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Charlotte Vintage pushed the stray tendrils of dark auburn hair curling around her face back behind her shoulders and leaned toward her best friend, Genevieve Marten. Icy fingers of unease continually crept down her spine. There was no relaxing, not even with a drink in front of her and the pounding beat of the music calling.
"We know they followed us here, Genevieve," she whispered behind her hand. Whispering in the dance club with the music drumming out a wild rhythm wasn't easy, but she managed. They had accomplished what they set out to do, but now that they had drawn their three stalkers out into the open, what were they going to do?
"We must have been crazy thinking we could do this, Genevieve. Because we have no business exposing ourselves to this kind of danger." Mostly, Charlotte didn't think she should have exposed Genevieve to the danger. At least not when they were together. Not when they had a three-year-old to consider.
She did a slow perusal of the club, trying to take in every detail. The Palace was the hottest dance club in the city. Everyone who was anyone went there. In spite of the fact that it was four stories tall, every single floor was packed with bodies, as was the basement underground club. Men tried to catch her eye continually. She wasn't going to pretend she didn't know Genevieve was beautiful, or that she wasn't so hard on the eyes, either. The pair of them together drew attention everywhere they went-which was a bad thing.
"We're acting like normal women for a change," Genevieve said a little defiantly. "I'm tired of hiding. We needed to get out of the house. You needed to get out of the house. You work all the time. Honestly, Charlie, we're going to grow old hiding away. What good has it done us? We're not any closer to finding out who is doing this to us."
"I can't afford to be bait," Charlotte pointed out. "And I don't like you being bait, either. Certainly not both of us together when we have to look after Lourdes. She can't lose everyone in her life. It goes against everything in me to hide away, but I've got to consider what would happen to her if I was killed. They already murdered her father. She has no mother. I'm all she's got." When Genevieve sent her a look, she hastily amended, "We're all she's got."
Charlotte wasn't the hide-from-an-enemy type any more than Genevieve was. They'd met in France, both studying art. Genevieve painted, and she was good. More than good. Already her landscapes and portraits were beginning to be noticed, sought after by collectors. Charlotte restored old paintings as well as old carvings. Her specialty and greatest passion was restoring old carousels.
Genevieve was French. She was tall, with long, glossy dark hair and large green eyes. Not just green, but deep forest green. Startling green. She had the figure of a model and in fact had had several major agencies try to convince her to sign with them. She was independently wealthy, having received inheritances from her parents and both sets of grandparents.
Genevieve's maternal grandmother had raised her. A few months earlier, that grandmother, her last living relative, had been brutally murdered. A few weeks later a man Genevieve had been dating was murdered in the same way. His blood had been drained from his body, and his throat had been torn out. Charlotte's mentor, the man she was apprenticing under, was murdered a week after that.
Twice, when they were together, the two women had become aware of someone trying to enter their house late at night. They'd locked all the windows and doors, but whoever was after them had been persistent, rattling the glass, shaking the heavy doors, terrorizing them. The police had been called. Two officers were found dead in the courtyard, both with their blood drained and their throats torn out.
Charlotte received word a couple of weeks later that her only sibling, her brother, had been found dead, murdered in the same way. He was in California. In the United States. Far from France. Far from her. He left behind his business and his daughter, three-year-old Lourdes. Lourdes's mother had died in childbirth, leaving Charlotte's brother to raise her. Now it was up to Charlotte. Genevieve had decided to come with Charlotte to California. Whoever was after the two of them was in the States and Genevieve wanted to find them.
Genevieve laid her hand over Charlotte's. "I know Lourdes is your first priority. She's mine as well. She's a beautiful little girl and obviously traumatized by what she saw. Her nightmares wake me up and I'm not even in the same house."
Charlotte knew Genevieve wasn't exaggerating. Genevieve always knew whenever Lourdes had nightmares, even if she wasn't staying with them. At those times, she always called to make certain the child was all right. Lourdes had been present when her father was murdered. The killer had left the child alive and sitting beside her slain father. She'd been alone in the house with his body for several hours before she was found by her nanny, Grace Parducci, a woman who had gone to school with Charlotte.
"The police aren't any closer to solving the murders, Charlie. Not here and not in France. Lourdes is in danger just as much as we are. Maybe more." Genevieve leaned her chin on the heel of her hand as she hitched her chair closer to Charlotte's in order to be heard above the music. "I've been thinking a lot about this and how it all got started. What we did to draw some crazy person's attention."
Charlotte nodded. She'd been thinking about it as well. What else could she think about? Both of them had lost every family member with the exception of little Lourdes. Charlotte didn't want to lose her, and lately, in spite of taking every precaution, she hadn't felt safe. At. All. Grace had reported being followed and feeling as though someone was watching her as well.
Charlotte knew there was a part of her that had come with Genevieve to the nightclub in an effort to try to draw the murderer out. She'd certainly come prepared. She had weapons on her. Several. Most were unconventional, but she had them. She honestly didn't know if the people stalking them were the same ones who had murdered her brother, but it seemed likely.
Charlotte wasn't the type of woman to run from her enemies and it upset her to think her brother's murderer was going free-that he or she was trying to terrorize them. Not trying-she was terrified for Lourdes. She had no idea why the little girl had been left alive, but she wasn't taking any chances with her. Coming to the nightclub without her was a chance to draw the killer out without endangering her.
"That stupid psychic center we went to together for testing," Charlotte murmured. "It gave me the creeps."
Genevieve nodded. "Exactly. The Morrison Center. We went for a lark, but it wasn't the least bit fun. They got interested in us way too fast and kept asking very personal questions. When we left, I thought we were followed."
Charlotte had thought so as well. The testing site had been a little hole-in-the-wall, but in a high-traffic area, so neither had thought anything of it. They both often said they were psychic, and thought it would be so much fun to go in and test it, just like having their palms read. Something fun to do. It hadn't turned out to be very fun.
Charlotte looked into Genevieve's green eyes and saw the same pain she was feeling reflected there. Who knew that something they'd done on a whim would have such horrific consequences? It was like that with them. They both thought along the same lines, knew what the other was thinking.
"Ever since going there, I feel like we're being watched," Genevieve said. "And not in a good way. When we were still in France, before Grand-mre was murdered, a couple of men asked me out and I got this really creepy vibe from them. When they talked I just kept having the image of the testing center crop up in my mind and I couldn't help associating them with it."
Charlotte nodded her understanding. The same thing had happened to her more than once. And then the murders happened. Since then, they'd been much more careful. No dates. No fun. No strangers in their lives. Charlotte ran her brother's cabinetmaking business, and she did a little art restoration on the side, but she hadn't really been working at her own business for months. Not since she'd returned to the United States.
"What are we going to do, Charlie?" Genevieve asked. "I can't live like this for much longer. I know I should be grateful I'm alive, that we're alive, and I don't want to do anything that might endanger Lourdes, but I feel like I'm suffocating."
Charlotte knew how she felt. "We've taken the first step by coming here. We weren't all that quiet about it, either, Vi. We've attracted a lot of attention. Those men, the ones who keep asking us to dance-they give off that creepy testing vibe to me. What about you? And do they look familiar to you? I swear I've seen them before. I think in France."
Genevieve followed Charlotte's gaze to the three men who had continuously asked them to dance and sent drinks to their table. They'd winked and flirted and stayed close all night. They were good dancers; they'd asked other women and Charlotte had watched them. All three men knew what they were doing on the dance floor. All three were exceptionally good-looking. They seemed like men who frequented the dance club and picked up their share of women there. Still, there was something off about them.
"Same here. The one named Vince, Vince Tidwell, touches me with one finger every time he gets close enough. He just runs it over my skin. Instead of giving me any kind of cool shiver, it gives me the creeps, and the image of the testing center is right there in my mind. I keep telling myself we tested in France, so would they really follow us here? But I'm fairly certain they did."
"So maybe we should leave and then wait for them outside and try to follow them," Charlotte suggested. "Lourdes is safe for tonight. I've called half a dozen times, and Grace assures me all is quiet on the home front. We could track them tonight and find out where they're staying and who they really are. Maybe we'll find out what they want from us."
Genevieve's vivid green eyes lit up. "Absolutely. I need to do something to make me feel like I'm not sitting on my hands, just waiting for someone to murder me. I have to do something positive to help myself."
Charlotte nodded. She knew better. She had Lourdes. Responsibilities. One huge responsibility. She'd always been adventuresome. She pursued her dreams with wide-open arms, rushing headlong where others were afraid to go. She hadn't stayed home with her brother. She worked hard from the time she was very young so she could finance her trip to France, where she'd always wanted to go. She learned French early and worked hard at it until she could speak like a native. She'd left behind her brother and come back only to help him when his wife died. And then she'd left again.
"Selfish," she murmured aloud. "I've always been selfish, doing the things I wanted to do. I want to go after them, too, Vi. I swear I do." She had to put her mouth close to Genevieve's ear to be heard over the music. She wasn't the type of woman to hide in a house with the covers over her head, but what was the right thing to do? She honestly didn't know.
"Lourdes would be a lot safer if we figured this out, Charlie," Genevieve pointed out.
She wasn't saying anything Charlotte hadn't already told herself, but Charlotte still didn't know if she herself was making excuses to jump into action because she wanted to justify taking the fight and shoving it right down the throat of their enemy.
Charlotte made up her mind. She couldn't just keep hiding. It wasn't in her character and Genevieve was so right-Lourdes needed to settle into a normal life. They couldn't keep moving and trying to cover their tracks. "Let's do it, then, Vi. We can follow them and see if we can find out what they're up to. You can't look like you, though. You draw way too much attention."
Charlotte risked another quick glance at the three men. The one named Daniel Forester appeared to be the leader. His two friends definitely deferred to him. He was tall and good-looking and he knew it. He was staring at her even as he danced with another woman. The woman looked up at him with absolute worship, and he was ignoring her to stare at Charlie.
She raised an eyebrow at him to let him know she thought he was being rude. He grinned at her as if they shared a secret. "He is an arrogant prick," she hissed.
"So are his friends. Players. All three of them," Genevieve said. "They know they look good and they use their appearances to pick up women."
Charlotte couldn't help it; she laughed softly, breaking the stare with Daniel to regard her best friend. Genevieve was in full makeup and looked like a runway model. "Seriously? We're really getting bad here, Vi. We both know we look good and we came here hoping for a little fun."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Charlie," Genevieve protested haughtily. "I look like this all the time. Waking up, I look like this."
Charlotte blew her a kiss. "Truthfully, you do look like that when you wake up. It makes me sick."
"Uh-oh, here they come. They're bringing drinks. Vince and his friend Bruce at your nine o'clock. They're carrying one for their friend Daniel as well." Genevieve lowered her voice until Charlotte could barely make out what she was saying over the music.
Both women plastered on smiles as the two men toed chairs around and sat at their table without asking.
"I know you must have missed us," Bruce Van Hues said. "So we came bearing gifts." He put the drinks down in front of them, flashing them smiles as if that would convince them he was merely joking.
"Pined away," Charlotte said. "Could hardly breathe without you."