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When Savannah’s fellow Realtor and friend Lila Vaughn is robbed during an open house, Savannah rushes to the rescue with tea and sympathy, or at least a really good lunch and a shoulder to cry on. However, Lila seems more peeved than distraught, and her main gripe is that the sexy robber who tied her to a kitchen chair—for her own good—didn’t follow her suggestion to tie her to the bed instead.
Lila’s description of the man fits Savannah’s old school-mate Rafael Collier to a T. Rafe has recently turned up in Savannah’s life again, and he isn’t above doing a little breaking and entering. Metro Nashville Homicide Detective Tamara Grimaldi is of the same opinion, and when Lila turns up dead, tied to her bed and strangled, Rafe becomes a suspect.
Now Savannah must get busy finding the real murderer before Detective Grimaldi can arrest the wrong man.
The first open house robbery took place on the second Sunday in August, just at the time I was busy apprehending a murderer.
Before I go any further, I guess I should make it clear that I’m not actually in the business of law enforcement. Walker Lamont was the first, and I sincerely hope the last, murderer I’ll encounter.
My name is Savannah Martin, and what I am, is a Realtor. Walker was my boss. Up until the moment I happened to be standing next to him when he came face to face with someone who could put him in the wrong place at the wrong time, we’d had a very good relationship, and I’m sure he meant it sincerely when he apologized for having to kill me.
But I digress. As I was pushing the business end of a lipstick into Walker’s back, trying to make him believe it was a gun, another Realtor – Kieran Greene with RE/MAX – was being gagged and tied to a chair on the other side of town. After he was safely trussed, four masked men proceeded to strip the house of anything of value and cart it off in a rented moving van, leaving Kieran sitting in the kitchen waiting to be rescued.
The incident made the news, but was treated as sort of a sidebar to Walker’s arrest. Violence against Realtors, Part II. Poor Kieran’s ordeal was buried on page 4 of the Nashville Banner and received scant attention from anyone. It wasn’t until the next Sunday, when the same thing happened again, that the real estate community sat up and took notice.
The first I heard of this second robbery was at the weekly staff meeting on Monday morning. With Walker in jail, Timothy Briggs had taken over as managing broker of Walker Lamont Realty, and he was the one who brought it up. “Before we talk about holding open houses next weekend,” he said, leaning back in Walker’s leather chair and folding his manicured hands across his flat stomach, “I guess we should discuss what happened yesterday. I assume you’ve all heard the news?”
He looked around the table, his baby-blue eyes bright.
I raised my hand. “I haven’t. What happened yesterday?”
“Oh, Savannah, it was just awful!” Heidi Hoppenfeldt was busy chomping her way through the three dozen donuts Tim had brought in for us to share, and when she spoke, a fine spray of crumbs arched out of her mouth and landed on her ample bosom. She was on the other side of the table from me, so I wasn’t hit, but the people on either side of her leaned away.
“What’s awful?” I said. And added, mentally, “apart from Heidi’s table manners.”
Tim smirked. “Didn’t you catch the news last night, darling? My goodness, you must have had a busy day. It was on the five o’clock, six o’clock, nine o’clock and ten o’clock news!”
“I was in Sweetwater this weekend,” I said. Sweetwater is my hometown, a small place an hour or so south of Nashville. My mother and my two siblings live there, along with their spouses and children, my aunt Regina, and various old friends and acquaintances. “I had dinner with a friend before I drove back, so I didn’t get home until after eleven. And I didn’t listen to the radio in the car.”
Tim smacked his lips appreciatively. “And how is the scrumptious Mr. Collier?”
A few of the girls and the other (gay) guys tittered. Tim has an outspoken and unrequited crush on Rafael Collier, who’s an old acquaintance of mine, also from Sweetwater. Rafe isn’t gay – not by any stretch of the imagination – but Tim likes to dream.
“He’s fine,” I said repressively.
“He certainly is,” Tim agreed, with a saucy grin.
I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean. I haven’t seen him for a few days, but he seemed all right on Thursday. And we’re not dating.”
“You were dating last weekend at Fidelio’s,” Tim pointed out. A whisper, like a breath of wind through stiff grass, spread around the table. Fidelio’s is one of the nicest (and most expensive) restaurants in Nashville; the sort of place where country music stars dine and normal people can only afford to go on special occasions. It’s not the kind of place one takes a casual acquaintance, unless one has serious designs on her. Which Rafe does. (He wants to sleep with me. And he hasn’t made any secret of it, so I don’t see why I should.) But if he had thought that wining and dining me at Fidelio’s would make me give in to his predatory charms, he must have been disappointed. He didn’t get so much as a goodnight kiss when he brought me home, although I’d wager that my near-faint when he suggested it may have been almost as gratifying to his undeniable ego.
“It was a business dinner,” I said firmly. “And it’s none of your concern. Yesterday I had dinner with someone else. Someone you haven’t met.”
“You get around, don’t you, darling?” Tim smirked.
I narrowed my eyes. Tim added, “Well, since you missed the news… There was another open house robbery yesterday.”
I blinked. “Like the one last week? When the owners came home and found their Realtor bound and gagged in the kitchen?”
Tim nodded. “Poor Kieran. He’ll never be the same.” He clicked his tongue sympathetically and then brightened. “This time the Realtor was Lila Vaughn, with Worthington Properties.”
I must have made a noise, for he added, “Do you know her?”
I nodded. “I took real estate classes with Lila Vaughn. We got together for lunch less than two weeks ago.” Just after the ordeal with Walker, in fact. She’d wanted to hear the scoop.
“I saw her on the news yesterday,” Heidi mumbled, spraying another shower of crumbs across the table. The donut box was slowly emptying out.
“They interviewed her?” That sounded like Lila. She was an aggressive go-getter, willing to do pretty much whatever it took to get ahead, and she probably considered the news coverage free advertising. I could easily see her pushing through any fear or discomfort she was feeling to get her face on TV. She’d exhorted me to do the same thing last time we spoke, and to take advantage of the media circus surrounding Walker’s arrest.
Heidi nodded. “Black girl, pretty, with long, curly hair.”
“That’s her. What happened?” I looked around the table.
“The same thing as last time,” Tim said. “Just before the open house was over, a group of men showed up. They tied Lila to a chair and spent twenty or thirty minutes carrying everything of value out of the house. Electronics, jewelry, rugs, paintings. The house was full and they got it all.”
“Was Lila hurt?”
Tim shrugged. “The news didn’t say. The owners found her when they came home later.”
“Gosh,” I said, “she must have been terrified.”
We all thought about Lila’s ordeal and – I’m sure – thanked God it had happened to her and not to us.
“In light of all this,” Tim broke the silence, “those of you with open houses scheduled for this weekend may want to take some extra precautions. Get a friend to come with you so you don’t have to be alone. Keep the doors locked between visitors, or stay on the porch or outside in the yard where people can see you. Arrange to call a friend every fifteen minutes. You know, all the usual things.”
“The same things my daddy told me when I was sixteen and started dating,” one of the women said with a grin.
Tim nodded. “And that reminds me… Savannah, I can usually count on you to host an open house for me, but if you’d rather not, under the circumstances…” He let the sentence trail off suggestively. I grimaced. At the last open house I hosted, someone had tried to kill me, which didn’t make me particularly eager to try again. Until the open house robbers were caught, I’d just as soon not tempt fate.
However, I couldn’t in good conscience say no. Tim was, for all intents and purposes, my boss, now that Walker was languishing in jail, and although he couldn’t really order me to do anything – like all Realtors, I’m an independent contractor and responsible only to myself – I didn’t think it would go over very well to refuse. In my roughly eight weeks on the job, I hadn’t brought in so much as a dime in commissions.
“Sure. I’m happy to help.” I don’t think I sounded happy, but I got the words out.
“Excellent.” Tim showed all his capped teeth in a blinding smile. The conversation went on to the houses he and the others wanted to hold open next weekend, and I tuned out while I let my mind wander.
Poor Lila, what a horrible thing to have happen. She wasn’t the most delicate of women, bless her heart – not by a long shot – but still, surely something like this would be enough to put the wind up anyone. I’d had to deal with some scary stuff myself in the past few weeks, and I was becoming quite an expert on heart-stopping terror. I should definitely give her a call to commiserate, once the meeting was over. IfI scraped the bottom of my purse, I could come up with enough change to pay for lunch.
“Does that sound OK, Savannah?” Tim’s voice said. I nodded vaguely. “I’ll put you down for that, then. Thank you.”
“No problem.” I had no idea what I’d just agreed to do, but I wasn’t willing to admit I hadn’t been paying attention by asking him to repeat it. I’d figure it out later.
Tim giggled. “If you’re worried, maybe you should ask Mr. Collier to keep you company. He looks like he’d be able to handle any number of robbers.”
Rafe would be more likely to be aiding and abetting them, but I didn’t say so. “I’ll keep the suggestion in mind,” I said instead, cooly.
“Do that, darling. And if you don’t, maybe I’ll ask him to guard my body instead.” Tim tittered.
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself tied to a chair, in that case.”
“Darling!” Tim bleated, seemingly overcome with emotion. He fanned himself with a limp hand as the rest of the room laughed. I blushed.
* * *