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By Linda Johnston
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter OneCara Hamilton's heart beat a familiar, thunderous tattoo of anticipation deep inside her chest. She parked at the curb, slung her large purse over her shoulder and exited her small yellow Toyota.
It was nearly one o'clock in the morning. Though most residences along Caddo Street were dark, lights blazed in the first-floor apartment of the three-story converted Victorian in front of her. Cara's friend Nancy Wilks, who lived there, had called half an hour ago. She hadn't said much, only that she had something important to show Cara.
But Cara sensed that, whatever it was, it could be the key to the biggest story of her life.
That was why she felt the familiar rush of excitement. She was on the trail of something newsworthy. And this time it was something beyond newsworthy. Something that could blow the blase citizens of Mustang Valley right out of their couch-potato seats. Make her career.
Only ... As she stood outside her car and glanced around the sleeping neighborhood, a sudden, strange chill enveloped Cara. It was northeast Texas in midsummer. Humid and warm, even at night. Too hot to make her feel so cold.
As she shivered nonetheless, her skin prickled.
"It's the news itch," she whispered aloud, determined to shrug off herinexplicable uneasiness. "I've been stung by the tattle bug. Right, Sally?"
As if her idol, Shotgun Sally, the stuff of incredibly inspirational folklore, could respond. But as usual, the silly little device of talking to her, using her legendary language, lifted Cara's spirits.
Not that she'd do so where anyone else could hear.
Cara flinched at the click of her car door closing. The night had been silent except for the crisp chirping of crickets, and their singing halted at the sound. Not even traffic noise from the highway, only a few miles away. And nothing at all from the direction of downtown Mustang Valley.
Cara's own deep and uneven breathing broke the stillness. That and the light tap of her boot heels on the pavement.
The humidity hung heavy in the air, stifling Cara, moistening her bare arms, for she wore a short-sleeved blouse tucked into her long skirt that matched the soft buckskin-colored vest over it. Why didn't the heavens just split into a thunderstorm and get it over with?
She winced as her footsteps grew louder when she walked up the three steps to the wooden porch. So what? She was expected.
There was no reason to hide her presence.
The outside light was on, but shadows gathered beyond the porch rails. Cara rang the doorbell for the first floor apartment, hearing the muffled chime from within. Beside this door was another, which led to the stairway to the upper floors.
Cara waited for a moment, listening. She heard nothing from inside. No reason to get impatient ... but she was.
Her odd uneasiness began to loop knots inside her.
She rang the bell again.
For the heck of it, she tried the doorknob. It turned easily in her hand, and she was able to push the door open. Maybe Nancy just figured Cara would enter when she arrived.
But why hadn't she come to greet her?
Speaking of edgy nerves ... hers had begun shrieking at her. Quiet! she insisted, to no avail.
Cara stepped inside and closed the door behind her. "Nancy?" Damn! Her voice shook. "It's Cara," she called more loudly. "I'm here."
The entry was a tiny hallway, painted pale yellow. A small glass hanging fixture bathed it in soft light.
Cara had been here before. To the left was an open, arched doorway into the living room. Ahead was the way to the kitchen, bathroom and the apartment's single bedroom.
"Nancy? Where are you?"
If Cara had felt unnerved before, now she trembled with tension. Tattle bug? Heck, she felt as if an army of ants marched formations along her spine.
"Nancy?" Cara called. She glanced into the living room. Though the lamps on either side of the floral print sofa were lit, the room was empty. She continued down the hall.
The farthest door on the right, the one to the bedroom, was ajar. "Nancy?" Cara's voice rasped, and she cleared her throat. No reason to feel so weird. Nancy was probably in the bathroom with the door closed, the water running so she couldn't hear Cara.
But neither could Cara hear water in the pipes.
She called out once more, "Nancy," as she pushed the bedroom door open. And gasped.
Nancy was there. Wearing a pink top and blue jeans, she lay on her bed, facedown, her dark hair askew as her head hung over the side.
"What's wrong?" Cara cried as she dashed over to her friend, who remained motionless.
Cara's question was answered in less than a moment, when she turned Nancy over. Her eyes were closed - and there was an ugly, black-rimmed red hole in the middle of her forehead. And so much blood ...
USING HER CELL PHONE, Cara had called 911. Help was, she supposed, on the way.
There would be no help for Nancy.
Cara's head spun as she glanced sidelong at the poor, limp body that lay half off the bed, turned back just the way Cara had found her. Before calling, though, she had put two fingers at the side of Nancy's neck. No pulse.
Nancy's skin hadn't been cold. This had only just happened.
No surprise. Nancy's call had only been twenty minutes earlier. Cara had left her home nearly immediately, since Nancy had sounded ... well, excited? Scared? Cara wasn't sure now.
Had she guessed what was about to happen to her?
No, Cara thought as tears filled her eyes. I won't fall apart.
After all, she wasn't actually here. This hadn't actually happened. Her intense, dedicated friend Nancy. Nancy, the office manager who'd so angrily spilled details of her employer's disgrace to Cara off the record after the scandal broke, wasn't actually dead.
Get real, she instructed her mind. No defense mechanisms for Cara Hamilton. She was a realist. Nerves of steel, despite her earlier folly. A gritty, down-to-earth investigative reporter ready to do whatever it took to get a story, go wherever that story might lead her.
Yeah, but none had ever led her directly to a murder victim before....
Get to work, Hamilton, she commanded herself. Someone could arrive at any moment.
"What was it, Nancy?" she whispered, forcing herself to draw closer to the bed again. "What did you want to show me?" It had been something important. Cara was convinced of it.
She shook so hard as she surveyed the area around Nancy's body that she had to lean on the mattress to keep from falling.
Nancy's sheets were white with pink flowers. She had a handmade quilt on her queen-size bed. Everything was bunched about her. Gently, Cara rifled through the bed clothes but found nothing to explain Nancy's call.
It had to have something to do with the law firm where she had worked. Of course Lambert & Church was in the process of disbanding, after what had happened before.
A siren wailed in the distance. Coming here, Cara was sure. No more time to waste.
Excerpted from Lawful Engagement by Linda Johnston Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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