Her mother was smiling.
Chloe paused at the entrance to the ballroom. Her small fingers lifted to curl against the edge of the wooden doorframe as she watched her mother. Her parents liked to hold big parties on the weekends. They’d invite so many people over to the estate. Women who wore pretty dresses. Men in dark suits. They’d drink and they’d dance, and she’d hear their laughter and voices drifting to her bedroom.
The music would fill the air. Everything would seem…happy.
Her mother liked to dance. She’d been a dancer, a ballerina, back in her younger days. She often told Chloe about how wonderful she’d been. How she’d owned the stage when she’d danced upon it.
Chloe was supposed to dance, too. But she wasn’t very good at it. When she tried, she tripped and fell.
No music played now. No one else was in the cavernous ballroom. Just her mother. Spinning round and round as she lifted up her hands. Each time she spun, Chloe could see the smile on her mother’s face. She liked it when her mother smiled. She liked it when her mother was happy.
There were too many days when she wasn’t happy. Not really. Her mother faked being happy. Why didn’t anyone else seem to notice that?
Her mother started to hum. The spins slowed down as she turned to gliding back and forth, from her left foot to her right. Over and over.
That was when Chloe noticed something was on her mother’s white dress.
A gasp slid from her lips. Her mother was hurt. That was blood on her shirt. Bright, red drops. Chloe let go of the doorframe and took a quick step forward.
Her mother lifted one hand and beckoned to her. “Come dance with me, Chloe.”
She took another step. Not quick this time. But slow. Something was… “You’re bleeding.”
“Dance with me.” Her hand stayed extended. Her mother’s voice had turned harder.
Chloe looked at her mother’s hand. She looked at her mother’s broad smile. At her mother’s gleaming eyes. “I—”
“No.” A hard hand clamped over Chloe’s shoulder and spun her around.
Chloe sucked in a sharp breath and found herself staring up into her brother’s eyes. “R-Reese?” His thin frame seemed to shake with tension, and his lips were pressed into a tight line.
“Don’t dance with her, Chloe,” he barked. “Do you hear me? Don’t dance with her. I don’t care what she tells you, don’t you—”
Why was he so angry? What was wrong with dancing? She didn’t want Reese angry with her. Her shoulders stooped, and her head lowered. “She’s bleeding,” Chloe whispered.
“It’s not her blood.”
Her head whipped up.
“It’s not,” he gritted out. “Go back to your room, Chloe. I’ll deal with her.”
He pushed her away from the door. She looked back and saw him straighten his spine. His hands were clenched at his sides as he marched into the ballroom. “Mother…” His voice was low, but Chloe could still hear him. She could hear him because she wasn’t going back to her room. She was staying there to find out who was bleeding. If someone was hurt…
“Mother, what have you done?” Reese demanded.
Blood covered the dancer’s body.
Chloe Hastings stared at the ballerina, and for one dark moment, past and present merged for her. She could hear her mother humming. Could see her spinning round and round…
Mother, what have you done?
“Uh, Chloe?” Detective Cedric Coleman cleared his throat and squinted at her. “Are you with me?”
She blinked. Once. Twice. Her head cocked as she stared at the body. “Of course, I’m with you.” Where else would she be? “I’m right beside you.” Surely the man saw her. Normally, he was highly observant.
“Yeah, but, you…” His throat cleared again.
Was he having an allergy attack? Getting choked on something?
“You have been staring at the body for about five minutes now, and you haven’t said a word.”
Five minutes? Her gaze slid off the body. Darted to Cedric. Then she glanced toward her partner, Dr. Joel Landry.
Joel shrugged his broad shoulders. “I wasn’t watching the clock.” His handsome face was expressionless, but his dark eyes gleamed with curiosity.
She didn’t usually go so quiet at a crime scene. It wasn’t as if death was something new to her. No, she and death were well acquainted. A very long and turbulent history. The more violent the crime, the more at home she normally felt, but this time…
Something is different. The problem was that Chloe didn’t quite know what was different. Not yet. Her gaze trekked away from Joel. She didn’t look back at the victim. Instead, her attention shifted to the wall of mirrors that waited just a few feet away. Her own reflection stared back at her. Joel edged closer, a tall, muscled form that came in protectively. He knew something was wrong. He just wasn’t going to push her in front of the cops who were at the scene.
A crime scene tech eased around them and snapped a few photos of the victim.
“Why the hell do her feet look that way?” The question came from one of the young, uniformed cops who was waiting nearby.
Chloe knew him. Tommy Avarett. He’d found the body. Someone had called in a tip about a break-in at the dance studio, and Tommy had come to investigate. Instead of a break-in, he’d found a body.
“Did the bastard smash her toes? Look at all of those bruises. There is no way she could walk on them—” Tommy began.
“That’s what a dancer’s feet generally look like.” Chloe’s voice was quiet. Considering. “Usually, the toes are wrapped up. Especially for the dancers who are doing pointe technique. The toes have to support the weight of a dancer’s entire body.” She wasn’t bothered at all by the bruising or the condition of the ballerina’s toes. No, she was wondering… “Did anyone retrieve her shoes from the scene?”
“No,” Cedric replied. “We got her bag, but no ballet shoes were inside.”
“Then the killer took them. She wouldn’t be here without her shoes.” She’d been dressed to dance, and she would have brought her shoes.
Lucia Rossi. Cedric had given her brief stats on the victim when Chloe arrived. The vic was twenty-two. An up-and-coming dancer who’d been discovered dead in the building. No signs of forced entry. No witnesses.
Lucia had been beautiful in life. Her dark hair was in a loose bun, and faint tendrils had escaped to tease her oval face. She had a slight, delicate build. Her long, thick lashes were still against her cheeks, and even in death, a faint hue of color still stained her cheeks and lips.
Joel knelt but made sure not to touch the body. “The slice in her throat starts on the left and goes to the right. You can tell based on the depth of the wound. The spray pattern of the blood indicates that she was standing and probably staring at her own reflection when it happened.”
Joel knew his wounds. He was a former surgeon, after all. But in addition to his skills with a scalpel, he’d gotten plenty of his own up-close and intense experience with slices on the human body.
A low whistle came from the young cop. “The perp made her watch him kill her?” Tommy asked. He winced. “That is cold.”
Chloe stared at the mirror. At the blood that had dripped down the glass. Joel was correct. Lucia had been facing the glass when the assailant sliced her throat. From ear to ear. The blood spatter had flown forward and hit the mirror before it dripped down in those long, red streaks. “I’ve seen enough.” A brisk nod. “Let’s go outside.” Without another word, she turned on her heel and marched for the door.
The scent of blood was bothering her. Too strong. The ballerina’s body needed to be moved. Covered up.
Come dance with me, Chloe.
Her steps were fast as she hurried for the exit. A cop beat her to the door and shoved it open. Chloe yanked off her gloves—and the little booties that had been over her shoes—and tossed them aside. She sucked in several deep gulps of air and—
“Are you going to tell me what the hell is happening or am I supposed to guess?” Joel’s voice was mild.
Slowly, her head turned toward him. She’d been aware of him following behind her, even though he hadn’t made a sound. That was one of Joel’s skills. He could move ever so quietly when he wanted. But as to what was happening… “Cedric had a crime scene he wanted us to see.” That had been apparent. Why was Joel—
He shook his head. Stalked toward her. “No, sweetheart.” He’d ditched his gloves and the shoe booties, too. His hands curled around her shoulders as he brought her closer to him. “I’m talking about what is happening with you. I swear, Chloe, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d just seen a ghost.”
Ghosts aren’t real. Or, if they were, she’d certainly never encountered one. But then again, you didn’t always have to see something in order to believe in it. She’d learned that truth long ago.
“You can trust me,” he murmured. “Chloe, let me in.”
She was trying. Didn’t he get that? She stared into his eyes and saw the flecks of gold buried in the darkness of his gaze. Joel. He’d agreed to start working as her partner. Her job wasn’t typical. Far from it. Chloe spent her days and nights tracking killers, and she’d decided that she wanted someone around to watch her back.
Enter Joel Landry.
He wasn’t just physically strong, though, of course, that was certainly a lovely bonus. He had a very unusual skill set that she quite admired. Because he was a former surgeon, he was intimately familiar with the human body. He had a vast knowledge of medicine and health care, and, in a pinch, the man was absolutely great at patching up a knife wound or a bullet hole.
He also was well trained in a variety of marital arts. He could, quite honestly, kill a man in a hundred different ways. He was skilled with knives. Guns. He was a perfect predator.
Mostly because…he’d once been a victim. And he was determined to never be one again.
Her stare swept slowly over his rugged features and lingered just for a moment on the faint scar that cut across his upper lip. There were more scars on Joel. On his neck. His arms. His chest. He didn’t talk about them. As a rule, he didn’t talk about the nightmare attack he’d survived. Joel liked to keep his secrets close. She could understand that. She did the same thing.
“Talk to me,” Joel urged her. His voice deepened, turning into that rough growl that Chloe had discovered—much to her surprise—caused a dark, primitive response within her.
Her lips parted.
“Chloe!” And Cedric was there. Rushing from the building and adjusting his blue tie as he hurried toward her. Wind blew against his body and sent his coat billowing back to reveal the holster strapped beneath his left arm.
She found herself stiffening as he approached her. “Why am I here, Cedric?”
“Uh, because you usually love jumping into a killer’s head?” His answer was immediate.
He wasn’t wrong. Usually, she did quite enjoy that endeavor. “You can handle this case. I know you saw everything that I did.” Cedric was the best homicide detective on the NOPD force. If he wasn’t the best, he wouldn’t have been one of her closest friends.
He straightened his coat. “You were requested. If you must know.”
Joel finally let her go, but he didn’t move far away. He stayed at her side, and his broad shoulder brushed against her. Protective. That was Joel. But, then, he had been hired to be her muscle. And for other reasons…
At the beginning of their partnership, she’d been the profiler, the brains who got into the heads of killers. He’d been the brawn. The man there to kick ass if things got out of hand.
Though, truth be told, Chloe was pretty good at kicking ass. I’d just needed Joel close. I’d needed the chance to get to know him better.
She had gotten to know him better. Intimately so.
“Who made the request?” Joel asked.
Cedric glanced over his shoulder, then back at them. “You know you make the papers a lot, Chloe.”
Not like she tried to be in the Press. In fact, she worked hard to avoid any interaction with reporters. They often misconstrued statements, and, in her experience, they were too hungry for blood. Much like many of the killers she tracked.
“Lucia’s stepdad is Glenn Towers,” Cedric revealed with a wiggle of his dark brows. “As in Towers Casino. He has money to burn, and he’s a frequent contributor to our dear mayor’s political fund. Before I could even get my ass in the car to come to the scene, I was being told that you would be a consult on this. The mayor wants the case closed yesterday.”
So Cedric was already getting political pressure and the body was barely cold. “The mayor should trust you to do the job.” In fact, as far as Chloe was concerned… “You should be in charge of the entire police force.”
“Thanks.” He flashed her a grin. “Working on that.”
She knew he was. She also knew that a faint headache was pounding behind her eyes. “Lucia was acquainted with her attacker.”
Cedric inclined his head.
“But that was obvious to us all.” She knew that was why he’d inclined his head. “There were no signs of a struggle. No marks at all her arms or hands. She didn’t fight. Because of the mirrors, there would have been no way for her not to see him closing in on her.” She considered the scene in her mind. The way it must have unfolded. “They were close. Friends or lovers. Probably lovers.”
“Why probably?” Joel asked.
He was still new to profiling so she explained, “Because she had on lipstick. Blush. Mascara.” The color hue that had survived past Lucia’s death had been due to the careful application of cosmetics. “If you’re coming to the studio to sweat for hours while you perfect your dance routine, you won’t really care about how you look…unless someone else is going to be there. Someone you want to look good for.” The killer. “He was right behind her. They were staring at each other in the mirror.” She could see it so clearly. Chloe found herself moving. Going behind Joel. “He’s bigger than me, so it’s not quite the same but…” She put her left hand around Joel, curling it around his chest. “One arm would be here… and the other would have come up with the knife…” She lifted her right hand and put her fingers to Joel’s throat. She pulled her hand across his throat to mimic the movement of the knife. “Before Lucia even realized what was happening, her lover had killed her. She probably saw the blood even as she felt the pain.” By then, it had been too late.
Her hand lingered on Joel’s throat. She’d risen onto her tip toes behind him, but he was still so big that she had trouble reaching—
“Did you just kill me?” Joel asked softly.
She stiffened. Pulled back her hands. She hurried back to his side. “We’re searching for a male assailant. Someone who plays a major role in Lucia’s life. I’d look at the dance studio. See if a male instructor had a lot of contact with Lucia. Ask her friends to learn about her romantic involvements.” This was all stuff that Cedric would know. “You truly don’t need me. You have this.” She turned away. Oddly eager, once more, to leave the scene—
“So you don’t think we’re looking at a serial?” Cedric’s voice stopped her.
Her heart thudded into her chest. “A serial killer, by definition, has to kill more than one person. The FBI, in particular, likes to say that you must have three victims before you can start talking about a serial murderer.” She looked over her shoulder. “Is there another body that I didn’t see?”
“Not that I’ve found.”
“Then you ask because…?” She knew he’d have a reason.
“The shoes were gone. Seems odd, right? And serials like to take trophies. You’re the one who told me that. If you’re going to kill a ballerina and you want something to remember her by, seems like the shoes are the thing you’d take.”
She stared at him.
His brows pulled together. “What?”
“Maybe there was something about the shoes that could tie him to her. Perhaps they were a gift that he gave to her.”
Cedric nodded and seemed relieved. “So it wasn’t a trophy…”
“No, it very well could have been.” She exhaled a low breath. “I just didn’t want to say that because if this perp is a serial…” Her words trailed away.
Come dance with me, Chloe.
“Chloe?” Joel prompted.
She shook her head and focused on Cedric once more. “I was requested for this case.”
He nodded. Kind of side-eyed her. “Uh, yeah. I mentioned that to you before. Chloe, are you feeling okay?”
She was perfectly fit physically. “I want to know who told the stepfather to contact me.”
“Your name was in the paper. I’m sure that’s—”
Chloe came to a decision. “I’m going to talk to the stepfather. Now.”
Alarm flashed on Cedric’s face. “The man is probably grieving! We both know you do not handle grieving family members well. You don’t want to rush over there now. Work the case. There’s a bonus in it for you if we close before—”
“I’m going to talk to the stepfather. Call me if you need me for anything else.” Urgency rode her. Chloe didn’t like it when puzzle pieces didn’t slide into place.
The pieces weren’t sliding into place for her.
She hurried back to the SUV, but Joel beat her to the door. When she reached for the door handle, his fingers closed around hers. “Stop.” He was behind her. Seemed to surround her.
Chloe whirled to face him. He was so close that he seemed to cage her. Dammit, he was caging her.
“Explain,” Joel ordered. “Just take a breath and bring me up to speed.”
“I want to interview the stepfather. I thought I had explained that.”
His lips quirked as Joel slowly shook his head. “More is at play. With you, there always is. Tell me what I’m missing.”
That was the thing. Chloe felt as if she was missing something, too. So how could she tell him what she didn’t know? “It feels personal.”
“Murder usually is personal. Especially if you’re right and the perp was the vic’s lover.”
“No.” She lifted her chin. “This feels personal…to me.”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her. “I don’t get it. You’ve literally had sick fucks sending you notes asking you to ‘Come and get me’ and that didn’t seem too personal for you.”
That had felt like a challenge. This was different. This was her past. Rising up to try and bite her in the ass. Or…
Slice her throat. From ear to ear.
“Take two minutes and explain to me,” he urged, “just how the hell this is different.”
They were on the edge of the street in the French Quarter. It was early evening, and a few cars ambled down the road. People were strolling along the sidewalk. The road glistened slickly from the afternoon rain that had rolled through the city.
“I’m not psychic,” Joel rumbled. “Despite my best efforts, I can still not manage to read that mind of yours.”
She didn’t want him to read her mind. “It was staged.”
“The scene? You didn’t tell that to Cedric.”
No, she hadn’t. “The blood on the mirror…when I looked straight into the mirror, it was like I had blood on me.” Blood is on your hands. That had been the message she received from her reflection.
“Chloe, that was a blood spatter pattern. You know that. You—”
“The building wasn’t always a dance studio. At one point, a long time ago, it was a dress shop.” She didn’t look away from him. “Your mother used to work in that shop.”
His broad shoulders stiffened. “Do I even want to know how you learned that?”
“When I was doing my research on you, I came across this place,” Chloe whispered. Joel had lived in New Orleans a lifetime ago. His return to the Big Easy had been a fairly recent occurrence, as in…he’d come back when his world in Dallas had turned to ashes around him. He’d come back to New Orleans for a shot at a different life. “I remembered the address. I don’t…it could be a coincidence.”
“Fuck that.” He reached around her and yanked open the SUV’s door. “You said it was staged. Staged at a place that has a link to me. Staged and you were specifically called to the scene?”
Yes, all of those things were setting off red flags in her mind. She was glad that he could appreciate her unease.
“Hell, yeah.” Joel gently pushed her into the passenger seat. “We’re going to talk to the stepfather.”
Hmm. Interesting. She hadn’t even needed the full two minutes in order to convince him.
The stepfather didn’t live far away. Chloe got his address from—well, hell Joel didn’t honestly know how she’d gotten it. While he’d started the vehicle, she’d fired off a quick text to someone, and then started giving him driving directions. Her voice was calm and cool—quintessential Chloe with just the faintest hint of her British accent sliding beneath the words—but something was off with her. He should know. He was her lover. He knew her, inside and out, and when something rattled her, he was one of the few people who could see her small shakes.
But she wasn’t telling him enough about what was happening and that fact pissed him off. He didn’t want Chloe keeping secrets from him. He wanted to be all-fucking-in with her.
He braked in front of the stepfather’s sprawling house. Also in the Quarter, it reeked of old money. For a moment, Joel considered the location, and his stomach twisted. Hell… “This isn’t too far from your place.”
“No.” Her eyes were on the house that waited behind the iron gate. An open iron gate. “It isn’t.”
“Do you know the man, Chloe?” He knew of the guy. The man owned a chain of casinos in New Orleans, but Joel had never personally met Glenn Towers. Chloe had a way of knowing folks, though. Her friend—or maybe acquaintance list—was surprisingly large.
“We’ve never met.” She was still looking out the window. “A Porsche is in the driveway, so it looks like someone is home.” Her hand reached for the door.
He leaned across the seat and touched her cheek.
Her head whipped toward him.
Finally. He could see her actually focusing on him. When he’d been at the crime scene, Joel could have sworn that Chloe had gone a million miles away from him. Cedric had noticed her distance, too. “It’s okay to talk about it.”
“It?” Her delicate eyebrows rose.
“Yeah, you know, ‘it’—the fact that you just left a dance studio that was soaked in blood and a poor twenty-two-year-old victim had her throat sliced wide open. It’s okay to talk about it. To be upset about what happened.” He knew Chloe didn’t like the bloody scenes. They reminded her too much of her own past.
“I’m not upset.”
Baby, maybe you should be.
“I really need to get inside that house, Joel.”
“Fine. Just—shit, Chloe, his stepdaughter is dead. Let’s try to use a light hand with the man, all right?” Cedric hadn’t been wrong when he said that Chloe wasn’t exactly the best with families.
Her eyes—the most incredible blue he’d ever seen—widened. “What are you talking about?”
“You have a tendency to…” He was stroking her cheek. A cheek that felt like absolute silk beneath his hand. “To be a little cold.”
She stiffened. “You think I’m cold?”
Oh, fuck. Hello, disaster. “No! Hell, no.” He pressed a quick, hard kiss to her slick, red lips. “Baby, you are hell hot in my hands.” The woman could wreck a bed and leave him begging for more. “You think about death differently from other people, that’s all.” He was so screwing this up. “When you’re dealing with families, you have to remember that they are grieving.”
“Grieving.” Her tongue swiped over her lower lip. “I’m not so sure that’s what he’s doing.” She shoved open the door.
“Wait, dammit, Chloe—”
She was already out of the vehicle and leaving his ass. He double-timed it to catch up to her. Dammit to hell and back. Joel knew he’d hurt her feelings. He hadn’t meant to say she was cold. Chloe was as far from cold as it was possible to be. She just…she didn’t show her emotions. Other people didn’t understand her like he did. When they’d first met, he hadn’t even understood her.
They walked right through the open gate. Up the steps. He saw that the stepfather had one of those video doorbells installed. Chloe leaned forward to push the button in the middle of the doorbell, then she hesitated.
Joel realized he needed to ask her an important question. “If he’s not grieving, just what is the man doing?”
“The door is open,” Chloe whispered instead of answering him. “We need to go in.” She pushed her hand against the door, and yes, it was open. Beneath her touch, it slid in a few more inches.
He grabbed her wrist. “What in the hell are you doing?” His voice was low, just for her ears. He knew she’d seen the video doorbell. The video option meant…Smile, baby. We are on camera. He brought his mouth close to her ear and said, voice barely above a breath of sound, “You can’t just waltz into his house. You don’t have an invitation.” Or a warrant—because they were not cops!
“I don’t think he’s going to give me one.”
That still didn’t mean that she got to just—
Her head turned toward him. “Don’t you smell the blood, Joel?”
Smell the—His eyes widened. No, he damn well didn’t smell blood. Was this something she was just doing for the camera? Because he didn’t think she smelled blood, either. The woman was incredible, but she didn’t have freaking super senses.
“We have to get inside,” Chloe added as her tone turned urgent. “Now.”
Breaking and entering. Sure. That was his life now. Life with Chloe. Though the door was unlocked, so technically, he figured they were not breaking anything. Just doing the entering part of the equation.
Chloe shot through the door before he could try to convince her that this wasn’t the best idea ever. Swearing, Joel surged after her. “Chloe!” She wasn’t supposed to race into danger—or whatever she was racing into. They’d talked about this. He’d been hired originally as a bodyguard/partner, so she should freaking let him guard that gorgeous body of hers.
The house was eerily quiet. Still. And Chloe was hurrying down a narrow hallway like she knew exactly where she was going. As if she’d been in the house dozens of times and—
Joel stiffened. Fuck me. Now he smelled the blood, too. Maybe Chloe hadn’t been lying about that. He grabbed her shoulder and hauled Chloe to a halt just before she’d been about to shove open yet another door. “Stop,” he rasped. He pulled Chloe back against him.
“You smell it, too.”
Yes, he did. Not like you could mistake that scent.
“He may need our help.” She jerked against Joel’s hold. “We can’t just stand out here.”
No, they couldn’t. But it didn’t mean she had to run into danger. “Stay here.”
Instead of replying, he pushed her behind him, and then Joel opened the door. A study. Home office. Whatever. There was a big, massive desk. Bookshelves that lined the walls. And a dead man on the floor. Blood covered him, probably because he’d been stabbed over and over again.
Fucking hell. One look, and Joel recognized Glenn Towers. He looked just like the photos that were often in the news. Except he was covered in blood and stiff as a board on the floor of his study.
Joel couldn’t even count the number of stab wounds on the victim. There were deep punctures on this chest and stomach. Small, shallow wounds on his neck, his arms, even his face. There was one slice that went right across the man’s lip…
Joel flinched. Just like me…
“Move back, Joel.” Chloe’s voice. Soft. Firm. Her hand curled around his arm.
He couldn’t look away. He stared at the body. At the wounds. So many. Wounds that reminded him of his own attack. Only this poor bastard hadn’t survived.
And in the middle of the blood that soaked the expensive rug beneath the victim, Joel saw a pair of ballerina slippers. Half-white, half-blood-stained red with long ties that dangled in the congealed pool of blood. There were streaks of red nearby on the floor, as if the bloody shoes had been dragged around the area. “Chloe,” Joel breathed. “What the hell is going on?”
“He’s been dead a while,” she said. Her hand tugged on Joel. “Based on the lividity, I’d say he died before Lucia did.”
His head turned toward her as a chill covered his skin. If Glenn Towers had been dead that long… “Then how the fuck did he request that you work on the case?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t request me. A killer did.”