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Authors: Rhonda Pollero

Slightly irregular

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“If you like Stephanie Plum, you will love Finley Anderson Tanner.” —Fresh Fiction

Kidnapping is so last season.

Couture-conscious paralegal Finley Anderson Tanner knew it was risky to break her cardinal shopping rule—never pay full price—for a last-minute date with her gorgeous new boss, but the hidden costs of her little black dress have put her whole life in the red. After the romantic evening turns into a disaster thanks to impossibly sexy and utterly infuriating private eye Liam McGarrity, Finley finds herself down two thousand dollars and out two potential boyfriends. Naturally, she turns to eBay.

To help pay off her debt, she tries to sell the vintage pageant jewelry she received for doing law partner Ellen Lieberman a favor. But when Finley’s best friend abruptly disappears while helping to wrap up the auction, Finley fears the worst. Does frumpy Ellen have a sinister double life as a beauty queen? Is the auction’s high bidder, Tiara64, more suspicious than her name suggests? Can Finley possibly hunt for clues without irresistible Liam swooping in to bail her out of trouble … again?

Rhonda Pollero’s hilarious new novel featuring fashionista crime-fighter Finley Anderson Tanner is the must-have mystery of the season.

“Amateur detection and designer shopping on a discount play equally entertaining roles … in Pollero’s addictively acerbic series.” —Booklist

RHONDA POLLEROis theUSA Todaybestselling author ofKnock Off, Knock ’Em Dead, andFat Chance—the first three novels in her delightful series featuring amateur sleuth Finley Anderson Tanner. A perpetual student with six degrees from seven colleges, she lives in south Florida with her family, where she is currently writing the next Finley book,Bargain Hunting. Visit her online atRhondaPollero.com.

 

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COVER DESIGN BY JAE SONG

Browse the critics’ glowing praise forUSA TODAYbestselling author RHONDA POLLERO and her “totally entertaining”* Finley Anderson Tanner novels

“A fun, fascinating journey you won’t want to miss.”

—Nora Roberts

“A good blend of laughter and mystery. … Perfect for a little escape.”

—Fallen Angel Reviews

“Amusingly entertaining and filled with fascinatingly appealing characters.”

—Single Titles

“Will make readers eager for an encore.”

—Kirkus Reviews(starred review)

“Bright, breezily written…. Full of humor and quirky characters.”

—Sun-Sentinel(Ft. Lauderdale, FL)

“Stylishly entertaining…. Certain to be a runway hit.”

—Booklist

“A great book to curl up with on the beach.”

—Fresh Fiction*

“Fun.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Rhonda Pollero’s humor and compelling mystery will keep you turning pages.”

—Tess Gerritsen

“An amazing talent…. Murder has never been this much fun!”

—Cherry Adair

ALSO FROM GALLERY BOOKS AND RHONDA POLLERO

FAT Chance

ALSO IN THE FINLEY ANDERSON TANNER SERIES

Knock ’Em Dead

Knock Off

Gallery Books

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New York, NY 10020www.SimonandSchuster.com

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Page 2

Copyright © 2012 by Rhonda Pollero

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Gallery Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

First Gallery Books trade paperback edition April 2012

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Designed by Jaime Putorti

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Pollero, Rhonda.

Slightly irregular / Rhonda Pollero. -- First Gallery Books trade paperback edition.

pages cm

1. Legal assistants--Fiction. 2. Law firms--Fiction. 3. Missing persons--Fiction. 4. Beauty contestants--Crimes against--Fiction. 5. Dating (Social customs)--Fiction. 6. West Palm Beach (Fla.)--Fiction. I. Title.

PS3616.O5684S58 2012

813'.6--dc23

2011048288

ISBN 978-1-4165-9073-6 (pbk)

ISBN 978-1-4391-0099-8 (ebook)

To Katie Scarlett, who reminds me to love; for Bob, who reminds me to laugh; for Amy, who reminds me to sit in the chair; and for Donna who reminds me to hyphenate everything.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Epilogue

‘Bargain Hunting’ Teaser

SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR

I looked, I liked, I bought.

one

Freedom was three hoursaway. Technically, only two hours and fifty-one minutes of work time, if I subtracted any time I’d be away from my desk. So, five minutes to answer my summons from the fourth floor; two minutes to go through the motions of straightening my office—we have a cleaning crew and it isn’t me; then two minutes to gather my belongings, hit the elevator, stroll through the lobby, walk out the front door, and unlock my practically brand-new, champagne pink Mercedes CLK convertible. Since it was Friday, I might even be able to shave a few minutes off my exit plan.

Fridays are the only days of the week when Maudlin Margaret Ford, firm receptionist and all-around pain in the ass, did not get her feathers in a twist when I ducked out a few minutes early. Any other day of the week and she’d be sounding the alert to the senior partner. I could practically hear her voice in my head. “Mr. Dane! Finley left the building at four fifty-five!”Margaret was passive-aggressive—with an extra order of aggressive on the side. She was a fifty-five-year-old woman with no life outside the law firm of Dane, Lieberman and Zarnowski. Technically speaking, it was now Dane, Lieberman, Zarnowski and Caprelli. It’s a small but prestigious firm just off Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, where, until a few months ago, I was exclusively a trusts and estates paralegal.

The elevator door finally blinked open, and I stepped inside the small compartment. A one o’clock command to the executive floor rarely results in anything good about to happen. A summons used to have me shaking in my Jimmy Choos, but not so much now that Tony Caprelli occupied one of the partners’ suites, and he was the one who’d requested my presence.

I sighed and fiddled with the cloisonné clip holding my blond hair off my face. Before leaving my office, I’d carefully checked my lipstick, added some Stila gloss, and smoothed the front of my vintage Lilly Pulitzer dress. The pale periwinkle and spring green dress with ribbon and lace accents was—if I did say so myself—one of my finest bargain moments. I’d come across it on antiquedressing.com, and talk about a find. Classic Lilly, circa 1960, with the metal zippers and original labels, is well beyond my meager means (made more meager since I was now carrying a hefty mortgage and most of my credit cards were near their limits). The catch? The hem was faded and dirty. A disaster for most women, but since I’m just shy of five-four, it was a snap for me to have the seamstress at my cleaner’s turn up a new hem without destroying the line of the dress.

I’d turned bargain hunting into an art. Short of an inspection by Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum, no one, not even my bestfriends, would ever know that I was a walking, talking tribute to gently worn, factory damaged, and slightly irregular. And I wanted to keep it that way.

The elevator opened into a circular lobby.Thesecretary sat sentry at her desk. She glanced up at me over the tops of her reading glasses, then pressed the button on her Bluetooth.

“Miss Tanner is here to see you,” she said. “Yes, thank you.” She lifted her head and met my gaze. “You may go in.”

I quelled the urge to salute her, but c’mon, the woman was so stiff she’d be a natural at Buckingham Palace. We’d worked together for more than eight years and never evolved past the point of addressing each other by last names.

“Thank you, Mrs. Greenfelder,” I acknowledged before pivoting to the right and heading toward Tony’s office.

My heart rate climbed with each step. Tony had joined the firm a little more than a month ago, and in that short amount of time, he’d generated quite a bit of interoffice buzz. And while everyone else was buzzing, I was actually training to work at his side.

No, I didn’t like balancing the continuing education classes on litigation, evidence, witness preparation, or police procedure with the renovations on my new cottage. But I did like Tony. And not in an employer-employee way. The guy was hot and polished and, well, perfect. He was over six feet tall, with dark brown hair and eyes the color of rich imported chocolates. He wore tailored suits, monogrammed shirts, and a top-of-the-line Rolex. A perfect man with a perfect watch. What more could a woman want in a man?

A date.

I sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. Therein lies the rub. I’m almost thirty, not thirteen. I know when a man is interestedin me. I’ve caught Tony watching me when he thought I wasn’t looking. His fingers have brushed the back of my hand a few too many times for it to be accidental. He’s interested. But he’s also my boss. There are times when sexual harassment laws totally get in the way of good old-fashioned get-to-know-you dating.

Maybe I should slip into the ladies’ room quickly, paintASK ME OUTin liner on my lids, and then spend the whole meeting with my eyes closed. Naw, too desperate. Then again, I am on the precipice of desperation. Since I’d dumped Patrick after wasting two years of my life on him, the only men in my life were the ex-convict who was still doing some minor finishing work on my house, and Sam, my dear, dear friend, who had worse luck with men than I did.

Oh, and Liam.

Kinda.

A shiver ran along my spine as I conjured his image. Liam McGarrity is everything I never wanted in a man. Very little polish and way too much testosterone. But one look into those piercing blue eyes and I start to think I can rework him into the man of my dreams. The practical part of me knows better. The libidinous part of me doesn’t care.

The only way I’ve been able to avoid the lure of those incredible eyes has been to keep my distance and screen my calls. So far, I’ve been successful, but who knows what will happen the next time we have to work together? Liam does a lot of the PI work for my firm. I won’t be able to avoid him forever. I’ll worry about that when …

“Sorry,” Tony said as his hands bracketed me, keeping me from falling on my butt.

He smelled good, so good that for a second his cologne rendered me mute. Or maybe it was the feel of his large hands gripping my arms. My sweater had slipped, so the heat from his palms was against my bare skin.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, stepping back so I could pick up my sweater and the pad I’d dropped when I’d accidentally run right into him. “Sorry, I must have zoned out there for a minute.”

Zoned out?I grimaced inwardly.Zoned out? Really? What kind of dumb blonde thing is that to say to your boss-slash-lust interest?

“Not a problem,” Tony said, stepping aside to allow me to enter his office first. He looked good enough to eat in a dark well-cut suit, crisp creamy shirt, and dark blue tie. VeryGQ. Very much the opposite of shaggy, rumpled Liam. Both men are sexy, but they’re polar opposites in appearance. Both men, however, sent my pulses racing and my libido into hyperdrive.

Tony had a great office. Used to belong to Mr. Zarnowski, but he was gone now, too bad for me. Zarnowski had liked me, unlike Vain Victor Dane, the managing partner who always treated me like some annoying insect bite he couldn’t scratch but couldn’t ignore. Or Ellen Lieberman. The woman—a term I’m using in the broadest possible sense—thinks I’m a slacker because I didn’t go to law school. She seems to forget that I didn’twantto go. I never wanted to be like her—working seventy hours a week with no life. And in her case, no access to proper hair care. She wears her red-and-gray curls pulled back in a rubber band—doesn’t even bother with a scrunchie from the dollar store. Her dresses are little more than sacks with slits, and her signature look includes those god-awful Jesus sandalsfrom Birkenstock. Ellen might be a great contracts attorney, but she is devoid of discernible estrogen. Still, Ellen was kind of taking me under her wing. I was her pet project of sorts. I didn’t doubt that her awkward attempts at friendship were sincere. I just figured it was a new tack to get me to further my career.

I started to clear a spot for myself on Tony’s couch when he reached out and placed his hand over mine. “No need. This is going to be quick.”

Turning slightly so we were face-to-face, I smiled up at him. “What do you need?”

“You.”

The room spun for a second as my brain tried to wrap itself around that word. “E-excuse me?”

He took my hands in his and gave a gentle squeeze. “I have tickets toThe Magic Flutetomorrow night.”

“Nothing like a Saturday night with Mozart.”

Humor flashed in his eyes, and when he smiled, I was treated to a look at the near-legendary dimple on his right cheek. “Right, your mother was a singer with the Met.”

“Yes, she was. Now she’s a professional widow, divorcée, or bride-to-be, depending on when you catch her.”

“Sorry?”

Reluctantly, I pulled away from his grasp. I waved one hand in the small space between us. “Bad joke. My mother is very fond of getting married. She just has a problemstayingmarried. That said, she made sure my sister and I were exposed to opera from birth.”

Why had I offered that up? Nerves, I guess. Still, it made me sound like a babbling fool. Not exactly the impression I was going for. I regrouped.

“How do you feel aboutThe Magic Flute?” he asked.

“I liked the Kenneth Branagh movie version. Very stylized, like a Target commercial.”

Tony glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to be at the courthouse in like ten minutes. Is there any chance you’re free tomorrow night? I know it’s short notice, but—”

“Short notice is fine.”

“Great,” he said on a relieved rush of breath. “Can you be at my place at about six?”

“Absolutely.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a piece of paper with an address on it. I gave it a cursory glance, then tucked it under the blank pages of my legal pad.

Tony walked around to his desk and crammed some files into his briefcase. As he came around again, he gave my hand yet another squeeze. “Thanks, Finley. See you tomorrow night.”


Page 3

“At six,” I called as he left in such a hurry that the collection of drawings piled on his desk fluttered.

I picked up the one that fell on the floor and placed it in the center of his desk. It was a pencil sketch of some sort of bird, but I didn’t give it any attention. My entire brain was fixated on the knowledge that tomorrow night would be my first date with Tony.

“Just like that?” Beckyasked the next morning when we met at the Gardens Mall. “No preamble, nothing?”

“Preamble?” I asked, laughing. “He wasn’t writing the Constitution, he was asking me out on a date.”

We were standing outside the about-to-close Crate and Barrel, our usual meeting place. And also as usual, Liv was late. And since Jane was riding with Liv, Becky and I stood chatting while we waited.

Becky and I have been friends since college. We graduated from Emory together, then Becky went on to law school while I came back to Palm Beach and went to work for Dane-Lieberman even after I’d aced the LSATs. Becky joined the firm after earning her J.D., and I was thrilled to have my best friend back in town.

Becky works for Ellen in contracts, and until the surprise addition of a criminal specialist, everyone assumed she’d be the next and youngest-ever partner at the firm. I knew she was disappointed, but I also knew she’d get there eventually. Becky is a smart, savvy attorney, and clients love her—male clients especially. She’s tall, attractive, and always put together. She’s on a very bright rust-orange-amber binge right now. She wears high-end clothing in various shades of orange to set off her reddish-auburn hair. She softens the tailored look with fun, funky jewelry.

Jane, on the other hand, doesn’t tone down anything. She was fifty yards away in the parking lot, and I could tell it was her. I met Jane at a two-for-one gym promotion. We pretended to be friends to get the better price. The friendship lasted. My membership at the gym did not. Jane exudes sensuality. She can’t help it. She has long, dark hair and a toned body that most women would kill for. Everything up top is cut low, and everything down below is hiked high. And why not? She has a perfect body and somehow manages to show skin without lookingcheap. She’s an accountant, though to anyone getting their first glance at her, they’d probably think she was one of the Pussycat Dolls.

Liv was with her, handing something—most likely a generous tip—to the valet attendant. Liv makes the rest of us look like trolls. She’s a very successful event planner. Almost no one hosts a party or a wedding on Palm Beach without hiring Concierge Plus to deal with the details. Liv is an exotic-looking woman. She has eyes that match the ocean, clear turquoise, with midnight black hair like a modern Cleopatra. The biggest perk in knowing her—aside from the fact that she’s a great friend—is she can slip us into a lot of the über-rich parties on the island.

Once the four of us were together, we made a mandatory swing through one of the mall’s two Starbucks. I was so excited about my first date with Tony that I’d had a hard time sleeping. Thank God for caffeine and MSC concealer.

“He just asked you out of the blue?” Liv asked as we waited for our coffees.

“Geez! Why does that seem to surprise all of you?” I asked, minorly irritated.

Jane passed me my skinny vanilla latte. “Men aren’t usually that spontaneous. Think about it, Finley. He e-mailed, asking you to come to his office so he could ask you out? Why not go to your office?”

“Or for that matter,” Becky said, “why run the risk of asking you out at work and leaving a paper trail to do it?”

“The e-mail was harmless, and what risk?” I asked.

Becky rolled her eyes. “We all know there was no risk you’dsay no, but Tony didn’t know that. A smart guy—and he is that—would call you after work so there could be no misunderstandings.”

“Like?”

Becky took a long sip of her chai tea. “Like asking while at work could be construed as harassment. You could claim you felt pressured to go out with him because he’s your boss.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

Becky’s green eyes bored into me. “You’d better hope Dane and Lieberman don’t hear about this. Especially Ellen. She’ll freak out if she thinks he’s creating a hostile work environment.”

“Anybody ever tell you you’re a major buzzkill?” I asked.

Becky raised her hands. “Sorry I mentioned it.”

“Okay,” I said, happy to have that bit of unpleasantness quashed. “It’s got to be black. I’m thinking something subtle, but I don’t want to look like a mortician. Shoes and a clutch.”

“Um,” Jane began cautiously, “where does this fit into the budget we did for you?”

“Whatever I get for tonight, I’ll wear to Lisa’s rehearsal dinner. That cuts the cost per wearing in half right there.”

“How many little black dresses do you have in your closet?” Liv challenged.

“Not as many as you and besides, the LBD never goes out of style.”

“And Finley never gets out of debt,” Jane grumbled.

I looped my arm through hers. “Lighten up. I’m splurging this once, then I promise to return to living like mortgaged-to-the-gills Mary. Okay?”

“You’re pulling equity out of your house. You have everyright to do that. I’m just telling you, in my capacity as your financial planner, what I think.”

“Fine. Then be my friend, not my financial planner.”

Jane smiled. “Well, in that case, I say we go to Nordy’s and find youtheperfect dress.”

“And shoes,” Becky said.

“And a purse, and maybe some new jewelry,” Liv weighed in.

Three hours and four lattes later, I had a stunning BCBG Max Azria, belted, one-shoulder sheath dress. It was fitted jersey and fully lined and, according to the saleswoman, required nothing but a thong.

I’d found the perfect shoes in a matter of minutes. Stuart Weitzman silk-satin platform sling backs with a wrapped heel. The saleswoman raced over and grabbed the matching clutch as I yanked my debit card from my wallet. I found a stunning Judith Jack double-strand pendant necklace and chandelier earrings to go with my new ensemble, finishing it off with three skinny bangles.

As I drove home, I didn’t have buyer’s remorse so much as paid-full-price remorse. If Tony had given me a week’s notice, I could have put something together online, and even with expedited shipping, I wouldn’t have spent nearly two thousand dollars. Then again, it was worth it. If I parceled the cost between the Tony date and the rehearsal dinner, it didn’t seem so bad. If I could think of another occasion to wear it, I could keep dropping the CPW—cost per wearing—down to a more reasonable number.

Who was I kidding? I looked, I liked, I bought.

I stopped on the way home for a polish change and a browwax. Add another fifty dollars to my ever-growing debt. By two thirty I was on my way over the bridge to Palm Beach. Thanks to selling my soul to the devil—that would be my mother, the only living heart donor—I owned a very modest cottage on the beach. Thanks to my friend Sam, it was a showplace. It was sleek and beachy, comfy and posh all at one time. Handyman Harold still came by almost every day to tighten something or hammer something else, but for all intents and purposes, my home renovations were finished and stunning. And had me several hundred thousand in debt. Oh, Liam helped too, but I wasn’t in the mood to give him credit for anything. Not after he’d kept Patrick’s secret. And was still taunting me about the whole “three wishes” thing. It was silly, really. Liam had come to my rescue and pulled some lameI Dream of Jeanniething, telling me he was now entitled to three wishes. I figured he’d used up more than three wishes by hiding the fact that my boyfriend was cheating. Well, maybe cheating was an understatement. At any rate, I wasn’t playing.

My mother sold me a shack on primo land. I couldn’t wait to see her reaction when she finally decides to accept my standing invitation to see what I’ve done with the place. She’s currently back in Atlanta helping my sister get ready for her enormous wedding. In two weeks, Lisa will be walking down the aisle to become Mrs. David Huntington-St. John IV. Actually, she’ll beDr.Mrs. David Huntington-St. John IV. Except that David is a doctor too, so I guess they’ll be Drs. David Hunt—oh, who gives a shit.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my little sister, and I’m happy she found the man of her dreams. But her dreams are amazingly dull. David is nice enough, but he’s a nontalker and a big rich geek. Ofcourse my mother loves him. He’s rich, he’s a doctor, and his family is old money. They are pillars of Buckhead, the tony suburb of Atlanta. Like my sister, Lisa, David is an oncologist. He and Lisa met on one of those Doctors Without Borders things.

I’m all for humanitarianism, but do you have any idea what it’s like to have to compete with a perfect sibling? Lisa went to med school. Managed to finish the first seven years of academic work in three and a half. Lisa made something of her life. My mother considers me a failure. Maybe I am uninspired, but I’m happy in my mediocrity. Lisa never looks happy. Maybe you can’t be a pediatric oncologist and be happy. Who knows?

But that wasn’t the real reason I resented David and found fault whenever I could. If I was being totally honest, I was suffering some sibling envy. It was bad enough to be second on my mother’s list, but once David was part of the family, I’d drop down to a distant third. Hence, I kept trying to find something, anything, wrong with my sister’s fiancé. So far all I’d come up with was slightly large lips. And by slightly I’m talking millimeters. But I’d take what I could get.

I lingered in my spa tub, allowing the warm water to relax me. First dates always make me tense. It’s like opening a can and not knowing whether there’s a diamond in the bottom or if a dozen springy fake snakes will explode out of the top.

Tony didn’t impress me as the fake-snake kinda guy.

Post soak, I carefully applied my makeup, savoring every second of the anticipation building in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t looking forward to sitting throughThe Magic Flute, but imagining all the delicious ways the evening could end made the notion more palatable.

I was really pleased when I finished dressing. The only thing that would have made it perfect would be a pink oyster-face Ladies DateJust Rolex. Unfortunately, I didn’t own one. Yet.

I was well on my way, though. Since I couldn’t afford the actual watch, I’d begun collecting parts on eBay. To date, I had several links, the screw-down crown, an authentic box, and a pending bid on the watch face. At my current rate, I should have all the parts for my build-it-from-scratch Rolex by the time I’m thirty-five.

Grabbing a black pashmina from my closet, I took my keys and headed out to my car. It was a beautiful night but there was no way I would sacrifice my perfectly coiffed hair by putting the top down. I punched Tony’s address into the onboard GPS, and after a second a map appeared and a cheerful male voice with a touch of a British accent began giving me instructions.

I exceeded the speed limit on I-95 north since I hadn’t bothered actually to look at Tony’s address; I didn’t realize he lived in Hobe Sound, seventeen miles north. I had eighteen minutes to make the twenty-five-minute trip.

I made it too, hitting the Bridge Road off-ramp with six minutes to spare. Making a left on Federal Highway, I went a few miles, and then followed the signs to the Falls at Lost Lake. I wouldn’t have pictured Tony as a golf-course-community kinda guy, but as I scrolled through the keypad at the gate, I quickly came to “Caprelli” and pressed the button.

“Yes?”

“It’s Finley,” I said, my heart pounding in my ears.

There was a beeping sound, and then the gate swung open like a horizontal mouth of an alligator.

The British voice told me to turn right at the stop sign, and then Tony’s house was the third one down on the left.

I pulled into the driveway and parked next to a vintage red Porsche. I’d never seen it at the office, so I figured it had to be his “fun” car. I couldn’t imagine being so flush with cash that I’d have a car for work and a car for recreation, but I’m sure I could get used to it.

I tucked my keys into my clutch as I walked past the garage and up a pathway to what was easily a five-thousand-square-foot house. Like all the other homes in the community, the stucco was painted a shade of beige—in this case peachy beige—and the trim was fresh and white.

I went up one tiled step, took a deep calming breath, and then stood in front of etched glass doors as I pressed the doorbell. I mentally reminded myself not to look overly excited. Be cool and collected.

I heard a playful chuckle just as the door swung open. I lowered my gaze maybe an inch and found myself looking into a pair of big chocolate brown eyes. The mini-Tony had to be the daughter, Isabella. She wore rolled-just-below-the-knee sweatpants that were turned down at the hips, and double tank tops. Her long dark hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and when she snarled at me, I saw that she had inherited her father’s right cheek dimple as well. Attitude and a killer dimple—dangerous combination.

“I’m Finley. Your dad is expecting me.”


Page 4

I heard the giggle again. It wasn’t from the daughter. Maybe she had a friend over.

Isabella rolled her eyes as the sound got closer. I looked past Isabella, expecting to find another child.

Wrong.

Very wrong.

A goddess of a woman dressed in a strapless red Prada gown came around the corner giggling into her champagne flute. Tony was right behind her, looking dapper and handsome in a tux. His eyes met mine. He scanned me up and down as all the humor drained out of his face.

I took in his uncomfortable expression, the woman dangling from his arm, and then replayed the invitation in my head:

“Are you free Saturday night?”

“What do you need?”

“You.”

“E-excuse me?”

“I have tickets toThe Magic Flutetomorrow night.”

“Nothing like a Saturday night with Mozart.”

“Is there any chance you’re free tomorrow night. I know it’s short notice, but—”

“Short notice is fine.”

“Great. Can you be at my place at about six?”

“Absolutely.”

“Thanks, Finley. See you tomorrow night.”

Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod.He’d never actually asked me out. I wasn’t his date. I was the freakingbabysitter.

Laughter fades; humiliation is forever.

two

“Finley, meet Pepper.Pepper, Finley.”

The statuesque woman put down the champagne and dangled an arm in my direction, making it impossible for me not to notice the gazillion-carat tennis bracelet on her wrist. Well, I had one thing on her: at least I didn’t have a name better suited for a parakeet.

“My pleasure,” I lied, shaking her hand. “Excuse my attire, I hurried here from a private cocktail party on the island.” Kinda true, I’d had a glass of wine at my place. And I did live on the island.

The date stealer’s artificially plumped lips lost a little of the curve in her superior smile.

“Have you seenThe Magic Flutebefore?” I asked, fake sincerity dripping off each syllable.

“No.” She tightened her grasp on Tony’s arm. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“It helps if you understand some German. The Queen of the Night’s “Der Hölle Rache kocht in Meinem Herzen” is an amazing piece. It requires a range of a high F6—a true rarity on the scientific pitch notation.”

I ignored Isabella’s muffled, slightly choked laugh.

“We’re seeing an English version at the Kravis,” Tony supplied, steering the statue toward the door. “I should be back by midnight. Is that okay?”

I nodded. “I don’t turn into a pumpkin until two a.m.”

“Night, Izzy,” Tony said as he placed a kiss on the top of his smiling daughter’s head. “Behave.”

“Always,” she said, with teenage boredom. As soon as Tony and his arm candy left, Izzy glanced at me and grinned broadly. With one earbud dangling from her purple-encased iPhone, she slowly shook her head. “You like totally slammed her, and she didn’t even know it. I’m going to have to try that on Lindsey Hetzler.”

“I didn’t slam her.”Much.“I was just making polite conversation.”

“Right,” Izzy said, placing one hand on one budding hip.

“Who’s Lindsey?”

“The queen bitch of the eighth grade.”

“Are you supposed to use that kind of language?”

She shrugged. “Only when my dad can’t hear me.”

I tossed my clutch on a chair, noticing the decor for the first time. Midcentury modern. My guess was original Herman Miller. Unlike me, Tony didn’t impress me as a knockoff kinda guy.

“Welcome to the 1950s,” Izzy said on an expelled breath. “I hope you like chrome and molded plastic.”

“Not so much,” I admitted as I tossed my pashmina on my clutch.

“Me either. But my dad had a decorator do this. It’s what happens when you tell some stranger you are all minimalist and junk.”

“So what do you want to do?” I asked, spying a fifty-two-inch flat screen in the adjacent family room. Hopefully, my charge was a TV freak and I’d be able to use the computer I saw sitting on a bisymmetric glass-and-walnut table while she vegged out in front of the massive TV.

“He said you liked board games.”

“He?”

“The friend of Dad’s. The hot guy with the black hair and blue eyes. He works with you guys,” she prompted. “Liam.”

“When did you talk to Liam?”

“He set Dad up with that lanky chick. He’s the one who suggested my dad get you to babysit. Not that I need a babysitter. My dad still treats me like I’m three instead of thirteen.”

That bastard. “Tonight was orchestrated by Liam?”

Izzy smiled. “You look seriously pissed.”

Pissed didn’t begin to describe the fury boiling in the pit of my stomach.

“You can leave. We can tell my dad something like you had a major family thing or some other excuse.”

“Oh no. We’re going to play board games until we get freaking carpel tunnel syndrome from throwing the dice.”

She shrugged. “Whatever.”

Four hours later Izzy was kicking my butt at Scrabble. Again. The kid was like a thirteen-year-old dictionary. I thoughtI’d finally gotten the best of her when I’d placed “camphors” on the board. What does she counter with? “Benzoxycamphors,” for a flipping point total of 1,593. Apparently, it’s some sort of chemical, but I had to Google it. I felt totally outclassed. Especially when we moved on to Trivial Pursuit, the Pop Culture Edition. She kicked my butt in that too, so quickly that I tossed in the pie-shaped pieces when she was beating me four to one.

“How are you at eBay?” I asked.

“But eBay isn’t a board game.”

“It’s better than a board game,” I insisted as I swiped the Scrabble tiles into their brown cotton bag and folded the Trivial Pursuit board. “It’s a real competition. No benzoxycamphors bullsh …stuff. I’m a master, and I will dazzle you with the finer aspects of the Web site.”

“I like shopping,” she said, grabbing a cute Coach purse from a bar stool and pulling a matching wristlet from inside. From that, Izzy produced a credit card with her name imprinted on it. Somehow I knew she had a higher credit limit than I did and probably wasn’t even close to maxing it out. Yeah, well, I had PayPal Buyer Credit.

I stood and shook my foot, which had fallen asleep during hours of sitting cross-legged on the floor. Silently, I added that to my list of reasons to find some way to make Liam’s life miserable. No, not miserable. Unbearable. Painful. Excruciating.

“Have a log-in?”

She shook her head. “Nope. But I can set one up.”

“Are you allowed to shop online?”

“I’m allowed to do anything but date,” she whined.

“Tell me what you like.”

Izzy’s head dropped to one side, and she pinched her lips together. “There’s a dance at school in a few weeks. Everyone says Lindsey Hetzler does a solid color theme, so I guess I’d like something totally not that.”

“Betsey Johnson,” I said with confidence. “Her new teen collection has an adorable pink bunny dress.”

“What’s that?” she asked, skeptical. “I don’t want to look like a bunny.”

“Come here.” I quickly typed in the URL and showed Izzy the dress. “There’s a pretty bow accent in the front, and it’s short, which will show off your long legs.”

“But it’s strapless. My dad will have a coronary.”

“So we get a chiffon sweater and you just leave it on until you get to the dance. He’ll never know.”

“Then let’s buy it,” she said, passing me her credit card.

“No, no, no. We look for it on eBay and save a ton of money.”

“But I don’t have to save money.”

Jealousy washed over me. “But if you save on the dress and the sweater, you can buy the perfect shoes and a purse and still not spend as much as full retail. It’s called shopping smart.”

“More like shopping cheap. What if it’s been worn?” she asked, her nose scrunched.

“Then you have it cleaned. What size are you?”

“A two, I think.”

Now I was majorly jealous and feeling chubby in my size four. I satisfied myself with a mental reminder that she wasn’t done growing yet. “Create a log-in, and let’s get to work.”

We found the dress and the sweater, and I showed her howto place an initial bid, then clued her in on the finer points of eBaying. The dress was a “buy it now,” but instead of the full price of four hundred twenty-eight, Izzy got it for three hundred eighty-nine. The sweater was more of a bargain. Gently worn and offered at half of the normal two hundred thirty-eight. Izzy would just have to watch the site in two days to make sure she wasn’t outbid at the last second. “To be extra careful, do you have a laptop in addition to this desktop?”

“Yeah.”

“Log in on both computers just in case one has a hiccup in the last minutes of the auction. Now for accessories.”

“This is pretty cool,” Izzy said. Her tone was now soaked in enthusiasm, and the snarl had morphed into a smile.

Freaking took long enough.

Once we’d theoretically saved her a bundle, we went looking for shoes and found a killer pair of kitten-heeled gladiator sandals with an adorable feather accent. Of course I practically commanded her to buy the matching hobo bag, insisting that it was necessary to stash the sweater she needed to fool Tony into thinking she was wearing a more modest dress. Unfortunately, neither was on eBay, so she had no choice but to buy them off BetseyJohnson.com, where she paid close to six hundred dollars for the accessories. To make up for the extravagance, I showed her my favorite funky online jewelry store, where she found a necklace and earrings to complete her look.

“That was seriously fun,” Izzy said as she took pages out of the printer and clipped the images like paper dolls.

“And you’re sure your father won’t get pissed? I can’t afford to lose my job.”

“If he does, I’ll play the mommy card.”

I watched her, finding it hard to keep my jaw from dropping. The girl obviously had no respect for the dead.

“Get over yourself,” she groaned, obviously reading the expression on my face. “It’s hard to mourn someone you don’t even remember. I was like eleven months old or something when she died. But everyone thinks I should have like issues or whatever.”

As cold as it sounded, the girl’s logic was flawless, and if anyone could understand that feeling, it was me. We left the computer area and sat on the hideously ugly—in my opinion—mustard yellow sofa with chrome armrests. I sat at one end, kicking off my expensive shoes and tucking my legs under me. Izzy did the same with her fuzzy slippers. She looked so comfy dressed in fuchsia Victoria’s Secret Think Pink sweatpants and a pair of spaghetti-strap tanks. The bottom one was also fuchsia, while the top one was a pale pink. With her jet black hair, even darker brown-black eyes, and flawless olive complexion, she was stunning. Tony would have his hands full when she got older. No wonder he didn’t want her to start dating.

“Do you have both your parents?”

I shrugged. “Not sure.”

Izzy’s Brooke Shields-like brows pulled together. “Huh?”

“My mother’s alive. My birth father is a wild card.” I’d just told an underage virtual stranger more than I shared with most of my adult friends. Great, when did a thirteen-year-old girl become my confidante?

“Did you lose touch? Lemme guess. He married someone else and like tossed you aside.”

I shook my head. “Nope. As far as I know, he has no clue I exist.”

“Wow. That’s like beyond weird. Ever try to find him? You know, Google him or something?”

Again I shook my head. “Don’t know if it’s Mr. Finley or Mr. Anderson.”

“Has to be Finley. Why else would your mother name you that?”

“FinleyAndersonTanner.”

“Wow, thatisweird. And it spells ‘fat.’”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for pointing that out.”

“It’s better than Pepper,” she said with unchecked disdain. “I mean, like what kind of parents name their kid after a spice?”

“How long has your dad been seeing her?”

“Counting tonight?”

I nodded.

“Twice.”

“Think it’ll get serious?”

“Only if her IQ goes up like a hundred points. I think my dad just needs to get laid.”

“Izzy!”

“Oh, c’mon. Like you aren’t thinking the same thing.”

“Yeah, but I’m not his teenage kid.”

“Haven’t you ever gone out with a hot guy just for the sex?”

“I’m not having this conversation.”

She laughed. “You’re like all blushing and stuff. Whichsomeans you have.”

I glanced down at my acceptable Liz Claiborne watch. “It’s almost midnight. Do you have a bedtime?”

Izzy groaned. “It’s Saturday night.”

“That doesn’t mean you don’t have to go to bed at a certain time.” As evidenced by the third yawn she’d swallowed in the past three minutes. “Besides, how will it look to your dad if he comes home and you’re still awake? He’ll think I’m a failure.”

“Whatever,” she said, standing. “Wanna see my room?”


Page 5

“Sure.”

“It’s like the only room without plastic.”

“That’s good,” I said as I followed her up the plushly carpeted staircase. In complete juxtaposition to the living room, the artwork on the wall was French Impressionist, yet somehow it worked with the stark furnishings.

“Good God,” I muttered, before I could check my reaction.

“Tell me about it,” Izzy said on a groan. The room was Pepto-Bismol pink, dominated by a bed that was a replica of Cinderella’s glass coach. The dressers and end tables were bright white, and my eyes immediately homed in on the framed photograph on the left nightstand. It was Tony and a stunning woman who looked a lot like a young Sophia Loren holding an infant.

“That’s the shrine,” Izzy said.

I moved closer. “Your mother was beautiful.”

“I guess,” she said, with a shrug of her shoulders. “At least it got scaled back when we moved here. In New York my grandparents made me a whole thing, complete with a rosary, a candle, and a crucifix made out of resin.”

“I’m sure they meant well.”

Izzy hopped into the bed-slash-coach, slipping beneath the pink fuzzy spread. “Yeah. They used to spend hours telling meall about her. Dad said I had to listen, or at least pretend to. Liam told me to nod every now and then, and when I’d had enough, I was supposed to tell them I had a thing and leave the room.”

“Liam is big onthe thing,” I said, my irritation with him coming back full force. “How long have you known him?” I asked, hoping I sounded casual.

“You hot for him or my dad?”

Hope dashed. “Neither.”

“That’s like a total lie.” She raked her hair with her fingers, each nail painted a different shade of neon polish. “Liam and Dad met when Dad taught classes at Quantico. Liam took the classes, and the two of them became friends. Liam would visit us in New York. I think they bonded over the whole wife thing.”

“Liam’s wife is alive.”And probably draped over him as we speak.

“I know. But he was getting a divorce then, so he and my dad used to drink beer and pretend everything was okay.”

“What’d you do, eavesdrop?”

“Totally. I was like eight or nine, and I thought Liam was hot. Even if he is old.”

“Thirty-seven is hardly old.”

“To you,” she said as she grabbed the book next to her bed.

“Want me to read to you?”

Izzy rolled her eyes. “I’ve been reading since I was like four.”

“Excuse me. I’m a tad out of practice at this whole babysitting thing.”

“It shows.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a bit of a snot?”

She shrugged. “We all have to have a skill.”

“On that note,” I began, as I backed toward the door, “I’ll leave you to read.”

Her expression suddenly grew somber. “Will you come back?”

“I’ll come up in a little while to check on you.”

“Not tonight,” she said with a tinge of a whine. “I mean come back again. Maybe the night of the dance, to help me with makeup and stuff?”

“Sure,” I replied, totally taken in by the pleading look in her eyes.

I was almost out the door when she added, “I had a good time tonight, Finley.”

I surprised myself with my own response. “Me, too.”

As I descended to the first floor, I headed straight for the galley kitchen. Lots of stainless steel, and, judging by the lack of fingerprints, Tony had a damned good maid. I checked the time on the microwave: 12:17.

Tony had one of those one-cup-at-a-time coffeemakers that drew me in like a magnet. My caffeine level was dangerously low, and I needed a fix.

It took less than a minute for the mug to fill with strong, aromatic coffee. I was in my element. Well, except for the fact that I’d missed the end of an eBay auction I’d been nursing for eight days.

Coffee in hand, I went to the computer and silently prayed that even though I’d been inattentive, the Rolex watch face would be mine. My heart rate increased as I logged in with one hand while lifting the cup to my mouth. I still needed aboutseventeen more links and other assorted parts for my build-it-from-scratch Rolex project. Reaching my by-age-thirty-five goal was important to me. Even if I conned Vain Victor Dane, managing partner and all-around pain in my ass, into raising my salary, I still couldn’t swing the thirteen thousand I’d need for the pink oyster-face watch.

An unpleasant image popped into my head. In the not-so-distant past, my cheating, former boyfriend Patrick had offered me the watch as a make-up gift. Like I’d ever forgive that sniveling weasel. Still, I was kicking myself for not taking the watch, then slamming the door in his face.

“Damn,” I mumbled as I checked my account only to find that I’d been outbid on the watch face by a mere fifty cents. TimeBandit had bested me again. This wasn’t the first time we’d gone head-to-head over a Rolex part, nor was it the first time he/she’d beaten me in the process.

I spent a few minutes searching new listings, stopping only to make another cup of coffee and to check the time: 1:05 a.m. The new vision in my head soured my already pissy mood. It didn’t take two-plus hours to get back from the Kravis, so safe money said Tony was getting lucky.

I barely remembered the last time I’d had sex. I’d had a couple of near misses with Liam, but something always seemed to prevent us from consummating our complicated, frustrating, nonsensical relationship. Not that we had an actual relationship. No, it was more like mutual lust. Which was fine with me. Liam was not The Guy. In my twenty-nine years I’d finally learned that you can’t fix a guy’s faults by loving him. Hell, you can’t fix a guy period. Nor, as it turns out,can you trust them. Two years wasted on Patrick proved that much. The next time I met a guy, I was running a full background check.

The sound of the door opening gave me a jolt. Enough of one that I sloshed coffee down the front of my brand-new Azria dress. It made the jersey fabric cling to my body, outlining my boobs. Great, just great.

Grabbing my pashmina, I quickly covered myself and used the edge of the fabric to dab up the few drops of coffee on the computer desk.

“Hi,” Tony said, his bow tie untied, top button undone, and hair mussed. He might as well be wearing a sign that saidJUST GOT LAID. “Sorry I’m so late.”

“Not a problem.”

“How did it go?” he asked as his cologne tickled my senses.

“Great.”As you’ll find out when you get the Visa bill.“Izzy is an amazing kid.”

I got the dimple smile. Dimple smile plus mussed hair was a powerful combo. Right now it made me feel like a fool. I slipped on my shoes before I did something stupid like jump into his arms and offer to be his second conquest of the night.

“Sorry I was so late.”

“Really, it was no problem,” I lied, grabbing my clutch.

Tony reached in the front pocket of his pants and pulled out a small collection of bills. “Is ten an hour enough?”

“Enough for what?”

“Your time.”

Lord knew I needed the money but not as much as I needed my dignity. Besides, if I made this a freebie, he owed me. It’salways good to have a man in your debt. “Don’t be silly. I’m not taking your money.”

“I’m not comfortable taking advantage of you. Especially not when I inconvenienced you on such short notice.”

“No inconvenience,” I insisted. “Happy to help.” I was impressed that I’d made that sound so sincere. There was an awkward silence before I added, “I’d better be on my way. I have a brunch tomorrow.”

“You have quite the social schedule,” he remarked as I moved to pass him in the hallway leading to the door.

Almost reflexively he pulled my pashmina up on my shoulder. The feel of his hand brushing my skin was enough to cause a jolt through my whole system. It was definitely time to make a speedy exit. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Thanks, Finley.”

“You’re welcome.”

My shoulder still tingled as I slipped behind the wheel of my car. I toyed with the idea of stopping off at the Circle K for another cup of coffee, but my desire to get home won out. A decision I regretted when I turned into my drive and saw the battered Mustang parked in front of my cottage.

Liam sat perched on the step with a bottle of beer in his right hand. A surge of renewed irritation had me fantasizing about running over his feet, but I knew better.

After parking, I stepped from the car and made sure my face conveyed my feelings about babysitting and board games.

“Nice dress,” he commented, then rose to his full height of six-three while his eyes ran up and down my body like a caress.

“Thanks. You can leave now.”

He grinned, the sparkle of amusement visible in the slice of illumination from my porch light. “Not very hospitable of you.”

“It’s late. I’m tired, and you’re annoying.”

“And you suck at Scrabble.”

How did he know these things?

“Izzy sent me a text,” he said, as if reading my thoughts.

That explained why her cell phone was never out of arm’s reach.

“Yes, I do,” I agreed. I carefully sidestepped him as I dug out my house keys.

“So how was babysitting? Hope Tony paid you enough to cover the cost of that new getup.”

Getup?A two-thousand-dollar head-to-toe makeover was not agetup. And how did he know it was new? I shook my head slightly, clearing away the thought. “I enjoyed myself.” As I said the words I realized I’d meant them. But that still didn’t get me past my anger over Liam turning me into a modern-day Mary Poppins. “Thanks for the referral.” I’d make him pay later. Right now I just wanted to get inside. “Why are you here?”

“Just making sure you got home safely.”

“I’m safe, so your job here is done. Don’t you have athingyou can go to?”

“Yeah. I thought I’d come in for a drink.”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re sexy as hell when you’re angry?”

“Not lately. Go home, Liam.”

He reached out and gently closed his hand around my arm. I had no choice but to tilt my head back so our eyes locked. “Are you sure?” he asked, his voice deep, sensual, and way too inviting.

Hesitation was my downfall. Liam noticed it, so there was no point in pretending that, in spite of my better judgment, I was immune to his charms. “One drink,” I said, more for my own benefit.

“That’s all I’m asking for.”

We went inside, and even though the contractor had arranged the space to give the illusion of grandeur, Liam’s presence made it seem small and close.

“Beer, or are you going to make some girly drink?” he asked, offering a beer in my direction.

“Beer is fine,” I said as I placed my purse and pashmina on the countertop.

Liam had been in my house for less than a minute and already the temperature seemed to be soaring. Maybe if I put some physical distance between us …?

As I started to move away, he slid his hand around my waist and kept me close. Taking the bottle from me, he placed it next to his and took a half step forward. I should have put a stop to things right then and there but that was easier said than done.

My senses were overwhelmed. I felt the heat emanating from his body. Smelled the familiar scent of his cologne. Looked up into those hooded blue eyes. Everything came together, making my knees threaten to buckle under me.

When I felt his fingers splay at the small of my back, an urgent shiver danced along my spine. My stomach filled with warmth until it knotted with need.

Liam lifted his free hand and cupped my cheek. His palm was slightly callused, amplifying the sensation. I was drowning in a pool of desire. What few brain cells were still working insistedI put an end to this, but they were easily shouted down by the pure sensuality I read in his eyes.

What would it hurt? My brain reasoned. We were two healthy, consenting adults. Hooking up was perfectly normal.

His hand slipped lower, gently moving my hair away so his hand rested against my neck.

“Your pulse is racing,” he said, his voice deeper and sexy as hell.

“That tends to happen when a man is about to kiss me.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Ask me.”

“Ask you what?”

“To kiss you.”

“I’m standing here, aren’t I?”

“Not the same thing.” His fingers began making maddening circles as just the tips slipped beneath my dress, toying with the hollow just above my collarbone.

My whole body tensed with anticipation. “Kiss me.”

There’s a kiss, and then there’s akiss. Liam’s lips brushed mine as he pulled me hard against him. I felt the hardness of thighs, his rippled muscles, and the broadness of his chest. Like a person about to fall off a ten-story building, I reached up and looped my arms around his neck.

As if acting of their own volition, my fingers couldn’t resist raking through his thick, black hair. Liam deepened the kiss, urging my lips apart and teasing them with his tongue. I was a pliant and willing participant. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to feel him. Skin against skin.

Lost in the magic of his mouth on mine, I slid my hands over his shoulders and began working on the top button of hisshirt. My hands were shaking, making it difficult to complete the rudimentary task. Finally, I managed to get it done and wasted no time slipping my fingers inside to feel the soft mat of hair. I could feel his heart pounding against his chest, and the knowledge that he was as turned on as I was made me feel powerful. And bold.

I quickly undid the other buttons and ran my hands all over his torso and back. Liam groaned against my lips as his fingers found my zipper.

Achingly slowly, he pulled the tab. I felt cool air against my overheated skin. My dress slid to the floor.

Liam lifted his mouth from mine and began trailing hot kisses over my neck and down to where lace met skin. He slipped a finger beneath my bra strap, and I saw flashes of light swaying on the wall.

It took my sex-starved brain a few seconds to realize I wasn’t seeing flashes of ecstasy but rather the reflection of a flashlight’s beam from the beach.


Page 6

Leaping back, I snagged my heel in my dress and nearly tumbled to the ground. Liam steadied me, and his gaze lingered on my nearly naked breasts before glancing over my shoulder.

“There’s someone out there,” I said as I grabbed the fabric from around my ankles and did my best to cover myself. Panic quickly drained the passion from my system.

Liam moved over to the glass door and slid it open. I could hear teenage voices and lots of hoots and laughter. Oh God! It had to be the kid from two doors down. He was sixteen or seventeen, with a trust fund and apparently a thing for peeping in my window.

Liam yelled at him and his friends, and as I tried to rezip my dress, the beam of the flashlight moved off.

By the time he turned back to me, I was pseudo-dressed and, judging from the heat I felt on my face, blushing like a schoolgirl.

Our eyes met briefly. Liam said, “Guess the moment passed, huh?”

I cleared my throat. “Divine intervention,” I mumbled. I raked my hair back. “It’s really late.”

He came a few steps closer. “Are you sure?” he asked.

Of course I wasn’t sure. “I’m …”

“Forget it,” he said, with an even tone that gave me no clue what he was actually thinking.

He took a long drink of beer and walked toward the Mustang; unlike me, he didn’t look back.

Some mothers serve as a wonderful example; my mother serves as a terrible warning.

three

“How humiliating was that?”Becky asked over the rim of the flute filled to the brim with mimosa.

Liv and Jane offered their condolences as well. Though all three had a sparkle of amusement in their respective eyes.

So much for sisterhood.

It was our welcome-summer splurge, brunch at the Breakers for a mere ninety dollars a head. Only thanks to Liv, we didn’t have to pay full price.

Sunday brunch at the Breakers was a Palm Beach institution. There were a dozen serving stations offering everything from omelets to bazillion-calorie desserts. Waiters and waitresses wore crisp, white coats as they attentively topped off drinks and cleared plates when guests went in search of their next course.

“Was the kid tolerable?” Liv asked.

I nodded. “Actually, she’s really smart and reminds me of … well … me.”

“Finley Junior,” Jane joked. “That I’d love to see.”

I offered her a snarky smile. “Well, the next time Tony needs a babysitter, I’ll give him your number.”

“Pass, thanks. After the debacle with Paolo, I’m going slowly when it comes to men, marriage, and children.”

“I’m starting to think that’s the way to go,” I said as I clinked glasses with Jane.

“What about Liam?” Liv asked as a waiter rushed over to refill her glass.

“He’s too complicated.”

Jane’s brows arched. “You’re writing him off?”

“He set me up to babysit, then came to my house to gloat,” I continued, explaining how he’d manipulated my night of board games and teenage bonding. I left out the we-almost-had-sex part.

“When he came to your place, did you invite him in?”

“For a few minutes. Then I sent him on his way.”

Jane ran one finger around the rim of her flute. “So he’s back in the dating pool?”

I had to put up a decent front. I didn’t want them to know how close I’d come to being a friend with benefits. Only Liam and I weren’t actually friends. We were … Hell, I didn’t know what we were. Safer just to pretend it never happened. “Yep. I hope he drowns in it.”

“Seriously?” Becky asked, her eyes narrowed.

I raised one hand. “Swear to God. He can be someone else’s problem.”

“You two have chemistry,” Liv injected.

“No, we have lust and …whatever. And a dose of manipulationon his part. Besides, I’m tired of his mixed signals. One minute he’s screwing with my mind, and the next minute he wants into my panties. I don’t want to have to work that hard.”

“Your loss,” Jane said.

“My sanity,” I corrected. “Liam is too complicated. There’s thethings. Ashley, the not-so-ex-wife. The fact that he seems to know what’s about to happen to me but never bothers to warn me. And let’s not forget that he knew about Patrick before I did and kept his gorgeous mouth closed.”

“Gorgeous mouth?” Becky repeated.

“Don’t read anything into that. I can be frustrated with him and still admire his physical attributes at the same time. Can we change the subject now?”

My three friends let it drop. Becky was chasing a bite of prime rib around her plate. “Your mom comes back today, right?”

I nodded. “I’m picking up three orchids on my way home.”

Liv laughed. “I swear, you’re like a botanical Lizzy Borden.”

Didn’t I know it. As did my mother. She insisted on leaving me in charge of her plants even though I have the blackest thumb in the world. So I’d developed a routine—I took photos on day one, then after the plants committed flora-cide, I took the pictures to Ricardo at the local nursery and he’d give me exact replicas. I’m pretty sure my mother knew exactly what was going on, yet she still insisted I play plant-sitter, even though the concierge at her building would have gladly taken care of the penthouse vegetation. And he probably wouldn’t get freaked out by the headless statues my mother collected.

“Why was she gone so long?” Becky asked.

“My guess is she had a little paint and bodywork done. Atlanta has some world-renowned plastic surgeons, and she was all freaked out over looking her best at Lisa’s wedding.”

“Geez,” Becky groaned. “If your mother has any more face-lifts, her ass will be a hat.”

That lightened the mood, and we spent the rest of our brunch overindulging ourselves on gourmet food and drink.

I was reluctant to end my time with my friends, but it was time to get back to the real world. For me that meant replacing plants, then settling in and studying for the Criminal Procedure final I had to pass on Tuesday night. It was the last class required for me to meet the strict conditions Tony had dictated when he’d yanked me from the relative comfort of trusts and estates.

Well, that was almost true. I’d still be doing trusts and estates, only now I got to add criminal work to my list of responsibilities. And there is nothing I loathe more than responsibility.

It took me a while to do the plant switch, then I drove back to my place on Chilian Drive. I recognized Harold the convict’s beat-up pickup truck and Sam’s shiny black BMW convertible parked in the horseshoe-shaped driveway. Something told me I should have answered one of the fifteen text messages Sam had been sending since this morning. Sam plus Harold meant only one thing—more construction. Which meant only another thing—more debt.

Shit.

I’d definitely shot my discretionary income on my babysitting outfit.

As soon as I stepped from my car, I heard the telltale soundof an electric drill. I walked through my house—actually, my shrine. Thanks to Sam’s professional decorating skills, the cottage was a haven.

Every time I opened the door, I swear I heard the sound of a choir singing the Hallelujah chorus. My breath stilled as I marveled at the wide entry hall with its pale, coral-colored tiled floor and walls. A narrow, whitewashed table against the right-hand wall held a spray of sea grasses in a clear glass vase, reflected in an enormous mirror. Beyond the hallway was a great room with a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. I could stand at the front door and see the beach. Sam had given me pale teal walls to complement the floors in the same peachy-coral tile as the entry hall. The big, squishy, invite-all-my-friends-over furniture was covered in casual white slipcovers and a teal-and-deep-coral area rug felt soft under bare feet. Bless his heart, Sam had even tossed deep teal throw pillows covered with branch coral designs all over the sofas. Sam was all in the details. So frigging cool.

Only now my view was partially obstructed by some PVC project off to the left of the lap pool. Screw with my view? I didn’t think so. I pulled off my shoes as I passed the kitchen. The white cabinets housed my entire Calphalon collection. In the stainless-steel appliances—unlike Tony’s, mine had a few fingerprints and smudges. In the black granite of the center island, you could see light reflected everywhere. Sleek and warm. Perfect for sipping a glass of wine with the girls while sitting on the teal-and-white–patterned fabric bar stools.

“You’re nuts!” I yelled as I yanked open the sliding glassdoor, my voice raised half from irritation and half just to be heard over the drill or whatever power tool Harold had buzzing. “What are you doing?”

Sam came toward me. He looked kinda like a young, thin Nathan Lane. Maybe it was the blatant way he wore his sexuality, or maybe it was his dark hair—now rumpled by the sea breeze—and the excitement evident in his eyes. At that moment I didn’t really care. My attention was fixed on the neat line of my cement patio that had been chiseled open like some surgical scar. “What are you doing?”

Sam Carter placed one hand on a hip and offered me an annoyed glance. “You’d know if you’d have answered at least one of my texts. I had a vision.”

Harold’s drill went silent, and he looked in my direction, nodding a brief hello. “Miss Finley.”

“You envisioned tearing up my patio and playing Erector set in my backyard?”

Sam shook his head. “It isn’t an Erector set, it’s a cabana. Or at least it will be when we finish.”

“It blocks the view.”

“One foot of the view,” he corrected. “Trust me. By this evening you’ll be lounging out here like a princess.”

“A princess eaten alive by insects.”

“I thought of that. Naturally.”

“Naturally,” I muttered.

Sam picked up the smallest of the eight boxes piled off to one side of the patio. “This little gizmo will keep the bugs away.”

It looked like a watering can.

“I’m supposed to drown them?”

“No,” he replied impatiently. “You light this and smoke the area around the cabana. It’ll keep the bugs at bay for hours.”

Okay, that was cool, but it still didn’t appease my irritation at having him build the rectangular thing. “Why did you dig up the cement?”

“We’re going to add electricity to the cabana. That way you’ll have a fan and lights in case you want to sit out here and study or whatever.”

I walked over and looked at the skeletal structure. I’m not the kind of person who can envision a finished project, so I said, “Tell me about this thing.”

Sam instantly became animated. “Once Harold has all the braces cemented into place,” he continued as he took my hand and led me over to the boxes, “then we drape this ecru sailcloth around the poles. And once that’s done, we hang the fan and the lights, and add the furniture.”

Sam pointed to the pictures on the sides of three cartons. “There’ll be a chaise, two accent chairs, and molded tables.”

“Plastic tables?”

He rolled his eyes. “Anything else would mildew and/or stain the cement in a matter of a month. Knowing you, I went with practical.”

“All done!” Harold called as he placed his cordless drill in his toolbox.

Even from a distance I could make out the prison tattoos on his left hand. Just below the knuckle on his left hand each finger had a crude letter and with his fingers together, they spelled outFUCK. Not his classiest moment.

I needed a few minutes to myself to take in this latest project,so I excused myself and walked inside to my bedroom, the pièce de résistance of my home. The only color in the room was the teal on the walls. Everything else was white, giving it the posh look of the finest hotel rooms in the world.

I stepped into my spacious walk-in closet—a complete renovation and replacement, given the mummified remains I had discovered in the original closet during my first walk-through—and considered my next ensemble. After looking at the offerings, I grabbed a bathing suit and sarong, then changed and leisurely removed my makeup. On my way back outside, I picked up my Criminal Procedure study guide. I loathed the idea of wasting the rest of my Sunday studying for my test, but I was starting to warm up to the idea of a cabana. Most of my neighbors had cabanas. Well, that wasn’texactlytrue. What they had was pool houses, but hey, a cabana worked.

As I stepped back out onto the lanai, most of my reservations were behind me. I’d tossed my study guide on the counter, and with my sunglasses dangling from my mouth, I was twisting my hair up. Harold started pouring concrete into the holes while Sam steadied the framing. Wires snaked out of the ground near the edge of the concrete. Sam paid me no attention as I went past him on my way to one of two teak lounge chairs at the water’s edge. The creepy sensation of Harold’s eyes on me quickened my step. Nothing like having an ex-con staring at your butt.

The June sun was bright and beat down on me relentlessly, forcing me to take frequent dips in the warm ocean to escape the heat. While I didn’t relish the idea of walking past Harold on my way back up to the house, it wasn’t long before I wasdesperate for a bottle of water. Luckily for me, when I stood, I realized he was no longer pouring concrete.


Page 7

The poles were now braced with two-by-fours, and Sam was busy unpacking and assembling the furniture. My lanai was a mess of paper, plastic, and other stuff that I had to step over to get to the sliding door.

“Want some water?” I asked.

“Just got some.”

“Make yourself at home,” I teased. “What happened to Harold?”

“He went out for lunch.”

I peered inside the house. “Lunch at three thirty?”

“The cement has to harden before I can drape the fabric.”

“I thought it was quick set.”

“It is, but I want to give it an extra half hour or so.”

I swallowed a groan as I went in and grabbed my drink. I was still stuffed from brunch.

Sam stepped inside and said, “I’m going back to the store to replace the fan. Rattan will be more appropriate, and I want to get some potted plants as well.”

This time I groaned aloud. “Plants?”

“Native plants. Minimum care and feeding.”

“Maximum replacement.”

He shook his head. “I’ll pick up one of those automatic watering bulbs. You’ll do fine.”

“I doubt that,” I mumbled.

“I heard that.”

The house was quiet, at least for the moment, so reluctantly I decided to retrieve my book so I could continue my studyingin air-conditioned comfort. No sooner had I grabbed the study guide than I heard car tires on the crushed-shell driveway. Not enough time for Sam to get to the store, shop, and return, so it had to be Harold. So much for peace and quiet. I tied my sarong up around my neck and was on the way to my bedroom when the chime from the doorbell startled me.

Peering through the narrow window on the side of the door, my heart stopped. A polished Bentley was parked on the grass. I felt the muscles in my shoulder knot as I retraced my steps and reached for the knob. Of course she had to pick today. My mind swirled as I indexed the things I would have done had I known she’d actually show up. Oh well, nothing I could do now.

Plastering a pleasant smile on my face, I opened the door wide. Standing regally on my front porch was Cassidy Presley Tanner Browning Rossi. My mother.

“Hi, Mom,” I greeted, adding the customary country club air kiss on either side of her face. Well, not her face. She was wearing a scarf tied forward and giant dark glasses, so the only thing I could see was the tip of her nose and her newly—and overly—plumped lips.

“Finley,” she returned, her mouth moving a lot like guppy lips. Not that guppies have lips, but the analogy was working for me.

“Welcome to my home,” I said enthusiastically. My arm swung in a wide arc. “Please, come in.”

As usual, my mother thumbed her nose at the hot afternoon weather by wearing a tailored green suit with a pale mint silk blouse beneath. I often wondered if she was the last woman in Palm Beach County to still wear panty hose. Slowly, she removedher scarf and glasses. Faded bruises around her hairline told me she’d had yet another thread lift, along with some collagen and Botox. Her vanity was unwarranted, given the fact that she didn’t even look her true age. Then again, very few people knew her true age. She’d lied about it so often, and for so long, it was possible that even she didn’t know she was about to hit fifty. Lisa’s wedding created a problem; she couldn’t shave a decade off her age with her daughters around. Quite the conundrum. She had been twenty-two when I was born and twenty-five when Lisa came along, so she’d have no choice but to own up to her fifty years.

She glanced around the great room, but thanks to the Botox, I couldn’t gauge her reaction.

“When do you plan on decorating?”

Direct hit. No matter how old I got, her zingers still stung. “It is decorated, Mom.”

“Oh.”

“You hate it,” I said, my spirits sinking.

“I just never would have considered decor best suited to an outdoor eatery. But then again, it makes sense. You and your friends are partial to those waterfront bars.”

“Would you like something to drink?”Arsenic, perhaps?

“I’d like to see the rest of the cottage first.”

“Follow me,” I said, with a mental picture of holding a gun to my head and slowly pulling the trigger. In under thirty seconds my mother had me committing virtual suicide.

I got a lot of “uh-huh”s as we went from room to room, then what I hoped was the final noncompliment when we reached my bedroom.

“I had no idea you’d be napping in the middle of the day,” she said, her puffy lips managing a scowl as she looked at my unmade bed.

“I had a late night,” I explained. I detoured her away from the bathroom, where I’d left my brunch outfit crumpled on the floor. I wasn’t usually such a slob, but with Harold here, the quick change was a must.

“Yes, I know,” she said.

“You know what?” I asked as I led the way back toward the kitchen.

“About your second job.”

It took me a minute to follow the winding path that was her logic. “I don’t have a second job.”

We returned to the great room. I sat on the sofa and offered her the chair across from me. She opted to stand.

“But Mr. Caprelli said you were a babysitter.”

“Hang on. You spoke to my boss?”

“Of course, I needed Mr. Caprelli’s address for the invitation.”

“Are you having a party or something?” First I was hearing about it.

She shook her head as if I’d just suggested she vacation in Iraq. “I called him to ask if he would serve as your escort.”

The hair on my arms stood up, and my skin tingled with dread. “My escort for what?”

“Well,” she began as she lifted her scarf off her shoulders and began to retie it, “since you so abruptly ended your relations with Patrick, and even though I have a million things to attend to, I had to find you a suitable escort for the wedding.”

Blood rushed to my head rendering me temporarily deaf. “So you called Tony?”

“He’s successful. He’s a lovely man. He comes from a very influential family in New York. Did you know his father owns one of the largest investment firms and is considered a financial genius? His mother is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. He’s perfect as an escort. He’ll photograph quite nicely, too.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“I’m far from being facetious. The photographs are Lisa’s keepsake memories that—”

My door opened, and Liam appeared. Normally, I would have been furious about him just bursting into my home, but I was stuck on planet Cassidy.

“You should not have done that,” I explained, desperately trying not to grit my teeth or allow steam to come rushing out of my ears. I gave a sideways glance to Liam, who was wearing a grease-stained T-shirt and ragged jeans. His hair was mussed. “I already have an escort to the wedding.”

My mother’s spine straightened. “And that would be whom?”

“Liam,” I said, pointing to the unkempt man near the doorway.

I thought for a moment that my announcement had the Botox draining from my mother’s forehead. Botox or not, I knew there was a frown in there somewhere, but she rammed her sunglasses on her face and marched her heeled feet to the door. Sidestepping Liam, she waltzed out without another word.

I, on the other hand, was grinning, bordering on giddy. That moment ended when I remembered Liam’s entrance. Standing, I asked, “Are the words ‘my house’ somehow confusing to you?”

“No, Ellen sent me. She’s been calling you for the last two hours, and when you didn’t answer your landline or your cell, she called and asked me to come check on you.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“For me, too,” he said. “I was working on my car.”

“I hope you were working on pushing it off a bridge.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Call your boss so I can get back to what I was doing.”

As he turned to leave, I said, “Don’t ever walk in my house without an invitation again.”

“Speaking of invitations, I accept.”

“Accept what?”

“I’ll escort you to your sister’s wedding.”

I was still staring at the closed door five minutes after he left.

Favors you do for friends; everyone else pays.

four

I sat down andlistened to the half-dozen voice mails Ellen had left on my machine. With each one, her voice sounded more irritated than concerned. “So why send Liam?” I muttered as I copied her home number onto the Lilly Pulitzer notepad I kept near the phone, along with a matching pen, of course.

Curious, I wanted to check my set-on-vibrate cell phone. So I grabbed my purse—a major score if I did say so myself. Coach. White leather with cute little tassels. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Only three of the original four tassels were still in place, which is why I paid less than thirty dollars for it in an eBay auction. My mother had cut me off from Jonathan’s trust fund more than a year ago, her version of teaching me to fend for myself and be more responsible.

Jonathan and my mom married when I was still a toddler. He’d adopted me when I was three and always treated me as if I was as good as, if not better than, my sister. I’d discovered myillegitimacy and adoption when I was thirteen, after sneaking into my mother’s lingerie drawer. My goal had been to check out the La Perla. Instead, I got the whole scoop on attempts to notify Misters Finley and Anderson. Eventually, my mother explained the whole story, but it was Jonathan who’d sat next to me, gently stroking my hair and my self-esteem.

At any rate, he’d left Lisa and me individual trusts but had given my mother the power to control any withdrawals. Lisa had full access while I was cut off, sending me into the nether world of discount designers and factory damage.

I was a master at it now. Not even Becky had clued in to the fact that my designer stuff was secondhand at best, gently used at worst. And I’d like to keep it that way. A girl’s gotta have her secrets.

Just thinking about secrets, my mind drifts to Liam. Forget that I know virtually nothing about him. The one thing I do know is that he keeps everything close to the vest. Thankfully not literally. A guy in a vest does nothing for me. The mere thought of secrets instantly had Liam’s face taunting my thought processes.

I was still fuming mad about the babysitting thing, and even angrier at myself for allowing things to go as far as they had. He thought nothing of bursting into my home without so much as knocking. For all he knew someone could be in here holding me hostage at gunpoint. And therein lay the rub. He was completely wrong for me, and yet in the past, he’d risked his personal safety for me. Did he have to be chivalrous and irritating at the same time?

I took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly as I slid thebar on my iPhone and instantly discovered I had seventeen more messages from Ellen and one from Becky. I deleted them without listening, sure they were just repeats of the “call me immediately” mantras she’d left on my landline. Dane-Lieberman owned me five days a week, and Sunday wasn’t one of them.

“Lieberman.”

“Ellen, this is Finley returning your—”

“So Liam finally found you.”

“It’s Sunday. I was at the beach, not in the witness protection plan.”

“Excuse me?”

I winced. Probably not the smartest move to be a wiseass to one of my bosses. “Sorry, sunstroke,” I muttered. “What do you need?”

“I’ve scheduled an eight o’clock meeting with Miss Egghardt. You handled the estate. The appointment is with Lenora Egghardt regarding her uncle’s estate and some sort of money order she received.

“From the tenants Lenora wasn’t sure existed?”

“Probably. And she now insists she has knowledge of some real property currently in the possession of those elusive tenants and thinks it is possible that they are distant cousins. Looks like you’re going to have to reopen the estate, and I just want to make sure you exercised due diligence in your attempts to deal with the heirs. I want you at that meeting.”

Luckily, she couldn’t see me roll my eyes. “I’ll be there.”

“Be there at seven thirty. I want you to bring me up to speed on this before I review any real estate documents. I’ll need to besure we didn’t close the estateagain, without dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s.”

“I think you’ll find everything was in order. I followed the law. Notices were filed in thePalm Beach Post,” I said, feeling a little irritated by the implication that I’d failed to do my job. While I may not be the most enthusiastic employee, I was good at what I did, especially when it came to trusts and estates. “How did this end up on your desk? Usually Vain—er, Mr. Dane handles this sort of thing.”

“I’m assuming it’s because of the potential contractual issues. I did meet with Mr. Egghardt once. It doesn’t matter. Just be here at seven thirty. My office.”

“My pleasure.” I felt my nose growing. There was nothing pleasurable about being at work at seven thirty in the morning.

I speed-dialed Becky. She answered on the third ring. “Your boss just became a pain in my butt.”

“Ellen? Makes sense. She seemed kinda desperate to find you. And in spite of what you think, she likes you. Thinks you have potential.”


Page 8

“No, she likesyouand thinksyouhave potential. You’re the teacher’s pet,” I teased. I then recapped everything from coming home, to the beach, to the new construction, then shared that part about Liam barging in through the door while my mother was here and finished up with the end of my phone call with Lieberman. “Can you believe that?”

“I don’t know. Sounds very knight-on-white-horse-ish to me. He really just burst in?”

“I was talking about Ellen’s meeting time, but yes, he did burst right in. And somehow the next thing I knew, I was tellingmy mother I was bringing Liam to Atlanta as my date for Lisa’s wedding.”

“Did she stroke out right there on the floor?”

“Practically,” I said, feeling the tension drain from my shoulders. After all, the expression on her face was classic. “It did shut her up about the wedding escort. So now, when I come solo, she’ll be grateful. Well played, I thought.”

“Unless Tony and Liam both show up. She actually called Tony?”

“Don’t remind me. I have to see him tomorrow. Not sure how I’m going to explain my mother to him.”

“Mention your mother is desperate to marry you off. Most guys hear the ‘m’ word and run screaming from the room.”

“Why didn’t Ellen send you? Why send Liam?”

“Well, she did call me, but I told the truth. I had no idea where you were. I even skipped the whole brunch thing. I’m still not sure letting anyone at the firm know we’re tight is in my best interests.”

“I know, but that still doesn’t solve my Liam conundrum.”

“Ellen was probably annoyed and figured sending a Liam-O-Gram was a speedy solution.”

Liam is a lot of things, but a solution isn’t one of them.

After a fitful night, I got up early and drank my pot of coffee while sitting on the draped chaise next to the pool. Sam was right: the cabana was perfect. The warm breeze coming off the ocean made the bug smoker unnecessary, and I watched thegiant red ball of the sun rise, casting a bright golden blanket on the water. I wasn't thrilled when I had to abandon my comfy cocoon to get dressed for work.

I selected a funky Helen Berman dress I’d picked up at the thrift store for Bethesda-by-the-Sea. One of the many pluses of living in Palm Beach proper was easy access to a thrift store where I could find everything from vintage Versace to BCBG shoes, all barely to gently worn by well-heeled islanders. Twice a year, they even had blowout sales. I already had the dates circled in red on my calendar.

Because I’m only five-four, I tend to avoid empire waists with bow accents, but this dress, with its black bodice and white skirt, had been a great bargain and way too cute to pass up. Plus, it gave me an excuse to wear my black Jimmy Choo patent-leather cuff sandals with the very,veryhigh heels. I’d gotten them at half price because of an imperfection in the stitching on the inside right cuff, but unless someone got down on her hands and knees for inspection, my secret was safe.

The drive to Dane-Lieberman was much quicker at o’-dark-thirty, leaving me time to swing through the Starbucks for a venti frappe. Even though I’d already downed a pot of coffee, my caffeine levels were still way too low for maximum concentration.

I parked my shiny Mercedes next to Ellen’s utilitarian Volvo, grabbed my purse, and fished for the office keys as I walked toward the etched-glass doors with the names of the partners accented in gold.

Maudlin Margaret’s desk was deserted, and I couldn’t resist leaving a faux message on her pink pad. It read:

“Miss Egghardt arriving at eight, please send her up as soon as possible.”

I wrote the date and time just to jerk her chain, then took the elevators to the second floor. It was just shy of my meeting time, so I turned on my computer and my personal coffeemaker, shoved my purse into the bottom drawer of my desk, then spun in my seat to place my briefcase—which held my study guide for tomorrow night’s test—inside one of three vertical filing cabinets adorning my office.

I was still happy with my new digs. And even happier that I’d gotten them by solving not one but two murders. Well, solving may be a bit of a stretch, but I had been an integral part of unearthing the culprits, even if I did have some marginal help from Liam. Okay, so maybe marginal was a bit of a stretch, but it didn’t matter. Vain Dane had given me the private office with a view of City Place to lure me back to working at the firm. He’d fired me twice in six months, and I wasn’t about to return without some major perks.

With the Egghardt file and ever-ready pad and pen in hand, I took the elevator to the fourth-floor executive suite. Ellen’s office was to the left of the elevator, off the circular lobby. I walked with conviction and the knowledge that five-and-a-half-inch heels were not the best walking shoes ever invented. But as my grandmother often said, “You have to suffer to be lovely.”

I had just passed the conference room when Ellen called my name. Pivoting, I found her seated at the head of the long table, several boundary maps rolled out in front of her, the corners anchored by staplers.

She checked her watch. “Very good.”

Very early. “Good morning,” I said, refusing to allow her sarcastic tone to get under my skin. I placed my coffee and pad on the table at the spot to her left.

“Are those your notes and the estate file?” she asked as she glanced up from the map.

No, it’s my grocery list.“Yes, I knew you wanted to review it before Lenora gets here. Oh, and I hear congratulations are in order.”

Ellen peered up through her mascara-free lashes. “Thanks.”

Thanks? You’d think she’d be a tad more excited. It wasn’t like a daily thing to be named one of Florida’s “Top 100 Lawyers” in the Sunday paper.

Dismissing the topic as if my comments were unimportant, Ellen read most of the pages in my file while I was left with nothing to do. Bored after seven minutes, I went to the coffeepot and refilled both our mugs. It wasn’t until I placed one next to Ellen that I noticed the faint smell of sweet pea, freesia, and hyacinth, and I realized she was wearing Acqua Di Gio perfume by Armani. The designer fragrance was at odds with her brown-and-green shapeless dress and Jesus sandals. The perfume was soft and feminine, when everything else about her screamed “I don’t give a shit what I look like!” She had about four inches of white-gray roots before curly red hair fell well below her shoulders. The woman is just weird. She doesn’t bother to wax her brows, yet she wears a seventy-dollar-an-ounce fragrance. I’d never known her to wear perfume, but then again, this was the first time I’d seen her so early in the morning. Apparently, she didn’t subscribe to the theory that perfume, like lipstick, requires reapplication during the day.

When she finished, she asked, “Why didn’t you ask Liam to try to find the elusive second cousins-slash-tenants?”

“Technically, they would be third cousins, and when I handled the estate, Liam wasn’t on retainer with Dane-Lieberman. Then there was the problem of Lenora not knowing any names or if they were relatives or tenants or even the location and boundaries of the land out in Indiantown.”

“Did you drive out to Indiantown?”

“Yes,” I practically hissed. “I went through the local property records at the library—if you can call it that—and couldn’t find anything. I checked the Martin County Property Clerk’s Office, and all I found was that the land was owned by Lenora’s aunt and uncle and there was no record of the property being transferred after 1931. It’s all right there in the abstract.”

Ellen smiled. “Taking pride in your work, are you?”

If I was, it was purely by accident. “No. I just feel confident that I did everything possible at the time. It was three years ago.”

“And yet you remember everything. That would serve you well if you decided to go to law school.”

“Is your coffee warm enough?” I asked, not willing to beat this dead horse again. Like my mother, Ellen couldn’t seem to grasp that I didn’t want to further my education. I was happy with my normally nine-to-five job, and I had no intention of spending three more years in college.

“My coffee is fine. Show me exactly where the property is”—she paused to check her zillion-year-old utilitarian Timex—“then go down to the lobby and let Lenora in, since Margaret won’t be here for another few—”

The sound of the intercom cut her off. “Yes?” Ellen asked as she pressed the flashing green button on the phone.

“Is Finley there?” It was Margaret. “Her client has arrived.”

“Thank you, Margaret. You can send Ms. Egghardt up to my conference room.”

“Where would you like me?” I asked.

“In law school.” She offered a small smile with the suggestion. “Here,” she said, pointing to the chair to her left. “But could you go to the elevators? Leslie-Anne doesn’t get here until nine.”

Leslie-Anne. So that was the name of the executive assistant who still called me Miss Tanner after eight and a half years. Then again, I still called her Mrs. Greenfelder, so I couldn’t see me giving her a shout-out as Leslie-Anne any time soon.

By the time I reached the elevators, Lenora was stepping out, decked head to toe in Louis Vuitton. Her brown hair was pixie short, but it fit her small, delicate features. She was about three inches shorter than I am even without my killer heels on. When she looked up, the broad smile on her glossed lips was mirrored in her hazel eyes.

Lenora was not to the manor born but rather the great-granddaughter of a Gilded Age tycoon. The Egghardt name had some cachet, but the millions were long gone. Still, she’d married well and divorced even better.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Good. I’m glad you’re still working on this mess. I thought I was done sorting through my uncle’s things, and then out of the blue, I get this.” She thrust a slightly rumpled envelope toward me as we walked to the conference area.

Pulling the letter out, I found a note and a money order for thirty dollars with rent scratched on the memo line, only it was spelled “rint.” The note just said, “This covers the end.” The signature was almost illegible.

“Ellen Lieberman, this is Lenora Egghardt,” I said, then completed the introduction. As I did, I noticed Lenora’s eyes fixed on Ellen. God, I hoped it wasn’t the muumuu.

“Have we met?” Lenora asked as she extended her hand.

Ellen blinked rapidly. “I think we may have met once in the elevator.”

Lenora was shaking her head. “No, I think it was longer ago than that. Your face looks so familiar.”

Ellen shrugged, and her eyes were downcast. “I just have one of those faces.”

What?I wondered.The kind with no makeup, crying out for a facial?How could Ellen not know that she had perfect bone structure, even more perfect, long-lashed eyes, and from what I could tell beneath the ever-present tent dress, a great shape?

“Shall we get started?” Ellen asked as she pointed to the seat opposite mine.

I passed the contents of the envelope to Ellen as Lenora explained what had transpired. We spent the next forty-five minutes looking at various maps of the area in question. Uncle Walter had died intestate in Lenora’s home. His dementia was such that for his last few years on earth he spoke little more than gibberish. When he died, Lenora, as next of kin, inherited everything, including several hundred acres of primo citrus groves. Thanks to citrus canker, she was about to turn fifty acres into a state-of-the-art equestrian center, hopefully drawing clientsfrom Payson Park, the premier racetrack in the area—until she’d received the rent payment and begun to wonder if the distant cousin Walter had once mentioned more than a decade ago had finally surfaced.

If he/she had, the only lead was the return address on the envelope, a post office box in Indiantown.

“I’m sorry for staring,” Lenora said to Ellen. “I’m still trying to figure out why you look so familiar.”

Ellen rolled the chair back from the table and stood. “I’m sure you’re mistaking me for someone else. I’ll have Finley walk you to your car, and you’ll hear from us as soon as we make contact with the tenant.” She turned to me. “See to Ms. Egghardt, then come back up here.”

The two women shook hands, and I hurried around to the doorway to lead Lenora back downstairs. She had fine lines on her brow as she continued to concentrate. “I could swear I know that woman. I just can’t place her.”

I pressed the elevator button, then turned briefly to the executive assistant. “Good morning, Leslie-Anne.” I left her alone with her shocked expression as Lenora and I stepped inside the empty elevator.

“Is Lieberman a married name?”

I shrugged. I’d always thought of Ellen as some sort of asexual creature. Like a worm. Lenora wasn’t giving up though. She asked me question after question, and I realized I knew close to nothing about Ellen. Not even her home address. Hell, until yesterday, I hadn’t even known her home phone number.

As we headed out of the lobby, I shielded my eyes from the bright sun glistening off the cars and shop windows. The heatwas already stifling, creating water mirages on the pavement of the parking lot.


Page 9

“I’ll be in touch,” I promised as I held open her door. “Take care.”

“Thank you, Finley.”

As I stepped away from the car, I caught a glimpse of movement over the hedge bordering the lot. When I looked in that direction, it was deserted. Obviously, the mirages weren’t limited only to the blacktop.

As I headed back to my office, I walked slowly. Yes, part of it was my lack of any sense of urgency, but a huge part of my reasoning was practical—I was teetering on my heels. Well, maybe knowing Margaret was just settling behind her desk played a role as well. “Good morning,” I greeted as I strolled past her, my heels clicking rhythmically until I reached the elevator.

Margaret’s “Morning” was offered to my back, but I heard the resentment on every letter. She prided herself on being early to work. Normally, I was satisfied if I started being productive before ten.

I headed back up to the fourth floor. My not-so-best-friend Leslie-Anne sat stiffly behind her desk. “May I help you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Just going back to retrieve some things from my meeting, but thanks.”

Ellen wasn’t in the conference room but all the paperwork was just as we’d left it. I folded what needed to be folded, then placed everything neatly back into the manila folder withEGGHARDTtyped neatly on the label. With that accomplished, I took two coffee mugs—mine and Lenora’s—rinsed them, andplaced them into the custom washer hidden inside one of the cabinets. I was a little surprised that Ellen still hadn’t returned.

Walking over to the window, I glanced out through the darkened mirrored windows. The view faced southwest, allowing me to see some of the West Palm skyline and a sliver of the parking lot. My attention instantly went to the parking lot. Someone—a woman—stood behind Ellen’s Volvo, and it looked like she was copying the license plate number. That was weird. Well, maybe not. The woman was wearing dark blue or black shorts, a short-sleeve white shirt, functional black walking shoes, and a dark baseball cap with her blond ponytail pulled through the back. She looked like a traffic enforcement officer. I smiled slowly. Apparently, one of the other things I’d never known about my boss was she either didn’t pay her parking tickets or she’d left the scene of an accident.

Since I couldn’t see Ellen leaving the scene, I’d already decided she was about to do penance for ignoring tickets. But I was really having a hard time believing that, either. She struck me as the type of person who followed every rule to the letter. It had to be a mistake, but at least it would inconvenience her, which was penance enough for having dragged me in at the crack of dawn.

I turned around when I heard a sound behind me. It was Ellen, two large shopping bags draped over each arm. I probably should have mentioned the thing with her car and would have if the next words out of her mouth hadn’t been, “I need you to drop these off at the thrift store.”

Saturday I’m a babysitter, and Monday I’m a Sherpa? Don’t remember any of those being in my job description. I stared blankly.

Ellen let out a slow breath and smiled at me. “I’m not trying to be demeaning, I’m just asking a favor. I meant to get these to the St. Luke’s Thrift Shop in West Palm over the weekend, but the time got away from me. The store is on your way home from work.”

“But it closes at five.”

“Then leave early.”

I went over and relieved her of the bags. “Done.”

Never send a high-maintenance woman to a low-maintained town.

five

By the time Ireached my office, the weight of Ellen’s bags had left red lines on my wrists and forearms. After tossing the Egghardt file on my desk, I placed the bags on the floor, then gently shoved them against the wall with my foot. In no time, my office began to smell like cedar. I knew the bags were filled with clothing and couldn’t wait to secretly go through them. I don’t think there’s a big market for muumuus and ugly sandals at the West Palm Beach thrift store. But it would be fun to see what Ellen considered donation material.

Well, that would have to wait.

I filled a new mug with coffee, sat down, and wiggled my mouse until my computer came out of hibernation. Since I’d lost my bid on the watch face and still needed a lot of Rolex parts, I skipped checking my e-mail and went straight to eBay. I found a couple of links and a new listing for a watch face and placed bids on all of them. I could almost hear Jane’s voice inmy head begging me to step away from the eBid! I didn’t listen. I also couldn’t help checking the items Izzy was bidding on; for some strange reason I was very invested in making sure she had all the parts and pieces for her school dance ensemble. So far, so good. Well, until Tony found out his evening at the opera had cost him way more than he knew.

I sat back and sipped my coffee. “Crap,” I said under my breath. I needed my job, which meant I really should say something to Tony about my eBay influence on his daughter. But if I did, I’d have to undo the invitation my mother had orchestrated at the same time. “My mommy got me a date” was so flipping humiliating.

Summoning my courage, I opened my e-mail, fully prepared to send Tony a quick message explaining things when I spotted an e-mail from Izzy. My courage-o-meter dropped. There was no way she’d know my office e-mail. Well, if she knew her dad’s e-mail, maybe she had figured it out on her own. I don’t remember being asked if I wanted a new buddy on my e-mail list.

Izzy’s e-mail was a smart, amusing, and enthusiastic thank-you for Saturday night. Part of me was really touched, and my ego was a bit stroked by the blatant adulation from Izzy. Until I reached the third paragraph.

 

… am SO looking forward to Atlanta. It’ll be way cool. I’ve never been to Six Flags, and Dad hasn’t taken a vaca since before we moved here. I know it’s not 100% for sure, but if we come can I wear the Betsey dress for the wedding? Will you help me with hair and stuff?—Izzy

 

“Now what do I do?” I whined. Now there was no way I could uninvite Tony. Not without disappointing Izzy. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go with Tony, who wouldn’t? But now it was a Caprelli family affair, all thanks to my mother. I knew from experience that she would make a point of telling anyone and everyone that she’d personally selected the tall, dark, and handsome attorney for me.

“What do you do about what?” Becky asked as she sauntered in, filled her coffee mug from my personal stash, and then sat in one of the chairs across from me.

“Tony already told his daughter they might be going to the wedding.”

Becky’s perfect brows arched. “Well, well. Looks like you’ll get that date after all.”

“Date? He’s bringing his daughter. It’s not a date, it’s coparenting.” I gave her a recap of how the “date” happened and how I had “invited” Liam out of spite.

Becky’s eyes glistened with humor. “So you went from no date to two dates in the span of a few seconds? Well, which one are you going to choose? You’ve been hot for Liam for a long time. But I know you’re hot for Tony, and you said you liked the kid.”

“I do.”

“Then maybe you should have them draw straws or something. Or you could send each of them naked photos of yourself. First one to reply wins.” Becky was enjoying thiswaaaaytoo much.

She sniffed the air around her. “What is that smell?”

I pointed to Ellen’s four bags. “How come she didn’t ask you to run her personal errands?”

“Because I went to law school,” she replied with a wry grin.

“I don’t like you anymore.”

“Sure you do. So what’s your plan? Maybe you won’t need one. Maybe Liam will have athing.”

The dreadedthing.“You’re right. He has way too manythings.” Decision made. I’d just keep uninviting until he got it. Maybe I’ll even tell him I have athing.

“Good choice, given what happened last night,” Becky said. I guess my confusion showed because she added, “Didn’t you get an e-mail from Jane?”

I shook my head. “I haven’t been through my in-box yet, why?”

Becky rose. “I think I’ll leave you alone with your e-mail.”

“Why? What happened?” A knot was forming in the pit of my stomach.

It was Becky’s turn to shake her head. “Oh, no. You’re on your own with that one. It’s between you and Jane.”

After Becky’s swift exit, I scrolled through my e-mail until I found Jane’s, then clicked to open it. It was addressed to me with a subject line reading “SOOOOO SORRY!”

I read it, then read it again, my mind spinning as I absorbed the contents. Turns out Jane went to Sunday ladies’ night at the Blue Martini and was enjoying several mango martinis before the rest of the evening got a little fuzzy. The last thing she remembered was Liam stripping off most of her clothing and placing her in bed.

I felt angry and hurt. Could one of my best friends have had sex with Liam? My rational side asked,And why not? You did announce he was free for the taking at brunch.Which was true.My irrational side reasoned that that didn’t mean I wanted Jane jumping his bones a mere ten hours later. I had no valid reason for being angry or hurt. But I was.

In fact, I was frosted and needed to get out of the office. Stuffing the Egghardt folder in my briefcase and grabbing my purse and all of Ellen’s crap, I headed downstairs.

As I breezed past Margaret, she called my name.

“What?” I snapped.

“Mr. McGarrity is on line two for you.”

“Tell him I died,” I said, then took two steps and added, “I’m going out to Indiantown. My cell is on.”

I was so tangled with four bags, my heavy briefcase, and my purse that I had to shake and wriggle to free the fingers holding my key ring. I found my car key, hit the Unlock button, and hoisted the bags of clothing into the trunk. At least two of the bags tore, and the other two dumped their contents. Oh, and my purse tilted and my very favorite Red Envelope gift-with-purchase mirrored compact hit the ground and shattered.Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

This was turning into a seriously bad Monday, and it was only nine forty. Once I was behind the wheel, I keyed my destination into the GPS. I’d driven out to Indiantown a few times over the years, but certainly not enough to know the way by rote. I took my iPhone out of my purse and inserted it into the little auxiliary plug next to the stereo, then rested the actual phone in one of the two cup holders in the front console. Now I could talk on the phone and use a whole bunch of other nifty apps without ever taking my hands off the wheel. As I waited for the light to change on Australian, I just happened to glanceout my window and saw a semi-familiar blonde. She was seated behind the wheel of a nondescript, white, two-door car. She turned her head, saw me, then quickly whipped back around into profile and was pulling her baseball cap lower when the car behind me honked its horn, startling me.

I had no choice but to drive on, but I did try looking into my mirror, hoping to get a clearer view of her face. No luck. Then again, I wasn’t exactly having a rock-star kinda day. As I drove, I used only my thumbs to select a playlist on my iPhone, then hit the Play button. Indiantown was at least a thirty-minute drive. In my case, I’d have to add a few minutes so I could swing off I-95 at Palm City to grab a coffee to go from Cracker Barrel.

In no time I was walking past the trademark, for-sale Adirondack chairs, then into the kitschy restaurant-retail store, where I immediately smelled coffee, buttery biscuits, and bacon. My stomach rumbled a reminder that I had yet to eat. Unable to resist, I added an order of bacon to my large coffee, then browsed around waiting for my name to be called.

As always, the cramped space was filled with people from infant to ancient. I wasn’t a collector—well, I was when it came to certain things, but hearth-and-homey things didn’t do it for me. I did love the retro candies and made a point of buying Becky a box of Moon Pies. She’d be in heaven. She was a Moon Pie aficionado. I failed to see the culinary allure, but who was I to judge? I’m addicted to Lucky Charms. And I’m a purist—I think the original marshmallow shapes—pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers—taste better than the ever-expanding offerings. I’m still warming up to the blue diamonds,and now they have horseshoes, balloons, shooting stars, hourglasses, and leprechauns. And don’t even get me started on the magical key and door. What’s the purpose of adding a marshmallow that disappears when the milk is added? Not that I use milk. I’m a right-out-of-the-box consumer.

Now I was jonesing for Lucky Charms. Instead, I had to content myself with three strips of crispy bacon and a twenty-four-ounce coffee. Just as I merged back onto the highway, my mind finally placed the face of the blond woman at the traffic light. She was the blonde who’d been copying the license plate on Ellen’s Volvo.

I felt my brows pinch as a strange feeling came over me. The car she’d been driving wasn’t a standard-issue traffic enforcement car. I’ve gotten my fair share of tickets, so I know they use smart cars and/or clearly marked and painted four-door sedans with ramming grates mounted on the grilles. The blonde’s car looked more like a rental. Was I being followed?


Page 10

“Am I being ridiculous?” I asked myself over the techno vocals of Lady Gaga singing “Poker Face.” I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be following me. The other times I’d been followed, there had been reasons for it. None of them positive, mind you.

My cell rang, and the caller ID showed it was Jane.

I hesitated for a minute, then pressed the Answer button with my thumb. I uttered a stiff, “Hello.”

“Please don’t be mad.”

After a brief pause I said, “I have no reason to be mad.”

“But you are, I can hear it in your voice.”

“Sorry.”

“C’mon, Finley! It wasn’t like I planned anything. I was dancing and drinking fruity drinks that creep up on you. Everyone makes that mistake.You’vemade that mistake.”

She was right. About everything. But she’d conveniently left out her ultimate too-much-to-drink Paolo disaster.

I, on the other hand, had unceremoniously renounced any claims on Liam, and on an occasion or two I’ve been known to overindulge. “I know. You didn’t do anything I should be upset about.”

“But you are and I’m ninety-nine percent sure nothing happened.”

“Liam stripping you naked isnotnothing.”

“I wasn’t naked. I still had on my bra and panties.”

“I’ve seen your bras and panties. You might as well have been naked.”

“Fin, please!” she begged. “I swear I didn’t do this on purpose.”

“I know. Give me a little time, and I’ll get over myself.”I hope.“What was Liam doing at ladies’ night?”

“I have no idea. But he was at a table with Ashley.”

Great. “Why did they get divorced? He goes out with her all the time.”

“Maybe they’re divorced with benefits.”

“Thanks for the thought. Now I’ll have that image in my head all day.”

“I’ve got a client waiting,” Jane said. “I just want everything with us to be okay. I swear I’d never do anything to intentionally hurt you. You know that, right?”

“Sure.”

“Let me take you out for dinner,” she said on a rush of breath.

“I’ve got to study.”

“So I’ll bring you dinner, and I’ll help quiz you or something.”

“Fine.”

“I’ll see you around six thirty?”

“Six thirty works. ’Bye.”

“’Bye.”

Monotonous doesn’t begin to describe the drive out to Indiantown. Get a few miles away from the beach and the landscape changes drastically. Palm trees give way to pine trees, and the dense vegetation is replaced by groves, fields of crops, horse farms, and cow pastures.

Where there are cows and crops, there is the stench of manure. I switched my air-conditioning to “recycle,” which cut down on the smell but didn’t eradicate it completely. The odor clinging to my clothes would just top off a seriously lousy morning.

The homes I passed were paradoxical, running the gamut from large, two-story custom houses to shabby, dilapidated trailers. The only thing they had in common was land. These people traded quick access to the beach for acreage. I never understood the concept of owning land, especially in Florida. Controlled burns were a regular event since the climate encouraged fast and thick regrowth. Plus, there was the whole snake thing. I don’t care if they play an important part in the food chain, the only way I like snakes is in the form of a wallet, purse, or shoes.

The closer I got to my destination, the more developed thehome sites. Don’t get me wrong, the place was still rural, but once 710 turns into Warfield Boulevard, the historic aspects of the northwestern part of Martin County are immediately recognizable. Especially the Seminole Inn. It was built in the 1920s and serves as both a B and B and a Sunday-brunch destination.

I ate there one time, and while it was fun looking at the photos of all the celebrities who’ve visited over the years, it has a buffet, and I’m not big on sneeze guards.

I groaned when I saw the inn. Not because of the sneeze-guard memory but because I’d missed the turn to the library. If I hadn’t dashed out of the office so quickly, I would have filled out and printed the form to have the USPS release the name of the box holder so I could search for the elusive tenants. But now I was stuck with the library.

The Indiantown library was a relatively new addition and very state of the art. After I parked next to one of only three cars in the parking lot, I grabbed my bag and the Egghardt file and headed toward the spotlessly clean walkway. The smell of freshly cut grass swirled around me as I was rendered deaf due to the roar of mowers circling the building.

Inside, I immediately felt two sets of eyes on me. I went to the service desk, introduced myself, and asked about the availability of a computer and printer.

“Follow me,” the elderly woman said as she came out from behind the desk.

We weaved through the maze of stacks, ending up in a narrow room with a total of ten computer stations and a fancy, megasize laser printer. The walls were littered with signs warning against using the machines for chat groups, the mandatorytime limits, and the schedule for the computer lab and what to do in case of a computer or printer glitch.

“Do you need any assistance?” she asked as she leaned over one of the keyboards and typed in some sort of pass code.

“No, thank you.”

“Then fill out this form and please return it to the desk when you’re finished.” She left a trail of heavy perfume I didn’t recognize. That was weird. I could normally name a fragrance in one note. Probably some drugstore knockoff.

I glanced at the sheet of paper, and it required my name, address, driver’s license number—if applicable—and what Web sites—if any—I’d visited. It took me less than a minute to download the USPS form and maybe three to fill it out and print it. While I waited for the printer to spool, I completed the library form and placed it on top of my file.

With that accomplished, I grabbed up my things and was about to leave when I spotted a shelf along the back wall with a series of city telephone directories. Too bad I didn’t know the name of the PO box holder yet.

As I left, I thanked the librarian and turned in my computer usage form. The short drive to the post office took me maybe two minutes. Again I parked in a nearly deserted lot. Unlike the library, the post office could use a little updating.

File in one hand and purse dangling from my wrist, I walked into the post office and went directly to the first of two windows. After about thirty seconds, I cleared my throat.

No one came out.

I waited another thirty seconds and called out, “Hello?”

A large, masculine woman waddled out from the back. Shewas dressed in a uniform that I guessed, based on the strain on the buttons, was about two sizes too small. Her rubber-soled shoes squeaked as she walked, and her scowl pinched her face and two of her three bonus chins.

“Help you?” she asked with a partially masticated bit of food in her pudgy cheeks.

I sure as hell wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I introduced myself, pulled out my ID, then handed her the form and said, “I need to know the name and address of the box holder.”

Her washed-out green eyes narrowed. “Got a subpoena?”

“No, ma’am.” I placed my file on the counter and flipped to the notarized Letters of Administration authorizing me to obtain any information regarding the estate of Walter Egghardt. “I’m trying to find the person who sent this.” I paused and pulled out the envelope and money order. “There’s a possibility this individual is an heir.”

She looked at the document while she finished chewing, then swallowed. “I’ll have to get clearance from Frankie on this.”

I reached over and tapped the court-assigned case number. “This is a legal document. I’ve routinely gotten post office information in the past.”

“Not from me, you haven’t.”

“How long will it take for Frankie to review this?” I asked, careful to hide my annoyance. I knew from experience that small towns aren’t the place for sarcasm.

“To review it?” she repeated. “I imagine he’ll take care of it quickly.”

“Great.”

“He won’t be in until noon, though.”

I took a deep breath and gritted my teeth after checking my watch. “What time would you like me to come back?”

She shrugged her broad shoulders. “One, one thirty.”

I had at least an hour and a half to kill. So I reclaimed my file—minus the form—and, after she’d made a copy of my Letter of Administration, I went out to my car. There wasn’t a lot to do in Indiantown, so I decided to head up to the Vero Beach outlets.

Never go to the grocery store hungry—or, in my case, to an outlet when you’re in a crummy mood. I found some super-cute watches at the Liz Claiborne store as well as purses at both Coach and Dooney & Bourke. But my find of the day was a stunning black silk taffeta dress with front and back V necklines and a darling grosgrain belt with chiffon accents. It retailed for two fifteen but I got the dress at the bargain price of one hundred because of a lipstick smudge along the neckline. Not a problem for my killer dry cleaner. Now I could stop stressing over the rehearsal dinner.

It was close to three thirty by the time I returned to the post office. The parking lot was empty, which was great since I wanted the information in a hurry.

Again I took my file and walked up to the door, pulled on the handle, only to find it locked. Creating a tunnel with my cupped hands, I looked through the glass door for signs of life. It was dark. Then I looked around and found the sign:HOURS OF OPERATION 8–3.

My entire vocabulary of curse words swirled in my head. The last thing I wanted to do was come back tomorrow. The onlyway I could avoid a second trip was almost worse than actually making the trip.

I walked back to my car with the enthusiasm of walking to the guillotine. As a PI, Liam had access to the Post Office Box Break. All he would have to do is hit the database and almost instantly, he’d have a reverse post office box listing. Too bad I didn’t know any other PIs.

Disconnecting my phone, I tapped Favorites, which so was not true at this juncture, then touched Liam’s name.

On the third ring, he answered, “Hi, Finley. How are things in Indiantown?”

“How did you know—never mind. I need you to give me a reverse post box listing.”

“Someone got up on the wrong side of her coffee cup. I’m guessing this has something to do with Jane?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I can’t think of a reason why I’d care two shakes about your going home with one of my best friends.”

“I’m sure Jane told you that’s all I did.”

“Of course, right after she told me how you’d undressed her.”

“For someone who isn’t interested in me, you sure sound pissed.”

Arrogant snot. I sighed loudly. “Can I please have the information I need?”

“What’s in it for me?”

God, I hated that his voice was so sexy. “A payment from Dane-Lieberman.”

“Not good enough.”

“Could you stop being a jerk and just do it?”

“Can I wear a black suit, or do I need to wear a tux to the wedding?”

“You’re not going to the wedding.”

“You invited me.”

“So now I’m uninviting you.”

“That’s very poor etiquette.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll consult Emily Post later. Right now I need a name and address.”

“Be happy to. But not until you answer my question. Suit or tux?”

“It doesn’t matter since you won’t be at the wedding. Tony is my escort.”

“Your mother arranged that, so it doesn’t count. You, on the other hand, personally invited me.”

Frustrated, I pounded my phone on the cushioned driver’s seat. “And we both know that was purely designed to frost my mother’s cookies. Which also means I canuninvite you. Can we get back to the reason I called?”

“In a minute. I have no problem with Tony going as a guest. We’re friends. But he’s already got someone to escort.”

“Who?”

“His daughter.”

“You’re an ass.”

“I love it when you talk dirty.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“Don’t be childish.”

“Me? You’re the one being annoying.”

“I’m also the one who knows you’re looking for information on Donald and Wanda Jean Bollan.”

“How can you know that when I haven’t even given you the post office box?”

“I’m very perceptive.”

“No, you’re a freak of nature.”

“I’m a freak who knows they live at 101 Collier Lane.”

“Thanks,” I snapped, then instantly pressed End.

I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince my GPS that Collier Lane was a road in or around Indiantown. After the irritating conversation with Liam, I was not in the mood for the GPS to cop an attitude. I decided to go to the closest gas station to ask for directions.

I got a lot of looks when I got out of the car in my five-inch heels, walked around a tractor with its hood raised, past the pumps where three men with tricked out pickups openly ogled me, before I finally reached the entryway to the garage bay. “Excuse me!”

A lanky teenager with more acne than skin and a middle-aged man with a protruding belly came out from the back. The pencil-necked kid stared at my boobs while the older man wiped grease onto his sweaty, possibly-was-once-white T-shirt.

“Ma’am,” he greeted.

“I’m trying to find Collier Lane.”

The two men looked at each other. “You know where it is, boy?”

“Back down 710, I think. Yeah, yeah. It’s just after the trailer park. The Bollan place is out there.”

“Right, right. Sleepy’s place,” he said nodding.

Sleepy? What was he? One of the freaking seven dwarfs?The older of the two gave me vague directions. “Thank you.”

Doing the best I could to follow instructions like “look for the live oak with the two stumps next to it on the left,” I kept driving deeper into the groves and sugarcane fields. After passing the rodeo and the trailer park, I slowed until I saw a crudely fashioned street sign.

Collier Lane was nothing more than a dirt road marked by a slanted mailbox with plastic spinners and red reflector dots on the leaning post. At the base of the post was a faded ceramic planter with a man in a sombrero pulling a cart filled with plastic flowers. Not exactly PC. I made the right and slowly crept up the road, driving in slalom fashion to avoid the deep potholes. It took about three minutes before a structure came into view.


Page 11

Calling it a home was a stretch. It was a trailer with a curled and dented aluminum skirt. Twelve dogs came rushing toward my car, some barking, some growling, all scary. There were two cars on the side of the house. Both had weeds jutting up through them. On the opposite side was an older-model truck with as much rust as paint under a crudely constructed carport. Well, it wasn’t a carport so much as it was four metal poles with a worn and torn tarp across the top. There was a kiddy pool in the front yard, flanked by two Barcaloungers, both with springs popping through the fabric. The same was true of the sofa on the porch. As I slowed my car to a stop, Cujo and company continued to bark and growl. When the screen door opened, I was hoping it was the owner. It was, but he wasn’t alone. His companion was a really large shotgun.

Work is a four-letter word; working hard is just stupid.

six

Needless to say, Iwasn’t feeling wrapped in the warmth of his welcome. Like the man at the gas station, the armed bozo wore a stained wife-beater and had that pregnant-man physique going on. What little hair he had was swept over to one side. It was gray and as dull as his washed-out brown eyes.

The dogs continued their attack on my car while the man on the porch cradled the gun like an infant. I could hear more dogs in the distance and wondered if they were the understudies for the Hounds of the Baskervilles. Great. Dogs with a side order of more dogs.

Just behind armed guy I could make out a shape in the shadows of the tattered screen door. I wanted to slam my car into reverse and head back the way I’d come when he placed his thumb and forefinger in his mouth and whistled loud enough to be heard over the hum of my car engine.

The pack of matted, mangy dogs instantly raced toward him.The unseen pack in the distance still barked and snarled, but even after a scan of my surroundings—such as they were—I couldn’t seem to locate them. With the visible dogs heeled, I felt comfortable enough to depress the button, opening my window little more than a crack. “Mr. Bollan?” I asked politely.

He nodded as the ears on two of the hounds lifted alertly.

“Who’s asking?”

I had to tilt my head to one side so my lips were closer to the narrow space I’d created. I gave him a quick explanation. He rested the gun against the aluminum home and started walking toward me. A woman stepped out from inside the trailer and followed closely on his heels. She appeared far friendlier, quite a feat given that what I could see of her gray hair was up in pink foam curlers and her attire consisted of a faded paisley housedress and slippers that scuffed the dusty ground with each step.

I so didn’t want to leave the relative safety of my car. Reluctantly, I opened the door, my eyes fixed on the six dogs watching my every move. I have a history with dogs, and it isn’t good.

Mr. and—I assumed—Mrs. Bollan walked past the garden of fake flowers and weathered lawn ornaments until we met on neutral ground.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, offering me a sun-leathered hand with dirt and God only knew what else crusted beneath his nails.

I quelled the urge to reach for the Purell in my purse after we briefly shook hands.

“Call me Sleepy and this here is the wife, Wanda Jean.”

“Miss,” she said as she reached around her husband’s girth. “Did I hear correctly? Mr. Walter passed?” she asked.

“Three years ago,” I answered as I felt the first trickle of perspiration slithering down my back.

“We didn’t know.” Wanda spoke for both of them.

Fine with me since I was in no hurry to get a second glance at Sleepy’s three yellowed teeth. I reached back and pulled out my briefcase, dug out the money order, and said, “My firm represents Lenora Egghardt, and until she received this”—I paused and passed Sleepy the money order—“she had no idea anyone was living on the property.”

I think Sleepy scowled. Hard to tell since a serious overbite made him look like a perplexed beaver. Then he explained, “We’ve been here for near on thirty-five years. Used to tend the groves until the canker came a few years back. Now we farm sugarcane and run a few head of cattle.”

“Sleepy,” Wanda interrupted with a smidge of irritation, “let’s go inside where we’ll all be more comfortable.”

I didn’t have high hopes for that option, but I followed along and pretended I didn’t smell the stench of sweaty dog and grease.

The smell of the cooking grease was stronger in the trailer, and once I spied the pots on the stove, I figured I’d taken Wanda away from preparing the evening meal. Two flies zipped around the room, occasionally stopping long enough to visit the flour-dusted chicken thighs sitting out on the chipped Formica counter. Some sort of greens that looked more like they belonged on the shoulder of I-95 sat in a colander near the sink. A thick, yellowish cloud of smoke hung in the air.

“Have a seat,” Wanda said, pointing to an animal-hair-covered chair near the window air-conditioning unit that haddripped condensation down the wall. “Let me get you some iced tea.”

Just to be polite, I said thank you even though I would have preferred coffee. At least with a hot beverage I had the possibility of boiling off some cooties. I perched myself on the very edge of the dirty chair and began taking all the documentation for Walter Egghardt’s estate out of my briefcase.

After handing me a plastic cup of tea, Wanda and Sleepy sat down, swiveling their seats away from the small television balanced on an old orange crate. A cable box teetered atop the machine. Grabbing a remote off the armrest, Sleepy mutedJudge Judy.

“I need to get some information,” I began. “And I’ll need to see your lease.”

“We don’t have no lease,” Sleepy said, his tone defensive. “Walter and me was in ’Nam together. That’s when he offered to let me live on this land. We got pinned down in Dak To in ’67. Walter got hit, and after I carried him to the aid station, we, well, we was friends from then on.”

“And you came to live on this property because …?”

Sleepy shrugged and scratched his sizable belly as he took a long pull on a can of generic beer. “We was as different as night and day. Me? My kin ain’t rich like Walter was, so once we were back stateside, he said I could live here. Came back once with some hot redhead in his car. That’s when he gave me a letter that lets me live on this land for life.”

Not good. Not at all good. “So you’re not related to Walter? But you do have a letter or know the name of the woman who was with him?”

“Got the letter someplace. He even had it notaried and all official. The redhead just sat in his car. Never knew her name.”

I checked the urge to correct “notaried” to notarized. Hopefully the letter wasn’t legally binding on Walter’s heir.

“There may not have been no blood bond,” Wanda added. “Mr. Walter’s always been good to us. She reached behind her on the windowsill and took a framed photograph down and handed it to me. “Raised all eight of our children right here.”

I tried to imagine the trailer holding ten people.

“This is L.D., short for Little Donald.”

I glanced at the picture, and “little” would have been the last adjective I’d use to describe the rotund, balding man in the back row.

Wanda continued, “Then Walt, after Walter. Next is Homer—he works as a firefighter in Montana. Lorraine, she’s a nurse. Mary-Claire is raising her own family. This pretty one,” Wanda stopped and stroked the cheek of the girl in the shot, “that’s my Penny.” Wanda’s eyes seemed to inexplicably mist over. “Got us five grandbabies so far. Duane is in the navy, and last is Mitzi. She’s the baby, and we’re real proud of her. Mitzi just finished her third year at the community college.”

“You have a lovely family,” I fudged as I returned the photo. “I’m not sure how to explain this, but Walter dying has changed things.”

“How?” Sleepy asked, his eyes narrowed to beads.

“Well, Mr. Egghardt died without a will, so his niece inherited all of his estate, including this parcel of land.”

Wanda looked at me with bulging, alienesque eyes while Walter just looked really pissed. Red blotches rose from his neckto his face, and I was very,veryglad the shotgun was out on the porch.

“Me and Walter had an agreement,” Sleepy insisted. “I don’t see how him dying changes that.”

Now I could hear a stereo chorus of barking and growling dogs. Acoustically, I realized some were in the backyard and others were mere feet away with their snouts pressed against the screen door. Obviously, they’d picked up on their master’s displeasure. I was growing uneasy, wondering if the animals were plotting to attack.

Again Sleepy whistled, and the porch hounds fell silent. The backyard dogs just kept on yelping, growling, and barking. It was hard for me to concentrate, especially when a cat came out of nowhere and snaked its way through my ankles. It had harsh, brittle hair and a jagged scar down its face, leaving it with only one eye and part of one ear.

Wanda made a clicking sound with her tongue. “Come here Lucky,” she coaxed.

“Lucky?” I asked as I watched the cat cross the three or four feet separating us. The thing had more scars on its body, and its tail was little more than a calico nub.

Wanda smiled. “She was a stray. A few years back she got into the kennels. Of course, we hurried out and got her when we heard the ruckus”

“Of course,” I murmured, as Lucky, now occupying Wanda’s lap, gave me a cycloptic glare.

“We fixed her up best we could but didn’t think she would make it. But she’s tough,” Wanda said, scratching the cat between the ear and a half. “That’s why we call her Lucky.”

I’d been there too long because the explanation made perfect sense. It fit that these people wouldn’t do vets. From the decor—early 1970s greens, browns, and avocados—and the antiquated appliances—who doesn’t have a microwave?—and all the other knickknacks, I guessed the Bollans had little if any income.

“What happens with the proceeds from our sugarcane?” Sleepy asked. “We’ve lived here since the late sixties. Raised all them kids here. You trying to tell me some woman we’ve never met can toss us out? Just like that?”

“It would help if you could find any documentation you have from Mr. Egghardt. And I can assure you,” I began as I rose and started for the door, “we’ll do everything possible to bring this to an amicable resolution.”

“Sound like a load of crap to me,” Sleepy grumbled, not moving an inch as I walked past him.

“Sleepy, mind yourself. This young lady is only doing her job.”

I reluctantly stepped onto the porch, fully prepared to pick up the shotgun and start picking off the herd of vicious dogs. I was spared that unpleasant task by Wanda Jean, who also had perfected the two-fingered, piercing whistle.

The dogs chased me halfway back to the main road. It wasn’t until I saw them in my rearview mirror that I let out the breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding.

Glancing at the dashboard clock, I decided to call Ellen and give her the update. It was four fifty, so there was no way I was going to go back to the office. I pressed the preprogrammed number for the firm.

“Dane, Lieberman, Zarnowski and Caprelli. How may I direct your call?” Margaret greeted in a much friendlier voice than when she normally spoke to me.

“This is Finley calling for Ellen.”

“Oh.” Now I got the tone. “I’m afraid she’s gone for the day. May I connect you to her voice mail?”

“Yes.” I intentionally waited for Margaret to transfer the call, knowing full well I wasn’t going to leave a message. Childishly, I just wanted to force her to take that extra step.

It took me just under a half hour to get back to my place. The sun was still hanging in the sky, and the humidity had picked up considerably. Even though I’d worked up a sweat, I was dying to go through Ellen’s donation bags.

My trunk smelled like cedar, but I smelled like stale tobacco and wet dog, so I had to give that one to the trunk. With some effort, I was able to move all the stuff from the trunk to my house without dropping anything.

After depositing the four bags in the center of the great room, I went back out to the car to retrieve my cell phone. I pressed the little icon for voice mail as I returned to the cottage.

The first was from Jane. She’d forgotten an appointment and hoped I wouldn’t mind pushing dinner back to seven thirty. I texted her back to say that since she was supplying the moo shu, she could name her terms.

A small trickle of hurt mixed with anger slithered along my spine. I know it was stupid, but I still wasn’t over the whole Liam-took-me-home-and-tucked-me-in scenario. That said, I also knew it was important for me to move past it. My friendshipwith Jane would last long enough that in a few years, we probably wouldn’t even remember Liam’s name.

Only right now I did remember his name. And the hooded sensuality in his gaze. And the chiseled outline of a tanned, sculpted six-pack that made LL Cool J look like a slacker.

I gave myself a mental smack. No lust, no problem.

Not a chance in hell.

As I walked toward my bedroom, I used one hand to brace myself against the wall as I slipped off my shoes. They were cute as sin but the very definition of “killer heels.” I stopped long enough to massage my insteps, then changed into an ankle-length, fuchsia halter sundress with tiny white flowers embroidered on the straps and at the hemline.


Page 12

Leaving my sore feet bare, I went back into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of red wine as the second message played. It was from my mother, hence the need for the wine chaser.

“Since you haven’t bothered to make your plane reservations, I’ve had to take that on as well.” I raised my glass to her martyrdom as she continued her voice-mail lashing. “Your flight leaves at ten a.m. on Thursday; that will get you into Atlanta at—”

I groaned. “I don’t have Thursday off,” I argued over the rest of the message. I travel a lot like I shop—bargain hunting. It wasn’t like I didn’t know I had to be in Atlanta on Friday afternoon; I did. I even had a fare watcher on Travelocity.com with the trip specifics. Now, thanks to Controlling Cassidy, again I was faced with choosing between bad and worse. I could call her and tell her to change the flight, which would surely result in ugly and prolonged tension. Or I could go to Vain Dane andgrovel for an additional personal day off from work. So I could lose my mind or lose a day’s pay.

“Hands down, take the day without pay.” I drained my wineglass, then refilled it.

I had almost an hour and a half before Jane was due, so I decided to entertain myself by going through Ellen’s bags-o-muumuus.

Hiking up the hem of my dress, I knelt down and opened the shopping bag closest to me. Since I’d basically shoved the tattered garbage bag and its contents into the shopping bag to get it out of the trunk, this was my first real look at what was inside.

My suspicions were confirmed as I unrolled a wad of material. Only it turned out not to be an emerald paisley muumuu, but a vintage Von Furstenberg wrap dress. I stared at it for several seconds, trying to imagine Ellen Lieberman in a real dress. Not just any dress, but a classic.

In eight years, I’d never seen her wear anything that clung to any part of her body. Yet each item I pulled from the bag completely contradicted all I knew about her. And there was something else. All the items were vintage: late eighties, early nineties. Oh, and everything was a size two or four, and I’d bet my last dollar—no pun intended—that under her current love of tent dressing, Ellen was still a svelte single digit.

There were several pairs of barely worn Nina shoes—size six—as well as three pairs of boots and four coats. I decided I should make an inventory list for the thrift store, then I could copy it for Ellen so she could get the tax deduction.

“Ouch,” I muttered as I stood on cramped legs. My laptop was in my bedroom, so I got it, and, almost as an afterthought,I also picked up my study guide. At some point, I had to continue studying for my exam.

I began to organize the items, creating a spreadsheet of everything by size, color, and style. As I did so, I carefully folded each item. I’d been at it long enough that I’d become numb to the smell of cedar. My guess was that Ellen had stored all this stuff in cedar trunks and/or a cedar-lined closet.But why?

Taking a quick break before logging the shoes and coats, I sipped my wine and admired the neat stacks of clothing I’d created from four green trash bags. Going to the pantry, I took out a half-dozen shopping bags from high-end stores. Placing my wineglass next to my computer, I then placed a bag with each pile of sorted items.

When I reached down for a suede coat with what I was pretty sure was a coyote collar, I felt a hard bulge in one pocket. It took me a minute to feel my way around the chocolate-colored coat until I found the opening to the pocket. Slipping my hand inside, I let out a sharp squeal of pain.

“Dammit!” I yanked my hand back just as a small flow of blood made a bubble on my forefinger. So it wasn’t reason to call an ambulance—the pinprick still hurt.

As I stuck my finger in my mouth I asked, “Does this qualify as a worker’s comp case?”

I was much more methodical and careful in my second attempt. I turned the coat upside down and just shook it until a small wad of tissue tumbled out and wobbled around until it came to rest against the leg of the coffee table.

As I went to pick it up, I tripped over my hem and sent myselfflying, face-first, toward the tile. I hit hard. I hurt my pride and my head.

Standing, I went to the bathroom and grimaced when I saw the small gash at my hairline. Dabbing it with a Kleenex went only so far. In another blow to my self-esteem, I had to place a Band-Aid on my forehead—at least I had the clear kind—and as I did, I felt the beginnings of a goose egg.

My first thought was, what would my mother do if I showed up at the wedding looking one scintilla shy of perfect? My second thought was wondering why I’d had the first thought.

“Whoever said bringing back the maxi-dress was a good idea?” I was still irritated as I returned to the great room. I took a sip of wine—hey, it was good enough for the ancient Greeks—then gingerly bent down to retrieve the tissue-wrapped package. It’d better be worth it. The frigging thing had already cost me two personal injuries.

Gently, I peeled away the wrappings. Inside were a bracelet, a pair of drop earrings, and four brooches, including the one that had pricked my finger.

“So what the hell is Ellen doing hiding jewelry inside a coat pocket? Especiallythisjewelry.” I held one of the brooches up to the light. Just as expected, they were costume but not cheap. No, these had a maker’s marks and brilliant craftsmanship. One-of-a-kind sort of thing. And if Ellen wasn’t hiding it, why did she have it in the first place? I just couldn’t see her wearing frilly, large accessories. No more than I could picture her wearing the acid-washed jeans in stack number five.

Bad decisions make good stories.

seven

I spread the jewelryout on the coffee table. There was a theme to the pieces. The earrings were freshwater pearls with a tiny crown fashioned from silver and what I thought might be cubic zirconia stones attaching them to the shepherd’s hook. The bracelet had tiny crowns—also silver with possible CZ mountings—placed inside circles. All together, the bracelet had five rings of crowns.

The brooches were another story. At least I thought so. I went over to the kitchen junk drawer—yeah, I know, new house, no junk, but that’s not how I roll—and retrieved the jeweler’s loupe Becky had given me. Sounds like a strange gift, but it was actually the lead-up to the real gift, a pretty pink sapphire ring to commemorate my twenty-fifth birthday. Returning to the table, I picked up the first brooch, the smaller of the four, and peered at it through the loupe. The ten-times monocular lens confirmed my suspicions. Though expertly made, the pin was not diamond-encrusted. As on the earrings, the crown motifwas repeated. Turning it over, I had to search for a few seconds before findingL.S. & CO.stamped just below the clasp. I wasn’t familiar with the company, but that didn’t mean much. A lot of jewelers placed maker’s marks in their higher-end pieces.

Since I had the loupe out anyway, I checked the earrings. Again I found the same marking but no .925 stamped into the piece. Given the overall quality, my guess was that the silver had a rhodium finish, which explained the luster and replicated the look of platinum.

Turning my attention back to the stones, I examined them closely. Thanks in part to my job in trusts and estates, I’d gotten fairly good at defining CZ. Like natural diamonds, cubic zirconia was graded according to four criteria: carat weight, clarity, color, and cut. These were top-of-the-line stones and better quality than the typical quality preferred by jewelers. I’d still want a jeweler to appraise them, but I was guessing I was seeing at least five carats of brilliant cut C AAAAA.

“Weird,” I mumbled.

I repeated the process on the rest of the brooches. All but one shared the characteristics of the first. The fourth one immediately had my full attention.

It was three inches in diameter and sorta resembled the jewels at the midpoint of Elizabeth II’s official crown. Sad that I knew my crowns, since it revealed my childhood fantasy of becoming a princess. “Mom would have loved that,” I commented sarcastically. She’d value a title above all else. No more taunts about being an underachiever by choice, no more talk of law school, reinstated access to my trust fund. And just possibly a reason to like me. And vice versa. My mother and I were stuckin that place where on some level we loved each other, but on every other level we just irritated each other.

I sighed deeply and went back to the task at hand. This brooch was diamond-encrusted platinum. At least I thought so. Mentally, I added it to my list of items to have the jeweler appraise.

The doorbell startled me, and I called out, “Just a minute!” For the sake of safety, I scooped up the jewelry—again getting pricked in the process—and my loupe and put them in the junk drawer.

The instant I opened the door, I smelled moo shu, and my stomach gurgled.

“Hey there,” Jane greeted.

There was some tension around her mouth and eyes. Or maybe it was guilt.

Or maybe I was just funneling everything through my residual annoyance. Which was childish. And silly. And above all else, wrong.

Jane placed the box of food on the counter, then asked to use the powder room. In the few minutes she was gone, I set the counter up with place mats, chopsticks, napkins, and another wineglass. I retrieved my glass from the coffee table, and my nose pinched at the scent of cedar competing with the Chinese food.

Jane reemerged a different person. Gone were the form-fitting red dress, stunning silver pumps, and assorted silver accessories. Instead, she’d put on her clinging yoga clothing. I wondered if she was ever going to get saddlebags or cellulite.

Probably not.

“What’s that smell?” she asked as she took the glass of wine I offered.

“Cedar. Give me a sec.”

“And what did you do to your head?”

“Nothing major,” I assured her as I carried the bags out to the lanai and closed the sliding glass door. “Better?”

“Much. Please tell me you didn’t go on a five-bag spending binge.” She frowned.

I made a cross over my heart while saying, “Nope. That’s all Ellen’s crap. I’m taking it to the thrift store in the morning.”

“Ellen the lesbian?”

“She’s not gay,” I said. “I think she’s just asexual.”

“Does the asexual manual state that you have to work hard on looking like a thin version of Cass Elliott? And by the way, did you know there’s an official Web site for her fans?”

“Can you have fans when you’ve been dead since 1974?” I began opening the cartons to inspect the contents. “You were obviously hungry when you went into Mi Lang’s. What’d you do, get one of everything on the menu?”

“So you’ll have a bunch of leftovers.”

“No, you should take it home; you paid for it.”

“You forget, I know every dime you have to your name. I know it barely makes a dent in what you spent on the babysitting outfit, so every penny counts.”

My guess was now wasn’t a good time to mention that I’d already shopped the Vero Beach outlets and purchased another little black dress. It wasn’t like I could wear the ultra-expensive one since both Liam and Tony had seen me in it.

We each pulled up a bar stool, leaving one between us for better-shared access to the food. I topped off our wineglasses. “Want me to open another bottle?”

“No, I’m driving.”

So why didn’t you have that epiphany when you were at the Blue Martini? Then Liam wouldn’t have ended up in your apartment. Stripping you nearly naked and God only knows what else.

I took a dumpling out of the container, dipped it in the accompanying sauce, then bit off half of it. “Yum,” I said, holding my hand over my mouth so I could compliment with my mouth full. I tried the beef with snow peas first. Another winner. On my next trip down the buffet line, I took a small portion of Hunan shrimp. “Spicy. But in a good way,” I told Jane. Passing on both the fried and sticky white rice, I went right for the moo shu pork. Taking a flour pancake, I began to build my entrée. Pork, egg, mushrooms, all in a ginger/sesame sauce. Folding it like a pro—which I am, since I moo shu at least once a week—I brought it to my mouth. As always, it was stellar.

“There’s an elephant in the room, and his name is Liam,” Jane said as she downed what was left in her wineglass.

Placing my chopsticks on my plate, I swiveled in my seat and looked at her. “There shouldn’t be. We’ve been friends for years, and the first rule of girlfriends is that men come and go, but we women stick together.”

“Nice sentiment,” she said, her eyes sad. “But I know I hurt you, and I’m truly sorry.”

I waved my hand. “Let’s just forget it. The truth is, Liam and I have no future. Meaning I have no right to care what he does and with whom.”

Jane sucked in a breath, then exhaled as if she was doing a yoga warm-up. Maybe it was the outfit. That’s why I don’t own any workout clothes.

“He didn’t do anything with me except keep me from making yet another mistake,” Jane insisted.

“Paolo was more than just a mistake,” I reminded her.

I watched as Jane shivered. “Tell me about it. I bought an entire new bedroom suite. I couldn’t sleep on furniture where I’d found a dead guy. Isn’t that why you had the closets redone here?”


Page 13

“Partly. But mostly because I wanted a walk-in with lots and lots of storage space.”

Jane smiled. “That’s because you never throw anything out or donate stuff to charity. That is a great tax deduction. You should consider it.”

“I get to deduct what I paid. Yeah.”

“Up to five hundred dollars.”

I frowned. “That’s like one pair of shoes and maybe a purse.”

“As long as no single item is valued at more than five hundred, you can get the tax relief.”

“I wonder if that’s why Ellen decided to donate stuff out of the blue.”

“The cedar-stinky bags?” Jane asked.

“Yep. Most of the stuff covers from the Whitney years to Paula Abdul. There are a few things in there that might be donation-worthy, but not a lot.” I thought about the jewelry and for some reason decided to keep that tidbit to myself. No point in bringing it up until after I got it appraised.

“How come you got that job? Aren’t there assistants or other people lower on the food chain for this kind of thing?”

“Of course. Ellen just has this passive-aggressive need to give me jobs that she wouldn’t give a fellow attorney.”

Jane nodded her head. “I get it. Can we get back to the Liam thing?”

“Not really anything to get back to.”

Jane rolled her eyes. “I think it’s time you faced facts. You’re hot for the guy.”

Couldn’t deny that. “Could he be any more wrong for me? And let us not forget that he’s a liar and still boffs his ex.”

“First,” Jane began as she ticked off her fingers, “how is he a liar? And second, what makes you think he’s still got benefits with Ashley?”

“He knew about Patrick, but he didn’t say anything to me. In my book, that’s a lie of omission.”

Jane tilted her head to one side. “Maybe he thought you knew. Maybe he felt like it wasn’t his place to say anything. There could be a dozen reasonable explanations why he didn’t say anything.”

I suddenly came to the realization that I might be wrong. Still, I continued to argue my case. “Once he found out, he could have at least apologized for being complicit.”

Jane massaged the back of her neck. “As for the Ashley thing, I just don’t get that vibe.”

“Then why are they always out together? Or in. I called Liam once, and she answered the phone.”

“Maybe they both like the same bars. Maybe she was at his house returning something she’d borrowed or that he was awarded in the divorce. Again, dozens of reasons.”

Oh yeah, I was wrong. “None of that matters. He’s never asked me out on a proper date. It’s like he’s just stringing me along. Only I don’t know where the string ends.”

“So take him to the wedding.”

I grimaced. “Izzy is looking to forward to it.”

“So? She’s a kid. She’ll get over it.”

“And you don’t see a problem with uninviting my boss?”

“Nope. Actually, you don’t even have to uninvite him. Technically speaking, your mother invited him and his kid. He’s nothing more than an invited guest.”

“But my mother will expect to see me dangling off his arm for photographs and the reception and the rehearsal dinner and—”

“Liam isn’t exactly an eyesore,” Jane said.

“Neither is Tony. Oh God! I’ve got to log in to eBay to see if Izzy is still the top bidder on the sweater.”

I opened my Vostro 3000 and powered it up. It took me a matter of seconds to reach my target. Izzy was still the top bidder with an hour left to go. I prayed she remembered my instructions about how to swoop in at ten seconds remaining to outbid anyone hiding in the wings. If there was competition, hopefully she’d up the bid enough to knock out his or her highest bid.

“Aren’t we supposed to be studying?” Jane asked. “I mean, you’ve been attending these classes for four hours a week for the last six weeks. You don’t want to blow it now.”

“Give me a second.” I went to my own pending auctions, only to find I’d been outbid on the first of four extra links. I entered a higher bid, but the minute I did, I was outbid again. “Shit.”

“You’re on eBay, aren’t you?” Jane asked. Technically, it was an accusation.

“Don’t worry, I’m not winning anything.”

“You need an intervention.”

“No, I need a huge infusion of cash.”

“Speaking of cash. If Dane-Lieberman was actually paying you overtime to attend the classes, how much would they have to pay you?”

“I’m not eligible for overtime. A little something Vain Dane decidedafterI came back.”

“How much?”

“They bill my time at one-seventy-five an hour, so that would be—”

“Four thousand two hundred.”

“Geez.” I remembered that Ellen had me come in early, and that wasn’t the first time. I did a few calculations in my head. “Add another six hundred or so.”

“Did they at least kiss you before they screwed you?”

I closed my laptop, forcing it into sleep mode. “Not even a brush on the cheek. Let’s study.”

Jane stood very still. “Are we okay?”

I nodded. “Yes. And you were right about Liam. Maybe if we have wild sex, I can get him out of my system.”

“Sounds like a plan. Where’s your stuff?”

I handed her the study guide.

Jane thumbed through it, obviously planning on giving me random questions. She kept her pinky on the last section; that way she could quickly check my answers. “Okay. Are the police required to give the Miranda warning to everyone?”

“No, only if the person is in custody and they want to question the person and use their answers at trial.”

Jane flipped to the back of the guide. “That’s right. Seriously? Then why do they do it that way on TV?”

“Because it’s TV. Next question?”

“How long can the police hold an inmate without charging him?”

“Seventy-two hours.”

“Right again.”

We went on like that for forty-five minutes. My confidence was boosted. I didn’t miss a single question. Jane and I both got up to stretch when my cell phone rang. I went over to the counter and looked at the display. Blocked caller. Intrigued, I answered in the same way I answered all anonymous callers. “Albright Messaging, how may we assist you?”

“I’m sorry. I dialed wrong.”

“Izzy?”

“Finley?”

“Yes.”

“Albright whatever? What was that like all about?”

“Never mind. What do you need?”

“Will you hang on with me so I don’t screw up the auction?”

“Give me a second.” I glanced over at Jane, who looked tired enough to call it a day. Covering the microphone, I asked, “Are you as tired as you look?”

She nodded. “And I still need to hit the gym.”

I shook my head. “Can’t you just skip tonight?”

“Bikram yoga tonight. Wanna come?”

“Thanks, but I’d rather stick a pencil in my eye. Doing yoga is bad enough, but doing it in a steam room is just crazy.”

“Finley? Are you still there?”

“I’m here. Hang on.”

Jane gave me a hug. “Glad we talked. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks for all the food.”

“My pleasure.”

After she collected her gym bag I walked her to the door. “Thanks again.”

“Last chance to get in on Bikram.”

I closed the door while she was still chuckling.

“Sorry about that, Izzy. I had a friend over.”

“Like a guy?”

“Likeno,” I teased.

“There’s less than a minute until the auction ends. So far I’m the top bid—Oh crap, someone just outbid me!”

“Calm down and put in what you’re really willing to pay. Use one-click bidding.”

“I’m going up to three fifty.”

“You go, girl,” I said as I went over and started closing up the containers so I could place the generous leftovers in my fridge.

“I won!” she squealed so loudly that I had to hold the phone away from my ear.

I heard a man’s voice in the distance—Tony, but I couldn’t quite make out the words.

“Gotta go. I’m not allowed to be on my cell this late.”

I was smiling as I filled my near-empty fridge. I had enough food to last for a week. I was still on a high from my Q&A with Jane, so I went to my computer and started to surf eBay for Rolex parts. I found a couple of new listings, but I didn’t place a bid. I was going to employ a new strategy. I wouldn’t bid until the last minute of the auction. Maybe I could fool my competition into thinking they had a lock on the item.

Remembering the brooches, I typed “L.S. & Co.” into my search engine and discovered that the “L.S.” stood for Lucy Shaw.According to the home page, she designed jewelry from the early 1950s until the early 1990s. She died in ’92 at the age of sixty-three. Her Detroit store was, and is, a highly regarded landmark.

I clicked over to the “items” page, only to discover that Lucy was most famous for designing one-of-a-kind pins for several first ladies, as well as celebrities, the military, and several beauty pageants. So how did Ellen come to have several custom pieces of Lucy Shaw jewelry? Inheritance? Gift?Theft?

I switched to my e-mail program and logged in to the Dane-Lieberman system. Remembering how the firm had shafted me with the course work and all of the early meetings, my fingertips hovered over the keyboard. I wasn’t going to lie, but I didn’t mind being vague.

Addressing the e-mail to Ellen, I typed:

 

Found what I think is costume jewelry in pocket of one coat. Do you want it back?

 

A few seconds later my in-box pinged. Ellen replied:

 

No. I’m not big on jewelry. You’re into accessories, you keep it.

 

I replied:

 

Don’t you want to see it first?

 

Ellen’s reply:

 

No. You keep them.

 

My reply:

 

Thanks. I’ve made a detailed list of items for your taxes.

 

Ellen’s reply:

 

Not necessary. Just make the donation. See you tomorrow.

 

My reply:

 

Yes. I have a lot to tell you about the Egghardt estate.

Tuesday was a warmSeptember day. West Palm was not yet bursting with extra residents. Season, as it’s called when we get the influx of snowbirds, lasts from October to April. Personally, I think there should be an extra tax on snowbirds. An inconvenience tax. In another month I’d have to add extra time to my commute just because a bunch of gray heads could no longer stand the winters in New York or Ontario.

My first-thing-in-the-morning meeting with Ellen had been strange. No digs about law school. No new mundane chores. In fact, I felt as if I didn’t have her complete attention. Her eyes kept darting to an envelope clipped to her keyboard. Reading upside down I caught only part of the return address … “N … a Dept. of Corrections.” At the end of the meeting, my guilt made me say, “I’ve got the jewelry from your coat in my purse downstairs. Would you like me to get it for you so you can make sure you don’t want it?”

“I’m sure I don’t,” Ellen said as she stood. “Good work on the Egghardt thing. Research the laws relative to conversion of real property versus tenancy. I want to make sure we either throw them off the land or come up with some sort of quitclaim.”

“Got it.”

“Good luck tonight,” she said as an afterthought as she was leaving the conference room.

Afterthought or not, I couldn’t remember the last time Ellen had given me a compliment. In fact, I was fairly certain she’d never given me one.

I was using my lunch break to take the jewelry to Barton’s up in Stuart for an appraisal. I didn’t want to use the jeweler Dane-Lieberman used for our estate appraisals. As always, the entire staff of Barton’s greeted me by name.

“Finally here to buy that bracelet you’ve been eyeing forever, Finley?”

“Sadly, no. I’d like to get an appraisal on these items.” I carefully took the velvet pouch out of my purse and laid it on the counter. “Can you tell me how long it will take?”

“Tomorrow soon enough?”

“That would be great.” I filled out the paperwork required, then left Stuart to head back to my office.

Because I’d used a jeweler up near Tony’s house, my lunch hour was more like a lunch hour and a half. I parked between Ellen’s Volvo and Vain Dane’s Hummer. What a dweeb. Who needs a Hummer in the flattest state in the union?

As I locked my car, I got that tingly sensation that I was being watched. I looked around, but no one stood out. A postal worker. A couple of businessmen walking up Australian. A blond woman sitting with her back to me on a bench who looked a lot like my friendly neighborhood traffic enforcement officer. Maybe I was just paranoid because of the jewelry.

Even though I could justify taking it as partial payment forthe extra hours I’d been working, I was still riddled with guilt.

No sooner had I walked in the door than Margaret said, “You’re late.”

“I had an errand.”

“I wasn’t told by Mr. Dane that you had permission to take personal time.”

“Because it wasn’t personal. I was here at seven thirty yesterday, so let’s just call it even.”

“That isn’t how it works.”


Page 14

“It does in my world.”

As soon as I reached my office, my world changed dramatically. Tony was placing a beautiful vase of red velvet roses on my desk. The smell was amazing. I stood watching him, filled with a sense of vindication. May have taken him a couple of days, but he finally got that his offer of payment for babysitting Izzy was an insult. And nothing says I’m sorry better than a spray of guilt flowers.

I cleared my throat to let him know I was in the doorway.

He smiled. “So much for an anonymous gift.”

“They’re beautiful,” I said, moving close so I could smell one of the blooms. Inhaling the fragrance also meant moving close to Tony. Big mistake. “What are they for?” I wanted him to have to say he was sorry, too.

“Because tonight is your final class, and I wanted you to know how proud we are that you accomplished so much in such a short time. And with perfect scores.”

Was he kidding? Did he really not get that he’d humiliated me on Saturday? First by insinuating we were going on a date and then by trying to slip me seventy dollars? God, men are clueless!

“What happened to your forehead?” he asked as he reached out and carefully moved my hair out of the way.

Luckily, I’d iced it all night, so the expected goose egg was barely noticeable. In fact, the only thing calling attention to my injury was the Band-Aid. “I, um, fell.” It was hard to put a sentence together when I could feel the warmth of his touch all the way down to my toes. “At, um, home.” Apparently, I was able to be pissed and turned-on simultaneously.

His palm slipped down until he was cupping the side of my cheek. I could smell his cologne, and it momentarily rendered me incapable of rational thought. His head dipped. Closer, until his minty breath washed over my upturned face.

I was almost shaking with anticipation. My breath hitched as a lump the size of the Hope Diamond lodged in my throat.

And then the buzzer sounded, and we jumped apart like two teenagers caught by their parents.

“Good luck tonight,” Tony said as he quickly left my office.

I felt drained and cheated. Then the intercom buzzed again. I snapped up the receiver. “What?”

In a cheery tone, Margaret announced, “Mr. Dane wants you in his office. Now.”

Tattletale.

The only time I look forward to a red light is when I’m finishing a text.

eight

Approaching his office, Ibreathed deeply and evenly, something I’d learned in the only yoga class I’d managed to attend, even though I’d paid for a full year of sessions. Apparently, a single class wasn’t enough to convince your heart to stop pounding against your rib cage when summoned to meet with the senior partner.

Crap, I should have brought a pad. Vain Dane got off on people taking notes. It made him feel powerful.

Which he was, since his ultra-conservative butt had the power to fire me.

Walking past the pin-neat, unoccupied desk of Dane’s executive secretary, I slowly crept down the corridor toward the impressively carved mahogany door to Dane’s office. Catching a whiff of Burberry cologne was slightly soothing. The signature scent reminded me of Jonathan Tanner. Even though my stepdad had been gone for more than a decade, I missed him every time I smelled that cologne.

The door was ajar, but I knocked and waited to be granted entrance.

“Come,” Dane’s voice boomed from inside.

Victor Dane’s office was very posh, very masculine, and very, very self-congratulatory. Lining the walls were various diplomas, awards, and community service acknowledgments. The custom shelving held professionally framed photographs of Vain Dane with various celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries, including a nearly twenty-plus-year-old photo of Dane dancing with the Princess of Wales at the Palm Beach Polo Club.

Dane sat at the edge of his desk, arms folded, expression hard.

The wall behind Dane’s desk wasn’t a wall. It was a floor-to-ceiling window with breathtaking views of the Intracoastal, Palm Beach proper, and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

The silence dragged on so long that I contemplated throwing myself through said window. Not a good plan since I had to pass my test tonight. The alternative carried two penalties. One, I’d have to reimburse the firm for the cost of the class; and two, I wouldn’t get to work with Tony on criminal cases. Besides, I knew the glass was impact-resistant and hurricane-proof, so my hundred-and-seven-pound body would just bounce off.

Dane reached behind him, grabbed the phone, and pressed the button. “She’s here, Margaret, thank you.”

Yep, I’m here, you traitor.

Dane was the picture of coiffed and polished. He was dressed in a handsome navy suit, monogrammed gunmetal polished cotton shirt, red-and-navy silk tie, and Bruno Magli loafers. He wasn’t tall like Liam, but he had presence. A commandingpresence that managed to ball my stomach into knots. He was the male version of a nun. Every time I was in his office, I half expected him to crack my knuckles with a ruler.

His dark hair was overly gelled and styled, but it went nicely with his shiny, buffed nails. His eyes were also dark, and expressionless. Like a shark about to roll in for the kill. Whatever was on his mind didn’t show on his face. Nope. I sure as hell would not want to play poker with this person.

“Sit,” he said as he rounded his desk.

Come. Sit. Beg. It was like I was in frigging PetSmart getting obedience training! “Thank you.”

He slid a time sheet across the handcrafted mahogany desk. “It’s been brought to my attention that you took a long lunch today?”

Caught, I had to scramble for a minute. “Yes, sir. I fell and hit my head and woke up this morning with a terrible headache.” I paused to show him the Band-Aid, punctuating it with a taut grimace. “I thought it prudent to see a doctor.” Okay, so some of that was true, and there was nothing wrong with a little bit of creative thinking. After all Jane did have a PhD in mathematics, so technically speaking, she was a doctor.

Dane’s shoulders relaxed a bit as he split his attention between me and the greenish-blue shadow from his computer screen. Lacing my fingers, I placed my hands in my lap while Vain Dane was busy typing away. Attention still fixed on the computer screen, he asked, “You need to let someone know if you’ve got a medical emergency.”

I’m fine, thanks for asking.

He continued. “I also understand that there is a major problem with the Egghardt estate?”

“Not major, but I’ll have to petition to have the case reopened.”

Suddenly, his full attention was on me. “The Egghardt name carried a lot of weight in this town.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“How did this happen?”

I met his gaze full on. “Lenora—um, Ms. Egghardt—received a money order. That was the first we knew about the real property. Everything was done correctly, including placing ads in the paper to draw out any heirs or potential heirs to the estate.

“I’ve tracked down the people who’ve been living on the land. They claim they have a letter that serves as a lease. I’m giving them a few days to find it.”

Dane nodded. “Sounds as if you’re on top of it. Keep me in the loop.”

How about the loop part of a noose?

“Will do.”

“Your last exam is tonight?” he asked as he again swiveled slightly in his supple leather chair.

“Yes.”

“Well, good luck, and don’t forget you’ll need a copy of the attendance records to prove you complied with the terms we agreed on.”

“Thank you, and I’ll make sure to provide you with everything you need.”You cheap bastard.

“Still have a headache?”

You. “Yes, but it’s not a big deal.”

“Take the rest of the day so you can relax before your exam.”

“That’s very nice of you, Mr. Dane.”

“Practical. This firm has a lot invested in you.”

I was so not feeling the love. I waited about thirty seconds, and when he didn’t say anything, I knew I was dismissed.

After I left, I went back to my office to collect my things. Becky was waiting for me.

“Cute dress. Is that new?”

I nodded. “Don’t tell Jane. She’ll freak if she knows I spent a penny.”

“New shoes, too?” Becky asked through a smile.

They were cute. Platform pumps in a beige tone with my new favorite style, the peep toe. Because of the platform, the four-and-a-half-inch heel felt more like three and a half. Totally doable.

They were perfect for my new Suzi Xhin Maggy Boutique dress. It had a watercolor print in various shades of pinks and purples, as well as pleating at the cap sleeve and the waist. Hey, I needed something new to wear for my final test.

My turn. “New jewelry?”

Becky ran her fingers across the large, polished amber chunks that made up the thirty-inch necklace. When she did, I noticed the huge amber ring on her finger. It took up more than half her finger. “Guilty.”

She was seated in one of the two chairs opposite my desk. She passed me her empty coffee mug, which I filled from the coffeemaker behind and just to the left of my chair.

“What happened to your head?”

I explained the injury for the third time, only this time I added the good news that Vain Dane had given me the rest of the day off. “What are you doing down here?” I asked.

“Not very welcoming, are you?”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” I insisted. “It’s just that it was your idea that we downplay our friendship here at work.”

“That’s only because I’d get in hot water if the partners knew about all the times we’ve shared long lunches. I just don’t want to jeopardize my—”

“Stop. I wasn’t complaining. I just wondered why you were spending so much time here. Aren’t you worried that Ellen will notice?”

“She isn’t here.”

My eyebrows pulled together. “She’s always here.”

Becky shrugged. “Something personal, apparently. Happened so quickly that all she had time to do was send me a text.”

“Wow,” I said before taking a sip from my mug. “She has a personal life?”

“Seems so.” Becky leaned forward, and her necklace clinked against my desk as she stood; she drained her mug in the process. “Is the Egghardt thing on track?”

“On it. I just have to do some more research.”

“Well, then, good luck tonight.”

“I wonder when they’ll devise a test for criminal procedure that requires you to pee on a stick.”

Once I arrived home, I kicked off my shoes and decided it wouldn't kill me to go over the study guide one last time. I grabbed a bottle of water and was about to go out to the cabana when my cell phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Finley. This is Ginger from Barton’s. Your appraisals are ready.”

“So soon?” I asked, glancing down at my watch. It wasn’t the watch of my dreams, but it was a perfectly acceptable Full-Blooded rose-tone Swatch that complemented my dress.

“Yes.”

“I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

Just in case anyone from Dane-Lieberman wanted to reach me, I had calls from my landline forwarded to my cell. Twenty-three minutes later I was pulling my Mercedes into the parking lot. Barton’s took up one half of the bottom floor of a two-story building just off Federal Highway.

I stepped out of the car at the same instant a sharp crack of thunder boomed in the near distance. Great, all I needed was to get rained on. It’s a fairly common occurrence during the summer months; that’s why I keep a few umbrellas in my car. I reached inside and grabbed a four-inch umbrella that fit nicely in my white Coach bag. Lightning flashed, and another boom of thunder. Luckily no rain. Yet.

Going into the store, I was greeted again by Mary. She went into the glassed-in area, where the owner checked mountings and settings, did repairs, and appraised items. He was a large man, balding, and I’d never seen him without a jeweler’s light strapped on his head. To my embarrassment, I couldn’t remember his name and couldn’t summon the nerve to ask for the fifth time.

He draped a dark blue velvet cloth over the counter and lined all the pieces up. “You’ve got quite a collection here.”


Page 15

“Is it all costume?”

“All but this one,” he said as he picked up the large crown brooch. “Platinum, four carats of brilliant cut stones. The diamonds at VS1, color between an E and a D. Worth in the neighborhood of twenty-five hundred to three thousand.”

My guilt side told me I should let Ellen know immediately. The rationalization side reminded me that I’d already asked Ellen and she’d relinquished the jewelry to me. Plus, there was the whole issue of my working roughly five thousand dollars’ worth of overtime with no compensation. “And the others?”

“The other three pins, maybe eight to nine hundred. The bracelet and earrings, roughly two hundred each. You know what you have here?”

“Lucy Shaw and Company pieces?”

“Very good,” he said. “I looked on the Internet, and I’m fairly sure these are pageant pieces.”

“As in beauty pageants?”

He nodded. “Got some years on ’em, too. I sent pictures of the serial numbers to the company in Detroit, and they’ll do a search of their records.”

“Thank you.”

“I told them to call you when they had the information.”

“Thanks,” I said as I shook his hand. “What do I owe you?”

“Two fifty will cover it. I’ll mail you a written report before the end of the week.”

Luckily, my credit card cleared. I would have been humiliated if Visa had outed me as a pauper. Jane was right: I needed to start living within my means. And once I sold the costume stuff on eBay, I could recoup what I’d paid for the appraisals.

I still had more than an hour before I had to leave for class, so I decided to go home. Abandoning the idea of studying, I got my digital camera out and photographed each piece of the costume jewelry as well as taking one group shot. I took the platinum brooch to my bedroom and placed it in the tampon box I used to hide all my good jewelry. I figured any thief wouldn’t think or want to look there.

Opening my laptop, I logged in to my secondary eBay account and began uploading the pictures of the items. Much to my surprise, eBay actually had a category for pageant items.Who knew?

I wrote a brief description, including that the pieces were vintage, that I could provide an appraisal, and that they all had maker’s marks. I decided I would let the auction go until the Friday before Lisa’s wedding. Hopefully, someone out there in the pageant world would be all over the stuff, bidding it up over value with so much time to bid.

But it still begged a question. Why would Estrogenless Ellen have beauty pageant jewelry?

I didn’t have time to ponder that conundrum. Time for me to head up to the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University. Slipping my shoes back on, I took the forward off my phone. The professor had a very strict take on cell phones in the classroom.

My key was in the ignition when my cell rang. A blocked caller. I started the car, then slid the bar and switched the phone to the cool hands-free device I’d gotten through Hammacher Schlemmer.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Finley. It’s Izzy. Am I bothering you?”

“Nope. On my way to take a final exam.”

“Yuck. Mine start in three weeks. Right after the dance.”

“Sorry.”

“The dress came today.”

“Did your father see it?” I asked when I heard the subdued tone in her voice.

“No, but I can’t wear it.”

“Why?”

“I think it needs like a special bra or something.”

I smiled. “How about dinner tomorrow night? We can hit P.F. Chang’s in the Gardens Mall, then make a swing through Victoria’s Secret.”

“Really?”

Her enthusiasm was contagious. “Yes, really. I’ll pick you up at five thirty. Okay?”

“This is way cool. Do I bring the dress?”

“Yes.”

“My dad never gets home before like seven thirty. Can we make it by then? I want to have the dress in my closet before he gets a chance to see it and like go all nut job on me.”

“Consider it done.”If she thought Tony was going to get pissed over the dress, wait until he sees it. It’ll happen eventually. My guess is during a dry run for the wedding. Another reason to uninvite him.

“Thanks, Finley. Good luck on your exam.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Finley?”

“Yes?”

“Just so you know, I’d be totally cool with you dating my dad.”

Using my thumbs, I was able to disconnect the cell without taking my hands off the wheel. I felt a kind of panic making it difficult to breathe. I had the Izzy seal of approval? What does that mean? Had Tony run the idea past her? Lord knew it hadn’t happened to me. Unless I counted those few seconds in my office. Why did all this have to be so freaking complicated?

I allowed my mind to wander. I felt for Izzy. It had to be uncomfortable being raised by a single dad. Tony probably had no clue that the girl needed proper lingerie. I wondered how he’d feel when all the bills started rolling in. Most likely, he’d lose interest in me the second he discovered I’d turned his kid into a shopaholic.

Well, that would have to wait. I’d reached my destination—the Starbucks just a little way away from the campus—got a venti latte, and was soon pulling into the school’s parking lot. The sky was still threatening rain, so I left the tiny umbrella in my purse. It was time for me to think only of police procedure. My heels clicked rhythmically as I walked down the hallway, went into my classroom, and joined the other twenty-eight people in the class. As always, I took the second seat in the first row.

It wasn’t like we had assigned seats, just more of a pattern we’d gotten into over the course of the class. I took a long pull on my coffee, then pulled a pen out of my purse. In no time, a blue exam book was passed to me.

While there are manypositives to living alone, the one negative is when you have great news but no one to share it with. At least when I had the condo, I could run upstairs and force Sam to listen to my successes and failures.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being an Islander. I mean, where else can you live that has trash pickup seven days a week?

I’d foolishly left the porch light off, but, thanks to Sam’s brilliant forethought, as soon as I started toward the house, a motion sensing flood lamp blinked on.

I slipped my key into the door, then entered, only to find the faint scent of cedar still hung in the air. Maybe it was the Ghost of Jewelry Past. Maybe it was karma.

“Maybe it’s just me being an ass. Ellen said I could have the stuff. Stop obsessing,” I mumbled as I placed my purse on the chair, kicked my shoes off, and then went to the freezer and took out a bottle of Grey Goose. From a lower cabinet, I retrieved the cosmo mix. So it wasn’t as good as the real thing. It was close enough to use to toast the end of all those continuing-ed classes.

Lifting my glass to self-on-self toast my success, I was about to take a well-deserved sip when the doorbell chimed. I put my drink down, then went to the door and opened it. I let out a long breath that sounded a little like a groan. “What do you want?” I moved my head around. “I didn’t hear that piece of junk you call a car.”

Liam smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help but notice how his eyes sparkled in the porch light. I made a mental note for Sam—adjust the location of the sensors. Obviously, Liam knew the blind spots. I’d have to make sure Sam did it when Liam wasn’t looking so his car couldn’t sneak up on me anymore.

His hand swung out from behind him, and he presented me with a box the size of a shirt box, only this one felt like it was full of gravel. No, too light for gravel.

“This is for you,” he said. “Congratulations, well done, and thank you.”

“Thank you for what?”

“Making me fifty bucks. Ellen bet me that you wouldn’t make it through all the extra work and the classes.”

“Nice to know someone had faith.” I took the box and began to close the door.

“Invite me in.”

Intelligent Finley screamed,No! No!But Dry-Spell Finley yanked the door as wide as the hinges allowed.

“Okay, you’re in.” I returned to my drink and took a huge sip.

Liam straddled the bar stool across the counter from me. His unbuttoned Caribbean Joe shirt teased me with a little preview of his muscled body.

Lord, I had to have sex. This dry spell wasn’t working for me.

“Don’t you want to know?”

“Kn … know what?” I asked. He always seemed to know what I was thinking. Did he telepathically know I wanted to ravage him right here and right now?

“What’s in the box. Got any beer?”

I went to the fridge and pulled one from the veggie bin. Until Harold started working for me, I never had beer in my fridge. I placed the long-necked bottle in front of Liam and didn’t bother with a mug. I started checking drawers, looking for an opener. Unnecessary. Liam did something, and the cap popped right off.

“That can’t be good for my counter. What if you’d chipped it or something?”

“I’d put in another one. How’s your head?”

I took another fortifying sip of my cosmo. “Fine. Barely a scratch. Is this an apology gift or a congratulatory gift?”

“What am I apologizing for?”

My head tilted to one side as I got the first whiff of his subtle cologne. It was as appealing as the Breitling Chronograph around his wrist. I still wondered how a PI could afford a nine-thousand-dollar watch. “You really don’t know?”

“No. But if you want me to say I’m sorry, fine. I’m sorry.” He rolled his eyes. “Is this about the Jane thing?”

“No,” I replied. “It’s about you whoring me out as a babysitter.”

His grin was slow, sexy, and reached all the way to his eyes. “Tony asked for my recommendation.”

“And you thought of me?”

“I thought Izzy would like you.”

“So you orchestrated that just to please a thirteen-year-old?”

“That was just a side benefit. I gave you a chance to see what it would be like if you dated Tony.”

I felt a blush creep up my neck. “We aren’t dating. He’s my boss.”

“He and Izzy come as a package deal. And then there’s his thing.”

“What’s his thing?”

Liam shook his head. “Not my place to say.” He took a pull on the bottle. “I pointed out to Tony that it was more complicated to do an interoffice thing. I think he took that to heart.”

“So what? The two of you got together and decided my future?”

Liam laughed. “No, it wasn’t like that. We were just working out that part of the guy code.”

“Which part of the code?”

“The part that says friends shouldn’t make a play for the same woman at the same time.”

“So this is some sort of noncompetition competition?”

He stroked the shadow of dark stubble on his chin. “It sounds kind of weird when you put it like that.”

I longed to reach out and brush the black hair off his forehead. But I didn’t dare touch him. I knew that would be a fatal mistake.

“C’mon, open your present.”

As soon as I tore the paper, I made some sort of girly-happy-squeally sound. “You bought me Lucky Charms?”

“I heard you were a fan.”

“From whom?”

“Doesn’t matter. Do you like your gift?”

“It’s absolutely the best under-five-dollar gift I’ve ever received.”

“That was a little backhanded.”

I felt badly. “I didn’t mean itthatway.”

“You can make it up to me. Come here.”

Stay, stay, and stay as if your feet were nail-gunned to the floor. Be strong. You can do it.

Screw that.

As soon as I came around the counter, he pulled me into the circle of his arms. His parted thighs created a close, tightplace for me to stand. Heat radiated from his body. His hand slipped up my back until his fingers entwined in my hair. Gently, he tugged my head back. His eyes were fixed on my mouth, but he made no move. “This is definitely one of my wishes,” he said in a rough, sexy tone that I heard all the way down to my toes.

“Still holding me to that whole three wishes for saving my life?”

“You bet. Especially since the other night. I like the way you feel against me, Finley.”

“How do I know this isn’t another one of your head games?”

“Trust. My third wish.”

His mouth covered mine. There was nothing tentative or cautious about the kiss. I grabbed fistfuls of his shirt. The way his tongue sparred with mine was just throwing fuel on an already-blazing fire.

Why couldn’t I stay mad at him? Life would be easier if I stayed in a constant state of annoyance. But no. I have to torture myself into thinking I can steer this ship. Shit, my boat doesn’t even have a rudder. And yet Liam was knocking the wind right out of my sails.

Unlike our previous encounter, this was urgent, but somehow softer and slower. He explored my throat, my earlobes, and pretty much every part of my head and neck with hot kisses.

I slipped my hands under his shirt, and he did the same. Well, almost the same, his fingers rested on my ribs, just below the swell of my breasts. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I started to reach for the buttons of his shirt. He pulled back.

“Not yet.”

I blinked. “We’ve already been halfway there,” I argued. Recalling that he’d wanted me to ask for a kiss, I guessed he wanted the same treatment. “I want you. I know you want me, so stay.”


Page 16

He offered a weak smile. “You have a few things to work out before we take this to the next level.”

“What things?”

“You’re a smart lady. You’ll figure it out.”

There are good touches and bad touches. It just depends on whom you’re dating.

nine

When my alarm wentoff, the first thing I did was touch my lips. After Liam’s searing kiss, I half expected to be lipless. I wasn’t, but I was spineless. I banged my head into my pillow. “What the hell was I thinking?” I grumbled to myself. Memories of last night came back like a boulder racing downhill, with me standing at the bottom of the hill.

As I tossed off the comforter, I felt myself blush all over again. Going into the bathroom, I stared at my reflection. Like Macaulay Culkin, I placed my palms against my cheeks. I rubbed vigorously. “You practically begged.”Loser.

It was hard to look at myself, so I went to the kitchen to turn on the coffee. My secret hope that last night had been a dream or hallucination was dashed when I saw the half-full bottle of beer and the empty cocktail glass. Oh yes, it was real. “And amazing,” I said as I turned and leaned in backward. Ileaned so that my hands and the small of my back were against the counter and I watched the pot brew.

I grabbed up my cell phone and sent three urgent text messages that all said the same thing:

Did more than just talk to Liam Lunch @ Saito’s. 911

I dressed for work, mindful of my dinner with Izzy. I needed shoes that could go all day and all night. That meant only one thing—wedges.

My solution was a Donna Ricco peplum dress, purchased at a deep discount because of a tear at the peplum. I paired it with my Michael Kors Cassie wedges and switched handbags to my Coach hobo bag; the black leather worked perfectly, and if I held it correctly, no one would know about the small imperfection at the side seam. Dressing on a budget is really taxing. I miss the days when I could just walk into a store and buywhateverwithout counting pennies.

Before I went to work, I hopped on to my laptop and called up my eBay listing. I was surprised that the bidding on the pins had already neared their appraised value. The bracelet was doing okay, but the earrings had yet to get a nibble. Ah, well, I could always relist them if they don’t sell. Or I could just keep them. The tiny crowns were kinda cute. I held back on the platinum pin, still concerned that Ellen would realize her mistake and want it back. Just to assuage my conscience, I sent her an e-mail reaffirming that she wanted me to have all the pieces. I avoided mentioning the appraisal from Barton’s.

The morning flew by, mainly because I'd spent much of my time researching the potential problems with the Bollans living on Egghardt land without a lease or other type of agreement. I couldn't imagine having eight kids, let alone raising them in such a tight place.

Having said that, Lenora Egghardt would never want for anything ever again if she could turn the land into an equestrian center. I still hadn’t heard from the Bollans. Without any type of written agreement, Ellen would have to advise the client to evict the tenants.

As prearranged, Becky left the office five minutes before me so no one at the office would know how close we were. I caught up with her at the base of the MuviCo steps.

“Well?” she pressed.

“Wait till everyone is here so I don’t have to keep repeating myself.”

“C’mon, do you have any idea how hard it was for menotto go to your office for a preview?”

“And I appreciate that. There’s Jane and Liv now,” I said, pointing toward the cigar shop. Once we were all assembled, we went up to the second floor, all the while complimenting one another’s clothing and/or accessories.

We came to Saito’s often enough that the kimono-clad hostess greeted us with a warm smile. “Follow me, Miss Garrett,” she said to Liv.

“Don’t you just feel invisible?” Jane whispered in my ear.

I nodded. Even women got a girl crush when Liv was in the vicinity.

The hostess showed us to a quiet corner of the restaurant. I wondered if she could sense I was in crisis mode. Once the waiter had taken our orders, Liv leaned in and asked, “How’s your head?”

My fingers reflexively went to the small scab at my hairline. “Don’t even need a Band-Aid.”

“Great. Now spill. You had sex?” Liv pressed.

“You hadgreatsex?” Jane asked.

Becky sighed. “You had crappy sex?”

“I had no sex.” My three friends looked as if I’d just told them they had to donate all their clothes to the homeless.

“So why the urgent text?” Becky asked as she took her cell out and placed it next to her chopsticks.

“I tried to have sex.”

“Oh, honey,” Liv breathed. “Are you telling us that Little Liam couldn’t rise to the occasion?”

“Seriously?” Becky asked as she leaned forward. “The general wouldn’t stand at attention?” Humor danced in her eyes.

Liv and Jane chuckled.

“Glad my life crisis is fodder for your amusement.”

Jane patted my hand. “We’re sorry. It’s just that, well … we’re talking Liam here. He’s the last guy any of us would think couldn’t … close the deal.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There was no deal.”

“You lost me,” Becky said, leaning back in her seat while she absently played with her amber pendant so the waiter could serve our uninteresting round of iced tea.

I waited for the staff to place steaming bowls of miso soup in front of each of us, then said, “He came to my place to give me a present and—”

“What did he get you?” Jane asked, her spoon hovering above her soup.

“A box of Lucky Charms.”

“That’s really sweet.”

“Can we get past the cereal?” Becky asked.

“So I open the present. I gave him grief for setting me up as Tony’s babysitter. Then the next thing I know, we’re kissing.”

“Polite good night?” Liv asked. “Or rock my world?”

“Rock myuniverse,” I answered on an expelled breath. Even now, just thinking about it made heat pool in the pit of my stomach. “And then it happened.”

“What wasit?” Becky demanded her tone short.

Becky was never one for protracted storytelling, but I just shot her an I’m-telling-this look.

“We’re hot. We’re heavy. We’re pressed together, and my legs were turning to mush.”

“I need to call my garage-boy squeeze for a hookup,” Liv said under her breath.

I wasn’t into discussing the fact that Liv had a boy-toy who lived above his parents’ garage. “Anyway,” I paused when the waiter came over to ask me if everything was all right. “I’ve just been talking,” I assured him. Then out of politeness, I put a spoonful of soup in my mouth.

“You’re kissing …?” Jane prompted.

“Oh my God, the man has magic lips. And a body—”

“You went skin to skin?” Becky asked?

“I went skin. I slipped my hands under his shirt. Molded, hard muscle.”

“What was he doing?” Becky asked.

“Just holding me. Other than that, nothing. Absolutely nothing,” I said, presenting my hands, then letting them slap back down on the tabletop. “No touchy feely. He didn’t touch a thing but my hair, and that was only so he could move it out of the way. He nuzzled my earlobes and then traced a line of kisses down my throat.”

“This is better than a sexy romance novel,” Jane insisted. “Keep going.”

“Glad I’m entertaining all of you. So all I can think about is getting him into the bedroom. He’s nibbling my ear and his breath is heating my skin, and so I said, ‘Stay the night,’ and boom. Done. Over. Finished.”

Jane looked horrified. “He did not!”

“He did. And then he set me off to one side and said some bullshit about how sleeping with me was one of his three wishes.”

“Three wishes?” Liv asked.

“Remember that horrible time on the yacht a few months ago? Well, afterward I kinda promised him three wishes for saving my life. Mr. Opportunistic is gonna hold me to it. I meant it as a joke!”

“Guess the joke was on you,” Becky grunted.

We stopped talking as the waiter cleared our soups and set a platter of freshly made sushi in the center of the table. He dealt each of us a plate and told us to enjoy.

“I’ll never enjoy anything ever again,” I mumbled after he left.

“The three-wishes thing was all the explanation you got?” Becky asked.

“I think he said something about me having to work through something. Only I don’t have a clue what he meant. But apparently actually sleeping with me is moving too fast for him.”

“Too fast!” Jane dropped her sushi. “You’ve known him a year.”

“And this isn’t the 1950s,” Jane added. “God, that would be rich. A prudish guy.”

“Ahot, prudish guy,” Becky corrected. “So how did it end?”

“Well, you’d think I’d know that no means no, but you’d be wrong. I reached out, took his hand, and said, ‘Please.’ Do you believe it? I actually begged.”

Liv said, “I don’t think that’s begging. Begging would be, ‘Please, please, please!’”

I shot her a look. “I did everything short of grabbing onto his pant leg so he couldn’t leave.” I rested my head in my hands. “He must think I’m totally desperate.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t,” Becky said.

“Then you tell me why he put the brakes on. Correction. He didn’t just put the brakes on, he threw the car in reverse.”

“Maybe he had on torn underwear,” Liv suggested.

Becky added, “Or maybe he’d already had sex last night and isn’t the kind of guy who does a twofer.”

“That’s gross,” Jane said.

“So now the question is, what do I do from here?”

“Go sleep with his best friend?” Jane suggested.

“Pretend it never happened,” Liv offered.

“Pretend you don’t give a shit that it happened. His loss.” Becky said with authority. “In fact, turn the tables on him.Get him all hot and bothered, and next time you slam on the brakes. Send him on his way with the mother of all erections.”

My day was almostover. Or rather myworkday. I still had dinner with Izzy, but I didn’t think of that as work. At four thirty, Tony knocked on my open door. “Got a minute?”

“Sure,” I pointed to the two empty chairs opposite my desk. Of course I had time, I’d spent the last hour surfing the Internet and/or logged on to eBay.

“Izzy is very fond of you,” he said after he took a seat.

“I like her,” I said, tension knotting my shoulders. Tony’s demeanor was different, and I wasn’t sure why. And he’d closed the door behind him. Very out of character. I could only pray it wasn’t because Liam told him I’d invited him to spend the night.

Tony nervously rubbed his palms together, then smiled and let out a kind of short half laugh. “This is a little awkward. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in you.”

I wasn’t sure if I should thank him or admit that I, too, was curious, so I remained mute.

“Um, I don’t know what went on Saturday night, but Izzy really looks up to you. She hasn’t bonded with anyone since we moved from New York.


Page 17

“She’s at a tough age. I’ve got to be careful when it comes to my personal decisions. Then there’s the issue of my being your boss. But honestly, that doesn’t bother me as much as how dating you would impact Izzy.”

Oh my God. I was about to get the single daddy brush-off.

“Right now I’m leaning toward avoiding a sticky situation. I just can’t date someone my daughter likes so much. If that happened and things went sour, you wouldn’t be part of her life, and I won’t do that to her. I know I’m supposed to escort you to your sister’s wedding, but—”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. My mother corralled you before I had the chance to tell her that I’d already arranged for an escort.”

I watched his broad shoulders relax. “Okay, then. I’ll just call your mother and—”

“You should still go,” I insisted. “Izzy is looking forward to going to Six Flags with you. Plus, when was the last time the two of you took a long weekend?”

He stroked his chin. “I honestly can’t remember. When we lived in New York, her maternal grandparents tended to be the ones who took her to museums and zoos. I was usually working.”

“I was raised for a short time by a single parent, Tony. Trust me when I tell you it’s very important for you to set aside time for Izzy that doesn’t include you on a laptop, answering e-mail, text messaging, or any other diversion.”

“She’s the queen of texting. Which reminds me: she wanted me to ask if it was okay for her to text you.”

“Sure. Do you know I’m taking her shopping tonight?”

“You? I thought it was some friend from school.” Tony stood up and headed for the door. “I wonder why she lied.”

“She’s not trying to lie, Tony. She was just embarrassed.”

He stopped and turned. “Embarrassed by what?”

God, this was a surreal conversation to have with a boss.“She needs some new undergarments, and, well …”

“She couldn’t ask me?”

“You want to take her to the bra fitter?”

Tony’s neck turned pink just above the collar of his white shirt. He looked exceedingly handsome today. There was something about his dark coloring and a white shirt that just made him hot. Or maybe I was just feeling residual hot from last night.To hell with Liam, I’d already given him too much thought.

“I see what you mean,” he said as he reached into his pocket and took out some neatly folded bills. “Let me pay for dinner. A way to thank you for—”

“Would you stop insulting me by offering to pay me for everything I do?”

He blinked. “I wasn’t trying to insult you. I just wanted to thank you for helping Izzy.”

“Then stop treating me like your hired help.”

“I’m sorry, Finley.”

“Thank you. Now, I’ve got to get going so I’m not late.”

“You don’t have to pick her up. I’ll just call the housekeeper and have her run Izzy down to the mall. Saves you from driving all the way up to Martin County when the mall is what? Fifteen minutes from here?”

“That would be a help. I’ll bring her home, though. I’m not sure how long we’ll be.”

“Okay.”

Tony was just at the threshold of my office when he stopped with his back to me. “Hey, Finley?”

“Yeah?”

“If it wasn’t for Izzy, I’d ask you out in a New York minute.”

“O-okay.”

As soon as he left, I rolled my eyes. “Okay?” I repeated. “That’s the best you could come up with, Finley?”

So now I had a guy who wanted to date me but wouldn’t and a guy who made my knees weak who wanted to kiss me but didn’t want to sleep with me. “What kind of karmic bullshit is this?”

My mood wasn’t a whole lot better when I reached the mall and valet parked in the row next to the giant horses guarding the entrance to P.F. Chang’s. Izzy was seated on the fountain, a small shopping bag dangling from her wrist, and she glared at me as I walked toward her.

“You told my dad,” she whined when I was still a good five feet away.

“Nice to see you again, too.”

“Did you tell him about the dress, too?”

I placed my hand in the middle of her back and steered her over next to one of the equine statues. “Of course I didn’t. But you’ve got to understand that your dad is my boss, and he came into my office as I was getting ready to leave. I can’t just lie to him.”

“Swear you didn’t say anything about the dress?”

“Swear. Now, should we start over?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t want him to be mad, but I also don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“You won’t.”

“How do I get back home with this?” she asked as she lifted the small Bloomingdale’s shopping bag and swung it back and forth.

“I told your dad we were going bra shopping. Trust me, he won’t ask to see what you bought, and he sure as hel—heckwon’t look in the bag.”

“That was wicked smart,” Izzy said, all of her earlier anger dissipated.

Since I’d talked my way through lunch, the smell of food wafting out the restaurant door had me salivating. “Ready to eat?”

“Yep. Lunch, as always, sucked.”

I laughed softly. Cafeteria food had never been my thing, either.

Once we were shown to a table, I asked, “Do you have any homework?”

“Some dumb reading, but I can get that done in twenty minutes.”

I picked up my menu and asked, “Do you like the lettuce wraps?”

“Love them.”

“Great. I’m going for the crispy honey chicken. How about you?”

“Wok-charred beef.”

“Excellent.”

The server came over and asked if we’d ever dined at a Chang’s before. Since we had, he went directly into taking drink orders and creating our sauce mixture.

“What’s in a mojito?”

“Rum, sugar, lime, water, and mint. How was school?”

“Great. Lindsey Hetzler tripped in B hall and fell on the floor.”

I touched my forehead and felt a kinship to Lindsey. “That’s mean to be glad she’s hurt.”

“She didn’t get hurt,” Izzy insisted. “Mr. Canahan said the only thing she hurt was her pride.”

“Eighth grade is brutal.”

As we ate, Izzy filled me in on the players at St. John’s Academy. By the time the waiter brought our check, I knew who all the hot guys were, who all the slutty girls were, and who was smoking weed. If I were paying upward of twenty grand a year, I’d make damned sure my kid wasn’t one of them.

My kid. I shivered. My biological clock hadn’t gone off yet. In fact, it wasn’t even ticking. I was only twenty-nine, and besides, even if I did want the whole family thing, I’d have to find Mr. Right sometime soon. And that didn’t look promising.

Once Izzy had all the proper lingerie, I drove her up to Martin County to drop her off. Tony came out to the driveway.

He looked deliciously different in casual clothing, doing justice to a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. Where Liam looked just-out-of-bed sexy in jeans, Tony seemed almost preppy, but in a good way. Like he’d be right at home strolling down Worth Avenue or the boardwalk outside the Breakers.

“Everything go okay?” he asked Izzy as she bounced out of my car.

I turned down the radio. No sense letting Tony know that Izzy and I shared the same taste in music and had blasted 95.5 FM all the way from Palm Beach Gardens.

“Great! Thanks, Finley,” she said as she got out of the car, kissed Tony’s cheek, and went inside the house.

I tried to capture my hair and twist it into something a littleless wild since we’d done I-95 with the top down. “Here,” I said as I unhooked my seat belt, reached down to the floor of the passenger’s side, and picked up the Chang’s bag. “This is Izzy’s, and don’t worry about it being out too long. We had the restaurant keep it in the fridge until we finished shopping.”

“I never would have thought of that,” he admitted. “You must be a frequent shopper.”

“I do what I can,” I joked.

There was an awkward few seconds when Tony’s eyes roamed over my body, lingering on where my dress had hiked up to reveal a generous amount of thigh. I remembered the daddy speech and immediately reached for the gearshift.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” I said.

Tony stood and said, “Sure thing.”

As I was driving back to the gate, my cell rang. “Hello?”

“Fin, you won’t believe what just happened,” Becky said so quickly I almost had to make her repeat herself.

“What?”

“I just got a text from Ellen.”

Nothing new, except that it meant Becky was still working at nine fifteen at night. “What?”

“Ellen quit.”

There should be a sarcasm font.

ten

“You look like hell,”I said days later when Becky came in and practically collapsed into a chair.

“I feel like hell. No, what’s worse than hell?”

Her green eyes were bloodshot, and her auburn hair was mussed as if she’d been pulling it out at the roots.

“Ellen’s been gone only a week.” That still bothered me. Ellen just didn’t seem the type to up and quit without notice of any kind.

“It feels like an eternity. Especially since she won’t return my calls, or e-mails, or texts. I swear, you’d think she took the last shuttle to the space station.”

“I’m pretty sure we can talk to the space station.”

Becky shot me a glare. “Don’t be literal. Be my friend. Please tell me you’ve finished with the Bollan thing. Victor is all over me.”

I arched one brow. “Calling him Victor these days, eh? Movin’ on up, are you?”

“Anyone ever tell you that you suck as a best friend?”

“Sorry, how can I help?”

“Tell me Bollan is finished.”

“Research is finished, but I gave Sleepy and Wanda Jean until Monday to come up with the infamous letter stating they have lifetime use and possession of the land.”

“Bottom line it for me.”

“Since he wasn’t paying rent, he can’t claim homestead or squatter’s rights. But there might be a way to keep everyone happy.”

“How?”

I reached for the giant three-ring binder off to one side of my desk and flipped through the indexed tabs. I removed the plat I’d gotten from the tax collector’s office and spread it out, holding it down with a glass Tiffany paperweight my mother had given me for college graduation. I’d wanted a trip to Paris. Instead, I got a fancy glass ball that cost more than a trip to Paris.

“We move Sleepy and Wanda Jean’s trailer here,” I paused to point at the far southwestern corner of the property. “Then we give them eighty acres for soy beans so they have some cash. Their cattle can graze around the equestrian center. It’s a winwin.”

Becky looked relieved. “Think Lenora will go for it?”

I nodded. “She’s reasonable. It’s the Bollans I have doubts about.”

“Why?”

“They swear there was a witness when Egghardt delivered the letter eight years ago, but all they had was some story abouta hot redhead in a car. Plus, they’re very …committedto their home.”

“They can be committed, or they can take the deal.”

“Or they can litigate.” I checked my watch. “I’ve got about an hour before I have to go home, finish packing, and get to the airport for Lisa’s wedding.”

“Liam on the same flight?” Becky asked with a devilish smile.

“You suck as a best friend, too. And no, he’s on his own. As far as I know my mother only booked a flight for me.”

“Have the two of you talked since theincident?”

I shook my head. “I sent him a text about what to wear and gave him the info for the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta.”

“Are you going to give him the silent treatment all weekend?”

“I prefer to think of it as not cluttering his mind with superficial chitchat.”

“And Tony?”

“He and Izzy are flying in tonight. That way they can spend tomorrow at Six Flags.”

“Brushing up against all those sweaty tourists?” Becky shuddered. “Pass, thanks. Remember when our sorority took a trip there? Worst day of my higher-education life.”

“No, the worst day of your college life was when you got dumped by Brian Hastings.”

“I was inluv,” Becky joked.

“I wonder what ever happened to him.”

“Last I heard he’d gotten his MBA and is some sort of sports agent.”

Tilting my head to the side and letting out a long sigh, I said, “So you both negotiate for a living. Wow, you were soul mates.”

On that note, Becky dragged herself out of the chair. “I hope you have fun at the wedding. Tell your mom I said hi.”

“I will.”

“And don’t forget to bring me back some Moon Pies.”

“You can buy Moon Pies at Publix.”

“Not the same as the ones from Georgia. It’s closer to Tennessee. And some RC Cola. You can’t eat Moon Pies without RC Cola. Too bad you can’t bring me an order of onion rings from the Varsity Grill.”

“Are you planning on eating your way through Ellen’s sudden meltdown?”

Becky gripped the chair back. “Does this makeanysense to you?”

“No. I never would have pegged Ellen as the type to have a midlife crisis. And the whole out-of-touch thing is just too weird. Has anyone gone over to her condo? Maybe corner her in person.”

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