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Public Secrets
Author: Nora Roberts

Prologue

Los Angeles, 1990

SHE SLAMMED ON the brakes, ramming hard into the curb. The radio continued to blare. She pressed both hands against her mouth to hold back hysterical laughter. A blast from the past, the disk jockey had called it. A blast from her past. Devastation was still rocking.

Somehow her brain functioned to take care of little matters: turn off the ignition, take out the key, pull open the door. She was shaking in the late evening heat. An earlier rain and rising temperatures caused mist to spiral up from the pavement. She ran through it, looking frantically right, left, back over her shoulder.

The dark. She’d nearly forgotten there were things that hid in the dark.

The noise level rose as she pushed open the doors. The fluorescent lights dazzled her eyes. She continued to run, knowing only that she was terrified and someone, anyone, had to listen.

She raced along the hallway, her heart beating a hard tattoo. A dozen or more phones were ringing; voices merged and mixed in complaints, shouts, questions. Someone cursed in a low, continual stream. She saw the doors marked Homicide and bit back a sob.

He was kicked back at his desk, one foot resting on a torn blotter, a phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. A Styrofoam cup of coffee was halfway to his lips.

“Please help me,” she said, collapsing into the chair facing him. “Someone’s trying to kill me.”

Chapter One

London, 1967

THE FIRST TIME Emma met her father, she was nearly three years old. She knew what he looked like because her mother kept pictures of him, meticulously cut from newspapers and glossy magazines, on every surface in their cramped three-room flat. Jane Palmer had a habit of carrying her daughter, Emma, from picture to picture hanging on the water-stained walls and sitting on the dusty scarred furniture and telling her of the glorious love affair that had bloomed between herself and Brian McAvoy, lead singer for the hot rock group, Devastation. The more Jane drank, the greater that love became.

Emma understood only parts of what she was told. She knew that the man in the pictures was important, that he and his band had played for the queen. She had learned to recognize his voice when his songs came on the radio, or when her mother put one of the 45s she collected on the record player.

Emma liked his voice, and what she would learn later was called its faint Irish lilt.

Some of the neighbors tut-tutted about the poor little girl upstairs with a mother who had a fondness for the gin bottle and a vicious temper. There were times they heard Jane’s shrill curses and Emma’s sobbing wails. Their lips would firm and knowing looks would pass between the ladies as they shook out their rugs or hung up the weekly wash.

In the early days of the summer of 1967, the summer of love, they shook their heads when they heard the little girl’s cries through the open window of the Palmer flat. Most agreed that young Jane Palmer didn’t deserve such a sweet-faced child, but they murmured only among themselves. No one in that part of London would dream of reporting such a matter to the authorities.

Of course, Emma didn’t understand terms like alcoholism or emotional illness, but even though she was only three she was an expert on gauging her mother’s moods. She knew the days her mother would laugh and cuddle, the days she would scold and slap. When the atmosphere in the flat was particularly heavy, Emma would take her stuffed black dog, Charlie, crawl under the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, and in the dark and damp, wait out her mother’s temper.

On some days, she wasn’t quick enough.

“Hold still, do, Emma.” Jane dragged the brush through Emma’s pale blond hair. With her teeth gritted, she resisted the urge to whack the back of it across her daughter’s rump. She wasn’t going to lose her temper today, not today. “I’m going to make you pretty. You want to be especially pretty today, don’t you?”

Emma didn’t care very much about looking pretty, not when her mother’s brush strokes were hurting her scalp and the new pink dress was scratchy with starch. She continued to wriggle on the stool as Jane tried to tie her flyaway curls back with a ribbon.

“I said hold still.” Emma squealed when Jane dug hard fingers into the nape of her neck. “Nobody loves a dirty, nasty girl.” After two long breaths, Jane relaxed her grip. She didn’t want to put bruises on the child. She loved her, really. And bruises would look bad, very bad, to Brian if he noticed them.

After dragging her from the stool, Jane kept a firm hand on Emma’s shoulder. “Take that sulky look off your face, my girl.” But she was pleased with the results. Emma, with her wispy blond curls and big blue eyes, looked like a pampered little princess. “Look here.” Jane’s hands were gentle again as she turned Emma to the mirror. “Don’t you look nice?”

Emma’s mouth moved stubbornly into a pout as she studied herself in the spotted glass. Her voice mirrored her mother’s cockney and had a trace of a childish lisp. “Itchy.”

“A lady has to be uncomfortable if she wants a man to think she’s beautiful.” Jane’s own slimming black corset was biting into her flesh.

“Why?”

“Because that’s part of a woman’s job.” She turned, examining first one side, then the other in the mirror. The dark blue dress was flattering to her full curves, making the most of her generous br**sts. Brian had always liked her br**sts, she thought, and felt a quick, sexual pull.

God, no one ever before or since had matched him in bed. There was a hunger in him, a wild hunger he hid so well under his cool and cocky exterior. She had known him since childhood, had been his on-again, off-again lover for more than ten years. No one knew better what Brian was capable of when fully aroused.

She allowed herself to fantasize, just for a moment, what it would be like when he peeled the dress away, when his eyes roamed over her, when his slender, musician’s fingers unhooked the frilly corset.

They’d been good together, she remembered as she felt herself go damp. They would be good together again.

Bringing herself back, she picked up the brush and smoothed her hair. She had spent the last of the grocery money at the hairdresser’s getting her shoulder-length straight hair colored to match Emma’s. Turning her head, she watched it sway from side to side. After today, she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.

Her lips were carefully painted a pale, pale pink—the same shade she had seen on supermodel Jane Asher’s recent Vogue cover. Nervous, she picked up her black liner and added more definition near the corner of each eye.

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