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is dedicated to my editor, Lauren McKenna.
Lauren, what can I say?
Great editorial advice, calm good judgment, and grace under fireâyou rock.
No one deserves this more.
he Houston mansion was huge. Dark. Deserted.
Except for the corpse hanging in the living room.
Or whatever the hell rich people called the big, fancy room where nobody ever actually lived. Approximately the size of a football field with the white marble floors and the giant crystal chandeliers dangling overhead. This one, just like the rest of the house, was empty, its furnishings and other accoutrements in storage somewhere waiting for the government to auction them off.
“You should've talked when you had the chance, Jeffy-boy,” Finn Bradley said to the corpse as he grimly surveyed it. His voice was soft, but the words seemed to echo off the pale marble wallsâhell, for all he knew the ceiling was marble. It soared thirty feet above his head, which made it kind of hard to tell.
The electricity had been cut off, so pale moonlight pouring in through the windows was all he had to go by, but he was confident that the death looked like a suicide.
Except that Finn knew it wasn't.
Jeff Cowan, the twenty-nine-year-old son of disgraced financier George Cowan, who had made off with billions of investor dollars in one of the biggest financial frauds in history, had just become one more piece of collateral damage in the war to recover the missing money. Jeff was slightâokay, so maybe nearly everybody seemed slight when compared to Finn's own six-three, 220-pound selfâblond, and classically handsome. He'd had the most expensive of educations. The most expensive of everythings. His parents had doted on him. He had a host of rich-scionâtype friends. Yet here he was, his bare feet dangling at approximately Finn's eye level, wearing a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt, his face contorted in death, the smell of ammonia from where he had pissed himself stinking up the air around him. To all outward appearances, he had wrapped an electrical cord around his neck, attached one end to the wrought iron railing of the second-floor gallery looking down on the room, and leaped over, thus breaking his own damned neck.
Finding a motive was easy: the shame of his father's crime, the unaccustomed poverty into which Jeff had been plunged, the relentless investigations as every law enforcement agency under the sun tried to ferret out who else had been involved in the fraud and
what had happened to the money,
had proved to be too much for the pampered darling of one of Houston's wealthiest families. The ME could bring in a suicide verdict and nobody would question it.
Only a select few would know the verdict was bullshit.
Finn wrapped a hand around Cowan's wrist. He'd seen enough death to know what it looked like, so he didn't bother to
check for a pulse. What he was checking for was body temperature.
Cowan was still warm. No sign of rigor mortis. No sign of blood pooling in the extremities. The smell of urine was still strong.
He'd been dead under an hour. Maybe
under an hour. As in he could have been killed in the last fifteen minutes or so.
It was possible that whoever had killed him was still around. Finn tightened his grip on his gun as he scanned the room, paying particular attention to the nearly impenetrable darkness shrouding the overhead gallery. He didn't get the feeling that anyone was up there, butâ
“You find Cowan?” inquired the voice in his head. At least, that was how Finn thought of his unwanted partner, David Baxter. The earwig was almost as bad as having Baxter in there with him. Not quite, though. Bax tended to lose his cool when things didn't go according to plan. If he'd been standing there beside Finn at that moment instead of waiting in a parked car across the street from the ornate iron gates that were closed and padlocked by order of the U.S. government, Bax would be shitting bricks.
“Yep,” Finn replied, then added, “he's dead.”
The shit bricks started to drop, as Finn had known they would. Bax's voice went shrill.
?” He didn't wait for Finn's confirmation, because he knew Finn wasn't a joking-around kind of guy. “Goddamn it! You weren't supposed to kill him!”
Before Finn could reply, the distant, barely audible click of a door being unlocked had him pivoting in the direction from
which it had come. There was no mistaking the subsequent sounds: somebody was coming in the front door.
His eyes narrowed. His muscles tensed.
“Somebody's here,” he growled at Bax, who was supposed to be keeping watch. “Do your fucking job.”
“What?” Bax sputtered. “Me? Me do
job? You fucking do yours! You said you thought he was in the house. When we got here, and you went in, you said you wanted to talk to him. You didn't say anything about killingâ”
That was all Finn heard, because as he retreated into the shadows at the far side of the room he savagely pulled the damned annoying piece of plastic out of his ear and shoved it into his pocket.
called. Her voice was tight with anger.
She knew that flipping on the light switch near the door was a waste of time. The electricity had been shut off weeks before for nonpayment, shortly before the government had seized the house, but out of habit she flipped the switch anyway. Big surprise: the darkness stayed dark. Fortunately she knew her way around. Her former in-laws' former mansion once had been her home, too. She and Jeff had lived with them for nearly a year, until Jeff had finished the in-house training program his father had insisted he complete before buying their own lavish condo in downtown Houston. When Jeff had first brought her here, she'd been a twenty-Âone-year-old newlywed straight from Philadelphia's poverty-Âstricken North Side, where she'd been working as a cocktail waitress to put herself through college. Jeff's parents'
wealth had been as much of a surprise to her as her existence had been to them. That was seven years ago. A lot had changed since then. To begin with, she and Jeff were divorced, and had been for a year and a half.
Riley waited just inside the front door: Jeff didn't answer, didn't appear. Oakwoodâall the mansions in Houston's exclusive River Oaks neighborhood had namesâwas a big place, eight bedrooms, ten baths, fifteen thousand sumptuous square feet, with its own swimming pool and tennis court and guest/staff house. Given that, even though Jeff was expecting her it was possible that he hadn't heard her calling him. It was also possible that he was drunk off his ass and passed out somewhere, or so drugged up he was practically out of his mind. Actually, knowing him, one of those scenarios was more than possible: it was likely.
The question she should be asking herself was, exactly how had she ended up becoming her ex-husband's keeper?
He'd tried calling her first. When she hadn't answered, he'd texted her:
I got trouble. Meet me at the house ASAP.
Typical Jeff: the only thing he ever thought about was what
needed. The sad part was, she hadn't followed through on her impulse to text back,
Go to hell
Instead, here she was.
She'd been finishing up at work when the text had come through. As one of two assistant managers of the Palm Room, one of Houston's most exclusive clubs, she was in charge of closing for the night on weekends, which Jeff knew. This was Saturdayâwell, Sunday now, because it was after 3 a.m.âand he'd known that she would be leaving work just about the time he sent the text. For about three seconds she'd thought about
ignoring it, ignoring
âworking two jobs as she was doing tended to leave her exhausted at the end of the week, and she'd had just about enough of pulling his chestnuts out of the fireâbut Jeff had been so unstable lately that she hadn't been able to bring herself to do it. She hadn't blasted him, either. Instead, she'd come.
Just like he'd known she would.
Because, despite everything he'd put her through, despite the drinking and drugs and other women that had torpedoed their marriage, part of her still cared about him. When he wasn't under the influence of something, he was kind and gentle. He'd been sensitive to her feelings at a time when she'd needed somebody to be. He was handsome, athletic, and sometimes even charming. She was no longer in love with himâthank God; loving Jeff had been a nightmareâbut during the tumultuous years they'd been together he'd somehow managed to become family to her.
Didn't mean she couldn't get ticked off at him for dragging her out at this ungodly hour to this place that was full of bad memories and was government property now, even if the authorities hadn't yet gotten around to doing anything beyond officially seizing it, which so far hadn't included changing the locks. The front gates were padlocked, for God's sake: she'd had to park in a neighbor's drivewayâshe recalled that they always spent the summer in Maine, so no one was home to notice or be disturbedâand walk across about an acre of the neighbor's grounds before coming through the garden gate, which the government either didn't know about yet or didn't care about. Trespassing was what she was doing on Jeff's behalf, and last time she'd checked that was a crime.
The knowledge that she was committing a criminal act for him ticked her off even more.
Anger sharpened her voice.
Still no answer.
Standing in the cavernous hallway calling to him obviously wasn't going to get the job done. Lips firming, high heels clicking on the vast expanse of white marble floor that was missing the pricey Oriental rugs that had softened it just like the house itself was missing its paintings and furnishings and the bowls of fresh flowers (changed every other day) and the uniformed staff that had made it so intimidating to the new bride she had once been, she walked away from the elongated rectangle of moonlight that spilled through the door she'd left open behind her and into the deepening darkness. The house used to smell of furniture polish and flowers: tonight it smelled of mildew and some indefinable stink. Inside, it was hot as an oven because this was Houston in July, and the air-conditioning had gone with the electricity.
Coming from Jeff,
I got trouble
could mean anything, from
I'm too drunk to drive home
I'm dead broke and need to borrow a hundred bucks.
Now that he was no longer vice president of Cowan Investments, the defunct family firm, he was essentially unemployed. To be fair, that wasn't entirely his fault. Nobody in Houston, or in Texas, or possibly even the United States or the whole wide world, was going to employ George Cowan's only son, especially when the feds still suspected that he'd aided his father in his schemes and were investigating him relentlessly. (Jeff hadn't had a thing to do with it; he'd been as clueless about the whole mess as she had been herself.) Of course, there was always
employment available at places like McDonald's, or Wal-Mart, as Riley's exasperation had recently led her to snap at him, but she'd known even as she'd said it that the idea of Jeff Cowan working a minimum-wage job was laughable.
It just wasn't in his DNA.
wasn't such a delicate flower, or they'd all starve. She'd said that to him, too, when she'd handed over most of her paycheck a couple of weeks ago to help pay the rent on the house he now shared with his mother and teenage sister.