This is the city.
Murder and violence is all in a day’s work for Lieutenant Vincent Girardi, but there is something about this murder that doesn’t add up. When a piece of paper with an address written on it is found at the crime scene, Vince believes that perhaps this victim wasn’t the intended target.
Dr. Rowan Delaney is biding her time. In less than a week she will give testimony that will rid her of a painful past once and for all, and grant her and her two children the freedom she has been seeking for years. When Lieutenant Vincent Girardi and his partner show up at her door to question her about the murdered woman across the street, and then suggest that she may have been the intended target, she refuses all help or protection, intending to fulfill her obligation in front of the Grand Jury without interference from anyone – including the handsome cop darkening her doorstep.
But the Lieutenant has other plans. He is convinced the pretty doctor was the intended victim, and he is determined to find out why, starting with Rowan’s absentee husband, head of a notorious drug cartel. Vince is determined to see the woman and her children safe; Rowan is determined to start her life over – after her testimony.
Can Vince protect her without his feelings for her getting in the way? And can Rowan accept his care, along with a heavy dose of hubris and alpha dominance, without losing herself in the process?
And will their growing love be enough to save them from the evil that will refuses take no for an answer?
The sea air drifted in through the open window of Jim Carter’s black sedan. He loved the sea, was comfortable in it and on it. He fancied himself a sailor, but truth was he could navigate only the simplest of sea craft. He hired people to navigate the deep, crystal waters of the Pacific so he could take in the beauty, the peace he knew only when he was on the water. When Jenna Rose was alive, they took wonderful trips together on grand sailing vessels, just the two of them and a hired crew. No kids to tie them down, no aging parents, no strings. Just the two of them. It was all he had, all he ever wanted.
Carter opened the door of the sedan and got out. The sun would be up in another thirty minutes. The cool, end-of-summer morning was invigorating, yet by ten a.m. it would be in the high seventies. He would be long gone by then, of course. And then, maybe, he could live again.
He walked down the street to the house that matched the address and the Google Earth satellite photo. Amazing what a little research could reveal. He did not even have to use his special clearance to get the information. Someone had not been too careful, and that someone would now pay. The loss of another, one loved. There was no pain greater.
The house was dark. Even the porch lights were out. Perfect. He could not see much except for the row of Oleanders that separated this house from the one next door. He followed those up to the house. He was camouflaged in black, but in another twenty minutes, when the sun came up over the hills and reflected off the clear, blue Pacific, it would do him little good. He held the knife flat against his thigh. This kill would be personal.
He pulled out a metal tool, and with a few shimmies into the lock, the door clicked open. He entered the living area. He did not want to face the children. He wanted this over before they woke up. It was summer, after all. Hopefully they were taking advantage of the long days and late nights in front of the TV, and were sleeping in. They were innocent in all this.
He crept down the hall and entered the bedroom. The attractive blonde lay sleeping on her side, a gentle snore echoing in the room.
Carter stood over her and waited for her to wake up. He wanted to tell her it was not her fault. None of this was her fault, per se. There was only one man to blame for all this. He wanted her to see that, know it. It was not her ? no. She was innocent.
So was his Jenna Rose.
Lieutenant Vincent Girardi had a headache. He could not figure out if it was because of the scotch, or because of Stacey Cash. On a good day, scotch and Stacey were a lethal combination. But last night, the combination had been more lethal than ever. Stacey Cash was an abnormally beautiful girl, and he liked spending time with her ? in bed. Very little talk and lots of action was what Lieutenant Girardi wanted, no, needed out of Ms. Cash. But last night, the normally quiet twenty-four-year-old had shown him just how loose her tongue could become, and she had rewarded him with more jibber-jabber than he had ever dreamed. It did not help that scotch and Stacey were only reserved for weekends, yet he saw her ? and did both ? on a weeknight. Stacey was good for one thing and one thing only: helping him forget. She was not worth a Monday morning hangover.
He walked up the driveway of the ranch-style house overlooking a stretch of the Pacific that never failed to mesmerize him. This was prime real estate, a place a guy like him could only dream about living in. He nodded to his partner, Detective Frank Jordan. The detective returned the greeting with a scowl. Vince was late. It was out of character.
“Follow me,” Frank growled.
Vince grinned in amusement as he followed his partner through the appointed house. The furniture was fluffy and slip-covered, the tchotchkes were cheap and abundant. They entered a large bedroom at the end of the hall with a nice view out a set of French doors to a lap pool and the Pacific beyond.
“Female vic, Alice Jessup, 55 years old. Throat slashed,” Frank said.
“Who called it in?”
“Friend. Vic was supposed to meet for an aerobics class this morning at nine. When she didn’t show, the friend says she called, and after an hour or so and no answer, she came over. She knocked, no answer, saw the vic’s car in the driveway, and walked around the house. Saw the door open in back.”
“She come in, touch anything?”
“She came in, and she saw what you’re seeing. She’s pretty shook up.”
“Yeah. Did she touch anything?”
“Says no, but you know how that goes.”
The body lay supine, but it did not appear to Vince that she had started out that way. Her legs were together and to the side, as if that was the position in which she slept. Her hands rested on her upper chest, just below her throat, and it appeared she had grabbed the area in an attempt to stop the profuse bleeding. Her hands were covered in blood.
“Coroner give us a time of death yet?”
“Says rigor puts time of death between five and six hours ago.”
“She is,” Jane Davis said as she entered the room. Jane was the chief coroner, and Vince and Frank had worked with her many times before.
“So, TOD was five a.m.,” Vince said to her, doing the math.
“Give or take.”
“Was the entry forced?” he asked Frank.
“I’m going out to check now,” Frank said, exiting through the French doors to the back of the house.
“What do you think, boss?” Jane asked.
Vince shrugged. “A murder, up close and personal. No sign of a struggle, which means she was probably asleep when the attack took place.” Vince stared at the body. After so long in homicide he was immune to the signs and smells of death. He never felt at peace with that. “We’ll do our thing, you do yours.”
“Always. Hey, you look nice.”
Vince looked down at himself as if seeing the suit and tie for the first time. He ran his hands down the lapels of the jacket self-consciously. “Thanks. Court this afternoon.”
“Yeah. Ditto that.”
He exited through the front door and walked to the end of the driveway. The cove was to the left, beyond a sea-grass-covered plot of land and the sandy beach. To the right of the house, fifty yards down, was another house, and then one more beyond that. Across the street, a larger house sat, its rear facing the beach. Nothing but sea grass, ice plant, and a low-fenced trail to the right all the way to the highway, six-tenths of a mile down the road. Land like this had to go for a fortune. Four houses on a half-mile stretch of road was unheard of this close to L.A.
The house across the street on Beach Drive was bigger than the one Alice Jessup used to occupy before she joined the living-impaired. A steel gate loomed large and he could see the house down at the end of the long driveway. It sat higher than the other four houses on this small, private street. The angle at which it sat took full advantage of the view, and gave its occupants access to a private beach and cove created by a large out-jutting of rocks a hundred yards down the beach. Beyond that, all the other homes sat on cliffs a hundred feet up, giving ‘view’ a whole new meaning.
Vince rang the bell at the gate and waited for an answer. Frank joined him.
“I went to the house next door to the Jessup house ? address is 200 Beach. No one home. A couple days-worth of flyers tucked in the mail slot. Probably out of town.”
Vince nodded as a female voice with an accent came over the intercom. “Yes, can I help you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Lieutenant Vincent Girardi, Metro police. May we speak with you a moment?” he held his identification up to the eye of a small camera positioned down and at an angle. Vince started to speak again after an interminable silence.
“Come in, please,” she said, cutting him off.
The gate clunked and slid open to the left, disappearing behind a thick hedge. Vince and Frank walked up the incline of the driveway toward the large house sitting at the top.
The style was beach, wood-slatted and blue-gray. Large windows were placed with strategic ingenuity to take in the views. A line-up of four dormer windows graced the second floor roofline. A three-car garage stood to the left on the cove side, a basketball hoop off to the side. The front of the house and the driveway were littered with stuff that could only belong to kids: a girl’s bike, a skateboard, a basketball. A grass area large enough for a game of touch football sat along the side of the house overlooking the water. An attractive Latina woman came out a side door next to the garage and met them half way down the driveway.
Vince held his ID aloft again. So did Frank. “Lieutenant Vincent Girardi, Metro PD. Detective Frank Jordan,” he gestured toward his partner. “Are you the owner of this house?”
“No. My name is Lucy Vega. I care for Mrs. Castillo’s children. Please come this way.”
They followed the woman into the house through a large and well-appointed kitchen: black countertops, stainless steel appliances, and dark cherry cabinets. A counter set with plates, silver, and napkins in front of four fabric-and-chrome stools separated the kitchen from another eating area. A formal dining room was separated by another door, open at the moment. His mouth watered at the unmistakable smells of breakfast ? or maybe brunch, given the time. Coffee and maple syrup bled into his senses, and he wanted nothing more that to sit and partake. Instead, he’d settle for a burger at the diner once they were through here.
The woman led them out of a large, swinging door with a glass portal window in the middle. A set of stairs was ahead and to the right of an open-wall entrance into a large living room. A wall of French doors stretched the length of the room at the rear, filling it with light. The floor plan was similar to Alice Jessup’s, at twice the size. Through the doors, a fenced-in patio was bathed in late morning sun. The beach lay open and quiet beyond.
“One moment, please,” the woman said. She exited through the living room and out the French doors. She returned a moment later. “Please, come with me.”
Lucy Vega led them through the room, furnished with a wide-screen plasma TV, top-of-the-line stereo and speakers, comfortable micro-suede couches, high-gloss black and glass tables, and a dominating stone fireplace. Family photographs in unassuming frames sat atop side tables and a wall of shelves. Two children, a boy and a girl, were in all of them ? some with them together, others alone, and many with a very attractive blonde woman. One appeared to be a family photo: the kids, the blonde, and a handsome, dark-featured man. The boy child was dark-haired and light-eyed, and the girl had hair the color of honey. Her complexion was olive, like the man in the pictures.
Lucy led them out onto the patio. “Lieutenant Girardi and Detective Jordan,” she said, addressing the back of a woman leaning over the gate.
“David, breakfast. Please dry off and come in.”
“Now, David.” Her tone brooked no argument.
“Fine. God, mom,” the boy answered.
“David, come now, mijo,” Lucy said over the fence. She draped a towel over the shoulders of the boy when he came in through the gate. “I’ve made pancakes. Get that wet suit off now.” The kid gave Vince the once-over before Lucy ushered him off.
“Sorry,” the woman said. She turned to face the men.
Her hair was flaxen and sat atop her shoulders, straight and coiffed around her face. Her eyes were the color of moss. She was tall, and she looked to be in her mid-thirties. She wore a lime green, sleeveless blouse and white Capri pants that showed off a spectacular curvy figure.?
“Rowan Delaney, gentlemen.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her right ear. “What can I do for you?”
Vince spoke. “Had a situation occur across the street early this morning, wondered if you heard anything unusual.”
“You know Mrs. Alice Jessup, ma’am?”
“Yes, of course. What’s happened?”
“She was murdered.”
Vince hesitated, pretty sure she heard him the first time.
“You’re kidding, right?” she said.
“No. I don’t kid.”
Rowan Delaney was quiet for several moments, and Vince recognized the look of confusion, followed by the desperate need to make sense of the senseless ? eyes wide, lips parted, moisture dotting the small creases in her forehead, the sadness that suffused an otherwise-flawless face. “Alice?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.” It was a platitude cops uttered often because there was nothing else to say. This time was no exception.
“I? I don’t understand.”
Vince gave her another moment.
“My God, what happened?” she asked, and she only asked because she had run out of any reasoning for what had happened. He saw it all the time.?
“Were you home all morning?”
“Y-yes. I was up at seven or so.”
“Anyone else in the house?”
“My children and Lucy.”
“She helps with the kids, she takes care of me. What hap?”
“What time did everyone else get up, do you know?”
“Eight thirty or so. Can you please explain to me what happened?” ?
“Does Lucy live here full time?”
“But she slept here last night?”
Vince turned to Frank. “Question her.”
Vince and Frank stared at the woman, who looked ready to toss them both out on their asses. Frank stepped up.
“Ms. Delaney? sorry. I know this is a lot to take in. We’re not really sure what happened across the street. Mrs. Jessup was found this morning after she missed an appointment. We’re just beginning our investigation, so we can’t tell you much right now. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to speak to Lu? Ms. Vega.”
“Kids, too,” Vince said.?
“Uh?” Rowan began.
“Not just yet,” Frank said, trying to smooth things so that he could at least question the nanny? or whatever she was.
The woman contemplated this for a moment, and looked over Vince’s shoulder. Vince turned, too. Lucy Vega was coming out of the swinging kitchen door.
“Luce, while the kids are eating, would you speak to the detective here? Alice Jessup, across the street?”
The woman looked from Vince to Rowan, then nodded. “Of course.” When Frank left the room, Vince turned again to Ms. Delaney.
“What about your husband?”
Confusion crossed her face for a moment, until she glanced over at a picture displayed on a side table of a man with the two children.
“He’s no longer with us.”
Vince nodded. “So you saw or heard nothing unusual this morning ? early, say around six?”
“No, nothing. I was dead asleep.” Rowan reddened immediately. “Oh, God? sorry.”
A blush rose up her neck and pinked her cheeks. He shook his head with a ‘no problem’ nonchalance.
“Have you notified any of Alice’s family?” she asked. “I know she has a sister in Charleston, and a son finishing up at Duke.” She put her hand over her mouth. “William. He’ll be devastated. This is crazy. I don’t believe this ? murdered. Did I hear correctly?”
“Yes. We’ll notify her family,” Vince assured her, handing her his card. “In the meantime, if you think of anything, please call us. Anytime.”
When they got out on to the street, Frank turned to Vince.
“Get anything?” When Vince did not respond, Frank continued, “Me, either. Pretty lady, though.”
“The Vega woman?”
“Yeah, idiot. The Vega woman.”
Vince smiled slightly and glanced down at the ground before turning back to Frank.
“She’s not my type.”
“Shut up.” Vince looked back at the house, turned and walked across the street.
Detective Junior Grade, or D1, Ryan Evans walked in to the conference room where Vince was doing some paperwork.
“Hey, boot. What’s up?”
The young man smiled. He had not been called ‘boot’ since his rookie days in a patrol car. A crusty old Field Training Officer, whom Ryan hated with a passion, had hurled the nickname at him daily. He’d worked hard as a patrolman, and earned his spot with the detective squad through sweat and dedication. He was thrilled to be working with Lieutenant Girardi, a man with a wonderful reputation as an honest and dedicated cop, a good teacher, and a tough but fair taskmaster.
“Well, when we searched outside the Jessup house we found two things. First, it appears that the point of entry was the French doors in back, which were locked ? lock was picked. We also found something else that I’d like to get your opinion on.” He handed a piece of paper encased in evidence plastic to Vince. “Look at the address written on the paper. What does that look like to you?”
“Looks like 205? or 202. Why? What are you thinking?”
“We can’t seem to find a motive here and I was wondering? maybe that address is 205 and the killer read it as 202.”
“So, we could have a case of mistaken identity.” Vince thought a moment. “Frank and I spoke to the residents at 205 Beach. Name’s?” Vince consulted the file in front of him, but it was only for show. “?Rowan Delaney. Let’s find out what we can about her.” Ryan nodded and turned to leave.
“Oh, and Ryan? check for a Rowan Castillo as well. The housekeeper referred to the lady of the house as ‘Mrs. Castillo.’”