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by Venus Reising
After a sting operation goes horribly wrong, police officer Jackeline Raelston (Jacks) swears off the force and turns to private investigating.
Riddled with guilt over the death of her partner, Jacks is determined to keep her heart and herself safe from danger. But that’s before she’s hired to find missing Southampton heiress, Cassandra “Cassie” Wainwright.
The search for Cassandra pulls Jacks into a world of intrigue and espionage where things aren’t necessarily as they seem—including the sexy and flirtatious heiress. The more time the two women spend together, the more Jacks becomes entangled both personally and professionally.
But which is more at stake? Jacks’s heart or her life? And is she willing to gamble on both…
The Lesbian Review
Ruthless…had a unique layout to it which kept me engaged and entertained. Jacks has become a private investigator after resigning from the police force. Jacks is hired by a wealthy woman named Beatrice Wainwright to find her daughter-in-law Cassandra Wainwright who has been missing for the last few months. My favorite thing to do is to solve mysteries. There were so many fun mysteries to solve sprinkled throughout the book, I had a grand ol' time trying to solve them.
Six Years Earlier
The physiological response to fear is well documented: the pupils dilate, the heart rate and blood pressure increase, the veins constrict, the muscles tense and the nonessential body systems shut down. The feeling of fear, though, is neither predictable nor textbook. The feeling of fear can be just as unexpected and sudden as a grenade, pin-pulled, landing in a bowl of potato salad after being lobbed over the fence in a nice, polite suburban neighborhood.
My body knew before my fingertips had even touched the blue plastic. Fear—white, hot, and electric—had already diverted blood to my periphery, readying my muscles, straightening my spine and gearing up my senses to be attuned to even the slightest movement or sound. Fear had already thickened time into molasses and raised me onto the pads of my feet.
“It’s a trap!” I screamed into the radio on my shoulder, my eyes following the colored wires that poured out of the pipes and snaked up the wall. Oh my god…Shannon.
When I took off running, my fingers were still clutching the blue tarp, under which I’d found the one-inch steel water pipes bound together with electrical tape. I raced toward the docking bay—frantically scanning the warehouse aisles for her blond hair. Some officers’ uniforms streaked by me in a navy brushstroke. I tried to voice a warning but found that I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to formulate coherent words.
All I could think about was getting to her.
I didn’t feel or hear the blast. One minute I was running, my feet on the pavement, and the next I was flying through the air. I was stopped by a forklift—the impact so hard that I blacked out from the pain.
When I came to, there was a lot of commotion and sound like people yelling under water.
“Raelston! Thank god you’re all right!” a male voice shouted. I tried to sit up and felt a wrenching pain in my side. My right arm was bent in an unnatural angle. “Just lie still. Help’s on the way.” A heavy palm on my chest.
“Baxter?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet.”
“She was in the—”
“We’ll find her. Just rest.”
She filled the beer mug from the sputtering nozzle and wiped the wayward droplets off the bar with her black apron. I let my eyes wander over her perfectly shaped breasts and flat stomach.
“Hey Jacks,” she said without looking up. “How was work?”
“What’re you having today?”
I glanced at the rainbow colored bottles that lined the shelves. “Surprise me.”
Her lips curled into a sexy smile. “I’ve got just the thing!” she chirped and went to work pouring liquids into a brushed metal shaker.
Over the past two weeks, I’d become a fixture at Dubble D’s. I didn’t frequent the place for the drinks or the atmosphere. I came for her and spent hours nursing whatever concoction she set in front of me. Dubble D’s was a straight bar—a little dive next to a sushi restaurant in a not-so-nice part of town. The offensive name of the place hinted at the level of sophistication of its patrons, as did the bar’s neon sign that shaped a well-endowed woman cradling an oversized martini glass between her legs. In keeping with the name and the run-down look of the place, there were a couple of pool tables with worn felt complete with bowed cues missing tips, a few wobbly tables and chairs and a perpetually sticky bar—nothing particularly interesting. Well, aside from her, that is.
Callie was beautiful, startlingly beautiful. She stood five foot six, was thin, and had full lips and big blue eyes, made even more striking by her dark-brown, almost black hair. Her hair was cut on an angle and followed the line of her jaw, accentuating her slender neck and shoulders. The tribal band tattoo that circled her bicep seemed unusually dark and pronounced on her ivory skin. Her arms were toned, her biceps well defined, and she usually wore tank tops that left them bare, probably so that we—her bar patrons—could appreciate them and, hence, leave bigger tips. Everyone did. Everyone watched her. I glanced at the faces that surrounded me now. Two seats to my right was a forty-something guy dressed in a football jersey and jeans with worn and soil-stained knees. He was watching a game on his phone, periodically cursing or cheering, and seemed to glance at Callie whenever she wasn’t looking. His dark wolfish eyes lingered notably on her chest, and I wondered if mine were just as telling.
Callie placed a tall glass filled to the brim with a thick orange Creamsicle-looking drink on the bar in front of me. A red plastic sword poked out of the top, spearing a cherry and an orange wedge.
“And this is?”
“Let’s call it Jackie’s Delight.” She winked.
I took a sip. It tasted terrible—worse than terrible. Callie might have been the sexiest woman alive, but she was the absolute worst bartender.
“Yum,” I said and swallowed hard.
She smiled. “Really? I wasn’t sure the tequila would go well with the milk.”
I swallowed the bile creeping up my throat. “No, it’s great,” I managed.
Callie wasn’t her real name. Her real name was Cassandra “Cassie” Wainwright, and she was the daughter of Erich Wainwright III, founder of one of the few online retailers, e-bliz, to survive the so-called dot-com bubble. I was hired by Erich’s second wife Beatrice to track down her stepdaughter, who had disappeared three years earlier. And I had tracked her, first to a hotel in the Keys where she was working in housekeeping and then to Dubble D’s, which seemed, by all accounts, to be the perfect place for someone of her stature to fade into the woodwork—or, in this case, fake wood paneling. It wasn’t likely that her Orlando regulars would follow Southampton gossip. Of course her “fading” had been assisted by some physical alterations—the tattoo, an eyebrow ring, a new cut and hair dye and a slight Bostonian accent. The Cassandra in the photos Beatrice shared with me had long wavy blond hair. She seemed far too innocent and clean for a tattoo or piercing, but she had the same startling blue eyes.
Callie or Cassie lived in a tiny apartment less than a ten-minute drive from the bar. I followed her there each night after work, eating dinner from take-out cartons while watching her silhouette move about behind the shades. I can’t say I wasn’t enjoying this job. Actually, I would have watched Cassandra Wainwright for free. She was that pretty.
I hadn’t told the client that I’d found her yet. In fact, the last time I spoke with Beatrice, I found myself saying, “None of the leads have panned out, but I’ll keep looking.” Considering how much money was riding on the job, this was pretty uncharacteristic of me. PI’s depend on personal intuition, though, and mine was telling me that something about Cassandra Wainwright’s disappearance didn’t sit right. And, well, I also liked watching her.
“You don’t like it, you liar.” Cassie puffed her bottom lip out adorably, her well-groomed dark brown eyebrows bunching together over the bridge of her nose.
“What?” I followed her eyes to the glass. “I love it,” I said and begrudgingly took another sip.
She swatted me with a dishtowel that had been hanging over her shoulder. “Let me try it. I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“I want it all to myself.” I pulled the drink toward me as if to guard it from attackers.
She grabbed my hand and I felt heat prickle my skin at the touch.
I liked hearing her beg me like that—more than I should. Thinking I couldn’t refuse her anything, I released the glass.
She took a sip and instantly made a face. “Oh my god! That’s awful! Why didn’t you say anything? God Jacks! I’ll make you something else.”
Fearing one of her new flavor grenades, I opted for a beer.
“So, you have plans tonight?” She filled a mug from the tap. “Some hot chica maybe?” she asked.
Surprised by her directness, I glanced at the faces that lined the bar. Wolf eyes and his entourage were slapping hands and cheering about some catch, oblivious to our little exchange and its effect on my temperature.
“And what makes you think I’m a lesbian?”
“Aren’t you?” She placed the mug in front of me, a bit of foam sloshing over the lip, and eyed me curiously.
“Your boyish charm then.” She smiled. “You are pretty damn charming.”
I felt my cheeks redden.
Caught in the ocean blue current of her eyes, I temporarily forgot that she was a case. “And you’re pretty damn beautiful yourself,” I said.
She bit her bottom lip. I had trouble tearing my eyes away.
“Are you flirting with me, Jacks?”
I didn’t answer. Me and my mouth.
Her eyes travelled the length of me and my flesh broke out in goose bumps.
“I bet you have a pretty lady at home.”
Despite the alarm bells going off in my mind, I shook my head.
I felt distinctly uncomfortable under her steady gaze but stubbornly refused to look away.
Some redhead in an absurdly low-cut top was trying to get her attention. “Excuse me!” she was saying, rattling the ice cubes in her glass. Cassie ignored her and just continued to stare at me. My face felt hot.
“Well, are you going to ask me out or what?” She put her hands on her hips.
I swallowed nervously, sweat beading on my skin. “I thought you were—”
This wasn’t true. I had easily uncovered a much more interesting past than Beatrice’s straight-washed history of Cassandra’s relationships.
“Well, you thought wrong.” She smiled—the sexiest smile I’d ever seen.
You shouldn’t ask her out. She’s a case. Don’t ask her out. Do not ask her out! “When’s your next night off?” Shit.
“How about Thursday night then? We could have dinner.” Romancing the subject of an investigation? That’s a new low, even for me.
She smiled. “It’s a date.” She turned toward the now miffed woman with the melting ice.
I felt nervousness settle in the pit of my stomach as my eyes, with a mind of their own, slipped over her curves and settled on her ass, which looked great in those tight-fitting jeans, as she bent to retrieve a bottle from below the counter.
Of course there weren’t any updates on the Facebook page that Cassandra’s father had set up in her name. The last sighting posted was from a year earlier—someone from Boston claimed to have seen Cassandra at an AIDS benefit concert. The “About” text included a scanned image of a newspaper article that read: “On the night of January 6, daughter of Southampton business magnate, Cassandra Wainwright left her father’s magnificent 8,000 square foot mansion to go for a jog and has not been heard from since. A landscaper saw her leave the house and head south. Despite multiple law enforcement agencies scouring the area around the home, no new leads have developed.” I clicked on the Photos icon. A slightly younger Cassie wearing a white sundress and strappy heels smiled back at me—her sun-freckles out in full force. Everything about her seemed lighter—her hair, her eyes, her skin, even her smile. Since the day that she had vanished, however, it was as if the world had cast her in a perpetual shadow. I felt sad looking at this other Cassandra Wainwright—this younger, more innocent, and perhaps even happier ghost of the woman I’d met.
The active search spanned several weeks and the police had followed leads for months, but the case went cold as they didn’t have the manpower to continue. Even the media had turned its back on the poor Wainwrights in favor of fresher stories of famous and wealthy train wrecks, like the Kardashians. Hence, Beatrice had called my office in Amagansett.
Cassandra had played it pretty smart. Her credit cards, cellphone, and social media sites had been inactive since the day she left. I found her by following a lead. One look at the case file cost me two dinner dates with a mousy brunette admin from Southampton PD with a penchant for ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. It wasn’t the AIDS benefit concert lead but one that the police had quickly discounted, and with good reason.
The homeless population in Southampton is mostly nonnative—people bussed in from the decaying villages in Suffolk County. Their ranks had recently skyrocketed due to the deflation of the East End job market. The Hamptonite business tycoons and celebrities upset by this shift in demographics caused the county to strike a deal with the town’s motel owners, who agreed to provide temporary housing for the wayward on the locals’ dime. These homeless motels were my first stop, as the lead in the police file was described as “a transient in her early eighties named Hattie.” I didn’t find Hattie at one of the motels, but I did interview two residents who not only knew her but also knew where I could find her.
Hattie’s house was an old refrigerator box on the prime real estate between a dry cleaning business and a coffee shop.
I showed her the picture.
“I told the blues all the clues,” she said.
“Yes, I know. Could you go back over them with me though?”
She huffed and continued to knot plastic grocery bags together, forming a makeshift rope, like the kind prisoners use to climb out of their windows in the movies. Her plastic rope was already close to five feet long.
“South for the Keys, she had to flee.”
“Flee from what?”
“Oh, cruelest and foulest day, they knew that she wouldn’t keep it at bay.”
“Who?” I asked, placing my hand over hers to stop her gnarly fingers from working the plastic. Her milky cataract eyes rolled up to mine. “Keep what at bay?” I asked.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” she said in a shaky voice, her fingers squeezing my arm. I waited for the completion of the rhyme, but there wasn’t one.
If I were still on the force, I, too, would have written off Hattie and her bad rhymes as just the ramblings of some old lady with a screw loose. But my job was to make a map of the scraps discarded by the official investigation—a map that would lead to Cassandra Wainwright.
I showed Cassie’s picture around the hospitals and urgent care centers in the Keys on the off-chance that she had been brought in for anaphylaxis. She had a history of severe food allergies and Beatrice had mentioned several recorded trips to the hospital in her file.
I hit pay dirt with the Key West Urgent Care Center staff. “Nearly done in by a shrimp,” said Reggie, a large black respiratory therapist. With a little cajoling, my ex Barb used her Bureau magic to pull the records on this Callie Winters. By the time I arrived at her last known address, though, Ms. Winters had already cleared out, with ten months left on a year-long lease. “Paid in advance,” the super said. Calypso’s Hotel, where she’d worked in housekeeping, seemed my last option.
Gary Simmons, wearing a badly fitting blue suit with a hotel nametag that said only Manager pinned to the lapel, patted his forehead with a folded handkerchief. His cheap toupee, caught by the movement, shifted slightly, revealing a shiny pale bald spot at the back of his crown. I couldn’t help looking at it as he bent to rifle through the drawers of his metal desk.
“Here it is,” he announced. “A forwarding address.” Orlando. He mopped his head with the handkerchief again. “If you see her, you tell her I’m taking the price of that uniform out of her last paycheck.” Some white spittle flew from his mouth as he talked, making me cringe.
“She didn’t return the uniform?”
“No, she left wearing the thing. And those things aren’t cheap, you know. They’re special order…”
Something, or someone, had caused Cassandra Wainwright to skip town in a hurry, and I needed to find out why.
On Thursday, I sat in my idling car watching her in her third floor apartment through high-powered binoculars. Nervousness brought about a healthy bout of indigestion almost as severe as that from the swallows of Jackie’s Delight three days earlier at Dubble D’s. Cassie’s silhouette paced behind the shades. I imagined she was worried that I wouldn’t show. And I wasn’t, in fact, sure if I would. I was off my game around Cassandra Wainwright, and that had happened only one time before and had cost me far too much.
A glance at the dashboard clock told me that it was ten minutes after our agreed time. More than once, my finger hovered over Beatrice’s name in my list of contacts—with just a little pressure, this whole operation would be over. But I didn’t call. While collecting my fee for finding the girl was a pretty attractive option, I just couldn’t close the file without knowing what drove Cassandra Wainwright to walk out of her father’s mansion on that Tuesday in January and reinvent herself as a hotel housekeeper and barmaid. It just didn’t add up. And maybe there was another part of me that wanted to keep pretending for just a little longer—pretending that I wasn’t an investigator and she wasn’t a missing heiress—that we were just two women who met in a crappy bar and happened to hit it off. It’s only one dinner, and I could always call Beatrice in the morning. I pushed the binoculars into the glove compartment, along with my journal, and checked my hair in the rearview.
Cassie’s door opened in seconds of my knuckles touching the wood. The frenetic movement of her eyes made me think of a live frayed wire. Her glance jumped from the hallway to the stairwell entrance to the lit-up elevator floor numbers above the metal doors—everywhere but at me.
“Sorry I’m late. I had trouble finding—”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, even though it didn’t sound okay. She stepped aside to allow me room to pass. “Come in. Come in.”
As soon as the door closed, her expression metamorphosed from one that I had mistaken as mild irritation at my lateness to outright alarm.
“You’re in danger!” she said, her voice noticeably devoid of that Boston accent from the bar.
“What?” I stammered.
“Get down!” With one quick glance at the far window, she grabbed my arm and yanked it as if she were trying to pull it out of its socket. I collapsed onto one knee.
A bullet whizzed by, accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. I reached for my firearm at my hip and it took a second for me to remember why there wasn’t anything there. In a flash, there he was again—the boy who, in my memory, would never age—the boy with Doug’s features mirrored in miniature, his long dark lashes clumped together from crying. I shook myself to get my bearings.
“They know I’m here,” Cassie whispered.
“No time!” she said, her voice sharp and staccato like a quick jab with a shiv when the guard is turned the other way. “We need to get the hell out of here!”
I followed her. She was agile—even in a crouched position—and seemed more calculating than shaken. This clearly wasn’t the first time she’d been shot at. This case—this Wainwright case—had looked so deceptively simple and round—smooth like the surface of a lake before the rain. But the scent of rain had been there—all the time—on the edge of my consciousness—there at the bar, there in the eyepiece of my binoculars—unmistakable and ominous like something dark up ahead in the weeds on a search for a missing child. It’s what had stopped me from calling it in, collecting my fee, closing the case. Despite my intuition’s weather report, here I was caught in a downpour without an umbrella—again.
Cassie pried the window open and we carefully climbed onto the fire escape’s steel grating.
“Come on!” she said, as she made her way down the ladder to the platform below hers.
Despite the fact that we were only a few stories up, I could feel a familiar fear rip through me as my eyes slipped onto the grate at my feet. Vertigo took hold. My head swam. Not now. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to follow her.
Cassie knocked twice on the apartment window and someone pried it open—thank god. We climbed through.
I found myself standing in a kitchen with a peeling linoleum floor and a water-stained ceiling. A fortyish redhead hurriedly ushered us into a back room.
“Where is it?” Cassie demanded.
The woman pushed a small braided rug to the side with her foot, revealing a tiny hidden door in the floorboards. The hollowed out space inside had just room enough for the slim plastic box. Cassie slipped the box into the front pocket of her jeans.
She turned her attention to me. “Phone,” she demanded gruffly.
“Give me your phone.”
“Why?” I asked, staring at her open palm.
She huffed. “Just do it!”
I begrudgingly handed her the device. And she immediately threw it down on the ground—hard, and stomped it with her boot.
“What the hell?”
“I’ll be in touch,” she said to the redhead, who nodded in response, and then started for the window through which we’d come.
I crouched down to inspect the plastic and glass fragments. No need to get on the “Do Not Call” registry now.
“Well, come on then,” she said.
She turned to look at me, her stony expression melting. “Sorry, Jacks,” she said, “but you’re involved now.”
“Can’t explain. Just trust me.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really, no,” she said, smiling weakly.
I followed her to an alley a couple of blocks away. “What the hell are we doing here?”
“This is our getaway plan.”
“This is our getaway plan?” I asked eyeing the large green dumpster surrounded by nothing but graffiti-decorated walls.
“Not that.” She walked further in and gestured to the sierra red Harley Sportster hidden behind the dumpster. “This.”
I stared at the bike’s sleek lines, its queen seat, its leather saddle bags, and its buffed chrome and was unable to keep the smile from forming on my lips.
“You ride?” she asked, unlocking the helmets from the handlebars.
“Well, hop on.” She pushed the keys into my palm.
The bike came to life, and I liked the way the engine rumbled between my legs. I could feel Cassie slide onto the seat behind me.
As we rode, she pressed her breasts against my back and wrapped her arms more tightly around my stomach. I liked the feel of her clinging to me like that—a little too much.
“Head north,” she directed.
I kept a close watch on the rearview, but I didn’t spot a tail.
As we rode through the chilled February wind, I thought back through the steps that had led me here. Something as small as an eyelash stuck in the Berber carpet or a half of a fingerprint on a piece of masking tape can be enough to tie up a capital murder case. Where was the evidence that could explain why it was that we’d been shot at? What had Cassie slipped into her pocket and where the hell were we going? What had I missed?
We drove about eighty miles down back streets and country roads before Cassie directed me to turn into a hidden driveway. At the entrance was a “Private Property” sign attached to an old PVC pipe that shot up out of a patch of tall weeds. “Trespassers will be shot,” it read—the word “seriously” spray-painted across it in red dripping letters.
The winding dirt road seemed to stretch on forever through thick woods that grew darker and denser the farther away we drove from the streetlights.
“Where are we?” I asked just as we approached a moderately sized cabin in a clearing. A woman with long free-flowing salt and pepper locks and a frame similar to Cassie’s stood on the front porch. In her hands was a double barrel shotgun.
“I know this is just our first date and all, but I think it’s time you met my mother.”
“Your mother?” I swallowed hard remembering the notation in Cassandra’s file about the first Mrs. Wainwright dying in a boating accident two years before Cassie had disappeared.
“You know better than to bring anyone here, Cass.” Cassandra’s mother eyed me warily, her expression grave.
“Jacks and I are dating, Mom.” Cassie winked at me.
“And I married your father.” She laughed—the sort of laugh that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
“You can trust me,” I said.
“Yes, and I’m sure you’d say that even if we can’t—especially if we can’t.”
“She doesn’t know anything, Mom. Beatrice hired her to find me.”
I turned searching eyes on Cassie. She knew? How long had she known?
“Sorry, Jacks, but you’re not the best PI.”
I stood blinking at her, unable to speak.
“All right, Miss Know Nothing. Come inside then,” Cassie’s mother waved me in.
The inside of the cabin was warm and inviting and I could almost imagine it in a snowy setting up north.
“Sit.” Cassie’s mother pointed at a sofa covered in a homemade caftan.
I sat as directed and watched the two women disappear behind a French door.
Their voices were muffled and I could only make out a few words: “…flash drive…Alachua…Beatrice…blueprints…”
I glanced around the room. The cabin looked lived in—a few magazines were strewn on the coffee table with a mug and reading glasses lying next to them. A lady’s shawl had the appearance of having been thrown haphazardly over the back of the recliner and a vase with fresh-cut flowers served as the centerpiece on the dining table. On the cover of Time, the magazine topping the stack, Mitt Romney flashed his signature car salesman smile at me. I took a closer look at the subscription sticker. No name, just an address. The date was from more than a year back. The flowers were brand new, evidenced by their uncut stems and pristine water, and the mug was empty with no evidence of residue. The scene was contrived—to look lived in. What is this place?
When Cassie emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later, she looked exhausted.
“I’m sorry about all this,” she said. “I had no intention of kidnapping you.” She took a seat in the recliner. “I just wanted to warn you.”
Even though I knew logically that I should be much more concerned about being shot at, chased and generally in danger, the thought that our Thursday night dinner date was never meant to be a real date deflated me somewhat. “Warn me about what?”
“What about her?”
“She doesn’t leave loose ends,” she said cryptically.
I stared, trying to make sense of what she had implied. I remembered watching Beatrice use a balled-up napkin to dab ineffectually at the mascara-stained tears streaming down her overly-rouged cheeks as she recounted the last time she’d seen her stepdaughter.
“We fought the night before,” Beatrice had said, gripping the photograph so hard that her fingers looked bloodless. “I had forbidden her from going to a concert.” Her apologetic eyes rolled up to meet mine. “At the time it had seemed more important that she be at our dinner party to complete the family picture for our guests. If something has happened to her…I will never forgive myself.” The shaky voice, the hitched breathing, the tears—all seemed sincere. Could I have been wrong?
“What about going to the police?” I asked Cassie.
She laughed. “You mean the police in Cerberus’s pocket?”
“The hellhound…from Virgil’s Aeneid?”
She kinked an eyebrow. “You’re a reader?”
I shrugged. “A few lit classes in college.”
She smiled. “It’s how we affectionately refer to the big three—e-bliz, GeneteX and ArmiStar.”
“And they are?”
“GeneteX is a biotech company. It’s my father’s e-bliz money that funds their research. ArmiStar’s a defense contractor. We’re not really sure how they’re involved…yet.”
“And your mother? I thought she was—”
A high-pitched alarm stopped my mouth. Cassie’s mother burst through the French doors, her index finger pressed to her lips as a caution for us to stay quiet. Clutching her shotgun in white-knuckled fingers, she approached the front door from an angle so that she couldn’t be seen through the frosted glass windows. She wedged the gun into the crux of her other arm.
“Ruth, it’s me!” a disembodied female voice shouted from somewhere outside. A horse whinnied as if in answer.
Cassie’s mother glanced through the peephole, and relief immediately settled in her expression. She unlatched the deadbolt and chain lock.
The stranger’s dark features, hazel eyes and olive complexion made her appear Mediterranean, perhaps Middle Eastern. Her tight jeans were stuffed into scuffed cowboy boots, and a ribbed tank top exposed the bare smooth skin of her neck and shoulders, dotted with perspiration. From her position in the doorframe, she surveyed the scene with her thumbs hooked into her belt loops. Saying that the woman was sexy would be an understatement; she was sex personified.
“Lady must’ve tripped the alarm when we rode in,” she said to Ruth but with her eyes on Cassie. I didn’t like the way she was looking at her—as if Cassie were lunch and she hadn’t eaten for weeks.
“You need to be more careful, Sahar. I nearly shot you.”
The woman let out a deep, throaty laugh. She turned her attention to Cassie’s mother. “I’d have your sleeves pinned to that wall with my knives before you could have even thought to pull that trigger.”
“Perhaps.” Ruth kinked an eyebrow, the left side of her mouth dipping in distaste.
“Sahar, this is my daughter, Cassandra, and her friend…”
I realized that she’d already forgotten my name.
“Jacks.” I pushed a hand toward the woman in greeting. She ignored the gesture and stepped past me into the room.
“Cassandra, it’s a pleasure.” She took Cassie’s hand in her own and brought it to her lips. “You obviously inherited your mother’s exquisite beauty.” Cassie colored slightly. “Ruth has told me so much about you.”
“That seems a little unfair as I know nothing of you.” Cassie flashed a quick disapproving glance at her mother.
“Well, then, we must spend time getting to know each other.”
As I watched Sahar and Cassie, I felt my blood pressure spike. My hands balled into fists at my sides. I hated this woman.
Ruth was apparently irritated with the idle chitchat. “Did you get the blueprints?” she barked.
“Of course.” Sahar’s full lips curled into a seductive smile. “As you know, I’m not in the habit of disappointing beautiful women.” She winked at Cassie.
I swallowed the bile creeping up my throat.
“Let’s reconvene downstairs,” Ruth said. A basement in Florida? Given the water table, most houses in the Sunbelt are set on concrete slabs or raised a couple of feet off the ground on brick pillars. I wondered whether they’d had the basement specially engineered to resist flooding.