After declaring her candidacy for President at age four, Deb Stover veered off course to play Lois Lane for a number of years. When she refused to blow Clark Kent’s cover, she turned her attention to her own Real American Hero and married him. Considering her experience with Heroes, redirecting her passion for writing toward romance novels seemed a natural progression. Since publication of Shades of Rose in 1995, Stover has received dozens of awards for her best-selling work, which includes over twenty titles in a variety of languages and formats.
by Deb Stover
After two years, Nick Riley still wasn’t used to the clean, white, fluffy kingdom. Sure, the Pearly Gates and golden thrones were nice, but he was a third-class resident, stuck on the lower levels of Heaven until he proved himself.
“How the hell am I supposed to—”
“Your language is more like a trucker’s than a lawyer’s—though I’d rather deal with a trucker than a lawyer any day.”
Nick looked around for his ever-vigilant watchdog, Séamus—a former New York City cop, overblown with self-importance as Chief of the Mortal Watch Division.
Séamus crossed his arms over his chest and wore a stern expression on his not-so-angelic face. “Two years and still can’t mind your tongue?”
“My father was a marine before he was a real estate tycoon. I probably learned to cuss before I learned to walk.” Nick shrugged and pointed at the monitor. “I saw Margo again. She doesn’t look any happier.”
Séamus sighed dramatically. “Of course she isn’t.”
Nick didn’t argue. How could he? “She didn’t love me, but I made her think she did.”
“You were too busy playing big man on campus—trying to win at everything,” Séamus said, his tone filled with disapproval. “Well, you won Margo.”
“And now she’s alone down there and you’re up here, though I still can’t figure out how you slipped through the Gate.”
“I wish I could go back and fix things for her.” Nick meant every word. He regretted his selfish, short-sighted lifestyle. And short-lived.
“Maybe you can.”
He glowered at his superior. “Chief, don’t….”
“Believe me, it wasn’t my idea.” Séamus looked upward for emphasis. “A higher authority wants you to go back and help Margo get on with her life.”
Nick’s thoughts exploded with possibilities. Return to fast cars, expensive vacations and—
Séamus cleared his throat.
“I keep forgetting you can read my mind,” Nick said sheepishly and glanced at the monitor again. “Tell me more. When?”
“Now, but only to help Margo.”
“What will she think? I mean…seeing me?”
Séamus grinned. A mischievous twinkle glittered in his eyes. “She won’t see you. You’ll have a different appearance.”
Now that had possibilities. He’d always wanted to be taller. “I’m ready. What are we waiting for?”
“Close your eyes.”
Nick obeyed, but he saw images anyway, similar to when he’d died. First there’d been the car crashing into the brick retaining wall…pain…blackness. Then bright lights, a tunnel and images of people and places he’d known. After the pain, it had all been rather pleasant until he saw Margo’s misery.
Soon he’d see her in person, could tell her he was sorry….
A chorus of male voices greeted Nick’s arrival in the sauna at his favorite health club. At least Séamus had seen fit to send him somewhere he’d enjoyed when he was alive. But he didn’t feel right. Something was different. Missing. And…new.
Nick glanced down at what he thought was his body, but it couldn’t be. Séamus wouldn’t have….
“Did you catch the playoffs last week?” A gruff male voice interrupted Nick’s thoughts.
Blinking in the steamy environment, Nick tried to discern the identity of the other occupants. The last thing he needed was for someone to recognize Nick Riley with boobs.
Nick pulled the towel up from his waist to cover his chest, an area of his anatomy he’d never seen a need to conceal before. “Séamus, if you weren’t already dead, I’d kill you myself,” he muttered. Is that my voice? That silken drawl couldn’t be his.
“Who—what?” A familiar voice sliced through the steam. “Hey, this is the men’s sauna.”
Nick tried to make out the face through the steam. That had to be his former law partner’s voice. “Warren, is that you?” There’s that weird voice again.
Wolf whistles filled the small tiled area. “Hey, Warren,” one man yelled, “does your wife know about her?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Warren growled. “Lady, you should go to the women’s sauna before you cause any more trouble.”
“Uh, right,” Nick agreed in his new timbre. A woman—Séamus had sent him back as a woman. What a sick sense of humor.
He clutched the towel across his voluptuous chest and beat a hasty retreat. Feeling more exposed and vulnerable than he had in all his life, Nick jogged through the blessedly vacant men’s locker room, down the corridor and into the ladies’ facility.
Stunned, he stood frozen in the center of the once forbidden sanctuary. Women of all assorted shapes and sizes walked around in various stages of undress.
Now this is Heaven.
Then he caught sight of the most gorgeous redhead he’d ever seen—a natural redhead. She was an Amazon, with shapely legs he would’ve given almost anything to feel wrapped around his body in a clinch of—
“Whoa!” Perspiring, he lifted his hand to touch the reflection. His reflection.
Nick Riley was a drop-dead, brick shit-house babe.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Margo Riley sank even lower in her chair at center stage. Any moment now the runway in front of her would fill with nearly naked, sweaty men. What in the world had possessed her?
Steph giggled and drained the contents of her glass. “Admit it, sis,” she said. “You’ve always wanted to do this. Now you have an excuse.”
Unconvinced, Margo shook her head and took another sip of club soda. Maybe she should have ordered something stronger. Anything to take her mind off where she was and what was about to happen. “This is so crude.”
Steph ordered two more drinks from the passing waiter. “Hey, c’mon, Margo. It’s a story. This is work. Your job? Remember?”
Simultaneously nodding and grimacing, Margo looked up at the still empty stage. “I always wondered what men saw in watching naked women undulate their bodies in places like this.” She shrugged. “Now I guess I’ll find out—sort of.”
Steph paid the waiter and pushed a drink that looked suspiciously unlike club soda toward her sister. Maybe it was the fruit and little umbrella that gave it away.
“Just imagine what Mom’ll think,” Steph whispered with a wink.
Margo sucked in her breath. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Steph arched her delicate blond eyebrows and pursed her full lips in a feigned pout. The innocent look vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Wrinkling her nose at her sister, Margo took a tentative sip of the tropical drink. After removing the paper umbrella, she took a second taste and nodded in satisfaction. “Not bad. What is it?”
“Something yummy.” Steph flashed her a grin. “So what made that old prude boss of yours give you such a sweet assignment?”
“‘Sweet’ is a matter of opinion, I suppose.” Margo sighed and leaned back in her chair. “I know what he wants for this story, but I’d rather tackle a more important issue.”
Steph covered her face. “Not the First Amendment. Why not write about the guys, especially if that’s what your editor wants? And the reason women like to come here?” She looked around the nightclub. “In case you haven’t noticed, the place is packed.”
Margo glanced around, amazed to discover that every table in the club was taken. “I had no idea.”
“That’s my point, and I’ll bet it was your editor’s, too,” Steph said in her sarcastic, get-a-life voice. She leaned forward, elbows on the table. A shock of blond curls fell across her forehead. “Women come here for one reason—to look at hunks. Take notes, journalist.”
Stunned, Margo studied her sister’s expression. “What makes you such an expert?”
Steph reddened, laughing. “I’ve been here lots of times.”
“Yeah, it’s fun.”
“It’s embarrassing,” Margo whispered, looking around again. Why were so many women here? She bristled, hating to admit her sister was right. “Okay, so there’s a story here, but that’s all it is to me.”
Shrugging, Steph pointed to the stage. “Showtime.”
Margo moaned in self-chastisement. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She should have suggested her new editor take the assignment himself, though looking like Ernest Borgnine might have been a liability in the Studfinder.
“Here we go.” Steph whooped and cheered with the other insane women while Margo groaned again. Music with a heavy disco beat reverberated through the small club. Varicolored lights rotated and flashed as the emcee announced the first performer.
“Good evening, ladies and welcome to the Studfinder,” he said dramatically. “And I guarantee you will find more than a few studs.” The women roared with laughter and applause. A few wolf whistles rose above the din. “Now get ready for Tarzan.”
Tarzan? The ultimate male domination fantasy. Margo suppressed a shudder of revulsion. It’s a story. Get a grip.
Removing a notepad from her purse, she leaned back and started writing down everything she saw, heard, felt in the dim room. This was freedom of speech and expression in action. She had to remain focused. If people wanted to watch exotic dancers of either gender, that was their business. Government had no business dictating morals. Satisfied she’d found the proper mind set for this assignment, Margo glanced up at the stage. “Oh. My. God.”
A man—an almost naked one—stood directly in front of her. Smiling. Very slowly, his hips undulated to the music, displaying his well-endowed physique in intricate detail. He wore only an exotic leopard print breechcloth. “Oh, my God.”
“You said that already. You’ll be all right, sis.” Steph squeezed Margo’s hand in reassurance. “Him Tarzan. You Jane. Chill.”
Margo averted her gaze from the grinning god and jerked the umbrella and fruit from another drink. She drained the contents in one smooth gulp, refusing to look again at the wriggling, pulsating male in front of her. “Why’d we have to sit so close, Steph?”
“For your story, of course.”
Ignoring her sister’s laughter, Margo turned her attention back to her notepad. She made more notations about the subject in the breechcloth, leaving out certain details regarding his anatomy. Her editor wouldn’t consider that newsworthy, though Margo couldn’t help wondering if perhaps The Guinness Book of World Records might be interested.
The dancer released what could only be described as a Tarzan yell—one that would have had Cheetah, Jane and Boy running to the rescue.
Her sister’s reaction made Margo look up. God, how she wished she hadn’t. The man chose that particular moment to shed most of his skimpy attire, leaving only a G-string between the ogling women and his family jewels. The crowd went wild.
Margo went into shock.
“I’m out of here. This is disgusting.” She stood and the contents of her open purse rolled onto the floor. “Damn.”
The dancer seemed to think her upright position had other implications. He moved closer to their table, lowering himself in front of her until his pelvis was within reach.
Steph, obviously far more astute than Margo in such situations, rose to the occasion. She held a folded bill toward the man and deftly tucked it into his G-string.
Still staring in horror, Margo tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry.
“You need another drink, sis,” Steph calmly suggested as the music faded and Tarzan returned to his jungle. The waiter made rounds during the brief intermission.
Uncertain of how or when, Margo found her spilled belongings back in her purse, and herself back in her chair with another drink. Immediately removing the fruit, she sipped steadily. Some of her tension vanished beneath the heady power of demon rum. Her limbs felt warm and heavy. This was better. Much better.
When the music again increased in volume, Margo was still uncertain why women paid money to be embarrassed like this, but she was considerably more willing now to investigate the possibilities. The alcohol had numbed her somewhat and loosened her inhibitions, which was probably why she rarely imbibed. Steph had always accused her of being a control freak.
“This is the show with the Eroticops. It’s great. I heard they have fresh meat—er, dancers.” Steph sighed dramatically. “If all cops looked like these guys, I’d run stop signs on a regular basis.”
Eroticops? Steph seemed awfully familiar with the Studfinder’s performers. Just how often did she come here? Margo cast her sister a cursory frown just as the lights dimmed again. The announcer, along with police sirens and flashing red and blue lights, signaled the beginning of the next set. Pencil and paper readied, she looked across the table at her sister.
“Where’d they find him?” Steph asked in undeniable awe.
Curious, Margo sought the catalyst for her sister’s reaction and spotted him instantly. Her pencil fell from her grasp and rolled impotently across the table. Her note pad dangled unproductively from the fingertips of her left hand.
This man was even better looking than his predecessor, and at the moment he was still fully clothed. A blue policeman’s uniform hugged every bulge and hollow of his body to perfection. The bill of his hat shadowed part of his face and eyes. Dark hair curled at his temples and neckline. For some imprudent reason, she wanted to know what color his eyes were.
She felt her sister’s gaze on her and jerked her attention away from the man on the stage, but only for a moment. A very brief moment.
“Nice, huh?” Steph asked in that infuriating way she had of knowing what someone else was thinking. Four other “police officers” joined the first, flanking him in pairs to mimic his seductive movements.
Margo could only nod. Despite her best intentions, she turned her gaze back to the stage, discovering that the lead dancer had moved to the front of the runway and seemed to be dancing just for her. In your dreams, silly. His stare never left her as he gyrated his hips and bent his knees, lowering himself for her inspection.
Her face was hot—and the rest of her body wasn’t exactly cool, come to think of it. The man still hadn’t removed any of his costume, even though he’d been on stage for several minutes. Some members of the audience were suggesting—loudly—that he should proceed as expected. After all, the other four men in uniform had already shed most of their attire.
For some unexplainable reason, Margo wanted to see what this beefcake looked like unwrapped. Flustered, she reached for her glass and drained the contents. Her head swam as he tossed his hat into her lap in one smooth motion. The smile he broadcasted was deadly.
Margo couldn’t speak. It couldn’t be….
He peeled away his shirt and now wore nothing but his trousers. She swallowed hard, unable—unwilling—to drag her gaze from the mesmerizing specimen on the stage. She had to know.
Much to her dismay, he blew her a kiss. It headed straight for her as if it had DNA and free will, planting itself right on her lips. She felt it—really she did. A strange, fluttering sensation commenced in her belly and spread.
She stole a peek at Steph. Her sister was riveted, as were the other women in the audience. Margo glanced quickly around the room, but her gaze was lured back to the dancing figure as if her optic nerves had a homing device. A blue spotlight suddenly bathed him, illuminating his features clearly.
Realization hit home. With trembling fingers, she retrieved her pencil and made notes, though she knew her scribbles wouldn’t make any sense later.
Jared. Why now, after all this time?
She felt his gaze boring into her as he danced and swayed on the stage. He must have recognized her, too. Commanding herself not to look, she bent her head over the tablet, scratching away as his shadow passed to and fro across the table amid the flashing lights.
Oh, but she wanted to look.
The hammering in her chest was almost as distracting as the heat inside her body. She’d gone two years without even wanting a man, let alone acting on it. A trickle of guilt filtered through her, but her natural instincts overshadowed it.
Had Jared removed anything else? She had to know. Just one little peek…
Garbed in nothing but a light blue metallic loincloth, he thrust his hips toward her in a timeless movement that never went out of style and never would. Heat suffused her, but she couldn’t tear her attention from his gorgeous glistening and—God help her—achingly familiar body.
Dark hair fell across his forehead in disarray. His jaw was square and strong. Of course, she didn’t have to see his eyes to know they were blue—bedroom eyes, she’d once told him.
See, Margo, this is what happens when you’re celibate for two years. Of course, her reaction was reserved for this man, and only this man.
She drew a deep breath, trying to ignore the twisting, squirming, dazzling male displayed for her simultaneous pleasure and torture. But she couldn’t. Lifting her gaze, she found him staring. He gave her a slow, sexy smile when their gazes met.
Oh, yeah, he definitely recognized her.
It was magic.
Just like in the movies.
“This is a raid!”
Vaguely aware of chaos erupting all around her, Margo watched Jared retrieve his discarded clothing much more quickly than he’d jettisoned them. “Oh, this must be part of the show,” she whispered, suddenly wishing she’d skipped the third tropical drink. She giggled at the absurdity of her situation, but Jared appeared at her side and gripped her elbow, turning her knees to rubber. After all this time and everything that had happened, here he was. Touching her.
“You don’t know me,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
He tightened his grip and leaned closer. “No matter what happens, you don’t know me.”
She met his gaze, searching for answers to questions left unasked since college. “For now.”
“Thanks, I owe you.”
And Margo knew exactly how she would exact payment. Her boss wanted an interview with a male stripper. Well, now there was no doubt in her mind who would grant her that interview. “Yes, you do.”
Another uniformed man—definitely lacking a stripper’s physique—approached them. “You’ll both have to come downtown with—”
“Downtown?” Margo blinked when they started toward the front entrance. “Are we under arrest? I thought this was just part of the show.”
“Not hardly,” the officer said, shaking his head.
Margo glanced at her sister, who was being politely but firmly escorted to the door by a pair of uniformed officers.
With a sigh, the apparently legitimate police officer gripped Margo and Jared by the elbows and escorted them through the door. “Outside, both of you.”
“Suits me. I seem to have worked up a little sweat.” Jared shot Margo a lethal smile—one that rivaled the wattage of the parking lot lights.
“Yeah, I’ll say.” Margo’s gaze dipped to the open vee of his unbuttoned shirt. If he expected her to act like she didn’t know him, then she would treat him the same way any other patron at the Studfinder might—as a side of meat. Prime, of course.
Swaying slightly when the officer stepped from between them and released her arm, Margo clutched Jared’s muscular forearm for support. He was, without a doubt, the most well-constructed male she’d ever encountered. Of course, he always had been. Despite his incredible physique, she still had trouble believing he’d chosen exotic dancing as his career. Not Jared Carson. Even so, she remembered that he’d studied Broadway Jazz in college. Apparently, he’d found a use for that talent.
The chilly evening air was like a bucket of ice water on her rum-blurred senses. She squinted, looking around for Steph in the parking lot menagerie. Suspicion nudged its way into the foggy, semi-drunken fringes of her mind.
“Are you really arresting me?” Margo asked, her mouth dry and sticky.
“Not unless you give me a good reason.” The policeman pushed his hat back on his head, then nodded toward her companion. “The dogs are going in.”
Dogs? Drugs. Maybe there was another angle to this story after all. She fished through her purse until she found her wayward pencil and opened her steno pad to make a few notes. “What reason do you have for believing there are drugs at the Studfinder, Officer?”
The man released an exasperated sigh. “A reporter. I should’ve known.” He shook his head and aimed his thumb over his shoulder. “You’re all going downtown until we finish searching the place, then there may be some questions. That’s all I know.”
Margo shot Jared a questioning look, but he was staring beyond her. His expression intense, a muscle twitched in his jaw, just the way she remembered. When his gaze met hers, a mask dropped neatly into place and another dark curl fell across his forehead. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. A stage smile, but why now?
More importantly…why for her?
Still, his grin waged a full-scale attack against her composure and almost won. Why couldn’t he be a little less handsome and a lot less memorable?
“I’m sure you’ll be out so fast you’ll hardly have time to read the graffiti in your cell,” the policeman said in a mocking tone. “We usually don’t hold you yuppies long.”
Pencil poised in midair, Margo swallowed hard. “Cell?”
“Just kidding. Lighten up.”
“Hey, Margo, you got the cute one. Way to go, sis.”
Groaning as her sister was escorted away, Margo rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Mom’s going to kill me when she hears about this.”
The policeman chuckled. “She looks old enough to drink.”
Shaking her head in self-loathing, Margo released a sigh of surrender. “Arrest me, officer. Let’s get this over with.”
Chuckling again, he led them both to a car, passing two women singing “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” at the top of their lungs.
The hard cold fact was they were being dragged down to the police station, and there was more to this than a night of exotic dancing. She could use this situation to her advantage.
Margo tried to stay close to the door as the car rolled out of the parking lot, though knowing Jared sat mere inches away made it difficult to concentrate. Until she found out exactly what was going on, it might be better if she maintained a safe distance.
She turned her attention to scratching a few more notes about the atmosphere, the way it felt to be incarcerated in the back of a squad car, though not under arrest….
And trying to ignore the heat of Jared’s gaze as he sat staring at her through the darkness.
Heaven, help me.
Not a moment too soon, the officer parked behind the police station. They climbed out of the car and went through the rear entrance. In better times, Margo had used the front entrance. She was mortified, though she reminded herself they weren’t being arrested. It could be worse. Much worse.
In the bright squad room light, she couldn’t help noticing that the other women from the Studfinder looked quite ordinary. They looked like…mothers.
“I want to call my attorney,” she said quietly, the rum’s numbing effect abandoning her.
“I already did that,” Steph said from across the room.
“There you are.” Margo breathed a sigh of relief. “You and your bright ideas about how to do my job. Thanks a lot.”
Steph flashed her a sheepish grin as Margo slumped into a chair beside her. With difficulty, she ignored Jared’s gaze on her from across the room. None of this made sense. The Jared she’d once known and loved would never have put on the show she’d witnessed this evening. And what a show. Her face heated at the memory of his bare skin rippling beneath the flashing lights.
With a sigh, she planted her chin in her hands and peeked at Steph from the corner of her eye, grateful her family had never met Jared in person. “You called Warren then?”
Steph nodded. “Yeah, but he’s out of town.”
“Of course he’s out of town.” Margo straightened and allowed her head to hit the wall with a soft thud. “The perfect finale to a perfect day.”
“Too bad Nick….”
Margo smiled sadly when her sister left her comment unfinished. If Nick were alive, he’d have had them out of here by now. “Yeah, I know.”
“They’re sending a new junior partner to spring us.”
“Oh, that figures.” Margo sighed again, physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Seeing Jared again after all that had happened between them…
“Who’s in charge here?” a feminine voice demanded from the doorway.
Glancing up at the redheaded woman, Margo noted she was well-dressed and built like Marilyn Monroe.
“I am.” The officer at the desk looked up at the newcomer. “May I help you, ma’am?”
The woman grimaced slightly, then smiled. “I’m Raquel Eastwood from Riley and Gray—I mean Warren Grayson’s office.”
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here.” Steph stood and grabbed the woman’s hands in both her own. “Can you get us out of here?”
The woman’s smile took Margo aback, and there was something about her eyes…. “So we’re free to go?” Margo asked, rising to stand beside Steph.
Ms. Eastwood nodded and snapped her fingers. “You bet. I have a couple of forms to sign, then we’re out of here.”
“There were others,” Margo began, her gaze inexorably drawn to Jared’s slouched figure against the other wall. His expression was so intense it stole her breath. She needed to talk to him, to learn why he was here and why he’d been at the Studfinder. Somehow, she sensed he wouldn’t welcome her questions now, and she needed a hot bath and a couple of aspirin. Maybe more than a couple.
But there was a story here—more of one than she’d originally thought. Jared knew something.
Frowning, she dragged her gaze from Jared to ask the attorney something, but Ms. Eastwood was staring at Jared, too. Of course she was. Jared was the kind of man any woman would ogle, and he wasn’t Margo’s anymore. She had no right to feel jealous. But she did.
“I guess you’ve all had enough excitement for one night,” Jared said with a chuckle, gaining Margo’s immediate attention. The expression in his eyes was no longer intense, nor was it for her alone. Again, the mask was in place.
What was his game? Narrowing her eyes, she reminded herself that no one else here knew who he was. He’d shushed her back at the Studfinder. For now she would play along. However, she reserved the right to collect payment later for keeping his secret.
“Excitement?” Her voice dripped sarcasm, and she mentally patted herself on the back when his eyebrow arched ever-so-slightly. “The only exciting thing that happened this evening was watching you parade around in front of a bunch of screaming women. Half-naked. More than half.”
“I’ll say,” Steph said, looking at her sister in open surprise.
Ms. Eastwood shook her head slowly, her gaze riveted to Jared. “Another surprise.” She cast a sidelong glance at Margo.
After Margo and Steph finished answering a few questions about the Studfinder and signing some papers, the attorney offered to drive them home. They walked by Jared, who stood and flashed them his stage smile again. “Nice meeting you ladies.”
“Very nice.” Steph giggled.
“Shake it, don’t break it, man,” Ms. Eastwood said in a sultry tone.
Margo couldn’t prevent herself from giggling along with Steph, though her reasons were far different from her sister’s. She’d only known one person who would’ve had the guts to say something like that to Jared Carson, and he was dead.
Jared’s eyes sparked and one corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Lawyers. Who needs ‘em?” He turned his gaze on Margo. “Reporters, lawyers…and women.”
“Hey, watch it, buster.” Raquel placed one hand on her curvy hip. “Margo’s a reporter.”
“Anything for a story?” The expression on Jared’s face now could only be called a smirk.
Margo elevated her chin and took a deep breath, sensing this was part of his secretive role. “You bet.” She noted a wink of approval from Ms. Eastwood. Just how had Warren’s new partner known she was a reporter? Well, it didn’t really matter. This nightmare was almost over, except for dealing with Jared.
Nick stripped off his dress and infernal high heels the minute his apartment door closed behind him. Thank goodness he and Grayson had seen the wisdom of opening their offices in an old Victorian. The upstairs was a furnished apartment—the perfect place for the new junior partner to hang out for awhile.
The perfect half-way house for a half-way angel.
He had no idea how Séamus had managed to create a position for Raquel Eastwood in the firm, but it was like magic. From the moment Raquel had walked through the door, everyone treated her as if she’d gone through a normal hiring process and they’d been expecting her. Amazing. Even Mrs. Brown, the old bat receptionist, hadn’t suspected a thing. This divine intervention stuff had its merits.
Raquel had a driver’s license, a Social Security card, a diploma hanging on her office wall, and she was a member of the Bar. She was as real as anyone else walking down the street.
“Yeah, and she looks a lot like a streetwalker, for that matter,” Nick muttered.
Trying unsuccessfully to unhook his bra—AKA torture band—he gave up and yanked it over his head. He used to be able to do it with one hand. Of course, it hadn’t been behind his back then.
He grimaced as his breasts were freed from the confining garment. It was bad enough being in a woman’s body, but why had Séamus felt compelled to make Nick so well-endowed? Raquel was at least a ten-and-a-half. He glanced down at the lush breasts attached to his once flat, once hairy chest. Okay, maybe a twelve.
After pulling on an oversized T-shirt, he flopped into a chair in front of the television’s blank screen. “Séamus, I don’t know what got into you.”
“Oh, stop your belly-achin’, Nick.”
It was hard to get used to hearing voices in his head. Especially when that voice belonged to a former New York City cop who looked and sounded more like Ernest Borgnine than an angel. “I saw Margo,” Nick whispered on a sigh.
“Margo’s a good person, and she deserves better than you.”
Scowling upward, Nick scratched in a manner a lady wouldn’t be caught dead doing. But then…he was already dead, and he sure as hell wasn’t a lady.
“How do I go about finding her a new husband?” He chewed a long, manicured nail. It was damned strange, trying to find his own wife another man.
“But you’re not a man anymore.”
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me.”
“And she’s already found the right man.”
“Already found him?” Nick rubbed his chin, still amazed at how smooth his skin was now. “When do I get to meet him?”
“You know exactly who he is.”
“No, I—” Realization smacked Nick between the eyes. Oh, he’d considered the possibility earlier in the evening, but had denied it. Repeatedly. Even Séamus couldn’t be that cruel. Then again, what about this Raquel gig?
Nick swallowed hard, remembering all those years of lurking in Jared Carson’s shadow. Raised in the same small town, they’d been rivals since kindergarten. All his life, Nick had struggled to stay one step ahead of Jared. And failed.
“So I’m being punished.” Nick sighed, rubbing dried mascara from his eyes and pondering the merits of the entire pint of dark fudge ice cream lurking in the freezer.
“No, you’re being given the opportunity to fix your mistakes.” Séamus made a tsking sound in Nick’s head. “An opportunity most would welcome.”
Nick closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the chair. “I guess pride is something we aren’t allowed to have, even after we die.”
“Why him?” A shudder crawled through Nick from the top of his stylish, tousled hairdo to the tip of his perfect pedicure. “Jared Carson has always been one step ahead of me.” His new voice dripped sarcasm like battery acid. “Star in baseball, football, basketball, track and field, class president, and I’ll bet you already know who ran against him. Gee, thanks, Séamus. Thanks a lot.”
Bitterness tasted vile on his tongue. The ice cream will help. Nick kept his eyes closed, but that couldn’t block the memory of his father’s lectures. Fred Riley’s kid was never the best at anything. Sure, Nick had been close many times, but second place was never good enough for his old man. Especially not second to Jared….
“Winning isn’t everything. In fact, it really isn’t important at all in the big scheme of things.”
“Easy for you to say.” Nick opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting to find a certain angel’s ugly mug smirking from the plaster. “Besides, he’s a male stripper. Get a grip.”
“Think real hard, Nicholas. Does that ring true?”
“No.” Nick sat up straight, remembering football hero Jared from college. “Not one iota.”
“So use your brain, Red.”
“But if he isn’t a stripper, then—” Nick covered his face and sucked air between his fingers. “He’s a cop. I should’ve known. He’s a frigging cop. Why? Huh? Why not a nice stockbroker, a banker, or even another lawyer?”
“She tried that once.”
“You have to remind me every chance you get, don’t you?” Nick closed his eyes and groaned. “A cop who happens to have been a lifelong pain in my ass? Shouldn’t dying get me a reprieve from that guy? No way. I’ll find her someone else.”
“You said this is my job.”
“What are we going to do with you?”
“Beats the he—” Nick bit the inside of his cheek. “Sorry. I can’t—I won’t—let Margo take up with a cop. Especially not that cop.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you do.”
“Are you forgetting I was one of New York’s finest?”
Nick slumped lower in his chair.
“The guilt you’ve carried around about how you won Margo is only one of the reasons you’re here now.”
Nick stiffened—his gut twisted into a violent knot. “Séamus, is that why you picked Carson? To punish me?”
“I didn’t pick him. He’s Margo’s destiny. You interfered.”
“If it’s going to happen anyway, then why do I have to be around to witness it?”
“They need a catalyst. You and Jared were rivals. Besides, you know secrets that will explain the past.”
“Secrets? What secrets?”
“You must remember what your father—”
“No way, buster. We aren’t going there.” Nick punched the arm of his chair and clenched his teeth, determined to change the subject. “So I’m supposed to help her get over me? How sweet.” His voice grew hoarse and tears—tears?—pricked his eyelids. “This is perfect. Now I’m going to cry just like a woman, too. Thanks a lot, Séamus.”
“Crying might do you some good.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.” Nick dabbed at his eyes with the hem of his T-shirt, visualizing himself with the chocolate ice cream and a spoon. “But I’m telling you right here and now, I can find Margo a better man.”
Séamus sighed in Nick’s head—not a pleasant experience by any means. “Will you stop that?” Nick rubbed his temples with both thumbs. “You’re giving me a headache.”
“Jared is the right ma—”
“Over my dead body.”
Jared Carson stared at his reflection in the appropriately warped bathroom mirror. A neon sign flashed “Vacancy” outside the window, less than ten feet away. This hole away from home left a lot to be desired, but it served his purpose.
After popping two aspirin into his mouth, he washed them down with tepid tap water, then raked his fingers through his hair. Tonight had brought a few surprises. That drug raid, for starters. Why had the locals raided the Studfinder? How much did they know?
Bracing himself on the sink’s edge, he stared at his reflection as if the answers were hidden in the silver. Fat chance. He had to face the possibility of a leak. His cover seemed intact, though. So far. But if the local boys interfered again, Jared’s investigation would fall apart too soon. Way too soon.
And, as if he didn’t have enough complications, there was Margo. Why now?
He’d known Springfield was her hometown, but he figured Riley would have moved his bride to the big city for a life of wealth and glamour. So why was she back here working for a small newspaper? Married to a successful attorney, Margo would shine at the country club, and she’d never have to hold down a paying job.
A far different life than he could have offered.
He slammed his fist against the edge of the sink, immediately regretting it. “Damn.” Hard porcelain couldn’t take the place of a good punching bag for working out his frustrations. A human jaw, on the other hand….
Flexing his bruised hand, he padded barefoot to the window and stared out at the night. If he’d known Margo and Nick Riley had settled in Springfield, he never would have accepted this assignment.
But it was too late to back out now. His cover was in place and he’d just have to explain that to Margo. And her husband. God, the last person in the world he wanted to face right now was Nick Riley.
The man who’d stolen the only woman Jared had ever loved.
Two weeks before graduation, Nick had arranged for Margo to catch Jared in the arms of another sorority sister. Somehow, the girl had managed to get into his room and his bed without him knowing it. In retrospect, he realized Nick must have paid her to set Jared up for a fall.
Nick hadn’t let a moment pass before he’d moved in on a vulnerable Margo. She’d refused to listen to Jared’s explanations, which angered him enough to allow his pride to get in the way. Big mistake.
“Easy enough to say now.” With a sigh, he shook his head in disgust.
Swallowing the bitter bile burning his throat, he trudged to the lumpy full-sized bed and flopped down on top of the tattered bedspread. He had a job to do—an important one. Margo would keep his secret once he explained why he was here. But Nick….
Jared rolled to his side and stared at the flashing sign, hypnotized by its rhythmic display.
When he’d seen Margo sitting in the audience tonight, his initial reaction had been embarrassment, then joy. He’d never forgotten her gray eyes, her honey brown hair, her lithe young body, or the passion she’d shown so openly during their college years. No other woman had insinuated herself into his heart since Margo, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he wouldn’t allow it, or because no other woman could take her place.
And how could he forget Nick? The rich kid whose real estate tycoon father had owned or held the mortgage on everything and everybody in his small town. Except for Carson’s Garage. Jared’s uncle and guardian had been an independent cuss who never borrowed or loaned a dime his entire life. Everything they’d ever owned had been paid for with hard-earned cash.
A cold draft seeped in around the cheap, aluminum-framed window and he shivered. Taking refuge under the blankets, he continued to stare at the flashing sign. What a sorry excuse for a bed. The floor would probably be more comfortable, but colder, too.
And no amount of physical discomfort could blot out his memories. Not tonight.
If Nick had gone to some posh private college instead of the state university, so many things would be different.
By now, Jared would be married to Margo. He knew that without a doubt. They’d probably have a baby, or one on the way. And he definitely wouldn’t have taken this cruddy job—not a chance. He would have gone home and worked as a deputy until Sheriff Bob was ready to retire, then he would’ve run for the office himself.
But Fred and Nick Riley’s obsession with winning and Jared’s own stupid sense of pride had ruined it all.
Ah, Margo. He squeezed his eyes shut and remembered that night in the woods behind her sorority house, when she’d given herself to him completely. The night they’d both declared their love for each other….
No other woman had ever touched him or drained him so completely—physically or emotionally. Sure, he’d had sex with more than a few women in his life, but he’d only made love with one. Margo. Sweet Margo.
Forget it, chump. She was a married woman, and the last person she needed messing up her life was the likes of Jared Carson. He’d had his chance. It was over.
He punched his pillow and sat up in bed. Between worrying about this case and strolling down Memory Lane, he’d be up all night. Since he couldn’t sleep, maybe he’d get some answers instead.
Grumbling, he reached for his cellphone and dialed his contact’s number. Jared’s body tensed—thoughts of Margo pushed aside by duty.
“This better be important,” a sleep-roughened voice said after one ring.
“What the hell’s going on? Is there a leak?”
“Beats hell outta me.” Charlie sighed into the phone.
“And my cover?” Silence. That did nothing to bolster Jared’s confidence. “Charlie, is my cover blown?”
“Nah, I’m sure it’s fine.”
Jared stood and paced. “We’ll continue as planned for now, but you let me know in advance if anything else crops up. Got it? I don’t like surprises.”
“Sure. Get some shut-eye.”
Jared disconnected the call. No, he didn’t like surprises one iota.
Like seeing Margo again.
Margo winced as her alarm clock blasted through her brain. No, not her alarm clock—the phone. What had she done to deserve a wake-up call this morning?
Steph is a dead woman.
Without opening her eyes, she fumbled for the receiver and snatched it from its cradle. Anything to keep it from ringing again. Some party animal. Three—four?—tropical drinks had given her a hangover.
“Meet me for breakfast,” a woman—definitely not Steph—said before Margo uttered a syllable.
“What? Who is this?” She shoved a pillow behind her head and opened one eye. Her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth with something resembling wallpaper paste. “Breakfast?” Her stomach threatened immediate mutiny.
“Yeah, how about the Little Diner?”
She and Nick had eaten dozens of breakfasts in that downtown restaurant during their marriage. “Who is this?”
“Raquel. Raquel Eastwood.”
No longer groggy, Margo opened the other eye and scooted herself into a partial sitting position. “Why?” Suspicion slithered through her. Was there a complication from last night’s trip to the police station? “Am I in some kind of trouble?”
A nervous laugh sounded through the phone. “No, I just thought we’d chat over breakfast. How about it?”
Margo rubbed her forehead and nodded, then remembered that wasn’t terribly effective over the phone. “Sure, I suppose.” She swallowed and grimaced. “It’ll take me at least an hour to get my act together.”
“Too much Silver Oaks?”
The mere thought of anything alcoholic made Margo’s stomach lurch. “No, I wish that was—” She swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “Wait a minute. How did you know my favorite wine?”
“Uh, you must have told me last night.” Another nervous laugh. “Tell you what, bring Steph, too. I’ll meet you there in about an hour. Later.”
She had not mentioned Silver Oaks last night. Margo shook her head, immediately regretting the sudden movement. Someone at the law firm must have mentioned Margo to Raquel. How else could the woman know so much?
Dismissing it, for now, she called Steph and tried to sound semi-coherent. Her sister sounded disgustingly alert and cheerful. Fortunately, the call lasted only a minute or two.
“Shower,” she muttered, pushing to her feet while holding her aching head. “Coffee.”
She froze in mid-step, suddenly remembering what—rather, who—had plagued her dreams. Jared. She would find him today, interview him, then forget him.
Forget him? The lie of the century.
Exactly seventy minutes later, she slid into an old-fashioned booth at the Little Diner. Amazing what hot water, hot coffee and aspirin could accomplish in so little time.
Steph looked as if she hadn’t been out last night at all, and Raquel Eastwood still had foxy redhead written all over her. Not only did she boast a mane of curls Nicole Kidman would’ve envied, but she had a body that wouldn’t quit. Margo’s short-cropped light brown hair and small breasts suddenly seemed more inadequate than usual.
She’d had more than her share of coffee already this morning, so she ordered tea and toast. “So you’re Warren’s new law partner.” And why the chummy breakfast invitation?
“Uh, yeah.” Raquel took a sip of coffee and looked from Margo to Steph. “Warren’s out of town.”
“I know.” Steph shuddered dramatically. “When the answering service told me, I was afraid we’d be stuck in jail all night. But you know, it was all kind of fun until we got to the police station.”
A strange expression entered the attorney’s blue eyes as she turned her gaze on Margo, then looked quickly back to Steph. “It could’ve been a lot worse,” Raquel said.
Steph giggled and winked at her sister. “Did you see the gorgeous dancer Margo got?”
“I didn’t get anyone.” Margo grimaced. She’d had him, once upon a time—definitely past tense. Her memory of last night was like a scene from a bad soap opera. She’d stayed out almost all night, gone to a male strip show, and had been arrested—er, taken in for questioning. To punctuate the event, her college flame had barged into her life and her dreams.
“Mmm, the way he was looking at you, sis….”
“Oh?” Raquel tugged on her bra as if uncomfortable, and her face reddened. “You mean the guy at the station?”
When the attorney peered over the rim of her coffee cup, Margo was struck again by how much Raquel reminded her of someone. For some reason she just couldn’t determine why. Déja vu?
“He was dancing at the club before the real police came.” Steph wrinkled her nose at Margo. “If you ask me, he was dancing for my sister.”
“Stephanie.” Margo’s face flooded with heat beneath Raquel’s stunned expression. “It was really nothing like that. I just happened to be sitting right in front, and—”
“Dancing?” Raquel asked quietly. “So, tell me what he was…like?”
What was he like? Hot fudge sundaes, my most erotic dreams, and the world’s fastest roller coaster. Flustered, Margo stared at Raquel. The woman was awfully nosey. “Well, you saw him, too.”
“Uh, yeah. Right.” Raquel laughed nervously as she added non-dairy creamer to her coffee even though there was real cream on the table. “I guess I really didn’t get a very good look at him.”
“That’s funny.” Steph smiled at Margo. “I thought Nick was the only person who preferred that powdered junk to the real thing.”
“Me, too.” Margo tried to smile, but found a lump in her throat she couldn’t swallow. “Must be a prerequisite for the law firm.”
“Oh, really?” Raquel shrugged. “That must be the real reason Warren hired me.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” Steph grinned, tilting her head to the side. “I imagine it had a little something to do with your legs, and a couple of other things.”
Raquel coughed into her napkin as Steph dissolved into laughter, but Margo didn’t join her sister. There was something really strange about Raquel. Then again, maybe it had a little something to do with Margo’s lack of sleep and the nuclear hangover.
“Hey, sis, look.” Steph leaned forward, pointing toward the door. “Is that who I think it is?”
Dragging her attention from Raquel, Margo looked toward the door. And froze. Larger than life, Jared Carson’s impressive physique filled the doorway. This couldn’t be a coincidence. She’d called in and told her editor where she was having breakfast, in case anyone needed to reach her. Jared must have called to track her down.
Like a fist, her stomach pressed upward against her heart. Her throat clenched. Well, this would save her the trouble of looking for him later. After all, she still had an article to write, and he owed her a favor.
The thought of Jared repaying a favor sent tendrils of desire stretching through her veins. Seeing him again was dangerous, but by seeking her out he’d left her no choice.
Steph reached out and grabbed Margo’s wrist. “Oh, it is him, and he’s coming this way.”
“Great. Not again.”
Raquel’s reaction made Margo glance in her direction. The attorney’s eyes glittered dangerously. She looked angry. Why?
“Good morning, ladies.”
Margo jerked her head toward the sound of Jared’s unforgettable voice. Though it seemed impossible, he looked even better this morning wearing jeans and a soft gray T-shirt. Muscles rippled in his tanned arms where coarse dark hair accentuated every bulge and hollow.
“Hey, look who’s here.” Steph feigned surprise. Badly. “I don’t think we caught your name last night. I’m Steph Knutsen.” She thrust out her hand.
Jared shot her a crooked grin and took her hand in his. “Jared Carter,” he lied. “Pleased to meet you.” Releasing her hand, he looked expectantly around the table.
Carter. Carson. Very smooth. Jared was lucky she’d attended college far enough from home to ensure her family had never met him. Margo tried to avoid his gaze, and turned her attention to Raquel. The woman’s nostrils flared slightly and her lips looked as if they’d been glued together. No doubt about it—Raquel Eastwood had some pretty strong feelings about Jared.
When no one else made an effort to introduce themselves, Steph took it upon herself to do so. Margo sighed, wondering how two sisters could be so different.
“This is Raquel Eastwood, our attorney,” Steph said.
Raquel looked up and nodded, but made no effort to extend her hand.
“And this is my sister, Margo Riley.”
“Margo. Nice name.”
Margo mumbled something polite and allowed him to take her hand. The feel of his warm, rough skin against hers sent a jolt of awareness through her, flooding her mind with memories. Vivid memories. The things he’d done to her with those hands….
The interview, Margo. She had to remain focused on her assignment. Jared meant nothing to her—not anymore. She couldn’t let him mean anything to her now. She was too vulnerable after losing Nick, though it had been two years. Two centuries probably wouldn’t be enough. Besides, everything she and Jared shared had been destroyed forever. Even acknowledging that simple truth seemed disloyal to her dead husband. Guilt pressed down on her, hard and fast.
Jared released her hand and stiffened slightly. “Riley and Knutsen.” He kept smiling, but the familiar twitch in his jaw revealed his internal struggle to hold his feelings tightly in check. “Guess one of you sisters must be married then.”
“Margo’s a widow,” Steph supplied, earning a groan from Raquel.
Surprise registered instantly in Jared’s eyes. The expression he turned toward Margo was a blend of sympathy and astonishment, without a trace of the malice he’d once held for Nick.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding sincere.
Tears scalded her eyes, but Margo blinked them into submission. Sympathy from Jared was more than her raw emotions could take right now. Part of her wanted nothing more than to have a long talk with him, while another part of her wanted to run fast and hard. Facing Jared alone would resurrect it all—the pain, the joy, the hunger. And now, here he was expressing genuine sympathy about Nick’s death.
Too much. She couldn’t breathe. They were all staring at her expectantly. Waiting. Somehow, she had to get away. She’d find another stripper to interview. Jared was too dangerous, too memorable.
“Uh, I really have to get to the office. I have a million things to do today.” Resisting the urge to sniffle, she pulled some bills from her blazer pocket and thrust them toward her sister. “This should cover my check. You all have a nice day, and thanks for inviting us to breakfast, Raquel.”
Without looking at anyone or responding to Steph’s objection, Margo slid from the booth and headed toward the back of the diner. The room was nothing but a blur of moving colors and shadows as she made her way toward the restroom. She was running away.
And she would hide in the bathroom all day if she had to.
Whatever it takes.
The bathroom was blissfully empty, and Margo leaned her flushed cheek against the closed door. Sanctuary. Her breathing gradually calmed and the tears ceased to threaten her composure. She blew her nose and splashed her face with cool water, then reapplied her powder and lipstick.
After running a comb through her hair, she stared at her reflection. Shame ebbed through her. Margo Knutsen Riley was not a coward.
Oh, yes I am. No. No I’m not.
She drew a deep, fortifying breath. Damn it, I am not a coward. Later today, just before the Studfinder opened, she’d go find Jared and conduct the interview.
And face all her ghosts—past and present.
Nick Riley was dead. Jared jogged out to the Studfinder, trying to digest that shocking information. Unbelievable. He’d had no idea.
He paused across the street from the nightclub, his breath catching. Talk about tacky. He didn’t even know how long Nick had been gone, and here he was thinking about—
Past tense. Why would Margo want anything to do with someone in his insane career field—either his current fake one or real one—not to mention someone her late husband had hated and that she believed had been unfaithful to her? With a sigh, Jared crossed the street.
He had to put Margo out of his mind, though he still needed to talk to her again to ensure she would keep his cover. The Margo he’d known would never break a promise, but they’d both changed a lot since college.
Knowing the other dancers wouldn’t be there yet, Jared slipped into the dressing room and ran his usual search, coming up empty-handed—again. So far, he’d seen no proof of drugs coming into or out of this establishment, though he needed to get back into the office again and check out the computer. The muckety mucks had been sure enough to set up this crazy assignment. All Jared could do was keep his eyes open for anything unusual.
Besides local police interference.
He shook his head, still pondering Charlie’s words of assurance last night. They’d sounded weak. Uncertain. If the Studfinder really was a front for a drug cartel, and Jared’s cover was blown, his ass was toast.
The door behind him squeaked open and Jared slid between two lockers, waiting to identify the intruder. None of the dancers had a reason to be here this early. If the owner caught him, he’d come up with some kind of excuse, but not being discovered at all was an even better idea.
He held his breath as the person emerged from the dark hall. Margo. Alone, she stood peering around, waiting. She was looking for him—why else would she be here?
Jared stepped from his hiding place and just stared. All the feelings he’d carried in his heart for so many years punched him in the solar plexus. It was a miracle he could remain standing at all. For a few miserable moments, he couldn’t even draw a decent breath.
She started toward him, and he dragged in a shaky breath, preparing himself. Seeing Margo again was amazing. And agonizing. Damn. He would always love her.
“We need to talk,” she said quietly.
She’d been crying. Over Nick. Jared gritted his teeth and nodded. “Not here.”
“Fine.” She cleared her throat. “My office is only—”
“Not there. Too public.” He gripped her elbow and steered her toward the side entrance. “Do you have your car?”
“Let’s just get out of here first.” He struggled against the urge to stop and pull her into his arms, to murmur words of love and comfort, to kiss her until they both forgot everything that had happened since the last time they’d kissed. “Then we’ll talk.”
She remained silent, but managed to free her arm. Without looking over her shoulder, she marched toward a red BMW with a vanity plate that read LOVENICK.
Perfect. Just frigging perfect. She punched her remote and the locks clicked. Jared reached in front of her and opened her door. She glanced back at him, her eyes wide and filled with questions, her lips slightly parted and beckoning.
He cleared his throat and pressed his hand to the small of her back, urging her to enter the car before he did something stupid, like kiss her. Besides, the sooner they were away from the Studfinder, the safer he’d feel. Having Margo here, where she could be in danger if his cover was blown, made Jared nervous.
A nervous cop is a dangerous cop.
Remembering those words from his training didn’t help put him at ease. Once she slid into the driver’s seat, he slammed her door and hurried to the other side. Within seconds, he was in the posh leather interior, buckling his seatbelt.
Margo locked the doors and started the engine, then backed the car out of the parking space before pulling toward the exit. The engine purred, the ride like skating on butter.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
He looked at her. Big mistake. Trying to ignore the lick of lust that damned near made him groan aloud, he said, “You have questions for me, and my answers aren’t for public consumption.”
She set her lips in a thin line. “Very well, but this is just business.”
“Whatever you say.” He flashed her a grin, enjoying the leap of her pulse in the side of her neck, and the color creeping upward from the neckline of her blouse. “Nice car.” Except for the license plate.
“Nick bought it for me.” She sighed.
And the vanity plate. Jared didn’t want to talk about Nick, but they had to. Dead or not, Nick still lurked between them. He always would.
“I…I’m sorry, Margo.” He waited a beat and bit his lower lip. “About Nick. I didn’t know.”
“You must not go back to Riley’s Crossing very often.” She turned the corner, keeping her gaze on the traffic, sparing Jared those devastating gray eyes of hers. “The whole town was in mourning.”
Because Fred Riley still owns the place. “No, not since college. My uncle moved to Florida—no reason to go back.”
“That’s right. You didn’t have any other family.”
“Mom died when I was three, and I never knew my father. End of story.”
Margo stopped at a wrought iron gate and inserted a card. The gates swung open for her, and she drove into the complex. Posh condos sat in a park-like setting, with immaculate gardens, fountains, and trails.
Jared kept expecting to see Nick Riley’s gloating expression, and every time the thought struck, guilt answered.
Margo punched a button and a garage door opened. She steered the car inside, killed the engine and lowered the door. Only a small light overhead dispelled the darkness. She punched yet another button on her handy remote and a brighter light filled the garage.
So this is the good life. Nick had always known how to appreciate the finer things. “Nice place.”
“It’s all right.” She opened her door and Jared unfolded himself from the passenger side.
“Just all right?” he asked over the roof of the car.
She lifted a shoulder. “Nick wanted this, but I wanted a little Victorian fixer-upper across town.”
He met and held her gaze. “So move.”
She looked nervous as she slammed the door. “No. Not yet anyway. This is fine.”
She’s not over Nick. Remembering the way she’d left the breakfast table this morning, why did that surprise Jared? Because he wanted her to be over Nick. Damn.
He followed her up a flight of stairs, where she keyed some numbers into a control panel and opened the door. They emerged into a huge kitchen where everything gleamed a blinding white, from the ceramic tile beneath their feet to the cabinets and appliances. The place was so contemporary it almost made his eyes ache. There was nothing homey about this kitchen.
Surprised, he wondered what kind of kitchen would suit her. The Victorian she’d mentioned, of course. He could picture her surrounded by wood, some of it a bit scarred or distressed. Ruffled curtains, old-fashioned copper pots hanging from hooks, and friendly pottery sitting all over the place.
And if that wasn’t the most unmanly thought Jared Carson had experienced in his adult life, he didn’t know what was. He shook himself, banishing the image. DEA agents didn’t think about kitchen decor. A smile curved his lips. Damned good thing no one could read his mind.
Margo turned on the flame beneath a white kettle. “Tea?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Sure.” Jared never drank tea, but for Margo he’d have said yes to battery acid. She arranged white cups on a white tray, with a white carafe. The white thing was really getting ridiculous.
A few minutes later, they were sitting at a small table off the kitchen that overlooked the fancy gardens below. Jared felt uncomfortable as hell. The tabletop was glass, and the base was wrought iron. White wrought iron….
He had to ask. “Is the whole place white?”
Margo smiled, and a distant expression flickered in her eyes. “Pretty much. Nick liked the sleek, modern look. He almost fainted when I mentioned painting one wall in the den red.”
“I’ll bet.” The last thing in the world Jared wanted to discuss was anything about Nick, but he didn’t want to rush Margo. He still had hours before he was due at the club. “Red, huh?” He managed a smile, just for her.
“Good chi.” She laughed at herself and poured tea into both their cups. “Milk? White?”
“Uh…no. Just sugar. White.” Not that Jared knew enough about tea to be sure of his answer. He liked black coffee with sugar, so tea was probably the same.
She leaned back in her chair and took a sip. “Well, I suppose we’ve delayed this long enough.”
Jared met her gaze, hoping his eyes didn’t reflect his churning emotions. “I suppose.”
She set her cup down with a clatter, reaching out to steady it with both hands. They trembled, making the china clatter even more. Finally, she bit her lip and clutched her hands together on the glass surface. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing for you to be sorry about.” He took a sip of tea and remembered immediately why he was a coffee drinker. He set the cup aside, congratulating himself for not shuddering.
Until he saw Margo’s hands on the table. Unable to stop himself, he reached over and covered her hand with his own. She flinched slightly, and her eyes widened. A moment later, she blinked and turned her palm upward, into his.
“It really is good to see you again.” Her voice trembled a little. “You look well.”
“You look ravishing.” He followed the comment with a smile, hoping he wouldn’t scare her away. This Margo seemed uncertain and frightened, very unlike the self-assured, loving young woman she had been in his arms.
Had Nick done this to her? No. He shoved the thought aside. Nick Riley had been selfish and competitive, but he never would have harmed Margo—at least, not physically.
It felt good to hold her hand. He wanted to do a lot more, but sensed that Margo wasn’t ready. Meeting her gaze, he had to wonder if she’d ever be ready.
“I really am sorry about Nick.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “There wasn’t any love lost between us, but he sure didn’t deserve to die so damn young.”
She released a breath as if she’d been holding it. “Thanks for that. I wasn’t sure….”
“How I would react to the news?” He shook his head. “You know me better than that, Margo.”
She lowered her gaze for a moment, then looked right at him. “Yes, I do. And last night’s performance was definitely out of character.” A gleam entered her eyes and she pulled her hand out from under his. “Do you mind if I tape our interview?”
She rose and grabbed a leather briefcase beneath the breakfast bar. “Interview,” she repeated. “Did you forget?” She withdrew a small recorder and a notebook, then returned to her seat. “You owe me. Remember?”
So much for her being frightened and uncertain, Carson. “Is this a defense mechanism?” he asked, quirking one corner of his mouth upward.
“Is what a defense mechanism?” She gave him a confused look and returned to her chair.
“The Lois Lane treatment.”
“Ha-ha.” Margo grimaced and arranged the tools of her trade. “So can I record the inter—”
“No.” His answer came out harsher than he’d intended. “Sorry, but….” Hell, now he was the nervous one. He raked his fingers through his hair and released a breath in a whoosh. “Margo, this has to be off the record. I promised you an explanation, and I have to make sure you won’t blow my cover first.”
He saw reporter instincts flashing behind her baby grays. “Off the record, Margo.”
She held his gaze for a few moments, then popped the cassette out of the recorder. “All right, off the record for now, as long as you give me something for my article.”
“What’s your topic?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “My editor’s brilliant idea for a human interest piece.”
“Uh, okay.” He lifted one shoulder. “What human interest piece?”
Margo’s eyes danced with mischief and she waggled her brows. “What would make an intelligent man resort to bump and grind as a career? Basically.”
Heat flooded Jared’s face. “Not by choice.”
Still standing, she folded her arms across her abdomen. “If we aren’t taping this, we might as well talk in the den.”
With her notepad and pencil, she led him into a room with white walls, white pleated shades, gleaming white-and-glass tables, and white leather furniture. Weird.
She sat on the couch and he sat beside her. All right, so he probably should’ve taken the chair across from her, but the urge to sit beside her had stolen his common sense. “What do you want to know?”
Clearing her throat, she set her notepad and pencil on the glass-topped coffee table, then half-turned to face him. “Before we get to my interview, I want to cover the off-the-record stuff. Why are you pretending to be an erotic dancer?”
A grin tugged at his lips. “Pretending? Does that mean I’m not any good at it?” He pressed the flat of his palm against his chest. “I’m wounded.”
“Male ego aside….” Her expression was serious. “Why, Jared?”
“It stays between us?”
She crossed her heart, right between her lovely breasts. Jared’s gaze followed her movement, riveted to the outline of her nipples showing through her thin sweater. The heat that had filled his face earlier now did an about face and settled one hell of a lot lower.
“Why?” she repeated, her voice low but intense.
“I work for the DEA.” He held her gaze, watching for any sign of a reaction. “I’m undercover.”
“The cover was pretty skimpy from what I saw last night.”
He held his head in his hands. “If I’d realized anyone would recognize me, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have taken this assignment.”
“I’m sure. But you had a background in Broadway Jazz from college, and the, uh, body to pull it off, so….”
Margo’s giggle crawled into a special corner of Jared’s heart—one that had missed her more than any person in his life. He still cared about her.
No, he still loved her.
Admitting that to himself left him breathless for a few, miserable moments. Logic intervened, reminding him that it didn’t matter how he felt—she’d married Nick and still mourned him. End of fantasy.
“I always knew you wanted to go into law enforcement, but the DEA?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Just gullible, I guess.”
“Very funny.” Her expression grew serious again. “So…the DEA thinks someone at the Studfinder is dealing drugs?”
“We’re still off the record?” Jared directed his most solemn gaze toward her. “If my cover is blown, I could be in danger. I don’t think you want that.”
Fear flickered in her eyes. “No. Of course not.”
The sight of her tongue sweeping across her lower lip sent Jared’s blood supply down and dirty in record time. She still turned him on, but that was the least of his problems. The fact that he still loved her was considerably more dangerous than his libido.
“Yes, we have reason to believe the Studfinder might be a front for distribution. I lost the toss.” He smiled, hoping to ease the fear he’d planted in her eyes.
“It sounds dangerous.”
“Not if I’m careful.” He reached for her hand, struggling against the urge to pull her into his arms. “And I intend to be careful.”
“All right.” She released a shaky breath. “I’ll keep your identity and your role a secret, if you’ll give me the dancer interview my boss wants.”
“But I’m not really a dancer.” Jared flashed her a grin, enjoying the crimson flush that crept up her neck and bloomed in her cheeks.
“You looked like one last night.” Her answering grin almost drove him to his knees. “I don’t think you’d get any argument from the rest of your admirers in the audience.”
“All right, now you’ve done it.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I’m embarrassed. Are you happy?”
She grew sober and reached for her notepad with trembling fingers, but she knocked it to the floor instead. He reached for it at the same time she did and they bumped foreheads.
Before he could draw his next breath, he had Margo in his arms, pulling her to her feet and covering her lips with his. A tremor trickled through her body, and he feared she might pull away, but instead she molded herself against him, parting her lips for his.
Oh, God. He never should’ve let this happen, because he’d forgotten how sweet she tasted. Memories swirled through him of the first time they’d made love, augmenting his desire even further. He pressed his hand to the small of her back, and laced the other through the silky strands of hair at the nape of her neck.
This was Margo—not a dream. Hungry for her, he deepened their kiss, swallowing her moan with an answering growl that came from his very soul. When he’d lost Margo, he’d buried a part of himself. Now that neglected part of him clamored for release.
The vault where he’d locked these feelings away cracked open a tiny bit. Even that small portion of emotions long denied were potent enough to make him crazy.
He wanted her. Needed her. Loved her.
This was so right. The years fell away. He kissed the corner of her mouth, her cheek, her jaw.
“Jared,” she whispered, and he kissed her mouth again.
“Hey, sis, what—”
Margo jerked herself free of Jared’s embrace, her face flushed, her breathing labored. “Steph, what are—”
A tall redhead stepped from behind Margo’s sister. Jared met Raquel Eastwood’s gaze.
And saw murder in her eyes.
Margo straightened her skirt and drew a desperate breath. When had she stopped breathing? And why? She was single. So her sister and a virtual stranger had just caught her kissing an equally single man? Big deal. Nothing wrong with that picture.
Then why did she feel like crawling under the nearest rock? Nick is dead. She struggled for another breath, and though logic demanded she accept her husband’s death and his rivalry with Jared, she couldn’t. Traitor.
Steph extended the key card that had belonged to Nick toward her. “Want this back?” She flashed her a sheepish grin. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be silly.” Margo cleared her throat and noticed the fury glittering in Raquel Eastwood’s eyes. Why would she be angry about this? It made no sense at all. Of course, Raquel’s early morning breakfast invitation hadn’t either.
“Looks like we arrived just in time,” Raquel said, her voice sounding deeper than it had before.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Jared said quietly.
Raquel took a step toward him. “Yeah. Mine.”
“What the—” Steph looked from Raquel to Jared, then back again. “You may be tall, but I think Jared could take you with one hand. Besides, what’s it to you?”
As usual, Steph had the courage to voice Margo’s thoughts. “I’m interviewing Jared for an article.” Margo retrieved her notepad and pencil, as if she needed proof. Ridiculous.
“Sorry for interrupting.” Raquel’s apology came through gritted teeth, and was clearly not genuine. However, at least she’d unclenched her fists.
“Interview, huh?” Steph’s eyes twinkled and she waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Raquel needed a ride to the office, and I remembered I need to borrow your purple dress, so….” She shrugged, still smiling.
Margo would never hear the end of this one.
“I’ll get the dress.”
“I’ll help you.”
Margo hurried into the bedroom she’d shared with Nick, which augmented her guilt. She hadn’t kissed a man since his death, and the first one had to be the one who would have hurt him the most.
Steph came in behind her and put her hand on her shoulder. “Don’t you dare feel bad about kissing that sexy hunk of man. It’s about time you—”
“Don’t, Steph.” Margo drew a shaky breath, reeling in her emotions. She turned and faced her sister. “There’s…a lot more to this, and I can’t go into it with you right now.”
“Oooookay.” Steph gave her a quick hug, then flung open Margo’s closet. “I’m starting to wonder about Raquel.”
“Starting to?” Margo shook her head. “She’s very strange.”
Steph retrieved the purple dress in question and draped it over her shoulder. “She was the one who mentioned we were passing right by your place.”
“How….” Margo paused to contemplate that. “She probably saw my address at the office or something. Or maybe from the police station last night.”
Why didn’t it seem that simple to Margo? Because Raquel had shown an inordinately strong interest in her. That made it personal.
“You’re thinking what I’m thinking.” Steph tilted her head at an angle, her expression contemplative. “I’m sure she’ll take no for an answer.”
Margo would’ve bought her sister’s sincerity, if not for the gleam in Steph’s eye as she grabbed the doorknob.
“You’re rotten,” she muttered to her sister’s retreating back.
“I love you, too, sis.” Steph giggled all the way back to the den.
Raquel and Jared were still in neutral corners. At least that was something.
“C’mon, Raquel, let’s give these two some privacy.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Raquel said, her murderous gaze still on Jared. “After all, Margo is still in mourning.”
Steph coughed and grabbed Raquel by the elbow. “Hon, Nick was a really cool guy, but it’s been two years. Life goes on.”
Raquel paused at the door and faced Margo. The glower she’d directed at Jared was gone. Now the expression in the redhead’s mascara’d eyes could only be described as sad. Rejected? Get a grip, Margo.
“I see you kept the painting,” Raquel said quietly, as she shifted her gaze from Margo to the painting in the entry way.
Before Margo could ask the woman how she knew about the painting Nick had purchased while on their honeymoon, Steph had dragged Raquel Eastwood out the front door.
“That was…interesting,” Jared said.
“More than you can possibly imagine.” Margo turned slowly to find that he looked as bewildered as she felt. “Yes, interesting is one way of putting it.” Crazy would’ve been more accurate. Had Raquel been here before? Ridiculous. After giving herself a mental shake, she grabbed her notebook and pencil again. “Now, where were we?”
Jared touched her shoulder, gently turning her to face him. “Don’t you remember?” He took a step nearer, his warmth closing the short distance between them as he cupped her face in both hands and brushed his lips across hers.
Her knees quaked and her heart pressed upward against her throat. She still wanted this man with the same intensity she had in college. He had the ability of reducing her to little more than crazed hormones with no effort at all. Problem was, he seemed hell-bent on exerting a lot of effort.
She was in serious trouble.
“Jared….” A simple whisper shouldn’t have ignited the flame in his eyes she saw now. He obviously knew her resistance to his charms was practically non-existent. “I…we can’t do this.”
“Oh, I definitely can.” He exhaled very slowly, resting his forehead against hers. “But I’m a gentleman. Remember?”
“Yes.” Margo swallowed hard, and wished more than a little that Jared Carson would forget he was a gentleman, and that she could stop feeling as if she were betraying her dead husband. “Back to our interview.”
Margo sat in a chair across the room from Jared this time, and he took the couch. Alone. Better this way. Really.
“I can’t tell you much about the life of an exotic dancer, since I’m really not one.” He held his hands palms up.
“Looks like a duck….”
“I thought so.” She scribbled down a few comments.
“What are you writing? I haven’t said anything yet.”
“Just that the subject seems ashamed of his chosen profession. Embarrassed.”
“You can say that again.”
“Once will suffice.” Warmed to her subject, Margo scribbled more notes.
“Just a thought….”
She looked up, trying to ignore how gorgeous he looked sitting on her couch. “What?”
“Aren’t you doing the real dancers a disservice?”
“By putting my embarrassment in the article. Maybe some of these guys like this job.”
“Oh.” What had she been thinking? Very unprofessional—and very unlike her. “You’re right. I can’t do it this way. I’ll have to go back to the Studfinder and—”
“No.” Jared stood, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Please?”
“Don’t want me to see you wiggle up there again?” She grinned, but could tell he was serious. “Jared, I have a job to do here.”
“Tell me what you want to know from the other dancers, and I’ll ask them.”
She studied his expression, the worry in his gorgeous blue eyes, and almost surrendered. “Look, as you pointed out, I’ve already almost blown this assignment.” She stood, tossing her notepad onto the coffee table. “If I’m going to write this story, I’m going to do it right. That means interviewing a real dancer. Springfield only has one Studfinder.”
He rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed. “The real Margo Knutsen has returned.”
Stunned, she waited for him to meet her gaze again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
His eyes softened. “I didn’t mean to insult you, but you haven’t exactly been yourself.” One corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Except for when I kissed you.”
Her cheeks flamed and she cleared her throat. “I…well…. It’s been hard. Losing Nick and all.” And living with the knowledge that I never really loved him the way I should have.
“I know.” He sighed and walked around the coffee table. “Come here.”
Margo hesitated, but saw compassion in his eyes instead of lust. Between two beats of her heart, she found her head nestled beneath Jared’s chin, and his strong arms wrapped comfortably around her shoulders. He made no attempt to kiss her this time.
And that made her love him and want him even more.
“I don’t believe this.” Nick kicked off his high heels and put his feet on his desk. Who cared if the hem of his skirt slid all the way up to the crotch of his—God save him—panty hose? To make things even worse, this really had been his desk, once upon a time.
“Séamus, I just want to know one thing.”
“What is it this time, Nicholas?”
“Were you a masochist when you were still alive?”
“I know you don’t mean that. You’re just upset.”
“Noooooo. What was your first clue?” Nick raked his slut red fingernails through his hair. “I told you I’d find her someone else.”
“Jared is Margo’s destiny. It’s not your place to—”
“Not my place?” Nick stood, wishing he had pockets to ram his fists into. Wishing his punching bag was still hanging in the corner. He’d draw Séamus’s face on it and take out his frustrations.
Nick scowled up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes, resignation coiling through him with all the ease of a rattlesnake. Margo’s destiny, my ass. He clenched his fists, struggling against the urge to put his fist through the wall.
“Do you have any idea how it felt to….” He bit back what threatened to become a sob. Nick Riley didn’t blubber, but as Raquel….
“It’s hard, Nick. I knew it would be.”
“But you sent me here anyway, knowing he was the one?”
“Remember, this order came from higher up the chain of command.”
Nick barked a derisive laugh. “So God really is that cruel?”
“You have to figure it all out for yourself, Nick. Have you ever really loved anyone but yourself?”
“That’s bull. I loved Margo. I married her, didn’t I?”
“But you didn’t love her the way a man loves the woman he’s meant to spend his life with. Did you?”
“I…hell.” He punched his fist into the palm of his other hand. “Just hell.”
“I think you’re starting to see the truth, though you don’t like it now.”
“Now? You think I’ll ever like seeing Jared Carson manhandle my wife?”
“Widow. And what I think isn’t important, but you will come to accept what must be. And perhaps you shouldn’t carry your father’s secret to your grave either. Maybe it’s time to learn something about sacrifice.”
Nick dropped his gaze to the floor, scowling at the runner in the toe of his hose. A soggy tear landed on it, as if to punctuate this entire sordid mess.
“If I accept what you call destiny….” He drew a shaky breath and forced the words. “That means I also have to accept that Margo was never really…mine.”
Only silence answered him, but he knew. His rivalry with Jared Carson and his marriage to Margo were the reasons he hadn’t made it all the way into Heaven. He was dead, dammit. Margo wasn’t. His mission was to see her happy for the rest of her life. But why the hell did that have to make Jared happy for the rest of his life, too?
Sacrifice…. Nick pulled a sheet of stationery from the drawer and scribbled a short note—words he’d buried deep and sworn he would never reveal. Even so, one of the things he’d regretted after his death was taking this knowledge with him, instead of leaving it here for those it affected.
He stared down at the written words, reached for the sheet, fully intending to rip it to shreds. Sacrifice. Truth. Instead of tearing it, he swallowed hard and drew a deep breath. The date he wrote at the top of the page was from the week before his death, two years ago. He signed Nick at the bottom.
Seeing his real name in his own hand again gave him pause. He’d made so many mistakes—had so many regrets. Maybe Séamus had a few points. Maybe. This one was easier than Margo. He folded the sheet and sealed it in an envelope. Very neatly, he wrote a name across the front and slid it to the back of his top desk drawer. Someone would find it after Raquel was gone and think it had been missed after Nick’s death.
The receptionist’s voice scratched over the intercom. “Henry Millman on one, Ms. Eastwood.”
“What does that son of a bitch want?”
“Are we having PMS?” the old woman asked, her voice dripping sarcasm.
“Eat sh—” Nick clenched his teeth, rather than complete that remark. “I dunno. Maybe. Fine, thanks. I’ll take the call.”
Nick blew his nose, dabbed the tears from his eyes, grabbed the phone, and punched line one. After he reiterated his refusal to accept the owner of the Studfinder as a client, Nick hung up the receiver. That snake made the need for sexual harassment laws way too frigging personal.
Someone knocked and opened Nick’s office door simultaneously. Mrs. Brown, the firm’s loyal receptionist, who’d adored Margo and hated Nick in his natural life, entered with a small, brown paper bag. The little, gray-haired woman pulled a gigantic chocolate bar from the bag and slapped it into Nick’s hand.
“This first, to sweeten your mood,” she said. “We’ve never had a female attorney in the office, and I’m, well, beyond all this.”
Nick blinked, staring from the bar and back to Mrs. Brown. “But….” She’d never given him chocolate.
The woman made an annoying tsking sound with her tongue and removed two more items. “Evening primrose for your PMS.” She slapped the pill bottle down on the desk and removed two small boxes—one of tampons, and one of maxi pads. “And these for later.”
Nick sputtered, unable to contemplate the horror of what she’d just proposed. He stared at the diagram on the side of the tampon box. No way. Not even Séamus would….
“You’ll feel better soon,” Mrs. Brown said. “Take the primrose. Start now.” She opened the bottle, then pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket. “And a phone message from Steph Knutsen.” Mrs. Brown moved to the office door.
“Wait.” Nick sniffled and tore open the chocolate. “Thank you. I think.”
“You don’t know it yet, but you already did, dear.”
Dear? He shifted the glob of soothing chocolate to one side of his mouth. “I did?”
“Steph included me in her invitation.” Mrs. Brown flashed a wicked grin and left the room.
Nick grabbed the phone message and simultaneously bit off another chunk of chocolate. Maybe there really was some truth to that serotonin business. He felt better already.
Raquel, meet us at the Studfinder around seven. Margo’s on assignment and we may need our attorney. Bring Mrs. Brown. A smiley face was drawn at the end.
“Oh, my God.” Nick Riley was going to watch male strippers. Revulsion slithered through him, until he remembered that Jared Carson was a main attraction.
He broke off another chunk of chocolate, liking the idea of watching old Jar-O humiliate himself. If only Jared Carson knew who Raquel really was, that could make it all the more satisfying.
“Get serious.” He dropped the unopened boxes into the wastebasket and looked at the digital clock on his desk. It was too early to call it a day, but he didn’t have any appointments. Besides, he didn’t feel like himself. Well, even less than usual since his new appearance. Maybe Mrs. Brown was right about the PMS.
He almost laughed. “I know what I’m gonna do to lift my spirits.” He’d have Raquel’s long red hair cropped off into something more manageable. And get rid of these manicured claws, too. The more he contemplated it, the more he liked the idea.
He pulled a pair of fingernail clippers from his desk drawer—right where he’d always kept them—and rendered Raquel’s red nails into nice, neat stubs. He’d have to ask Mrs. Brown what women used to remove this gunk.
Then he went into the bathroom and scrubbed off the makeup. When he looked in the mirror again, he noticed something for the first time since this journey into Never Neverland.
Raquel had Nick’s eyes. Behind all that eyeliner and mascara, he hadn’t noticed. “I’ll be damned.” Maybe the eyes really were windows to the soul. Séamus might have changed Nick’s body, but he hadn’t changed his eyes or his handwriting. Even Mrs. Brown had commented how much Raquel’s handwriting resembled Nick’s. Knowing that part of him was still here made him feel better than he had since his arrival back on earth.
Well, for a few moments he felt better. After using the facilities, he marched back into his office and retrieved the box of maxi pads from the wastebasket. He slammed the bathroom door behind him, tore open the box and read the directions.
“Thanks a lot, Séamus.”
Jared had a hunch, and he didn’t like hunches. He liked facts. Hard evidence.
A local big shot named Henry Millman owned the Studfinder, along with at least a dozen other small businesses in the county. In the two weeks since Jared had started this assignment, tonight was the first time Millman had put in an appearance. Why tonight? And had last night’s futile drug raid been timed accordingly?
The rotund, cigar-smoking owner strutted through the dressing room about half an hour before showtime. He made a few ribald comments about entertaining women, not giving any dancer more than a cursory nod, except one.
Millman directed a glare of suspicion that shot right through Jared. He’d seen that look before. The asshole knew something—or, at least, suspected it. The fact that he was suspicious of Jared made him the prime suspect.
Jared forced himself to return to the task of closing all the Velcro tabs on his costume, ignoring his sweaty palms, thundering heart, and the piercing alarm reverberating through his brain.
Something big was going down tonight. He felt it. Smelled it.
And Margo would be in the audience.
“What’s up?” the dancer with the locker next to Jared’s asked. His Tarzan performance opened every night. “Tough day?”
Jared searched his gray matter for Tarzan’s real name, and came up blank. “I was just noticing the fat guy.” He slid a glance toward Millman, who was now deep in conversation with his emcee. At least he wasn’t watching Jared anymore. “He’s the owner. Right?”
“Yep. That’s the big man himself.” Tarzan tucked something that looked like a rolled sock into his G-string. “Padding the fantasies.”
Jared managed a chuckle, and patted himself on the back for not cringing. “I was just curious. Haven’t seen him here before.”
“Oh, he comes in around the first of every month.” Tarzan pulled his loincloth on and fastened the Velcro. “He never watches the show, though—spends all his time back here doing something in the office.”
“Hmm. Seems like he could hire somebody to do his payroll.” Jared lifted a shoulder, feigning disinterest. “Tightwad, eh?”
Tarzan rubbed oil across his shaved chest. “I figure the Studfinder is a tax shelter or something.”
Or something. Jared had to find a way to get into that office. Tonight. “Anybody ever meet him here?”
Tarzan didn’t seem suspicious of all the questions. He appeared thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, come to think of it, I’ve seen a tall bald guy with him a few times.”
Bald guy? The acid level in Jared’s gut hit nuclear. His contact with the local P.D. was tall and bald. “Seems an odd choice for a bookkeeper.”
“Or a boyfriend.” Tarzan chuckled. “Millman could probably take his pick in here, being the boss and all.”
Jared coughed. Well, Millman couldn’t have his pick of every one.
“That bald guy is one scrawny sumbitch, too.”
That did it. Charlie. The “tall, scrawny, bald guy” had to be Jared’s link to the local police. Charlie was obviously on the take, and Jared was in deep shit. That raid the other night had been arranged to rattle Jared.
His blood turned frigid and his breath caught and held. Fear shot through him, as genuine as the sock in Tarzan’s G-string. Yes, Jared was afraid—for Margo.
“Break a leg.” Tarzan flexed his muscles and headed toward the stage door.
“Yeah.” Trying not to stare at the small door at the end of the dressing room, through which Henry Millman had disappeared, Jared headed for the bathroom and made a call on his encrypted cell phone. Within a few moments, he’d notified his boss about his suspicions. By the time he took the stage tonight there would be three more agents on site, and more on the way. Turned out the feds already had Millman under investigation for various financial dealings. This case could be wrapped up a lot faster than anyone had hoped.
A few moments later, he stashed his phone and took his place in line with the other Eroticops. With any luck, this would be his last performance. He was more than ready to hang up his G-string.
Jared Carson had other things on his mind now. He couldn’t deny the truth. From the first moment he’d seen Margo sitting in the audience, he’d known. This was destiny or fate or whatever. He would pursue her as he should have before she ever married Nick. He should have swallowed his pride back in college and told her he was sorry, that he loved her and wanted to spend his life with her. Loving her.
Then he would leave his life with the DEA and pursue his original career goal of small town law enforcement. He wanted to buy Margo her old Victorian fixer-upper, and to make babies with her. Lots of babies.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer either. Not because he was a jerk, but because he’d felt her response. He’d seen love in her eyes, in her smile, and had tasted it in her kiss. They belonged together, and they always had.
If only Nick…Jared released a slow breath. No, he couldn’t blame Nick any longer. Losing Margo had been as much Jared’s fault as anybody’s. Nick was dead, and Jared planned to let him rest in peace. Their old rivalry had been stupid when Nick was alive and continuing it after his death was doubly stupid.
Margo mattered. The future mattered.
He heard Tarzan’s yell and barely suppressed a shudder. Damn.
Margo and Steph occupied the same table they had last time—center stage. Except this time, Margo wasn’t a bit reluctant to watch the dancers, knowing that very soon Jared would be there.
She couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss. Everything he’d meant to her in the past had come flooding back as if they hadn’t been apart all these years. As if Nick….
No. She wouldn’t think about Nick now.
“I wonder what’s keeping Raquel and Mrs. Brown,” Steph said as she slid a drink across the table toward Margo.
“I’m still trying to figure out why you invited her here tonight.” Margo wasn’t looking forward to seeing the unusual woman again so soon.
“I called to invite Mrs. Brown, and she said Raquel had PMS and would probably enjoy it.” Steph grinned and waggled her eyebrows.
“Hmm.” Margo glanced at her watch again. “Maybe they changed their minds about coming.”
“Mrs. Brown said Raquel had a hair appointment. I guess those gorgeous locks take longer.”
“What gorgeous locks?” Margo stared past her sister as Mrs. Brown and a very different version of Raquel approached the table between sets.
Steph looked over her shoulder, then turned her wide-eyed stare on Margo. “Yikes! She got scalped.”
A more subdued Raquel slid into the chair next to Steph. Mrs. Brown sat closer to Margo. Raquel wore jeans, a blue sweater, and very little, if any, makeup. Her flaming hair curled around her face. She didn’t look a thing like the fancy woman she’d been this morning.
“Look what she did, just because of a little PMS.” Mrs. Brown kept looking at Raquel and shaking her head. “Shame. What a shame. Such beautiful hair.”
“I donated it to a charity that makes wigs for kids on chemo.” Raquel caught their server and ordered a Glenfiddich single malt scotch. “I don’t miss that mop a bit.”
Nick’s favorite label…. Margo shook off the memory of Nick and smiled. “I think donating your hair to charity was a very nice thing to do.”
Raquel shrugged and her cheeks pinkened. “I hope they put it to good use.”
“You missed Tarzan,” Steph told Mrs. Brown. “But the Eroticops are next, and they are to die for.”
Especially one of them. Margo had to stop mooning around about Jared and concentrate on her notes. Tonight, they would make sense, and Jared had promised to find a likely dancer for her to interview.
“So, Margo, what did old Fred want when he called earlier?”
“Just letting me know he’s passing through town tomorrow, and wants to have lunch.” Margo drew a deep breath. Her father-in-law had never been particularly fond of her—especially after Nick decided to settle in her hometown instead of returning to Riley’s Crossing. “He doesn’t have any other family with Nick gone.”
Raquel made a choking sound and Steph patted her on the back. All the color had drained from Raquel’s face.
“Are you all right?” Margo asked.
A pained expression crossed the redhead’s face. “Yeah, sure. Why wouldn’t I be?” The server delivered her drink, and Raquel ordered another before she took her first sip. “I, uh, take it you were talking about your father-in-law?”
“Yes, exactly.” But how did you know that? “Nick was his only son, and I think he’s lonely. He misses him.”
“Will minor miracles never cease?” Raquel downed the scotch with one smooth flick of her wrist.
“Do you know Fred Riley?” Steph asked, not bothering to hide her curiosity.
“I’m not sure I ever really knew him at all.” Raquel rested her chin on her fist, her expression wistful. “I, well, never mind. We’re here to have fun. Right?”
Talk about avoidance. Did Raquel know Nick’s father or not? Margo exchanged glances with her sister, knowing Steph was also confused by the ambiguous answer. And how had Raquel known about the painting, or where Margo lived?
“Did…did you know my husband?” she asked, uncertain how or why the question had left her lips.
“I….” Raquel’s gaze shifted around the table. “Yes, yes I know—er, knew—Nick.”
“I thought you just moved here,” Steph said.
“I lived here until two years ago, but now I’m back.” Raquel flashed a nervous smile.
Two years ago? Raquel had left town about the time Nick died. She studied the woman’s guilty expression, and a sinking sensation struck.
No. She couldn’t accept that. Nick had never given her reason to believe he was unfaithful.
The lights and sirens signaled the beginning of the next act, and the crowd went wild, forcing Margo to shove her suspicions aside. Nick was dead, and thinking ill of him was wrong. Still, how did Raquel know so much…?
Once the dancers entered the stage, Mrs. Brown leapt to her feet and gave a wolf whistle that would have put the most sexist construction worker to shame.
Steph laughed and Margo turned her attention to Jared. He was dancing for her again—now she knew that for certain. No one else in the room knew his real identity, or why he meant so much to her. Tears scalded her eyes, but she blinked them into submission, focusing instead on holding Jared’s gaze.
Watching him reminded her again of his kiss. Her body softened and heated, hungry for him. And why shouldn’t she indulge her desire? After all, she was single and it wasn’t as if Jared was a stranger. He’d been her first lover. Her first love.
Her only love?
Guilt shoved its ugly face in the forefront of her mind again. If any other man had attracted her attention, would she feel this way? The answer came swiftly—a resounding no.
Oh, but she had loved him. And…she still did. Her heart raced ahead as she gathered that knowledge about her like a protective cloak. She wanted to invite Jared home with her tonight. Could she find the courage? And could she forget the past enough to think of a future with him?
Nothing ventured…. A smile curved her lips and she blew Jared a kiss before she lost her resolve.
“Well, isn’t that special?” Raquel muttered.
Margo girded herself and faced Raquel. A myriad of emotions danced in the woman’s eyes—regret, sadness, and something more.
“He’s Margo’s,” Steph told Mrs. Brown.
“Lucky girl!” Mrs. Brown laughed. “If my hormones were thirty years younger, I’d give you a little competition.”
Raquel extended her glass toward Margo, her eyes misty. “I wish you the best in every…way.” Her voice broke, and she drew a shaky breath.
“Thank you.” Margo wasn’t sure what else to say. Why did this strange woman’s words mean so much? Why was Margo relieved to hear her say them? It was almost as if she needed Raquel’s approval to seduce Jared. Ridiculous.
Of course, what Margo really wanted with Jared was a lot more than merely a night of sex. Her face flamed and her heart did a pirouette.
Nick is dead, Margo. She didn’t need anyone’s permission to do whatever she wanted with Jared or any other man. She’d been a good wife to Nick. Hadn’t she? Wouldn’t he forgive her now, knowing she was still in love with Jared?
No, probably not. Though she’d loved Nick in her own way, she wasn’t blind to his faults. He’d been pretty self-centered, and competitive to the extreme. She sighed. Especially with Jared.
Somehow, she had to come to terms with all this, because she couldn’t just let Jared walk out of her life again. She needed this—needed him—in her life.
Give me strength.
Determined, she turned her attention back to the stage, watching Jared do things with his hips that set her insides ablaze. She bit her lower lip and sighed.
Margo glanced over to find Steph shoving napkins toward Raquel, who had spilled her drink.
When Margo met Raquel’s gaze, a jolt went through her. The woman’s eyes had disturbed her before, and now she knew why. Without all the makeup, Raquel’s eyes were just like Nick’s.
Raquel’s expression grew solemn and she gave Margo a sheepish grin as she pushed to her feet. “Be right back.” Raquel left the table to weave her way toward the restrooms.
“She’s wearing sneakers,” Steph announced. “Amazing transformation. Kind of like a butterfly in reverse.”
“PMS.” Mrs. Brown sipped her tropical beverage, her gaze never leaving the stage. “Can I take one of them home with me?”
Steph laughed. “Now, what would Mr. Brown think of that?”
“He won’t care. He’s been dead ten years.”
He won’t care. He’s been dead…. Mrs. Brown’s words echoed through Margo’s brain. She was alive. She had a right to lead a happy and fulfilled life.
With anyone she pleased.
Would Nick’s ghost always lurk between them? Would his memory always create this surge of guilt in Margo’s heart and mind? Did Jared feel guilty about Nick?
And who the hell was Raquel Eastwood?
Deciding to focus on the present for now, she looked at the stage again. The set ended and Jared blew Margo a kiss as he followed the other dancers off-stage. Somehow, she would find a way to come to terms with everything.
Right now…she had to find out why and how Raquel Eastwood had looked at Margo with her late husband’s eyes. And how she knew so many things about him.
“Running to the restroom.” Without giving her sister a chance to respond, Margo rose and made her way through the crowd on wooden legs. Had she lost her mind? This was crazy—whatever this was.
Reincarnation? Margo didn’t know much about such things, but it seemed to her that people weren’t reincarnated back into the same lifetime they’d left. Were they? Wouldn’t that disrupt the space and time continuum? Or something?
Gibberish. She squared her shoulders and turned down the dark hallway leading to the restrooms. A movement at the end of the hallway caught her attention—another door opening and a redheaded woman slipping through it.
Margo didn’t hesitate. She shoved open the same door and realized it was some kind of storage area, with another door leading outside. What was Raquel doing back here?
“Come on, Séamus,” Raquel said to the stacks of boxes. “Cut me some slack here. She’s onto me.”
Was Raquel talking to herself? “Who’s Séamus? And who’s onto you?”
Raquel slowly turned to face Margo. She drew a deep breath and held her hands out to her sides, palms up. “He’s…an angel.”
Margo looked around the deserted room again, her heart pounding so loudly in her ears she could barely hear anything else. “Your…guardian angel?”
“I guess you could say that, with the emphasis on guard. Never gives me a moment’s peace.”
“Who are you?”
Raquel stared at Margo for several seconds. “I think you know.”
Margo shook her head. “No, I don’t.” She backed toward the door. This was insane. “You have Nick’s eyes, and you know things Nick knew. But he’s dead.”
Raquel nodded and resignation filled her expression. “And he’s going to stay that way.”
“Who are you?” Margo repeated, reaching behind her for the doorknob.
“Séamus, let me be myself now.” Raquel glanced toward the ceiling. “Please?”
Margo needed air, and Raquel needed a good psychologist. “I’m going back to watch the show now,” she said carefully, not wanting to upset Raquel. “How about you?”
Raquel just stood there, staring at Margo, taunting her with her dead husband’s eyes.
“Are you Nick’s sister?” she finally asked, though she knew Nick didn’t have any siblings.
Raquel shook her head, her smile sad. “I’m—”
The door behind Raquel burst open, admitting a gush of chilly evening air. The door obviously led to the parking lot. Men’s hushed voices and lots of grunting and groaning followed. Raquel shoved Margo behind a stack of boxes.
They waited while the men hauled several boxes into the room and piled them beside the door.
“Boss says we can retire on what this shit’ll bring,” one man said. “I’m ready for that.”
The door Margo and Raquel had entered through opened, and two more men entered. “This all of it?” one man asked.
Margo’s reporter antennae twitched. Was this the drug operation Jared was investigating? She peered around the edge of the box. Two of the men wore suits, and they could have been doing a Laurel and Hardy imitation—one overweight, one tall and thin.
All she had to do was keep quiet until they left, then she could give Jared at least a partial description. Maybe that would help his investigation.
And she would deal with Raquel—whoever she was.
Margo swallowed the lump in her throat, remembering those eyes. Nick’s eyes. How could it be?
Something soft brushed against Margo’s legs. She knew from its purring that it was only a cat, so she forced herself to relax. She’d always had a cat as a child, but with Nick’s allergy, she hadn’t had one since. Maybe she’d get a cat now.
Raquel, less than a foot away from Margo, glanced down at the friendly furball.
Nick tried to toe the cat away from his shapely leg before he sneezed again, but when someone knocked the box in front of him away, he figured the cat was the least of his problems. The walking allergen scurried away, leaving the scene of his crime.
The man knocked another box aside and made a grab for them, but Nick dodged him, grabbed Margo’s hand, and dragged her out of their brief sanctuary and toward the door. “We were looking for the ladies’ room. Wrong turn. Sorry.”
An iron grip stopped Nick’s hand just shy of the doorknob. “Shit.”
“That ain’t very ladylike,” the man taunted. He shoved Nick and Margo toward the center of the room. “Got us a couple of problems here, Boss.”
Henry Millman had been in Nick’s office just yesterday. He’d called earlier this afternoon. They were in big trouble here. Unless the lecherous old fart didn’t recognize the attorney he’d tried unsuccessfully to proposition without her feminine wiles and all that hair. Nick had been right to turn down the retainer he’d offered and what he’d called his “magic in bed.” Weasel.
He narrowed his already beady eyes and shoved the omnipresent, unlit cigar into the corner of his mouth. “Don’t I know you?”
Nick shrugged, but Millman took a step closer, jabbing his cigar toward her for emphasis. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.” He turned his attention to the two men who’d hauled in the boxes. “Tie ’em up for now. After the place closes, take ’em out in the woods and get rid of ’em.”
Nick was supposed to be here to help Margo—not get her killed. What a mess he’d made of things. Again.
“Waitaminute here,” he said, desperate to save Margo. “All we did was get lost on our way to the bathroom. Is that a crime around here?”
A tall, skinny guy stepped into the light. Nick recognized him immediately. He’d always suspected Charlie Fritz was on the take, and now he knew. He’d had more than a few run-ins with the guy in court as Nick—never as Raquel. At least that was some consolation.
Séamus, get us out of this.
Nothing. Now that they were in really serious trouble, Nick’s guardian had gone underground. Just perfect.
“Sly, you stay here and guard these two,” Charlie said, eyeing Margo closely. “Reporter.”
Nick should’ve realized Margo might be familiar to these bastards, too. To her credit, she didn’t utter a sound. Nick prayed for a miracle. He’d screwed up Margo’s life once, and now he’d put her in danger.
The one called Sly put two chairs back-to-back, and the others forced Margo and Nick into them. Sly wrapped a nylon rope around them both, securing it under the seat of a chair, completely out of reach.
Charlie left the room and Millman stood back from the dirty work, staring at Nick. His gaze dropped to where Raquel’s overblown breasts jutted out between the ropes. Perfect. Just perfect. Humiliate me all you want, Séamus. Just don’t let them hurt Margo.
“Want me to gag ’em, boss?” Sly asked, apparently enjoying his job.
“No reason to yet. Let ’em whine to each other awhile.” Millman shoved the cigar between his flabby lips. “Gag ’em during the last act. No one will hear them over the music and screaming dames.”
“Let us go,” Margo said, her voice strong, her worry undeniable. “We’ll forget everything that happened here.”
“Yeah,” Nick added, remembering how and why he’d convinced himself he was in love with Margo Knutsen all those years ago. She was brave, honorable, and beautiful. What wasn’t to love? But he hadn’t loved her enough.
“In your dreams.” Millman’s eyes widened suddenly. “I got it now. You’re that bitch lawyer who was too good for me.”
Nick sighed, not bothering to answer.
“Good for you,” Margo whispered.
“Now I don’t feel so bad about havin’ to shut you up. Sly, you and Harry need to move the truck. Lock this door and make sure you’re both back here before the last set finishes, so you can gag these two.” Millman chuckled as he waddled through the door that led into the club.
“I need a smoke,” Harry said.
“Me, too.” Sly—obviously the brains of Tweedles Dee and Dumb—pointed upward at the sprinkler in the ceiling. “In the truck.”
They locked the door leading back into the club, then left through the outside door. Nick heard the keys rattle and the deadbolt slide into place.
“Isn’t this just perfect?” Nick shook his head and sighed, totally disgusted with himself.
Margo kept stretching toward the bottom of her chair. “Can you reach the knot?”
“No.” As Nick, he might have been able to, but not as Raquel. “C’mon, Séamus.”
The music fell silent suddenly. “Help!” Nick even tried a shrill whistle, and Margo shouted as well. The music resumed within seconds, drowning out their combined efforts.
“We’re going to die anyway,” Margo said, “so tell me who you really are.”
Nick swallowed the lump in his throat. “You aren’t going to die. Trust me.”
“Why?” They both kept twisting and squirming, trying to work their arms free of the ropes. “Why should I trust you if you won’t tell me the truth?”
“Margo….” Nick stopped squirming. “I…Dammit, Séamus!”
“Tell me.” Margo’s voice trembled. “I have to know.”
Nick squeezed his eyes shut, hoping for some kind of guidance. Hearing nothing but the infernal music and the customers’ cheers, he sighed. “I’m sorry for hurting you. Damn, this is killing me.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Again.”
A tremor rippled through her. “Who are you?” Her voice sounded wretched.
Nick hated himself for hurting her, but he had to finish this gig—his mission. Séamus had known, and Nick could no longer deny it.
Jared Carson was Margo’s destiny.
His throat clogged and he cleared it several times. It hurt, but Margo’s happiness came first. Seeing her happy would relieve his guilt, and he’d be able to watch her be happy for the rest of her life. Wouldn’t she love him more for that?
He searched his memory for something only Nick could know. “Do you remember your twenty-fourth birthday?”
“Of course. What does that have to do with any—”
“Your husband dressed up in a clown suit and delivered a singing telegram.” He cleared his throat and sang the opening lines of “Good Ship Lollipop.” At least Raquel wasn’t a soprano. That would’ve been too much.
Margo made a choking sound. “How did you know that? Why do you have Nick’s eyes?”
“My eyes—not Nick’s. I’m Raquel. Remember? So he had blue eyes, too. End of coincidence.”
“You…know too much. The condo. The painting.”
Sacrifice…. Would sacrificing his widow’s memory of him be enough? Would that end this nightmare, so she could get on with her life?
Nick sighed, knowing the answer. It would hurt her at first, but in the long run, it would set her free. You only loved yourself. “Okay, if you insist….”
“I was in love with Nick Riley.” The truth. Sorta. “And he loved me.”
Margo was silent for several seconds while sweat trickled down Nick’s face. Intimating to his own widow that he’d been unfaithful to her was sickening, especially since it wasn’t true. His gut clenched and his eyes burned. Raquel bawled more than anyone Nick had ever known.
“So…so you’re saying you had an affair with my husband?” Margo’s voice sounded surprisingly strong. “And that’s how you know my condo, the painting, my father-in-law…and Nick?”
Nick drew a shaky breath. He was committed to this self-sacrifice shit now—no turning back. What was pride anyway? “An affair…if that’s what you want to call it.” His male ego would never be the same after this. “Besides, Nick always said that you…really loved someone else. I don’t remember the name now.” Okay, so that’s a lie. “I’m sorry I’ve hurt you.” His voice fell to a whisper.
“I….” Margo released her breath in a loud whoosh. “I don’t know what to say. I never knew….”
Well, now he’d done it. Margo was crying, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it, but that was the least of their problems right now. First he had to make sure she survived this nightmare.
“Let’s stop reliving the past and see if we can get out of this mess,” he said with a lot more cheer than he felt. “On three, try to stand and move us toward the door you’re facing.” It took several attempts, but they finally managed to move their chairs next to the door. Nick tried using his chin to open it, but it didn’t help.
Okay, Jared. Best Nick Riley one more time and save Margo. Please.
Jared slipped into the empty office and hit a key on the computer keyboard. The screensaver of a naked woman in various poses cleared and he ran a search for a few keywords. Nothing. Of course, that would have been too easy. Millman might be sleazy, but he obviously wasn’t stupid.
A thumping sound came through the wall. Jared released the safety on his gun and eased toward the closet door. He heard muffled voices, more thumping. Cautiously, he eased the closet door open and peered inside. He glanced back over his shoulder and flipped the overhead light on to illuminate the inside of the closet.
Several file drawers occupied the closet. He’d need more time to search them. Tomorrow, before the Studfinder opened, he’d be back, unless—
The music fell silent suddenly, and he heard the voices through the wall again. Female?
After closing the closet door behind him, Jared examined the wall between him and the voices. There was a small door about three feet high behind a stack of boxes. He turned off the overhead light in the closet and crouched down to open it just a crack, expecting to find a safe or a cabinet. Instead, the door revealed an adjoining room.
Something weird was going on here. A door to the outer office closed, and he heard footsteps over the muffled music from the club. Jared weighed his options. The footsteps came closer to his closet hideout, and he stopped pondering and slid through the small door, closing it behind him.
A stack of boxes shielded him from the room’s occupants. With both hands wrapped around the barrel of his gun, he rose onto his knees, edged closer to the nearest corner and saw Raquel Eastwood. Her eyes grew wide when she saw him, then one corner of her mouth curved upward in a grin that unnerved him. It reminded him of someone.
“It’s about time.”
“Jared, thank God,” the other woman said in her unforgettable voice.
“Margo?” He slid his gun into his shoulder holster and pulled a knife out of his pocket. Within a matter of seconds, he’d freed both women. “What the hell hap—”
“No time for that,” Raquel said. “They’re coming back to kill us after the last set.” She aimed her thumb toward the stack of boxes beside the door. “Drugs. We’re the unfortunate witnesses.”
Jared pulled out his agency phone and hit one number. His back-up should be in place by now. The man who answered eased his mind. Gary was one of the best, and he was in the parking lot, watching a pair of men who’d left by a back entrance. Jared told Gary where they were, and what they assumed was stashed there. Knowing the local P.D. wasn’t trustworthy, Gary’s partner would detain the two thugs in the truck, freeing him to join Jared.
“Very nicely done,” Raquel said. “I’m impressed. In fact, I—”
“You two get back to your table. They won’t try anything in front of all those witnesses.”
“Jared, be careful.” Margo kissed him quickly on the mouth.
“She always did love you more.” Raquel’s voice cracked. “Take good care of her, Jar-O.”
“Jar….” Jared’s blood turned to ice. Only one person had ever called him that. “Later. Get back to the club, now. Trust no one—not even the cops.”
“Especially not them.” Raquel snorted. “Charlie Fritz is in this up to the last hair on his pointed head.”
Margo bit her lip and nodded. “Be careful.”
“Promise.” He unlocked the door and made sure the hallway was vacant.
“Charlie Fritz’s pointed head,” a man repeated from behind them. “Did you hear that, Charlie?”
Jared wanted to spin around and unload his clip, but common sense reminded him that the others were probably armed as well. By the time he could take one, his accomplice could fire. He couldn’t risk it.
He couldn’t risk Margo.
“Hands in the air, Mr. DEA, and close that damn door.”
Jared complied and met Margo’s gaze. He saw her fear, and hated that she was in danger. What the hell had she and Raquel been doing back here in the first place?
“Turn around real slow.”
He obeyed, hearing Margo’s sharp intake of breath. C’mon, Gary.
“Let the women go.” Jared tried to remember his training, but knowing the woman he loved was right behind him didn’t help matters. “They’re no threat to you.”
“C’mon, Séamus,” Raquel whispered, reminding Jared how odd she was.
“No threat?” Millman walked toward Jared. He didn’t have a gun—at least not in sight. “Like hell.”
Charlie stepped from the shadows. He, of course, had a gun. His face was expressionless, his eyes cold. “Always wanted to best one of you fed hotshots. Guess I get my wish.”
“Not necessarily.” Raquel stepped forward. “The place is crawling with agents. Your asses are toast.”
Jared cringed. “Uh, thanks, Raquel, but—”
“Shut up!” Charlie shouted. He waved his gun around, losing every iota of cool he’d shown earlier. The guy was freaked.
“Music’s stopped. Someone will hear you if you fire that thing.” Raquel took another step, showing no fear, and no damned sense.
Millman rolled his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. He gave his partner in crime a sidelong glance. “She’s right. Wait for Sly and Harry.”
“Oh, but they aren’t coming back.” Raquel folded her arms, standing at an angle between Jared and Charlie.
Margo crept up beside Jared, whose hands were still in the air. “Get back,” he whispered.
“Whatcha mean, they aren’t coming back?” Millman asked, narrowing his eyes. “What’d you do to ’em?”
Raquel gave a throaty laugh. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“She’s bluffing.” Charlie swallowed so hard, his Adam’s apple climbed the length of his throat and back.
The door to the outside rattled. Millman glanced at his watch. “’Bout time. The show’s over and the club closes in six minutes. Now we have three mouths to shut up permanently.”
The door burst open, but no one was there. Jared managed to shove Margo behind a stack of boxes, and dove in with her. He peered around the corner, readying his aim.
Charlie grabbed Raquel, who didn’t put up any fight at all. “Watch the hands, Curly,” she said, her tone sultry as ever.
That woman had grit. Or she was insane. Either way, she was now a hostage, and that presented a brand new set of problems.
“Come out with your hands up,” a voice called from outside.
By now, Gary probably had enough firepower to blow the Studfinder to Mars. All Jared wanted was Margo out of here safely.
“Drop it, Fritz.” Jared took aim on Millman and stepped from behind the box. “Tell your partner to let the woman go.”
“Oh, let him shoot me, Jar-O,” Raquel said.
Jared swallowed hard, resisting the compulsion to look at Raquel just now. He had to watch Millman for any sudden moves.
“Drop your weapon,” Gary called from the open doorway, his gun pointed at Charlie and Raquel.
“Dammit, Charlie, they got us. Let the woman go.” Sweat poured down Millman’s face, and his cigar hit the floor.
“Don’t move or she’s dead.”
“I’m already dead. Go ahead, make my day.”
Something that sounded like a sob erupted from Margo. He couldn’t comfort her now, but he understood her concern about Raquel. Jared had seen some agents with death wishes in his day, but Raquel Eastwood was either the bravest person he’d ever met or certifiable.
The door leading into the club swung open behind them, and Charlie started shooting. Gary took him out in one shot. Jared had Millman pinned against the wall before they even knew who’d opened the door.
And Raquel Eastwood was lying in a pool of her own blood.
Margo bolted out of her hiding place and dropped down beside Raquel. Jared still had his gun on a cowering Millman. Until someone relieved him, he couldn’t help Raquel or hold Margo.
“Oh, my God!” An elderly woman wielding a bathroom plunger like a sword stood in the open doorway with her mouth hanging open. Steph Knutsen, armed with a mop, stepped in beside her.
“Paramedics are on the way,” Gary said. Two other agents entered the storage room and cuffed Millman, then dragged him outside. Gary inclined his head toward Charlie’s body. “That one’s dead.”
The moment Millman was out of there, Jared dropped to his knees beside Margo. Jared prayed it wasn’t too late. Raquel had risked her life to save him. He had absolutely no doubts about that. God only knew why.
“Don’t go yet,” Margo said.
Don’t go? Jared supposed she meant don’t die.
Steph stooped on the opposite side of Raquel and helped Margo and Jared apply pressure to the gaping wound in the woman’s chest. At such close range, it was a miracle she’d survived this long. It didn’t look good.
“Is she…going to make it?” the elderly woman asked, parting with her plunger.
“I’m afraid,” Raquel opened her eyes, “it isn’t PMS now.”
“Don’t go. Not yet. Please?” Margo left the first aid to the others and grabbed Raquel’s limp hand.
“Who all is here?” Raquel’s smile was weak.
“Jared, Steph, Mrs. Brown, me.”
Jared looked around. Gary stood right outside the door, talking with other agents. What the hell was taking the paramedics so damned long?
“They won’t get here in time, Jar-O.” Raquel turned her gaze on him. “I have that on the highest authority.”
Margo gasped. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Raquel grinned again. “I’m really not in any pain, you know. This is my Oscar winning performance. Besides…somehow, you know. Don’t you?”
Margo nodded, tears streaming down her face. To Jared’s amazement, Raquel winked.
“What the hell….”
“Séamus, since she’s onto me anyway…?” After a moment, Raquel grinned again, and there was nothing weak about it. “Hey, Jar-O, wanna see something really scary?”
Jared watched Raquel’s flaming red hair fade to blond. Her face changed from softly feminine to hard and masculine. Blood stopped pumping from her wound, and her breasts became flat.
He jerked his hands away, meeting Steph’s gaze for a brief instant as they both realized there was no longer a wound to tend. He looked at Raquel’s new face again, and recognition made him sway.
“I’m glad we have witnesses,” Nick said, his expression solemn. “I was sent back to undo my screw-ups. I guess we both know the biggest one was Margo. She’s yours—always was. I’m sorry. I was going to fade quietly away, but Margo didn’t fall for my true confession.”
“Of course not.” Margo dabbed at her tears. “I saw…your eyes. Only yours.”
Jared didn’t speak. What could he say? A dead man was talking to him.
“Margo, Mr. Honest-To-A-Fault here didn’t cheat on you back at the University. I set him up.” Nick sighed, remorse evident in his eyes. “I’m sorry for that.”
Margo remained silent, still holding Nick’s hand.
After a moment, Jared realized there was something he needed to say—something Nick needed to hear. “I…I forgive you. After all, who wouldn’t love Margo?”
Nick smiled. For a moment, he reminded Jared of the smart-assed kid who’d given Jared hell most of his life.
“There’s more. I have to hurry. Not much time.” Nick patted Margo’s hand and looked at her. “I love you, but not the way he does. But if he screws up, I’m going to find a way to come back down here and kick his ass.”
Margo nodded. Jared shook himself. I’m losing my mind.
“No, your mind is fine,” Nick said. “It’s kind of awesome being able to read it. I didn’t know I could do that until now. There’s a reason, though, that it’s yours I can read.”
“I hope you’re ready for this, Jar-O. I left you a letter, but this is better, since I’ve come out of the closet. So to speak.” Nick heaved a sigh and said, “When I was seventeen, and you won the student body president election, dear old Dad told me the truth. That we—you and me—had the same father.”
All the air rushed out of Jared’s lungs. “What?” He’d been born a bastard, and his mother had died a long time ago. His uncle told him straight out that he never knew who Nick’s father was. Amazing. But was it true?
“Yes, it’s true. I was jealous, because you always won, and the old man said some pretty cruel things to me about which son should’ve been legitimate. Well, you can fill in all the blanks.” Nick drew a deep breath and blinked. “Water, and blood, under the bridge, as they say. I just wanted you to know. Clear my conscience and all. Sacrifice, little brother. I am two months older than you.”
Margo leaned against Jared. “I understand a lot of things now,” she said. “I’m sorry you suffered, Nick.”
He grinned again. “I didn’t suffer, love.” He winked at Jared. “I had a great time picking on Jar-O all those years, and I got to be married to a woman like you.” His eyes grew wistful. “Now I get the chance to thank him for keeping things interesting.”
“Fred Riley is my father?”
“Pitiful excuse for one.” Nick sighed again. “Don’t I know it? I figure he’s living his own hell now. Promise me you’ll tell him I’m the one who told you. He doesn’t have to know when.”
Steph took Nick’s free hand and kissed the back of his knuckles. “I’ve missed you.”
“Ah, I’ve missed you, too, but don’t be sad.” Nick placed Margo’s hand in Jared’s. “You’ll get to break in another brother-in-law. Make him suffer just a little, though. Will ya?”
“You bet I will.” Steph sniffled and smiled at the same time.
“How about you, Mrs. Brown?” Nick asked, waggling his eyebrows at the woman. “Have you missed me, too?”
“I…I bought you tampons and evening primrose.”
Steph leapt to her feet to catch Mrs. Brown, but the woman shook her head and righted herself.
Nick chuckled. “And I’ll never forget it either.”
Jared swallowed hard, trying to digest all of this. He and Nick had always been rivals, but sometimes brothers were. He cleared his throat. “I wish I’d known.”
Nick’s smile now was sad. “And not telling you was the second biggest mistake of my life. I wish we could’ve been real brothers. Make sure you tell my—our—old man that, too.”
“Thank you,” Margo whispered and leaned forward to kiss Nick’s forehead. “I really do love you.”
“I know, but destiny is one of those irresistible forces none of us can control, even though I did try.” He took Jared’s hand and gave it a firm shake. Their gazes met and held. After a moment, he released it and looked upward. “I hear you, Séamus. Time for me to go back.” He looked at Margo again. “Name your first daughter Raquel. Okay? Hey, if it’s a boy, name him after his Uncle Nick.”
Nick’s face transformed back into Raquel’s. The blood returned, though no longer flowing. Her eyes closed, and she released her final breath.
Jared remained at Raquel’s side with Margo until the paramedics arrived. Nick was already gone, of course. Back, he’d said. “Do dead lawyers really go to Heaven?” Mrs. Brown asked, echoing Jared’s thoughts.
“This one did,” Margo said, leaning against Jared’s arm. “He was good to me.”
Steph nodded and sniffled. “Yeah.” She turned her red-rimmed eyes on Jared. “And you have to live up to that, buster.”
“I’m not sure if I’m more surprised by what we just witnessed, or by the news that he was…my brother.”
Margo took his hand in hers and faced him. “He’s still here.” She pressed her palm against his chest, over his heart. “And he’s given us both an incredible gift.”
Jared pulled her into his arms, cradling her against his chest. “He’s given us the future.”
“I never thought I’d say this to you, but I’m impressed,” Séamus said upon Nick’s return.
Still numbed by all his experiences, Nick blinked several times before he realized it was all over. Raquel was dead and he was back where he belonged. Resignation eased through him and he gave Séamus a nod. “Thanks.”
Séamus patted Nick on the shoulder. “Well done. Your promotion is in the works now.”
“Good to hear.” Nick walked over to the monitor and peered down at the scene he’d left a few moments ago. Seeing Jared and Margo together didn’t upset him now. Instead, it made him smile. This was as it should be. Fate. Destiny. More….
“Not only did you learn about sacrifice, but also to forgive.”
Nick turned to face Séamus again, his heart oddly at peace. “All that’s left now is love.”
Copyright © 2004 by Deb Stover.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor