Blood Red Chapter 3

Mark sat in the courtyard, dark sunglasses in place, drinking his coffee and reading the newspaper. He felt a sense of bitter fatality at the headline blazing at him, and nothing in the story that followed surprised him.

The headless woman was being called Jane Doe. The coroner estimated that she'd been dead a week to ten days, and she might have been disposed of at almost any point up to a hundred miles upriver. White, approximately five-feet-seven inches, one-hundred-and-thirty pounds, her remains had been badly assailed by the river and the creatures that lived in it. The coroner had nothing else to say for the moment, other than that additional tests were being performed on the victim.

The head had yet to be discovered.

Mark put down the paper and sipped his coffee, staring at the door to the cottage the three women had taken. Someone had taken in the newspaper, but they had yet to emerge for the day.

He was seated at a table behind a pleasant elderly couple from Ohio. There was a pair of honeymooners to his left, Bonnie and Ralph, and a few of the other guests had come by, all cheerful, friendly and wishing him a good morning. Some of them hadn't read the paper. Some had, and been appalled at what they read. But they all seemed able to distance themselves from the story. A lone young woman, attacked and killed. Yes, it was easy for a pretty girl to be in danger, to become a victim. From the conversations he overheard, most of them also wanted to believe that she had been a drug addict, as well, or a prostitute. Anything to ensure that whatever violence had touched her would never touch them.

That was the same sentiment he heard when the door to cottage number five opened at last and the three young women appeared. An even greater sense of unease surged through him at the sight of Lauren Crow, the woman with the auburn hair and extraordinary green eyes who reminded him so vividly of Katie. The dark haired girlwas stunning as well, exotic and sleek. He decided that she had to be Deanna. The little blonde who looked like a petite princess had to be the one named Heidi.

Last night he had thought of them as bait, but the article in the paper forced him to think in far more brutal terms. They were targets.

Beautiful, all of them, and young. The perfect age. Pure temptation for the killer who had coldly thrown that poor girl's corpse into the Mississippi.

’’Poor thing,’’ Heidi was saying as the women approached an empty table.

’’Horrible,’’ Lauren concurred.

’’Yes, but please, let's not obsess about it,’’ Deanna said. ’’I forget the statistics, but just in the United States there are dozens serial killers at work at any given time. But we'd go crazy if we worried about them all on a daily basis. Right?’’

’’Of course. It's's just a really big headline,’’ Lauren said.

’’Well, sure. The corpse was headless,’’ Deanna said.

’’That's true. The more gruesome the crime, the bigger the headline,’’ Lauren said.

Deanna linked arms with her, adjusting her sunglasses. ’’But we're smart, and we're not going to do anything stupid, like going off alone. You were the one who lectured us on safety way back in college-and we listened.’’

’’My dad was a cop,’’ Lauren reminded her. ’’I learned my lessons young.’’

’’Right. And you taught us. None of us wander around alone at night, and we all keep an eye on who's around us at all times. We're all street smart.’’

’’I know.’’

’’Enough of this depressing stuff. It's time to go shopping,’’ Heidi said. ’’Honestly, Lauren-my dear slave-this is my happy time. I know you always worry about the dangerss of the world, but let's go shopping.’’

’’Right, shopping,’’ Deanna agreed.

Watching from a distance, homing in on the girls and trying to filter out other conversation, Mark took a long look at Deanna. She looked exhausted, as if she were suffering from a serious lack of sleep.

They hadn't seen him yet. He had his newspaper up in front of his face, his dark glasses in place. They were wandering slowly through the courtyard, as if unsure whether to leave or not.

’’Coffee?’’ Deanna suggested.

’’We'll get some on the way,’’ Heidi said. ’’Let's go

’’Shopping,’’ Lauren said dryly.

’’I can tell you're still worried,’’ Heidi said with a sigh.

’’It was that woman last night. The fortune teller,’’ Deanna said.

’’We should never have made Lauren do what she didn't want to,’’ Heidi admitted.

’’It's over, and I'm all right. Let's go,’’ Lauren said.

She walked right past him and didn't even notice him, Mark noticed with relief. The other two women followed in her wake and didn't spare him a glance, either.

At the exit from the courtyard, though, Lauren paused and looked back, as if puzzled. As if she thought she should be seeing something but didn't know what.

Her eyes fell on him, and she frowned. He stared back at her through the dark lenses of his glasses.

She hesitated, and he couldn't tell whether she recognized him from the night before or not. The newspaper was shielding most of his face, and her expression was uncertain.

Deanna, concentrating on arranging the strap of her purse, plowed into her. ’’Hey! I thought we were leaving,’’ she said.

Lauren didn't respond. Instead, she walked back into the courtyard, and Mark watched her as she came toward him. ’’Hello,’’ she said, looking straight at him. His heart lurched. She looked so much like Katie.


’’We met last night,’’ she said.

’’The bar,’’ he agreed.

’’You're staying here?’’

’’It's a great little place. I see that you and your friends have discovered it, too.’’ He rose, extending a hand. ’’You told me your name, but I didn't tell you mine. Mark Davidson.’’

She accepted his hand. Touching her, even so casually, sent a jolt through him.

’’My last name's Crow. Lauren Crow,’’ she said softly. She turned to her friends, who had followed and were standing behind her. ’’These are my friends. Deanna??? and Heidi Weiss.’’

’’Hi,’’ they chimed in unison, stepping up to shake hands.

’’You two know each other?’’ Deanna said.

’’Not really. We met in the bar last night.’’

’’Cool,’’ Deanna said.

’’We're here from LA. Where do you call home?’’ Heidi asked.

’’At the moment?’’ he replied. ’’I'm in the middle of relocating.’’

’’Are you thinking about moving to New Orleans?’’ Deanna asked.

’’It's a great place,’’ he said.

’’I guess,’’ Deanna managed around a yawn, then excused herself quickly. ’’Not a lot of sleep to be had here, though.’’

He noticed that Lauren was just staring at him. Suspiciously.

’’What do you do for a living?’’ Deanna asked.

Lauren elbowed her friend and gave her a reproving look, but he only laughed out loud. ’’It's okay. I'm a writer and a musician.’’

’’What do you play?’’ Lauren asked sharply.

’’Piano, guitar.’’

’’Do you write music?’’ Deanna asked.

’’Sometimes. But mostly I confine my writing to article and, some fiction.’’

’’Cool,’’ Heidi said.

’’Horror novels?’’ Lauren asked pointedly. Those green eyes of hers didn't leave him for a second. He disturbed her, he thought. Why?

’’I've tried a few different things in my day.’’

’’Are you rich and famous?’’ Heidi teased.

’’No, I'm sorry. Just plodding along,’’ he told her.

’’I'm not sure I believe that,’’ Deanna said. ’’You probably have a pseudonym but you're not going to share it, right?’’

’’Nothing that deep or mysterious, I'm afraid.’’

’’Well, nice to meet you,’’ Lauren said. She set a hand on Heidi's shoulder, her eyes still on him warily. ’’We need to get moving.’’

’’What's the hurry?’’ Heidi asked.

’’You said you wanted to go shopping,’’ Lauren reminded her. ’’Nice to see you again, Mr. Davidson, but we need to get going.’’

’’It was super to meet you,’’ Deanna said. Her voice was low and throaty. Sensual.

’’Absolutely,’’ Heidi agreed. She seemed to croon the single word.

’’We'll be seeing you again, I assume. After all, we are staying in the same place,’’ Deanna said.

’’Yes, we are,’’ Lauren murmured. She didn't sound happy about the fact, he noticed.

’’You're here for a few days?’’ Heidi asked.

’’I am. Cottage six.’’

’’That's right next door to us,’’ Lauren said, unable to hide her surprise.

’’Is it?’’ he inquired.

’’I guess we really will see you,’’ Lauren said, her suspicion and aggravation evident in her tone. ’’But right now, we really do have to get going,’’ she said firmly.

She turned, walking determinedly toward the street.

’’See you,’’ Deanna said, and winked.

’’Later,’’ Heidi told him.

’’Sure. Enjoy New Orleans,’’ he said, and he sat and pretended to give his full attention to his newspaper once again.

’’My God, you met him last night and you didn't say anything, much less introduce him?’’ Heidi marveled, staring at Lauren as they headed toward Royal Street.

’’I didn't exactly meet him,’’ Lauren said. ’’I bumped into him.’’

’’I only bump into eighty-year-old men with canes,’’ Deanna said mournfully.

’’He's...magnetic,’’ Heidi said.

Lauren shot her a quick glance.

’’Don't look at me like that. I love Barry, and I honestly believe we're going to beat the odds and be married forever. But if I'd bumped into that guy, I wouldn't have forgotten it. But you? You didn't say a word to us.’’

Lauren let out a sigh. ’’What on earth was I supposed to say? We didn't have drinks, we didn't go to dinner. I bumped into him in a hallway.’’

’’I'd have mentioned it,’’ Deanna said. She let out a sigh.

’’He's staying at our B and B,’’ Heidi commented.


Deanna stopped walking and laughed. ’’Heidi, did you hear that? Lauren, you said that one and filled it with more suspicion than I can believe. What's the big deal? You bumped into him in New Orleans-and he's staying in New Orleans. Imagine that.’’

’’He's staying in New Orleans at our B and B,’’ Lauren said.

’’I call that cool,’’ Heidi said.

’’You're engaged,’’ Lauren reminded her.

’’But not dead,’’ Heidi said with a smile.

’’What's the matter with you, Lauren?’’ Deanna asked. ’’You're not usually like this. The guy is gorgeous and he seemed nice. What's your problem?’’

Lauren arched a brow and shook her head. ’’I don't know. I guess I was just nervous last night. And he was standing outside after we first got back last night, I'm certain. I saw him out on the street.’’

’’He's staying here we are. He had to be on the street to get here,’’ Heidi pointed out, a smile curving her lips.

’’Cute,’’ Lauren told her. ’’Then I found Deanna out by the pool-sleepwalking!’’

’’You were sleepwalking?’’ Heidi asked Deanna.

’’I guess. Luckily, Lauren found me before I drowned. Then again, the water might have woken me up. Who knows?’’

’’We probably shouldn't have taken the red-eye.’’ Heidi said.

’’Today is going to be great,’’ Lauren assured her. ’’Turn here. That clothing shop you wanted to go to is down a few blocks on the right. I want to go to that gallery across the way. I'll meet you guys in the place with the great hats in half an hour.’’

When they reached Heidi's goal, she shooed them inside and walked on.

New Orleans Police Lieutenant Sean Canady sat at his desk in the precinct, staring at the newspaper.

Headless corpse.

It was happening again. He groaned aloud.

’’Hey, Lieutenant.’’

He looked up to see Bobby Munro standing in front of him.

’’Hey, Bobby.’’ He didn't ask his officer if he had seen the headline;he couldn't have helped but see it.

’’The Mississippi's a big river. That body could have come from anywhere,’’ Bobby said. ’’And there have been plenty of perps who behead their victims. Get rid of the head, stall the identification.’’

Bobby was a damned good officer, Sean thought. Young and good-looking, he was nevertheless a fine cop. He'd seen a hell of a lot already, but he hadn't become jaded. Bobby saw himself as one of the good guys, and he still believed he could create a better world.

Sean leaned back at his desk, looking up at Bobby. He'd been around a lot longer himself, and while he wasn't exactly jaded, he was weary. He came from this area. He knew he had the respect of his superiors, from the mayor up to the governor-hell, even up to the Feds. He was given a lot of leeway in his investigations. His word was considered good. So were his instincts.

And he didn't like this.

’’An organized killer, trying to hide an ID, would almost certainly have cut off the hands, as well,’’ he said. ’’We've still got fingerprints, and I have a hunch we'll have an ID on our vic soon enough.’’

’’Drug deal gone bad?’’ Bobby suggested hopefully.

Sean shrugged. ’’Keep an eye out,’’ he said.

’’Right. And you remember, Lieutenant. The Mississippi? A big, big river.’’

’’Yeah,’’ Sean said, smiling grimly. ’’But the corpse is in our morgue.’’

Lauren finished her shopping and arranged for the small piece of art she'd chosen to be delivered to the B and B, then stepped out onto Royal Street. The sun was bright. She shaded her eyes with one hand while she fumbled in her bag for her sunglasses with the other.

One of the mule-drawn carriages drove by. She blinked, then squinted against the glare. She could have sworn Deanna was in it-on the front seat, right next to the driver, who was tall and dark, and wearing a top hat.

The carriage kept going at a brisk pace.

’’Deanna?’’ she called, following after it. But there were cars on the street, as well, and she had to move quickly back to the sidewalk and maneuver around all the people there. The carriage was far beyond her before she finally gave up trying to follow it.

Besides, itt couldn't have been Deanna, she told herself. Deanna wouldn't have taken a carriage ride by herself, not when she was supposed to be shopping with Heidi.

But when Lauren made it across the street to one of her favorite clothing shops, she found Heidi in the back alone, trying on hats.

’’Hey,’’ Heidi said. ’’How's this?’’

The straw hat she was trying on was wide-brimmed and sported a bright flower, and Heidi wore it well.

’’Perfect,’’ Lauren said. ’’Where's Deanna?’’

’’She said something about the shop next door,’’ Heidi said. ’’She said she'd be right back.’’

’’I could have sworn I just saw her in a carriage.’’

’’Why would she take a carriage ride without us?’’ Heidi asked.

’’She wouldn't.’’

’’Then you probably just saw someone who looked like her,’’ Heidi said. ’’You know, this place is a little pricey, but this really is a nice hat. Should I buy it?’’

’’Yes,’’ Lauren said, still distracted. ’’I'm going to check next door.’’

Heidi turned and stared at her. ’’You sound worried.’’

’’No, not really.’’

’’Lauren, it's broad daylight. There are a zillion people on the streets.’’

’’I know.’’

’’Okay.’’ She sighed. ’’Let's look for Deanna.’’

’’Buy your hat. I'll check next door.’’

’’Okay, I'll meet you there.’’

When she stepped back onto the street, Lauren was practically assaulted by music. She came to a dead halt.

There was something happening in the street. A jazz funeral. The mule-drawn hearse, escorted by mounted police, passed just as she emerged. Behind the hearse came the mourners and, with them, the musicians. It was a spectacle not everyone got to see, something unique, sad yet wonderful, to be found in the city. Someone was about to be laid to rest in grand fashion.

The procession had to be on its way from the church to the cemetery-something of a long route from here, Lauren thought. The musicians were playing a dirge now, but she'd been to several jazz funerals in her life, and she knew that once they left the cemetery there would be a celebration of the deceased's life. Often the band would play ’’When the Saints Go Marching In,’’ the old standby. It was an old custom, African beliefs blended with western religion.

On the street, everyone had stopped, watching the procession go slowly by.

She did the same.

The mourners were black, white and all shades in between.

One of the trumpet players was a huge, handsome African-American man. As he played, his eyes lit on Lauren, and she offered him a nod of respect. Strangely, he kept watching her solemnly until he had passed her.

As soon as the funeral had moved on, people began to mill around on the sidewalks again, and cars followed slowly, until they could turn onto a different street.

Lauren found herself listening to the sad dirge until the funeral march was but a hint in the air, and the laughter on the street and sounds of a corner rock band overshadowed what had been. Then she gave herself a shake and hurried into the next store.

She saw T-shirts, voodoo potion boxes, alligator heads, votive candles and holders, but no sign of Deanna.

Nor did Heidi appear.

She walked back into the store where Heidi had been looking at the hat. Neither of her friends was there.

Irritated, she took out her cell phone. She tried Deanna's number first and got her voice mail. The same thing happened when she tried Heidi's number. Cursing silently, she left her a message, too.

She didn't want to go far;they had to be nearby somewhere. But after going in and out of a dozen shops, cafes and restaurants, her level of aggravation peaked, and she gave in to the heat and her own weariness and opted for a table near the street at the last cafe she checked and ordered a giant iced tea.

While she sat, she drew out her sketch pad, but before she could start working on a street scene, she found herself staring at the sketch she had made of the fortune teller the night before.

’’You ruined the whole party, you know,’’ she said softly to the sketch. The woman was still striking, everything about her unusual, from the remembered color of her skin to the bone structure of her face.

’’Talking to yourself?’’ someone said.

She looked up, startled, wariness slipping through her.

Their handsome neighbor from cottage six was standing by her, a pleasant smile on his face.

She didn't answer;she was torn between suspicion and an inexplicable desire to engage in conversation. Okay, maybe not so inexplicable. He was exceedingly attractive. Tall, everything in proportion, muscular without being musclebound, with rugged features that were classically appealing and entirely masculine. She even liked his scent, and felt oddly drawn to move nearer to him.

I would actually like to get to know him, she admitted to herself.

And then another voice chimed in. The truth was that he scared her. And maybe he scared her just because she felt such a strong sense of attraction to him.

Would she have been so afraid if it hadn't been for what had happened in the Square, the crystal ball and the illusion of genuine danger?

’’Wow,’’ he murmured, and she realized that he was looking at her sketch. ’’That's magnificent.’’

’’I don't know about magnificent,’’ she murmured, embarrassed.

He never actually asked if he could join her, and she never suggested that he do so, but he drew out the chair across from her anyway and sat down.

She was glad, she realized. She liked having him there, liked talking with him. Liked feeling his eyes on her appreciatively.

And yet she was still...wary.


Something wasn't right.

’’You're quite an artist,’’ he said.

’’It's a living,’’ she replied.

He flashed her a smile. A very attractive smile. ’’Not everyone is good enough to make a living at it.’’

’’I've been lucky.’’

’’Are your friends artists, too?’’

’’Yes. Artists, graphic designers.’’

’’You do logos, fliers, that type of thing?’’ he inquired politely.

’’Yes, and ad layouts and so on,’’ she agreed.

She didn't want him to leave, she realized.

What the hell was it about him that appealed to her so strongly? She wanted to touch him, make sure he was real, stroke the contours of his face, feel his heart beat under her palm.

He tapped the table near the sketch. ’’I've seen her. It's an incredible likeness. There's a touch of magic to her, and you've captured it.’’

’’Thanks.’’ She hesitated. ’’So you...know her?’’

He shook his head. ’’I saw her when I was walking around. She's so unusual, so arresting, that you feel compelled to look at her. You've caught all that in this sketch.’’

’’Thanks,’’ she murmured.

’’So you all had your fortunes told?’’


’’And?’’ His tone was teasing, his smile captivating.

And yet, despite his teasing tone, did she sense a note of seriousness behind it? Did he suspect that she had seen a strange vision?

Of course not.

’’We're all going to live long, happy lives,’’ she lied.

’’Wonderful So where are your friends now? Did they get lost in New Orleans?’’ he asked, a slight frow creasing his brow, though he still spoke lightly.

’’They're not lost,’’ she said, then added, ’’I've simply misplaced them.’’

’’Worrying nonetheless,’’ he said

’’It's broad daylight, and there are tons of people around,’’ she countered.

A waitress came by. ’’I'd love a tea, too,’’ he said, then looked at Lauren. ’’May I buy you lunch?’’

’’I should really wait.’’

’’Until your misplaced friends are located?’’

She turned her attention to the street momentarily, then looked back at him. She was startled when he set a hand over hers. Pinpricks of sensation seemed to leap like fire across her flesh, pass into her bloodstream and balloon at the center of her being like a flow of lava. She was tempted to pull her hand away, then realized that would be far too indicative of her feelings.

She stared at him instead, slowly arching a brow.

Suddenly his expression grew serious, and his tone matched it when he spoke. ’’Please, you may think I'm insane for saying this, but I promise you, I'm not. I'm afraid that you and your friends are in danger here.’’

Yes, there had been more to his earlier question.

’’Oh, please,’’ she said, closing her eyes for a moment against her disappointment that he'd turned out to be a loon. ’’Not this again.’’

All she wanted now was for him to go away. She'd been far too tempted to give in to the appealing fact that he seemed to find her interesting, attractive. To be pursuing her. Because she wanted to be pursued.

What she didn't want was this feeling that something was lying beneath every word he said, that he didn't actually want to be with her and was just plain crazy.

’’Again?’’ he asked sharply.

Irritation filled her, along with an uncanny sense of fear. ’’The fortune teller gave me the same line of bull. We're here for a bachelorette party, Mr. Davidson. Pure and simple. Heidi is about to get married, and the three of us have been planning this trip for ages. I can't imagine why you-a stranger-would want to ruin it for us.’’

He was quiet, leaning back. She could read little from his expression, because his sunglasses suddenly seemed as dark as night. She knew she should just ask him to leave her alone.

Somehow, she couldn't.

He was still touching her hand, but that wasn't what was stopping her. It was simply his presence that she couldn't resist.

’’I swear to you,’’ he said very softly, ’’I want nothing more than your complete safety.’’

’’I'm not in any danger.’’

’’Yes, you are. You saw this morning's headline.’’

She shook her head, a chill snaking through her. ’’Does that mean every single woman anywhere near the Mississippi River is in danger?’’


’’Oh, please!’’

’’There's a killer working the area,’’ he said with such assurance that she felt an ever greater sense of being encompassed of ice, despite the heat of the day.

’’Are you a cop?’’ she asked sharply.




’’So exactly what are you?’’

’’I told you. A writer and a musician.’’

’’Oh, well, that answers that, then. I'm sure you know all about serial killers, not to mention exactly how and why my friends and I are in danger.’’

She was stunned when he replied calmly and in a tone of such level and deep authority that it was the scariest part of it all. ’’I do.’’

She just stared at him.

The waitress brought his tea, and he thanked her, bringing Lauren back to the moment.

’’I'm going to leave now,’’ she said. ’’And you are going to leave my friends and me alone,’’ she told him firmly.

He ignored her words when he spoke. ’’I know who the killer is. I've known about him for a very long time now. He was responsible for the death of my fiancee.’’

Lauren couldn't believe it of herself, but she didn't move. She remembered what he had said when she crashed into him the night before. The name he had spoken.

’’Katie?’’ she said, then hesitated before going on. ’’The woman you think I resemble.’’


’’I'm not your Katie,’’ she told him.

A rueful smile curled his lips. ’’I know that,’’ he said.

’’But you think this man...killed her?’’

He hesitated, then nodded.

’’She died here, in New Orleans?’’ Lauren asked.

’’No,’’ he admitted.

’’I see.’’

’’No, you don't. Katie did see him here, on a trip. And now I'm afraid he's after you-just as he was after her.’’

She sighed, looking down.

He was just as attractive and possessed of all the raw se* appeal as she had thought from the beginning-and he was completely crazy. Maybe even a murderer himself.

He could be stalking her, for all she knew.

She was finally about to get up when he asked, ’’Did you all stay in your cottage last night, locked in, once you got home?’’

’’I saw you out on the street, watching us,’’ she accused him, instead of answering.

’’Did you stay in?’’ he repeated.

’’Yes, which is none of your business,’’ she lied.

He still seemed concerned. ’’I only asked because it's important,’’ he told her quietly.

She felt oddly uncertain and was angry with herself, but for some reason she couldn't seem to walk away with things hanging between them.

And Deanna had been outside, sleepwalking, something she'd never done before in her life, and Lauren had been out there with her. Not only that, she'd felt as if someone else had been out there, too, and that somehow this man knew about it.

And at the edge of her consciousness was the memory of how she had dreamed about him, and the ridiculous longing somewhere inside that, against all the evidence, he would turn out not to be crazy.

She forced a casual smile onto her face. ’’Okay, I'll bite. Why is so important?’’

Instead of answering, he reached into his shirt pocket. ’’I'd like to give you something.’’

’’Please, I can't accept anything from you.’’

He smiled then, a charming smile that also managed to convey amusement. ’’No strings attached,’’ he assured her.

She was almost bowled over by the unconscious sensuality of his appeal. God, how she wished he were normal. She had never met anyone like him, hadn't even dreamed that she could meet anyone like him, since she had lost Ken. The sound of his voice was alluring, his body language subtly provocative. If she'd met him anywhere else under any other circumstances...

’’This was Katie's,’’ he said.

She looked down at the item he'd produced from his pocket. It was a silver cross, beautifully designed and obviously antique.

’’I definitely can't take that,’’ she told him, staring across the table at him.


’’It's valuable.’’

’’I would never sell it in a thousand years,’’ he said.

She shook her head. ’’I can't take it.’’

He grinned at her suddenly. ’’If you were to take it and wear it, I'd feel better about you being out on the streets of New Orleans. I might even quit being such a pest.’’

’’I think you really are crazy,’’ she told him frankly.

’’I'm not. Honestly.’’

She picked up her tea and took a long sip, suddenly aware that she had both elbows on the table now and was leaning closer to him. ’’Okay, look at all this from my point of view. First I run into you in a bar. Then I see you standing out on my street.’’

’’My street, too.’’

’’Coincidence, huh?’’

He shrugged.

’’Okay. Then I'm sitting here drinking tea, and suddenly there you are, too, with a crazy tale about trailing a killer. Don't you think you should go to the police if you know who the killer is?’’

’’Probably. I'm just not sure yet how to explain what I know.’’

’’Because it's crazy,’’ she suggested softly.

’’I swear to you, I only want you to be safe,’’ he said.

She groaned, looking down at her hands. ’’I've heard a piece of your story, and I'm not at all sure I want to hear the rest.'re very attractive. But I...I really have to ask you to stay away from me.’’

There. She had managed it;she had said the words and told him to leave her alone.

He pulled away, straightening, his expression both resigned and regretful.

Suddenly she heard Heidi's voice. ’’There you are! Lauren, why haven't you been answering your phone? Oh, hi, Mark. Okay, now I know why you haven't been answering. Can we join you? Or should we get lost?’’

And Heidi wasn't alone.

Deanna was with her.

Heidi's voice was, teasing, the day sunny, everything normal. And yet...

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