Excerpt: Twice Burned

 

Chapter One

 

Wolf’s eyes, Zara thought, watching the man weave through the crowded terminal at Kennedy Airport, that feral golden brown gaze riveted to her.

It struck her then where she’d seen those eyes. In that painting of a timber wolf that used to hang in her father’s den.

A little shiver scuttled up her spine. Exhaustion, she told herself. The flight from Sydney to New York had been interminable, and she’d yet to refine the art of sleeping on planes. On top of that, the geek in customs had given her short, tight-fitting fuchsia suit a lingering once-over and made her wait another half hour while he took his time pawing through her luggage and ogling her cleavage.

Now she wanted nothing more than to cab it back to her penthouse apartment on East Eighty-sixth and soak the kinks away in an aroma-therapeutic whirlpool bath. Maybe she’d call her masseuse.

She grimaced, remembering her masseuse was a thing of the past, thanks to Tony. Her ex-husband’s greed and vindictiveness had left her emotionally and financially drained. She’d lost even the privacy she so desperately craved, since she now lacked the means to install her mother in a place of her own.

With any luck, Mom would be out bowling or something and Zara would have a few rare minutes of solitary peace.

With even more luck, her twin sister, Emma, wouldn’t have bollixed up the transaction Zara had arranged. The transaction that would give her back her privacy.

Wolf Eyes was nearly upon her now, striding with single-minded resolve. He was hard to ignore, towering over everyone else by at least half a head, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, those eerie, unsmiling eyes locked on her like heat-seeking missiles.

She sighed. What now?

Whatever business he had with her, it could wait until Monday and office hours. She refused to deal with it now, when she was mentally fried and both her Movado watch and her internal clock were set to Sydney time. She rationalized that since she’d already made it to Saturday morning, she could ignore this pushy fellow who was still getting through Friday afternoon.

He was probably some hack author who took exception to receiving a form rejection letter from the Zara Sutcliffe Literary Agency.

She tried to veer away from him, but her progress was hampered by the gigantic wheeled Hartmann suitcase she was hauling, with assorted smaller matching bags dangling from it by straps.

Suddenly he was there, planted directly in her path like some damn sequoia, blocking her escape route.

She skidded to a graceless stop in her stiletto heels, nearly landing on her fanny when the heavy suitcase rolled into her, driven by forward momentum.

Rather than reaching out to steady her, as any gentleman would have done, Wolf Eyes flashed an open badge wallet in her face.

“Special Agent Logan Pierce. FBI. I need you to come with me, Miss Sutcliffe.”

Zara’s jaw dropped and she gaped at him like a beached mackerel. “What?”

He reached around her and seized both her carry-on bag and the handle of her suitcase. “No time to explain. The first priority is to get you somewhere safe.”

“Safe! What the—”

The fingers of his free hand wrapped around her upper arm like a steel band. He swiftly propelled her along with him toward the distant exit. They were halfway there when the shock wore off and her mind lurched into high gear. She was accompanying a strange man—a very large and intimidating strange man—to God knew where, for God knew what purpose. He didn’t even look like an FBI agent. Didn’t G-men wear suits and ties? This guy was in jeans and a black windbreaker over a maroon T-shirt. Zara jerked hard against his unyielding grip, to no avail. He didn’t even slow his pace. He towed her ponderous luggage with such apparent ease, it might have been a toddler’s pull toy.

“Hold on!” she cried. “Wait up a minute.”

No response. Those stony wolf’s eyes never stopped scanning the noisy crowd, for what hidden perils, she could only imagine.

“Mr. Pierce! I mean, Agent Pierce, please!” She twisted her arm where his long fingers crushed the silk. “You’re hurting me.”

“You’re hurting yourself. Take it easy.”

Take it easy? Listen, mister, if you don’t let go of me this instant and tell me what this is about, I swear I’ll scream my head off.”

He stopped but he didn’t release her. He stared down at her, his expression revealing impatience and more than a little distaste. His features were strong, not classically handsome but interesting.

Okay, intriguing. She couldn’t help it. Behind those cool amber eyes she detected more stories than one man had a right to.

She almost laughed at the fanciful notion. Her imagination would be the death of her yet. If she could write worth a damn, she’d be a novelist herself instead of a literary agent.

She tried to sound assertive. “I need to see your ID again.”

“No time.” He was off once more, Zara’s spiked heels clicking on the tiled floor as he hauled her along, just another piece of baggage.

Outside the terminal, the air was balmy, the sky clear azure—a flawless May afternoon. Zara squinted against the dazzling sun, wishing she could get to her shades. Somehow she doubted Pierce would be willing to stop and let her fish them out of her carry-on.

They crossed busy airport roads, darting through traffic. All the while he continued to scrutinize their surroundings.

Suddenly it occurred to her that his loose windbreaker almost certainly concealed a holster. She swallowed back a knot of apprehension. Her voice wobbled as they sprinted across the parking lot. “You said you had to get me somewhere safe. Safe from what? From who?”

“MacGowan Byrne.”

She lost her precarious footing as that sank in and would have ended up sprawled on the pavement if not for Pierce’s death grip on her arm.

“Mac Byrne?” she squeaked. “The art dealer?” The man she’d made Emma promise to meet to complete the lucrative sale she’d arranged? The man who was going to solve all her financial problems?

“That’s the one.” He retrieved a key chain and beeped a nearby car. A small, sleek BMW. Black with tinted windows and wide tires. He quickly stowed her luggage in the trunk, then opened the passenger door and shoved her inside. She barely had time to pull in her feet before he slammed the door.

He circled the car and slid behind the wheel, his movements swift and economical, as graceful as the timber wolf she’d likened him to.

And no doubt as dangerous.

He seemed to completely fill the compact sports car, his big body radiating heat and male vitality. Turning the key, he said, “You should be more careful who you do business with. Mac Byrne tried to kill your sister when she went to meet with him.”

“Emma?” she whispered.

Zara was drowning. Air. She needed air. She dug her nails into the leather armrest, her chest heaving with the effort to make her world stop reeling.

“Is she… is she okay?”

Pierce didn’t spare her a glance. “She’s no longer in danger. But he’s got your mother. Candy Carmelle. Kidnapped her from your apartment over a week ago.”

A sob broke through the fingers she clamped over her mouth.

Dear God, what have I done?

A solid metallic snick made her jump. The sound of power door locks engaging. She glanced at the spot where her own lock button should have been, only to spy an empty hole. Her gaze flew to her companion’s impassive profile as he palmed the steering wheel and backed out of the parking space.

“A little insurance.”

*

Candy Carmelle was a dead woman. She could see it in her captor’s cold, golden brown eyes. Wolf’s eyes.

As she looked back on her sixty-one years, her only regret was having slept with Billy Sharke way back when for the ray gun—the first step in a love affair that changed the course of her life. If it weren’t for that damn ray gun, she’d be home right now, watching the soaps and working Lady Clairol into her roots.

Billy had directed her in Dr. Blood, Blood Wedding, The Slithering, The Brain from Asteroid X, The Atomic Bride, and Return of the Atomic Bride. He’d adored Candy. No one could scream like her. She was the queen bee of B-movie scream queens. A regular diva.

Candy stared sullenly at the movie prop that had vanquished the Atomic Bride and her undead minions in Return, now tucked into a corner of the dingy basement room that had been her prison for more than a week. The ray gun was polished chrome, the size and approximate shape of a rifle. A high-camp version of a futuristic weapon, it sported more knobs, levers, gadgets, and gizmos than the space shuttle.

She’d thought she was the only one with a sentimental attachment to the silly thing. Seems some weird recluse with more money than God just couldn’t live without it. And Mac Byrne was more than willing to accommodate him.

She sneaked a peek at Mac, who’d just come in from one of his mysterious excursions. He sat slumped at the opposite end of the rump-sprung sofa that doubled as her bed, staring into middle distance and muttering to himself. She thought she heard ripe cussing directed at “that damn cowboy.” Again.

No doubt about it, her captor was a few pecans short of a pie and getting loonier by the hour.

Maybe that “damn cowboy” was the one who’d worked Mac over shortly after he kidnapped Candy from her daughter Zara’s apartment. Mac had hog-tied her and left her in this musty cellar for what seemed like hours. She had to admit the terror and discomfort were almost worth it when he returned looking like rewarmed dog do—a split lip, a nasty shiner, and a couple of cracked ribs.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer psychopath.

If nothing else, the shellacking her captor had endured was evidence that all was not going according to his demented plans. Which might mean that her daughter Emma, Zara’s twin sister, was still safe. Perhaps this “cowboy,” whoever he was, was looking after her. Whatever else, Candy couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy about anyone Mac hated so virulently.

“Mac?” Her tone couldn’t get more syrupy if she were gargling with molasses.

He slid her a suspicious sidelong glance.

She scooted closer. “Your face healed up nicely, but I bet those ribs are still bothering you. Let me have a look.”

She reached for his shirt. He grabbed her wrist, not roughly but with enough force to aggravate the rope burns. She winced. Immediately his touch turned gentle as he sat up and examined the welts.

He murmured, “Your skin is so delicate. These’ll get infected if I don’t put something on them. I’ll go out for some ointment.”

“Your hands are very soothing.” She smiled shyly and traced the muscular pad of his thumb. “But strong, too. I find that so intriguing. A man of contradictions.”

Contradictions, hell, the guy was downright schizoid—brutally cold one second, tender and solicitous the next.

Sweet Lord, how had this demented creep talked Zara into selling him the ray gun in the first place? Her daughter was supposed to be an astute businesswoman. Candy liked the way they’d put it in that Wall Street Journal article: “Zara Sutcliffe is the quintessential nineties wheeler-dealer, a glamorous literary superagent with more media presence than her famous and infamous clients.”

Candy often wished Zara’s twin sister, Emma, possessed a fraction of that glamour, or the street smarts that went along with it. But then, it was staid, sensible Emma who’d been forced to cope with the desperate situation her impulsive sister had caused.

She studied Mac as he tenderly inspected her wrists. His display of concern was ludicrous. They both knew he had no intention of releasing her alive.

The man might be a homicidal maniac, but he was a good-looking, prosperous homicidal maniac. Mid-thirties, tall and powerfully built, with rugged features and long dark hair past his shoulders. And that Rolex didn’t come from Kmart. On the surface, precisely the sort of affluent, studly hunk she’d always wanted Emma and Zara to hook up with.

He said, “I didn’t want to do this to you, Candy. They left me no choice.” Those wolflike eyes looked more like a puppy’s now, anxious for her approval.

He’d abducted her to force Emma to hand over the ray gun. Now that he had it, he was supposed to release her. But Candy was under no illusions. She’d seen enough movies to know what happened to hostages who could identify their kidnappers.

They were never heard from again.

Her only hope was to stall for time. And the best way to accomplish that was to play on Mac’s weakness: his adolescent fixation on Candy Carmelle, scream queen extraordinaire.

When he’d kidnapped her he was no doubt anticipating your basic sixtyish grandma type. What he’d ended up with was the same fit, alluring B-movie actress he’d obviously spent his youth drooling over, glued to the tube and Reptile Bride as it ran day after day on the old Million Dollar Movie.

Candy was a proud, shining example of sexy mature womanhood. She even dreamed of starring in her own exercise videos, though that was all it amounted to, a dream. Her initial inquiries had left her dispirited.

Still, that goal had been something to fantasize about when she’d assumed she had a few more decades in which to grow old disgracefully. With every hour that passed, that future appeared more elusive. Well, she sure as hell wasn’t going to give in without a fight. Her weapon of choice? The one she’d spent a lifetime honing.

She took a deep, shuddering breath and was pleased to note the direction of Mac’s gaze. The top two buttons of her blouse had popped off during the struggle in Zara’s apartment, revealing a deep vee of crimson lace and what Billy Sharke used to call ten pounds of cantaloupes in a five-pound sack.

She sank her pearly capped incisors into her collagen-enhanced lower lip, her full, shivering sigh a double-barreled testament to the wonders of modern medical science. She quickly averted her tear-glazed, nipped-and-tucked eyes, just as she’d done back in her acting days when the title creature in The Undead Tongue got a little too close for comfort.

“Aw, Candy…”

“I—” That little catch in her voice for effect. “I’m just so—so—frightened, Mac.”

He released his breath in a rush and sagged into the sofa. Avoiding her eyes.

She was doomed.

Why hadn’t she married Billy? She could have had him, he’d wanted to make it legal, but no, she had to go and elevate herself. That’s where John Sutcliffe, investment banker, came in. Rambling estate in Connecticut. Piles of moldy Old Money. Hordes of snooty, richer-than-thou friends.

And a mean streak that had no bounds.

She hadn’t lasted two years. Leaving him was the biggest mistake of her life. By the time she realized John would never let her have the girls, it was too late. He wouldn’t take her back. And she was no match for the high-powered lawyers all that Old Money could buy.

So she lost her twin daughters, Zara and Emma, her beautiful dark-haired babies. Didn’t see them again until they were grown and came looking for her after John’s death.

Mac jumped up and paced to the far wall. “He was there, you know. He’s there every time I turn around nowadays. I can feel him breathing down my neck, just waiting for me to slip up.” He kicked a metal utility pail and sent it flying across the room.

Candy said, “Who? The cowboy?”

His gaze snapped to her and she bit her lip. Gone were the puppy-dog eyes. Here was the wolf, dangerous and unpredictable.

“No,” he said slowly. “Not the cowboy.” He stalked to the Peg-Board and grabbed the loop of rope hanging there.

A whimper of protest escaped her. He didn’t always tie her when he left the house. It depended on his mood and the depth of his paranoia at the moment.

He had to know she was helpless either way. The one window was securely covered with thick plywood nailed to the fifties-style knotty pine paneling. The door at the top of the wooden stairs was bolted from the outside, and there was nothing in either her little prison or the adjacent bathroom that could be used as a weapon or to summon help.

He stood there for an indecisive moment, scowling at her abused wrists. Then he flung the rope to the tile floor. She let out a silent sigh of relief, careful to avoid eye contact. She’d already learned not to mess with him when he was like this. He could turn on her in a heartbeat. Even when he did tie her, he never bothered gagging her, and she no longer wasted her breath hollering for help. Her talents as a scream queen were wasted here in this isolated old house in a semirural area north of New York City. No neighbors within earshot. Mac grabbed the ray gun and took the steps three at a time. Candy flinched when she heard the bolt slide home.

*

The cockroach skirted the edge of the bare mattress lying on the filthy concrete floor. It paused a moment, then crawled up onto the frayed ticking.

Zara shuddered. Pierce couldn’t really expect her to sleep on that revolting thing, with its mildewy odor and suspicious-looking stains?

The cool, coarse floor tugged at her stockinged feet as she crossed to the long wall of grime-encrusted windows. It was nearly dark. The sky—what she could see of it above the windowless brick building across the street—was a deep purplish gray. One window was tipped open and she stuck her head out to feel the cool breeze on her face, to draw in a lungful of the funky New York City air she’d missed so much while she was in Australia.

She was five stories up in a deserted movers’ warehouse in an industrial area of Manhattan. Somewhere in the Thirties near Tenth Avenue—she hadn’t paid strict attention when they arrived three hours ago, preoccupied as she’d been with trying to pry information out of a taciturn Agent Pierce.

If he really was an FBI agent.

He’d escorted her up there, locked her in—for her protection, he’d said—and left immediately. He hadn’t even had the decency to bring her luggage up from the car. For three hours she’d had only her overactive imagination for company.

And her guilt.

If Pierce was to be believed, Zara’s mother had been kidnapped. By Mac Byrne, the same maniac who’d tried to kill her twin sister, Emma.

This whole mess was her own fault. She closed her eyes and slumped against the window, the glass cool against her forehead. It was she who’d put the ball in motion by jumping at Mac’s offer to buy Candy’s ray gun. She should have known it was too good to be true.

Two million dollars.

The strident sound of the dead bolt kick-started her heart. Pierce materialized on the threshold, a shadowy figure filling the doorway.

“It’s dark in here.” His deep voice rumbled across the cavernous room and rolled over her, through her.

She swallowed hard. “I—I didn’t know if it was safe to turn on lights.”

He crossed the room in a few long strides, leaving a tantalizing aroma in his wake. A cluster of abandoned furniture, including the unsavory mattress, occupied one corner. The floor lamp winked on—a retro-looking throwback to the sixties. She was glad he hadn’t turned on the overhead fluorescent lights. He deposited a white paper sack on the chipped, boomerang-shaped Formica coffee table.

“If you’re a vegetarian, you’re outta luck,” he said.

“I’m not.” She didn’t budge.

He unzipped his windbreaker and shrugged out of it. Even though she was prepared, the sight of his shoulder holster strapped over the maroon T-shirt startled her. The wide brown leather straps hugged his shoulders front and back in a kind of halter design. A black gun grip peeked out from the burnished leather under his arm.

He kept it on.

He dragged a straight chair closer to the table, sat, and began emptying the bags. Without looking up, he said, “You gonna stand there all night?”

She locked her knees against a deep shiver. What was it about this man that made her feel so utterly exposed?

When they had yet to exchange fifty words!

He raised his head and those glowing golden eyes found her, skewered her. Challenged her.

She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other. The rough floor fought her progress, snagging her stockings. Each tentative step felt like a cold, clinging kiss on the soles of her feet, urging her to retreat.

He watched her steadily as she entered the circle of light thrown by the floor lamp. That assessing gaze missed nothing, from her short, dark, stylishly cut hair down to the tiny runs racing up her black silk stockings.

The inspection was thorough but not lewd. In the instant before he returned his attention to his dinner, she detected a hint of disdain. As if, indeed, he saw right through the glamorous, self-possessed facade she’d so painstakingly erected. Most men were downright intimidated by that facade—the look, the attitude, the trappings of fame and success. The whole beauty-and-brains thing.

Why couldn’t Logan Pierce be one of those men?

She stared at the meal he’d laid out on the dusty table. Two large bundles wrapped in white deli paper. A couple of plastic salad containers. Plastic-wrapped carrot cake and two bottles of iced tea.

“The Sicilian’s for you,” he said.

“The what?”

“That’s what the deli down the street calls it.” He unwrapped one of the bundles and lifted the top of a hero roll to reveal the motley contents. “Genoa salami, pepperoni, mortadella, provolone,” he recited. “Lettuce, tomato, onions, olive oil, and vinegar. The whole shebang.” Those cool eyes flicked over her. “I figured, since you’re part Italian.”

She blinked. A lucky guess, or was there a file at FBI headquarters labeled Sutcliffe, Zara?

Perhaps that file included the little-known tidbits about her mother that had never made it into the film fanzines. Such as her Italian heritage. Forty years earlier, beautiful, determined Giovanna Sarro bought herself a one-way bus ticket from New York’s Little Italy to Hollywood, where she soon learned to mix peroxide with celluloid and remade herself as Candy Carmelle.

Zara wanted to ask what else he knew, but instead said, “What are you having?”

Wordlessly he opened his hard roll and showed her a pile of exceedingly rare roast beef slathered with brown mustard. The roll was stained red from the meat. She grimaced. “Still twitching, I see.” She peered into the empty bag. “Paper plates? For the slaw and potato salad?”

Mouth full, he shrugged and indicated the plastic forks. As if he expected the two of them to just dig in to the same container.

How cozy.

She looked around for another chair and came up empty. “Listen, Pierce, I’m kinda curious.”

“Most people call me Logan.”

“Logan, then. You called this place a safe house. I always thought a safe house was supposed to be, like, a house?”

He studied her as he chewed and swallowed, then chased the wad of raw cow with a long pull of iced tea. “I always thought the operative word was safe. Sit down and eat.”

She eyed the mattress with distaste, wishing Logan were gentleman enough to offer her the chair. Gingerly she lowered herself onto the very edge of the thin mattress, clamping her knees and ankles together while trying to squirm into some semblance of a ladylike posture. Nevertheless, her short, snug skirt rode way up, displaying the tops of her stockings, black satin garter clasps, and a healthy expanse of thigh. She yanked on the skirt, to no avail.

Logan, staring down from his perch next to her, had a spectacular view of the action. She was certain he could see not only her garter belt but her black thong panties, as well. Sitting there under that bright floor lamp, she felt like Sharon Stone being interrogated in Basic Instinct.

Except Sharon had been in control. She certainly hadn’t been wriggling and swearing like this, wrenching at her recalcitrant clothing. And Michael Douglas had had the grace to be embarrassed. This bastard just sat there watching her, calmly devouring that damn bleeding thing he called a sandwich.

She squeezed her knees together and splayed her ankles, grunting and sweating as she tried to lever herself off the mattress. “Help me up!” She reached out a hand.

“Do I have to?”

So he did know how to smile. She’d assumed his face would fracture with the effort.

Before she could spit out a reply, he seized her wrist and easily hoisted her to her feet.

She gritted, “I don’t suppose I could bother you for my luggage. If I’m going to be stuck here awhile, I’d like to change into something less… something more…”

“Practical?” He got up and strode to the door. “Leave me some coleslaw.”

Logan returned in less than two minutes. He dumped her elegant matched bags near one of the concrete-reinforced columns studding the room, next to his enormous battered green duffel and a couple of sleeping bags. “There you go.”

She hoisted one eyebrow and sneered, “Aren’t you going to search my luggage?”

“Did that earlier.”

“What?” She’d been kidding!

“Go change. The john’s over there.”

“I know where it is.” She stalked toward her large Pullman bag and started pulling out clothes. “I found it while you were gone. For three hours!”

“Missed me, did you?”

She shot back, “Are you really an FBI agent?”

He never blinked. “If I’m not, it’s a little late for you to do anything about it now.”


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