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By Sandra Brown
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Now, eighteen years later, Bellamy has written a sensational bestselling novel based on Susan’s murder, published under a pseudonym to protect her family from unwanted publicity. But when an opportunistic tabloid reporter discovers that the book is based on fact, Bellamy’s identity is exposed along with the family scandal . . . and she becomes the target of a vengeful assailant.
In order to identify her stalker, Bellamy must confront the ghosts of her past, including Susan’s wayward and reckless boyfriend, Dent Carter. Dent is intent on clearing his name, and he needs Bellamy’s help to do it. But her dangerous memories — once unlocked — could put both of their lives in peril.
Determined to learn the truth, Bellamy won’t stop until she finds Susan’s killer. That is, unless the killer strikes first . . .
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The rat was dead, but no less horrifying than if it had been alive.
Bellamy Price trapped a scream behind her hands and, holding them clamped against her mouth, backed away from the gift box of glossy wrapping paper and satin ribbon. The animal lay on a bed of silver tissue paper, its long pink tail curled against the fat body.
When she came up against the wall, she slid down it until her bottom reached the floor. Slumping forward, she removed her hands from her mouth and covered her eyes. But she was too horror-stricken even to cry. Her sobs were dry and hoarse.
Who would have played such a vicious prank? Who? And why?
The events of the day began to replay in her mind like a recording on fast-forward.
"You were terrific!"
"Thank you." Bellamy tried to maintain the rapid pace set by the publicist for the publishing house, who functioned as though her breakfast cereal had been laced with speed.
"This show is number one in its time slot." Her rapid-fire speech kept time with the click of her stilettos. "Miles ahead of its competition. We're talking over five million viewers. You just got some great national exposure."
Which was exactly what Bellamy wished to avoid. But she didn't waste her breath on saying so. Again. For the umpteenth time. Neither the publicist nor her agent, Dexter Gray, understood her desire to direct the publicity to her best-selling book, not to herself.
Dexter, his hand tightly grasping her elbow, guided her through the Manhattan skyscraper's marble lobby. "You were superb. Flawless, but warm. Human. That single interview probably sold a thousand copies of Low Pressure, which is what it's all about." He ushered her toward the exit, where a uniformed doorman tipped his hat as Bellamy passed.
"Your book kept me up nights, Ms. Price."
She barely had time to thank him before being propelled through the revolving door, which emptied her onto the plaza. A shout went up from the crowd that had gathered to catch a glimpse of that morning's interviewees as they entered and exited the television studio.
The publicist was exultant. "Dexter, help her work the crowd. I'm going to get a photographer over here. We can parlay this into more television coverage."
Dexter, more sensitive to his client's reluctance toward notoriety, stood on tiptoe and spoke directly into Bellamy's ear to make himself heard above the Midtown rush-hour racket. "It wouldn't hurt to take advantage of the situation and sign a few books. Most authors work their entire professional lives—"
"And never receive this kind of media attention," she said, finishing for him. "Thousands of writers would give their right arm for this. So you've told me. Repeatedly."
"It bears repeating." He patted her arm as he steered her toward the eager people straining against the barricades. "Smile. Your adoring public awaits."
Readers who had become instant fans clamored to shake hands with her and have her sign their copies of Low Pressure. Being as gracious as possible, she thanked them and smiled into their cell-phone cameras.
Her hand was being pumped by an enthusiastic fan when she spotted Rocky Van Durbin out of the corner of her eye. A writer for the daily tabloid newspaper EyeSpy, Van Durbin was standing slightly apart from the crowd, wearing a self-congratulatory smirk and giving instructions to the photographer accompanying him.
It was Van Durbin who had uncovered and then gleefully disclosed that the writer T. J. David, whose first book was generating buzz in book circles as well as in Hollywood, was, in fact, Bellamy Price, an attractive, thirty-year-old woman:
"Why this native Texan—blue-eyed, long-legged, and voluptuous, and isn't that how we like them?—would want to hide behind an innocuous pen name, this reporter doesn't know. But in spite of the author's coy secrecy, Low Pressure has soared to the top of the best-seller charts, and now, apparently, Ms. Price has come out of hiding and gotten into the spirit of the thing. She's eschewed her spurs and hat, abandoned the Lone Star state, and is now residing in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park on the Upper West Side, basking in the glow of her sudden celebrity."
Most of that was a lie, having only filaments of truth that kept it from being libelous. Bellamy did have blue eyes, but she was of average height, not noticeably tall, as his description suggested. By no one's standards could she be considered voluptuous.
She did have a cowboy hat, but it hadn't been on her head for years. She'd never owned a pair of spurs, nor had she ever known anyone who did. She hadn't abandoned her home state, in the sense Van Durbin had implied, but she had relocated to New York several years ago, long before the publication of her book. She did live on the Upper West Side, across from the park, but not in a penthouse.
But the most egregious inaccuracy was Van Durbin's claim that she was enjoying her celebrity, which she considered more a harsh glare than a glow. That glare had intensified when Van Durbin wrote a follow-up, front-page article that contained another startling revelation.
Although published as a novel, Low Pressure was actually a fictionalized account of a true story. Her true story. Her family's tragic true story.
With the velocity of a rocket, that disclosure had thrust her into another dimension of fame. She abhorred it. She hadn't written Low Pressure to become rich and famous. Writing it had been therapeutic.
Admittedly, she'd hoped it would be published, widely read, and well received by readers and critics, but she had published it under a non-gender-specific pseudonym in order to avoid the spotlight in which she now found herself.
Low Pressure had been eagerly anticipated even before it went on sale. Believing strongly in its potential, the publishing house had put money behind its publication, placing transit ads in major cities, and print ads in magazines, newspapers, and on the Internet. Social media outlets had been abuzz for months in advance of its on-sale date. Every review had been a rave. T. J. David was being compared to the best crime writers, fiction and nonfiction. Bellamy had enjoyed the book's success from behind the protective pseudonym.
But once Rocky Van Durbin had let the genie out of the bottle, there was no putting it back. She figured her publisher and Dexter, and anyone else who stood to profit from sales, were secretly overjoyed that her identity and the backstory of her book had been exposed.
Now they had not only a book to promote, but also an individual, whom they had deemed "a publicist's dream."
They described her as attractive, well educated, well spoken, not so young as to be giddy, not so old as to be boring, an heiress turned best-selling author. She had a lot of "hooks" to draw upon, the chief one being that she had desired anonymity. Her attempt to hide behind a pen name had, instead, made her all the more intriguing. Rocky Van Durbin was relishing the media frenzy surrounding her, which he had helped create, and, never satisfied, continued to feed the public's voracious curiosity with daily tidbits about her, most of which were either blatantly untrue, speculative, or grossly exaggerated.
As she continued to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans, she pretended not to have noticed him, but to no avail. He rudely elbowed his way through the crowd toward her. Noticing his approach, Dexter cautioned her in a whisper, "Don't let him get to you. People are watching. He'd love nothing better than to goad you into saying something he could print out of context."
When the so-called journalist came face-to-face with her, making it impossible for her to ignore him, he smiled, revealing two rows of crooked yellow teeth, which she imagined him filing in order to achieve that carnivorous grin.
Looking her up and down, he asked, "Have you lost weight, Ms. Price? I can't help but notice that you're looking thinner."
A few weeks ago she'd been voluptuous. Tomorrow she would be suffering from an eating disorder.
Without even acknowledging his sly question, Bellamy engaged in conversation with a woman wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt and a Statue of Liberty spiked crown made of green rubber foam. "My book club is reading your book now," the woman told her as they posed together for a snapshot taken by her equally enthusiastic husband.
"I appreciate that very much."
"The rest of them won't believe I met you!"
Bellamy thanked her again and moved along. Undaunted, Van Durbin kept pace, furiously scribbling in a small spiral notebook. Then, stepping between her and the next person waiting for her attention, he asked, "Who do you see playing the lead roles in the movie, Ms. Price?"
"I don't see anyone. I'm not in the movie business."
"But you will be before long. Everybody knows producers are lined up to throw money at you for the option on Low Pressure. It's rumored that several A-list actors and actresses are campaigning for the parts. The casting couches have never had turnover this brisk."
She shot him a look of pure disgust.
"No opinion on the subject?"
"None," she said, stressing the word in such a way as to discourage any more questions. Just then a man wedged himself between two young women and thrust a copy of her book at her. Bellamy recognized him immediately. "Well, hello again. Hmm…"
"Jerry," he said, smiling broadly.
"Jerry, yes." He had an open, friendly face and thinning hair. He'd come to several book signings, and she'd spotted him in the audience when she lectured at a bookstore on the NYU campus. "Thank you for coming out this morning."
"I never pass up an occasion to see you."
She signed her name on the title page, which he held open for her. "How many copies does this make that you've bought, Jerry?"
He laughed. "I'm buying birthday and Christmas presents."
She suspected he was also starstruck. "Well, I and my publisher thank you."
She moved on and, while Jerry fell back into the crush, Van Durbin boldly nudged people out of his way so he could stay even with her. He persisted with the question about a possible movie based on her book.
"Come on, Ms. Price. Give my readers a hint of who you see playing the key characters. Who would you cast as your family members?" He winked and leaned in, asking in a low voice, "Who do you see playing the killer?"
She gave him a sharp look.
He grinned and said to the photographer, "I hope you captured that."
The rest of the day was no less hectic.
She and Dexter had attended a meeting at the publishing house to discuss the timing of the release of the trade paperback edition of Low Pressure. After a lengthy exchange of opinions, it was decided that the book was selling so well in the hardcover and e-book formats that an alternate edition wouldn't be practical for at least another six months.
They'd gone from that meeting to a luncheon appointment with a movie producer. After they dined on lobster salad and chilled asparagus in the privacy of his hotel suite, he'd made an earnest pitch about the film he wanted to make, guaranteeing that if they sold him the rights, he would do justice to the book.
As they'd left the meeting, Dexter joked, "Wouldn't your friend Van Durbin love to know about that meeting?"
"He's no friend. T. J. David's true identity was supposed to be a carefully guarded secret. Who did Van Durbin bribe to get my name?"
"A publishing house intern, an assistant to someone in the contracts department. It could have been anybody."
"Someone in your agency?"
He patted her hand. "We'll probably never know. What does it matter now who it was?"
She sighed with resignation. "It doesn't. The damage has been done."
He laughed. "'Damage' being a matter of opinion."
Dexter had dropped her off at her apartment building with a warning: "Tomorrow's going to be another whirlwind day. Get some rest tonight. I'll be here at seven a.m. to pick you up."
She'd waved him off with a promise that she wouldn't be late, then entered the lobby of her building. The concierge had called to her from behind his desk. "A package for you was delivered just a little while ago."
It had looked innocent enough when she'd set it on her dining table along with a stack of mail. The box had been sealed with clear packing tape. She'd noted that the label was printed with her name and address, but not the sender's information. That was curious, but she didn't think too much of it as she split the tape, folded back the flaps, and lifted out the gift-wrapped box inside.
She never could have prepared herself for the hideous surprise it contained.
Now, sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, she lowered her hands from her eyes and looked at the box with tissue paper blossoming out the top of it. That festive touch was so incongruous with the contents it had to have been planned that way as part of the joke.
Joke? No. This wasn't funny. It was malicious.
But she couldn't think of anyone whom she had offended, nor of anyone who would hold her in such contempt. Would Rocky Van Durbin, even having Sleazy as a middle name, do something so low-down and dirty as to send her a dead rat?
Slowly she worked her way up the wall, sliding her spine along it for support as she unsteadily came to her feet. Standing, she was able to see the rat nestled in the shiny paper. She tried desensitizing herself so she could look at it. She tried to objectify the corpse, but because each of its features was so grotesque, they seemed extraordinarily detailed.
She swallowed bile, chafed the goose bumps on her arms, and by force of will pulled herself together. It was only a dead rodent, after all. Rats were a common sight in the subway stations. Seeing one scuttling along the tracks had never caused her to have this kind of violent reaction.
She would replace the lid on the box and carry it to the garbage chute at the end of the hall. Then she'd be rid of it; she could forget about it and go on about her business, having refused to let the prankster get the best of her.
Steeling herself, she took a step forward, and another, and another, until she was almost upon it.
And then the rat's tail flicked.
Dent answered the phone with a grumble. "What?"
"You're still in the sack?"
"What time is it?"
"You sound drunk."
"Do I need to be sober?"
"If you want the job."
"Soon as you can get here."
"I was afraid you were going to say that. Is it worth my trouble?"
"Since when can you afford to turn down a charter?"
"Okay, okay. How much?"
"Two thousand, down and back."
Dent sat up and placed his feet on the floor, testing his level of sobriety. He raked his fingers through his hair then left his hand there, palming his muzzy head. "Twenty-five hundred plus fuel costs."
"The guy's sick. He's going to MD Anderson for chemo."
"Twenty-five hundred plus fuel costs."
An unintelligible mutter about greed, then, "I think I can swing that."
"You do, and it's a deal. What's the weather like?"
"Hot, muggy, Texas in May."
"Possible scattered thundershowers late this evening. Nothing you can't dodge, nothing scary." After a hesitation, "You're sure you're okay to fly?"
"Gas up the plane."
On his way to the bathroom, his bare foot hooked the electrical cord of the gooseneck lamp and pulled it off the nightstand. It fell with a thud, but fortunately the bulb didn't break. He kicked the lamp and a heap of discarded clothing out of his path and stumbled into the bathroom, cursing the cold glare when he switched on the light.
He shaved by feel in the shower, brushed his teeth bent over the sink, and decided to let his hair dry naturally rather than use the dryer. Any grooming inconveniences these shortcuts imposed were preferable to looking at himself in the mirror.
Back in the bedroom, he dressed in his flight uniform: jeans, white oxford cloth shirt, black necktie, which he knotted but left loose beneath his open collar. He stamped into his boots, then scooped his wallet, keys, and aviator sunglasses off the dresser. At the door he paused to look back at the naked woman in his bed. She, whatever her name was, was still out cold. He considered leaving a note asking her to please lock the door when she left the apartment.
Then his bloodshot eyes swept the place, and he thought, Why bother? There was nothing in it that a thief could possibly want.
Morning rush hour was over, so traffic was reasonably light. The one remnant of Dent's former life was red, equipped with an after-market-enhanced 530-hp engine, six-speed transmission, long tube headers, and a Corsa titanium exhaust. Punching the Corvette up to eighty whenever he had a clearing, he sped it beyond Austin's northern city limit to the private airfield.
He could have kept his airplane at a fancier FBO, one with a control tower, but there were loyalty issues to take into account. Besides, this one suited him better.
His airplane was parked on the tarmac, which formed a concrete apron in front of the corrugated metal hangar. It had seen better days. It had seen better days twenty or so years ago, when Dent had first started hanging around.
Johnsongrass grew like fringe around the base of the rusted exterior walls of the hangar. The faded orange wind sock was the only one Dent had ever seen there, and he figured it was the original that had been attached to the pole shortly after World War II.
Parked in back, out of keeping with the rundown appearance of the building and Gall's beat-up pickup truck, was a shiny black Escalade with darkly tinted windows.
Dent drove the Vette into the hangar, jerked it to a stop with a squeal of tires, cut the engine, and got out. Gall was seated behind the cluttered desk inside the hangar office, which amounted to one cloudy glass wall overlooking the hangar's interior and three other walls constructed of unpainted, untaped Sheetrock. The enclosure was ten feet square, and it was jam-packed.
Maps, diagrams, topographical charts, and yellowed newspaper clippings of aviation stories were thumbtacked to the walls, which were pocked with pinholes. Outdated flight magazines with curling covers were stacked on every available surface. Sitting atop a rusty, dented file cabinet was a stuffed raccoon that had cobwebs over its glass eyes and bald spots in its fur. The calendar above it was from 1978 and was stuck on Miss March, who wore nothing except an inviting grin and a strategically placed butterfly.
When Dent walked in, Gall stood. Planting his fists on his hips, he looked Dent up and down, then harrumphed in undisguised disapproval and rolled his unlit cigar from one side of his stained lips to the other. "You look like hammered shit."
"Got my money?"
"Then spare me the insults and let's get to it."
"Not so fast, Ace. I brokered this charter and take responsibility for the safety of the three passengers."
"I can fly the goddamn plane."
Gall Hathaway was unfazed by Dent's tone. He was the only person on earth Dent would answer to because Gall's opinion was the only one that mattered to him. The old man fixed a baleful stare on him, and he backed down.
"Come on, Gall. Would I fly if I wasn't fit to?"
Gall hesitated for a few moments more, then slid a folded check from the pocket of his oil-stained coveralls and passed it to Dent.
"It's good. I already called the bank."
Dent unfolded the check, saw that it was drawn on a Georgetown bank for two thousand five hundred dollars payable to him and signed. All seemed to be in order. He put the check in his wallet.
"I pumped in ninety gallons of gas," Gall said. "She'll cover the fuel bill when you get back."
Dent gave Gall a hard look.
"I trust her. She left her credit card as collateral." Gall opened the lap drawer of his metal desk. In it were stubby pencils, bent paper clips, orphaned keys, a Bic pen with a fuzzy tip, and an American Express Platinum card. "She assured me it was valid. I checked anyhow. It is. For two more years. What FBO do you want to use? She left it up to you."
Dent named the one he preferred.
"Cheaper fuel?" Gall asked.
"Fresher popcorn. Ground transportation?"
"She asked me to arrange for a limo to be waiting. That's done."
"They're waiting in the Escalade?"
"She said it was too hot and stuffy inside the hangar."
"She seems to be running the show."
"I guess you could say." Gall was suddenly having trouble looking him in the eye. "The old man is awful sick. Be pleasant."
"I'm always pleasant."
Gall snuffled. "Just remember, you can't look a gift horse in the mouth."
"Anything else? Mother?" Gall snarled, but Dent headed off whatever he was about to say with a question about coffee. "Still hot?"
"Ain't it always?"
"Tell them I need twenty minutes, then we'll take off. Anything they need to do in the meantime, go to the bathroom, whatever—"
"I know the drill." Gall mumbled something Dent didn't catch, which was probably just as well, then he added, "Before they see you, squirt some of that stuff over your eyeballs. They look like road maps."
Dent went into the hangar proper and sat down at a table where the computer stayed linked to his favorite weather Web site. He made a note of the storms forecast for that evening, but the skies were presently clear.
He had made the flight to Houston Hobby many times. Nevertheless, he reviewed the information he needed for the flight portion of the trip as well as for the airport. He had Garmin in the cockpit. The Airport Facilities Directory for each state, plus FBO data, were downloaded onto his iPad, which he could access from the cockpit. But as a safety precaution he always printed out and carried with him information pertaining to takeoff, the destination airport, and an alternate airport. Lastly, he called ATC and filed a flight plan.
Outside, he went through the preflight check of his airplane, even knowing that Gall already had. He got under the wings to drain gasoline from five different locations, checking the glass tube to be sure no water had collected in the fuel tanks. It was a time-consuming chore, but he'd known a guy who'd failed to do it. He'd crashed and died.
Satisfied that his plane was ready, he signaled Gall with a thumbs-up. "Good to go if they are." He went into the restroom, where he splashed cold water on his face and washed down three aspirin tablets with the dregs of his coffee, which hadn't been as hot as Gall had boasted but was double the recommended strength. And, as advised, he put in eye drops guaranteed to get the red out. All the same, he put on his sunglasses.
When he emerged from the building, his three passengers were waiting for him on the tarmac, standing shoulder to shoulder.
It was easy to pick out the patient. The man was tall and dignified, but had the yellowish-gray complexion of someone suffering from cancer and its harsh chemical treatments. He was dressed in casual slacks and a sport jacket, both of which looked several sizes too large. A baseball cap covered his bald head.
In the middle of the trio was an attractive woman, slightly younger than the man, but well into her sixties. Something about her…
Dent's footsteps faltered, then he came to a dead standstill. His eyes swung back to the man and tried to picture a healthy version of him. Son of a bitch. It was Howard Lyston.
There could be no mistake because beside him stood his wife, Olivia, looking as well put together as Dent remembered her. She was a pretty woman who took the time and trouble to stay that way. She was still trim, although her weight was distributed differently now, a little more around the middle. Her hair was lighter. The skin around her mouth and beneath her chin was looser than it had been nearly two decades ago. But her haughty expression was the same.
Dent stared at them for several moments, then swiveled his head around. Gall was lurking in the doorway of his office, obviously watching to see how this scene would play out. Under Dent's glare, he scuttled back into the office and closed the door. Dent had some choice words for him, but they could wait.
He came back around and regarded the Lystons with contempt. "Is this a joke? If so, I fail to see the humor."
Olivia turned her head and spoke to the younger woman standing on the other side of her. "I told you this was a dreadful mistake."
The younger woman took two steps toward him. "It's no joke, Mr. Carter. We need to get to Houston."
"There's a superhighway that runs between here and there."
"Daddy can't travel that far by car."
She removed the large, dark sunglasses that had been covering easily a third of her face. "I'm Bellamy. Remember?"
Yeah, of course he remembered, but this was Bellamy? Susan's kid sister? Like a nervous cat, always ducking out of sight whenever he came around. Skinny, gawky, braces on her teeth and pimples on her face. This was her?
Her bony frame had since been padded in the right places. Her complexion was now unblemished, her teeth straight. She was dressed casually but expensively, and there were no split ends in the dark, glossy ponytail that was draped over one shoulder. Altogether a nice package.
But you couldn't melt an ice cube on her ass.
She emanated the same snooty attitude as her parents. Directed especially toward Denton Carter. Olivia was looking at him as though he hadn't showered that morning. The old man was either too sick or too indifferent even to speak. As for Bellamy, she had an imperious manner that rubbed him the wrong way, and they'd only exchanged a few words.
He wasn't going to take their shit. Not a second time.
"There's a commercial airport southeast of downtown," he said, addressing Bellamy. "Maybe you've heard of it? Big shiny airplanes? They fly them several times a day to and from Houston."
She responded to his sarcasm with a smile that was equally caustic. "Yes, well, thank you for the suggestion. But it's an ordeal for Daddy to go through airport security and all that that entails. I was told"—she glanced beyond him toward the hangar, where Gall was playing hide-and-seek—"I was told you have an airplane for charter. I've agreed to your terms and paid in advance for your services."
- On Sale
- Sep 18, 2012
- Page Count
- 640 pages
- Grand Central Publishing