. Daniel couldn't blame him—the bar didn't make money off designated drivers.
But he needed his wits about him tonight.
ROSE LOCKED THE CAR DOOR behind her and closed her eyes, giving in to the tremor in her legs.
Was he the one?
She thought she'd know it immediately, that the rage and violence roiling inside him would surely show on his face, but the man at the bar had looked so normal. Attractive, even, with masculine features, eyes the gray of a winter sky and a lean swimmer's build. The kind of man she might have smiled at a year ago, encouraged to join her in a drink and some friendly conversation.
But she wasn't that woman anymore.
She put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine purred to life, the heater vents blowing cool air in a blast that amplified her shivers.
She tightened her sweater around her and turned on the CD player. Allison Krauss's clarion voice flowed from the speakers, a plaintive plea to a potential lover to let her touch him for a while. She punched the power button off with a growl, glancing at her rearview mirror, where the front entrance of the Southside Pub reflected back at her in garish neon. Part of her expected the door to open and the man from the bar to emerge, seeking her out.
Another part of her was disappointed when he didn't. She glanced at the dashboard clock. Only ninefifteen on a Friday. The night was young. There were at least half a dozen more bars just in the Five Points South area she could visit before closing time.
Her chest tightened at the thought, but she tamped down her reluctance and pulled her Chevy into the moderate traffic on Twentieth Street, heading for the next bar on her list.
She found one of the last parking places on a side street where two bars sat side by side, as different from each other as day and night. Hannity's, an oldfashioned Irish pub complete with green neon shamrocks in the window, occupied the corner. Next door was Sizzle, unmistakably a dance bar with flashing lights and a driving bass beat she could hear from her car.
She headed for the dance bar, steeling herself for the noise and light. Southside Pub had been sedate in comparison. Sizzle's clientele was a good decade younger and twice as loud. At twenty–seven, she was one of the oldest women in the place. Her skirt was at least five inches too long, her silk blouse not nearly tight enough and her upswept hair prim compared to the flying tresses of the women gyrating on the dance floor.
She quelled the urge to head right back out the door, reminding herself that Elisa Biondi had last been seen at this very bar the night she died.
He came to places like this. He looked for women on their own. Easy targets.
She felt an invisible bull's–eye sitting between her shoulder blades as she weaved through the restless crowd and found a seat at the bar.
"Virgin daiquiri," she ordered, ignoring the bartender's arched brow. Had the woman never heard of designated drivers?
The bartender mixed the drink, leaving out the rum, and slid it down the bar to Rose. "Knock yourself out."
Ignoring the mild gibe, Rose paid for the drink and sipped the sweet slush through her straw, turning her gaze toward the club floor. Dancers filled the cramped space, most of them moving with more enthusiasm than skill, their focus on seduction rather than rhythm. Faces blended into one another, merging into an undulating mass of color and motion.
The sound of her name drew Rose's attention away from the dance floor. She turned to find Melissa Bannerman, her current client, sitting at a table nearby, sipping a margarita. Melissa motioned her over.
Picking up her daiquiri, Rose crossed to the table, relieved to see a familiar face. "No Mark?" she asked Melissa, referring to her client's fiancé.
Melissa hesitated before responding. "He's in Knoxville for the Bama–Tennessee game. I have a stack of unread manuscripts to get through this weekend, so I couldn't get away." Melissa's family owned a small publishing company. "Have a seat. I promise we won't talk wedding business."
Rose took one of the empty seats. Melissa was obviously not alone; someone's drink sat on the table in front of one of the other chairs. "I shouldn't barge in on your night out—"
"Alice won't mind." Melissa waved toward the dance floor. "We'll be lucky if we see her the rest of the night. She just broke up with her scummy boyfriend and I think she plans to dance with every guy in this place. Therapy, you know?" A hint of bitterness tinged Melissa's words. She'd almost ended her engagement a year earlier after catching Mark cheating. Mark's promise never to stray again had kept the engagement intact. Rose wasn't sure Melissa had made the right decision.
The true–love veils had made it so much easier to know if a couple was about to make a big mistake.
"Look at her go," Melissa said with a chuckle. Rose followed Melissa's gaze and spotted a tall, curvy woman with wavy brown hair. Her back was to Rose and Melissa, her body grooving to the pounding bass coming from the giant speakers on the wall. Her dance partner could barely keep up, but he didn't look unhappy about it, his eyes wide with male appreciation as his partner danced off her frustrations.
Alice turned her back on him, a not–so–subtle reminder that she was here for the music, not the man. She looked at the table where Rose and Melissa sat, waggling her fingers at them.
Rose sucked in a swift breath.
Alice's face was covered with a shimmery silver veil.
Rose called them death veils for lack of a better term. She'd seen several since Dillon Granville's suicide, death masks superimposed over the faces of the doomed, a gruesome contrast to the true–love veils she'd seen all her life up to that horrible day in Bridey Woods.
The particular death veil Alice wore was one Rose had seen before, six weeks ago on the face of a woman at the grocery store where Rose shopped. Three days later, she'd been found murdered near the Birmingham Zoo. Two weeks ago, Rose had seen the same kind of veil on the face of a cyclist riding in front of her house. She'd been found murdered, as well.
News reports hadn't mentioned their wounds, but Rose knew what they'd been. Slashes across their jawlines and foreheads. Gouges on the soft apples of their cheeks. And a ragged slit across each of their throats, the killing blow.
Two women dead, and Rose had foreseen their murders. How many others hadn't she seen?
She stared at Alice, transfixed by the shimmer of death on her pretty face. What now? Tell Melissa what she was seeing? She discarded the idea immediately. Melissa might be unpredictable and impulsive, but beneath it all was a solid strain of rationality, and what Rose could see was about as irrational as it got.
Would Alice be more open? How long did Rose have to convince her? Would the killer strike tomorrow?
A finger of dread traced an icy path up Rose's spine. Was he here already? Hidden by the throngs, watching Alice dance and imagining what he was going to do to her?
Fear rose in her throat, nearly gagging her.
The song ended and Alice crossed to their table. She dropped into the chair in front of the half–empty beer bottle. "Whew! That was fun."
"Richard who?" Melissa teased.
Alice laughed, her eyes crinkling with good humor.
"Exactly." She turned to Rose. "Hi. I'm Alice."
"Sorry—how rude of me!" Melissa gestured to Alice. "This is Alice Donovan, the dancing queen. We went to college together at Bama. Alice, this is Rose Browning, my wedding planner. I told you about her."
Alice grinned at Rose, the expression grotesquely juxtaposed against the blood–streaked death veil hovering over her face. Rose swallowed the bile rising in her throat and managed a smile in return.
"You should give Rose your card, Alice. Alice just opened a florist shop down the street from here," Melissa explained.
"Really? I'll be sure to give you a call," Rose said, tamping down her growing distress.
"Great!" Alice pulled a card out of her clutch purse and handed it to Rose. "We're brand–new, but we have terrific suppliers, and I think you'll be very pleased with our work."
Rose tucked the card into her purse and took a deep breath, wondering what to say next. A lot of people claimed interest in the paranormal, but even if Alice wasn't a stone–cold skeptic, would she really believe that Rose could foresee her death? What person would want to hear something like that, much less put any stock in it?
True–love veils had been easier to talk about. Everybody wanted to believe in happily–ever–after.
"Listen, I hate to boogie and run, but the shop opens tomorrow bright and early." Alice slid her chair back and took a last swallow of beer on the table in front of her. She turned to Rose. "It was nice meeting you. Give me a call and we can discuss what I can do for your business."