Deadly Embrace

By: Jackie Collins

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Los Angeles

The American Airlines plane from New York was three hours late arriving in LA, and Madison Castelli was not pleased. She'd planned on going straight to her best friend, Natalie De Barge's, house. However, Natalie had informed her they were meeting Natalie's brother, Cole, in a restaurant at eight, and since the plane was so late, Madison decided she'd better go directly to Mario's—a small Italian restaurant on Beverly Boulevard.

"I'll see you there," she said, speaking to Natalie on her cell phone as she strode through the airport.

She was looking forward to getting together with her friends. The truth was that she couldn't wait to hash out the ruins of her life. Over the last few days everything had fallen to pieces. Her father, Michael, was being accused of a double murder. His estranged wife, Stella (Madison's stepmother), and Stella's live-in lover had been shot, execution style. Now there was a warrant out for Michael's arrest, and he'd managed to mysteriously vanish.

As if that weren't enough to worry about, her boyfriend, Jake, was also on the missing list. Her wonderful, sexy, smart Jake—an ace photographer who'd been covering a drug cartel in Colombia with a couple of colleagues—had not been heard from in ten days, which was pretty damn worrying. Kidnapping was rife in Colombia, and so was murder.

All of this was on her mind as she collected her luggage, hailed a cab, and headed for the restaurant. This visit west was exactly what she needed to get her head straight. A few days of hanging with her friends, doing nothing, was her plan. No work. No hassles. And then she'd fly back to New York refreshed and ready to deal with anything.

Cole was already at the restaurant when she arrived. A personal trainer, Cole was an extremely good-looking, tall black man in his twenties, with a well-toned, powerful physique and a killer smile. He was also gay, and proud of it.

They kissed and hugged. "You're lookin' hot, babe," Cole said, checking her out.

"Not me," she said ruefully. "And you're sounding very L.A."

"Could be 'cause I live here," he said, escorting her to their table in the corner.

"So that's how the men in L.A. speak to their women," she teased.

"No," he said, grinning. "That's how I speak to the guys—keeps 'em comin', if you get my meaning."

"You'll have to teach me," she said, sitting down.

Madison, at thirty, was a striking-looking woman—tall and slender, with full breasts, a small waist, and exceptionally long legs. She usually attempted to play down her good looks, but her green, almond-shaped eyes, sharply defined cheekbones, full seductive lips, and clouds of black hair marked her as a beauty. A very smart beauty, because she was a well-respected journalist, who specialized in insightful profiles of the rich, famous, and powerful. She worked for a magazine called Manhattan Style, she'd recently had a book about relationships published, and she was currently working on an investigative piece about old, notorious New York crime families. Over the last year she'd discovered that her father's past wasn't exactly the way it seemed. In fact, she wasn't sure she knew him at all. She'd decided that if she wanted to find out the real truth, she had to dig for it.

"Where's Natalie?" she asked, glancing at her watch.

"Late as usual," Cole responded. "What else is new?"

"I miss her," Madison said wistfully.

"She misses you, too. It's a real shame you don't live in the same city. Think of the trouble you two could get into."

"How's her radio show going?"

"It's a big deal. She loves puttin' her voice out there. You know our Natalie—gets off on the attention."

Minutes later, Natalie rushed in, looking glowingly pretty as usual. She was short and sassy, with a curvaceous body and luscious lips. "Sorry, sorry, sorry!" she exclaimed, grabbing Madison in a bear hug. "Gettin' out of the studio was a total nightmare. Wow!" she added, flopping into a chair. "I need a drink."

"Me too," Madison agreed, signaling a waiter.

The waiter came over. He was slight of build and very Italian looking, with shaggy black hair and an appealing accent.

"Wine," Natalie said. "I'm desperate."