THE INVESTIGATOR: Special Agent Marsh Henderson.
THE SUSPECT: Becky Smith…or was it Lauren?
Marsh Henderson's mission: find the lone witness to a drive-by shooting. He had a description and a name. The description—long-legged, sensuous, beautiful—fit the woman he found. But the name…
The woman in front of him claimed to be Lauren, not Becky, Smith. But, Marsh decided, he could still use her as bait. Even though he'd located the wrong sister.
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After almost thirty-six hours of continuous surveillance, Marsh caught the sound of a car pulling up in front of the house next door.
Every one of his senses jumped to full alert. Moving like a silent shadow through the darkened living room, he flattened himself against the wall and lifted the blinds an inch. When he saw the unmistakable silhouette of a woman climb out of a taxi, his heart picked up speed.
It was her! Rebecca Smith. It had to be. The hair was longer than in the picture on her Arizona driver's license, but even in the dim glow of the streetlights Marsh couldn't miss its gleaming auburn tints. Just to make sure, he grabbed the night-vision binoculars he'd appropriated for this stakeout.
"Come on," he urged, his gaze drilling into the woman's back. "Turn around. Let me have a look at you."
Marsh gripped the binoculars and stared unblinking through sandpapery eyes at the image haloed in the greenish glow. He'd hardly slept or eaten since that grim night when Reece had relayed the gut-wrenching news of Ellen's death that had brought the Hendersons back to the Bar-H once again.
Marsh knew he'd never wipe that gray, drizzly day of the funeral from his mind. He, Reece, Sam and Evan had been pallbearers, while Jake stood stony-eyed and silent. With his mother on one side, and his sisters-in-law on the other, the eldest of the Henderson brothers had watched as his wife was lowered into an earth just browning after the first touches of frost.
They'd stayed with Jake as long as they could, but knew that the loss wouldn't really hit him until everyone left and he was alone with his memories of Ellen. Their mother was still at the Bar-H, in the house she'd come to as a bride and had left after Big John died. Jessica Henderson intended to remain with her son until they both came to grips with Ellen's senseless, tragic death.
Except it wasn't senseless. It was a brutal, if misdirected, murder. And Marsh was going to bring the man behind the shooting to justice.
Long weeks of determined investigation, dogged persistence and ruthless shaking down of every snitch in southern Arizona had finally paid off. Ten days ago, the Phoenix police had busted a smalltime crack dealer. In an attempt to beat the rap, the doper let drop that he'd witnessed the incident that had made all the Phoenix papers.
The dealer also confirmed that the drive-by shooting was no random act. Another car sped through the intersection at the precise moment the shots were fired. The driver of that car was the intended target, the police informed Marsh. Ellen just happened to get in the way.
The doper's description of the other vehicle led to an ID of the owner—one David Jannisek—a Phoenix hotelier with a weakness for fast redheads and not-so-fast horses. Allegedly, Jannisek owed hundreds of thousands to the mob boss rumored to control the southwest. But before the police could close in on him, he'd disappeared.
The investigators had then set their sights on the flamboyant hotelier's latest love... the cocktail waitress who, according to all reports, Jannisek had fallen for in a big way, and for whom he had dug himself even deeper into debt. The police figured she might lead them to her missing lover, who in turn could finger the man behind the attempt on his life. When they'd interviewed her, however, Jannisek's companion had denied all knowledge of either the shooting or her boyfriend's whereabouts. Just days ago she, like Jannisek, had disappeared.
With all leads played out and nowhere else to look, the overworked homicide detectives had been forced to put the case on the back burner. A grimly determined Marsh had picked up where they'd left off. After informing his boss that he was taking an unpaid leave of absence, he'd jumped onto the next plane leaving El Paso for Phoenix.
The locals had cooperated as much as they could. They'd brought him up to speed on the investigation to date and turned over copies of their case files. They'd even arranged a walk through the missing woman's rented house. One glance at the disarray inside told Marsh she'd left in a hell of a hurry... and that she'd return sooner or later to reclaim her possessions. Assuming she was still alive.
Al Ramos, the detective in charge of the case, believed both Jannisek and his girlfriend had disappeared for good. Maybe the mob had tried again after the first botched shooting that had taken Ellen's life. Maybe they'd find the bodies of both the handsome hotelier and his girlfriend in an arroyo one of these days.
Marsh refused to settle for "maybe's." None of the sources the police had shaken down could say with any certainty that Jannisek had been taken out. Unless or until he and/or Becky Smith turned up dead, they constituted the only lead to the shadowy figure responsible for Ellen's death. Grimly determined, Marsh had rented the house next door to Smith, hunkered down, and spent thirty-six long, empty hours waiting for the target to show.
Now it looked as though his wait might just have paid off.
His jaw tight, he adjusted the focus on the high-powered binoculars. He forgot to breathe, forgot everything until the woman finished paying the cabbie, slung her oversized tote bag over her shoulder, and turned. Her face blurred, and then filled the lenses.
"Bingo," Marsh said, softly.
With the keen eye of a hunter, he cataloged his prey's features. Full, sensuous mouth. High cheeks. Eyes wide-spaced under winged black brows. Wine-colored hair parted just off center and falling in sleek folds to her shoulders.
What clinched her identity for Marsh, however, was the pin on the lapel of her caramel-colored linen jacket. Even from this distance, he couldn't mistake the wink of diamonds as she hurried up the walk. Eyes narrowed, he adjusted the focus to zero in on the fanciful little unicorn brooch.
Triumph brought a savage smile to Marsh's face. He recognized that pin. He'd seen a picture of it in the case file. A laughing Becky Smith had purchased the expensive piece just weeks ago and airily instructed the clerk to charge it to David Jannisek's account. The store clerk had described the pin in detail to the detectives trying to track down Jannisek. He'd described the luscious Ms. Smith in some detail, too.
Marsh had to admit the clerk hadn't missed the mark. Becky Smith was a looker. Her face appeared more fine-boned in the flesh than in the photo on her three-year-old driver's license. What hadn't shown in the photo were her killer body and the mile-long legs that gave Marsh an unexpected kick to the stomach.
The gut-level reaction annoyed the hell out of him. Of course she would come equipped with supple curves and a mouth made for sin. She'd have to pack something extraordinary to keep a playboy like Jannisek dancing to her tune... along with the half dozen other men who'd enjoyed Becky Smith's companionship at various times in her busy career as a cocktail waitress.
Blanking his mind to the body displayed to perfection by tight jeans, a black stretchy top and the hip-skimming linen jacket, Marsh waited with mounting anticipation for her to climb the few steps to the front stoop.
She went up the shallow stairs, reached for the door, froze.
"That's right, sweetheart." Wire-tight with tension, he kept the binoculars on her profile. "The door's open. Make you nervous?"
She hesitated, indecision in every line of her body. Interminable seconds ticked by. Marsh held his breath, willing her to take the next step. Finally, she gave the door a tentative push. It swung wide open, revealing nothing but blackness inside the small stucco house.
"Go inside," he urged fiercely. "Come on, you know you want to."
His prey hovered on the stoop. Any woman with half a lick of common sense would turn around and run to the nearest house with lights on to call the police. Marsh was counting on the fact that Rebecca Smith would do exactly the opposite. Every bit of information he'd gathered on the fickle, flirtatious Becky indicated she was better known for her kittenish sensuality than her common sense.
After endless seconds of indecision, she stepped into the darkness. The lights inside the house flicked on, spilling a bright glow into the night. Long moments later, the front door slammed shut.
Savage satisfaction coursed through Marsh's veins. Phase One was under way.
Dropping the binoculars, he checked his watch. Five minutes—he'd give her five minutes before he implemented the next phase of his plan to trap Ellen's killer.
His pulse hammering, Marsh leaned against the wall. It didn't bother him in the least that he was operating outside the parameters of his authority, and with only the tacit consent of the locals. Or that the detective in charge of the case had clearly considered staking out Rebecca Smith's house a waste of time.
Marsh had been a cop long enough to trust his instincts, and his walk through the house next door had convinced him Smith would come back. She might be the world's sexiest waitress. She certainly qualified as the world's worst housekeeper. But she also, Marsh discovered during his search, had expensive tastes. Very expensive. A woman who collected diamond jewelry and undies of the Neiman-Marcus variety wasn't going to leave them all behind.
With a grunt, Marsh fought to banish the erotic image that jumped into his mind. He had no business imagining the woman he'd just pinned in the binoculars in a pair of those skimpy, lace-trimmed thong panties. Her long legs and rounded hips would certainly do them justice, though. No wonder Jannisek had gone off the deep end and lost more at the track than he could ever hope to pay back, in an attempt to impress Rebecca Smith.
The gambler's unpaid debts had come close to getting him killed, Marsh remembered, with a twist of his gut. Instead, Ellen had taken the bullets meant for Jannisek.
He flicked another impatient glance at his watch.
Three minutes to Phase Two.
His blood racing with anticipation, he closed his eyes and focused his thoughts on the woman next door. The open front door would have shaken her. She'd be scared now, and with good reason. In three minutes, Marsh intended to frighten her even more.
Her nerves jumping like live electrical wires, Lauren Smith stood amid the shambles of her sister's bedroom. Discarded clothes lay everywhere. Glossy fashion magazines were scattered across the floor and the unmade bed. An empty pizza carton occupied the chair by the window. The stuffed and porcelain Garfields Becky collected grinned down gleefully at the mess.
Was anything missing? Had the place been burgled? For the life of her, Lauren couldn't tell.
Becky thrived on chaos. In her home. In her work. In her life. With a mere ten months separating the sisters, it had always amazed Lauren that they could look almost like twins, yet possess such diametrically opposite personalities. The laughing, irrepressible Becky flitted through life as though it were one huge game to be played to the fullest. Cautious, careful Lauren had always followed more slowly, often cleaning up the messes Becky left in her wake.
Like this one.
"What the heck have you gotten yourself into this time?" she murmured, as she had repeatedly since she'd returned to Denver from a quick, up-and-back trip to D.C.'s National Gallery of Art late this afternoon. She'd hit the button on her phone recorder, and heard her sister's voice leap out at her.
Something had happened, Becky had exclaimed. She... she needed to take some time to think things through and decide what to do. Call me, she had demanded. A second message had expressed impatience that Lauren wasn't home, and then cut off abruptly then in Becky's usual haphazard style.
Lauren had called immediately, only to listen in frustration to the endless ringing. Nor had Becky answered her cell phone. Lauren had redialed repeatedly, wondering and worrying.
What had happened? What did Becky need to think through? Even more disturbing, what had put an uncharacteristic tremor in her sister's voice?
Lauren's worry had mounted with each unanswered phone call. After hours of pacing and dialing, she did what the sisters had always done in a crisis—rush to the other's aid. With just moments to spare, she caught the seven-ten flight out of Denver for Phoenix.
Now that she was here, though, she didn't have a clue what to do next. Where was her sister? Had she skipped town, or merely gone out for the evening?
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