Lunch with the ex-husband is not always a fun thing especially when bullets start flying and reporter Whitney Steel finds herself in the middle of a human cloning story that will rock the world…providing she lives long enough to get her byline.
By one-thirty, the overwhelming need to know landed Whitney in an uncomfortable plastic chair at the Ninth Street library, examining microfilm and searching the Internet. She needed to verify Blake’s story about Claire. If she could trust the man, perhaps she could convince him to help her get into the lab. Armed with little to go on except a name and possible month, she first explored The Las Vegas Sun. Had Claire Barnett even lived in Vegas?
Hushed whispers, quieted footsteps, and the tick of the wall clock collided with the annoying shrill of a cell phone somewhere within the stacks.
Whitney looked up.
A male library assistant busily shelved books stopped, then shook his head in disgust at the noisy interruption.
Hours had passed and she found herself drumming her fingers on the worn table. Maybe she had the incorrect month? The wrong newspaper? Or had Blake made up the story? She stood and stretched her stiff legs. Then a small headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal caught her attention. She dropped into the chair and read:
MOLECULAR BIOLOGIST FOUND DEAD
Claire Barnett died of carbon monoxide poisoning early Tuesday morning aboard a boat docked at the Mead Lake Marina. Dr. Barnett, a molecular biologist with ShawBioGen, was found alone in the boat’s galley. The County Coroner’s office ruled the incident accidental after completed toxicology tests showed that Dr. Barnett’s blood had a 64 percent saturation rate for carbon monoxide, Coroner Richard Hale said.
ShawBioGen’s owner, Nathan Shaw, issued a statement earlier today. “We have lost a brilliant young mind and a valuable member of our close ShawBioGen family. Dr. Barnett will be sadly missed.”
Bile rose in Whitney’s throat, threatening to gag her. Nathan Shaw emotional? Family? What a load of crap. She wanted to kick herself for doubting Blake. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, she discovered the obituary section hidden within the classifieds.
Claire Anne Barnett, 34, of Las Vegas, died April 10th. She is survived by parents Carol and Frank Barnett of Las Vegas. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, April. 12th. The service will be held at 11 a.m., Monday, April 14th, at Calm Pines Mortuary, 1425 N. Main St.
She read the notice again. A mixture of sadness and intrigue plagued her thoughts and left her with more questions than answers. Why different last names? Why no mention of Blake? Carbon monoxide poisoning on a boat didn’t sound very common. Or was it? And what made Blake believe Nathan was involved in Claire’s death?
“Miss, it’s four o’clock. We’re ready to close,” the male assistant said in a hushed voice.
“Oh.” Whitney looked around. Other than statue-like security men on either side of the lobby entrance, guarding a celebrity art collection, the library was virtually empty. “Of course. I didn’t notice the time.” She gathered her purse from the table.
On her way out, she remembered the days when her mother would bring her here for Saturday story hour. The interior of the library hadn’t changed much. The wood-planked floor had been replaced with industrial-strength white vinyl, and the walls were painted the same boring beige. For a second, the fruity floral scent of her mother’s perfume tantalized her nostrils…
“Mommy, you know what?”
“What, honey?” Her mother sat at the dressing table brushing her long hair.
“When I grow up, I’m going to marry Prince Matchabelli and live in a beautiful castle.”
Her mother’s eyes twinkled like stars. “Yes, you will marry your prince one day, Whitney, just like I married mine.”
At the age of ten, Whitney discovered her Prince Matchabelli wasn’t a real prince, only the company that made her mother’s favorite perfume. Although saddened by the news, life went on, until the day her mother drove to the grocery store and never returned. For the first time, the fifteen-year-old saw her mother’s prince hang his head and cry.
Outside, a salty, tepid breeze ruffled Whitney’s hair. She bit back the tears and started the SUV.
It had been seven years since her last visit to Florence and she knew the journey would be emotional. She tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel and drove south on Rhododendron Drive.
Even though angry gray clouds hovered above, the buildings and planter boxes exploded with color, decorated in red, white and blue flowers, in preparation for tomorrow’s Fourth of July celebrations. Memories of the waterfront town surged through her mind. Horseback riding along the beach, picnics with her father, and her favorite, whale watching at Otters Rock. Amidst the city’s charm and beauty, an old man dressed in ragged clothing pushed a shopping cart filled with his meager belongings past the numerous gift shops.
Her instincts suddenly prickled. She glanced in the rearview mirror. A dark green sedan with tinted windows trailed behind her. Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Was she just being paranoid after what had happened last night? She slowed, and turned left onto Kingwood. The sedan tagged along making the turn too quickly for her liking. She continued to watch. Then the car turned onto Eighth Street, sped up and disappeared. With a long sigh of relief, she forced her body to relax.
Whitney drove through the open iron gates of the Pine Hills Cemetery. Pristine green grass, and Japanese maples complimented red yucca plants that edged the fence of the cemetery. As she parked the car, her pulse skittered and goosebumps skated across her arms. God, she hated cemeteries. After shutting off the car, she grabbed the colorful bouquet of flowers she had purchased earlier from the passenger seat.
* * * *
Concealed behind a thick row of trees at the far end of the cemetery, he shut off the engine, rolled to a stop and parked the green sedan.
He knew the reporter had seen him following her. Christ, he’d watched her check her rearview mirror numerous times. The thought made him smile.
The useless thug Nathan hired to get his videotape had gotten himself caught. Knocked out cold by the woman. What a joke.
Karate isn’t going to help you, bitch, when a gun’s pointed at your head and I pull the trigger.
Eventually the woman would be his.
Now all he had to do was get Nathan Shaw’s tape then he could kill her. In the meantime, he’d keep the reporter constantly looking over her shoulder.
He popped the trunk latch under the dash and got out of the car. Staring in the trunk at the rifle and handgun, he had only one thing on his mind.
Killing her would be an absolute pleasure. Sweet retribution for what she’d done.
* * * *
In front of the double gray monument, Whitney ran her fingers along the elaborate curved top. The cold granite sent a shiver down her spine.
In Loving Memory Elaine Teresa Steel beloved mother and wife
Died 14th December 1983.
“Gone but not forgotten.”
Robert Lucas Steel
Reporter, husband and loving father
Died 21st October 1997.
“He did his duty and feared nothing.”
She knelt in the grass and laid the flowers on the stone base, hoping to drown the sudden guilt that washed over her.
“I’m sorry I haven’t visited sooner. But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of you both.” As if her throat were filled with cotton balls, she forced the words out. “Hi, Mom. I miss you. I still volunteer twice a month at MADD. I’ve met so many wonderful people who’ve lost loved ones.”
She clasped her hands together. “And Dad, I miss you too. I just want to say—you did a great job raising me after Mom died. Thanks.” After wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she stood. “I love you both.”
She paused for a long moment and stared at the monument before turning to walk away.
In the distance, a dog barked. The top half of the monument exploded, spraying shards of granite around her.
* * * *
If Blake returned to Nathan empty-handed, the little prick would continue to send someone after Whitney. Blake had to convince her to give up the tape, forget the story, and get on with her life in Florida. If he wanted to, he could easily delay her trip to Vegas. Maybe have her pulled from the plane before take-off, or have an officer stop her on a bogus traffic stop. That would buy him a bit of time to decide his next move. Man, that would piss her off. He grinned at the thought.
The woman was driving him crazy, in more ways than one. He liked her a lot, but keeping a step ahead of her had become a major sporting event.
“Hey, there’s her SUV.” George pointed, before he folded in the seat like an accordion. “Whitney isn’t going to be happy we followed her. You sure she can’t see us?”
Blake glanced at him. “Don’t worry, I’m sure.” Even though the man had the backbone of a squashed spider, George cared very much for Whitney. Maybe he could talk some sense into her? Dumb idea.
More than likely, George had already tried and failed. “Don’t worry. Tell her I threatened to torture you if you didn’t tell me where she was going.”
George shot him a half-cocked grin.
Thunder rumbled and rain splattered against the windshield. Behind the graveyard, Blake parked the car and shut off the engine. Weather-beaten headstones crammed the grounds, like an ancient stone maze. He felt at home here. Dozens of times, he’d met informants in the black of night, none of them too thrilled with his choice of surroundings. However, all were willing participants persuaded one way or another that being on his side was much better than working against him.
A single gunshot split the air.
George grabbed the dashboard. “What the—”
“Stay put and stay down.” Out of habit, Blake reached for the glove box. “Shit. Whitney has my gun.”
He leaped from the car and sprinted along the iron fence. Adrenaline ripped through his veins. Unable to see Whitney or determine which direction the shots were coming from, he scaled the fence and dropped to the other side. Hidden behind an immense stone angel next to the mausoleum, he bent and stopped to catch his breath.
Where the hell was she?
Another shot rang out. He dove for cover.
Someone was more than a bit trigger-happy. An explosive flare of lightning ignited the sky; a floodgate of rain assaulted his body, dousing him. He wiped his eyes and inched his way on his belly across the wet grass.
Covered in mud, he searched row by row. Where was she? He heard a car door slam, then the growl of an engine.
Blake popped his head up.
A green sedan raced through the graveyard before exiting onto the street and sped out of view.
He sprang to his feet and ran. His waterlogged clothes stuck to his body as he zigzagged in case he had to dodge a bullet. Then he saw her…
Whitney lay on her side, motionless, sheltered by a tall bronze statue of a woman holding a baby.
His gut clenched. Please be alive.
He reached her and dropped to his knees, rolled her onto her back and cradled her in his arms. Her breasts rose and fell through the mud-splattered white shirt she wore. Blood trickled from a small jagged gash centered in a quarter-sized bump on her forehead. By the numerous pieces of granite strewn about, it looked like one had walloped her, knocked her out and probably saved her from a bullet.
He ground his teeth. Damn stubborn woman. She could’ve gotten herself killed—for the second time. If this didn’t stop her from going after Nathan, he’d be forced to take matters into his own hands.
* * * *
Moist breath whispered against Whitney’s cheek. A low voice urged her to open her eyes. Blake’s voice? How could that be? She’d left Blake and George at the house…stopped at the library….
Frantic, she searched the layers of her mind, trying to remember. The cemetery. What happened? And why did her head hurt? When she lifted her hand and ran her fingers across her forehead. “Ouch.”
Everything came back. Someone tried to shoot her.
“You’ll survive, but you’ve got a pretty good bump.” Blake held her close on his lap, so close his heart beat thumped against her arm. “Want me to kiss it better?”
He wouldn’t. The guy had to be joking. Besides, what was he doing here? She opened her eyes.
Blake carefully smoothed the hair out of her face and lowered his head. Rain dripped from the ends of his hair and sprinkled onto her cheeks.
A shiver ripped through her the moment his warm lips caressed her forehead, gentle, loving. “I’m glad you’re okay.” He raised his head and looked into her eyes with an unruffled gaze that took her breath away.
Breathe, damn it.
Less than a second of silence, that’s all it took before he cupped her chin in his hand and kissed her.
The feel of his mouth on hers launched a burst of heat that singed every nerve ending. Her heart flipped. She wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed him longer, harder, wanting so much more.
Then instinct kicked in. She pulled away.
He worked for Nathan.
She slowly sat up. Her head felt fuzzy. Was she dizzy from the bump on her head or from the kiss? “Why did you do that?”
Blake offered a quick half smile, got up and helped her to her feet. “Because you wanted me to.”
“What? So now you’re a mind reader?” Okay, she had wanted him to, but she refused to admit it. “I did not.”
That kiss scared the hell out of her. It had been well over six months since she had a date, let alone been kissed. Never had a kiss had such power over her, but Blake worked for a killer. She must remain strong. Even if she could trust him, she didn’t get involved with older men. But he wasn’t that much older. Maybe a couple of years. But still older. Not after her failed escapade with Mason, younger men and no commitment worked for her. If a man became too clingy or wanted more, she walked away.
“So why’d you kiss me back?” Blake asked.
“Why are you making such a big deal over a kiss? It just happened. It doesn’t mean anything.” If she could convince herself maybe, she’d convince him.
He ploughed his fingers through his wet hair and smiled again. “Face it, I’m growing on you.”
She was. No way would she give him the satisfaction. Stay focused. Get the story. Walk away. “Yeah, like mold.”
“So where’d you hide my gun?”
Trusting Blake, trusting anyone, would not be an easy task. Maybe he shot at her to scare her away from the real issue, Nathan. She searched his expression, eager to find the answer. Again, that damn attractive poker face told her nothing.
“Come on, don’t give me a hard time. I wasn’t the one who took pot shots at you. If you don’t believe me, ask George. He’s waiting in the car.”
“George is here too?” Apparently, a conspiracy had brewed between the two newfound-men-pals the instant she’d left the house. Not fair. “Under the front seat. You’d better be on the up and up.”
“I am.” Blake flashed another quick grin before he headed to the SUV. “I’ll be right back.”
A stiff cold breeze ripped through the gray clouds, making the air feel much cooler. Whitney shivered. Being drenched to the bone didn’t help. What she wouldn’t give for a hot shower and a cup of coffee. Veins of lightning severed the sky. The rain turned to drizzle and fell from the trees like silent snowflakes. She turned her head to the right.
The top section of her parent’s monument had been reduced to rubble. The sight pulled at her heart. She’d had the special granite imported from India because her father had wanted it. She bit her lower lip to stop from crying. When she returned from Vegas, ordering a new monument would be top priority—if she made it back.
Blake returned, his shoulders heaved beneath his wet shirt. “You okay?”
“Yes.” Through moist eyes, she glanced at her watch. Two-ten. “I’ve got a flight to catch in less than three hours. Let’s go.”
He snatched her arm and stopped her in her tracks. “Wait. You’re still planning on going to Las Vegas? I can’t believe it. Woman, you’re crazy. If George and I hadn’t followed you—”
“Thank you, okay. I’m glad you were here. I really am. But no one asked you to follow me.”
“Think about it. Please.”
In your dreams, buddy. “Blake, there’s nothing to think about. I’m going to Vegas and getting into that lab with or without your help. Nathan started this and I’m damn well going to finish it.”
He shook his head. “Even if it means getting yourself killed?”
“Will you at least get that bump looked at?”
“I’m fine, really.” He actually sounded and looked as if he cared. “We’ll stop and get it checked on the way back to the house.”
As they walked to his car in silence, mud sucked at her leather sandals.
The cemetery looked different, strange under the gray skies. She drew a deep uneven breath. Carved gravestones emerged from the green grass like beaten-up yard ornaments.
When Whitney approached the back of the car, she didn’t see George. She turned to Blake. “Well where is he?”
“Probably still hiding under the dash. I told him to stay down. Hey George, you can come out now.”
She took another step. “George, stop playing games. I’m not in the—”
“Wait.” Blake held out his arm to stop her and whipped out his gun tucked in the back of his jeans. He grabbed her hand and pushed her behind him.
Gun raised, finger on the trigger, he peered through the passenger side window, and then looked back at her.
George had vanished.