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Excerpt for MALICE (Mass Market Paperback)

Zebra
February 2010, ISBN: 0821779400

Genre: Romantic Suspense
(Part of the New Orleans series - Book 6)

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Prologue

A suburb of Los Angeles

Twelve years earlier

“So you’re not coming home tonight, is that what you’re getting at?” Jennifer Bentz sat on the edge of the bed, phone to her ear and tried to ignore that all-too familiar guilty noose of monogamy that was strangling her even as it frayed.

“Probably not.”

Ever the great communicator, her ex wasn’t about to commit.

Not that she really blamed him. Theirs was a tenuous, if sometimes passionate relationship. And she was forever “the bad one” as she thought of herself, “the adulteress.” Even now, the scent of recent sex teased her nostrils in the too-warm bedroom, reminding her of her sins. Two half-full martini glasses stood next to a sweating shaker on the bedside table, evidence that she hadn’t been alone. “When, then?” she asked. “When will you show up?”

“Tomorrow. Maybe.” Rick was on his cell in a squad car. She heard the sounds of traffic in the background, knew he was being evasive and tightlipped because his partner was driving and could overhear at least one side of the stilted conversation.

Great.

She tried again. Lowered her voice. “Would it help if I said ‘I miss you?’”

No response. Of course. God, she hated this. Being the pathetic, whining woman, begging for him to see her. It just wasn’t her style. Not her style at all. Men, they were the ones who usually begged. And she got off on it.

Somewhere in the back of her consciousness she heard a soft click.

“Rick?”

“I heard you.”

Her cheeks burned and she glanced at the bed sheets twisted and turned, falling into a pool of pastel, wrinkled cotton at the foot of the bed.

Oh, God. He knows. The metallic taste of betrayal was on her lips, but she had to play the game, feign innocense. Surely he wouldn’t suspect that she’d been with another man, not so close on the heels of the last time. Geez, she’d even surprised herself.

There was a chance he was bluffing.

And yet . . .

She shuddered as she imagined his rage. She played her trump card. “Kristi will wonder why you’re not home. She’s already asking questions.”

“And what do you tell her? The truth?” That her mother can’t keep her legs closed? He didn’t say it, but the condemnation was there, hanging between them. Hell, she hated this. If it weren’t for her daughter, their daughter . . .

“I’m not sure how long the stake-out will be.”

A convenient lie. Her blood began a slow, steady boil. “You and I both know that the department doesn’t work its detectives around the clock.”

“You and I both know a lot of things.”

In her mind’s eye she saw him as he had been in the bedroom doorway, his face twisted in silent accusation as she lay in their bed. Sweaty, naked, she lay in the arms of another man, the same man with whom she’d had an affair earlier. Kristi’s biological father. Rick had reached for his gun, the pistol strapped in his shoulder-holster and for a second Jennifer had known real fear. Icy, cold terror.

“Get out,” he’d ordered staring with deadly calm at the two of them. “Jesus H. Christ, get the hell out of my house and don’t come back. Both of you.”

He’d turned then, walked down the stairs and left without so much as slamming the door. But his rage had been real. Palpable. Jennifer had known she’d escaped with her life. But she hadn’t left. She couldn’t.

Rick hadn’t returned. They hadn’t even fought about it again. He’d just left.

Refused to answer her calls.

Until today.

By then it had been too late.

She’d already met her lover again. As much out of retribution as desire. Fuck it. No one was going to run her life, not even Rick-effin’-Bentz, super hero cop. So she’d met the man who was forever in her blood.

Slut!

Whore!

The words were her own. She closed her eyes and hung her head, feeling lost. Confused. Never had she planned to cheat on Rick. Never. But she’d been weak; temptation strong. She shook her head and felt black to the bottom of her soul. Who was she so intent on punishing? Him? Or herself? Hadn’t one of her shrinks told her she didn’t think she deserved him? That she was self-destructive.

What a load of crap. “I just don’t know what you want,” she whispered weakly.

“Neither do I. Not any more.”

She saw a swallow left in one martini glass, and drank it down. Did the same with the second. The noose tightened a notch, even as it unraveled. God, why couldn’t it be easy with him? Why couldn’t she remain faithful? “I’m trying, Rick,” she whispered, gritting her teeth. It wasn’t a lie. The problem was that she was trying and failing.

She thought she heard a muffled footstep, from downstairs, and she went on alert, then decided the noise might have been the echo in the phone. Or from outside. Wasn’t there a window open.

“You’re trying?” Rick snorted. “At what?”

So there it was. He did know. Probably had seen that she was tailed, the house watched. Or worse yet, he himself had been parked up the street in a car she didn’t recognize and had been watching the house himself. She glanced up at the ceiling to the light fixture, smoke alarm and slow-moving paddle fan as it pushed the hot air around. Were there tiny cameras hidden inside? Had he filmed her recent tryst? Witnessed her as she’d writhed and moaned on the bed she shared with him? Observed her as she’d taken command and run her tongue down her lover’s abdomen and lower? Seen her laughing? Teasing? Seducing?

Jesus, how twisted was he?

She closed her eyes. Mortified. “You sick son of a bitch.”

“That’s me.”

“I hate you.” Her temper was rising.

“I know. I just wasn’t sure you could admit it. Leave, Jennifer. It’s over.”

“Maybe if you didn’t get off bustin’ perps and playing the super-hero, ace detective, maybe if you paid a little attention to your wife and kid, this wouldn’t happen.”

“You’re not my wife.”

Click.

He hung up.

“Bastard!” She threw the phone onto the bed. Her head began to pound. You did this Jennifer. You yourself. You knew you’d get caught but you pushed everything you wanted and loved including Kristi and a chance with your ex-husband, because you’re a freak. You just can’t help yourself. She felt a tear slither down her cheek and slapped it away. This was no time for tears or self pity.

Hadn’t she told herself a reconciliation with Rick was impossible? And yet she’d returned to this house, this home they’d shared together. Knowing full well it was a mistake of monumental proportions; just as it had been when she’d first said “I do,” years before.

“Fool!” She swore under her breath on her way to the bathroom where she saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink.

“Not pretty,” she said, splashing water over her face, but that really wasn’t the truth. She wasn’t too far into her thirties and so far, her dark was thick and wavy as it fell below her shoulders, her skin was still smooth, her lips full, her eyes a shade of blue-green men seemed to find fascinating. All the wrong men, she reminded herself. Men who were forbidden and taboo. And she loved their attention. Craved it.

She opened the medicine cabinet, found her bottle of Valium and popped a couple, just to take the edge off and hoped to push the threatening migraine away. Kristi was going to a friend’s house after swim practice, Rick wasn’t coming home until God knew when, so Jennifer had the house, and the rest of the evening to herself. She wasn’t leaving. Yet.

Swoosh.

An unlikely noise traveled up the staircase from the floor below.

The sound of air moving? A door opening? A window ajar?

What the hell was going on? She paused, listening, her senses on alert, the hairs on the back of her arms lifting.

What if Rick were nearby?

What if he’d been lying on the phone and was really on his way home again, just like the other day? The son of a bitch might just have been playing her for a fool.

The ‘stake-out’ could well be fake, or if he really were going to spend all night watching someone, it was probably her, his own wife.

Ex-wife. Jennifer Bentz stared at her reflection in the mirror and frowned at the tiny little lines visible between her eyebrows. When had those wrinkles first appeared? Last year? Earlier? Or just in the last week?

It was hard to say.

But there they were, reminding her all too vividly that she wasn’t getting any younger.

With so many men who had wanted her, how had she ended up marrying, divorcing and then living with a cop in his small all too middle class little house. Their attempt to get back together was just a trial and hadn’t been going on long and now . . . well, she was pretty damned sure it was over for good.

Because she just couldn’t be faithful to any one man. Even one she loved.

Dear God, what was she going to do? She’d thought about taking her own life. More than once and she’d already written her daughter a letter to be delivered upon her death:

Dear Kristi,

I’m so sorry, honey. Believe me when I tell you that I love you more than life itself. But I’ve been involved with the man who is really your father again and I’m afraid it’s going to break Rick’s heart.

And blah, blah, blah . . .

What a bunch of melodramatic trap.

Again she thought she heard something . . . the sound of a footstep on the floor downstairs.

She started to call out, then held her tongue. Padding quietly to the top of the stairs, held onto the railing and listened. Over the smooth rotation of the fan in her bedroom, she heard another noise, something faint and clicking.

Her skin crawled.

She barely dared breathe. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Just your imagination–the guilt that’s eating at you.

Or the neighbor’s cat–that’s it, a scraggly thing that’s always rooting around in the garbage cans or searching for mice in the garage.

On stealthy footsteps she hurried to the bedroom window and peered through the glass, seeing nothing out of the ordinary on this gray day in LA where the air was foggy, dusty and thick. Even the sun, a reddish disc hanging low in the sky over miles and miles of rooftops, appeared distorted by the smog.

Not the breath of a breeze from the ocean today, nothing stirring to make any kind of noise. No cat slinking beneath the dry bushes, no bicyclist on the street. Not even a car passing.

It’s nothing.

Just a case of nerves.

Calm down.

She poured the remains of the shaker into her glass and took a sip on her way to the bathroom. But in the doorway she caught sight of her reflection and felt another stab of guilt.

“Bottoms up,” she whispered and then seeing her own reflection and the glass lifted to her lips, she cringed. This wasn’t what she wanted for her life. For her daughter. “Stupid, stupid bitch!” The woman in the mirror seemed to laugh at her. Taunt her. Without thinking, Jennifer hurled her drink at her smirking reflection. The glass slammed into the mirror, shattering.

Crraaack!

Slowly, the mirror cracked, a spider web of flaws crawling over the silvered glass. Shards slipped into the sink.

“Jesus!”

What the hell have you done?

She tried to pick up one of the larger pieces and sliced the tip of her finger, blood dripping from her hand, drizzling into the sink. Quickly she found a single, loose Band-aid on the shelf in the cabinet. She had trouble, her fingers weren’t working as they should, but she managed to pull off the backing and wrap her index finger. But she couldn’t quite staunch the flow. Blood swelled beneath the tiny scrap of plastic and gauze. “Damn it all to hell,” she muttered and caught a glimpse of her face in one of the remaining jagged bits of mirror.

“Seven years of bad luck,” she whispered, just as Nana Nichols had foretold when she’d broken her grandmother’s favorite looking glass at the age of three. “You’ll be cursed until you’re ten, Jenny, and who knows how much longer after that!” Nana, usually kind, had looked like a monster, all yellow teeth and bloodless lips twisted in disgust.

But how right the old woman had been. Bad luck seemed to follow her around, even to this day.

Spying her face now distorted and cleaved in the shards of glass that remained, Jennifer saw herself as an old woman; a lonely old woman.

God, what a day, she thought thickly.

She needed the broom and dustpan, and started downstairs, nearly stumbling on the landing. She caught herself, made her way to the first floor and stepped into the laundry room.

Where the door stood ajar.

What?

She hadn’t left it open; she was sure of it. And when her lover had left, he’d gone through the garage . . . so . . . ? Had Kristi, on her way to school, not pulled it shut. The damned thing was hard to latch, but . . .

She felt a frisson of fear skitter down her spine. Hadn’t she heard someone down here earlier? Or was that just the gin talking? She was a little confused, her head thick, but . . .

Steadying herself on the counter, she paused, straining to hear, trying to remember. Good God, she was more than a little out of it. She walked into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water and noticed the hint of cigarette smoke in the air. No doubt from her ex-husband. How many times does she have to tell him to take his foul habit and smoke outside? Way outside. Not just out on the back porch where the damned tobacco odor sifted through the screen door.

But Rick hasn’t been here in two days . . .

She froze, her gaze traveling upward to the ceiling. Nothing . . . and then . . . a floorboard creaking overhead. The crunch of glass.

Oh, God, no.

This time it wasn’t a guess.

This time she was certain.

Someone was in the house.

Someone who didn’t want her to know he was there.

Someone who wanted to do her harm.

The smell of cigarette smoke teased at her nostrils again.

Oh, Jesus. This wasn’t Rick.

She slid on silent footsteps toward the counter where the knives were kept and slowly slid a long-bladed weapon from its slot. As she did she thought of all the cases Rick had solved, of all the criminals who had vented their revenge upon him and his family when they’d been arrested or sentenced, how they had vowed back at Detective Bentz in the most painful ways possible.

He’d never told him of the threats, but she’d learned from other cops on the force who had gladly repeated all the horrid threats.

And now someone was in the house.

The back of her throat turned desert dry.

Holding her breath, she eased into the garage and nearly tripped on the single step when she realized that the garage door was wide open to the driveway, an open invitation. One the intruder had used.

She didn’t think twice and slid behind the wheel where the keys were in the ignition.

She twisted on the keys.

The engine sparked.

She threw the car into reverse and gunned it, tearing out of the driveway, nearly hitting the neighbor’s miserable cat, just missing the mailbox.

She glanced up to the master bedroom window as she crammed the van into drive.

Her heart froze.

A dark figure stood behind the panes, a man with a cruel, twisted smile.

“Shit!”

The light shifted on the blinds and the image was gone–maybe just a figment of her imagination.

Or was it.

She didn’t wait to find out, just hit the throttle, racing down the street as old Mr. Van Pelt decided to back his ancient tank of a Buick into the street. Jennifer hit the brakes, her tires screeched, and then once past the startled old man, floored it.

“There was no man in the window. You know that,” she tried to convince herself. “No one was there.”

She reached for her purse and, while driving with one hand, searched for her cell, which, she now remembered was lying on the rumpled bed in the bedroom where she’d seen the tall man standing.

“Just your imagination,” she said over and over as she drove out of the subdivision and onto the main highway, melding into traffic. Her heart pounded and her head throbbed. Blood fro her hand covered the wheel. She checked her rear-view often, searching for a vehicle following her, looking through the sea of cars for one that seemed intent on chasing her down. Metal glinted in the sunlight and she cursed herself for not having her sunglasses with her.

Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Tons of cars heading east, silver, white, black sedans and sports cars, trucks and SUVs . . . at least she thought that was the direction she has going. She wasn’t sure. She hadn’t paid a lot of attention and she was starting to relax, to think she’d eluded whoever had been after her. If anyone really had.

Just another Southern California day. She spied a dark blue SUV coming up fast and her heart jumped, but it sped by, along with a white BMW on its tail.

She flipped on the radio, tried to steady her nerves, but she was sweating, her finger still bleeding, her mind numbed. The miles passed, nothing happened and she started to relax. Really relax. She drifted a bit, nearly side-swiping a guy who laid on the horn and flipped her off.

“Yeah, right, whatever,” she said, but realized she shouldn’t be driving, not in all this traffic and at the next exit, she turned off . . .dear Lord where was she? . . . in the country? She didn’t recognize the area, the sparseness of the homes, the stretches of brush and farmland. She was inland somewhere and the Valium had kicked in big time. Blinking against the sunlight, she looked in her side view mirror and saw another big blue SUV bearing down on her.

The same one as before?

No!

Couldn’t be.

She yawned and the Explorer behaved, following her at a distance on the two-lane road that lead into the hills.

It was really time to turn around.

She was so damned tired.

The road before her seemed to shift and she blinked. Her eyelids were so heavy. She’d have to slow down and rest, try to clear her head, maybe drink some coffee . . .

There was a chance no one had been in the house. Geez-God, the way she was imagining things, the way her nerves were strung tight as guy wires these days, the way guilt was eating at her, she was probably letting her mind play tricks on her. Her thoughts swirled and gnawed at her.

She saw the corner in the road and she braked, and as she did, she noticed the dark Explorer riding her ass.

“So pass, you idiot,” she said, distracted, her eyes on the rear-view mirror. The rig’s windows are tinted and dark, but she caught a glimpse of the driver.

Oh, God.

Her heart nearly stopped.

The driver stared straight at her. She bit back a scream. He was the same intruder she’d seen in the upstairs window of her house.

Scared out of her wits, she tromped on the accelerator. Who the hell was he?

Why was he following her?

She saw the corner and cut it, hoping to lose him, but her judgement was off and one of the van’s tires caught on the s shoulder, hitting gravel. She yanked on the wheel, trying to wrestle the car onto the road, but the van began to spin.

Wildly.

Crazily.

Totally out of control.

The van shuddered. Skidded.

And then began to roll.

In slow-motion certainty, Jennifer knew she was going to die.

More than that, she knew she was being murdered.

Probably set up by her damned ex-husband, Rick Bentz.

Chapter One

“Talk to me in six weeks.” Melinda Jaskiel’s voice was firm. Clear. As he stood on the back verandah in the sweltering Louisiana heat, his cell phone pressed to his ear, sweat dripping off his nose, he realized his boss wasn’t going to budge. He balanced on one crutch, the thick rubber tip wedged between two flagstones. His back ached and walking was a strain, but he wouldn’t admit it to a soul and especially not to Jaskiel. As head of the homicide division in the New Orleans Police Department, she had the authority to put him back on active duty. Or not.

It was her call. Once again, Melinda Jaskiel held the fate of his career in her hands.

Once again, he was begging. “I need to work.” Jesus, he hated the desperation in his voice.

“You need to be at a hundred percent, maybe a hundred and ten to be back on duty.”

His jaw tightened as the intense Louisiana sun beat down on the back of his neck and a fine mist rose from the swamp land that backed up to the cottage nestled into the woods. Jaskiel had given him a job when no one else would touch him. After the mess he’d left in L.A. And now she was shutting him down.

He heard her mutter something under her breath and thought for a split second she was reconsidering. “Look, Rick, I don’t see you pushing papers at a desk from eight to five.”

“I’ve been in P.T. for a couple of months now, strong as ever.”

“Strong enough to chase down a suspect? Wrestle him to the ground? Break down a door? Hit the deck, roll, draw your weapon and cover your partner?”

“That’s all TV BS.”

“Is it?” Jaskiel’s voice was skeptical. “Seems to me you were doing just that kind of ‘TV BS’ when you ended up in the hospital.” She knew him too well. “You know the drill. Bring in a doctor’s release and we’ll discuss your reinstatement. Discuss. No promises. You know, retirement’s not a bad idea.”

He snorted. “Gee, Melinda, I’m getting the idea you’re trying to get rid of me.”

“You’re still in physical therapy and you’re wound too tight. End of subject. I’ll talk to you later.” She hung up.

“Son of a bitch!” He flung his crutch across the flagstones of the verandah where it skidded, clattering noisily, and startling a mocking bird perched in a nearby magnolia tree into flight. “Son of a goddamned bitch.” His fingers clenched over his cell and he considered hurling it into the swamp, but didn’t–-hell, he didn’t want to explain that. So far, the Department only questioned his physical ability. He didn’t want to give the powers-that-be an insight into his mental state.

No shrinks. No soul searching. No pouring out his heart. No thank you.

He stood with difficulty, his balance not what it had been before the accident, despite what he’d told Jaskiel. And sometimes his leg hurt like hell. So, he knew he wasn’t really ready for active duty, but he was going out of his freakin’ mind staying at home. Hell, even his relationship with his wife, Olivia was beginning to wear thin. Her biological clock was ticking like crazy and she was pressuring him to have a kid. When his own daughter, Kristi, was in her twenties. He wasn’t sure he wanted to start over.

No, what he needed was to get out of the house and back to work. It had been nearly three months since the accident and he couldn’t take sitting around another second.

“So do something about it,” he ordered himself.

Gritting his teeth took a step unaided.

First one foot, then the other.

None of the mamby-pamby putting one foot forward with the walker and dragging the second one up to it. No way. He was going to walk across this damned patio one foot in front of the other if it killed him. He’d show them all. In a month he’d be running across these stupid stones. A crow sat on one of the roof’s gables and cried noisily, his raspy caw echoing through the scrub oak and pine.

Bentz barely noticed.

A third step.

Then four.

He was sweating now. Concentrating hard. The heat was oppressive, sun beating down, the dank smell of the swamp heavy in his nostrils. The crow kept up his incessant, mocking caw. Irritating bastard.

Another step and Bentz looked up, away from uneven stones and to the bench, his destination.

Just as he would have if he hadn’t been injured.

Just as he would have if he hadn’t nearly lost his life.

Just as he would have if he hadn’t been forced to consider early retirement.

He moved forward again, more easily, more confidently.

And then he felt it.

That cold certainty that he was being watched.

His gut tightened as he looked over his shoulder. Dry, brittle leaves rustled on the windless day.

The black bird had disappeared, his scolding cries silent.

A flicker of light between the branches. Something in the thicket, just on the other side of the veranda, moved. A shadow passed quickly, darting through the undergrowth.

Oh sweet Jesus.

Instinctively, Bentz reached for his sidearm.

His hand coming up empty as he rounded to face the woods.

He wasn’t wearing his shoulder holster.

Not in his own house.

He squinted.

What the hell was it?

Sunlight played through the lacy canopy of needles and leaves. His heart thumped crazily. The spit dried in his mouth.

It was just his imagination.

Again.

Right?

But the goose bumps crawling over his flesh and the tightening of every muscle in his body told him otherwise.

Idiot! You’re in your own damned backyard.

He turned slightly, trying to make out if the intruder were an opossum, or a deer, or even an alligator crawling up from the swamp, but he knew deep in his soul that this was no wild creature wandering too close to his house.

Uh-uh.

The shivering leaves stilled on this hot, breathless day.

Bentz squinted into the forest. He had no doubt that he would see her.

Again.

He wasn’t disappointed.

Through the shimmering heat, he witnessed her image appear. Dressed in that same sexy black dress, flashing him the barest of smiles, she stood between the bleached bark of two cypress trees. Jennifer.

His first wife.

The woman he’d sworn to love through all his days.

The bitch who had betrayed him . . . And she was as sensual and gorgeous as she had been all those years ago. The fragrance of gardenias wafted through the air.

He swallowed.

Hard.

A ghost?

Or real flesh and blood?

The woman, a dead-ringer for his first wife, stood deep in the woods, staring at him with wide, knowing eyes and that sexy little smile . . . God, that smile that had turned him inside out.

His heart went still as death.

An eerie chill slid through his veins.

“Jennifer?” he said aloud though he knew his first wife was long dead.

She arched a single eyebrow and his stomach dropped to his knees.

“Jen?” Bentz took a step forward, caught his toe on an uneven rock and went down. Hard. His knees hit first. Bam! His chin bounced against the mortar and stone rattling his jaw, scraping his skin.

Pain exploded through his brain. The raven cackled, as if laughing at him. His cell phone skittered across the flagstones.

“Hell,” he muttered under his breath as he lay still for a second, taking in a couple of breaths, telling himself he was a goddamned idiot, a freak who was seeing things that didn’t exist. He moved one leg, then another, mentally assessing the damage to his already-wracked up body.

Not that long ago he’d been paralyzed, the result of a freak accident in a lightning storm. His spinal cord had been bruised, not severed. Slowly he’d recovered to this point and he hoped to hell that he hadn’t reinjured his damned back or legs.

Painfully he rolled over and pushed himself onto his knees while staring over the edge of the verandah toward the spot where he’d seen her.

Jennifer, of course, had vanished.