Authors: Karen Robards
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
|To Trust a Stranger|
|Pocket Star (2002)|
|Tags:||Fiction, Romance, Contemporary, General|
Karen Robards, who delivered "a racy read" (Cosmopolitan) in her acclaimed besteller Paradise County, once again electriÞes the page with hardwired passion and thrilling suspense in this heart-pounding new novel. Suspicion. It burned through every nerve and Þber of Julie Carlson -- the heartbreaking, infuriating suspicion that her husband was having an affair. To the rest of the world, Sid Carlson was a wealthy contractor with friends in highly inþuential places. But to Julie, he was a man who had cheated on their marriage vow -- and she knew she had to take desperate measures. Who can she trust? Heartbroken by her husband, Julie turns to a handsome stranger. Mac McQuarry knew better than to mix women and work: the private detective had tracked enough cheating spouses to know unbridled desire usually has no good end. And he had enough trouble of his own: the disgraced former cop had been bumped way down to his current status after an explosive shakedown of the Charleston police department. But when Julie Carlson hires him, Mac can't resist. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, but her husband, a longtime enemy, was a player in Mac's inglorious downfall -- and he'd love nothing more than to catch the corrupt jerk with his pants down, so to speak. But what begins as a run-of-the-mill assignment spiced by a Þery þirtation with beautiful Julie suddenly spirals into a harrowing race for survival. Tracking the Carlsons' car down a lonely road one night, Mac witnesses an incredible hit that targeted Julie -- and suddenly Mac and Julie have become the hunted. With the mob and the police in hot pursuit, they can rely only on each other as they crash their way through a maze of buried secrets and deadly deceptions.
“PLEASE. PLEASE DON'T DO THIS.” Kelly Carlson's voice broke.
Tears flowed as she looked beseechingly over her shoulder at the man prodding her forward. The wet tracks sliding down her pale cheeks shone silver in the moonlight.
“Walk down to the end of the car.” The gun aimed at her back never wavered. The eyes of the man holding it were as cold and soulless as the dark waters of
Cougar was parked on a twelve-foot-high wooded cliff overlooking the lake. It was a popular spot for family picnics in the summer. Tonight, with the temperature hovering at around forty degrees and the time well past two A.M., it was deserted except for the desperate little tableau being played out around the car.
“I'm begging you. Please.” Kelly obediently stumbled forward, her gait unsteady, her boots crunching through drifts of fallen leaves. Her voice was high-pitched, near hysteria. Daniel McQuarry could have told her that begging for her life was a waste of time. He would have told her, if the duct tape covering his mouth had allowed him to say anything at all.
Woozy from the just-ended beating that had left him bruised and bloodied, sick at his stomach with the pain of what he judged to be roughly half a dozen cracked or broken ribs, he could barely keep her in focus as he leaned against the cool smooth curve of the driver's door, his hands cuffed behind his back, a gun grinding into his spine. Blinking the blood that poured from a cut on his forehead from his eyes, he watched her stumbling progress, mentally apologizing to her for not having recognized the danger earlier, in time to save them both from this. He'd been stupid, cocky, sure of his ability to follow the devil down to hell and come back out again smelling like a rose.
It was the story of his life, and now it was going to get him-and Kelly, pretty blond twenty-two-year-old Kelly, who'd, made the mistake of trusting him with both the deadly secret she'd uncovered and her safety-killed.
Terror swamped the pain, causing his heart to race. He was twenty-five years old. He had a lot of living left to do:
He didn't want to die.
, as his grandma was fond of saying. Unless something went his way pretty damned fast, he was going to.
He moved, and the hideous stabbing pain cutting like hot knives through his chest drove out the terror. Nostrils shuddering with the effort of drawing in air through his battered nose, able to take only the shortest, shallowest breaths because of his damaged ribs, he fought to keep from passing out. If he did, they didn't have a chance.
Who was he trying to kid? They didn't have a chance anyway. All his highly specialized training not withstanding, there was no way that he could see out of this.
One of the four men-he knew them all, had worked and played with them as friends even while doing the job the government paid him to do--surrounding the vehicle popped the trunk. It rose, pale and ominous as Marley's ghost, above the black, gaping mouth that he realized with sudden icy certainty was intended to be his and Kelly's tomb.
He knew how they worked, and how they worked wasn't pretty.
Violence came as naturally to them as breathing, and anyone who posed a threat to them ended up dead. They'd beaten the information they'd needed out of him-or at least, so they thought-and now that they had it, he was just so much garbage to be disposed of Kelly too, despite the fact that she was the wife of the boss's son.
“Daniel, do something.” Kelly's eyes were wide and terrified as she looked around at him. Her narrow shoulders in the black leather blazer she wore over jeans were visibly shaking. “Can't you do something? They're going to kill us. Please don't let them kill us.” She started to sob, terrible wrenching sobs that hurt him to hear, and turned toward the man behind her. “Don't kill us. I'm so scared. Oh, God, I'll do anything. Anything .... “
“You shouldn't've done what you did.” Her captor grabbed her shoulder to stop her, turn her back around. “Get in the trunk.”
“No! Oh, please ....” Gasping and crying hysterically, Kelly shook free and bolted, taking everyone by surprise. She bounded away from the Cougar and fled toward the road, toward the empty ribbon of black asphalt some quarter of a mile away that would have offered her no succour even if she had had a prayer of reaching it, which she didn't. Her high, keening screams rent the darkness as she ran. Daniel's blood ran cold. A memory flashed into his mind of a pig he had heard once as it was being hung for slaughter.
“Get her!” They all, with the exception of the man behind him, raced after Kelly.
It was his last, best chance to make his move. Summoning superhuman strength, Daniel gritted his teeth against bodily weakness and the torture his ribs were inflicting on him and whirled, kicking out with his leg. The movement was slow and feeble compared with his usual highly trained ferocity, but it caught his captor by surprise.
He went down with an oath.
Daniel sprang away, heading for the beckoning line of trees some three hundred yards to the left. If he could reach the woods he had the merest sliver of a chance. But even as he frantically lurched forward, bent like an old crone and in agonizing pain that increased a thousandfold with every step, he knew that it was futile, knew that he wasn't going to make it.
In the distance he heard a shot and a gurgling scream: Kelly. His heart leaped, and tears-he hadn't cried since he was seven-began to ooze from his eyes.
When the bullet caught him, it was almost a relief. It hit him like a kick from a mule, knocking him forward, sending him sprawling on his face on the hard, cold ground. Instead of hurting, though, the explosion blasted away his pain.
Senses dimming, he realized that his spinal cord had probably been severed, and that there was a great pumping hole in his chest. Blood was gushing out around him like water from a hose. Within seconds he was lying in a dark gleaming pool of it.
The good news was, he didn't feel pain any longer. He didn't feel afraid. What he felt was-cold.
The bad news was, he wasn't going to make it. He wasn't going to see his grandma or mother or brother or anyone or anything else he loved ever again in this life.
More tears leaked from his eyes at the thought.
But by the time they came for him, two of them, lifting him up by his armpits and his knees, carrying him back toward the car, he was able to look up at the star-studded sky with a little smile on his lips. When they shoved him into the trunk beside Kelly-poor dead Kelly, her eyes stared at him glassily-and shut the lid, closing him into darkness forever, he was able to hold that image in his mind.
He was still seeing that beautiful spangled sky as he died.
Fifteen years later
Julie Carlson's eyes blinked open. For a moment she lay still, heart racing, staring groggily into the darkness, not sure what had awakened her or why she felt so frightened. It took only a moment or so for her to realize that she was lying in her own bed, in her own bedroom, listening to the familiar hum of the air conditioner as it kept the sweltering heat of the July night at bay and smelling the comforting aroma of her own smooth clean sheets. Her potbellied teddy bear, a poignant memento of her late father, sat stolidly in its accustomed spot on the bedside table. She could just see the comforting shape of it by the faint glow of the alarm clock.
She must have had a nightmare. That would explain why she was curled up in a tight little ball under the bedclothes when she usually slept sprawled on her stomach; it would account for the now-slowing thud of her heart; it would explain her sense of-there was no other word for it-dread.
Although the words were distinct, the urgent whisper was in her head. She was all alone in her bedroom, all alone in the whole huge upstairs of her house. Sid, the dog, was obviously spending another night in the guest room. At the thought, Julie felt her stomach knot. She had gone downstairs around eleven, to find her husband sitting on the couch in the den watching TV:
“I'll be up after the news,” he'd said. Not wanting to start a fight all they did lately was fight-she'd crossed her fingers and gone back upstairs to bed without uttering so much as a cross or demanding word. But here it was-she focused on the clock-at two minutes after midnight, and she was still alone in their bed.
Maybe-maybe he was still coming. Maybe he was watching Letterman. Maybe tonight Leno had an especially fascinating guest, Get real, she told herself, uncurling her arms and legs as anger edged out fear. And maybe the Pope was a Protestant, too.
Her attention immediately refocused. Trying not to be creped out, Julie put out a hand, groping for the switch to the bedside lamp.
Then she heard it, and froze.
The distant sound-vibration really-of the garage door going up made her eyes widen and her fists clench.
Her heart gave an odd little leap. Her stomach heaved. She forced herself to take a pair of deep, calming breaths.
Despite all her hopes, all her prayers, it was happening again. Oh, God, what should she do?
Julie Carlson didn't know it, but she had less than an hour left to live.
Other than a single light in a downstairs room, her house was dark.
It was a big house in an exclusive gated community just west of Charleston, and, if all went according to plan, in a few minutes she was going to be all alone in it.
Then he would emerge from the shadows beneath the rustling palmettos in her side yard, break in through her back door, and creep up the stairs to the first door on the left. That door opened into the master bedroom, where she should already-it was a few minutes after midnight-be sound asleep.
Roger Basta allowed himself a small smile. This was going to be fun. The thought of what he was going to do to Julie Carlson made his breathing quicken. He'd been watching her for weeks, getting the household schedule down, making his plans, anticipating. Tonight he got to enjoy the fruits of all that labor.
Sometimes, and this was one, he loved what he did for a living. The light went out downstairs. The house was now totally dark. Just a few minutes more.
He fingered the snapshot in his pocket. It was too dark for him to be able to see it, but he was nearly as familiar with the image on it as he was with his own face in the mirror. Julie Carlson in a white bikini, slim and tanned and laughing, poised to dive into the swimming pool in her own backyard.
He'd taken it himself three days before.
One of the quartet of garage doors that faced his position rose, and seconds later a big black Mercedes purred silently down the driveway. The husband was leaving, right on schedule.
The garage door closed again. The Mercedes turned left at the end of the driveway, and drove away toward the interstate some five miles distant. The house was once again dark and quiet.
Everything was going down as expected.
The burglar alarm would be off, which made his job just that much easier. He had a window of maybe three and a quarter hours to get in and out before the husband returned. He would need far less.
Although he might want to linger over this one. Remembering the picture, he smiled. He definitely wanted to linger over this one.
Julie Carlson was a babe.
His instructions had been to make the hit look like anything but the professional, targeted job it was.
His reply had been, Can do.
Crouching, Basta set the small black satchel he carried on the carpet of golf-course-quality grass that covered the lawn and unzipped it. The steamy July heat, complete with swarms of hungry mosquitoes and a faint fruity scent, wrapped uncomfortably around him. It reminded him that he was wearing long pants and a cotton turtleneck, both black, on a night that cried out for shorts and not much else. A quick rummage through the contents reassured him that everything he might need was in the bag: burglary tools, duct tape, a small flashlight, a thin nylon cord and a pencil to use as a garrotte, a box of surgical gloves, another of condoms. He touched his knit cap, making sure it fit tightly around his head and over his eyebrows. He'd shaved his body completely so as not to leave telltale hairs at the scene, but shaving his head and eyebrows would, he feared, make him too memorable to those who might be questioned in the aftermath of the crime. The last thing he wanted was to be memorable.
Besides, his thinning gray hair gave him an innocuous look, he felt.
Countless people usually saw him in the days before a hit-neighbours, passers-by, convenience-store clerks, trash collectors-but nobody ever remembered him, because he looked like a fifty-something Joe Average. DNA notwithstanding, the cap worked. The first two hadn't had time to dislodge it before he'd had them duct-taped into immobility, and Julie Carlson wouldn't either.
He was that good.