Bai was freefalling. Terror mocked her deliberate plans. Contain the chaos, Donovan. Analyze the dissonance. The staccato of her boot heels echoed through the parking garage as she hurried toward her BMW. Rewrite your fear belief. Become the new narrative. Despite the self-directed therapy session, Bai sensed panic would prove both mindless and illiterate.
Shortly after her move to Chicago, Bai had sat on a jury that sentenced De’Ken Stone to death for the murder and mutilation of a city alderman. According to the morning paper, the state crime lab had uncovered backlogged DNA samples that cleared Stone of the 2006 crime and implicated a man executed three months ago in Texas. Had it been that long? How would Stone feel, waking as a free man for the first time in seven years? What would he do first?
Payback. It was hard to imagine him doing anything else. De’Ken Stone was a volatile hulk of society gone awry. An angry man with impulse control as limited as his vocabulary, he’d come unglued after the verdict. Three burly guards had physically restrained and dragged Stone from the courtroom as he screamed threats at the judge, jury, and wife of two years—a timid, white woman who refused to corroborate his weak alibi. He swore he’d kill them all if he got the chance …
Could the headlines be wrong? She was practically engaged to the DA. Wouldn’t the police or Peter’s office have notified her of Stone’s release? Although flight smacked of weakness, it seemed her safest recourse until she had time to think. To neutralize the threat. Despite her father’s wealth, she wasn’t sure there was enough money in the world to appease Stone’s rage. She threw her overnight bag into the trunk and gasped as a strong hand closed around her wrist.
“Going somewhere, sweetheart?”
Bai palmed the canister attached to her key fob and hit the car alarm. As the horn erupted in the confined space, Bai wrenched back, hoping to use the distraction to break free of the man’s grasp. She stumbled when he unexpectedly released his hold. Her face flushed as she processed that her attacker was not a massive black man but an amused blond in a cheap suit.
Chase Winters. Bai’s jaw tightened as she silenced the alarm and slipped the canister into her purse. Winters was the homicide detective who had testified about Stone’s priors.
“Hope that’s not pepper spray,” he said. “It’s illegal to discharge in an enclosed space anywhere in the city.”
It was mace, but Bai held his gaze. “If you’re here to warn me about Stone, Detective, you’re woefully late.”
“You might want to lay low. There’s a pack of reporters out front and a film crew on the ramp clamoring for a statement.”
“Paparazzi are the least of my concerns.”
Winters stuck a cigarette in his mouth. His lips moved slightly at the corners. “Stone’s got you spooked.”
Bai slid on a pair of oversized sunglasses. She hated that she’d let a man—this man—see her fear.
His grin broadened. “Relax, Miss Donovan.”
“Easy for you to say.” She willed her voice to remain steady. A measure of anxiety was normal, but the panic threatening to devour her reason was completely unacceptable. “Stone was a drive-by waiting to happen. I doubt death row improved his disposition.”
“No one’s going to hurt you, Bai.” Winters’ voice was cashmere. “You have my word.”
She swayed toward the unexpected gentleness. At the last second, Bai stiffened, appalled she’d nearly collapsed into his arms simply because he’d used her first name. Winters always called her Miss Donovan in a wry tone—an attitude and title, she suspected, chosen specifically to annoy.
“Gee. I feel safer already.”
His gaze sliced through her sarcasm. “You weren’t the only juror.”
“No, I was the only heiress.” The only one skewered in a thinly-veiled novella the following year implying Bai had used her money and professional expertise to influence the verdict.
“You might be the center of your own universe, Miss Donovan, but I doubt Designer Justice made the reading list at Statesville.”
Bai’s cheeks warmed. With Stone safely incarcerated, the provocative but poorly written book—the first in a crime series by Racey Delaney—made a loud, local splash before fading to relative obscurity. With the unpredictable man back in the headlines, the novel would likely resurface, thrusting her into the spotlight of media speculation and Stone’s understandable bitterness.
“Besides, De’Ken says he found religion in the pen.” Winters flipped out a silver lighter. “Claims he’s changed.”
Into what? Bai thought. Fatalism wafted toward her as distinct as burning tobacco. “Do you believe him?”
“Jailhouse conversions are fairly common.” Winters puffed twice, frowned, and tossed the cigarette to the ground. “Unfortunately, they tend to be dramatic … and short-lived.”
Bai nodded and glanced at her diamond watch. With any luck, she could be in St. Louis before dark.
“Off to hide in Daddy’s castle, Princess?”
“I’m not six, Detective.” Bai bristled. “I don’t need Andrew to solve my problems.”
“What do you need?” he asked gently.
A friend, she almost admitted before she recognized the tactic. “For you to run off the press. If you don’t care that Stone threatened my life, you can at least protect my privacy.”
“Newshounds annoy me, too, but unlike you, they haven’t broken any laws.”
“Mace is illegal in Chicago, Miss Donovan. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.” He pulled her suitcase from the trunk and moved toward a battered white Honda parked nearby.
“You can’t be serious.”
“They’ll probably toss the charges.” He glanced back at her. “But I’d love an excuse to cuff you.”
Bai arched a brow. Was he joking, threatening, or flirting? Despite her psychiatric degrees, Bai found Winters a hard man to read.
She locked her car and trailed after him. It wasn’t the police protection she wanted, but it was better than nothing. While Winters shuffled debris to make room for her case, she fished a prescription bottle from her purse and snuck two tablets under her tongue. She jumped when he reached around her and swung open the passenger door.
Discarded fast food containers and empty soda cans littered the floor. The ashtray overflowed. A faded air freshener dangling from the rearview did little to camouflage the smell of stale cigarettes and week-old fries. Her hand brushed the soft leather of her trench coat. She hesitated and slid inside.
“Lose the Mata Hari look and tuck your hair inside that,” he said, tossing her a boonie hat with an NRA logo. “The secret to hiding is not to be what everyone’s looking for.”
Bai removed her designer sunglasses and exchanged her wide-brimmed hat for his. Although she looked like a bit player from Crocodile Dundee, he proved right. The film crew outside parted for the old car without a second glance.
“You want to grab something to eat?” he asked as he pulled into traffic.
Flirting. Her teeth clenched as she swept off his hat. “Drop me at the corner. I’ll call a cab.”
“At least let me buy you a drink. If memory serves, I owe you one.”
She ignored him and dug through her purse for her cell. Although Bai typically avoided aggressive men, she’d asked the taciturn cop to buy her a drink after the verdict. He blew her off in front of several onlookers with a snide comment about rich chicks gone slumming. His reaction reinforced her distrust of men in general and ones who reminded her of her shrewd, pragmatic father in particular.
“Better woefully late than never.” He smirked.
“Not in this case.”
He chuckled. “Where’d you say you were headed?”
“Why the interest in my travel plans, Detective?”
He grinned crookedly. “To be honest, Bai, I suddenly find myself interested in everything about you.”
“Really?” Bai murmured. Although physical intimacy didn’t factor into her hierarchy of needs, she knew lust made otherwise careful men do stupid things.
“Absolutely.” He paused and darted her a look. “The guy who offed Crenshaw was a professional.”
Bai jumped as a loud rumble of thunder rattled the car. “Who? Oh …” Bobby Crenshaw was the alderman who’d been shot three times in the back of the head, sawed into pieces, and stuffed into an oil drum. “What’s that have to do with me?”
“You’re a smart lady. Use your imagination.”
“Woman,” she corrected. Where was her phone?
Winters’ lips twitched, but his eyes remained as cold as the wet flakes splatting onto the windshield. “Jackie Davis works for your father.”
Bai flinched as lightening split the sky, and the sleet ceded to rain. It drummed against the roof making it hard to hear. To think.
“So what? Lots of people work for Andrew. He owns two international conglomerates and several third world countries.”
Winters swerved into a service station and parked under the canopy. He turned and eyed her soberly. “Just thinking out loud. First, you concealed a close personal connection to the victim’s family at pretrial. Then you played a key role in the conviction of an innocent man …”
Bai nearly snapped she didn’t have a close personal connection with her own family, but thought better of it. In her experience, people were of two camps—those impressed with her father’s money and those intimidated by it. Winters didn’t seem like a man who scared easily, but she’d cut her teeth on sycophants.
“The defense based its case on Crenshaw’s ties to organized crime,” Bai reminded. At the time of his murder, Bobby Crenshaw was awaiting trial for his role in a lucrative housing scam. Stone’s public defender, Geoff Gintz, theorized the mob took Bobby out before he could turn state’s evidence.
“Gintz is an idiot.” Winters’ ice blue eyes flashed. “The Outfit doesn’t hire freelancers. They have in-house soldiers do their dirty work.”
“Then you have a mystery to solve, Detective.”
“Trust me. I will.” He leaned over, pulled his badge and gun from the glove box, and got out of the car. Raw wind gusted Bai’s shoulder length hair across her eyes. Rain sheeted off the edge of the overhang and streamed across the asphalt. Winters grabbed a denim coat from the backseat and moved to the gas pump. Bai gave up the hunt for her cell and climbed out to assess the neighborhood. Despite the downpour and her new coat, she considered making a break for the nearest phone.
Winters finished fueling the Honda and surprised her with his keys.
“It’s a crappy night to get a cab. I can bum a ride with one of the guys.” He nodded toward the bar and grill next door. Three squad cars sat in the lot.
“Why would you do that?”
“Maybe I’m a sucker for a pretty face. Call me when you get back. I’ll pick up the car.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “You know my father, don’t you?”
“Tell him he wasted his money bribing you to birddog me. I won’t be gone long enough for him to … notice.” Did Winters know Andrew was sick?
“No one pays me but the city of Chicago,” Chase snapped.
Bai hadn’t expected her half-hearted gibe to elicit such a visceral reaction. Winters had been unflappable on the stand despite attempts by both attorneys to needle him to embellish—or contradict—his testimony.
“Then go serve and protect.” She rallied her composure. “Arrest a jaywalker. Eat a doughnut. I don’t care. Just leave me alone.”
His nostrils flared. “Interrogating suspects is part of my job.”
“Is that what I am, Detective? A suspect?”
“Someone hired that hit man, Miss Donovan. Everyone’s a suspect until the evidence says otherwise.”
Bai rubbed her temples. Despite the anxiety meds she’d taken, her pulse was racing. It was bad enough Stone was out there plotting revenge. She didn’t need a suspicious cop poking into her past.
“Your chariot awaits, Princess.” Winters swung open the door. “Just don’t leave the country.”
Jerk. She glared at him and slid inside. The empties on the floor rattled nearly as loudly as his tailpipe as she squealed out of the parking lot. In the rearview, Winters stood motionless, staring after her as rain soaked his coat.
Bai shook her head and drove south. Seventy miles later, she remembered what Winters said about hiding. She was a creature of habit and always stayed at the Four Seasons in a suite overlooking the Arch. She veered off the highway, stopped at the first inexpensive motel she saw, and paid cash for two nights.
When Bai pulled her suitcase from the trunk, she saw Winters’ iPhone—undoubtedly armed with a GPS—tucked inside a new gym shoe. Bai sighed. She didn’t have time to worry about the detective’s faulty radar. She had to find a way to make amends to De’Ken Stone before he designed his own brand of justice and came looking for her.