Free Mystery Feature January 2022 | Ring Girl: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Ring Girl Kira Brightwell cover

Enemies since high school… Kira and Trevor never expected to end up solving cases together.

Trevor knows that Kira does most of the solving, but he likes to think his raw charm and charisma count for something

And when the opportunity to prove himself as more than a stunningly handsome sidekick falls into his lap in the form of a beautiful client, how can he possibly refuse?

A short story misadventure of Kira and Trevor from the Kira Brightwell mystery series by Jacquelyn Smith.

Now you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Fourth Strike Kira Brightwell Collection.


Ring Girl: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

Amazing the difference a few months can make.

Trevor Wright shook his head to himself as he dried the sweat from his face and neck with a fluffy towel, stitched with the emblem of the La Valentia Golf Club in gold thread. He inhaled the faint scent of fabric softener before looking up to wave his tennis racket at Craig Masterson in farewell.

Despite its name, the golf club was really more of a country club, with a full set of amenities, including a tennis court, pool, and spa area in addition to the sprawling golf green. Only the wealthiest citizens of the suburban California town owned permanent memberships there, Trevor’s father among them.

Trevor suspected Craig was happy to make his escape to the locker room. If their match had taken place at the beginning of the year, Craig would be paying up by now to cover his loss.

Back then, Trevor had gambled on just about anything as a matter of course. Tennis matches, golf rounds, sports games on TV…

Private poker games.

It was the latter that had gotten him into trouble. With nothing else to keep him occupied in the years since graduating from high school, Trevor had gotten his thrills from his wins and losses.

His friends didn’t mind placing reasonable bets with him away from the poker table. But most of them had a family or career to keep their own gambling in check.

Trevor had no such boundaries. He was the indolent son of a wealthy real estate magnate. His father was hardly ever around. He was always at the office or flying off to make one deal or another in his private jet while Trevor and his teenage sister stayed at home. Trevor knew he could fritter away his considerable monthly allowance without any consequences.

…Until things had gone too far.

Unlike his friends, the people Trevor played poker with had fewer scruples. Some of them even had criminal backgrounds. Their pockets were often as deep as his were, and their tolerance for risk just as high. And if Trevor overextended himself, Ace Kendrick was always good for a loan…

But even Ace had limits. When Trevor’s debt had climbed to seven figures, Ace had finally put his foot down. Trevor had to pay up.

Or else.

Trevor didn’t dare go to his father to ask for the money directly. He was mortified by the mess he had gotten himself into.

So he and Ace hatched a plan to kidnap Trevor’s sister.

It had been a fake abduction, of course. Trevor would never dream of putting Stephanie in any real danger. He just needed to use her for leverage to get his father to pay the ransom that would cover his debt. A simple plan.

Then Steph had been abducted for real.

Trevor’s nightmare had started in earnest then. And even though he had eventually gotten his sister back safe and sound, it was something he never forgot.

He hadn’t gambled on anything since.

Whenever the temptation reared its ugly head, he remembered how he had felt when he had discovered his sister was really gone. If his friends thought it strange he no longer made bets with them, he just shrugged it off.

Still, at times like this—fresh off a winning game—he couldn’t help thinking…

“Trevor Wright?” a female voice asked.

Trevor raised his head from his towel and blinked. A young woman stood before him. He judged she was roughly his own age, or perhaps a couple of years younger. He flashed her his trademark smile as he looked her over.

“That’s me.”

She wasn’t as curvy as he would like. In fact, she was a bit on the thin side, but her dark-washed jeans and cutoff T-shirt fit her well. Both were designer make. Long, honey-blond hair trailed over her slim shoulders in waves.

“I was hoping to find you here,” she said. She looked up at him with a pair of large, brown eyes from under long lashes. Her lips twitched in a smile of her own.

Trevor lowered the towel and drew back his broad shoulders as he straightened. Too bad he wasn’t wearing his usual blue polo. It really brought out his eyes. But the white one he wore now was equally flattering in terms of cut, and showed less sweat. He could feel it hugging his muscled torso. He ran a casual hand through his short, blond curls to make sure they weren’t too disheveled.

“And who might you be?” he asked with a coy quirk of his eyebrow. “I’ve never seen you around here before. And I’m sure I would remember if I had.”

She smiled again—a full smile. For a moment, Trevor was distracted by her dimples.

“I’m Amber.” She reached out to shake his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Amber.” Trevor held her hand a moment longer than was strictly necessary, which made her flush in a most appealing way. “What can I do for you?”

Amber lowered her hand and caught her lower lip between her teeth for a moment before speaking. “I was hoping you could help me with something. I’ve read about you in the papers—about how you help people who are in trouble.”

Trevor blinked again.

Yes, he had been featured a few times now in the local news. But Kira was the one who usually took the headline—not that she asked for it. She was the one who had found and rescued Stephanie, and he had dogged Kira’s steps ever since. Not for the publicity (even though it was gratifying), but to give his relatively empty life a sense of purpose.

Despite his and Kira Brightwell’s disagreeable past, they had become wary friends over the past few months. But no matter how hard Trevor tried to help Kira, he knew he only rated a sidekick at best, which was how the media portrayed him.

“Are you in trouble?” he asked, trying to feel out the situation.

Why track him down here at the golf club when she could contact Kira—the lead of the whole problem-solving operation—directly?

Amber lowered her head. Her long hair fell forward to frame her face.“Yes.” She took a deep breath before looking up again. “Someone’s watching me. All the time, everywhere I go, I can feel them. I’ve never been able to catch them though.”

“You have a stalker?”

Amber nodded. “That’s why I came to find you here. I had to make sure whoever it is doesn’t know I’m trying to get help.” Her head turned as she sent a wary look over her shoulder.

That made a little more sense, Trevor supposed. Kira’s base of operations was her apartment, and she pretty much only went out to either work on a case, or go to the gym. The only way for Amber to track Kira down without being noticed would be to somehow bump into her ‘by accident.’

Trevor frowned. “And you have no idea who it is that’s following you.”

Amber’s face fell. “No. Look, I know it sounds crazy, but I just can’t take this anymore. I know someone’s watching me.” She shot Trevor a pleading look with those big, brown eyes of hers. “Can you help me?”

Trevor flashed her a reassuring smile. “Of course.”

He and Kira had solved much more complicated and dangerous cases. What was one measly stalker?

Amber seemed to wilt with relief. “Thank you. You have no idea how much better that makes me feel. But before I tell you anything, I need you to promise me one thing.” Her gaze held Trevor’s. “You won’t tell anyone.”

Trevor shook his head. “Tell them about what?”

Amber raised her hand to give an impatient wave. “The case. Me. This needs to stay a secret. No one else can know.” Her eyes blazed with intensity.

“No one?” Trevor’s voice was incredulous. “What about Kira?”

Amber shook her head. “I only dare trust one person with this problem. Who knows what kind of connections the person watching me might have?” Her hands tightened into fists.

Trevor scoffed. “Kira would never—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Amber spoke over his protest in a firm voice. “I don’t dare risk it.” Her expression softened as she looked up at him. “Besides, I’m sure you’re more than capable of helping me on your own…”

Trevor hesitated.

If this woman was in trouble, Kira would be the best person to help her. And he knew Kira would never do anything to betray a client. At least, not knowingly. Besides, keeping the situation a secret from her seemed like an impossible task.

Unless he avoided Kira altogether for the next few days…

It’s just a simple stalker case. How hard can it be?

Surely after the adventures he and Kira had gone through together, he was capable of running a case without her help. And if he was successful, Kira would be impressed, and Amber was sure to be grateful…

He drew himself up. “You can count on me.”

* * *

Trevor looked over his shoulder. He hoped he looked more casual than he felt.

Not that there was anyone around to see him. The side yard of the sprawling estate he had entered was empty, and the stained, wooden gate still shut, just as he had left it. The front drive was empty, but the thick carpet of grass beneath his sandals had been cut recently, and he had seen the covered forms of several cars when he had peeked through the garage window. The scent of the grass mingled with the warm, summer breeze, which stirred his shower-damped curls.

Amber had told him the place would be empty. Still, it didn’t hurt to be careful. This was a wealthy neighborhood—close to his own—and it was broad daylight. Yes, he certainly looked like he fit in here with his BMW parked on the street and his fresh, blue polo and khaki shorts, but if any of the neighbors were familiar with the usual staff who maintained the estate, they would realize he wasn’t one of them.

Despite the time of day, the street was fairly quiet. The only sounds were those of the occasional passing car, or the buzzing drone of a lawn trimmer a few houses away. The large houses were spaced out, and most people were probably still at work for the day.

After satisfying himself that no one was watching, Trevor crouched beside a large, stone planter at his feet. He used his broad shoulder to tilt it upward just enough to glimpse the key that lay underneath. He snatched it up and dusted off the shoulder of his shirt to make sure it hadn’t gotten dirty. No need to let a bit of breaking and entering spoil his look.

The key slid into the lock of the side door and turned with a satisfying click. He slipped the key into his pocket and cracked the door open.

The interior of the looming mansion was dim after the full light of the afternoon sun. He took a moment to allow his eyes to adjust before slipping inside. He closed the door behind him and locked it for good measure.

He had taken his time to clean up after meeting Amber—partly to avoid anyone connecting the two of them, if she had been followed to the golf club. He had also taken an indirect route on his way to the address Amber had given him, doubling back several times to make sure he hadn’t been followed. Still, it didn’t hurt to be careful. If Amber’s stalker knew about the hidden key, he (and Trevor assumed it was a dude) would have to either force or pick the lock to get in now.

The air inside the house had a dry, stale taste to it. But someone had left the air conditioning running, which was something. Trevor followed the tiled hallway to an open foyer. A pair of front doors with frosted glass windows stood shut and a winding staircase led upward. Entrances to several other rooms stood around him on the main floor.

Where to start?

Trevor shrugged to himself and moved toward the first entrance on his left, toward the front of the house. He had noticed that all the curtains were drawn when he had approached from outside, so he knew no one would see him. Despite his efforts, his sandals echoed against the tiled floor with every step. He winced at the sound. The yawning mansion seemed empty, but that didn’t make him feel any better.

Trevor found himself making a face as he realized what was bothering him.

It felt strange to be doing something like this without Kira. If she were here, he would probably be trying to get a rise out of her with some of his usual witty banter while she did all the thinking. That was how things usually went, anyway.

It’s nowhere near as much fun doing this kind of thing on my own.

But if he could find a way to help Amber, and maybe impress Kira in the process, it would be worth it.

All I have to do is start thinking like Kira. Let’s see… Nine Inch Nails, no sense of style, too stubborn to ask for help…

Trevor rounded a corner into the front sitting room and jumped back with a yelp.

Kira stood in front of him in a fighter’s crouch with her fists raised. Her green eyes widened in surprise as she recognized him.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded in a hushed tone as she lowered her arms.

“Me?” Trevor spluttered. “I’m working a case.”

The words came out before he could stop them. He suddenly realized he had raised his own fists in an effort to get into character and lowered them.

“I could have socked you in the face,” he said in an effort to change the subject.

Kira snorted. “Yeah. As if I wouldn’t have socked you first.” She shook her head with a roll of her eyes, setting her long, dark ponytail swinging around her shoulders.

Trevor took a breath and tried to force his pounding heart back to its usual rhythm. He had never been on the receiving end of one of Kira’s attacks. Not for real, anyway. She was tall—only a few inches shorter than him—with a lean, athletic frame. And with four years of MMA training under her belt, Trevor knew her words were no boast. She sported her usual jeans and black, Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, which were hardly adequate to accentuate her lithe frame as far as Trevor was concerned.

Kira’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, you’re working a case?”

He stifled a sigh. He should have known better than to think Kira would let his remark pass.

He gave a casual shrug. “Just a request from a friend. What are you doing here?” He leaned forward and waggled his eyebrows at her in an effort to turn the tables.

Kira’s green eyes flickered. “I’m working a case too.” She leaned against the entrance to the sitting room, as if the matter were of little consequence.

“Without me?” Trevor shot her a wounded look. Maybe if he could keep her on the defensive, he would get something out of her…

To his surprise, Kira actually flushed. “I was asked not to tell anyone—not even you.”

“What about Rob?” Trevor raised an eyebrow at her. Rob was Kira’s best friend, and her roommate besides. He was also their go-to tech guy on all their cases.

Kira folded her arms. “Rob wasn’t specifically mentioned as part of the request. And he never leaves the apartment or talks to anyone but us.”

“So have you told him?” Trevor demanded.

She rolled her eyes. “Not yet. Does that make you feel any better?”

“Ah, but you were going to tell him, weren’t you?” Trevor shot her an accusing look. “You were going to tell him, but not me.”

“OK, maybe I was going to ask him to look into some things after I had a look around this place,” Kira huffed. She waved him off in annoyance. “Enough about that. Clearly we’re both here for the same reason, but I have no idea why. Did Victoria Peters call you too?”

Trevor blinked. “Who the hell is Victoria Peters?”

* * *

Kira’s eyes narrowed again. Trevor supposed he should be used to getting suspicious looks from her by now, but that didn’t make him like it any better.

“Are you saying you haven’t talked to Victoria Peters?” she demanded.

“Kira, I swear to God, I have no idea who Victoria Peters is.”

Trevor widened his eyes and held her gaze, silently willing her to believe him. (This was one of those times when he knew his track record counted against him.)

Her stony expression softened to one of wariness, telling him he had at least been somewhat successful.

“OK, so who sent you here then?” she asked. She raised an eyebrow at him.

Trevor ran a hand through his blond curls as he considered. He had promised Amber he wouldn’t tell, but how in the hell was he supposed to keep the whole thing a secret now? Clearly the cases he and Kira were working on were connected somehow.

Maybe Amber never needs to know Kira and I worked together…

He stifled a sigh. So much for solving a case on his own…

“A girl I met at the golf club,” Trevor said with an airy wave. Maybe he could convince Kira the whole thing was just a weird coincidence, and they could go their separate ways.

Kira gave him a measuring look, as if she knew exactly what he was trying to do. “Who was she?”

Trevor shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d never met her before. Her name was Amber.” Some of the dust floating on the air in the dimly-lit living room tickled his nose and he let out a sudden sneeze that made Kira flinch.

“Amber, what?” she asked.

Trevor rubbed his nose and raised his voice somewhat. “I said, her name was Amber.”

Kira rolled her eyes. “I’m not hard of hearing. What was her last name?”

Trevor flushed as he suddenly realized Amber had failed to mention her last name—and he had failed to ask for it. “Um, it never came up.”

“So you agreed to take on a case without telling anyone, for some girl with no last name you met at the golf club.”

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.” He saw no point in arguing about it, since Kira had hit the nail square on the head.

“A good-looking damsel in distress?” Kira prompted in a dry tone.

Trevor drew himself up. “I can’t help it if women in need come to me for help.” A smile spread across his face in spite of himself. “But yeah. She was pretty hot.”

A sudden thought struck him.

“What about this Victoria Peters? Was she hot too?” He frowned. “Oh, wait. You said you talked on the phone…”

Kira gave him an odd look. “Yes, but that was only to arrange a meeting. We met at the mall. It was like one of those meetings you see on TV between a spy and their handler. We both looked at different things and pretended to shop while talking to each other.”

“So was she good looking?” Trevor pressed.

Kira shrugged. “I don’t know, she was OK, I guess. Tall, thin—business-type woman in a pencil skirt and blouse, very prim and proper with her hair back in a tight braid, no makeup. Terrible allergies. Her eyes and nose were all red and puffy.” She shot Trevor a dubious look. “Why? Are you looking to set up a three-way or something?”

Trevor’s shoulders slumped. “I was thinking maybe she and Amber were the same person. I mean, why else would both of us get sent to the same place after being sworn to secrecy?”

Kira toyed with the end of her ponytail. “I can think of at least one good reason… Victoria told me she was being followed by someone—she didn’t know who. That’s why she swore me to secrecy. She told me she thought her stalker was looking for something that was hidden in her old home, and she was afraid to lead them to it.” She held Trevor’s gaze.

“A ring!” Trevor blurted with an eager nod. Kira’s words matched the story Amber had told him. He frowned. “So wait. If they both came to us separately about the same thing…”

Kira gave him a nod of her own as she saw he had reached the same conclusion she had. “Exactly. Which one of them owns the ring, and which one is lying?”

* * *

“It can’t be Amber,” Trevor said for the umpteenth time as he and Kira combed the bare walls and floor of one of the many upstairs bedrooms. They had been searching the mansion for almost three hours.

The only pieces of furniture in the room were a large bed and dresser. Both were hidden under drop cloths. Trevor’s fingers traced the dusty wall with a dry hiss, searching for any sign of a hidden compartment.

Kira snorted. “What, because she’s good looking? She didn’t even give you a last name!”

She was crouched over the dark-stained wooden floor, going over it inch by inch. There were smears of dust on her dark T-shirt and jeans, but she didn’t seem to care. Trevor made a face at his own soiled polo, which now carried the same musty scent as the rest of the house. He couldn’t wait to shower again when he got home.

Kira’s words only soured his mood further. He cursed himself as an idiot for not thinking to get Amber’s last name from her. He had given her his number, but he had no way of contacting her to ask what it was, even if he thought of some way to do it without arousing her suspicion. (Even though he was still convinced Kira’s client was the one to look out for.)

His hand dropped from the wall as a sudden idea struck him. He pulled his phone from his pocket and pressed a name on his contact list while Kira glanced upward with a questioning look.

“La Valentia Golf Club,” a familiar male voice said from the other end of the phone. “How may I help you today?”

“Terry? It’s Trevor Wright.”

“Oh, hi, Trevor. What’s up?”

Trevor was glad he had always made a point of making nice with the club staff and insisting they call him by his first name, instead of the ominous ‘Mr. Wright,’ which he could only associate with his father.

“Can you do me a favor?” Trevor asked in his most charming voice. “I met a girl there earlier today, and I only got her first name.”

“Not a regular member, I’m guessing,” Terry said with a trace of humor. “You know all of them pretty well.”

Trevor’s player status was legendary. He had already worked his way though all of the single members (and several of the married ones).

“Probably not,” Trevor said. “But she would have had to sign in, right?”

He flushed and turned away from Kira, who now looked mildly impressed. He was glad she couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation, since she would surely jump to (correct) conclusions.

“Let me check the guest ledger,” Terry said. “What’s her first name?”

“Amber.”

“Amber, Amber…” Trevor imagined Terry running his finger down the page of the book all non-member guests were required to sign before entering. “Yup. Here it is. Oh, wow. Her handwriting’s terrible. It looks like her last name starts with a ‘P.’ Or is it a ‘D’?”

“Could it be ‘Peters’?” Trevor asked with a thrill of excitement.

Terry hesitated. “Maybe? It’s really hard to tell. And it looks like she used you as her reference, too, so no help there either. Sorry.”

Trevor suppressed a sigh. Yes, he could imagine Amber charming her way into the club, claiming to be a friend of his—whether to keep her identity a secret from him, or keep her so-called stalker from following her, he didn’t know.

“OK, thanks anyway. I’ll see you later.” Trevor hung up.

“Any luck?” Kira asked as she reached under the bed to continue probing the floor.

Trevor sighed. “Not really. Her handwriting’s too bad to read her last name, and she used me as a reference to get in.”

“Still, it was a good idea,” Kira said with grudging praise. Her voice became muffled as she lowered herself onto her stomach to reach further under the bed.

“You don’t need to sound surprised about it,” Trevor said with a sour twist of his lips. “I do have good ideas every once in awhile, you know.”

Kira’s muttered response was barely audible from under the drop cloth covering the bed. “If only you had them when mysterious, attractive women were asking you to perform secret favors for them…”

Trevor flushed. He knew he deserved that. But still… “I did have ideas at the time—several of them.” He raised his chin, even though Kira couldn’t see him.

“And were any of them related to something other than a blanket wrestling match with Amber?” Kira’s muffled voice was dry.

Trevor could easily imagine her smirking underneath the bed. Only her bottom half was visible as she lay on her stomach. Trevor took the opportunity to admire her tight, curved—

“Trevor?”

He shook himself as he realized he had paused for too long. “Yeah?”

Kira’s voice turned wary. “Are you still looking for the ring? Or are you too busy thinking about what you wanted to do with Amber?”

Trevor’s lips twitched. “Actually, I was distracted by something else.”

Kira went quiet for a moment. “Tell me you’re not looking at my butt right now.”

“Well, we’re having a conversation, and it’s the only part of you I can see.”

“Look somewhere else,” Kira said in an even tone that definitely carried an implied threat.

Trevor adopted an innocent expression, even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “I was only trying to be polite…”

“What made you think Amber’s last name might be Peters?” Kira said in a forceful attempt to change the subject.

Trevor shrugged. “Well, if she and Victoria both claim this house is theirs, maybe they’re related. They could be sisters or something.”

“…Or maybe neither of them has anything to do with this house, and they’ve duped us into doing their dirty work so they can steal the ring.”

“Well that’s not very optimistic—” Trevor cut himself off as he heard a swift intake of breath from under the bed. “Are you OK down there? Do I need to come under there with you? I have more experience on beds than under them, but I can try to squeeze in…” He looked down at his muscular fame and then at the space between the bed and the floor.

“I found something,” Kira said in a tense voice. Whatever it was, it must be interesting enough for her to ignore his grade-A banter with her usual threats of violence.

“Let me come down there and look.” Yes, his clothes would get even more dirty rolling around on the floor, but what did it matter at this point?

“Stay where you are,” Kira said in a firm voice with a trace of exasperation. “I don’t need you blundering around beside me, taking up all the space.”

“I can at least give you some light,” Trevor said as he lowered himself to the floor beside her and pulled out his phone.

He tapped his flashlight app and aimed the narrow beam from the phone’s camera flash in Kira’s direction. She turned away with a wince as the light caught her full in the eyes.

“Whoops, sorry.”

Trevor wriggled closer to her and aimed the light at the floor. As he had suspected, his broad shoulders didn’t really fit under the bed, and the frame was solid wood. The closest he could get was to place his head against the curve of Kira’s waist while his shoulder jutted into the butt he had been admiring moments earlier.

“Well this is cozy,” Kira said. She tried to shake her head in disbelief, but her ponytail bumped the underside of the bed with a dull thump that made her curse.

“At least you know I’m not looking at your butt now,” Trevor said with a grin.

“Yes, this is so much better.” Trevor could see her rolling her eyes in the shadows. “Just aim the light over here.”

Trevor obeyed and did his best to breathe through his mouth. Dust bunnies had accumulated under the bed and his nose started to twitch again. He tried to focus on the feeling of Kira’s body against his head and shoulder in an effort to distract himself from the thought of sneezing in such tight quarters.

“This floorboard is loose,” Kira muttered to herself as her fingers probed the dusty wood. “I thought I felt… Aha!”

* * *

Trevor watched as Kira wedged her fingertip between two of the boards. There must be a small gap that he couldn’t see from his angle. Kira’s finger gained purchase. She wriggled it further beneath the board and eased it upward with a faint squeak. She set the loose board aside and peered into the cavity that had been revealed. Trevor did his best to angle the light properly, but with his shoulders pinned by the bed frame, it was an awkward task.

“Is it there?” he asked in a breathless voice. He inhaled a bit of dry dust and immediately stifled a cough.

Kira scooped up something small and dark from the hole. “Let’s get out from under here so we can have a look.”

Trevor used his forearms to ease himself backward as Kira shimmied out beside him. A moment later, they were both sitting side by side on the floor with their backs against the bed. Kira held a small, velvet-lined box with an expression of triumph. It might have been white once, but now it was a faded, silvery-gray. Kira eased it open with a dull squeak.

Trevor gaped.

He had grown up with money. He had seen countless pieces of expensive jewelry. His mother had been a heartless gold-digger (before she had run off with some other man to live on her considerable alimony). She had always been wheedling trinkets out of Trevor’s father while they had still been married.

The ring was a band of white gold. An enormous, flawless aquamarine gemstone in a domed, teardrop cut gleamed in the ring’s setting, surrounded by small, alternating diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. Clusters of diamonds at each of the three corners of the teardrop held the aquamarine gem in place. Even in the dim lighting of the curtained room, they sparkled.

The ring should have been ostentatious, but it wasn’t. The design was simple.

“No wonder more than one person wants this thing,” Kira said in a wondering tone.

Trevor knew she wasn’t the jewelry type, but her green eyes had gone wide at the sight of the ring. Her left cheek was smeared with dust and her ponytail had been tugged a bit loose, giving it a lopsided look. The ring looked incongruous in her hand.

“You should try it on,” Trevor said. His nose twitched.

Kira snorted. “Be serious. We need to figure out who this belongs to.” She held the ring up to the light of Trevor’s phone to inspect the inside of the band. “Wait, there’s an inscription… ‘For my beloved, Grace.’”

Trevor frowned. His nose twitched again. “Grace? Who the h-hell is Gr—ACHOO!

His phone tumbled from his hand to clunk against the floor as an enormous sneeze wracked his body, making Kira jolt in surprise. The sneeze echoed loudly through the empty house.

Trevor raised his head from the crook of his arm once he was sure there were no other sneezes on the way.

Kira was staring at him in askance. She was still sitting on the floor beside him, but was leaning as far away from him as possible.

“You good?” she asked in a wary voice.

Trevor rubbed at his nose with the back of his forearm. His dusty forearm. He twitched his nose again and took an experimental sniff. “I think so, yeah.”

Kira shook her head and began straightening her ponytail, as if his sneeze had been responsible for knocking it askew. “Do you always yell like that when you sneeze?”

Trevor drew himself up. “I’m a man—not some delicate girl, in case you hadn’t no—”

Kira’s eyes widened and she clamped her hand on his leg to silence him.

There was a mechanic, buzzing sound coming from somewhere downstairs. It was hard to tell from where they were, but it sounded like it was coming from the direction of the side door.

“Victoria gave me a key to the side door. How did you get in?” Kira asked him in a hushed voice as she snapped the ring box shut and crammed it into the pocket of her jeans while rising to her feet in almost a single, fluid motion.

“Amber… gave me a key too.” Sort of. Trevor fished it out of the pocket of his khaki shorts to show her. “And I know I locked the door behind me.”

Kira was already creeping out of the bedroom. She stopped at the railing of the second-story landing that overlooked the front foyer. The buzzing sound was even louder.

“Someone must be trying to use some kind of tool to force the lock,” she muttered to him as he joined her.

“It must be the guy who’s been stalking Amber,” Trevor said. Kira shot him a dubious look. “Or Victoria,” he added hastily. His hands tightened into fists. “Should we take him down?”

Kira bit her lip and shook her head. “We have no idea what we’ve stumbled into here. There could be more than one of them, and they might even be armed. We need to get out of here and figure out what the hell’s going on.”

“Right.”

Trevor began to race down the stairs. His sandals slapped against the marble with each step. If they weren’t going to thump bad guys, he could at least use the excuse of a clean getaway to race through the streets in his Beemer. Kira’s eyes looked like they were about to pop right out of her head at the racket he was making.

“What?” he demanded, pausing on the stairs to look up at her where she still gripped the railing above him.

“Could you be any more loud about it?” she demanded in a strangled voice.

There was definitely something cute about the way she looked like she wanted to throttle him when she got worked up like that. (Maybe it was the fact that she actually could throttle him if she wanted to.) He gave a careless shrug and grin that he knew from experience would only goad her further.

“Just trying to get out of here before we get caught.” He ran a hand through his mussed curls and pulled away his dusty fingers with a rueful expression. “Usually when I leave a bedroom with a woman looking this disheveled, I don’t have any clothes on. What will the intruders think we’ve been up to?”

Kira opened her mouth as if planning to verbally rip him a new one, but seemed to think the better of it as the mechanical buzzing stopped. She raced down the stairs on silent feet, elbowing him aside to get by with more force than was strictly necessary. Trevor absorbed the blow to his ribs with a wince. He should have seen that one coming…

He heard a click from the side of the house as the side door opened. Kira had already flipped the deadbolt on the front door and was silently urging Trevor to follow her outside with jerks of her ponytailed head.

“Let’s go!” She mouthed the words with wide eyes.

Trevor didn’t need to be told twice.

He and Kira tumbled out the front door, closing it quietly behind them. Kira grabbed his arm and yanked him off to the side to press against a sun-warmed brick wall as a shadow appeared behind the frosted glass of the front door.

They both remained frozen until it passed.

“Where are you parked?” Kira asked in a low voice.

Her green gaze was already sweeping the street for observers. The afternoon had worn on, but the sun was still out. More cars seemed to be parked in the surrounding driveways and along the street than when Trevor had first arrived. Was there anyone watching from any of the vehicles? It was impossible to tell.

“Just down the street.” Trevor jerked his chin in the direction of his BMW.

Kira nodded and gestured for him to lead the way. Trevor considered. Running felt conspicuous—not that the pair of them could manage to look inconspicuous at the moment. Kira’s Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and jeans weren’t exactly a fit for the wealthy, suburban neighborhood, and both of them were covered in grime.

He settled on a brisk walk. Kira kept pace behind him. She had pulled out her phone, and seemed to already be in hushed conversation with someone, although it might have just been her way of acting casual…

Trevor craned his neck as he looked up and down the street, doing his best to make it seem casual. No one seemed to be watching them, but several of the parked cars had tinted windows, so there was no way to be sure.

He waited until almost the last minute to click the button on his key fob to unlock his car. He yanked the door open and slid inside, jamming his key into the ignition. The engine came to life with a reassuring purr.

He was already pulling away from the curb and clicking on his seat belt as Kira was closing her door. Her phone was still pressed against her ear. It must have been a real conversation after all. Trevor spared a moment to reach over and do up her seat belt as well, earning him a glare for his presumption.

He gave one last look in his rear view mirror to make sure no one was following him before slamming his foot down on the accelerator.

* * *

“OK, I think you can slow down now,” Kira said in a wary voice as she braced herself against the dashboard with her free hand. She still held her phone to her ear, but Trevor assumed she was talking to him.

They had been racing through the streets of La Valentia for the past ten minutes. There was still no sign of pursuit. Trevor forced himself to slow down with a trace of reluctance. No point in getting a speeding ticket when there was no one to run from, but still…

“How did you get to the house?” he asked as he eased down to the same pace as the surrounding traffic.

“I parked a couple of blocks away. I’ll have to pick up my car sometime later.” Kira gave a vague wave. She wasn’t a fan of driving, so Trevor knew she was in no rush about it.

“Probably a good call, not parking close to the house,” he couldn’t resist saying as he thought of Kira’s modest, blue Corolla. “Your car doesn’t exactly blend in.” Still, he hoped the musty smell they both carried wouldn’t stink up his car for long…

Kira drew herself up in her seat. “It’s a perfectly good car. Not all of us have a rich daddy to buy toys for us.” She shifted the phone to speak into it. “Yes, Trevor’s with me,” she said in an exasperated tone. “And before you accuse me of keeping secrets, I wasn’t expecting to run into him.”

Trevor leaned over in his seat to give her a playful elbow to the ribs. “Bragging about our bedroom antics to one of your girlfriends?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Kira gave him a flat look. “I’m talking to Rob. I’ve been filling him in, to see what he can find out about this whole mess.” She lowered the phone from her ear and tapped the screen. “Rob, you’re on speaker.”

Rob’s familiar voice spoke from Kira’s phone over the sound of the usual clatter of his fingers against his laptop keyboard. Kira seemed to have caught her roommate in midsentence. “…primping, arrogant, self-centered douchebag…”

Kira forcefully cleared her throat and Rob fell silent.

“Hi, Rob!” Trevor called out in the direction of the phone in an overly cheerful voice he knew would grate on Rob’s nerves as he continued to weave through the streets of La Valentia in no particular direction.

“Hello, Trevor.” Rob uttered his name as if it were an insult.

Trevor brushed aside his long-held frostiness as if it were only a ruse. After all, Rob couldn’t still be bitter about all the times Trevor teased him back in high school for being gay… Trevor had been just as brutal to Kira back then, and she seemed to have moved on.

…For the most part.

“So have you found anything on Victoria Peters, or the address I gave you?” Kira asked after an awkward pause.

“Right.” Rob seemed to regain his focus and the clatter of his typing resumed. “Well the house is actually registered to her. She inherited it from a Frank Peters a few years ago—her great-uncle. An actor, I think. According to what I could scrounge up from the local papers, he became Victoria’s guardian when she was ten, after both her parents died in a car accident. I’m sending you Victoria’s picture now.”

Kira looked down at her phone. “Yup, that’s her.”

Trevor made a face as he kept an eye on the surrounding traffic. So it sounded like Kira’s client was the one who owned the house and therefore, the ring. His blue eyes narrowed.

“What about an Amber Peters?” he asked.

“Is she related to Victoria?” Rob asked after a grudging pause.

Trevor shook his head. “I don’t know. Is she?” Part of him still refused to believe Amber was the villain of this whole adventure.

The sound of Rob’s typing filled the silence for the next few minutes. Trevor ignored the dubious looks Kira sent his way.

“The only Amber Peters I can find around here is a sixteen-year-old in LA,” Rob finally said.

Kira shook her head at Trevor in disbelief. “Sixteen?”

“She wasn’t sixteen!” Trevor blurted before recovering his composure. “Trust me, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to tell a woman’s age.”

“So her last name couldn’t be ‘Peters,’” Kira said with a trace of smugness. “At least, not if she’s from around here.”

Trevor ignored her and racked his brain for some other angle that might show Amber in a positive light.

“Does Victoria have a sister?” he asked Rob. “Or maybe a cousin? A girl in her late teens or early twenties.”

If Amber had deliberately kept her last name a secret, maybe she had lied about her first name as well. If she was related to Victoria, maybe the two women were in a covert struggle to locate the ring and secure it for themselves.

“No, the newspaper article about the death of Victoria’s parents makes it clear her great-uncle was her only surviving relative.” Rob’s voice sounded as puzzled as Trevor felt. “What’s the deal with this Amber woman? How does she fit in?”

Kira sighed. “That’s what I was hoping you could tell us.”

She spent the next several minutes filling Rob in on Trevor’s side of the story. Her brow furrowed as she reached the point where she and Trevor had found the ring and fled from the house.

“Wait. If Victoria owns the house, she clearly doesn’t live there. So where can we find her?”

“Give me a sec…” Rob typed for a few moments. “OK. Her driver’s license lists her as living in some suite in a building here in town. I’ll text you the address. Anything else you want me to do, now that I’m in the loop?”

Kira winced at the implied accusation. “I was going to tell you, even if I never ran into Trevor. I just wanted to check out the house first. I had no idea Trevor was going to show up.”

“You’re welcome,” Trevor said with a regal nod.

Kira raised an eyebrow at him. “For what, exactly?”

“For brightening your day.” Trevor’s lips twitched. “Oh, and providing your getaway in style, while adding a layer of mystique and attractiveness to the overall mystery of this case.”

Rob uttered a derogatory term in Spanish from the other end of the phone. At least, Trevor assumed it was derogatory, based on his tone…

“Can you check out the traffic cams near the golf club around the time Trevor met this Amber person?” Kira spoke over Rob in a loud voice as she tugged at her ponytail. She turned toward Trevor. “When was this?”

Trevor tilted his head as he considered. “Well my tennis game was booked for one o’clock, so it must have been around two.”

“Rob?” Kira prompted when Rob didn’t answer.

“OK, fine. I’ll look into it,” he said in a grudging tone. Trevor thought about sticking his tongue out at him, but it seemed pointless when Rob couldn’t see it. It might have been interesting to see Kira’s reaction though…

“Thank you.” There was a note of relief in Kira’s voice. “I’ll talk to you later.”

She hung up. A moment later, her phone buzzed and she looked down at the screen.

“Victoria’s address?” Trevor asked.

Kira nodded. “Time to find out whether she can tell us what the hell’s going on.”

* * *

“Um, are you sure this is the place?” Trevor asked as he pulled into the parking lot of the address Rob had provided.

Kira’s green gaze remained fixed on a point past Trevor’s broad shoulder. She wore a perplexed look. Unlike every other woman he had ever met, she had no problem looking at things other than his muscular frame. But even he had to admit, the sign he had just driven past was intriguing.

Wayward Pines Retreat.

He and Kira had both assumed Victoria lived in a condo, but the sprawling building that lay nestled on a rolling stretch of lawn in a quiet area on the outskirts of town said differently. Trevor caught sight of wooden benches scattered amidst lush gardens with fountains and pools, as well as a large, flat section of sand, broken by various odd-shaped stones. A rake leaned against a nearby tree and as Trevor got out of the car in a daze, he could see it had been used to create swirling patterns in the sand.

“What is this place?” Kira asked in a breathless voice as she climbed out of the car to join him.

Several people sat on the benches or walked the grounds at a slow pace wearing contemplative looks. Trevor’s first thought when he had read the sign was that this was some kind of retirement community, but most of the people he saw were well below fifty. They seemed to be a mixture of men and women—no children—mostly wearing loose, flowing clothes.

He shook his head in disbelief. “Is this a commune or something?”

Kira shrugged. “I guess we’d better go find out.”

She led the way toward the front entrance of the large building, which was dominated by large windows. She pushed open a pair of doors that stood beneath a towering, angular archway, which was held up by a stout pair of rustic-looking tree trunks.

“Some serious money went into this place,” Trevor muttered as they passed through the glass doors. “Do you have any idea how much the land around here is worth?”

Even though he had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps in real estate, he wasn’t completely ignorant. And the retreat seemed to take up several acres.

Kira shot him a warning look, and he held back any further comments to focus on the interior of the building instead. The air inside was cool, and smelled of some kind of herbs or potpourri. The walls were painted in warm colors, saffron and russet. Most of the light came from the large windows, but there were also frosted lamps in sconces along the walls between paintings of forests and rolling countrysides. A fountain tinkled from somewhere nearby and soft, choral music played from hidden speakers.

Kira’s head swiveled back and forth as she walked, her ponytail swishing around her shoulders. Her green eyes were wide as she approached the roughly-hewn structure of stained wood that seemed to be the front desk. It stood at a branching of broad corridors leading both left and right.

“Welcome to Wayward Pines Retreat,” a middle-aged, black woman with a vibrant voice said as she looked up at Kira from where she sat.

Her dark hair framed her head like a soft, round halo. She wore a long, orange peasant blouse and beige, billowing skirt. Her bronze name tag bore the name ‘Esther.’ Her eyes widened somewhat as she caught sight of Kira and Trevor. Trevor suddenly realized neither of them had bothered to clean themselves up since fleeing the Peters house with the ring. He surreptitiously batted at a patch of dust on his khaki shorts from where he stood behind Kira.

“How may I assist you on your journey?” the woman who was presumably named Esther added after a moment’s pause, in such a way that Trevor suspected it was part of her usual greeting, which she had temporarily forgotten.

Kira flushed. “Ah, we were hoping to get in touch with Victoria Peters? This is her listed address.”

Esther’s eyes flickered in surprise. “You know Victoria?”

Kira’s back straightened. “I met her earlier today.”

Esther’s expression brightened. “Yes, she did say she was going out today. She actually talked to you?” She leaned forward with open interest.

Her reaction only seemed to make Kira more confused. “Um, yeah. I mean, she called me first, and then we met at the mall…”

“The mall?” Esther shook her head in amazement. “That’s wonderful!”

“It is?” Trevor blurted before he could stop himself.

The woman behind the desk gave a solemn nod. “I’ve worked here for years, and Victoria hardly ever goes out. If she does, it’s only to run a few errands, on the doctor’s orders.”

“The doctor?” Kira echoed in a faint voice.

Esther nodded again. “Doctor Florian. Well, it used to be Doctor Wiseman, but he’s been gone for weeks now, taking care of his wife, poor thing.”

Whether she meant the doctor or his wife, Trevor wasn’t sure.

“What kind of place is this?” he asked in a bewildered voice. Even though Kira glared at him, he knew it was what she really wanted to know.

“Victoria didn’t tell you?” Esther made a tutting sound. “Well, I suppose that’s only natural… The retreat is a special, live-in facility for people who require a certain level of support.”

“A rehab center?” Trevor asked as he tried to read between the lines.

Esther shot him an affronted look. “Not at all. You misunderstand me. The people who stay here require the regular attention of a certified psychiatrist.”

Trevor’s blue eyes widened. “So it’s a loony bin!”

Kira whirled around to glare at him.

Esther drew herself up in her seat with great dignity. “This is not a mental asylum. The people here are extremely low risk. The only danger they pose is perhaps to themselves. We provide them with a safe, comfortable place to receive regular treatment and support.”

Trevor raised an eyebrow. “…For a price, you mean.”

Esther flushed. “Well, we certainly can’t afford to provide the level of services we offer for free. But we have also had several generous benefactors over the years—wealthy relatives of those we have cared for.”

“I’m sorry, this is probably an awkward question,” Kira said as she turned back around and firmly placed herself between Trevor and the front desk. “But how did Victoria come to live here? She seemed very… well-adjusted when I met her.”

Esther gave an avid nod, making her halo of dark hair bounce. “She is—for the most part, at least. There was a car accident when she was young. Both her parents died, but she survived.”

“Wait, she was in the car with them?” Kira asked with a frown.

“Yes,” Esther said with a mournful expression. “It was quite traumatizing. Her great-uncle took her in afterward. He did his best to get her the right treatment, but it’s often difficult for a layperson to know what to expect from a good psychiatrist.” She shook herself. “Anyway, after a few years, he heard about us here, and Victoria started to see Doctor Wiseman. When Frank Peters died, Victoria came to live with us as a permanent resident.”

Trevor could see the gears turning as Kira digested this information. He did his best to hide his consternation. Victoria Peters’ story lined up with what Kira had been told. The ring most likely belonged to her and not Amber. But who was the person Victoria claimed was stalking her? Was it Amber? Or was Victoria just traumatized and deluded…

“Is Victoria here now?” Kira asked.

Esther’s expression turned eager. “Yes. Would you like me to get her for you? She hasn’t had any visitors since she arrived, poor dear.”

“Yes, please.”

Esther flicked her sturdy wrist as she checked her watch. “Let’s see… She’s usually at the grotto this time of day… You wait here, while I see if I can find someone to round her up. We have a lovely guest lounge, which is probably fairly quiet at the moment, since it’s almost dinnertime.” She rose from her seat and bustled off with a swirl of her skirt down the left corridor.

Kira waited until the moment Esther disappeared to send a furtive glance over her shoulder. She and Trevor were the only ones in sight.

“Let’s go,” she said in a soft voice.

Trevor frowned at her. “Where?” he demanded.

Kira jerked her head in the direction of a wooden door off to the right that stood slightly ajar. Trevor hadn’t noticed it. The burnished plaque on it bore the title ‘Dr. Wiseman.’ Clearly, the appointment of Dr. Florian wasn’t considered permanent.

“Does that mean we get to skulk?” he asked with an eager grin.

Kira rolled her eyes. “It means I get to skulk, while you keep a lookout.”

Trevor’s grin broadened. “A stealthy, attractive lookout.”

Kira sighed. “Whatever. Just make sure it doesn’t involve looking at my butt.”

Trevor made no promises.

* * *

“So what are we looking for?” Trevor asked in a hushed voice from his position just inside the door.

Even though he was tempted to watch Kira work and take a look around for himself, he kept his gaze firmly on the empty corridor. It didn’t hurt to let Kira know he could take some things seriously…

“Something that will tell us more about Doctor Florian,” Kira muttered as she prowled the inside of the doctor’s office.

Trevor had gotten a glimpse of the room before taking up his post. A desk stood at one end, with tall bookcases lining the wall behind it, packed with boring-looking tomes. Several framed certificates also hung from the wall. The other end of the cozy room held a comfortable-looking, red couch with a low back. A matching chair sat beside it. Late afternoon sunlight poured through the large windows to warm the enormous Persian rug that covered the solid wood floor.

“You think one of the doctors might be involved?” Trevor asked after he heard Kira call Rob and ask him to look into both of them.

He imagined Kira’s shrug. “It seems interesting that the new doctor took over a few weeks ago, and all of a sudden Victoria is going out and about to meet people for the first time since she got here.”

Trevor frowned as a sudden thought struck him. “Maybe the new doctor sent Amber to look for the ring.”

“Or maybe the new doctor is Amber. Esther never said Doctor Florian was a man,” Kira said as Trevor shook his head.

The room definitely had a masculine vibe. Trevor could even smell a trace of cologne lingering on the air.

“…But based on your age estimate, Amber is probably too young to be a certified psychiatrist,” Kira continued.

“Any news from Rob on the traffic cams?” Trevor asked. He still felt guilty for not getting more information from the mysterious woman he had met at the golf club and felt the stubborn need to prove she was above suspicion to make up for it.

Kira hesitated. “Rob didn’t find any cars traveling to or from the club that are registered to an Amber.”

“But?” Trevor prompted. He couldn’t help but feel Kira was leaving something out.

“One of the cars was registered to Victoria,” Kira admitted in a grudging tone.

“Aha! So she could be the one stalking Amber.” He glossed over the fact that Amber still must have given him a false name if none of the other cars were registered to her.

“Maybe…” Kira said in a noncommittal tone. “But she still owns the house where the ring was—huh.”

“What is it?” Trevor asked, giving in to the temptation to look over his shoulder.

“Well, all of the certificates on the walls are still Doctor Wiseman’s, but there’s nothing personal on the desk, except for this.”

She held up a black-and-white photo in a frame. The woman in it was stunning. Her hair was drawn back from her face, accentuating her graceful neck and high cheekbones. A pair of full, arched brows framed her captivating eyes. There was something about her that was vaguely familiar.

“D’you think that’s Florian’s wife?” Trevor asked. “Or maybe Doctor Wiseman’s?”

Kira rolled her eyes and made a sound of disgust. “It’s Grace Kelly.” Trevor blinked. “You know, the famous actress, who went on to marry the Prince of Monaco back in the Fifties?”

Trevor snapped his fingers as he made the connection. “That’s who she is. But why keep a photo of her on his desk?”

Kira pursed her lips with a frown. “The doctor must be a fan.”

“Yeah, but which doctor?” Trevor turned his head back in the direction of the hallway and cursed. “We’d better get back out there. I think she’s coming back.”

Trevor and Kira slipped out of the doctor’s office and back to where they had been standing. Fortunately, Esther seemed to have been distracted by someone she had met in the corridor, and didn’t appear to have noticed they had left.

“She’s waiting for you in the visitors’ lounge,” she announced in a breathless voice with a smile. “It’s just down the corridor and to the right.”

Kira turned to thank her, but Trevor cut her off.

“Is there an Amber who works here?” he asked. “Or maybe lives here as a patient?” He knew it was probably useless to ask, since the name was clearly a false one, but it didn’t hurt to try.

Kira turned toward him with a weary expression. “Trevor—”

“You’ve met Amber?” Esther gave him an odd look, surprising Kira into silence. “But then you must have already known why Victoria is here…”

“What do you mean?” Kira demanded.

“You have an Amber staying here?” Trevor blurted at the same time with undisguised eagerness. “Is she a friend of Victoria’s?”

Esther’s brown eyes widened as she seemed to piece together the meaning behind their confusion.

“So you’ve met Victoria,” she said with a nod in Kira’s direction before turning her gaze toward Trevor. “And you’ve met Amber. Today.”

“That’s right,” Trevor said as Kira nodded.

Esther shook her head in amazement. “Well that’s very interesting! The doctor will definitely want to hear about this…”

Both Kira and Trevor started to speak at the same time again—Kira exasperated, and Trevor with a mixture of eagerness and dread.

“About what?

“Who’s Amber?”

Esther squared her shoulders and looked at each of them in turn.

“Amber is Victoria’s alter.”

* * *

“Her what?” Trevor asked Esther with a shake of his head. “What’s an alter?”

Esther raised her hand to her cloud of dark hair. Her fingers disappeared inside it for a moment as she seemed to try to decide where to begin.

“Victoria and Amber are the same person,” Kira said in a numb-sounding voice.

Esther nodded. “Yes. Victoria has dissociative identity disorder—an unfortunate byproduct of the first psychiatrist who treated her after her parents died.”

Trevor blinked. “What, like a split personality?”

Esther hesitated. “We do not use that term anymore, but yes. There used to be a school of thought that certain aspects of a patient’s personality should be isolated and harnessed to take on certain roles to help the patient explore and manage their various issues. Amber is the result of this kind of therapy. She represents the more outgoing, confident side of Victoria’s nature—one that isn’t haunted by her parents’ death.”

Trevor took a deep breath of the cool, herb-scented air and tried to shift his thinking to make everything fit. “But Kira described Victoria to me. She sounded nothing like Amber!”

Esther gave him an understanding smile. “Alters can appear quite different from one another—not just in terms of dress and how they carry themselves. They can adopt physiological changes as well. For instance, Victoria suffers from seasonal allergies, but Amber does not.”

“So both of them came to us on the same day, about the same thing,” Kira muttered to herself as she tugged at her ponytail with a frown. “But why…”

“Wait, so I was right after all!” Trevor’s mouth stretched into a grin. “Amber does own the—”

Kira’s head snapped up and he fell silent as she shot him a warning look.

Right. So now that they knew Victoria and Amber were actually the same person, who was the stalker they were afraid of? Was there even a stalker at all?

“Does Victoria—or Amber—have any paranoia tendencies?” Kira asked, already ahead of Trevor’s train of thought.

Esther frowned. “No. At least, she hasn’t displayed any such tendencies in the past. Her issues center around the death of her parents, and her need to reintegrate.” She lowered her voice. “And I wouldn’t mind if you kept the fact that I’ve told you all this quiet. I really shouldn’t be telling you anything about our residents, but I’ve watched Victoria for so long, and to finally have someone take an interest in her…” She shot them a pleading look.

“We understand,” Kira said with a kind smile. “Thank you for telling us.” She bit her lip for a moment before continuing. “Is she Victoria right now?”

“Yes. She’s Victoria most of the time. Amber usually only shows up when she feels particularly threatened, as a defense mechanism.” Esther eyed Trevor. “…Or when she thinks it might help her get her way with someone.”

“So it’s not an act?” Trevor pressed. “I mean, her great-uncle or whatever was an actor…”

The idea of the woman he had met as Amber deliberately leading him on made him feel like a fool.

“No, she genuinely believes she’s a different person when she’s Amber,” Esther reassured him. “For all intents and purposes, she is a different person.”

Trevor could tell from the look on Kira’s face that something she had heard or said had triggered an idea. He knew her well enough by now to know the expression meant trouble.

“What’s Doctor Florian’s area of expertise?” Kira asked.

Esther blinked at the sudden change of subject. “He specializes in hypnotherapy.”

The flicker in Kira’s green eyes told Trevor the answer meant something to her, even though her expression turned bland. “And he was recommended for the position?”

“Yes,” Esther said in a wary tone. “He’s a friend and colleague of Doctor Wiseman. We were lucky to get him on such short notice with Doctor Wiseman’s wife falling ill so suddenly.”

Esther shook herself. “You will probably have to re-introduce yourself to Victoria if you only met her as Amber before,” she said to Trevor in an obvious effort to shift the conversation back on track. She seemed to consider. “It’s also possible seeing you might trigger Amber to take over. Please, just try to be gentle with her either way.” She gave Trevor a pleading look.

“Of course,” he said with one of his winning smiles.

“We’ll do our best to keep her calm,” Kira added as she grabbed his arm and began steering him down the corridor.

Esther jumped as a phone rang from the vicinity of her desk. “Oh! I’ve spent far too much time talking… I’d better get back.” She scurried over to the desk to answer.

Trevor allowed Kira to drag him along while surreptitiously flexing. He figured it would give her a good opportunity to feel up his muscles, if she was so inclined.

“What’s with your arm?” she muttered to him as they walked. “Are you having a seizure or something?”

Trevor stopped flexing and looked at her in askance. “I was giving you a hands-on experience of the gun show.”

Kira dropped her hand from his arm and rolled her eyes. “Very nice.”

Trevor sighed. “OK, what’s the big plan?” he asked in a weary voice. Kira raised an eyebrow at him. “Come on, I saw the look on your face a minute ago. I know you’ve got something cooking under that ponytail.” He tapped the side of his own curly head as he spoke.

Kira flushed as if he had caught her out at something. “Since you asked, you’re going to go in to meet Victoria on your own, while I watch from out of sight and make a few calls. Be casual and follow her lead.” She uttered the words in a rush, as if to prevent Trevor from grasping their full meaning.

“What?” he demanded in a strangled voice. “You want me to talk to the crazy lady on my own?”

Now that he knew exactly what they were dealing with, he wasn’t as eager to meet Amber a second time. Esther might have said all the residents were low risk, but did they really know for sure?

Kira stopped outside the pair of double doors bearing the sign for the visitors’ lounge and placed her hands on her hips. “What, you can’t handle one scrawny girl?”

“She’s not scrawny,” Trevor found himself saying before he could stop himself. “She’s lean.” He shook his head. “Anyway, what does it matter how big she is, if she decides to pull a nutty on me?”

“Don’t worry.” Kira reached up to pat his cheek with a smirk. “I’ll protect you. I’ll be right here.”

“But why—”

Kira shoved him through the door before he could finish.

* * *

Trevor tried his best to casually regain his footing as he burst into the lounge. He stifled a series of curses, settling for a parting glare in the direction of where Kira stood with her phone out on the other side of the door, which she held slightly ajar with the toe of her sneaker.

The visitors’ lounge was a large, cheery room with clusters of couches and seats, upholstered in blues and greens that matched the rest of the decor. The sun dappled through the leaves of the sprawling garden that lay on the other side of the window that dominated the far wall. The same soft, choral music he had heard in the front entrance was playing here as well, but a different scent of potpourri seemed to be present. Unlike the earthy warmth of the front entrance, this one was bright and crisp. Photos of pools and waterfalls hung from the walls.

A single, forlorn figure sat on one of the chairs. She perched near the edge, somehow looking stiff and uncomfortable, even though her shoulders were slumped. Her long, blond hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She wore a flowing, beige smock over a pair of matching flowy pants. She rubbed at her red nose with the back of her hand with a sniff.

Trevor did his best not to gape.

This was Victoria Peters? He tried to get a better look at her, without being obvious. Yes, he could see the commonalities with the woman he had met at the golf club, but only because he already knew they were the same woman. If he had passed Victoria on the street without knowing, he wouldn’t have given her a second glance. (Well, maybe a second glance. She was a woman, after all, and not entirely unattractive. But still…)

Right. Be casual.

He took a deep breath to regain his composure and strode across the room, craning his neck to look around with a vapid smile as if admiring the decor. If there was one thing he was good at, it was convincing other people he didn’t have a single thought inside his head. He thrust back his shoulders to display himself to his best advantage, ignoring the smears of dust lingering on his face and clothes.

He continued his circuit around the lounge in this manner, hoping to forestall the moment when he might have to interact with the woman who housed two personalities. He found himself wishing there was someone else in the lounge. If he got interrupted from his task, surely Kira would understand…

“Trevor?” a familiar female voice said with a tone of surprise.

He hesitated for only a moment before forcing himself to turn around. He blinked.

The woman on the chair had removed her billowing smock to reveal a form-fitting, white tank top. Her long hair was down around her shoulders, and she lounged in her seat with confident, boneless grace. The redness around her nose and large eyes had disappeared.

In short, she was an entirely different woman.

“Amber?” Trevor didn’t need to feign his surprise. “I was hoping to find you here.”

The words tumbled out before he could stop them. At least he was dealing with the aspect of Victoria Peters he was most familiar with.

Amber’s brow furrowed. “But I never told you where to find me.”

Trevor flushed and silently cursed his mistake. “Yes, well, I’m very good at finding things out. That’s why you hired me, right?”

He waited an anxious moment for her to respond, subtly bracing himself for a raving, full-blown attack while hoping Kira was paying attention from the other side of the door.

Amber’s expression smoothed. “Yes, of course.”

Trevor breathed a silent sigh of relief.

Amber rose from her chair and strode toward him. He looked down to discover she had slipped out of her sandals to approach him on bare feet.

“So did you find it?” Her large, brown eyes sought his with a hungry look.

Trevor hesitated, his mind racing. Kira hadn’t covered this in her plan…

“Um, yeah.” Amber’s lips stretched into a smile of delight. “But it’s not here,” he added. “I’ve hidden it somewhere safe, until we—I mean I—can deal with whoever’s been following you.”

“But the ring is safe,” Amber reiterated, her delicate hand reaching up to hold his arm as she sought reassurance. For a crazy moment, he found himself wondering if he started flexing whether she would think he was having a seizure…

Trevor nodded and Amber seemed to wilt in relief.

“Good.” She nodded to herself. “I knew it must be hidden somewhere in the house… My uncle—” She shook herself and broke off. “That’s good. I don’t want him to find it.” Her eyes slid from his to glance over her shoulder.

“Who?” Trevor found himself pressing in spite of himself. “Who don’t you want to find the ring?”

Amber blinked in confusion. “I already told you at the golf club. The person who’s been stalking me.”

“Is it someone from here?” Trevor asked, trying a different tack.

Amber bit her lip, her eyes full of distress. “I don’t know! I just knew I had to get someone to help me—to find the ring, and keep it safe.”

“But you might still be in danger,” Trevor said in a gentle tone. “We still need to find out who this person is.”

…Assuming they actually exist.

For the most part, Amber seemed satisfied knowing the ring hadn’t fallen into the hands of her mysterious stalker, and showed little interest in regaining it for herself.

Her fingers tightened around his arm for a moment before she lowered her hand. “Do you think he would…?” She shook her head to herself. “No. I don’t even know where the ring is. I couldn’t even tell him if I wanted to.” Her eyes brightened and her lips stretched in a crooked smile, as if in triumph.

“But he might not know that,” Trevor tried again. “He might not care.”

“No, he only wants the ring.”

Trevor did his best to keep his voice calm and reasonable. “But how do you know—”

Amber’s eyes suddenly widened in alarm. “But you might be in danger now, if he finds out you have it. You shouldn’t have come here. That was why I didn’t give you my number or address—so he wouldn’t find out. You shouldn’t have come…” She folded her arms to clutch at her elbows and shook her head back and forth as she spoke.

“It’s OK.” Trevor made himself reach out to place a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We’ll find him, before he can find out about me or the ring.”

Amber looked up at him, her brown eyes desperate. “You should go. Take the ring far away—somewhere he can’t find you.”

“…And take it to Mount Doom to destroy it?” Trevor said with a smirk before he could stop himself. He mentally kicked himself as his nerd alert went off.

Seriously? A Lord of the Rings reference? I’ve been spending too much time with Kira and Rob…

“Please go,” Amber said in a choked voice that made him feel like a complete heel before she fled from the lounge.

“Amber—” He tried calling out after her, but she was already gone.

* * *

“So thanks for coming to my rescue,” Trevor said in a low, sarcastic voice as he finished summing up how things had gone with Amber. “Great plan.”

He had been forced to let Esther know that things hadn’t gone very well during his visit with Victoria/Amber. Esther had glared at him before fleeing from her post at the front desk to check in on the distressed woman—no doubt assuming he and Kira would have the decency to see themselves out.

She assumed wrong.

“What happened to being gentle with her?” Kira chided from where she crouched beside him in the darkness, behind the couch in Doctor Florian’s (temporary?) office. The sun had finally set, and the greenery in the garden outside cast moving shadows across the Persian carpet in the moonlight.

Trevor shifted his position a fraction of an inch to ease his cramped legs (and also move himself closer to Kira, just in case she was feeling the need for the security of a muscular man at the moment). In addition to his muscles, both he and Kira were fairly tall, which mean the couch was hardly big enough to create enough cover for both of them. He inhaled the faint, vanilla and coconut scent of what he assumed was Kira’s shampoo as he formed his reply.

“I tried to be gentle with her—at first, anyway. But she kept going on about the ring being safe. She didn’t even seem to care that she might be in danger! …Assuming she’s not totally bonkers, and making the whole thing up.”

“She’s not,” Kira said in a calm voice.

“How do you know?” Trevor demanded with a hint of frustration. “Who were you so busy talking to anyway, while I was doing all the work?”

“I was getting some background from Rob about Doctor Florian. It seems he’s been fired from his previous positions for inappropriate use of hypnosis.”

Trevor blinked. “So, what. He hypnotized Doctor Wiseman into stepping aside and giving him this job?”

He felt Kira’s shoulders lift in a shrug. “Maybe. Or maybe he hypnotized Doctor Wiseman’s wife to make her sick—either by poisoning herself, or convincing her she was sick, so her body produced symptoms.”

“But why?” Trevor blurted.

“Because—”

Kira immediately fell silent as they heard footsteps coming from the hallway. She fumbled with her phone, eventually laying it flat on the ground beside her.

A moment later, the door to the office squeaked open and the lights came on. Trevor squinted against the sudden brightness and tensed, his heart hammering in his chest. Two sets of footsteps traveled toward them across the room—one light and shuffling and the other firm. Trevor tensed and felt Kira do the same. Their hiding place felt painfully obvious. Surely they would be spotted…

“Please, sit down and lie back,” a man’s voice said in a smooth, oily tone.

“I—I’m sure I’m fine, Doctor Florian,” a woman’s voice stammered. It was similar to Amber’s, and yet somehow different. More brittle. “I just need some rest…”

“Victoria,” Kira mouthed silently from beside him.

“I hear you had visitors today,” Dr. Florian said, as if Victoria hadn’t spoken. His voice held the forced brightness that most people used when speaking to children or sick people.

“Visitors?” Victoria echoed in a numb voice with an air of confusion.

“…And both you and Amber went out for a little social time,” Dr. Florian continued. “I must say, you were quite clever about it, making sure I was already tied up in another session before you left. But I knew you must have finally screwed yourself up to talk to someone when I found out you had left the retreat. I didn’t want to make my move until we had completed our progress here, but you left me no choice.”

Victoria uttered a low, whimpering sound from the couch.

“Not that it mattered.” Doctor Florian’s voice turned bitter. “Because someone else got to it first, didn’t they? After all our little sessions together, all the time I’ve put in trying to drag it out of you, and you went and blabbed to someone else. Twice!”

“It’s not yours. You’ll never get it…”

“But we’ve already been over this.” Doctor Florian’s voice turned reasonable. “Your uncle has no more need of it. And I need it for my collection.” He spoke the last words in a caressing tone. “Now look into my eyes…”

“No! I—”

“Look into my eyes,” Dr. Florian repeated with a note of command. “Very good.” His voice became low and compelling. “Now lie back, and tell me about the people you met today. Who were they?”

“I—I only talked to a woman.” Victoria’s voice was small and weak. Based on how quickly Dr. Florian gained control of her, Trevor assumed he had done it many times before.

“What woman?” Dr. Florian pressed.

Victoria hesitated.

“Victoria…” Dr. Florian said in warning.

“Kira.” Victoria swallowed. “Kira Brightwell. I only talked to her the once.”

Trevor’s eyes darted to where Kira crouched beside him, but she made no sign of movement. Her eyes were closed as she listened with her brows furrowed and her ponytail shading her face.

“That amateur detective who’s been in the papers recently?” Dr. Florian said with a note of surprise. “Very clever. Now what about the other one?”

“I didn’t meet anyone else today,” Victoria said in a surprisingly factual tone.

“No, you were clever there as well, weren’t you? You sent Amber instead, to muddy the waters.”

Trevor heard a faint rustle of clothing as Victoria shifted on the couch.

“It’s no use denying it,” Dr. Florian said, sounding smug. “They both came here and told Esther all about it—not that she knew what to make of it.”

Trevor found himself breathing a sigh of relief. He had liked Esther, and didn’t want to find out she had somehow been involved in this strange affair.

But Dr. Florian’s next words made him go cold all over.

“Bring me Amber, Victoria. I have a few questions for her.”

* * *

“What do you want?” a voice Trevor recognized as Amber’s demanded with a trace of defiance.

Trevor found himself smirking in spite of himself. Victoria might be a pushover, but he suspected Amber would be more difficult for Dr. Florian to boss around.

“Who did you meet today?” Dr. Florian asked without backing down. “I’m assuming it was the man Esther mentioned. You’re good with men, aren’t you?” Trevor heard the knowing smile in his tone. “Much better than Victoria.”

“I can be,” Amber said in a coy voice. “But you’re really not my type.”

Trevor suppressed a snort.

“Never mind your games now,” Dr. Florian chided in warning. “Who was the man you met today? The one who came back and talked to you in the visitors’ lounge.”

Amber remained silent.

“He upset you, didn’t he?” Dr. Florian continued. “He said something that made you run off. There’s no use trying to keep secrets from me. I always find out what you’ve been up to.”

“You can’t have it,” Amber said, sounding mutinous as she avoided the question. “And I don’t know where it is.”

Dr. Florian muttered a curse. “Does he have it then?”

“He’s gone now. I told him to go far away, where you’ll never find him.”

“You little… Who is he?” Dr. Florian demanded. “Tell me now, Amber. Or do I have to take you back to the day Victoria’s parents died? You think you’re safe with Victoria locked away, but you know I can still do it. You can watch it happen all over again, and see the light fade from their eyes…”

“No!” Amber cried out, the word seemingly wrenched from her lips. “Please…”

“Tell me the name of the man who has the ring.” Dr. Florian cracked out the order like a whip.

“T-Trevor Wright.” Amber’s voice was ragged.

“Kira Brightwell’s pretty-boy sidekick,” Dr. Florian said to himself with a note of derision. “Yes, I’ve seen him in the papers too.”

Trevor scowled in offense, but Kira reached over to place a warning hand on his arm before he could think to do anything foolish.

“And you’re very sure he didn’t give it to you, or tell you where it was?” Dr. Florian said in a honeyed tone that held an underlying threat.

“I don’t have it!” Amber blurted in panic. “And I don’t know where it is. I’m telling you the truth.”

“I want to believe you,” Dr. Florian said mocking pity. “But I think perhaps we had better make sure…”

“No…” Amber moaned in a tearful voice. “Please!”

Trevor had had enough. He burst from his hiding place and leaped over the couch to place himself between the doctor and Amber.

“Leave her alone, you filthy creep!”

Both Dr. Florian and Amber looked up at him with shocked expressions.

The doctor had been leaning over Amber from his position on the upholstered chair beside the couch. His eyes goggled from behind a thick pair of glasses. Even from his seated position, Trevor could see he was tall and gangly with a neat, fussy appearance. His bony knees jutted out from where he sat from beneath a pair of crisply ironed dress pants, and his short, brown hair was perfectly smoothed back from his face in a cut that would have been fashionable back in the Fifties. Hard to believe someone so physically non-threatening could be such a bully…

Dr. Florian’s eyebrows shot up from behind his glasses. “So, Trevor Wright hasn’t gone very far after all.”

Trevor found himself looking into a pair of magnified eyes that pinned his own. Amber whimpered on the couch beside him.

“Do you have it?” Dr. Florian asked. His voice was low and seductive.

Trevor found himself answering in spite of himself. “No.”

“Then where is it?” the doctor pressed. “Where is the ring?”

Trevor opened his mouth to reply, even as part of his mind screamed in protest. He instinctively sensed this man could learn his darkest secrets in moments and use them against him. And really, what did the ring matter? If he handed it over, the doctor would leave Amber alone…

“You mean this ring?”

Kira’s voice startled Trevor back to awareness. He watched in numb fascination as she thrust her hand in front of the doctor’s face from where she stood behind his seat.

Amber struggled into a seated position on the couch with a cry of denial as Dr. Florian’s eyes lit. He leaned toward the ring with a swift intake of breath as the light danced across the gems perched atop Kira’s waggling finger.

“Yes!” Dr. Florian’s voice was breathless. “My ring…”

“Ah, ah,” Kira said in a warning tone as she leaned in close behind him. “This belongs to Amber and Victoria.”

“What do they need it for?” Dr. Florian demanded, his eyes glued to the ring. “They don’t even understand or appreciate its origins! No, it belongs in my collection. I’ve been searching for so long—”

He reached out to prise it from Kira’s finger, but she cinched her other arm around his neck in a choke hold. He realized what was happening too late. His eyes bulged as Kira’s grip around his throat tightened. But his fingers continued to grasp at the ring.

“It’s mine!” he wheezed. His expression darkened. “Let me go, or I’ll send Amber to a place she doesn’t want to visit.”

“Get her out of here,” Kira said to Trevor, jerking her chin in Amber’s direction.

“No!” Dr. Florian wailed as Trevor hauled Amber from the couch and steered her toward the door.

“Don’t listen to him,” Trevor said to her in a firm voice as he tightened his arm around her shoulders. “He can’t hurt you.”

“But what about the ring?” Despite his efforts, Amber had twisted her head to look back at Dr. Florian as Trevor forced her forward.

Trevor’s lips twitched. “Trust me, Kira has the situation under control.”

He pulled the office door open and found himself face to face with another man.

He blinked, taking in Detective Nick Foster’s familiar broad shoulders and dark hair. They were both the same height, so at least Trevor had the satisfaction of seeing Nick’s brown eyes widen in surprise as well from the other side of the door.

“Let me guess,” Trevor said in a wry tone. “Kira called you earlier and filled you in.”

“Yeah,” Nick said as he eyed Trevor with thinly disguised suspicion now that he had recovered.

Trevor had never been much of a fan of Kira’s detective friend. Why did she need Nick when she had him? He got the odd sense from Nick that the feeling was mutual.

“I’ve also been listening in and recording,” Nick continued, flashing his phone. Kira must have called him again while she and Trevor were hiding. “I’m about to arrest Doctor Florian.” His gaze sought Amber’s and softened. “I’ll need to ask you a few questions. I’ve asked Esther to sit in for your interview.”

Amber gaped in disbelief.

“He’s all yours,” Kira said to Nick as he entered the office. She shoved Dr. Florian toward him and Nick pulled out his cuffs.

Dr. Florian was even more startled by Nick’s sudden appearance. It was the only thing that made him tear his gaze from Kira’s fingers. He didn’t seem to understand what was happening as Nick began to read him his rights. He just kept going on about ‘his’ ring.

Kira strode across the office and pulled the ring from her finger. She took hold of Amber’s hand and placed it in her palm.

“Trevor helped me find this,” she said.

“Helped?” Trevor said with a quirk of his eyebrow.

He felt like that was an understatement. Even if he still didn’t know why the ring was such a big deal in the first place.

Kira shrugged. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

Amber was ignoring both of them. Her brown eyes were glued to the ring in her palm. A moment later, she closed her fingers around it.

“It’s safe now,” Trevor said, giving her slim shoulder a final squeeze. “And so are you.”

* * *

“Do you think she’ll be OK?” Trevor asked from his position behind the steering wheel as he turned his blue BMW down a side street. It was fairly late, so there wasn’t much in the way of traffic to contend with—which meant he could speed along at his own pace.

Now that he and Kira had given their statements to Nick, he was taking her to pick up her car. And then, he was definitely taking a shower. His scalp itched beneath his blond curls and his skin felt grimy beneath his clothes. And there was also the musty aroma he and Kira hadn’t quite managed to shake yet. It really would be more economical for them to shower together. Perhaps he should suggest it…

He caught a glimpse of Kira giving him a suspicious, sidelong look from the corner of his eye and suddenly wondered whether she somehow knew what he was thinking.

“You like her, don’t you?” she said with an incredulous chuckle.

Trevor blinked, his mind still stuck on the shower situation. “Who?” He suddenly remembered what they were talking about. “Oh, you mean Amber. Yeah, I mean, she’s pretty hot. For a crazy chick, anyway. I don’t think Victoria’s my jam though. And I don’t think I’m interested in a threesome that only involves one woman.”

Kira rolled her eyes from the passenger seat. “And here was me, trying to give you credit for having an ounce of empathy.”

“So are you going to tell me what the deal was with that ring?” he asked in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “I mean, It was nice enough, and probably expensive, but I don’t see what the big deal was about it. And why did Doctor Florian think it was his?”

Kira hesitated before answering. “It was you who helped me to make the connection, actually.”

“Me?” Trevor blurted before recovering. “I mean, of course I did. I’m glad you caught on.” He sat up a little straighter in his leather seat and flashed her his smug, trademark grin.

He stifled a wince as Kira punched him on the shoulder.

“Ah, which part of my contribution to the case tipped you off exactly?” he asked with feigned casualness, his shoulder throbbing. “…Just to make sure we’re both on the same page here.”

Kira uttered a long-suffering sigh. He knew she didn’t believe him for a second.

“It was when you asked Esther whether Victoria could be putting on an act when she becomes Amber, because her great-uncle was an actor.”

Trevor hid a frown of confusion. “Well, yes. That was very insightful of me. And what did you deduce from my particularly well-thought question?”

“Surely, you must know already.” Kira’s lips twitched. “You’re the one who deliberately led me down that train of thought, apparently.”

“Yes. Well. It’s also important for me to understand your thought process. We are a team, after all.”

“It would seem so,” Kira said in a wry tone. “Fine. I had Rob look into Victoria’s great-uncle—the actor.”

“…And?” Trevor prompted.

“He worked several projects with Grace Kelly back in the day,” Kira said. “Of course, there’s no record of their friendship, but I have a feeling they were fairly close. Or at least, Frank wanted them to be.”

Trevor’s brow furrowed. “Why do you think that?” She shot him a look of askance and he widened his eyes with an innocent expression. “I’m trying to understand your thought process, remember?”

He felt Kira glare at him. “The ring. Remember the inscription? ‘For my beloved, Grace’?”

Trevor’s blue eyes widened in earnest. “You mean the ring was meant for Grace Kelly?

Kira nodded, her ponytail rustling against the seat. “As an engagement ring, I think. But either she rejected him, or the Prince of Monaco asked her first. Either way, Frank Peters never married, and kept the ring all these years.”

“…And Doctor Florian has a thing for Grace Kelly.” Trevor nodded to himself as the pieces began to fall into place.

“More like an obsession,” Kira said in a grim tone. “That photo on the desk was the only personal item in the office, and he’s been working there for weeks. Rob found records of him picking up several one-of-a-kind items tied to Grace Kelly on various online auctions. He had probably researched her obsessively. I’m guessing he found out about the ring from either the jeweler who designed it, or one of the jeweler’s family members, during his research.”

Trevor pursed his lips. “I guess if you knew you had made a ring that was meant for someone as famous as Grace Kelly, you would probably tell the story to your kids.”

“Exactly. And Frank Peters would have been memorable as a client, since he was an actor at the time as well. And the story about his passing was in the newspaper, along with Victoria named as his only surviving family.”

“But that would have been a few years ago,” Trevor said with a frown. “Why wait until now to go for the ring?”

Kira shrugged. “My guess is he only learned about its existence recently, and tracked it down to Victoria. Then he found out she was living at Wayward Pines and wormed his way in through Doctor Wiseman. Nick said he was going to check in the doctor and his wife to find out exactly how Doctor Florian managed it.”

“So he really was stalking her,” Trevor said in a wondering tone. “He hypnotized her first, hoping she would lead him to the ring.”

“Yes, but Victoria proved more stubborn than he anticipated,” Kira said with a smirk before turning thoughtful. “I wonder if having splintered herself into two personas helped her to work around his compulsions somehow. It must have at least slowed his progress. I don’t know if her great-uncle ever told her who the ring had been for. She just knew it had been important to him, and he had been her only family after her parents died.”

Trevor shook his head in disbelief. “Why didn’t Doctor Florian just go get the ring himself like we did?”

“He had no way of knowing the ring was still in the house in the first place. It had been cleared out years ago when Victoria moved into the retreat. She could have used a safety deposit box, the ring could have been buried with her great-uncle, or she might have even brought it to the retreat with her and hidden it somewhere. We only knew it was in the house because she told us. Doctor Florian must have decided to risk breaking into the house to look when he found out Victoria had been out talking to people without his knowledge.”

Trevor spotted Kira’s Corolla parked beside the curb and pulled over. “What a nutbar. I can’t believe he went to so much trouble for a ring that was never even owned by the woman he was obsessed with.”

Kira made a face. “Obsession does that to people. Anyway, I’m sure Victoria and Amber will be all right. Either Doctor Wiseman will come back, or the retreat will get a new doctor, and I’m sure Esther will keep an eye on them.” She unclipped her seat belt and reached out to open her door.

“So I really did help with the case,” Trevor said, trying to sound more smug that he felt.

The case hadn’t exactly gone the way he had planned when he had first met Amber at the golf club, but at least Kira had actually admitted he wasn’t totally useless…

“You did.” Kira’s cheek twitched. Trevor suspected she was doing her best not to make a face.

“In that case, we should celebrate! Or at the very least, clean ourselves up.” He eyed the dust still smeared on her Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. “I have a walk-in shower at my place…” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Kira was already climbing out of the car.

“Good night, Trevor.” She slammed the passenger door shut, dashing what he knew had been a fragile hope at best.

Still, he thought he saw her smile and shake her head in spite of herself from his rear-view mirror just before he sped away.

* * *

Ring Girl: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Copyright © 2022 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Arenacreative, Ivonne Wierink, Oksanabratanova/Dreamstime


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