The shimmering light up above or a second chance at life on earth, Haley knew it was her decision to make. The tricky part would be fixing the past without changing the future. She couldn't name names, but she could find a way to nail her murderer's ass to the wall and send him straight to hell. Max's gaze bore into her. He looked entirely unangelic as he leaned against a wall, waiting for her decision.
"I'll do it."
No sooner had she said it than she crashed down into a dark courtyard, wincing when she smacked up against the wet grass and entered an unmoving body. "You've got a mean streak a mile wide, Max," she grumbled and then heard his snarky laugh in her mind. It was good to know that in this life, some things stayed the same; she still had their mental two-way connection...at least for now.
"Just be glad I didn't send you back in a swamp, probie, and watch your back."
Like he had to tell me that, she thought as pain lanced through her. The heart of the poor victim whose body she'd been pushed into started beating, and her lifeless arms tingled with sensation while her oxygen-starved lungs burned. She'd forgotten what earthly sensations like pain and strangulation felt like, and she sure as hell didn't like these, but she was a lot tougher now. She was no longer the insecure wild child who looked for love, excitement, and security in all the wrong places.
The firm thought was almost enough to block out the searing, choking pain in her neck. She tried to draw in a life-giving breath, hampered by the hands around her neck. His heavy body pressed her into the wet grass. Sheer outrage swirled through her, feeding her strength. Trevor was back to his old tricks. The Scarlet A Killer wasn't dead like the authorities thought; he was alive and crazy enough to think he could repeat the killings he'd gotten away with two years ago.
Damn him. He wouldn't do this to her! Not again! She didn't come back to earth to let the worm get away with his crimes. Damned if she would let him kill her twice.
She wrinkled her nose as the smell of his foul, stale cigarette breath wafted over her from his panting, leering mouth. With a burst of power, she wriggled out from under his heavy form, startling him, and brought a knee up into his groin, hard. He yelped, letting out a wail as he loosened his stranglehold on her neck and cupped himself. To her relief, he rolled off her with a howl and doubled over puking, giving her a reprieve.
"Damn you!" he said with a whimper.
She desperately tried to suck air back into her lungs, her throat burning as the stars spun dizzily in the sky above her. "That's the other way around, stupid," she wheezed out after a moment. "I've come back to tell you that you're damned unless you repent, skunk breath." The shocked glance he sent her was priceless.
A shout and running footsteps coming in their direction made him freeze, his hands still cupping his injured balls.
Aha, a rescue party. It was enough to make her smile. "You're getting sloppy, Truck. They're going to catch you soon," she told him calmly, which made him gape at her anew. Good, maybe she was getting through to the psycho. It was her duty to try to help him see the light, even at her own peril, at least that's what Max had told her. "Do what feels right" hadn't been much to go on. But then his "love is all you need" philosophy never was very specific.
Pushing back her muddled thoughts, she glared at the Scarlet A Killer--the one the cops thought was dead. They didn't have a clue, and she couldn't tell them and risk influencing the future--another one of Max's rules. "Confession is good for the soul, don't you know? Are you aware that you're going to pay for your killing in the next world?" she said, warming to her mission.
"How do you know my nickname?" he demanded with a hiss.
She sighed as he completely missed her references to paying for his crimes in his next life. Well, she'd tried. Max couldn't say she hadn't.
"I know everything you do to women," she said, glaring at him. "And I know your other secrets too," she croaked out, thinking about the thefts that were going on at his new place of employment, as she saw a camera crew racing their way. "You'd better run like the coward you are, worm," she said, and she swore when he started slinking away.
Trevor spared her a suspicious glare before rolling under the bushes and out of sight. "Keep your mouth shut or you're a dead woman, whore," he hissed.
She rolled her eyes as he slunk away into the shadows like the craven fiend he was. Some threat, she thought sarcastically; she was already dead. When she heard the rescue party's appalled cries as they caught sight of her, she turned toward them, hoping to reassure them, wincing when every bone in her body ached. It was such a shock to see some familiar faces in the crowd that the words of reassurance she'd been about to utter died on her lips. What the heck? Trevor really was covering old ground.
They were the same crew from the Playmate Men's Magazine shoot she'd been doing when he'd snuffed her out the first time. Trevor was getting sloppy, thanks to the fact that he was going crazy. Talk about deja vu. Had Max known--of course he had. He was probably laughing his ass off right now if he weren't too busy being the spirit guide for the poor victim whom she'd replaced. Whoever the model was, she had an upward climb before her. At least knowing she was in the same old skin business would give her a feeling of belonging.
Jodi Fox, renowned photographer, got to her first. "My God, are you all right, girl?" She took one look at her and screamed. "Call the paramedics, Scott, and the cops."
Lying in a hospital an hour later, Haley knew she had to come up with a game plan on the fly.
First she had to figure out who in the hell... Sorry, Max, she thought, crossing herself. Who the heck she was supposed to be. When the cops had questioned her, they'd taken her fuzzy answers for a brain injury or shock and referred to her as Ms. Aims or Danes or something. She hadn't quite made it out with everyone talking over her, and she hadn't wanted to ask and tip them off.
Second she had to become a one-woman Charlie's Angels crew and stop Trevor, the worm, before he killed again. And she had to do it without naming names and upsetting fate. Not an easy task.
Third, and most important, she had to find, claim, and save her soul mate. A glimpse of Crispin flitted through her still-fuzzy mind, and her nipples hardened. She'd felt their connection for a while now, and Max had confirmed it. She sat back, indulging in one of her favorite fantasies when a cocky male voice broke though her bliss.
"Haley, babe, are you okay?" A tall, blond, over-the-hill surfer type of man said with saccharine sweetness as he waltzed into her room, carrying a vase containing a bouquet of red roses.
Haley! How did he know her name? He didn't look like one of Max's helpers. She took a closer look at surf boy and winced when his insincere vibes rushed at her like a flood. Yikes. "Yeah, he's a wrong un," Max confirmed. "The woman you're covering did have the same first name. Funny, huh?"
She could think of a more-descriptive word. Weird came to mind, but she held back her opinion. At least her stint in limbo had given her the skill of reading auras. The surfer guy's identity flashed into her mind as she looked at his cool blue eyes. Chad Lowell, her manager and lover, she realized, a trifle shocked by her new psychic abilities. A gift from above? she wondered. Chad was stealing from the model whose life she was taking over, and cheating on her too. It played across her mind like a video, Chad laughing and sleeping with another woman. She didn't know how she knew, but she did. It was probably Max who had given her this new gift. "Thanks, boss." She sent him her mental props.
She wrinkled her nose in reaction as she looked at the overconfident jerk. "I'm fine." Lord, her voice was deep and husky. Must be her strangler's fault, but surf boy didn't seem surprised. Maybe she normally croaked.
"Thank God. I thought I'd lost you, babe." He blinked until false tears rimmed his ice blue eyes.
"I didn't know you'd found me," she said with a wince, watching his eyes narrow with suspicion as she saw behind his lovelorn facade. Her nose wrinkled against the roses' potent smell, her eyes watering as he set them on her bedside table. She sneezed in reaction and then groaned when moving her neck pained her. "Take them away," she said with a groan, rubbing her neck. "I'm allergic to them."
Chad's brow wrinkled, and he frowned as he looked at her speculatively. "Don't be petulant, babe. You've never been allergic to them before."
His speculative look clearly said that he thought she was nuts, and it pissed her off a little. She was glad that she'd retained one of her old traits. That was something she could cling to, a little part of the old her.
"The doctor said to expect temporary amnesia, sweetheart," he said with a condescending smile. "Just look at the rock on your hand and think about our wonderful love story in the tabloids, and the truth will all come back to you." He beamed. "Look at your lovely hand, babe. Remember how I sacrificed so much to make sure my girl could hold her head up proud?"
She did as he said, looking at the gaudy engagement ring on her pudgy finger. "Shit. I'm fat and engaged to you. That's impossible."
"Not fat, voluptuous, darling. Haley Aims, the hottest plus-sized model in the country, and soon to be world famous after your Playmate photo shoot. Not to mention that we're engaged to be engaged. You haven't agreed to set the date yet."
At least the other Haley was smart enough to see through him. It strengthened her resolve to get rid of him. She breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that it was just a friendship ring on her finger, something he'd given the old her to keep her satisfied. At least she wouldn't be breaking any hearts when she gave him his walking papers. There was no love toward her in his gray aura, only greed and ambition. A chill went through her at the realization. He was the kind of ambitious man who'd stop at nothing to get what he wanted. "Get me a mirror, stat."
He smiled and picked up the vase, moving it to the dresser. Then he flipped open the mirror on her tray table. "See, you're as beautiful as ever."
She gazed at her new reflection, so different from her former self, seeing lustrous, dark hair, blue eyes, full, pouting lips, and huge boobs stretching her ugly hospital gown. Haley Aims, well-known plus-sized model. It was true. They'd never met, but Haley Aims's reputation was that of a diva, some of which was probably trumped up by Chad for publicity purposes. Heck! Would she have to atone for the other woman's transgressions as well?
Probably. She owed it to her for a second chance at love. Thanks a lot, Max, she thought. At least they knew the serial killer was now fixated on models as well as hookers; she'd been both in her former life. She'd been set to shoot a Playmate centerfold when she'd been killed, although her family and former fiance hadn't known what she'd been up to. God, as badly as she'd treated her family and Jaden, she desperately needed to improve her karma in this life. Max had pretty much warned her that, in order to leave purgatory, she had much to do in this incarnation. She glanced up at the aging surfer whom Haley had wrongly trusted, and cringed inside.
Then another man walked in the door, and she forgot all about Chad. Dirty blond hair, even-dirtier warm brown eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, and he was wearing a tweed suit. Talon... Crispin T. St. Giles was the image of an intellectual author. Her heart beat faster as she gazed at him, and she licked her suddenly dry lips. Her soul mate, if only she could convince him of that fact and save his stubborn, sexy ass. The Scarlet A Killer was targeting him, and he didn't even know it.
"May I have a word, Ms. Aims?" His honey-coated voice belied his nerdy outward appearance. She knew how hot he was under those glasses, although she doubted that Crispin thought of himself as hot. Her heart was slamming against her chest as he continued. "The nurses said it would be all right, and timing is of the essence if we're to catch the copycat." His warm, perfect smile made her feel completely human again, and it heated her to her bones. She melted like butter as they locked gazes, and she felt that he was attracted to her too, a great thing. A glance at his aura showed her that it was like a rainbow etched with gold.
Chad cleared his throat, interrupting, and she slanted an annoyed glance at him as he stalked over to Crispin. Talk about bad timing. She'd thought that she'd have to seek her soul mate out, not that he'd come to her. Maybe Max was throwing her a bone. She rolled her eyes as Chad tried to imitate a tough, almost-coplike stance, his thumbs in his belt loops as he stalked up to Crispin. "No press. Buddy, this is not the time. Can't you see she's not all there?"
Haley resented Chad's interference and his statement that she'd lost her marbles. "I am so all here," she snapped at Chad and then took her focus off his furious face to look at Crispin. He was gazing at her with what she thought was approval. "I'm fine. Come in, Mr. St. Giles, and sit down."
"You know my name?" he asked, surprised.
She knew everything about him from his sexy middle name, Talon, to the way he liked his eggs Benedict to his potential for hot, kinky sex, but she couldn't say that. She hoped he didn't notice her heating face as she thought of how hot he'd be between the sheets. "Of course I know who you are. Who doesn't?" She smiled at him, hoping she didn't sound as sappy as she felt. "I loved your story on the Randolph Pipeline scandal; it was first-rate investigative reporting. I'm a fan, Mr. St. Giles."
"Since when?" Chad cut in. "All you ever read is the funny--"
"Why don't you run along," she suggested while frowning at Chad. "As a matter of fact, just go, have a nice life." She screwed off the ring and held it out to him. She didn't want him or it.
Chad shook his head, his jaw hanging open. Finally he lifted his chin. "That's just the shock talking, babe. In the morning, after you finish the shoot, you'll be fine. I know how much you love me. One bad scare can't change our love."
"And I know about April...and your finagling of my investments," she said, seeing his genial mask drop as he pulled himself together to glare at her. "So, no, I'm not going to change my mind." She placed the ring on the table.
"I never..." he said with a gasp, then scowled. "You can't prove any of this."
She sighed, knowing she had to do this for the real Haley. "Don't worry; I've no intention of suing you for robbing me. I'll just chalk it up as another step in my personal enlightenment. It took almost dying to make me admit to myself that you just want my potential for money, and it's not going to happen or make either of us happy." Seeing him calculate a response, she cut him off before he could argue or try to charm her. "Just go. This is a final decision. In the morning I'll move out."
"Why, you fat bitch..."
Crispin growled and made a move toward Chad, who paled. "I don't think you should talk to the lady like that."
"Fine, I'll go for now," Chad said grudgingly. "I'll be back in the morning, babe, after you've had time to simmer down. Fat chick like you is lucky to have a looker like me. All you'll get without me is a plus-sized male model with a little dick. I'll be back after you've thought it over." He held up the ring. "And this is"--he cleared his throat--"a true diamond. Don't belittle my sacrifice." Giving her a hostile look, he turned.
She watched him stalk away.
"You okay?" Crispin asked.
She sighed, wincing when her bruised throat throbbed. Letting go of the past, even if it was someone else's, was painful. "I will be."
"You and he were lovers?"
"He was a mistake from another life. Surviving the attack feels like a whole new life for me, and I intend to make the most of it." She motioned toward a chair. "Have a seat, Talon."
He sank into the bedside chair and got out a mini-tape recorder. "How'd you know my middle name, Ms. Aims?"
She groaned inside knowing she'd almost blown it. It was just that she thought his middle name was so sexy and unusual that it tripped off her tongue. "Call me Haley. I told you, I'm a fan. I know lots of things about you. And in contrast to what he implied, I'm not crazy."
He nodded, looking deep into her eyes. "I never thought you were. Tell me about the man who attacked you. The Scarlet A copycat."
So that's how skunk breath had gotten away with it; pretending to be a copycat. Shit, Trevor was smarter than she'd given him credit for. She couldn't make the mistake of underestimating him. Oh how she wanted to spill it all, give his name, but she had to follow the rules. Still, a brief description couldn't hurt. "It was such a shock, I'm afraid that I blocked most of it out, but he's got sandy brown hair, gray eyes, and he's probably walking with a limp since I racked him good."
He smiled. "You racked him?"
"Hard," she said with a satisfied nod. "I wouldn't be surprised if he seeks medical treatment for his injury." When Crispin leaned forward, hanging on her every word, she felt as if he was pulling the story out of her. "Oh, and he's a heavy smoker; reeked of it, in fact. And he's not a copycat. It's the same man." She wanted to call back the words as Crispin's eyes darkened with interest, but it was too late.
"What makes you think he's the same man?" He tilted his head to look at her.
She felt his piqued interest right down to her toes and bit her lip, knowing she'd almost given the game away. Max hadn't told her exactly what the penalty was for cheating, but she knew it would cost her Crispin. She couldn't risk it. She could all but feel Max frowning down at her from above and sighed. "Just a feeling, I guess," she said, sensing that Crispin didn't believe her. He thought she was holding back--if only he knew. "He said he'd come back for me. You've got to take me to a place of safety if you want me alive to help you with your story."
"I think the police would do a better job of protecting you than me," he said, but he was staring at her hard.
"I don't want that sort of protection. I feel they never caught the real Scarlet A Killer, and for all they screwed up, I don't trust their protection now."
"You don't believe that the man who confessed and killed himself was the Scarlet A Killer? Even though his trailer was filled with articles about the murders? Even though nobody has been killed that way since?"
She knew he shared her doubts--she could feel it--but he wouldn't tap into the psychic part of himself. "No, I don't believe it." She froze waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike her dead for almost spilling the beans, and when nothing happened, she relaxed back against the pillows.
"Maybe your manager was right. You're not up to this."
She winced, knowing that Crispin had taken her reaction for fatigue. "I'm fine, and we need to discuss this. I think that the DA just wanted to calm everyone's nerves. He was up for reelection. It wasn't a thorough investigation, and I think the guy who confessed was just a crazy person. The real Scarlet A Killer almost killed me, and the police weren't even all that interested since I'm all right. What's more, I know he'll be back. I want you to protect me."