Sarah Farentino heard the snick of the lock as she slipped the door open with a credit card. She waited, listening, but there was no sign that anyone had heard.
she stepped inside the apartment, moving quietly as a shadow. Her
practiced eyes studied her surroundings: The room was huge, domed by a
cathedral ceiling and studded with oversize leather-and-teak
furnishings. The painting over the fireplace was an original Matisse,
the tall vases were from the Ming dynasty, and the man lying on the
cream-colored carpet was very, very dead.
glided forward, kneeling beside the corpse to search for clues. She had
come too late to save her client's ex-husband, but...
she heard a whisper of noise, like a sigh. The sound of someone
breathing in the next room.
killer was still in the apartment.
"Miss? Excuse me, miss. Are you all right?"
"What?" Sarah's eyes came into focus. She found herself staring at the interlibrary loan request she'd been holding. She lifted her gaze across the reference desk of the library to the man standing in front of it.
He looked…annoyed. Tall and self-possessed and moderately-to-very annoyed. She wondered if his eyes were always this intensely blue-gray, or only when he was angry. And whether other women felt this same peculiar tingle when confronted by him, a kind of heightened awareness edged with alarm, as though he might pounce.
"I've been trying to get your attention for the past five minutes." His fingers drummed on the desk. Square-tipped fingers, no rings. He might be a businessman, judging by the shape of his hands. He might also be an embezzler. "I'd like some help finding a book, if you could spare the time."
Sarah winced at the sarcasm in his voice. Instead of replying in kind, she adopted a professional tone. "I'd be happy to help you, sir. What sort of book are you looking for?"
"Something about missing persons." He angled toward her, as though drawing her into an inner circle of confidence. As though a secret were passing between them, a mystery that committed them both to danger....
Sarah forced herself back to reality. Whatever it was that gave this man a charismatic aura, it had nothing to do with her. "A novel? We have a mystery section." Her favorite.
"Nonfiction." The man snapped out the word, then glanced around the library as if afraid of being overheard. Or perhaps Sarah's imagination was working overtime again.
"Let me show you how to use our catalog." She led the way to the computers. "Under Missing Persons, let's see, we have half a dozen listings...."
"Miss, I'm in a hurry. Could you just get me the book, please?"
“I could help you search online, if you prefer.”
The man glared. “I tried that already. The results were less than satisfactory.”
He was clearly accustomed to giving commands and to being obeyed. Well, he wasn't in charge here, and Sarah had to bite back a sharp retort. She would have liked to point out that there were close to thirty thousand books in this library, and that people had the oddest ways of asking for what they wanted. One woman had insisted she was looking for a reference book with a title that sounded like a dinosaur, and only after an hour of hunting had Sarah discovered that the woman wanted a thesaurus.
For all she knew, this man might be seeking anything from a book on psychics to a history of police science. There was no point in standing here arguing with him, though, since he was already glowering at her.
"Follow me." She jotted down the tracking numbers of several books and led him through the stacks. "Here's one. Thirteen Who Vanished."
The man reached past her impatiently and snatched the book from the shelf. His aftershave lotion had an expensive, English note to it, and his dark-brown hair was silvering around the edges. Sarah guessed him to be in his mid-thirties. She took pains to study people closely enough to fill out an accurate description for the police, if the occasion ever arose. So far, it hadn't.
"Amelia Earhart? The Bermuda Triangle?" The man shoved the book back into place and picked up the next one, his face averted so that she found herself regarding a pair of dark eyebrows with arches marked by rebellious tufts. "UFOs? I said nonfiction, in case you weren't listening."
"And in case you didn't notice, these books were cataloged under Missing Persons." Sarah swallowed hard. This man brought out the worst in her; she rarely lost her temper with patrons. His arrogance cried out to be tamed, or laughed away.
She wondered how he looked when he laughed. He probably never did, except when tromping small animals beneath his boots. Make that Italian leather shoes.
At her sharp tone, the man's eyes narrowed and his upper lip curled. He obviously wasn't used to being contradicted, and Sarah thought for a moment he was going to say something unpleasant. Then he jammed his fists into his pockets as if getting a grip on himself. "What I had in mind was how detectives solve missing-persons cases."
"Thank you for clarifying that." Sarah led the way to another section. "Here are some books on detective work.” She decided against reading aloud the first title she spotted, which happened to be The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating. He’d probably take it personally. “I might be able to think of other categories if you'd give me more information. Are you trying to find someone?"
His jaw tightened. "Don't be ridiculous. Do I look like a detective?"
"No, you look too rich to be a detective," Sarah blurted, and then coughed to cover her confusion, "I mean, that's a very nice suit." It must have cost a couple of thousand dollars, she could have added, but didn't. It would be awkward to explain that she liked to store up such facts, daydreaming that they might come in handy if she ever tripped over a corpse in someone's living room.
Not that she really expected to, of course.
"I'm delighted that you like my suit, miss." His cold, dismissive glance made Sarah wish she'd done something with her short brown hair other than tuck it behind her ears, and that she'd used at least a touch of mascara on her disappearing eyelashes. Not that she couldn't stand up to this man just as she was, but one could always use a bit of cosmetic moral support.
"Are you looking for someone?" she demanded.
"That's none of your..." He paused before adding, with a slight softening of the tone, "Not exactly. If you must know, I write detective novels, and I'm working on one involving a missing person."
"Oh!" That put a different light on things entirely. "What name do you write under? Maybe I've read some of your books!"
"I'm sure you haven't. I meant to say that I’m writing my first book." He pulled a volume off the shelf. "This looks promising. Thank you for the help. I can find what I need now."
"Let me know if you have any problems." She started to ask another question about his writing, but he turned his back. Reluctantly, she retreated to her desk.
It was hard to know what to make of him. Sarah had to concede that the man was good-looking. More than that: striking. She sensed power rippling beneath the surface. In his presence, her surroundings felt magnified, as if she'd stumbled into a larger-than-life scenario.
Oh, sure. You do have a killer imagination. She glanced around the familiar room with its old-fashioned shelves of books. Despite the addition of computers and DVDs to modern libraries, she always felt suspended in time here. People spoke quietly, their voices blending into a hushed murmur that might have been ancient Greek or medieval Latin or the guttural English of Chaucer’s day. Sarah retained the belief from her childhood that absolutely anything might happen in a library.
She picked up the interlibrary loan request she'd been working on, but the task of finding Debrett's Correct Form didn't strike her as any more fascinating than it had half an hour before. The card dangled in her hand as her thoughts returned to the man.
Was he really a writer? From the way he’d changed his story, she suspected he'd made it up. But why? If he was looking for a missing person, why hadn't he turned the matter over to the police?
"Working on the mystery of the purloined library card, or is it the case of the scratched DVD?" Elsie Cohan, Sarah's supervisor, shook her head sympathetically. Sarah blushed. She didn't mind that her co-workers knew she enjoyed reading mysteries, but she wished Elsie weren't quite so perceptive about her daydreams.
"I'm sorry. Something stirred my curiosity and—well, it doesn't matter. I'll get this request taken care of." Sarah fumbled with the slip and, to her embarrassment, had to grab it as it drifted toward the floor.
"Look, if you want to leave early today, go ahead," Elsie said. "You're probably anxious to be off on your vacation, and you could use the break." Sarah hardly ever went anywhere, but Elsie had insisted she take the two weeks that were due her.
"That's okay." Sarah checked her watch and saw that it was almost four. "I don't mind finishing up."
"Sarah." Elsie sat on the edge of the desk. She was a tall woman who would have looked imposing if it weren't for her air of genuine concern. She reminded Sarah a little of Angela Lansbury on the classic TV series Murder; She Wrote. "Let me give you a piece of advice. You need to start living instead of burying yourself in books. You're almost thirty, and if you don't do something soon, I'm afraid you'll find you've dreamed your life away. I hope you're going somewhere exciting for your vacation."
"I haven't quite decided about that yet." Sarah's living room was littered with travel brochures. Yet, every time she tried to make a decision, she thought of all the complications and problems that could arise. She'd probably end up taking a hotel room at the beach and reading a stack of mysteries, the way she had on her last vacation. If only that prospect didn't leave her feeling restless and dissatisfied.
"You think about what I've said. Believe me, I—oh, blast, my phone's ringing." Elsie hurried off.
right; I am dreaming my life away, Sarah thought. Her thirtieth
birthday loomed on the horizon only a few months off. It's as if I
still need to prove something to myself. I just wish I could figure out
what it is.
A woman with a small boy came by to ask about Harry Potter books, and Sarah showed them how to find them. She enjoyed educating children about using libraries; their enthusiasm was one of the best parts of her job.
On the way back to her desk, she paused by a display of travel books. Ireland, Canada, France, Italy. So many places a person might go, although two weeks did seem like a short time.
Two teen girls pushed by, giggling, then glanced at Sarah as if expecting her to frown and shush them. Instead, she smiled distractedly, her attention on a cover photo of Pompeii.
Now, there was a fascinating place, Sarah mused as she picked up the book and leafed through it. What would it be like to walk through the streets of an ancient city, to see the villas where people had lived their lives nearly two thousand years ago? And to ride on an old-fashioned train, with compartments, and hear the people around you all speaking a foreign language? But Italy was so far away, and so strange.
One of these days she’d go. She couldn't let her fears keep her boxed up forever. But she ought to start small, with something closer to home.
Sarah replaced the book and returned thoughtfully to her desk. There was a mystery weekend scheduled at one of the local hotels later in the month. It might be a weak substitute for launching an adventure of her own, and the rooms were on the pricey side, but it had the advantage of being safe. Safe and predictable.
Then she saw the man again.
He was striding toward the checkout counter holding a couple of books. As he set them on the counter and reached into his pocket for his wallet, he glanced at Sarah. Embarrassed to be caught watching him, she averted her face. With her peripheral vision, though, she kept him under observation. You never knew when something suspicious might happen, right there at the checkout counter.
He fidgeted as if trying to make a decision. Abruptly, as a clerk approached, he tossed his books onto a shelving cart and stalked out of the library.
He must know that if he borrowed the books, I could find out his name. That might be stretching things, yet instincts honed by years of watching TV detective shows warned that she was right. Why didn’t he want Sarah to know who he was?
That he must be someone important had been evident from his arrogant manner, as well as from the expensive suit. He was impressive to look at, Sarah had to admit. Several library patrons glanced up as he walked by, and one young woman followed him with her eyes until he disappeared out the door.
She had only a split second to make a decision. Even now, the man would be getting into his car and starting the motor. Sarah reviewed the facts rapidly: He was looking for a missing person and he didn't want to be recognized. That might mean someone was in danger—or it might not.
It was crazy even to contemplate getting mixed up in something she knew nothing about. Librarians simply didn't go chasing patrons through Newport Beach on the shadow of a suspicion. But a real mystery might have just fallen into Sarah's lap.
In Agatha Christie books, intrigue could arise in the most mundane of settings. Why shouldn’t it happen to her? A strange, seductive man had walked into the world of a hitherto cloistered young librarian and presented her with a puzzle that needed solving. Even if only for my own satisfaction, I have a duty to look into it.
A sense of exhilaration caught Sarah by surprise. Adrenaline surged. The late-afternoon fog cleared from her brain as if she'd awakened from a long nap.
The worst that could happen was to make a fool of herself. So what? Nobody would know or care.
At best—though admittedly it wasn't likely—she might save someone. Besides, solving a mystery right here in Newport Beach didn't require braving the international airways or muddling along in a foreign language or losing her luggage. It wouldn't cost as much as a mystery weekend, either.
Impulse overcoming good sense, Sarah grabbed her purse from beneath the desk, flipped the loan request into a tray and fled out the door. Skidding to a halt on the sidewalk, she surveyed the street. At the end of the block, a black Maserati with a lone male driver was waiting for the light to change, signaling a left turn. She dashed down the walkway to her car.
The engine in Sarah's Volkswagen convertible sputtered and the gears growled as the car wheezed out of the parking space. As usual, Sarah had left the top down, and September sunshine warmed her shoulders.
At the corner, she screeched through a light on the verge of turning red, then checked the rearview mirror. She'd never before so much as run a yellow light, always certain that the long arm of the law waited to seize her at the first opportunity.
No cop in sight. Good omen.
While in books and movies, tailing someone appeared fairly simple, Sarah had always suspected it wasn't. It came as no satisfaction to learn she was right. Even though the Maserati wasn't going particularly fast, she had to keep a reasonable distance between them to avoid suspicion, which sometimes required hurrying to catch up. That meant whipping around a pedestrian who had the bad grace to step off a curb at the wrong time and honking furiously at a trash truck that started to pull out in front of her.
They were headed toward the ocean and, at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon, the traffic began to thicken. At least the man's car was distinctive enough not to get lost easily as he turned onto Coast Highway.
Sarah checked her gas gauge. It was edging down from a quarter of a tank. If the man went far, her great adventure might be over before it really began.
Ahead, the Maserati made a right turn into Harbor Shores, one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Newport. Edging the harbor, the development was protected on three sides by a high fence, with a guard at the front gate.
Sarah slowed as she passed the gate, checking to see if the guard was at his station. He was. Inside, the Maserati whipped out of sight.
Her best bet was to try one of the side entrances, which were protected by gates that, Sarah assumed, could be opened with keys or special cards. She'd read a book once about picking locks and, in a burst of enthusiasm, had practiced her talents with reasonable success on her front door.
As soon as Sarah turned off the highway, though, she saw that she'd been mistaken. Instead of a key-operated box, the gate utilized an infrared opening device. Taking a long shot, she pressed her garage door opener. Nothing happened.
Behind her, a Cadillac turned into the bay and stopped, its rear bumper jutting into traffic. The driver, a matronly woman with sprayed-stiff hair, tapped her horn.
Sarah waved an arm helplessly and called out, "My thingy is broken."
It didn't take the woman more than a second to realize they were both stuck, since she’d have to back onto the busy highway to let Sarah pass. "Oh, all right." She reached down to press something, and the gate swung open.
Sarah drove through and turned right, trying to pretend she knew where she was going. Luckily, the Cadillac headed in the opposite direction.
By now, the man must have reached his destination. Sarah cruised between Mediterranean-style houses, hoping he hadn't put the Maserati in a garage. Crisscrossing from one street to another, she worked her way toward the water until she reached the harborside road where the houses, so she'd heard, cost upwards of ten million dollars apiece and came with their own piers.
Then she saw it. The black Maserati waited in front of a house that was imposing even by Harbor Shores standards. Like something from the pages of Architectural Digest, it winged its way upward to slanting solar panels. Sarah vaguely recalled reading about the house winning an award for its eco-friendly design, but she couldn't remember who it belonged to.
She parked halfway down the block and, on impulse, pulled a baseball cap from under the seat. It had been a giveaway item at the opening of a local specialty market, and she'd stuck it there and almost forgotten about it. While not much of a disguise, it might help if the man spotted her at a distance.
Excitement prickled along Sarah's arms. She hadn't expected to enjoy herself this much. Today she didn't feel like dull, ordinary Sarah Farentino. Maybe it was the prospect of two weeks with nothing to do that had brought out her daring side.
Or maybe I’m just so bored that I’m ready for anything.
There was no dense shrubbery to hide in, she noted, so she’d have to wait in her car to see if the man came out again. In the meantime, Sarah decided to put the top up to be less conspicuous.
Easier said than done. She rarely put her top up, and was dismayed to find it rusty, stiff and creaky.
Screech! Screech! How come detectives on TV never had this problem? She glanced at the house apprehensively. No one came out.
What was happening inside? The man might live there, or he might be visiting someone. He could be burglarizing the place, she supposed, except that a burglar wasn't likely to have left his car out front.
"Wow. That's a real antique. Wanna sell it?" The teenager startled Sarah. She bumped her wrist against the edge of the windshield.
“Ouch!” She took a deep breath. "No, but I'll trade it for a Porsche, if you’ve got one you can spare."
The skinny boy wore only shorts, thong sandals and a splotchy, peeling tan. "Don't I wish. Hey, you need some help?"
"I can handle it." Please go away. Sarah tugged on the top, trying to ease it into place. It sprang back, nearly pulling her arm out of the socket.
The kid caught one side. "You grab hold over there, okay?"
Behind her, Sarah heard a door slam. The door of the house. The man—or someone—had come out and she was standing here in full view. At least she had her back to him.
"I've got it," she told the boy, keeping her face lowered. As they tugged and pulled the top into place, she listened to the sounds of a car starting up and moving away from the curb. Peering over, Sarah glimpsed the driver's profile. It was the man from the library, all right. And he'd changed from his suit into a polo shirt, which meant he must live in that house, or at least be staying there.
"Thanks," she told the boy as he finished securing the top.
"Any time. Can I help you with something else?"
"No, thanks," She wished the boy would leave. If she didn't pick up the man's trail right away, it would be hopeless.
Taking hints obviously wasn't the kid's strong point. "You know, you're kind of cute under that cap. Wanna go out for a Coke? I mean, if you don't mind using your wheels."
Oh, terrific. That was all Sarah needed, a Coke date with a boy half her age. "Thanks, but I'm afraid I've got work to do." She opened the car door and slid inside.
"Well, okay. Catch ya later." He ambled off, disappearing into one of the houses.
Sarah leaned back against the seat. It was too late to go after the man now.
At least she might be able to find out who he was. Checking around to be sure no one was watching, she got out and walked over to the house. The mailbox was freshly painted an attractive shade of blue. No name on it and no mail inside, either.
The man might have a maid, or a wife, although he hadn’t been wearing a ring. Still trying to figure out what to say if anyone answered, Sarah rang the bell and waited, then rang it again.
This was the turning point, she realized. Either she gave up and went home, or she made a commitment to see this adventure through. Which meant breaking into the house.
only the proverbial complete idiot would try it. Maybe there was even a
book by that name: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breaking and
Entering. Or, in her case, more likely The Complete Idiot’s
Guide to Being a Complete Idiot.
Just get on with it.
There was a deadbolt on the door, probably a burglar alarm and very likely a Newport Beach policeman who had nothing better to do today than to arrest crazy ladies who played amateur detective.
As she reflected, Sarah paced along a flagstone path that led to the water. Rounding a corner of the house, she saw Newport Harbor spread before her with its rows of moored boats, from small sailboats to grand yachts. In the late-afternoon sunshine, a catamaran with brightly colored sails skimmed across the water.
The house's rear deck boasted a large gas grill and a selection of lounge furniture, gray with tasteful maroon and blue striping. Through sliding glass doors, Sarah saw two hanging fuchsias and a tile floor that most likely belonged to the kitchen. But there was nothing here to indicate the owner's identity or who might be missing.
Intense curiosity refused to let Sarah walk away. She wanted to learn more about the man, not only his name but what sort of person he was and how he lived. To her amazement, she discovered that she wanted to know everything from how many ties he owned to what kind of food he stocked in his refrigerator.
Once before, Sarah had rebelled against doing what was expected of her. Compared to her talented, lively sister Jeanette, she'd always been the mousy one in the family, the daughter whose role was to marry right out of college and produce grandchildren. She'd nearly done it, too, until the night when, serving beer and snacks to her fiancé and his pals during their weekly poker game, she'd felt herself almost physically choking to death on the stale air and the stale existence ahead of her. She'd walked out and never looked back, even though her mother had warned that she was throwing away a good man and what might be her one chance for happiness.
And now? Was she really going to break into a stranger's home, just because the idea made her feel more energized and stimulated than she had in years?
Sarah took a deep breath. She couldn't allow herself to go through with this madness. Besides, the thought of smashing those glass doors disturbed her. Curiosity was one thing, vandalism another.
With a sigh, she took one last look at the back of the house. Then she saw it.
A window on the second floor had been left open. It was directly above the slatted redwood patio cover, which appeared sturdy enough to bear her weight. With a bit of luck, Sarah might be able to climb up there by using the patio furniture for support.
This was too good an opportunity to pass up. And too foolish to risk thinking twice about, because if she did, she might chicken out.
Heartily wishing she'd worn slacks, Sarah dragged the patio table to the edge of the deck, then set a chair on top of it. No way was she going to make it wearing these heels, so she pulled them and her pantyhose off, tucked them out of sight under the edge of the deck and climbed up, steadying herself on a redwood support.
She was glad for every centimeter of her five-foot-five-inch frame. And for the fact that she faithfully attended workouts twice a week at her gym.
It took a lot of tugging, grunting, slipping and cursing, and a long jagged scrape on her leg, but she made it to the top of the patio cover. Sarah caught her breath and looked around. Heaven help her if one of the neighbors came out and happened to look up. Or if that guy in the catamaran got nosy.
Crawling from slat to slat, Sarah reached the window, which she saw led into a bathroom. It was narrower than it had looked from below, and she decided to drop in feet first.
Everything went fine until she got to the shoulders. The problem was that she needed to brace herself against the edge of the window, and she couldn't seem to do that and make her shoulders narrow enough to fit through the opening. Finally she steeled herself and let go.
There was the disturbing sensation of falling, and then Sarah landed with a thud on a throw rug. A dull pain in the hip let her know she hadn't arrived unscathed.
She paused, her heart beating wildly, listening for any sounds in the house. All she heard was the distant tick of a clock. She was in! She'd done it!
This was some bathroom, Sarah observed as she began to breathe more steadily. It was as big as her living room, with a round sunken tub in the center equipped with air jets. The whole thing was tiled in light blue with fluffy white scatter rugs and blue-and-white towels. It looked like a wonderful place to come home to after a hard day's work.
Getting to her feet, Sarah rubbed her hip, winced and limped off in search of clues. She’d better hurry. No telling when that guy or someone else might come back.
From the bathroom opened what was clearly the master bedroom, sporting a king-size oak bed with an imposing headboard. As soon as she stepped into the room, Sarah smelled the man's aftershave lotion. Her whole body tightened instinctively. What was it about the guy that did that to her, when nobody else ever had?
She wished she had a name to go with the sexy impression. With any luck, she soon would.
On a shelf in the headboard she spotted a photograph, and moved closer to inspect it. The man she'd met in the library was smiling, which did wonders for his square jaw. Beside him with an arm thrown over his shoulder stood a tall young woman with tanned skin, a tawny mane of hair and teasing eyes.
Sarah recognized her at once. It was impossible to read the society pages of the local papers without coming across the antics of Whitney Greystone, heiress to the Brite Cola fortune.
Whitney had dressed up as a gypsy woman and played the tambourine in front of City Hall to protest when the City Council considered banning fortune telling. And she’d hosted dozens of inner-city children on a yacht during the annual Christmas boat parade, entertaining them with a fireworks display that delighted onlookers and nearly got her arrested, since she hadn't bothered to get a permit.
Sarah had always wished she knew brave, adventurous Whitney Greystone. Now she wondered what the heiress's relationship was to the man from the library. Judging by the pose, they might be old friends, but men didn't usually display pictures of old friends beside their beds.
Sarah scrutinized the room for some other clue to the man's identity. There was no wallet conveniently left on the dresser and no framed diploma. Then she noticed a news magazine lying on the dresser.
A burr of excitement rising in her throat, Sarah scurried over. She had to turn the magazine around to read the name on the subscription label: Michael McCord.
She'd heard that name before, even though she’d been unable to connect it to his face. Michael McCord, not yet turned thirty-five, had inherited a small software company and built it into an international empire specializing in online video gaming. He was one of Newport Beach's richest citizens, he was Whitney Greystone's fiancé, and Sarah Farentino had no business in the world prowling around his bedroom.
This whole business had been a mistake. Why had she imagined she could pull this off, as if she were really a detective? All she had to show for her so-called adventure were a scraped leg and a bruised thigh. She could only be grateful that she'd come to her senses before anybody caught her.
With a sigh, Sarah stepped back. Behind her, a floorboard creaked.
She whirled around, too late. Someone grabbed her wrists and, as Sarah tried to jerk away, he lost his balance and tumbled on top of her onto the bed.
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