The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming) (7 page)

BOOK: The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming)
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The dark-haired man coming out of the building. Crossing to the black Mustang. Turning to gaze up at Celeste Langley. Her smiling.

Even from a hundred feet away the Ice Man thought he could smell a cop—which started him swearing under his breath.

When he’d checked her out he’d figured there’d be no problems at all. A woman on her own was easy prey. All he’d have to do was wait for the go-ahead, then make his move. But if the cop was her boyfriend there could be complications.

The Mustang had started to pull away from the curb, so he memorized the plate number. It was no big deal to get an ownership run, and he would. But he was almost certain the guy was heat. Had a sixth sense about that. And if he was right he’d priced the job too cheaply.

He shook his head, wishing he hadn’t already taken the money. But he had, so he was committed.

In his business, when you agreed to do a job you did it. Otherwise, the word hit the street and your rep hit the skids.

When he looked back at the window, Celeste Langley was gone. That didn’t matter, though. He’d already seen enough to know he’d have to be careful.

In fact, he’d better come by again tomorrow night. See if this guy was here all the time.

* * *

A
T
A
QUARTER
PAST
TEN
the next morning, Travis pulled into an empty parking space near the renovated SoHo building that housed Walter Namouth’s office. He climbed out of his car and headed through the dazzling October sunshine in the direction of the front door.

He didn’t intend to go inside. Not even into the lobby. But he wanted to talk to Celeste after she’d finished with the lawyer.

As promised, Hank was unofficially keeping him informed. He’d called last night to say that Steve Parker’s autopsy was scheduled for today. And since that wasn’t the sort of thing you told a dead man’s sister over the phone, coming by to wait for Celeste made sense.

This way, he could drive her home, hear what Namouth had had to say and see how she was feeling about things at this point.

He’d pretty well figured out how he was feeling about them. His brain had refused to shut down and let him sleep last night, so he’d spent a lot of time thinking. And he’d reached some conclusions about just how helpful he could be to Celeste—without doing anything that would put Espizito into cardiac arrest if he heard about it.

Accompanying her to a meeting with a criminal lawyer would definitely not have been a wise move. Neither would letting her in on anything Hank told him about what was happening with the case.

But the department didn’t own him. Besides, he was on leave, which meant that what he did with his time really wasn’t anyone’s business except his own.

As he reached the front of the building he was telling himself that if one of his friends had a problem and came to him for advice, he wouldn’t hesitate to give it. Or if one of them just wanted someone to talk to, he’d listen. And Celeste was fast becoming a friend. Oh, maybe not exactly a friend, but...

Well, the terminology didn’t matter. What mattered was that there was no reason he couldn’t be there for her.

None except the minor detail that she was a suspect. Still, it wouldn’t take Hank long to realize he had that one wrong.

Of course, if he didn’t... Man, if he didn’t, then Celeste would
really
need a friend.

Travis walked on past the building and down the block a few hundred feet, trying not to think he might have let a flaw or two creep into his logic. Because regardless of that possibility he wanted to spend as much time with her as she’d let him.

Maybe he hadn’t known her long, but he was already reconsidering his theory about cops and serious relationships. They weren’t
always
a bad mix. The divorce rate on the force might be high, but it was nowhere near a hundred percent.

After he’d been waiting out front for half an hour or so, Celeste emerged from the building.

He simply watched her at first—aware that she seemed even more beautiful than she had only yesterday—then he started toward her.

“Hi,” he said, falling into step beside her.

Celeste hadn’t noticed Travis until he spoke, and it amazed her that the mere sound of his voice could brighten her mood.

“Hi yourself,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I just happened to be in the neighborhood so I figured I’d give you a ride home.”

“Just happened to, huh?”

She shot him a smile, then waited, expecting him to ask about her appointment with Walter Namouth. He fooled her, though, and didn’t say another word until they’d reached his car.

After sticking the key in the ignition, he looked over at her and said, “You wanted me to let you know about your brother’s autopsy. It’s today.”

“Oh,” she murmured, her throat suddenly tight.

“So you can firm up the funeral arrangements for any day from tomorrow on,” he added gently.

“Yes. I guess...he wanted to be cremated. Did I mention that?”

“No.”

“Well, he did. He told me after our mother died. So instead of a funeral I should really be calling it a memorial service. But as for the time...Saturday, do you think?”

He nodded, hesitated, finally said, “I’d like to go to it with you, but I can’t. There’ll be guys from Homicide there. Checking out the mourners. It’s standard procedure. And as long as you’re a suspect, I’d be in hot water if I...”

“I understand,” she said. She wished he could be with her, though—so much that it frightened her, because it wasn’t a wish that was consistent with the decision she’d come to last night.

After hours of thinking, she’d concluded the only thing to do was keep their relationship platonic. At least until she no longer
was
a suspect.

Once her life was back to some semblance of normality, she’d be in a better position to figure out whether her feelings for him were the genuine item or she merely wanted a strong man to lean on.

Yet, despite knowing it wouldn’t be a good idea to—

“But you’ll have someone there with you?” he asked.

“Yes. I have an aunt. My mother’s sister. I’m close to her—and to my cousins. And I know some of my friends will come.”

“Good.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “Would you like to grab an early lunch?”

“Thanks, but I’d better go straight home. I should call and firm up the arrangements for the service. Get it over with. And someone’s stopping by for that manuscript.”

“Right.” He pulled into the flow of traffic. “What about dinner? Are we still on for that or...?”

“Sure,” she said, even though she knew finalizing those arrangements wouldn’t leave her in the best of spirits. “I’ll be better off going out than sitting home alone.”

He drove another block or so before finally asking how her meeting with Namouth had gone.

“Well...I’m glad I talked to him, although I couldn’t really tell him much. Just that the police thought there’d been a woman at Steve’s apartment on Saturday evening, and I’ve gathered she’s a suspect. And that Hank must figure she was me because...

“I explained about the survivor clause in my mother’s will. Even though you didn’t say exactly
why
Hank figures I did it, there’s nothing else I can think of.”

Travis still didn’t tell her whether she was guessing right or not. He merely said, “And what did Namouth say?”

“He asked how I knew Hank suspected me.”

“And?”

“I said you’d warned me. I knew it was safe enough. That lawyer-client privilege would apply to everything I told him.

“His view,” she continued unhappily, “is that since there’s no one to back up my alibi I’ll almost certainly end up having to go in for questioning. Unless the police learn who that woman actually was.”

Travis gave her a sympathetic glance, then said, “Well, as I told you yesterday, being questioned and being charged are two very different things. But I assume he advised you not to answer any questions unless he’s present?”

“Yes. And he gave me the number of his service. Said they can reach him twenty-four hours a day.”

“Well, nobody’s going to drag you down to the precinct in the middle of the night. You don’t have to worry about that happening.”

“No. Of course not.”

Still, that hardly meant she didn’t have to worry at all. Being a murder suspect, even an innocent one, was something she couldn’t imagine anyone not worrying about.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Wednesday, October 6, 11:28 a.m.

T
RAVIS
AND
C
ELESTE
had just about reached her place when his cellular rang.

“Quinn,” he answered.

“I need to talk to you,” Hank said with no preamble and an unusual edge to his voice. “Can you meet me at Lucy’s? Half an hour?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I’ll fill you in then.”

“That was Hank,” Travis said, clicking off.

“Oh?”

Celeste was obviously going for casual, but her expression said she was dying to ask if the call had been about her brother’s case.

“Just wants to meet me for lunch,” he told her.

“Oh.”

He pulled up in front of her building, parking in the No Standing zone outside the entrance. “I’ll see you in.”

“You don’t have to bother. I’ll—”

“It’s no bother.”

A buzzer system wasn’t much of a challenge to anyone with determination, and he hadn’t forgotten that Evan Reese knew where Celeste lived. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find him lying in wait for her, ostensibly wanting to talk more about their “cosmic connectedness.”

There was no sign of Reese, though. Neither on the street nor inside.

“Do you have time to kill before you meet Hank?” Celeste asked, unlocking her door. “Would you like to come in for coffee?”

He’d love to. However, since Hank’s tone had warned him that the sooner he heard about whatever was going on the better, he said, “Thanks, but I should just hit the road. I’ll see you later.”

When she smiled, it almost made him decide he’d stay for a few minutes. Then his feeling about “the sooner the better” made him turn and start down the hall.

On the way to Lucy’s, he concluded that Hank was hot to tell him about one of two things: either something major had happened in the department, or there was a new development in the Parker case. He figured the latter was the more likely, but exactly what kind of development?

Not one that proved Celeste’s innocence. Not considering how Hank had sounded. So had his partner uncovered more “evidence” pointing in the direction of her guilt?

He really hoped that wasn’t it, because if you added enough pieces of circumstantial evidence together you could often build a pretty solid case. And Celeste wasn’t guilty. Knowing her as well as he did now, he didn’t have even the slightest lingering doubt.

When he arrived at Lucy’s, Hank was already there, a mug of coffee in front of him.

“Hey,” Travis said, sliding into the booth.

“Hey.”

He waited while the waitress brought him coffee, then said, “So? What’s been going on?”

“Oh, there’s some stuff I want to breeze by you. See what you think.”

Travis nodded. Hank had only agreed to keep him informed, but they were so used to bouncing ideas off each other that it would be tough to quit cold turkey.

“First off,” he began, “we talked to Rhonda Stirling.”

“Jill Flores’s friend.”

“Right. And their stories match. Had dinner together, watched
The English Patient,
Stirling was there until after midnight. Plus, she took a taxi home and the pickup and drop-off addresses were logged in. So, since Flores wasn’t the blonde who was visiting Parker—”

“You mean, the blonde you
assume
was visiting Parker.”

Hank shrugged. “She wasn’t visiting anyone else. But I want to tell you about a couple of other things before we get to Celeste Langley.”

Even though Travis would far rather hear what Hank had to say about Celeste right now, he merely nodded again.

“Most of the neighbors weren’t any help. Parker kept pretty much to himself and they barely knew him.”

“So you didn’t luck out and find one with a motive for killing him.”

“No, but his next-door neighbor had an interesting story—and my guess is that Evan Reese is the central figure in it.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh-huh. Apparently, one of the good doctor’s patients used to show up at his apartment outside of office hours. Must have had a talent for slipping past the concierge. Or maybe he’d discovered another way in. Whichever, he fits Reese’s description.”

Travis could feel his heart beating a little faster. He’d realized from the start that Reese was bad news, but there’d been nothing to make him think the guy could be their killer. Not until now.

“The neighbor doesn’t know how frequently Reese came by,” Hank was saying. “Assuming it actually
was
him. But a couple of times Parker wasn’t home and Reese ended up pounding on the door, yelling that he needed to talk. That’s how this guy could give me a description. The first time he went out into the hall and told Reese to knock it off.”

“Only the first time?”

“Yeah, he said our boy got pretty nasty, so the next time he just waited and spoke to Parker about it later.”

“But Parker was home on Saturday night,” Travis said, thinking aloud. “He’d have let Reese in. And Reese is about five-seven or -eight.”

“You figure that didn’t occur to me?”

Travis grinned. “I know it did. So have you paid him another visit?”

“Not yet, but I will.”

“He’ll have a good alibi.”

“Probably, but we’ll see just how solid it is.”

“So...you’re looking at the first deputy police commissioner’s nephew as a murder suspect. That’s almost enough to make me glad Espizito yanked me off the case.”

“I’m half wishing he’d yanked me, too. I’ll bet Reese makes another call to his uncle after I talk to him again. But at least I’ll be able to say he’s not the only one we’re questioning. We put Parker’s name out on the street and came up with another couple of suspects.”

“Uh-huh?” They often turned to snitches when they were short of leads. And with surprising frequency, one of their informants would learn something that explained why the victim had been murdered. Maybe he’d lost big at gambling, for example, and hadn’t paid up.

“Parker was an amateur musician,” Hank was saying. “Used to jam at a club down on Third. And a month or so ago, while the group was taking a break, he ended up sitting by a couple of two-bit crooks who were discussing a string of break-ins they’d pulled off.

“Long story short, Parker called the cops and they were waiting for the perps when they left the club. ’Course, they made bail the next day, which means they were out when he was killed.”

“They knew he’d fingered them?”

Hank nodded. “Apparently, they were drunk enough to be mouthing off, but not too drunk to miss him listening in. They stopped when they noticed, but he’d already heard enough.

“According to our informant, they put things together and were talking revenge. But it might have been nothing more than talk.”

“You’ve got good descriptions, though? Know how tall they are?”

“Not tall.”

“So they fit the bill there. But if they’d come to Parker’s apartment, he wouldn’t have let them in.”

“Not likely, although you never know. There could be some explanation. At any rate, we sure want to have a chat with them.”

“You know where they are?”

“No. But we’ll keep looking till we find them. So what do you think?”

Travis shrugged. “Reese is unstable and I’d say potentially dangerous. But without anyone to put him at the scene, if he’s got an alibi that checks out...”

“And the lowlifes?”

“Well, you don’t have enough to draw any conclusions there yet. But you already knew that. And you knew my read on Reese, too. So what else are we doing here?”

Hank took a sip of coffee, then met Travis’s gaze. “Where do things stand between you and Celeste Langley?”

“I’ve been seeing her,” he admitted. He trusted Hank not to repeat that. And there was undoubtedly a good reason for his question.

“Yeah, I figured you would be. That’s why I wanted to tell you about Reese and the scumbags before we got to her.

“I’m going to need some help from you, buddy, and I wanted you concentrating on what I was saying—so you’d have a clear picture of where the
entire
case stands. Because the others are obviously more probable suspects than she is.”

“Obviously,” Travis said, glad to hear that Hank no longer sounded as if he actually thought Celeste might be a killer.

“I still want to know who that blonde was,” he said, shooting Travis a glance that said he hadn’t
completely
eliminated Celeste as a possibility.

“But...look,” he continued, “I learned something only an hour ago that’s started me thinking maybe nobody on my list had anything to do with Parker’s death. Neither Celeste nor Reese nor the other two.

“And it’s got me back to wondering if Adele Langley’s hit-and-run really was an accident. Back to wondering if it’s connected to her son’s murder. But whether it is or not...”

“Hank, get to the point, huh?”

“Okay, the point is that I put Celeste’s name out on the street, too.”

“And?” Travis could feel that all-too-familiar numbness at the base of his spine. What had Hank learned about Celeste?

“She was our only suspect at that stage, and I figured it was worth a shot. You never know what you’ll hear, right?”

“What did you hear?”

“Buddy...she’s in one truckload of trouble.”

* * *

A
FTER
C
ELESTE
had spoken with someone at the funeral home and arranged a time for the service on Saturday, she called the relatives and a couple of friends she’d promised to get back to. She’d barely finished that when her intercom buzzed.

It proved to be Travis—even though she hadn’t been expecting to see him again until seven.

She released the front-door lock, wondering if he’d figured she’d be feeling blue and in need of company. But whatever he was doing here, just knowing that he was on his way up to her apartment made her smile.

That, however, was
not
good. Ensuring their relationship remained platonic would be tough if he kept showing up every time she turned around. Because the more she saw of him the more she liked him.

She opened her door to discover he was already on his way down the hall. And something obviously wasn’t right.

There was tension in his stride, and his expression was so dark that fear began nibbling at her.

For a moment, she felt certain Hank had said he was going to arrest her. But that couldn’t be it when she hadn’t even been questioned. Could it?

She let Travis in without a word, afraid to ask what the problem was. Instead, she simply led the way to the living room, aware she was only delaying the inevitable.

When he silently sank onto the couch and gestured for her to join him, she made herself ask what was wrong.

He shook his head, looking as if he knew he had to tell her but seriously didn’t want to.

“Travis, I can see it’s bad, so let’s get it over with.”

The glance he gave her warned it was even worse than she could imagine.

After a few endless seconds, he said, “I’ve been trying to think of a good way to say this, but there just isn’t one. Hank wanted to see me because he’d learned that...Celeste, somebody’s got a contract out on you.”

His words hung between them, their meaning not sinking in right away.

When it finally did, her heart began to pound and the room started to spin.

A second later, Travis had his arm around her shoulders and was telling her to put her head between her knees.

“Good. Now, take a few deep breaths,” he ordered.

She tried to. But the terror crawling around inside her chest kept clutching at her throat—and she had to concentrate to breathe at all, let alone deeply.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She managed another breath, wishing she could believe him yet knowing she’d be incredibly naive to.

“Once you calm down we’ll talk. Figure out who’s behind this and how to take care of it.”

Could they actually do that? Was there even the slightest chance she wouldn’t end up dead?

She had no idea how they could possibly “take care of it,” but Travis sounded as if he really thought there’d be a way. So maybe, just maybe...

Her heart still thudding and her breathing nowhere near back to normal, she shakily sat up straight.

He gave her an encouraging smile. But instead of making her feel better, it started tears stinging her eyes.

“Oh, Celeste,” he murmured as they spilled over. Then he pulled her into his arms and simply held her.

Even someone who wasn’t normally a crier had a limit, and she knew she was beyond hers. She cried so hard and for so long that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to stop.

All the horrible things that had happened during the past year had depleted her emotional reserves, and she was afraid she didn’t have enough left to cope with a broken fingernail, let alone the fact that someone wanted her dead.

Gradually, though, she managed to regain control and just sat in the comforting warmth of Travis’s embrace.

“All right now?” he murmured at last.

“Yes,” she said.

Travis exhaled slowly, feeling strangely bereft as Celeste eased away from him. Her softness made him wish he could hold her forever; her sultry scent was positively bewitching. And now, gazing at her face, he had an almost overwhelming urge to kiss her.

He told himself that was crazy. Her eyes were puffy and her cheeks tear-stained.

Even so, there was something about her that made him want to just take her in his arms again and hold her until she forgot about everything in the world except him.

But she was both terrified and vulnerable, as he’d known she’d be. And during the drive here he’d vowed he would act strictly as a friend to her while she was in that condition.

Besides which, a few other factors were giving him pause. In his more lucid moments, he kept remembering cops and serious relationships didn’t mix. And remembering that was why he’d always made a point of backing off whenever he’d felt much more than a twinge of interest in a woman.

So even though Celeste had gotten to him in a way no other woman ever had, if he was smart he’d at least proceed very slowly and carefully.

BOOK: The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming)
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