Killing would come easy this time.
I tracked my target through the scope as he entered his Ashton Heights apartment. My mark and his wife occupied the first floor of a duplex, and I had a perfect view into his living room. He set his keys on a small table, shed his jacket—revealing the Glock that rested in a holster on his right side—then walked over, leaned down, and kissed his pregnant wife. He’d been working overtime the last few weeks, trying to hunt me down, and had come home late every night, after his wife was already asleep. She’d waited up for him tonight, though.
After removing his holster, he nestled in beside her and gathered her into his arms, her back to his chest. As he rested his palm against her large belly, she tilted her head back, giving him access to kiss her again.
She’d be devastated when her husband died. But Mike Donaldson had made too many mistakes over the last two years.
Trying to find me wasn’t even his biggest.
No, his biggest gaffe was treating Brooke poorly after her husband was killed. Piece of shit fed. And even worse friend. It wasn’t Brooke’s fault her husband was murdered. He would have been shot even if she had been there to back him up.
But that wasn’t how Agent Donaldson saw it. He blamed Brooke for not being there for Teddy that night—even though at the time she was suffering her own nightmare over losing her baby.
He was lucky I’d let him live this long.
Until recently, Donaldson had been a non-factor to me, a mild nuisance at best. But now he’d become a full-fledged pain in my ass. Forcing Brooke to reveal my identity—that was an unacceptable move. He was getting too close. And I simply didn’t have time to monitor both his movements and Brooke’s. Besides, I had preparations to make back in Kentucky—preparations for Brooke’s and my future.
So Donaldson would have to go. Too bad his kid would have to grow up without a father.
His wife laughed at something, and they both rose to their feet. They stood there in front of the window, and Donaldson wrapped his arms around his wife, though it was a struggle with her large stomach in the way. He kissed her on the forehead, and she walked away. He was staring after her with… a look of regret, maybe? He probably felt guilty for how much he’d worked in recent weeks. As well he should. His wife could certainly do better than Mike Donaldson.
I could have killed him right then. I had the perfect weapon for it, and a clear visual. One shot. The silencer would muffle the sound. His wife would hear the sound of glass breaking, but by the time she realized the source, Mike would be dead.
I lowered the gun, watched him for about thirty seconds more, and then, with a shake of my head, placed my rifle in the trunk and headed home.
Winter had come early. I climbed out of my Mini Cooper in my new knee-high leather boots, zipped my leather jacket as far as it would go, and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck.
Out of habit, I glanced both ways down the street and along the sidewalks for any sign of Romeo. I hadn’t laid eyes on him lately, but that didn’t stop the little hairs on the back of my neck from lifting from time to time. Now that I knew what he looked like, he’d actually become more difficult to spot.
But not impossible. I’d spotted him about a month ago, in downtown Lexington, when Declan and I were walking into a restaurant to meet Aidan and Marti for dinner. I’d started to go after him, but decided not to give him the attention he was looking for. And so as not to ruin a great night out with friends, I kept it from Declan, and Aidan and Marti, and instead texted Mike Donaldson. By the time he called in an agent or a police officer—I didn’t ask which—to check it out, Romeo was long gone.
I grabbed my tote from the passenger seat, then crossed the road toward Julep Hill Inn and Café, where I was meeting Ty for breakfast. The cold air smacked against my face, making my eyes water. Snow was forecast for the weekend, which wasn’t good for those of us traveling to Virginia for the engagement party my parents were throwing.
I had been against having an engagement party at my parents’ home, but my mother and father had insisted. And when my grandparents called—each on a different landline extension inside the same house—I knew I was trapped. Who still used landline telephones anyway? Not to mention, my mother—whom Declan still hadn’t met—had called Declan directly to discuss the idea. And of course, he was on board.
We had yet to set a wedding date. We’d also yet to decide on a location, or anything else. The fact that we were getting married was enough for me. And Declan hadn’t pushed too hard.
Not yet, anyway.
I wanted more than anything to be Declan’s wife, but the stress that came with a wedding… and one involving my family? That I didn’t want.
Julep Hill Café was busy with the morning rush. Carrie Anne and Marti Cinnamond had put up the Thanksgiving decorations as soon as the last piece of candy had been handed out on Halloween night, and Carrie Anne had made the café cozy this morning with a fire in the fireplace to combat the downturn in temperature. The tables were full of people engaging in small-town banter over coffee and breakfast.
I spotted Ty at our usual table in the corner. And before I even reached him, Greta, Carrie Anne’s newest, straight-out-of-Texas employee, was pouring me a cup of coffee and setting a miniature pitcher of cream on the table.
“Carrie Anne should give you a raise, Greta,” I said as I set my bag in the extra seat. “That’s some good service there.”
“Well Ty here warned me you were comin’.” She gave me a big Texas smile. “He said, and I quote: ‘Brooke’s on her way. She’s grumpy if the coffee’s not waitin’ for her.’”
I angled my head toward Ty. “I am not grumpy.” To Greta I added, “Thank you.” I pulled my scarf off and shed my jacket, hanging both on the back of my chair.
“Do you two want a minute before you order?”
Ty looked to me. “I’m ready.”
I sat and grabbed the menu. “Then I can be, too. You go ahead.”
Ty ordered an omelet, and I ordered the quiche. We each got a bowl of fruit.
When Greta was gone, Ty stared at me over his steaming mug. “Where’s Declan?”
“He had an early meeting at the office. He was acting very strange about it, too.” I began doctoring my coffee.
“Just seemed to have a lot on his mind.” Declan had early business meetings all the time, but this morning he’d received a phone call early, something about an employee’s absence, and he’d seemed concerned about it. And he kept quizzing me about my plans for the morning. He and I were to meet back at the house around midday to pack and leave for Virginia.
I gave my head a little shake. “I’m sure it was nothing.”
“Well, James was running around the house frantically looking for anything we might need to attend a fancy party at the home of the director of the FBI. I told him I was going to work since the boss lady had taken the day off.”
I laughed. “He needs a suit. That’s it. And I don’t even care if he wears that. My parents might like to put on a formal affair, and I’m happy for an excuse to buy a nice pair of designer shoes for myself, but I could care less what everyone else wears. I just want your happy faces there to celebrate.”
“You don’t sound so excited about your own engagement party,” Ty said.
“It’s not the engagement. It’s the party being thrown in my parents’ fancy Virginia home, and the hoopla my mother will most definitely bring to the event. Just wait. She’ll have me sitting for a formal wedding portrait in a hideous, oversized dress made of layers and layers of organza before the end of the weekend.”
“You don’t strike me as the frilly type.”
“Why do you think I eloped the first time around?”
“That’s the rub. Your mother is bitter that you cut her out of seeing her only daughter’s big day.”
“No, she’s bitter because I cut her out of planning the big day. Period. It has nothing to do with me. And now she thinks she’s been given a second chance. And she hasn’t once called me to ask what I want. Anyway,” I waved a hand, “I didn’t ask you to meet me for a therapy session. We have other matters to discuss.”
Ty lifted a brow. “We do? I thought you were taking the day off.”
“This has nothing to do with the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security.” I reached into my bag and pulled out a three-ring binder the color of a robin’s egg. On the front of it was a three-dimensional cardboard cutout of a headless woman in a wedding dress holding a bouquet of flowers.
Ty’s face lit up, and he clapped his hands like a child who’d just been told he was going to Disney World. “Are you going to let me help you plan the big day?” He scooted his chair closer. “This is fabulous. We can sidestep your mom and do the whole thing ourselves. What do you think about a sunset wedding behind Declan’s house in June?” He placed a hand over his heart. “A June bride.” He sighed. “We could rent a couple of the large tents, like the parties Declan has thrown in the past, for the reception…”
He trailed off when he saw my annoyed stare.
“Did you forget who you were you talking to?” I asked.
He nodded toward the binder. “That’s not a wedding planner?”
“Uh, no. It was. But I took out the inside and replaced it with my own… organizational material.”
I opened the notebook and began flipping through pages until I found the notes I’d taken during my conversation with Mike Donaldson, the FBI agent to whom I’d given all of my evidence on Romeo. “Mike called.”
Ty put a hand on the notebook and angled his head so that he could see the writing inside. Then he drew back. “Please tell me that you did not convert that powder blue binder into a case file for finding Romeo.”
I blinked a couple of times. “Okay. I won’t.”
He looked unsure whether to encourage me. “Does Declan know you’re still investigating Romeo?”
“Declan knows me. And I’m not investigating Romeo. I’m letting the FBI handle it. That’s why I told Mike everything. I’m just keeping what I know organized so I don’t forget anything.”
“Uh-huh.” Ty was in full-on disapproval mode. “So tell me. What did Agent Donaldson have to say?”
I ignored his judgmental tone. “Okay, you remember the photo that Anya Bhatia left for me to find—the one that first clued me in to Romeo’s real name.”
Ty nodded. “Of course. Woodford Clay Harrison.”
“Right. Well, Mike called me yesterday before I left the office to tell me that three of the seven men in that photo, not including Romeo, died fairly recently. One by an apparent heart attack, another in a terrible car accident, and the third, just last week, from carbon monoxide poisoning. And a fourth man, Christopher Calloway, hasn’t been heard from in a couple of months.”
“That sounds like a lot of bad luck for a small list of young, healthy men. I mean, who doesn’t have a carbon monoxide detector these days?”
“Right? I don’t know the details of their deaths, but isn’t that strange? What if—”
“No!” Ty leaned back and crossed his arms.
“No, what? You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“I know you. You’re trying to turn those accidental deaths into murders.”
I pointed a finger at him. “You said it, not me.”
“Is that what Mike thinks?”
“He didn’t say. But I get the impression he was not-so-subtly requesting my help. He called me to see if I had contact information for a couple of the other men on the list—and he mentioned that Calloway is from the DC area, as if he was hoping I’d make a side trip. It sounds like he’s not having a lot of luck getting in touch with any of the men in the photo. Including, of course, Jeremy Lannister, who’s not exactly talking to authorities.”
“Because he’s in prison for shooting Bradley Archer, who happens to be the man who shot Declan.”
“Right. The prosecutors still claim they have airtight evidence that Lannister was involved in the shooting, but everything in my gut tells me that Romeo set Lannister up. Just like my gut is telling me that those men didn’t die of natural or accidental causes.”
“And how does your gut think these men died?”
“My gut says Romeo is killing them.”
“Mike has the weight of the FBI behind him in this investigation. Why call you?”
“Mike says the FBI has pulled back from the investigation and has ordered him to elevate the priority of other cases. He’s got limited time to devote to it now. Romeo’s been put on the back burner.”
Ty massaged his forehead. When he looked at me again, his face was soft with concern. “What are you doing, Brooke?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at you. You’re hiding the fact that you’re still investigating Romeo by concealing it inside a wedding planner so that Declan won’t be angry.”
“That’s not why,” I said weakly. I closed the binder and folded my hands together on top of it. “I just don’t want to hurt him. But I needed to keep these details close in case Romeo continued to be a problem. How am I supposed to start my life with Declan when a stalker is still following me around?”
“Or,” Ty said, “maybe there is no stalker anymore. You haven’t seen him since you discovered his real identity.”
I felt guilty that for not having told Ty about seeing Romeo recently. “He’s disappeared before,” I said. “He always comes back.” That was the truth.
Ty placed a hand on top of mine. He started to speak, but Greta returned with our breakfasts. I slid the “planner” back into my bag.
“Sorry that took so long.” Greta set our food down in front of us and put a basket in the middle of the table. “Here’s some scones and muffins I made for the café.”
“You bake, too?” I said. “Carrie Anne really should definitely give you a raise.”
“I’m working on it.” She winked as she grabbed a pot of coffee and topped off our mugs. “Can I get either of you anything else?”
“No, thank you,” I said. Ty shook his head.
When Greta was gone, Ty placed his hand on mine again. “You’ll hurt Declan if you keep this from him. This is not your case.”
I stared deeply into Ty’s eyes. Ty was my best friend—the kind of friend who told me the truth even if it hurt me or pissed me off. “You’re right,” I said. “I know you’re right. That’s why I’m going to tell him everything as soon as I get back to Shaughnessy. Before we leave for Virginia.” With a heavy breath, I grabbed my fork and stabbed a strawberry. “It’s this engagement party. It’s got me all twisted up. And when Mike called, I jumped at the chance to get back involved with the investigation. Especially if the FBI is backing off.”
“You and Mike still think Romeo can tell you something about the night Teddy died.”
“I know he can. But that’s not the point at the moment.”
“And this list of men is the point?”
“Will Mike be at the party?”
“Yeah. As long as Marie doesn’t go into labor.”
“Mike’s going to be a daddy?” Ty didn’t even bother to hide his surprise at the thought of Mike becoming a father. He had never been a fan of Mike’s, especially after Teddy’s death, when Mike deserted me, blaming me for whatever had gone wrong that night. But I knew now that Mike had just been mourning Teddy in his own way.
“Yep. And he’s so excited. I could hear it in his voice. It’s a side to him I’ve never heard.”
“Well, if he’s at the party, I’m willing to hear him out on what he’s found so far. If he can convince me that there’s a chance that Romeo is actually murdering these men, I’ll help you hunt the rest of them down. They should at least know that a psycho killer might be coming for them.”
I placed a hand on his forearm. “Thank you.”
“But I do have one condition.”
I lifted both brows.
“You tell Declan everything. Don’t keep secrets from him.”
“I’ll tell him everything. Today. I wasn’t planning to keep it from him. Until now, it hadn’t been a thing to tell.”
“And…” Ty paused. “I know I don’t have to tell you that if Romeo is murdering those men, that explains his disappearance from your life, which means the vacancy could be only temporary.”
“No, you don’t have to tell me that.”