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Brazen Virtue

Brazen Virtue by Nora Roberts
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When a superstar mystery writer visits her sister to unwind from a grueling book tour, she finds herself tracking a real-life killer who has already shattered her life...and now seeks to end it.
Brazen Virtue
Grace McCabe was shocked to find her sister Kathleen living in a grungy D.C. suburb, supplementing her income as a phone sex operator after a bitter divorce. But with the company Fantasy, Inc. guaranteeing its employees complete anonymity, how dangerous could it really be? Grace was soon to learn the answer when she returned home one night to a horrifying scene that might have come from one of her own novels. Ignoring the warnings of cool-headed detective Ed Jackson, Grace sets her own daring trap to rouse a killer out of hiding. But what can protect her from a brilliant madman whose lust for murder stops at nothing...and no one?
Random House Publishing Group; December 2010
ISBN 9780553897005
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Brazen Virtue
Author: Nora Roberts
Chapter 1

The plane banked over the Lincoln Memorial. Grace had her briefcase open on her lap. There were a dozen things to be packed away, but she stared out the window, pleased to see the ground rushing up toward her. There was nothing, as far as she was concerned, that was quite the same as flying.

The plane was late. She knew that because the man across from her in seat 3B kept complaining about it. Grace was tempted to reach across the aisle and pat his hand, to assure him that ten minutes in the scheme of things really didn't matter so much. But he didn't look as though he would appreciate the sentiment.

Kathleen would be complaining too, she thought. Not out loud or anything, Grace mused as she smiled and settled back for the landing. Kathleen might have been just as irritated as 3B, but she would never have been rude enough to mumble and moan.

If Grace knew her sister, and she did, Kathleen would have left home over an hour before, making certain to take into consideration the unpredictability of Washington traffic. Grace had heard the note in Kathleen's voice betraying her annoyance with Grace that she'd chosen a flight that would arrive at six-fifteen, the height of rush hour. With twenty minutes to spare, Kathleen would have parked her car in the short-term lot, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and made her way, without being tempted by the shops, to the gate. She would never have gotten lost or mixed the numbers up in her mind.

Kathleen was always early. Grace was always late. That was nothing new.

Still she hoped, really hoped, there could be some common ground between them now. Sisters they were, but they had rarely understood each other.

The plane bumped to earth and Grace began tossing whatever came to hand into her briefcase. Lipstick tumbled in with matchbooks, pens with tweezers. That was something else a woman as organized as Kathleen would never understand. A place for everything. Grace agreed in principle, but her place never seemed to be the same from one time to the next.

More than once, Grace had wondered how they could be sisters. She was careless, scatterbrained, and successful. Kathleen was organized, practical, and struggling. Yet they had come from the same parents, had been raised in the same small brick house in the suburbs of D.C., and had gone to the same schools.

The nuns had never been able to teach Grace anything about organizing a notebook, but even as far back as sixth grade at St. Michael's, they had been fascinated by her skill at spinning a tale.

When the plane was at the gate, Grace waited while the passengers who were in a hurry to deplane clogged the aisle. She knew Kathleen would probably be pacing, certain that her absentminded sister had missed a flight again, but she needed a minute. She wanted to remember the love, not the arguments.

As Grace had predicted, Kathleen was waiting at the gate. She watched the passengers file off and felt another flash of impatience. Grace always traveled first-class, but she wasn't among the first people off the plane. She wasn't among the first fifty. Probably chatting with the flight crew, Kathleen thought, and tried to ignore a quick stab of envy.

Grace had never had to try to make friends. People were simply drawn to her. Two years after graduation and Grace, who had skimmed through school on charm, had been rising in her career. A lifetime later and Kathleen, the honor student, was spinning her wheels in the same high school they had graduated from. She sat on the other side of the desk now, but little else had changed.

Announcements for incoming and outgoing planes droned on. There were gate changes and delays, but still no Grace. Just as Kathleen had decided to check at the desk, she saw her sister walk through the gate. Envy faded. Irritation vanished. It was next to impossible to be annoyed with Grace when faced with her.

Why was it she always looked as though she'd just stepped off a merry-go-round? Her hair, the same dark sable as Kathleen's, was cut to the chin and looked forever windswept around her face. Her body was long and lean, again like Kathleen's, but where Kathleen always felt sturdy, Grace looked like a willow, ready to bend whichever way the breeze beckoned. Now she looked rumpled, a hip-length sweater riding over leggings, sunglasses falling down her nose, and her hands full of bags and briefcases. Kathleen was still dressed in the skirt and jacket that had gotten her through her history classes. Grace wore high-top jogging shoes in canary yellow to match her sweater.

"Kath!" The moment she saw her sister, Grace set everything down without giving a thought to blocking the flow of passengers behind her. She hugged as she did everything, with full enthusiasm. "I'm so glad to see you. You look wonderful. New perfume." She took a big sniff. "I like it."

"Lady, you want to move?"

Still hugging Kathleen, Grace smiled at the harassed businessman behind her. "Go right ahead and step over them." He did, grumbling. "Have a nice flight." She forgot him as she forgot most inconveniences. "So how do I look?" she demanded. "Do you like the hair? I hope so, I just spent a fortune on publicity shots."

"Did you brush it first?"

Grace lifted a hand to it. "Probably."

"It suits you," Kathleen decided. "Come on, we'll have a riot in here if we don't move your things. What's this?" She hefted one of the cases.

"Maxwell." Grace began to gather bags. "Portable computer. We've been having the most marvelous affair."

"I thought this was a vacation." She managed to keep the edge out of her voice. The computer was one more physical example of Grace's success. And her own failure.

"It is. But I have to do something with myself while you're in school. If the plane had been another ten minutes late I would have finished a chapter." She glanced at her watch, noticed it had stopped again, then forgot it. "Really, Kath, this is the most marvelous murder."

"Luggage?" Kathleen interrupted, knowing Grace would launch into the tale without any encouragement.

"My trunk should be delivered to your place by tomorrow."

The trunk was another of what Kathleen considered her sister's deliberate eccentricities. "Grace, when are you going to start using suitcases like normal people?"

They passed baggage claim, where people stood three deep, ready to trample each other at the first sign of familiar Samsonite. When hell freezes over, Grace thought, but only smiled. "You really do look great. How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Then because it was her sister, Kathleen relaxed. "Better, really."

"You're better off without the sonofabitch," Grace said as they passed through the automatic doors. "I hate to say it because I know you really loved him, but it's true." There was a stiff northern breeze to make people forget it was spring. The sound of incoming and outgoing planes hammered overhead. Grace stepped off the curb toward the parking lot without looking right or left. "The only real joy he brought to your life was Kevin. Where is my nephew, anyway? I was hoping you'd bring him."

The little slice of pain came and went. When Kathleen made up her mind about something, she also made up her heart. "He's with his father. We agreed that it would be best if he stayed with Jonathan through the school year."

"What?" Grace stopped in the middle of the street. A horn blasted and was ignored. "Kathleen, you can't be serious. Kevin's just six. He needs to be with you. Jonathan probably has him watching MacNeil-Lehrer instead of Sesame Street."

"The decision is made. We agreed it would be best for everyone involved."

Grace knew that expression. It meant Kathleen had closed up and wouldn't open again until she was damn good and ready. "Okay." Grace fell into step beside her as they crossed to the parking lot. Automatically, she altered her rhythm. Kathleen always rushed. Grace meandered. "You know you can talk to me whenever you want."

"I know." Kathleen paused beside a secondhand Toyota. A year before she'd been driving a Mercedes. But that was the least of what she'd lost. "I didn't mean to snap at you, Grace. It's just that I need to put it aside for a while. I've almost got my life back in order."

Grace set her bags in the rear and said nothing. She knew the car was secondhand and a long step down from what Kathleen had been accustomed to but was much more worried about the edge in her sister's voice than the change of status. She wanted to comfort but knew that Kathleen considered sympathy the first cousin of pity. "Have you talked to Mom and Dad?"

"Last week. They're fine." Kathleen slid in, then strapped on her seat belt. "You'd think Phoenix was paradise."

"As long as they're happy." Grace sat back and for the first time took in her surroundings. National Airport. She'd taken her first flight out of there, eight, no, dear Lord, almost ten years before. And had been scared right down to her toenails. She almost wished she could experience that same fresh and innocent feeling again.

Getting jaded, Gracie? she wondered. Too many flights. Too many cities. Too many people. Now she was back, only a few miles from the home where she'd grown up, and seated beside her sister. Yet she felt no sense of homecoming.

"What made you come back to Washington, Kath?"

"I wanted to get out of California. And this was familiar."

But didn't you want to stay near your son? Didn't you need to? It wasn't the time to ask, but she had to fight the words back. "And teaching at Our Lady of Hope. Familiar again, but it must be strange."

"I like it really. I suppose I need the discipline of classes." She drove out of the parking lot with studied precision. Tucked into the flap of the sun visor were the parking stub for the short-term lot and three singles. Grace noted she still counted her change.

"And the house, do you like it?"

"The rent's reasonable and it's only a fifteen-minute drive to school."

Grace bit back a sigh. Couldn't Kathleen ever feel strongly about anything. "Are you seeing anyone?"

"No." But she smiled a little as she merged with traffic. "I'm not interested in sex."

Grace's brow rose. "Everyone's interested in sex. Why do you think Jackie Collins always makes the best-seller list? In any case, I was speaking more of companionship."

"There's no one I want to be with right now." Then she laid a hand on top of Grace's, which was as much as she had ever been able to give to anyone except her husband and son. "Except you. I really am glad you came."

As always, Grace responded to warmth when warmth was given. "I'd have come sooner if you'd let me."

"You were in the middle of a tour."

"Tours can be canceled." Her shoulders moved restlessly. She'd never considered herself temperamental or arrogant, but she would have been both if it would have helped Kathleen. "Anyway, the tour's over and I'm here. Washington in the spring." She rolled the window down though the April wind still had the bite of March. "How about the cherry blossoms?"

"They got hit with a late frost."

"Nothing changes." Did they still have so little to say to each other? Grace let the radio fill the gap as they drove. How could two people grow up together, live together, fight together, and still be strangers? Each time she hoped it would be different. Each time it was the same.

As they crossed the Fourteenth Street Bridge, she remembered the room she and Kathleen had shared throughout childhood. Neat as a pin on one side, tumbled and messy on the other. That had been only one bone of contention. There had been the games that Grace had invented, which had frustrated more than amused her sister. What were the rules? Learning the rules had always been Kathleen's first priority. And when there weren't any, or they were too flexible, she simply hadn't been able to grasp the game itself.

Always rules, Kath, Grace thought as she rode in silence beside her sister. School, church, life. No wonder she was always confused when the rules changed. Now they'd changed on her again.

Did you quit marriage, Kathy, the way you used to quit the game when the rules didn't suit you? Did you come back to where we started so you could wipe out the time in between and restart, on your own terms? That was Kathleen's style, Grace thought, and hoped for her sister's sake it worked.

The only thing that surprised her was the street on which Kathleen had chosen to live. An efficiency apartment with up-to-date appliances and twenty-four-hour maintenance would have been more Kathleen's style than this tired, slightly run-down neighborhood of big trees and old houses.

Kathleen's was one of the smallest homes on the block, and though Grace was sure her sister had done nothing to the little patch of grass other than trim it, some bulbs were beginning to push their way through along the walk that had been carefully swept.

As she stood beside the car, Grace let her gaze roam up and down the street. There were bikes and aging station wagons and little fresh paint. Used, worn, lived in, the neighborhood was either on the edge of a renaissance or ready to slide slowly into old age. She liked it, liked the feel of it.

It was precisely what she would have chosen if she had decided to move back. And if she'd had to choose a house ... it would be the one next door, Grace decided on the spot. It was in definite need of help. One of the windows was boarded up and some shingles were missing from the roof, but someone had planted azaleas. The dirt was still fresh and patted into mounds at their base, and they were small, only a foot or so high. But the little buds were almost ready to burst open. Looking at them, she hoped she'd be able to stay long enough to see them flower.

"Oh, Kath, what a wonderful spot."

"It's a long way from Palm Springs." She said it without bitterness as she started to unload her sister's things.

"No, honey, I mean it. It's a real home." She did mean it. With her writer's eye and imagination she could already see it.

"I wanted to be able to give Kevin something when — when he comes."

"He'll love it." She spoke with the confidence she carried like a flag. "This is definitely a skateboard sidewalk. And the trees." There was one across the street that looked as though it had been struck by lightning and never recovered, but Grace passed over it without breaking rhythm. "Kath, looking at this makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing in upper Manhattan."

From the Hardcover edition.