Copyright © 2012 Dawn Brown
Even through Ella’s heavy coat, the weight of Luke’s touch pressed against her turning her stomach. The temptation to shrug away from him was nearly overwhelming, but she didn’t dare make a move that would leave him suspicious. She needed him to trust her if was ever going to find her way to the truth.
She tried to forget that it was a man she despised walking with her, focussing on the storefronts alight with twinkle lights and garland as they made their way along the slick sidewalk. She’d been forced to park nearly two blocks from the restaurant, and as she made her way to her car with Luke gallantly steering her through the throngs of harried shoppers, she wished she hadn’t accepted his offer to walk her. It had been hard enough being civil to him during the meal, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could endure his touch no matter how casual.
“I’m glad we did this,” he said. “It’s nice to talk to someone who understands what I’m going through.”
I, me, my. God, all Luke talked about was himself. How in the hell could Phoebe stand to listen to him? Maybe she couldn’t, and that was why he… A shudder rippled down Ella’s spine. She didn’t know what Luke had done to her sister, didn’t know if Phoebe was alive or dead. And not knowing was devouring her inside.
Sure, on the surface she could look like she was still in control, still had it together. She could go to work every day and appear to function normally. But beneath the exterior she was slowly unraveling. She needed to know what happened to Phoebe before she lost her mind.
She forced a smile. “Me too. I’m so sorry for what I said to the police.”
There was actually a kernel of truth to her last statement. She was sorry she had to deal with the two bonehead detectives who’d been assigned to her sister’s case. The older one had been all placating assurances and no action, while the younger one just scribbled down everything she said in his notebook without saying a word. She might have thought he was mute if not for his occasional grunts when spoken to directly.
“I understand,” Luke said. “I’m sure Phoebe confided in you about the problems we’d been having, but I loved her. I never would have hurt her.”
Her fingers curled into a tight fist. Lies tumbled so smoothly from his lips, fanning the anger smoldering within her. She hated him like no one else she’d known.
“I know you wouldn’t. I’m glad we did this too. She and I only ever had each other. It’s nice to be with someone who feels her loss like I do.” He wasn’t the only one who could wrap bullshit in a pretty silver bow.
He rubbed a slow circle on her back and she stiffened before she could stop herself. He dropped his hand, and she mentally berated herself for her lack of control. She’d have to keep it together if she hoped to put him at ease long enough to get the truth out of him.
“Is this you?” he asked, as they approached the blue jeep parked at the side of the street. Cars drove past in a continuous procession, their tires hissing through the dirty, salt laden slush.
“Yes,” she nodded, stopping. She turned, forcing him to drop his hand, and offered him a tight smile. “Thank you for dinner.”
His pale blue eyes held hers and the corners of his mouth lifted. He was an attractive man. She understood why her sister had been drawn to him. Black hair, a little unruly from the wind, piercing eyes, a faint dimple in his left cheek when he smiled, and rich to boot, Phoebe had fallen for him like a ton of bricks. Phoebe had spent her life waiting for her prince to rescue her. Who knew he’d be the one she really needed rescued from?
Almost from the moment she met Luke, she hadn’t liked him. She hadn’t liked the way he’d criticized Phoebe or put her down, pretending he was kidding. Or the way her sister had begun deferring to him as though she no longer trusted her own judgement. Or the bruise that had appeared on Phoebe’s cheek two weeks before she’d vanished.
“My pleasure,” he murmured, leaning in and brushing his lips against her cheek.
Her stomach lurched. Oh God, she hoped the pasta dish she’d just forced down wouldn’t wind up splattered over his shoes. She held herself rigid, her skin crawling where he touched. She wanted to get home and into the shower, scrub herself raw where ever he’d made contact.
At last, he lifted his head. “Merry Christmas, Ella.”
“Merry Christmas to you.”
With shaking hands, she unlocked the driver’s side door and climbed inside. Luke waited on the sidewalk and gave her a quick wave before he turned and started back the way they’d come. She turned her key in the ignition, but kept her gaze on his back until the crowd swallowed him up.
“What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?” she whispered, dropping her forehead to the steering wheel and squeezing her eyes shut. Hot tears seeped through her lids and spilled down her cold cheeks. Was she making a huge mistake? Should she just let the police do their job?
She might if they would.
Phoebe had been gone a year. One year as of November third, and the police were no closer to finding her now than they were when they found her abandoned car less than twenty minutes from the chalet she and Luke had shared in the mountains.
The clunk of the passenger door opening dragged Ella from her thoughts. She jumped and whipped her head up. The dome light overhead popped on, casting a faint yellow glow over a man sliding into the seat next her. A scream welled inside her throat. She grabbed the door handle ready to scramble out of the car, when he turned and rich whiskey colored eyes met hers.
“Detective Harlowe?” She couldn’t keep the confused disbelief from her voice. He’d barely spoken to her when he had to. So what the hell was he doing in the seat next to her?
“Enjoy your date Ms. Martin?” he sneered. The overhead light dimmed and darkness settled over them.
Absently, she sniffed and wiped her wet cheeks with the heels of her hands. Date? What date? Luke. He must have seen her with Luke.
“It wasn’t a date,” she ground out.
“Really?” Derision dripped from his words. “You two looked quite cozy to me.”
Had he been watching her? Was Luke under surveillance? Maybe she was wrong. Maybe the police were going to get somewhere with her sister’s case after all.
“And to think, I actually bought into your concerned sister act. Really, an academy award winning performance you put on. If I hadn’t seen you just now with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Barely suppressed fury radiated from his tense frame.
She opened her mouth ready to explain why she’d agreed to dinner with Luke, but he cut her off. “I know it’s been a year since you managed to get your sister out of the way, but the two of you should probably have kept away from each other a little longer, or chosen somewhere a little more discrete to meet. Hell, even cops Christmas shop.”
Waves of hurt and anger mixed with crushing disappointment washed over her. So much for any hope that the cops were doing something to find her sister. The corners of her eyes pricked with fresh tears, but she blinked them back. She’d be damned before she let this jack-ass see how much his words hurt.
“I don’t know what you think you saw,” she began.
“I saw a woman flirting with a man she’d been certain had played a major role in her sister’s disappearance. You know, Summers’s alibi is air tight, but maybe I need to take another look at yours.”
How ironic would it be for her plan to catch her brother-in-law to back fire, and for her to wind up suspect number one? She wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry, but most of all she wanted to go home and stand under the hot spray of her shower while scrubbing the feel of Luke’s touch from her skin.
“Get out of my car,” she told him.
“I don’t think so. I want answers.”
“You haven’t asked me any questions.”
“Fine. Did you arrange for your sister’s disappearance so you could have her husband?”
If he’d hauled off and decked her, he couldn’t have hurt her more. She swallowed hard before speaking. “No. Now, get out.”
She leaned across him, and reached for the door handle, but he caught her wrist in his hand, stopping her. Long callused fingers closed tight around her wrist, his grip firm but not painful—not yet.
“I’m not going anywhere until I know what you were doing with Summers just now.”
She sat back, jerking her arm from his grasp. His mouth had curved into a hard smirk. Fine, he could sit in her car all night for all she cared, but she was going home.
Without another word, she turned and started the car, but hesitated before pulling away from the curb, giving him a chance to get out on his own. He didn’t budge.
“What were you doing with Summers?”
“Having dinner,” she snapped.
“I don’t believe you.”
She smiled tightly and turned to meet his gaze. “You saw me yourself.”
“There was more going on at that table than sharing a meal, so why not tell me. Did you want him for yourself?” His bright, heated gazed raked the length of her. “Is that why you killed her? I just can’t figure out why you were so insistent that we go after Summers in the first place. To keep suspicion from falling on you?”
She hated that condescending sneer he wore, the icy loathing dripping from his tone. Who in the hell was he to judge her? If he had done his job in the first place, she wouldn’t be forced to bring down Luke herself. “I wanted you to arrest him because he’s the only person who knows what happened to her.”
“I don’t believe that. Not after that sorry display.”
She ground her teeth so hard her jaw ached. “Frankly, I don’t care what you believe. Get out of my car, I’m going home.”
“I told you, I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell you were doing with Luke Summers.”
She shrugged. “Fine. I’m going home. You can sleep in my car or hitch hike back to yours. I don’t care.”
After a quick peek in her mirror, she pulled out onto the street and started home. Harlowe didn’t so much as utter a word as he tugged the seatbelt over his shoulder and clicked it into place.
She kept her gaze fixed on the busy road ahead of her, doing her best to ignore the horrible man seated next to her. It wasn’t as easy as she hoped it would be. His scent, spicy and male, tickled her nose, and his presence seemed to fill the small space of her car with unseen energy, an electrical charge that tingled over her skin.
The first time she’d met him, she thought he wouldn’t have been bad looking were he not such an antisocial weirdo. He was tall, shoulders broad, body hard and lean. His clothes always looked rumpled and in need of a good iron. He wore his light brown hair spiked and a little messy, contributing to his overall dishevelled appearance. Fine lines creased the corners of his unusually colored eyes when he smiled—an expression she rarely saw when dealing with him—or sneered—an expression she was becoming only too familiar with.
As they left the down town core, the traffic thinned and the light from store fronts faded, heightening her sense of isolation and an unpleasant intimacy with the silent man seated next her. She wanted to get away from the detective nearly as badly as she’d wanted to get away from Luke, but for very different reasons.
By the time she pulled into the parking lot of three story walk up where she lived, the muscles in her shoulders and back was stiff. She didn’t look at Harlowe as she turned off the car, opened her door and stepped out into the frigid night.
Icy wind whipped her loose hair about her head and made her eyes water. She hurried across the lot toward the back entrance. The clunk of the passenger door slamming, followed by Harlowe’s hurried footsteps chased after.
“You’re not coming inside,” she told him, fumbling her key into the lock, but hesitating before she turned it. She didn’t need to look up to know he was standing next to her. His presence was practically tangible. If he were lost in a crown people, she would still know he was there.
“Yeah, I am.”
She gritted her teeth. “How did you plan on doing that? Forcing your way into my apartment?”
“If I have to.”
“You’ll what?” he asked, his voice thick with dark mirth “Call a cop?”
“Even you aren’t above the law, detective. Surely, harassing people in their homes could lead to a reprimand at the very least.”
He shrugged. “If you’d rather, I could bring you into the station to answer my questions.”
“On what grounds?”
“Suspicious behavior, Ms Martin. I find your actions extremely suspicious. So here are your options; we can go up to your apartment and you tell me what I want to know in the comfort of your living room, or you can tell me down at the station. Either way, you’ll give me want.”