A face to die for, p.3
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       A Face to Die For, p.3

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
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  “He was escalating,” Casey said. “First, his advances were confined—from the classroom to his office to school corridors. Then, his advances turned stalker-ish—outside the school buildings, yet still on the grounds. And finally, he abandoned the confines of the school entirely and stalked you at your workplace.”

  “Three times,” Brianna clarified. “The first two were at Starbucks. The last was after classes had ended and I was at Zolmer Advertising—that’s my summer job.”

  “Shit,” Ryan muttered. “He went all the way over to Madison Avenue to watch you? This guy is on a mission.”

  “It didn’t stop there,” Brianna said. “I started feeling as if I were being followed, not only to and from work but everywhere. The feeling was real. I know it. Several times, I thought I caught a glimpse of him in the crowd, but then he’d vanish. The scariest moment was when I spotted him outside my apartment building. I know it was him. But I couldn’t convince the police.”

  “That’s when you filed the second police report,” Casey clarified.

  “Yes. And it was just as pointless.” Tears slid down Brianna’s cheeks. “These last two weeks have been the worst. I started getting hang-up calls on my cell phone. The numbers are blocked, and when I answer, I hear raspy breathing on the other end, followed by a click. No voice. No message. Nothing. But on the days of the calls, I get a little gift left at my door, no note, no return address.”

  “What kind of gifts?” Claire asked.

  “The kind that only someone who knows me well could send. A snow globe of the English countryside—I visited England twice and fell in love with the beauty of its shires. A hook rug kit with a ferret at the center—I love ferrets and have one for a pet. I also love rug-hooking. It relaxes me. And a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet.”

  Brianna dashed away her tears. “That pushed me over the edge. I packed some things, left my apartment, and moved in with my best friend, Lina. She was with me the night I know he was standing outside my apartment. And she went with me when I filed my third police report, right after the book came. The officers were nice. But I still couldn’t give them any real evidence. No threats had been made. No notes had been left with the gifts.”

  “I doubt the police were blowing you off,” Casey said. “They simply don’t have the manpower to investigate these situations.”

  “Maybe, but I don’t think they were really concerned or taking it all that seriously. They gently suggested that the offender might be a determined ex-boyfriend.” Brianna’s chin came up. “But I know it’s not. And I pray you do, too.”

  Casey had long since made up her mind. Brianna had had her at the physical description of Dr. Hanover’s flat, empty eyes—a psychopath’s eyes. Nonetheless, she silently looked at her teammates for their reactions. If there was anything but unanimous agreement, then Brianna would have to wait in the reception area while the differences were hammered out.

  Ryan’s and Claire’s nods were instant and almost indiscernible. Emma’s was more emphatic, as she had yet to learn the subtleties of the job.

  Regardless, a decision had been reached.

  “We believe you.” Casey gestured toward the documents, still sitting on the floor alongside Brianna’s purse. “Let’s sign the papers. Consider yourself our client.”

  CHAPTER 3

  Plaza Hotel

  Fifth Avenue

  New York City, New York

  Gia Russo loved her job, despite the fact that most brides-to-be were crazy.

  She’d known what she was letting herself in for when she joined the team at Shimmering Weddings, an exclusive company that catered to the über-rich bride. Gia’s clients would have over-the-top demands. But they’d also have super-deep pockets, which meant the sky was the limit. And Gia couldn’t resist the opportunity to allow her creativity free reign.

  She was a damned good wedding planner, as her growing client list, reputation, and resulting income could attest to. She was requested more than all the other planners at the company combined. And she wasn’t good at just the organizing and the multitasking. She excelled at managing her clients—socialites who wanted it all and who wanted it now.

  That didn’t mean it was easy. Sometimes she was at her wits’ end. But the pluses far outweighed the minuses.

  This afternoon had been a definite minus.

  She’d spent the past two hours in the Plaza’s gilded, crystal-chandeliered grand ballroom having a high-maintenance tête-àtête with Bridezilla Melanie Waverton and her helicopter mother, Leanora. The formidable duo were determined to complete the Cinderella-themed wedding—to be held here in a week—by having the groom, a.k.a. Prince Charming, ride up to the altar on a white horse, while Melanie and her parents would arrive in a pumpkin-shaped, horse-drawn carriage that carried them to meet the bridegroom.

  All they imagined was the sheer romance and extravagance of it all.

  All Gia imagined—not counting the gazillion health and safety code violations and the hotel’s refusal to accommodate them—were the horses breaking free, knocking guests off their chairs, pausing only to defecate on the polished wooden floors.

  The magnificently planned wedding would become a freak show.

  Biting her tongue, Gia had just strolled with her clients through the Plaza’s gilded, crystal-chandeliered ballroom, smiling and using all her skill to convince the ladies that there was a much more memorable and breath-catching way of accomplishing their goal—a way that would keep all eyes on the bride and groom, showcasing them like Hollywood celebrities.

  Seeing Melanie’s eyes light up, Gia had let her mind fly and her mouth ad lib. The bride and her parents would make their grand entrance escorted by two authentically dressed groomsmen. Prior to their grand appearance, the ring bearer—Melanie’s eight-year-old cousin—would walk down the aisle carrying the prearranged royal-purple velvet cushion. Only now, it would brandish a glass replica of the bride’s custom-made Louboutin-styled crystal shoes, inside of which would be the gold and diamond wedding bands. He’d present them to the groom in a flourish, and the entire room would ooh and ahh.

  As for the groom, Gia would arrange to add dashing, thematic touches to his tuxedo: a gold jacquard sash and, on each shoulder, a regal ornamental shoulder piece called an epaulet. Gold cufflinks would simulate the prince’s gold cuffs, all of which would create the imperial look of Prince Charming.

  The incomparable total package would result in their domination of social media platforms for weeks.

  Goal accomplished.

  Gia had wrapped up the meeting by promising her clients that she’d handle all the details and be in touch with them tomorrow. Bidding them good-bye—at least until the next text or phone call—she’d promptly retired to the hotel’s Champagne Bar, where she treated herself to a glass of wine and some downtime.

  Sipping her Chardonnay, Gia had pointedly ignored the admiring glance of the Brooks Brothers-looking guy at the opposite end of the bar. She was in no mood for a pickup. She felt as if she’d just run a marathon. Three straight days of these last-minute, over-the-top meetings was a lot, even for her. But it was almost June. And, no matter how you sliced it, the romantic wish to be a June bride was still very much alive.

 
She’d handled just one uncomplicated wedding this past month—surprising, given that it began with a phone call from a frantic bride whose event was less than a month away. But the planning had gone off like clockwork. Plus, it had bound together two gracious, truly-in-love people, Marc and Madeline Devereaux. They’d been a delight to work with. Madeline’s mother? Not so much. She’d been the reason for the last-minute SOS. But Gia had gotten her under control. And she’d truly relished being instrumental in making Marc and Madeline’s day the joyous one they wanted.

  But now she had other, not-so-easy brides to deal with.

  Setting down her glass, Gia left the bar and the hotel. She headed down Fifth Avenue, zigzagging her way through the crowd of pedestrians who were either striding professionals, window-shopping consumers, or ambling tourists who seemed oblivious to the fact that they were about to be mowed down by the commuters who were determined to get out of the city before rush hour got worse.

  Gia was one of those commuters. She scanned the traffic-crammed street, walking to the curb and simultaneously raising her arm to hail a taxi. She wasn’t up for the subway today. Nor for the marathon walk. She’d grab a cab to Grand Central Terminal, where she’d hop a train to her suburban townhouse in Rye.

  She’d made eye contact with one driver who began veering his way through pre-rush-hour traffic in her direction, when a breathless female voice beside her said, “Danielle! What are you doing in the Big Apple? Is there some kind of veterinary conference going on? Or do you have another interview at that prestigious animal clinic? And I love your hair! Did you get extensions? Did you have it done here?”

  Startled, Gia turned around. The woman was about her age—late twenties—with wispy bangs, a Midwest twang, and smiling eyes. The rest of her was swallowed up by the slew of Bergdorf Goodman bags she carried. She’d obviously done some serious shopping.

  “Pardon me?” Gia replied.

  “It’s me—Sarah.” The young woman lowered her bags to the curb, letting Gia see all of her, as if that would reveal her identity. “Sorry. I just took a week’s vacation and promised myself all the wonders of the Big Apple, including a spa day, theater tickets, and shopping, shopping, shopping. I fly home on Monday. Do you have time for a drink or dinner, or are you tied up in animal-speak all weekend?”

  Gia shook her head in confusion. “I’m so sorry. You have me confused with someone else.”

  Sarah’s brows arched. “Very funny.”

  “I’m not being funny. I have no idea who Danielle is, but I’m not her.” Gia frowned as her taxi pulled away.

  “I don’t understand.” Sarah was peering at her closely, inspecting every feature. “I’ve known Dani for twelve years. And you’re the spitting image of her—except for your hair.” A pause. “And your accent. Kind of like a New Yorker, but not.”

  “New York suburbs by way of Montana.” Gia smiled faintly. This Sarah was nice and clearly puzzled by the mistaken identity. But she herself was beat. She wanted to go home, grab some Chinese, and be a couch potato. She had three weddings this weekend—two tomorrow and one on Sunday. She needed to soak in a hot tub and zone out.

  “How weird.” Sarah pulled out her cell phone and quickly scrolled through some photos. “Here,” she said, holding out the phone. “That’s Dani and me at our ten-year high school reunion. It was taken just last week.”

  Politely, Gia took the phone and glanced down at the picture. There were two young women posing at a catering hall, raising their glasses to the camera. Sarah and… Gia’s eyes widened as she focused on the other girl, and she almost dropped the phone. Small as the photo was, the smiling girl with short dark hair—rather than her own stylishly highlighted shoulder-length cut—was a dead ringer for her.

  “Wow.” She held the phone closer, turning it horizontally and stretching the picture to make “Danielle’s” face larger and clearer. It was uncanny. The woman even had the same dimple in her right cheek. And the shape of her eyes… the curve of her mouth… The resemblance was startling and kind of creepy.

  “No wonder you didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t her.” Gia couldn’t stop staring at the phone. Her curiosity was beyond piqued. “Danielle what? From where? And you said she’s a veterinarian?”

  “Yes.” For a moment, Sarah looked uneasy about giving out information on her friend. Then she seemed to realize the extenuating circumstances, as well as the general nature of Gia’s questions. Plus, as a veterinarian, Danielle’s photo and bio would be posted on the practice’s website. So anonymity wasn’t exactly an issue. “It’s Danielle Murano, and she’s a vet in Minneapolis.”

  “You’re good friends?”

  A nod. “We met at a sweet-sixteen party. We’ve been close ever since—close enough that it’s ridiculous for me to mix her up with someone else.” She shook her head, utterly baffled. “But you could be twins.”

  “Yeah . . .” Gia reluctantly handed Sarah back her phone. “My name’s Gia Russo,” she said, extending her hand to shake Sarah’s. It was time to reciprocate the info sharing. Poor Sarah had the right to know the specs on her friend’s double—if for no other reason than to laugh about it over drinks. “I’m a wedding planner here in the tristate area. And you were right about my accent. I didn’t always live here. I spent my childhood in Bozeman, Montana.”

  “A wedding planner?” Sarah looked intrigued as she met Gia’s handshake. “That must be quite a job in this area. Oh, and I’m Sarah Rosner.”

  “Hi, Sarah.” Gia grinned. “And if you mean, is my job rewarding but overwhelming, the answer is yes.”

  Before Sarah could reply, she was jostled by two women in business suits, who blew by her and nearly knocked her down. She regained her balance, gazing ruefully after them. “I’m not used to this. Minneapolis is hectic, but nothing like New York. Plus, I kind of think we’ve outworn our Fifth Avenue welcome.”

  Gia nodded. “Yeah, no surprise.”

  “You look exhausted, or I’d suggest we grab a drink.”

  “Normally, I’d love to.” Gia was frank. “But it’s a Friday in May. I have two weddings tomorrow and a wedding on Sunday, not to mention a dozen texts to answer and a venue to scout out in between. All the brides are, understandably, frantic. I really need to get home, do some work, and collapse.” She dug in her purse and gave Sarah a business card. “Here’s my contact information—just in case your friend wants to laugh over the coincidence.”

  “Can I take a picture of you?” Sarah asked.

  “Sure.” Gia waited until Sarah had taken a couple of cell-phone shots. “Now I really have to get going. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

  “You, too. I’ll pass along your info and picture to Dani.”

  “Good. Take care.” Gia turned and headed for the subway station. So much for a taxi. The streets were fast becoming gridlocked.

  She could sense Sarah staring after her until the crowd swallowed her up.

  CHAPTER 4

  It was just before noon the next morning when Casey walked down Waverly Place and passed under the awning that read “Joe’s.” She stepped inside the coffee shop and inhaled appreciatively. The decor might be as plain as a fast-food restaurant, but the wonderful smells of just-brewed coffee and mouthwatering baked goods dr
ew the patrons’ attention where it belonged.

  Besides, she wasn’t here for the food. She was here for the meeting.

  She glanced around, searching for the person who matched the photo Brianna had showed them on her iPhone. Nope. Not here yet. Not really a surprise. Casey was early. And very few students did the early thing. That’s why Casey had chosen noon rather than her preferred breakfast meeting, which wouldn’t have broken up her workday. But a Saturday morning in academia-land meant sleeping till eleven—and then rolling over and zonking out until three. Casey remembered it well.

  She bought a latte and a chocolate croissant and scanned the room. The side to her left was filled with little tables that were one on top of the other, all of them packed with university students. The other side was quieter, with several larger tables set wider apart for those who wanted to work while they ate.

  Focusing on that section, Casey was relieved to spot an empty table right up front, next to the radiator and flush up against the glass storefront. Her and Lina’s only company would be the guy at the next table, who was pounding away on his keyboard, so absorbed in what he was doing that Casey doubted he knew there was a world around him.

  Casey claimed the table before someone else could. She settled herself, placing her carefully wrapped croissant and latte on the wooden tabletop and her handbag on the empty chair beside her.

  Reflexively, she checked her cell phone. No missed texts or calls. No important emails, just junk. Which hopefully meant that Lina was on her way.

 
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