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Excerpt

Excerpt

Cold Hearted

Prologue

Perhaps the best thing he could do for himself and everyone he loved was to commit suicide.

Dan Price stared at the Glock pistol lying atop his desk. He had bought the 9mm automatic for his wife, but she had refused the gift, politely reminding him of her aversion to guns. But at his insistence, she had gone with him to the practice range and learned to use the weapon, only to please him. But to his knowledge, she had never carried the pistol, never kept it in her room or in her car.

If his sweet Jordan had any idea that he was contemplating taking his own life, she would do her best to convince him that no matter what the future held, she would stand by him. It was her basic integrity and loyalty that had first attracted him to the woman who had become his greatest political asset.

Dan lifted the half-full glass of Kentucky bourbon to his lips and finished off the remainder. The liquor burned a path down his esophagus and hit his belly like fire. He coughed a couple of times, then wiped his mouth, picked up the bottle, and poured himself another drink.

If he was going to do this --- and he fully intended to end his life tonight --- he knew he couldn’t do it cold stone sober. He wasn’t that courageous. Before he could put the hammer-forged barrel into his mouth and pull the trigger, he needed to be more than a little drunk.

He sipped on the bourbon as he leaned back in the swivel desk chair and let his gaze travel over the room. His private study, as it has been his father’s and grandfather’s before him. An impressive room inside a two hundred year old antebellum mansion, part of an estate that had been in his family since before the War Between the States. Generations of Price men had severed their country, first in wartime and then in local, state, and national politics. In Georgia, the name Price was synonymous with public service.

If he killed himself, how would that affect his family’s good name? No Price man had ever taken the easy way out of a bad situation.

But could he continue, knowing what the future held for him? Could he condemn Jordan to such a life? And what about Devon? And his brother, Ryan? They would never desert him, and that would mean great sacrifices for each of them.

You don’t have to do this tonight. You have time.

But how much time? Six months? A year?

Dan finished off his second drink and poured himself a third.

The grandfather clock in the hallway struck twice. Two in the morning.

He unlocked the file cabinet in the bottom drawer of the desk, rummaged through the folders until he found the file he wanted. A copy of his will. His lawyer kept another copy and a third was inside his safe at the house in Bethesda. The contents of his will were not secret to anyone. Everything he possessed would be equally divided among Jordan, Devon and Ryan. Jordan had protested, telling him that she didn’t expect such an enormous legacy, but he had quieted her protests with a tender caress.

“I owe you more than I will ever be able to repay,” he’d told her.

Dan finished off his third drink.

Minutes ticked by as he contemplated the Glock on his desk. Grandfather Price’s antique desk. Family lore claimed the desk had belonged to Jefferson Davis, a contemporary of his ancestor, General John Ryan Price.

Dan poured another glass of bourbon, picked up the bottle and the glass and walked over to the leather Chesterfield sofa. He sat down, placed the bottle on the floor, and considered his options. Death was preferable to the fate that awaited him.

 

***

Dan’s eyelids flickered open and shut. In the twilight zone of being half-awake/half-asleep, he didn’t immediately realize where he was or what had awakened him so abruptly. Woozy from sleep and overdosing on bourbon, Dan recalled that he had contemplated suicide to solve his problems, but in the end, drunk and oddly enough thinking more clearly than he had when he’d been sober, he had realized killing himself would have been the coward’s way out.

Dan swatted at something cold against his cheek. His fingertips raked across the metal object. He opened his eyes fully, stared up at the woman leaning over him, and smiled. She did not return his smile. His gaze zipped from her familiar face to his own hand holding the 9mm, its barrel pressed firmly against his head. And it was only when he tried to ease the gun away from his head that he realized her hand covered his, her index finger squeezed tightly over his against the trigger.

“What the---!”

Before he could react, she forced his finger down against the trigger, firing the gun at point blank range directly into his brain.

Dan’s last thought was that someone he’d trusted completely had just killed him.

 

Chapter One

Jordan Price was a cold hearted bitch. Cool, controlled and calculating. If she was a better actress, she would at least show some sign of emotion. She could fake tears or heave a deep, grieving sigh. Anything to indicate she felt at least a modicum of remorse over her husband’s death. But the lady hadn’t shed a tear. Not during the church funeral attended by hundreds and not at the graveside service for family and close friends.

Rick Carson had met her type before --- alluring and dangerous. He hadn’t known the late Senator Price personally, but he sure as hell felt sorry the poor bastard. Every man, even a damn politician, deserved a wife who mourned him.

As the light drizzle increased and quickly turned into a downpour, black umbrellas popped open to shield the small crowd of mourners surrounding the open gravesite. The scalloped edges of the burgundy-red canopy sheltering the immediate family, seated in double rows of four chairs each, flapped loudly as the April wind whipped unmercifully through the nearby trees.

Small town, Southern cemeteries were pretty much interchangeable, many of the headstones dating back to the early eighteen hundreds and a few graves marked with only large rocks. Rick figured that, for the most part, his dirt poor ancestors lay in unmarked graves throughout the South, from Virginia to Kentucky and on into his home state of Mississippi. His father had been the first in his family to acquire a high school diploma and Rick had been the first to graduate from college. He had about as much in common with the dearly departed senator as a buzzard has in common with a peacock.

The woman at Rick’s side raised her open umbrella just enough to clear the top of his head, which due to her being five-ten meant she’d lifted it only a few inches to accommodate his six-two height. Nicole Powell was his boss’s wife --- actually she was Griff’s bride of seven months and co-owner of the Powell Private Security and Investigation Agency. If Griff wasn’t out of the country right now, he’d be here instead of Rick, who had worked for the agency the past five years.

As the minister uttered the final prayer in the twenty minute ceremony that had included the mournful wail of a bagpiper’s rendition of Amazing Grace, Rick shifted his attention from Nicole back to Mrs. Price. She sat ramrod straight, her chin tilted upward, her teeth clenched, and her eyelids slowly closing. Reverent enough to shut her eyes, but not enough to bow her head, the widow took a deep breath. Was she weary of having to pretend to care and wishing this day would end? Or was she desperately trying to control any emotions she might feel?

The man sitting beside Jordan Price casually reached over and grasped her folded hands resting in her lap, then took one hand in his and clutched it tightly. She didn’t react in any way when he placed their entwined hands between them. Rick sensed these two shared an intimate bond. Nic had told him that this sinfully handsome guy, who at the funeral had showed far more emotion than the widow, had been Dan Price’s assistant for twelve years. Rumor had it that Devon Markham had been like a son to the senator. So, what did that make him to the senator’s attractive, young wife? A friend or a lover?

The minister, a gray-haired gentleman with a kind face and a commanding voice, ended the service by inviting those in attendance to join the family at the Price home for an after-funeral reception. This type of affair was the Southern, Protestant version of a wake.

While the others seated stood up and shook hands with the preacher, Markham assisted the widow to her feet, placed his arm around her waist and took a protective stand at her side.

“Let’s get out of here,” Nicole whispered. “I’ll wait and speak to Claire and Ryan at the reception.”

“Did they tell you why they were interested in hiring Powell’s?” Rick kept in step with Nic’s long-legged gait as they made their way toward her Escalade.

“No. All Claire said when she called to tell me about Dan Price’s funeral arrangements was that Ryan needed to speak to me after the funeral about hiring Powell’s. Considering what she and Ryan were going through at the time, I thought the particulars could wait.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Rick took one final look at Mrs. Price. Dry-eyed and rigid, she spoke to the minister. Markham clung to her, not she to him, which implied that she was the stronger of the two and they both knew it.

What was it about the woman that intrigued Rick so? Maybe it was nothing more than her being beautiful. Beautiful, fragile, vulnerable --- and heartless. His instincts were usually right on the money and it was highly unlikely he was wrong this time, but for some gut-level reason, he wanted to be wrong about the widow being heartless.

Nicole stopped, turned, and called to him. “What’s the matter?”

He realized Nic had walked on ahead of him and he was standing in the rain staring at a woman he didn’t know and instinctively didn’t like. He caught up with Nic, clicked the Open button on his remote to unlock the SUV, and then rushed to open the passenger door for her.

Once seated inside, he started the engine and backed up the car. “What do you know about Jordan Price?”

Nicole shrugged. “Not much really. Counting today, I’ve met her a total of four times. The first time was Claire and Ryan’s wedding. Then again at Michael’s christening and the last time was at her wedding, when she married Dan.”

Rick drove slowly down the narrow one-lane road that led out of Oak Hill Cemetery. “She’s a lot younger than he was. Do you think she married him for his money?”

Nic laughed. “I have no idea.” She glanced at Rick. “Why so curious about Jordan Price?”

Rick’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. Damn good question. Why was he so curious about the widow? Yeah, sure, he found her attractive. And yeah, her seemingly unfeeling attitude perturbed him. Maybe she reminded him a little too much of his own callous, conniving stepmother, who had sucked his father dry during their marriage and had cheated Rick and his sister out of their meager inheritance.

Rick grunted. “Damn if I know. I just thought it odd that the lady hasn’t shed a tear all day.”

“Some people cry in private,” Nic said. “And the reality of death doesn’t always hit a person right away. It often catches up with them weeks later and then they fall apart.”

“Yeah, either is a possibility.”

“But you’re not buying it, are you?”

“Young, beautiful widow buries older, wealthy husband, without any show of emotion whatsoever. And the husband’s handsome, young assistant holds her hand and clings to her during the funeral.”

“You’re painting a really ugly picture, you know. Dan Price committed suicide. He wasn’t murdered. Besides, Claire and Ryan like Jordan. And if Jordan hadn’t been a good wife to Dan, neither Claire nor Dan would think so highly of her, would they?”

“Hey, it’s nothing to me one way or another,” Rick said. “It’s not my family, not my concern. I don’t know these people.”

And he didn’t want to know them, especially not Jordan. But if Ryan Price hired Powell’s and he was assigned to the case --- what then?

 

***

She watched from an upstairs window as the hordes descended on Price Manor. Dan’s ancestral home.

A gray day, with the heaven’s weeping, seemed appropriate for the funeral services. Daniel Price had been loved and respected. It was only fitting that the weather reflected the somber mood of the occasion.

We made it through the funeral without breaking down. That’s good. The reception won’t be as difficult. We’ll be able to reminisce about Dan without being morbid. We can laugh about our memories of him instead of cry. In many ways, Dan was a truly good man. A good husband. But if he’d been allowed to live, he would have become a very bad husband, a noose around our necks, a burden we shouldn’t have had to bear.

It will take time for us to heal from this tragedy, but eventually, we’ll move on, just as we’ve done in the past.

She hadn’t wanted to kill Dan, but she’d had no choice. Not really. If only he had followed through with his plans and had killed himself, he could have saved her the trouble. But apparently, he had lost his nerve at the last minute. As much as she had cared for Dan, she had realized that she couldn’t allow him to ruin their lives. If he had lived, they would have suffered along with him each day. It would have been so unfair. Hadn’t they already suffered enough? By killing Dan, she had protected them from years of anguish. And in the long run, his early death had been truly merciful for him, too. With Dan and his problems out of the way, they could look forward to raising their baby without the burden of a sick husband.

A baby.

Their baby.

They had wanted a baby for such a long time.

 

***

When she was a child, Jordan had dreamed of living in an antebellum mansion, something to equal the splendor of Scarlet O’Hara’s beloved Tara. The first time Dan had brought her to his ancestral home in Priceville, Georgia, she had felt an odd sense of homecoming, as if this was where she belonged. For the past three years, she had enjoyed the time they’d spent here far more than their time in D.C. But when she married Dan, she had accepted the fact that she would be a political wife, that she would play the game by the rules. Although she was often uncomfortable with the façade she and Dan had presented to the world, she had never regretted her decision to commit herself to their marriage. He had offered her not only security for herself, but for her family whose members depended on her.

Jordan pressed her open palm lightly against her still flat abdomen. Dan was gone, but not lost to her forever. Not as long as the child growing inside her lived, he or she would be a link to her husband. Her son or daughter would carry on the Price name and honor a generations-old heritage. When they had discussed bringing a child into the world, Dan had prophesied that their offspring would one day be president.

Oh, Dan, why? Why did you do this horrible thing?

She had found out she was pregnant the day before Dan killed himself and had intended to share the news with him that evening. But after dinner, he had closed himself off in his study and she’d never seen him alive again.

A part of her refused to believe that Dan had taken his own life; but the alternative was equally unbelievable. Yes, Dan had enemies, both personal and political, but no one truly hated him, certainly not enough to kill him.

You have too much to deal with right now without trying to figure out what happened and why. There will be time enough for that later. You have to go downstairs and greet your guests. Dan’s friends and enemies, his associates, his family and his constituents.

First and foremost Daniel Price had been a public servant, in one form or another, all his life, just as his father and grandfather before him had been. The very least she owed Dan was to uphold the family traditions and keep his untainted public image as shiny bright as it had been for the past fifty-five years.

Jordan felt Devon’s presence moments before he reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. She sighed deeply, then forced a wavering smile and turned to look at her oldest and dearest friend.

“People are asking about you,” Devon said. “Do you feel up to facing the mob?”

Jordan nodded. “Almost ready. Give me a couple more minutes.”

“It doesn’t seem real, does it? Dan gone. You and I left to ---” Devon choked down his tears. “Why did he choose such a drastic solution? He should have known once he told us about the diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s, we would have been there for him every step of the way. He could have had some good years still ahead of him.”

Jordan caressed Devon’s cheek, tenderly brushing away his tears. “I don’t know. Maybe this was his way of protecting us.”

A light tap on her half-open bedroom door alerted them that they were not alone. Devon stiffened as Jordan glanced over his shoulder and her gaze locked with Tobias Harper’s dark, penetrating glare.

“Pardon me, Miss Jordan, but Mr. Ryan asks that you come downstairs as soon as possible.” The elderly servant, who had been in the Price’s employ since he was a boy, had loved Dan as much as she and Devon. And like they, he had known the real Daniel Price. “Please, ma’am. Mr. Ryan needs you.”

“Tell him I’ll be down right away.”

Tobias nodded, then turned and disappeared up the hall.

Devon offered her his arm.

She shook her head. “No, you should go down first and I’ll follow in a few minutes. The last thing we want is anyone speculating about the two of us.”

Devon’s lips lifted in a sad smile. He took her hand in his and brought it to his lips for a light kiss. Then she stood and watched as he walked away. In private, she and Devon could comfort each other, could share their grief. But in public, they had to be discreet, in honor of Dan’s memory as much as to protect themselves from gossip and ridicule.

Squaring her shoulders, taking a deep breath, and steeling her nerves, Jordan marched out of her bedroom suite and hurried down the hall. She paused when she reached the top of the right side of the double spiral staircases. The string quartet set up at one side of the large foyer was all but drowned out by the hum of conversation filling the foyer and both front parlors. No doubt by now, dozens of people were already milling through the dining room to partake of the lavish buffet.

When she descended the stairs, her sister-in-law, Claire, broke away from Ryan in the receiving line and came to meet her. Sweet, lovely Claire, with her bright hazel eyes and warm smile. Her sister-in-law was also her friend. She tried her best not to envy the other woman, who was madly in love with her husband, and also had a strong marriage and an adorable three-year-old son.

Claire circled Jordan’s waist with her arm and gave her a quick hug. “Everyone’s been asking about you.”

“I needed a little time to myself after the graveside service.”

“I know, but poor Ryan is on the verge of collapsing. This whole ordeal has simply been too much for him.”

Jordan wanted to tell Claire that it had been too much for all of them, not only Ryan, but instead she said, “Why don’t you take him back to the kitchen and see if you can get him to eat a bite. I’ll take over here.”

“Thanks, Jordan. I knew I could count on you. You’ve been our strength. I don’t know what we’d have done without you.”

“Go…go…” She shooed Claire away. “Take care of your husband. I’ll handle everything else just fine on my own.”

You’ve been our strength.

How many times had Jordan been told that she was always the strong, capable, take-charge person in good times and bad? Her earliest memories were those of being a caretaker. First, when she was only ten, to her sick and dying mother, then afterward to her grieving father. She couldn’t remember a time in her life when she hadn’t been taking care of others. Perhaps that was her lot in life, her mission, her burden, her duty, the one thing at which she excelled.

After she replaced her brother-in-law in the receiving line, Jordan lost track of time. Eventually, her hand, which had been shaken countless times, became as numb as her emotions. The only way she could make it through this evening without losing her mind was to act and react by remote control. Shake hands. Accept sympathy. Don’t cringe when someone she barely knew hugged her. Agree that Dan had been a prince of a fellow and would be sorely missed. Move on to the next person and repeat the process.

 

***

Rick hated Price Manor on sight. The antebellum mansion was a relic from the South’s notorious past, a plantation house that had been passed down through the generations. No doubt, the Price family could trace their ancestors back to Europe, probably to nobility, albeit some of their predecessors had possibly been born out of wedlock, fathered by kings, princes, dukes and earls. Rick could trace his ancestry back to his hard-drinking, ornery grandpa Carson, whose claim to fame had been that he could whip any man in a fair fight. His father’s family home had been a Mississippi shit-shack, with a roof that leaked when it rained and floorboards so wide apart you could see the chickens pecking for worms in the rich soil under the house.

“Looks like something out of Gone with the Wind, doesn’t it?” Nicole said as they rolled up to the front veranda and stopped.

“Yeah,” Rick replied as he got out, handed his keys to the valet parking attendant and made his way around to the passenger side just as Nicole closed the door. Since it had stopped raining, he’d left the umbrella in the car. “Does your cousin and her husband live here, too?”

“No, they live in downtown Priceville, in an old Victorian house that belonged to Ryan and Dan’s maternal grandmother.”

“Both sides of the family had money, huh?”

“It seems so.” Nic cast him a sidelong glance as they reached the open front doors. “Keep your opinion of Jordan Price to yourself when we speak with Ryan and Claire later. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am. None of my business. Keep my mouth shut.”

Although it wasn’t raining, moisture hung in the air, heavy and damp. Rick would like to remove his black jacket and rip off his tie, get a little more comfortable and cooler. He definitely wasn’t a suit and tie kind of guy. Give him a pair of wash-worn jeans and a cotton shirt instead of fancy duds any day of the week.

Good God, the house was swarming with people, like maggots pouring out of a rotting corpse. The interior temperature had to be a good ten degrees warmer than the humid air outside. Body heat.

Rick and Nicole took their place in the reception line, apparently close to the end since only two couples were ahead of them, one pair offering their condolences to the widow --- and to Devon Markham. Two women flanked Jordan, the one on her right, a tall, thin woman with a sharp nose and keen brown eyes, separated her from Markham. The woman on the left was older, but far more attractive. A full-figured blonde who oozed sex appeal. Rick got the distinct impression that both women had stationed themselves there to guard Jordan. Who were they to the young widow? Mother? Aunt? A former nanny?

As the other couples moved on, Nicole stepped up in line and, one by one, offered the foursome in the reception line her sympathy. Jordan reached out and took Nicole’s hand.

“I appreciate your driving in from Knoxville,” Jordan said. “I’m sure your being here is a great comfort to Claire.”

Rick said nothing, simply stuck to Nicole like glue and nodded his head to each of the older ladies. He had intended to pass by as unobtrusively as possible, but suddenly Jordan asked Nicole, “Is this your husband?”

Nic shook her head. “No, Griff is in England. This is Rick Carson, a Powell agent. He offered to drive down with me so I wouldn’t have to make the trip alone.”

Smooth, Nic. A little white lie to prevent an awkward moment.

He looked right at Jordan then. Big mistake. She gazed up at him with blue gray eyes a shade lighter than the dark gray silk suit she wore, and Rick felt as if he’d been hit in the head with a sledgehammer. The lady took his breath away. Slender, fragile bones, porcelain skin, classically beautiful facial features. She looked as if she was on the verge of collapse and everything masculine in him wanted to reach out and offer her the support of his strong arms.

Her mouth curved upward in an almost smile. “That was very kind of you, Mr. Carson.”

How the hell did he respond to that? “Yes, ma’am. I’m very sorry about your husband.”

“Thank you.” The soft, sweet sound of her voice wrapped around him like satin cords, pulling him in, threatening to bind him to her.

The widow Price was lethal. Not only to him, but to any man who fell under her spell. How many men had she lured to their doom?

Not until Nic grabbed his arm and gave it a yank did he realize he was still staring at Jordan, that he hadn’t moved an inch and was holding up the line of mourners still waiting to express their sympathy.

Once Nic had ushered him out of the foyer and into the parlor on the left, she said, “I need to find Claire and Ryan and see why he wants to hire Powell’s. After that, we can head for home.”

“We could split up and go in different directions to look for them,” Rick suggested. “Then meet back here in five minutes.”

“Okay. Good idea. You start your search in here and I’ll go into the other parlor,” Nic told him, then just as she turned around, she stopped and said, “Wait up. I see Claire. She’s motioning to me.”

Rick fell in step beside Nic as she headed toward the foyer again. He caught sight of a Nic’s cousin, Claire, a leggy brunette almost as tall as Nic.

“Come on,” Nic said.

When they approached Claire, she met them at the pocket doors open to the foyer. “Ryan is in Dan’s study. He’s waiting for us.”

Rick followed the two women down the wide hallway and into a dark paneled room with three floor-to-ceiling widows on the back wall, and two walls covered with built-in bookshelves. Ryan Price stood, with his back to the door, in front of a fireplace topped with an ornately carved mantel. When he heard the door open, he turned slowly.

He moved forward and extended his hand, first to Nicole and then to Rick. “Thank you for coming to the funeral.”

“Dan was a good man,” Nic said. “I’m so sorry about what happened.”

Ryan grimaced. “I don’t know how to say this any other way, so here goes --- I don’t believe Dan killed himself.”

“I see.” Nic glanced at Claire as if silently asking her if she agreed with her husband. “What makes you think he didn’t kill himself? It’s my understanding, from what Claire told me, that the local authorities and the GBI have ruled Dan’s death a suicide.”

As she rushed to her husband’s side, Claire said, “Officially, Dan’s death was ruled a suicide. But we were told that it’s difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to prove a suicide wasn’t murder. Especially when the person supposedly shot himself in the head.”

Ryan’s gaze settled on the sofa in front of the fireplace. “He was lying there when Jordan found him. The only fingerprints on the gun were Dan’s. And there was gunshot residue on his hand from where he had supposedly fired the weapon.”

“Then why ---?” Nic asked, but Ryan cut her off.

“I knew Dan. Knew the kind of man he was. Under no circumstances would he have killed himself.” Ryan slipped his arm around Claire’s waist, obviously needing her comfort and support. “I want to hire the Powell Agency to do a thorough investigation and find a way to prove that my brother didn’t commit suicide.”

Nic glanced at Claire again.

Claire cleared her throat, then said, “I told Nic that we discovered, after Dan’s death, that he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.”

Ryan heaved a deep sigh. “That information is not to go beyond this room.” He glared at Rick. Rick nodded. “Dan might have considered suicide, but I’m telling you that he wouldn’t have---” Ryan’s voice cracked. Swallowing hard, he turned his head sideways, averting his teary gaze.

“You realize the alternative to suicide is murder,” Nic said.

“Yes,” Claire answered for both of them.

“Do you have any reason to believe that someone murdered your brother?” Rick asked.

A loud, startled gasp came from the doorway. All heads turned. Jordan Price had opened the door and stood there, eyes wide with shock, her mouth parted and her pale cheeks suddenly flushed.

“Oh, my God, no, no! You can’t honestly believe that someone murdered Dan?”

Excerpted from COLD HEARTED © Copyright 2010 by Beverly Barton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.

 

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Cold Hearted
by by Beverly Barton

  • Genres: Fiction, Romantic Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Zebra
  • ISBN-10: 1420100491
  • ISBN-13: 9781420100495