I'll Never Let You Go (Morgans of Nashville), page 24
Now, as he watched Leah kiss this man, old memories soured. Leah, like Deidre, was a fickle creature. They were users. One marriage ended and they moved on to the next.
He balled up his napkin and threw it on the remnants of the burger and fries. As tempted as he was to attack her tonight, he quieted the desire. Move with patience and care. Slow and steady wins the race.
She’d have seen the dog by now. No way she couldn’t love that damn dog. Hell, he almost missed the mutt who’d stared at him with dopey, adoring eyes.
He rose and spotted another couple talking. The man clearly was attracted to the woman and the woman, though tentative, clearly liked him, too. A stab of envy sliced through him, and he knew, despite his slow and steady mantra, he’d get a pound of someone’s flesh soon.
Saturday, January 21, 8 A.M.
A flat tire was the last thing David needed. He rushed out of his apartment across the lot, and when he spotted the tire he swore.
David was running late for work. The morning run had gone long and he’d lingered at the coffee shop after that, flirting with the redhead who worked behind the bar. And now the damn tire was flat and he not only had briefs to file that morning, he had to make an appearance in court. With the cops asking him questions, he didn’t need any more trouble.
He fished his cell out of his pocket, ready to call AAA, when he saw the truck pull up behind him and the driver roll down the window. “You need a hand?”
David nodded, praising his dumb luck. “Hell yes, man. There’s fifty bucks in it for you.”
Grinning, the man leaned on the steering wheel. Rolled-up sleeves revealed tattooed forearms. “I’ll have it changed for you in ten minutes.”
“That’s great,” David said. “This flat was such bad timing.”
“Isn’t it always?”
The driver got out and moved to the back of his truck. From a built-in silver toolbox, he removed a jack and a tire iron. “You look like you’re in a rush.”
David glanced up from his cell, already distracted, and reminded himself to be nice. He needed this guy. “I am. So much to get done, and now this. I’m lucky you happened along.”
“Lucky is right. I’d just finished my shift and was headed home.”
David’s halfhearted interest in conversation hummed behind his need for quick help with the tire. “You live in this area?”
“Not too far from here.” The driver jacked up the car and quickly and easily removed the lug nuts. Soon, the flat tire was off and the spare from the trunk seated on the hub.
Be friendly. Make conversation. He didn’t have time for AAA. “Do you think I picked up a nail?”
“Naw, man. Someone sliced the tire.”
The driver ran a finger along a neat, clean slice. “Right here. You must have pissed someone off.”
That had him sliding the phone back in his pocket. “Why do you say that?”
A grin tugged at his full lips. “You see any other flat tires in the lot?”
David glanced around and realized he was the only one with the issue. Shit. Had he pissed someone off? If not for Deidre’s death, he’d never have clung to worry. A first glance at the driver’s badge gave him a name: Brian. Brian was his only ally on this cold, shitty morning.
“Brian, I appreciate the help.”
Strong, callused hands screwed on the lug nuts before he reached for the tire iron. “No worries, man.”
“You from Nashville?”
“I’m new to Nashville. Been here a few weeks. How about you? You been here long?”
“All my life.” He watched as Brian finished. A little more small talk. “I’m an attorney.”
“I figured you were some kind of hotshot. Nice suit.”
David caught the man’s grin, his tone more teasing. He fished fifty bucks from his pocket as Brian lowered the jack. When David opened the trunk, Brian loaded the flat tire in the trunk bed.
Closing the trunk with a hard slam, Brian took a rag from his back pocket and wiped the grease from his hands and the trunk hood. “You’re good to go.”
David handed over the cash. “Thanks, man. I really do appreciate it.”
Brian pocketed the money. “The extra cash will come in handy. Just bought a necklace for my wife and spent a little more than I should’ve.” He grinned. “Happy wife, happy life.”
“No truer words, Brian.”
“You got a wife?”
“We’re separated. Trying to work it out.”
A slow, thoughtful nod conveyed understanding. “That’s rough. My wife and I are separated, too. But we’re getting back together. Made it through the fire, so to speak.”
David had no desire to rekindle the flame with his wife. He liked being single. Playing the field. “Nothing better than a solid marriage.”
“Ain’t that a fact.”
The tire change complete, David’s interest skittered back to the office. He opened his car door. “Thanks again, man. I appreciate the help.”
Brian flashed a wide grin. “Glad I could help.”
He watched David drive away, proud of himself for not killing him. Today, at least. It would have been easy to jab a knife in his gut, watch him fall to his knees, and bleed out in the parking lot. It sure had been easy enough to slice his tire.
Sliding his hands in his pockets, he fingered the pocketknife he’d jabbed in the tire hours ago. But killing David wasn’t part of the plan. Yet.
Minutes past eight, Deke made his way down the narrow, rocky path that led to the river and the two forensic technicians working the scene. Georgia was on the job today, wearing a thick black skullcap, heavy coveralls that read FORENSICS on the back, and thick, steel-toed boots. She held a digital camera to her eye and focused on a numbered yellow cone placed next to what looked like a severed hand. The other tech, Brad Holcombe, was a tall slim guy with blond hair. He also wore a thick black skullcap. Dark plastic gloves covered his hands.
“Georgia,” he said.
“Give me a minute, Deke.” She snapped a couple more rapid-fire photos and then turned to Brad, who held a clipboard in his hand. “You got that marked on your area map?”
He was in his early thirties, but all traces of the fresh-faced guy who’d joined the force five years earlier had vanished. The job had aged him. “I do.”
“Great. Take five. Drink hot coffee. I’ll finish up here.”
Brad tossed Georgia a grateful grin. “Thanks.”
She faced Deke. Her nose glowed red from the cold. “Great way to start a day.”
He thought about the warm bed he’d left, in which he’d been nestled close to Rachel. She’d accepted his ring last night, and he’d been filled with hope and joy. He’d had very different plans for this morning, but the job had its own ideas. “I can think of better.”
“Join the club.”
“I see a hand.”
She nodded and pointed. “A hand there. Near the river’s edge a foot, and a few yards west is another hand. And there’s no torso or head. But then, I hear you found a torso a few days ago.”
“Stands to reason we have a matched set, but we shall see. Any idea who the guy might be?”
She sniffed, her nose runny from the cold. “Not a clue. But these cold-as-hell temperatures have kept the remains intact, and I was able to pull a clean print from the index finger. Who knows, our guy might have prints on file.”
“Anything you can tell me about him?”
“He had calluses on his palms, and the foot was still encased in sneakers. Nothing remarkable about the shoe. The thumb looked as if it had been broken a long time ago.”
“Any idea how he was killed?”
“Not a clue. That’s for the lovely Dr. Heller to decipher.”
“If he’s a match to our John Doe in the morgue, it was a gunshot to the chest.”
“That will do it.”
Deke moved down the edge of the river and studied the yellow
“I’d say so. My guess is the parts were first tossed into a bag and then into the river. Everyone thinks the river will keep their secrets, but it doesn’t take much for the bag to tear and its contents to float to the top. Head is likely out there somewhere.”
“If these parts connect to my body, why leave it exposed in one location and dump the hands and feet in the river?”
She shrugged. “Maybe our killer likes a puzzle.”
The torso. The bag with Deidre’s card. Now the hands and a foot. Felt more like a trail of bread crumbs.
“How long has he been out here?”
“That’s hard to say. Cold distorts everything. Maybe the prints will match a missing persons report.”
He grinned. “Thanks for the tip.”
“Always here to help, bro.”
He rose, his joints creaking as he straightened. “Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She raised a gloved hand and gave him a thumbs-up. “Keep me posted on what the medical examiner says. This one is a curiosity.”
Leah didn’t sleep well the night before. Alex had followed her home from the mall, and as he pulled away, a police cruiser had parked in front of her town house. Two hours later, when she saw another set of headlights flash through her window, she’d risen and peeked through the curtain. Another cop car arrived, the officers spoke, and then the first car drove away, leaving the new guy to babysit.
Fatigue itched her eyes as she arrived at the clinic early to walk the dogs. She and Dr. Nelson traded shifts, and today was her day on. They had three patients in the kennel: a cat that had been injured in a fight, the dog that had been hit by the car, and the black dog, the spay from yesterday.
The black dog, the healthiest of the three, barked and wagged her tail when Leah entered the kennel. The cat meowed and the dog with the broken leg looked up at her, then went back to sleep. Dr. Nelson had told her the dog remained on heavy painkillers and would be slow for a few more days. The good news was, he was going home today.
She moved to the black dog’s cage, smiling as she got closer. The dog, Charlie, barked, clearly excited to see her. She grabbed a leash from the rack by the back door and opened the dog’s crate. The young dog bounded out of the cage and into Leah’s arms. Laughing, she quickly slipped a collar and leash around its neck and led her out back. Despite the cold, the dog barked and jumped, grateful to be free. She quickly took care of her business. Leah, pleased with the dog’s quick recovery, took her around the parking lot, letting her sniff and dig in the dirt before the cold forced her back inside.
While Charlie watched, she cleaned out the dog’s crate and set fresh food and water in there for her. The dog eagerly went back into the crate and ate.
Leah closed the crate door and checked the dog’s chart. No complications. No issues. So why hadn’t the owner returned for her?
By the time Leah had cleaned out the cages and fed the other animals, Gail arrived.
“So what’s with the Lab?” Leah couldn’t hide her interest. “Where’s the owner?”
“I don’t know. I called three times yesterday and never got an answer. I don’t know if there’s a problem, or maybe he decided the bill was too much for him.”
Leah frowned. This dog wouldn’t be the first abandoned at the vet when a bill couldn’t be paid. “That’s too bad.”
“From what Dr. Nelson said, the guy was a little odd. On the way in and out, he kept looking around the clinic, as if he were searching for something.”
“Like what?” Vet clinics had to be careful of drug thefts; many of the meds they used were stored on-site.
“I don’t know. But I double-checked the medicine supply room and made sure it was locked before I left each day.”
“Give me his number and I’ll call him.”
Gail moved to the front office and dug the number from a file in the active clients bin.
Leah took the phone and dialed. The phone rang once, twice, and then, on the third ring, she got a message: “This is Brian. I can’t take your call right now, but leave a number. I’ll call back.”
Leah listened to the deep voice, half-searching for traces of Philip’s voice, but found none. “Brian, this is Dr. Carson at the Nelson Animal Hospital. We have your dog here and she’s ready to go home. Would you come by today, or better yet, call us this morning so we’ll know when to expect you.” She rattled off the number and hung up. “We’ll see if that gets results.”
“Like I said, I left three messages for the guy and he’s yet to call me back.”
“Just seems odd.” Black dogs were common but this one reminded her of a dog she once wanted when she was married to Philip. The owner vanishes. Dogs and cats were abandoned by pet owners all the time. But none of this felt ordinary.
As Leah left the voice-mail message, he sat in front of his computer, watching a live feed of her standing in the office of the vet hospital. She’d washed her hair and dried it, leaving it to hang loose and full around her face. He’d always loved the touch of her hair after it had been freshly washed and dried. So soft. He wondered if Leah’s hair smelled of roses or honeysuckle.
He replayed the message on his cell phone and listened to her voice. She was sexy. Hot. And he couldn’t wait until they stood face-to-face.
It’s just a matter of time before you take that dog. A matter of time. I picked her because I knew you’d want her. Take the dog, Leah; you know you want it.
He glanced at the calendar. Their anniversary was in four days and he’d bring this little adventure to an end. He touched his fingertip to the screen and traced it over the curve of her jaw and along the column of her neck.
He rose from the desk and moved to the closet, where a simple white dress hung. She’d left it behind when she’d left him, but he’d kept it, savoring and hating the memories they’d shared.
He heard footsteps and glanced at the ceiling above. Shutting off the screen, he climbed the stairs and padded to the back bedroom, where a naked woman searched for her clothes.
“Leaving so soon?” he asked.
She turned and smiled. “Got work this morning, baby.”
Dark mascara smudged under her eyes and her cheeks looked hollow, her skin sallow in the morning light. Last night, in the bar, she’d reminded him of Leah just a little.
Still, seeing her naked, with the sound of Leah’s voice still echoing in his head, he got hard. Smiling, he moved toward her and traced a hand along her collarbone. He’d sliced his knife along Deidre’s collarbone exactly there just days ago.
“You have a few minutes, don’t you?”
She smiled. “You never told me your name.”
“It’s Brian.” He laid his palm at the base of her throat. So easy to cut into the tender flesh of the neck.
She took his hand in hers and led him toward the bed. And soon he was inside her. As he moved, he closed his eyes and pictured Leah. So small. So petite and, soon, all his once again.
Saturday, January 21, 3 P.M.
Leah finished her shift at three. Before leaving, she went into the kennel to check on the black dog, who immediately sat up and wagged her tail. The cat had been picked up, and so had the dog hit by the car. All had been happy, tearful reunions that had made her smile.
But there’d been no call from Charlie’s owner today, and she’d begun to wonder if he was returning. People faced with a vet bill did abandon their animals at the clinic. She stared at the dog. The dog stared back, doleful eyes, wagging tail.
She threaded her fingers through the bars and let the dog lick her fingers. Something inside her softened. Released. Taking the dog was a huge risk. So much could happen. “When you look at me, you know you’re breaking my heart.” No one wanted to take Charlie to the shelter, and Gail was tal
“You’re a sweet girl, Charlie.” The dog barked and wagged her tail faster.
More ice melted and fell away from her heart. Warmth spread, and the sensation scared the hell out of her. Unshed tears stung the back of her eyes. She’d be wise to keep her distance from the dog. Better for everyone. Too easy for her to love and too easy for Philip to destroy.
The dog licked Leah’s hand and wagged her tail. Ignoring her better judgment, she opened the cage, and the dog bounded up to her, nuzzling close. The dog smelled musty and would need a bath when her stitches healed, but that was easily done. She imagined all the supplies she’d need for a dog.
Suddenly, the idea of returning to a solitary home saddened her. Half-living, her aunt had once said. Her husband’s knife blade had nearly taken her life, and fear tried to steal it now.
Defiance burned bright. “Charlie. I like the name Charlie even though you are a girl. Do you think you want to stick with that?” The dog nudged her fingers. “I can’t make you any promises, but we could try one night. How’s that? Your owner might call, or you just might hate living with me. I’m a bit of a neurotic.”
The dog barked.
She went to a wall of collars and chose a red one that might be the right size and slipped it around Charlie’s neck. The dog barked with excitment. This can’t be a good idea.
She hooked a leash on the dog’s collar, and with her purse slung over her shoulder, the two headed out the back door. After a quick spin around the parking lot, she loaded up on a few basic supplies to get them through the night and they got in her car. Charlie settled in the passenger seat, clearly staking a claim.
Because of her early morning call, she’d missed her run, and as tempted as she was to go to the gym, she understood it really wouldn’t be possible tonight with Charlie. The dog would need her full attention tonight. As they drove through the city streets, she detailed all the reasons why this was such a bad idea. Expense. Time. Commitment. Philip.
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