Vanessa gray bartal la.., p.1

Vanessa Gray Bartal - Lacy Steele 07 - Icy Grip of Murder, page 1

 part  #7 of  Lacy Steele Series


Vanessa Gray Bartal - Lacy Steele 07 - Icy Grip of Murder

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Vanessa Gray Bartal - Lacy Steele 07 - Icy Grip of Murder

  Table of Contents

  · Prologue

  · Chapter 1

  · Chapter 2

  · Chapter 3

  · Chapter 4

  · Chapter 5

  · Chapter 6

  · Chapter 7

  · Chapter 8

  · Chapter 9

  · Chapter 10

  · Chapter 11

  · Chapter 12

  · Chapter 13

  · Chapter 14

  · Chapter 15

  · Chapter 16

  · Chapter 17

  · Epilogue

  Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Gray Bartal

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


  Jenny Andrews had a plan, and it was good. The door burst open, and her boyfriend entered the apartment.

  “Can I bum a fag?” Michael asked.

  She smiled and handed him a cigarette, but the British slang grated on her nerves. When had that happened? She had found him so charming once, this boy she had wanted since she was fifteen years old. Now everything he said, every expression on his face annoyed her to the extreme. Was it because he had finally capitulated and let himself be tethered to her that she despised him so? After all, it had taken many years to break through his aloof dismissiveness. For all those years she had stored every slight against him, even when he hadn’t meant it. He had no idea how deeply he cut her when he lumped her in as one of the guys, but Jenny knew. And she remembered.

  Maybe she despised him now because she no longer held his interest. She had thought that if she ever won Michael, it would be the end for both of them. They were well suited to each other; why would they look elsewhere? But already she could feel him waning away from her. He hadn’t cheated on her, this much she knew. He was probably too afraid of her, and she took some satisfaction in that. It was only a matter of time, though, until he broke things off. They could both feel it coming. The passion was gone, the fights more frequent.

  Jenny, however, had no intention of letting him go, at least not on his terms. If he wanted her gone, he would have to kill her. Her smile grew until it caught his attention.

  “What?” he asked, giving her a suspicious half smile in return.

  “Nothing,” she said.

  “You look like you’ve got a secret,” he said.

  “Maybe I do,” she said.

  He reached out and pulled her close until her face was trapped against his chest. “Jenny, you’re going to be the death of me.”

  Content that her face was hidden, she let her smile widen until it was grotesque to behold, a twisted mask of rage and dark humor. If it’s the last thing I do, she thought and squeezed his stomach until he wrenched away.

  Chapter 1

  Michael O’Donnell stared at the woman who was about to send him to jail.

  “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”

  “Believe it,” she said.

  “Where’s your sense of mercy, of compassion?” he asked.

  “You owe me two thousand dollars,” she said.

  “And you’re going to let a little thing like money push you to do this terrible thing?” he said.

  “Yes. That was what you agreed to when you signed the contract. Don’t welch.”

  “Lacy,” he pleaded, but to no avail.

  She held up the piece of paper with his signature. “You landed on my property three times without being able to pay. You promised to pay or go to jail. You have no money. Now go to jail. And do not collect two hundred dollars because it belongs to me.”

  “Monopoly brings out a side of you that scares me,” Michael said as he picked up his Scottie dog and placed him in jail.

  “Nothing personal; it’s business,” Lacy said.

  “Is this how you play with Jason?” he asked.

  “Jason won’t play with me anymore,” Lacy said.

  “Shocking,” Michael said. “When is he coming back?”

  They were in his house, playing his Monopoly game. The only thing missing was him. “I don’t know. Whenever he’s finished signing for the prisoner transfer,” Lacy said as she counted her money and contemplated another purchase. She already owned three quarters of the board, but Michael had learned the hard way that there was no stopping her mad thirst for power.

  “Why did he have to go? Couldn’t someone else sign off?”

  “The sheriff’s office has a paramilitary command,” Lacy explained. “Senior officers have to sign off on everything. That means either Jason, the sheriff, or Detective Arroyo has to do it. Jason’s the youngest and the newest, so guess who gets to go in before and after hours.”

  “That’s what happens when you work for the man,” Michael said.

  “He likes it. Can you imagine him doing something less structured?”

  “Sometimes I like to try, for my own amusement. What if he was the guy who danced in the park for money? That would be something to see,” Michael said.

  “He would go crazy and start talking to squirrels within two hours. Jason likes structure and routine,” Lacy said.

  “There has to be a free spirit in there somewhere,” Michael said.

  “There’s not, but I like him that way, so don’t try to change him. You might break him,” Lacy warned.

  “You’re both set in your ways. Frankly, I don’t know what I see in you,” Michael said.

  Lacy didn’t either. They were an unlikely trio, and yet they had been spending all of their time together the last few weeks. Sometimes Kimber joined in, but she had been spending an increasing amount of time alone after her recent breakup with Andy. The garage door opened and Jason entered. He scowled at the Monopoly board.

  “I thought I burned that,” he said.

  “I pulled it out and rescued it,” Lacy said. “Want to join us?” She fanned herself with her giant stack of cash.

  “After you bit me last time? Never again,” he said as he sank wearily beside her to the couch. She set aside the money and put her arm around him, kneading the tight muscles at the back of his neck. He had been going since four that morning when another work emergency pulled him from bed.

  “I’m going to go,” Michael said.

  “The game’s not finished. You still owe me money,” Lacy said.

  “Why do you think I’m leaving?” Michael asked.

  “Next time we’ll pick up where we left off,” Lacy said.

  “I just remembered that I have to go to Siberia on business, so if you don’t hear from me for a few years, that’s why. It’s not because you’ve turned a child’s game into a competitive blood sport.”

  “You can’t hide from me,” Lacy said.

  “Can’t we declare you the winner for all time and have done with it?” Michael asked.

  “No, it’s not the same. I need to see the fear in your eyes as I obliterate you. It nurtures my soul.”

  “I’m not sure you have a soul,” Michael said. “I’m going to go call a few priests and arrange a Monopoly exorcism.” He let himself out, closing the door gently behind him. Lacy turned her attention to Jason.

  “Are you hungry?”

  “I ate before I left, remember? You cooked.”

  “That was a long time ago, and you didn’t eat dessert,” she reminded him.

  “Is there any dessert left?” he asked.

  With shame, she remembered eating his portion of brownies. He smiled as if he could r
ead her thoughts, which he probably could. “I didn’t want brownies anyway. You know chocolate’s not my thing.”

  “Yes, that’s why I ate them. To save you,” Lacy said. He squeezed her knee and dropped his head to the back of the couch. He looked thirty seconds away from sleep. “You need a vacation.”

  He opened his eyes. “What would I do on vacation?”

  “Go somewhere. Sleep. Do man things.”

  “What man things?” He picked up her hand and kissed her palm.

  “Shoot things or fish or play a sport of some kind. I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

  “This,” he said as he advanced and began kissing her wrist.

  “You haven’t had a real vacation since I moved back here,” she reminded him.

  “I took off three days a few months ago,” he said.

  “Because you were shot. Almost dying is not a vacation.”

  “It felt like one. Would you come with me?” he asked. He was almost up to her elbow now, and it was becoming harder to think.

  “Now’s not a good time to get away.”

  “You are a hypocrite, only worse because you’re self-employed. You could take off any time you want, but you’re as much of a workaholic as I am.” He reached the sensitive part of her elbow, and Lacy’s mind went blank.

  “I can’t formulate a comeback when you do that,” she said.

  “I know,” he said.

  Her phone rang. Lacy tensed and Jason froze. “It’s your mother,” he said.

  “How did you know?”

  “Because you’re only this tense either when it’s your mother or when your emergency chocolate stash runs out. Don’t answer it,” he admonished as she reached for the phone.

  “I have to. If I don’t, she’ll call Grandma and harp on her. It’s better if I take the bullet.”

  “Selfless,” he said, yawning. He reached for the TV remote and turned it to a game, muting the sound.

  “I think Riley’s working too hard.”

  Her mother always started in the middle of a conversation. Lacy had learned to be ready for anything her mom might say. “Riley doesn’t have a job, Mom.”

  “It’s that house of hers. She’s always cleaning or rearranging something. I told her to let those people at Tosh’s church do those things for her, but she won’t listen. You need to make her listen.”

  “Riley hasn’t listened to me since her first birthday. Besides, she likes cleaning and rearranging things. She’s nesting.”

  “She’s pregnant. She’s going to rupture something.”

  “She’s fine,” Lacy said.

  “How do you know? You’ve never been pregnant.”

  “But you have. Did you lie around and do nothing the whole time?” Lacy countered.

  “No, but that was different. I was hardy, like you. Riley’s fragile.”

  “Mom, Riley’s as fragile as an anvil. She’s fine.”

  “I don’t understand why Tosh won’t hire some live-in help. It’s not as if he can’t afford it.”

  “Their house is fourteen hundred square feet, Riley’s home all day, and the baby’s not even here yet. I think she can handle it. Besides, she has me and Grandma nearby if she needs anything.”

  “Yes, but are you actually taking care of her?”

  “Grandma’s been sending lots of food,” Lacy hedged.

  “What have you been doing to help?”

  Lacy suppressed a sigh. Even far away in Florida, her mother was playing puppet master with her life. The worst part was that she was right; she did have an obligation to take care of Riley, something she hadn’t done much of lately. They lived in the same town and still led separate lives.

  “I will check on Riley,” Lacy promised. Her mother took a breath, probably to gear up for another assault, but Lacy preempted her. “Mom, I need to go. I’m at Jason’s.”

  “He won’t let you talk to me, is that it?” her mom said. Lacy glanced at Jason who was now sleeping peacefully, one hand tucked beneath his stubbly cheek.

  “Yeah, he’s a brute,” Lacy said. “I really have to go, Mom. I’ll talk to you later.” She ended the call before her mother could reload. For a minute, she stared at Jason. She half hoped he would wake up, half hoped he would stay asleep. She wanted to see him, but he was exhausted. After it was clear that he wouldn’t rouse, she covered him, kissed his cheek, turned off the lights and TV, and let herself out. There was something she had to tell him, something he would approve of. She had intended to tell him tonight, but now she was relieved she wouldn’t have to. Tomorrow, she would tell him tomorrow. She only hoped he wouldn’t hear it from someone else first.

  Chapter 2

  He heard the news from someone else.

  “Woman, have you lost your mind?”

  “I’m becoming impervious to that question,” Lacy replied. She and Jason sat drinking coffee in her office, sharing a few minutes of calm before the day began. Or it would have been calm, if not for their disagreement. She should have told him straight away what she had done; she should have known the town’s gossip mill would reach him with miraculous speed.

  “You hired Rain. Rain, Lacy. I know you like to help people, but this isn’t like giving Joe a job. This is above and beyond the normal, even for you.”

  “Jason, I genuinely need someone to do part time work around here. I’m drowning in paperwork. Hiring someone to help me will free up more time, time I can spend with you.”

  “Don’t try to bribe me with the promise of extra time. You know I want that, but not at this cost.”

  “You’re being dramatic,” she accused.

  “Yes, that sounds like me. Drama, drama, drama, all the time,” he said.

  “I’m just saying that I think you’re being a bit unreasonable about this.”

  “Unreasonable? I’m being unreasonable? A few weeks ago this woman was standing outside your building, protesting your corporate greed. I thought she was a murderer. I’m still not convinced she wasn’t somewhere along the way. She’s unstable, and she’s stalking Michael. What did he have to say about this?”

  Lacy looked down, busying herself with some papers. “He doesn’t know yet.”

  “Please let me be the one to tell him,” Jason said, setting aside his irritation for a moment of amusement.

  “Suze needed some money. Her art isn’t taking off.”

  “Suze? I thought it was Rain.”

  “She doesn’t want to be Rain anymore; she wants a fresh start, but Susan doesn’t suit her either. We decided on Suze.”

  “Did you ever consider that the reason Suze’s art isn’t taking off is because she makes clothes for dead mice?” Jason suggested. “Allowing her a space in the Stakely Building was your first mistake.”

  “Art is subjective. Some people like taxidermy,” Lacy said.

  “Some people meaning Pearl,” Jason said.

  In the way that crazy often attracts crazy, Pearl, Tosh’s secretary, found Susan Jenkins, AKA Rain, crying by the side of the road a few weeks ago. The two formed an instant bond. Pearl took her in and taught her the ropes of taxidermy, which Suze took to with fervency. She approached Lacy with eight dead mice dressed as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, asking to rent a space in the Stakely building for her art. At first, Lacy had misgivings, but in Suze she saw a lost soul looking for a soft place to land. Unfortunately, no one else seemed to see the same thing, no one but Pearl. Though she would never admit it to Jason, Lacy was a little worried that she and Pearl saw eye to eye on something. When it became clear that Suze wasn’t going to make any money off her macabre creations, Lacy hatched the idea to hire her as a part-time secretary. She had just broken the news to Jason, and his reaction was worse than she thought it would be.

  “It’s going to be okay,” Lacy said.

  “Or you’ll do something to set her off and she’ll stab you in the eye,” Jason said.

  “If that happens, you can have me stuffed. I know a good taxidermist,” Lacy said. Jason
could bluster, but it was her business, and she was resolute.

  He rolled his eyes and took a sip of coffee, but she could tell by the way the corners of his eyes turned up that he was trying not to smile. “You are so messed up.”

  “And you’re dating me. What does that make you?”

  “Lucky.” He tossed back the remainder of his coffee, stood, and leaned over the desk to give her a kiss. “I have to go. Meth waits for no man.”

  “Somewhere a drug dealer is saying that same thing to his girlfriend,” she said.

  “And then four of his teeth fall out and clatter to the table. See you later.”

  “See you,” Lacy said. She watched him go with a smile before turning her attention to the pile of work on her desk. Her productivity was short-lived. Michael entered the open door and sat down in the chair Jason had vacated.

  “Hey, boss.”

  “Hi,” Lacy said, wary now. Had he heard about her new secretary? If Jason had heard, chances were good that Michael had, too. Knowing Jason, he might have stopped to break the news on his way out. He would have enjoyed seeing Michael’s usually unflappable expression shift to horror.

  “You can ease the mouse-caught-in-a-trap look from your face. I know about Rain.”

  “It’s Suze now,” Lacy said.

  “Are you genuinely trying to help a girl down on her luck, or was this an attempt to annoy me?”

  “It’s a tossup.”

  “Well played,” he said. “I can’t tell you the joy it brings me to see a former paramour everywhere I go, every day, all day long.”

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