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Authors: Gail Barrett

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Fatal Exposure

BOOK: Fatal Exposure
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SILENCE IS HER ONLY PROTECTION

Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist B. K. (“Brynn”) Elliot chronicles Baltimore’s grittier side with her lens—a talent cultivated from her years as a teenage runaway. A reclusive figure, Brynn lives under everyone’s radar...until a photo from her past plunges her into the crosshairs of powerful enemies.

Detective Parker McCall has devoted fifteen years to trying to solve his brother’s murder, and with the release of a photo implicating Brynn as a potential suspect, he feels close to finding justice. Determined to get answers, Parker must ignore the inexplicable attraction he feels for the haunted beauty in the photo. And Brynn must decide if Parker will protect her or betray her in his hunt for a killer.

Sweat glistened on her waxy face.

Then her expression changed, her eyes filling with acceptance—the same resignation Parker had seen on his father's face before he'd committed suicide.

Denial rose inside him. Desperation screamed through his skull. He had to do something. He had to stop her somehow. But the slightest move, and Brynn would die.

Her trigger finger moved. Knowing it was hopeless, Parker dived off the bed toward Brynn, flinging himself toward her with all his strength. But she was too far away.

The gun went off, the suppressor silencing all but a quiet pop.

Buried Secrets: Three murder witnesses, one deadly conspiracy

Dear Reader,

Desperate people do desperate things. Sadly, for millions of troubled teenagers, this often means running away from home. But life on the streets can be brutal, exposing these vulnerable children to dangers they never expected, making it difficult to stay alive.

That’s the premise for my Buried Secrets trilogy. Fifteen years ago three desperate girls left their homes for different reasons, then banded together for protection on Baltimore’s treacherous streets. But their lives grew even more precarious when they witnessed a murder committed by a powerful man—who saw them watching. Terrified, they hid the evidence, changed their identities and went on the run to survive.

Now fifteen years later, a chance photograph in the newspaper exposes their identities, blowing the lid off their secret past—and sending each on a journey more dangerous than they’d ever dreamed.

I hope you enjoy their stories as they face down their pasts, confront enemies determined to silence them permanently and finally find the love they deserve.

Happy reading!

Gail Barrett

Gail Barrett

Fatal Exposure

Books by Gail Barrett

Harlequin Romantic Suspense

Cowboy Under Siege
#1672
**
High-Risk Reunion
#1682
**
High-Stakes Affair
#1697

Fatal Exposure
#1757

Silhouette Romantic Suspense

Facing the Fire
#1414
*Heart of a Thief
#1514
*To Protect a Princess
#1538
His 7-Day Fiancée
#1560

*The Royal Affair
#1601
Meltdown
#1610

Silhouette Special Edition

Where He Belongs
#1722

*The Crusaders
**Stealth Knights
‡Buried Secrets

Other titles by this author available in ebook format.

GAIL BARRETT

always knew she’d be a writer. Who else would spend her childhood grinding sparkling rocks into fairy dust and convincing her friends it was real? Or daydream her way through elementary school, spend high school reading philosophy and playing the bagpipes, then head off to Spain during college to live the writer’s life? After four years she straggled back home—broke, but fluent in Spanish. She became a teacher, earned a master’s degree in linguistics, married a Coast Guard officer and had two sons.

But she never lost the desire to write. Then one day she discovered a Silhouette Intimate Moments novel in a bookstore—and knew she was destined to write romance. Her books have won numerous awards, including a National Readers’ Choice Award and Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Golden Heart.

Gail currently lives in western Maryland. Readers can contact her through her website,
www.gailbarrett.com
.

To Binnie Syril Braunstein,
a woman with a generous
heart.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I'd like to thank the following people for making this story
possible: Tom Beck, Chief Curator and Head of Special Collections at the
University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for answering my questions about
photography; Lesley Gourley of Photohunter, whose phenomenal talent is matched
only by her kindness; Wesley Wilson, Chief of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, for
taking time out of his busy schedule to give me a personal tour of the library
and helping me find a place to hide the film; Loni Glover, Karen Alerie and Mary
Jo Archer for their invaluable input and support; and last—but definitely not least—an enormous and heartfelt thanks to Officer
Robert Carusone of the Baltimore Police Department for not only answering my
endless questions, but letting me tag along with him on patrol. Rob, you're
the best! Any mistakes are definitely my own!

Chapter 1

C
old case detective Parker McCall tightened his grip on the newspaper, his gaze riveted on the photo of the woman splashed across the
Baltimore Sun
’s front page. She could have been any affluent shopper strolling out of the pricey art gallery—her long, glossy hair tumbling over her shoulders, the collar of her woolen coat turned up against the brisk November wind.

Except for her wary eyes.

The eyes of his brother’s murderer.

The eyes that had eluded him for fifteen years.

He lowered the newspaper to his cluttered desk, the laughter and banter of the detectives beyond his cubicle receding to a distant buzz. Then, hardly breathing, he tugged his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. Working as carefully as a scientist handling nuclear material, he extracted a worn, faded photo and placed it alongside the page.

For several excruciating seconds his gaze lingered on the image of his younger brother, his heart making its usual lurch of guilt and remorse. Sixteen years old, his cheeks badly hollowed, his body wasted by his addictions, Tommy leaned against a graffiti-sprayed wall near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, one emaciated arm slung over the waiflike girl at his side.

The girl Parker had failed to find.

Until now.

He shifted his scrutiny to the girl, taking in her sparrow-thin legs, the baggy sweatshirt dwarfing her scrawny frame, her unruly mop of auburn curls. Then he homed in on her eyes—bleak, world-weary eyes aged far beyond her years.

He sliced his gaze back to the woman in the newspaper. She was still petite, still thin and older than the adolescent slouching against the wall beside his brother, but he’d stake his life they were the same.

A punch of adrenaline making his heart sprint, he skimmed the article accompanying the front-page spread. Amazingly, the woman appeared to be B. K. Elliot, the world-renowned photojournalist whose exhibit had opened in the gallery that week—a photographer so reclusive that no one had known what she looked like until now. But rumors about her abounded, claiming she was everything from a traumatized war vet to a homeless woman disfigured in a fire.

Regardless of her identity, B. K. Elliot’s photos had caused a worldwide furor in recent years, winning both the Pulitzer for Feature Photography and the prestigious Hasselblad Award. Even Parker, who didn’t know squat about photography, could recognize the power in her unsettling work. Her photos chronicled the poverty and violence of street life with brutal, disturbing honesty.

A perspective only a former runaway could know.

The exhibit’s grand opening had been mobbed, bringing the bigwigs out in droves. Parker’s boss, Colonel Hugh Hoffman—head of the Baltimore Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division—had attended, along with his political mentor, Senator Alfred Riggs. Helping teen runaways was one of the Colonel’s signature projects, as was this cold case squad.

Parker switched his attention back to his brother’s photo, dead sure now that the women were the same. But he needed expert verification, something more concrete to go on before he charged off to find her, half-cocked.

Rising, he scooped up the paper and photo, then strode past the cubicles lined up like jail cells, the stained industrial carpet muffling his steps. Too late he spotted his supervisor, Sergeant Enrique Delgado, manning the coffee machine near the exit. Unable to avoid him, Parker slowed.

“Packing it in already?” Delgado asked, his shrewd gaze taking in the newspaper tucked under Parker’s arm. “Another exhausting day at the desk?”

Parker tamped back a spurt of dislike. Nicknamed “Iglesias” for his slick Latin looks and equally slick reputation with women, Enrique Delgado had transferred in from the gang unit when his cover got blown and a shoot-out nearly claimed his life. But Delgado considered this assignment in the cold case squad beneath him—an opinion he voiced freely, not earning him any friends. Even worse, the Colonel had put Delgado in a supervisory position over far more seasoned homicide detectives, like him.

Brownnosing and office politics at their worst.

Parker leveled him a glance. “Yeah, I threw my back out opening a drawer.”

“Whoa, you should put in for hazard pay.”

Ignoring Delgado’s mocking laughter, Parker shouldered open the door to the hall and strode out. Still scowling, he bypassed the snail-paced elevator and made a beeline for the stairwell, then started up the scuffed steps. Technically, he should have informed Delgado about what he’d found. Like it or not, the man was his supervisor—and with Parker’s dubious family background, he couldn’t afford to buck the rules. But there wasn’t a chance in hell Delgado would let him investigate his brother’s death. And Parker had worked for too many years to forfeit his chance at the killer now.

Silencing his protesting conscience, he exited the stairwell two floors later and veered to the nearest desk. “Is Sudhir in?” he asked the secretary, who was speaking into her headset. She nodded and waved him past, her silver rings glinting in the fluorescent light. Seconds later, Parker knocked on the police artist’s door.

“Come in,” Sudhir called out, and Parker strode inside. Balding, his paunch encased in a purple-and-black Baltimore Ravens T-shirt, Sudhir Singh had been a fixture in the precinct for years, long enough to warrant an actual office, albeit with a Dumpster view. He worked a variety of jobs, from sketch artist, interpreter and polygraph test administrator to unofficial coordinator of the underground football pool.

“Hey, Sudhir. You going to the game this weekend?” Parker asked by way of greeting.

“You bet.” Parker waited, muzzling his impatience until Sudhir wound down his tirade over the team’s most recent trade.

“So whatcha got?” he finally asked.

Parker handed him the old photo. “This girl. I need you to age her fifteen years. I think I’ve found a match.”

His attention instantly snagged, Sudhir swiveled toward his equipment, motioning absently in the direction of an empty chair. “Have a seat.”

Parker pulled up the chair and sat. Leaning forward, he locked his gaze on the monitor as Sudhir scanned the photo in. Several seconds later his brother and the runaway girl appeared on the computer screen.

Parker’s belly went taut, the sight of his drugged-out brother prompting the usual litany of self-reproach. He should have done more to save him. He should have found a way to keep him in rehab until he’d stopped destroying his life. He should have fired that useless counselor and searched for someone better, someone who could have found a way to reach him and convince him to stay off drugs.

And he definitely should have anticipated the effect their father’s arrest and suicide would have on Tommy, who’d idolized the man.

But Parker had failed. Only twenty-two himself when his father had died, he’d been too busy salvaging his budding career, trying to prove that he wasn’t corrupt. And his brother had paid the price, running away from home, embarking on a downward spiral of drugs and crime that had ended with his senseless death.

But the day he’d lowered Tommy into the ground, Parker had made a vow. He wouldn’t fail his little brother again. He would bring Tommy’s killer to justice, no matter how many years it took.

His jaw clenched, his gaze still trained on the monitor, Parker watched intently as Sudhir cropped his brother from the photo and zoomed in on the runaway girl. Several keystrokes later, her face filled the screen, those big, bleak eyes a sucker punch to his gut. She didn’t look like a killer; he’d give her that much. She looked too young, too fragile, too harmless. But the most innocent face could hide the blackest heart.

“She looks about twelve, maybe thirteen, in this photo,” Sudhir said, tapping on his keyboard. “So her current age would be what, late twenties?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Switching to his mouse, Sudhir began using his age progression software to manipulate her face. “What kind of lifestyle does she lead? Does she smoke? Drink? Do drugs?”

“Drugs, probably.” Tommy had only hung out with other addicts toward the end.

“Any other factors that might affect her appearance, like wind or sun damage to her skin?”

Parker frowned. As a runaway, she would have been exposed to the elements. But if this woman really was B. K. Elliot, her photos sold for thousands of dollars a pop—meaning her impoverished days were long gone.

“Let’s say she was homeless during her teen years,” he decided. “Then she straightened herself out and led a comfortable life after that.”

Sudhir added a trace of squint lines around her eyes. “Weight gain?”

Remembering the photo in the newspaper, Parker shook his head. “No, keep her thin.”

“How about her hair?”

He studied the image taking shape on the screen. “Longer, just past her shoulders. And not so curly, just kind of wavy and thick.”

Sudhir continued to work, slowly transforming the scrawny adolescent into a young woman. A hauntingly beautiful woman with a small, feminine nose, elegantly sculpted cheekbones and an intriguingly sensual mouth.

His heart picked up its beat.

But what held him captive were her eyes. Her eyes were wounded, poignant, raw, as vulnerable as those of the children in B. K. Elliot’s photos. They drew him in, sparking a sense of awareness, an oddly tumultuous feeling that went beyond the usual pull of attraction for a pretty face.

Something he had no damned right to feel for a woman involved in his brother’s death.

With effort, he shrugged off the erotic tug.

A moment later, Sudhir released the mouse and sat back, his chair creaking under his weight. He tilted his head to the side. “So what do you think?”

His heart beating triple time, Parker unfolded the newspaper and held it beside the monitor. Sudhir’s low whistle echoed his thoughts. She was a dead ringer for the woman in the paper.

“I think I found a killer.”

Now he just had to track her down.

* * *

Unable to shake the weariness dogging her steps, Brynn Elliot pushed open the door of her Alexandria, Virginia, row house and trudged inside, the blast of heat enveloping her like a caress. God, she was tired. A week spent scouring the streets of New York City in near-freezing temperatures had done her in—and not just physically. It was the suffering that got to her, the violence inflicted on those defenseless kids. And with every passing year the runaways looked younger, more cynical, their wounded eyes filled with more despair.

A feeling she’d once known well.

Knowing better than to go down that depressing track, she deposited an armload of newspapers and junk mail on the kitchen table, then shrugged off her backpack and coat. She couldn’t change her past. And neither could she rescue the world. She simply tried to reveal the truth, to force the hypocrites in high society to face the hell of these children’s lives—lives
they
had betrayed and destroyed.

Really
not wanting to revisit those old ghosts, she glanced at her kitchen phone, its voice mail indicator light flashing like a squad car at a crime scene, then crossed the kitchen to the pantry and rummaged for a can of soup. The messages would be from Haley, a perpetual worrier, needing to make sure she was safe. Brynn had missed her weekly call-in thanks to the punks who’d stolen her cell phone in New York. She was just glad they hadn’t noticed her camera. The photos she’d taken of the child prostitutes on Rockaway Boulevard were her most poignant work to date.

Impatient to upload the photos to her computer and get to work, she dumped the soup into a bowl and stuck it into the microwave to heat. Then she called up her voice mail, set the phone to speaker and started disposing of her junk mail so she could clear a space to eat.

“Brynn, are you there? Pick up the phone,” Haley’s voice called out. Smiling at her friend’s predictability, Brynn tossed several pieces of junk mail into the bin.

“Brynn, it’s important. Call me right away,” her next message said.

“I will,” Brynn promised. “Just give me a minute to eat.”

“Why haven’t you called me back?” Haley demanded in her third call, desperation straining her voice. “Where are you?”

“In New York, fighting off a couple of punks.” Punks she could have evaded in her younger days. Making a mental note to buy another disposable cell phone, she threw another batch of junk mail away.

“For God’s sake, Brynn, why haven’t you called me? Have you seen the newspapers? I need to talk to you right away.”

The papers?
Brynn paused, unable to ignore the urgency in Haley’s tone. Had there been something about Haley’s shelter in the newspaper, something that might have exposed her friend’s identity—a danger they all had to avoid?

Worried now, she dumped the rest of the advertisements in the trash, then started flipping through various newspapers, not sure what she was supposed to find. But whatever it was had to be important. Haley wasn’t the type to panic. She dealt with high drama daily in her shelter for runaway, pregnant teens. And if she was worried enough to call...

Her sense of anxiety growing, Brynn riffled quickly through the papers, scanning political columns and crime reports to no avail. Then a front-page photo caught her attention, and everything inside her froze.

It was a photo of
her.

The room swayed. She gripped the table for balance, a dull roar battering her ears. Someone had photographed her leaving the art gallery—and splashed it across the front page.
But how had they figured out who she was?
She hadn’t spoken to a soul. She hadn’t even greeted the clerk. She’d simply strolled through the exhibit, discreetly checking the status of the photos, then left.

Praying she was somehow mistaken, she unfolded the newspaper, but there wasn’t any doubt. The headline screamed “Mystery solved!”

Reeling, she sank into a chair. How could this have happened? She’d been so blasted careful. She’d lived off the grid for years—always on the move, constantly changing her identity with her friends’ help. Even later, when her career had taken off, her agent had stepped in, doing all the promotional work, accepting awards on her behalf, never revealing what she looked like or where she lived. Now a momentary lapse—a quick visit to the gallery to estimate her earnings—had destroyed everything. And all because she’d needed to upgrade the plumbing in Haley’s shelter before she left on her New York trip.

BOOK: Fatal Exposure
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