FIVE

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"Here we are." Mark pulled into a spot close to Brianna's apartment. She'd complained of having a headache, so he'd decided to cut the evening short.

At least that was the excuse he was using.

"Do you want to come up?" she asked softly, leaning toward him, her face expectant.

"I thought you had a headache?"

Her smile was slow, almost lecherous. "I have an expensive bottle of merlot I've been dying to try."

Oh. They'd been out for dinner twice since meeting at an art gallery a few months ago. Nothing sexual. So far. His eyes swept over her. She was a beautiful woman, no doubt about it, and with an open invitation like that, he normally would have been all over it. And her.

But tonight he wasn't in the mood.

He rushed to change the subject, only to be shocked by his chosen topic. "How do you know Tom Robins?"

Brianna's lips puckered as she eased back in her seat. "He was at one of those big parties my parents throw every summer. A couple of years ago. His parents and my parents are . . . I'd say friends, but it's more like rivals."

Mark knew the type. He'd been invited to hundreds of similar events over the years but rarely went to any--too many braggarts pretending to enjoy each other's company. Brianna came from money, her parents owning the very art gallery they'd met in.

"Why do you ask?"

Drop it, he thought to himself, staring out over the hood of his car. "What's he like?" Jesus, what was up with this sudden fixation of his?

"He's okay, I guess," she said in a detached tone. "Probably fools around on his wife, though."

He jerked his head around. "How do you know?"

"He came on to me at the party"--she leaned in, closer this time, and ran one hand down the lapel of his tux--"but I gave him the brush off." The gentle stroking continued across his waistline. "So, how about it?" She nodded her head in the direction of her place.

She was an enchantress playing tricks on his mind, using the dull glow from the streetlights behind her to cast shadows across her eyes and make her dark hair shine. Red lips glistened after a quick swipe of her tongue--and her hand inched its way down. Okay, maybe he was in the mood after all.

Then she sniffed and wiped at her nose, breaking the spell.

He gripped the steering wheel at ten and two as if he were about to take a driving test and was anxious to get on with it. "I should get going. Raincheck?"

"Oh." She pulled her hand away. "Yeah, definitely." She paused, turned her head to the dash, and then pointed at the radio. "Isn't that where we were?"

Mark caught the word "shooting" and cranked up the volume to hear, ". . . currently on the scene after an attempted robbery at one of The Sunset Tower's private functions turned violent tonight, resulting in two of the guests being shot. No names have been released yet, but police have confirmed that three men are in custody and--"

Shit. Who? Who was shot?

"Wow. Good thing we left when we did," Brianna said, opening her door and twisting at the waist to stretch long legs to the pavement. "Goodnight." After giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, she slinked her way out of the car.

So much for compassion. Although who was he to talk. He wasn't exactly known for his empathy.

He stayed glued to the curb, watching Brianna walk the short distance to her building while his finger hammered the digital display to check other channels for more in-depth coverage. Once the front door closed behind her, he pulled out, and the sudden urge to put distance between them had him pushing his luck with the speed limit.

Sometimes, seeing the worst of yourself in others can make you a little antsy.

Flashing lights were visible from the highway as he came up on the exit for The Sunset Tower. Keep driving, he told himself, intent on going home. Those people are no concern of yours.

It was damn good advice, but at the last possible second he pulled to the right and exited anyway. The light at the bottom of the ramp turned red, forcing him to a stop. It stayed red as an ambulance approached from the opposite direction with its sirens wailing. His foot by the clutch tapped the custom floor mats while he waited his turn. Then he was through the intersection in the time it took other drivers to realize they were good to go.

He parked on the road, not far from the hotel's driveway, where he could observe the hectic activity going on across the street without being noticed. For those who had arrived early to secure a spot close to the building, there was little hope of getting out now. Emergencies brought double parking to a whole new level.

A glint of green satin drew his gaze to the far corner of the shallow lot, and he let go of the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. She was standing by an ambulance, letting a man dressed in paramedic gear work on the side of her mouth with slow, swabbing strokes. She shifted to lean--

Was that blood on her dress?

Mark shoved his face closer to the window. Like that extra few inches would somehow give his vision a zoom capability. A familiar pressure began to build in his chest and he started the deep inhales he'd been advised to do.

A man in a suit joined them. Another guest from the party? It wasn't the husband, not unless dear old Tom had managed to grow a mustache in a couple of hours. The paramedic turned her head and lifted her chin, doing one last inspection before removing the blue gloves. A few words were spoken between the two men, which had the paramedic laughing and clapping the guy on the shoulder. The lieutenant didn't seem so amused, though. In fact, she had stepped away from them to look back at the hotel. Others approached and the paramedic returned to work, giving his previous patient a wave as she walked off with the mustache. No serious injuries apparent.

Mark relaxed in his seat. Maybe all the blood was from one of the victims.

Or . . . perhaps the idiots who had attempted to pull this off tonight had met their match in the female cop blending in as one of the guests. He smiled as he watched her.

They both climbed into what looked like an old Mustang parked one row in from the street. It backed out, approached the exit, and started its turn onto the roadway. As its headlights swept across the vehicles lined up in front of him, Mark did something he'd never done before, even as a child: He hid. And as much as he liked the Ferrari design, they were not known for their interior roominess. Hunched over, with the gear shift jabbing into his ribcage and his shoulder pressed into the passenger seat, he waited until the rumble of the other man's engine had passed.

Sitting upright again, he smoothed out his jacket.Tugged at each of his shirt cuffs. Straightened his bow tie. With everything back in place, he sat there for a moment, feeling lost despite knowing exactly where he was in the city. Then he pulled it together and muttered, "What the fuck am I doing?"    

END OF CHAPTER FIVE

So, what do you think of my boy? A tough guy, right? But with a hint of vulnerability beginning to show through, maybe?

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