The woman sat alone at a table near the narrow stage at the front of the bar, nursing a strawberry daiquiri and feigning interest in the alt-rock cover band currently grinding its way through an old Pearl Jam classic. Now and then she took a sip of her drink but mainly watched the crowd, her eyes alert.
Daniel studied her from his seat at the bar, curiosity distracting him from his own agenda. There was an odd stillness about her, a composure that set her apart from the rest of the restless, liquor-soaked crowd in the small club in the heart of Birmingham's Five Points South.
Who was she? What was she looking for?
The door opened and a man in a striped shirt and leather jacket entered, pausing in the doorway. Daniel dragged his attention away from the woman to give the newcomer a quick once-over. He was pushing forty, a little paunchy though his clothes hid it well. The wedding ring on his left hand quickly went into his pocket.
Daniel looked away, losing interest. This place was turning out to be a bust. He took another sip of Coke and considered moving on to another club a few doors down. But his gaze drifted back to the woman with the daiquiri, and he stayed put, watching her through narrowed eyes as she took another dainty sip of the drink and clapped politely as the cover band crashed their way to the end of the song.
The paunchy man in the leather jacket approached her table, on the prowl. Of course he'd choose her--a pretty woman all alone in the middle of a bar was too much temptation to resist. Daniel sat forward, curious to see how she'd handle being hit on. Would she notice the imprint on his left ring finger where the wedding band had been? Would it matter?
She looked up at the man, her brow furrowing as he spoke to her. Her gaze drifted to the hand resting on the back of her chair, and the furrowed brow smoothed out, replaced by a cool, neutral mask. She murmured back to the man, who stepped away with a frown. Muttering something that made the woman's lips tighten, he moved on to the bar and ordered a Bourbon neat.
Daniel looked back at the woman and found her watching him. When she didn't immediately look away, he lifted his glass of Coke and nodded.
Her frown returning, she looked down at her glass, stirring the red slush with slow, deliberate strokes. Her chin lifted, followed by her eyes. She locked gazes with him, her expression impossible to read. An electric shock zigzagged through him as he took the full brunt of her attention.
Was it an invitation? A rebuff? He didn't know, and he'd always prided himself on being an accomplished reader of women. Of people in general, given his chosen profession.
He could look around this bar and guess, with accuracy, the stories behind the faces surrounding him--the balding salesman with the desperate come-on sitting with the aging beauty queen who'd accepted his offer of a drink because she was desperate for the attention she used to command without effort. The raw-nerved co-ed drinking to forget her cheating boyfriend and her unfinished term paper. The tax accountant sipping a trendy dark ale and trying to look like he was just one of the guys. Daniel could read them all.
But not her.
She looked across the room and caught the eye of a waitress, who came at once. They murmured an exchange and the waitress went toward the back, soon returning with the check.
She paid her bill and rose from the table, darting a glance in his direction. He followed her with his gaze, memorizing the curve of her hips and the dip of her narrow waist, the way her calf-muscles flexed as she navigated the crowded club and pushed her way through the exit door into the cool October night. His skin felt hot and tight.
Part of him wanted desperately to follow her, to see where she went next. What was she looking for? Would she find it?
But he had a job to do here, a job that didn't include tailing pretty brunettes with great legs. He stayed where he was, waving at the bartender to pour him another Coke. The bartender complied, giving him a black look because he wasn't buying pricey liquor to go with the soda. Daniel couldn't blame him--the bar didn't make money off designated drivers.
But he needed his wits about him tonight.
ROSE LOCKED THE CAR DOOR behind her and closed her eyes, giving in to the tremor in her legs.
Was he the one?
She thought she'd know it immediately, that the rage and violence roiling inside him would surely show on his face, but the man at the bar had looked so normal. Attractive, even, with masculine features, eyes the gray of a winter sky and a lean swimmer's build. The kind of man she might have smiled at a year ago, encouraged to join her in a drink and some friendly conversation.
But she wasn't that woman any more.
She put the key in the ignition and turned. The engine purred to life, the heater vents blowing cool air in a blast that amplified her shivers.
She tightened her sweater around her and turned on the CD player. Allison Krauss's clarion voice flowed from the speakers, a plaintive plea to a potential lover to let her touch him for a while. She punched the power button off with a growl, glancing at her rearview mirror, where the front entrance of the Southside Pub reflected back at her in garish neon. Part of her expected the door to open and the man from the bar to emerge, seeking her out.
Another part of her was disappointed when he didn't.
She glanced at the dashboard clock. Only nine-fifteen on a Friday. The night was young. There were at least a half-dozen more bars just in the Five Points South area she could visit before closing time.
Her chest tightened at the thought, but she tamped down her reluctance and pulled her Chevy into the moderate traffic on Twentieth Street, heading for the next bar on her list.
She found one of the last parking places on a side street where two bars sat side by side, as different from each other as day and night. Hannity's, an old fashioned Irish pub complete with green neon shamrocks in the window, occupied the corner. Next door was Sizzle, unmistakably a dance bar with flashing lights and a driving bass beat she could hear from her car.
She headed for the dance bar, steeling herself for the noise and light. Southside Pub had been sedate in comparison.
Sizzle's clientele was a good decade younger and twice as loud. At twenty-seven, she was one of the oldest women in the place. Her skirt was at least five inches too long, her silk blouse not nearly tight enough, and her upswept hair prim compared to the flying tresses of the women gyrating on the dance floor.
She quelled the urge to head right back out the door, reminding herself that Elisa Biondi had last been seen at this very bar the night she died.
He came to places like this. He looked for women on their own. Easy targets.
She felt an invisible bull's-eye sitting between her shoulder blades as she weaved through the restless crowd and found a seat at the bar.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.