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"Come on, darlin'," John Miglionni murmured to the curvy little redhead. "Just let yourself go. You know you wannait'll feel so good."
He sucked in a satisfied breath when she did as he urged. "Yes!" he whispered
and zoomed in the lens of his camcorder on the woman across the field as she finally swung herself up onto the back of a quarter horse at least fifteen hands tall. His client, Colorado Insurance, would be ecstatic, as this would go a long way toward putting a serious crimp in the woman's multimillion-dollar disability claim against the company. The injury she had insisted under oath rendered her unable to ride her beloved horse was clearly fraudulent.
He kept his camera trained on her as she took the horse over the paddock fence and galloped across the high plains that spread out east of Denver. Once she was no longer identifiable through the lens, he packed up his equipment and headed down the road to where he'd left the dusty, beat-up old tan pickup truck he was using for this morning's surveillance.
Forty-five minutes later he banged through the front door of Semper Fi Investigations, grinning when his office manager Gert MacDellar jumped and slapped a hand to her bony chest.
"Good Gawd, Almighty," she snapped, glaring at him over the top of her rhinestone-studded cat's-eye glasses. "You scared a dozen years off my life! And at my age, boy, I can't afford to lose a single minute, much less more than a decade."
"As if you aren't gonna outlive us all, Mac." John hooked a leg over the corner of her desk, perching a bun on its solid oak corner. He handed her the camcorder. "Download this for the Colorado Insurance file. Then tally up the final invoice to include three and a half hours for today."
Her faded blue eyes, which were several shades lighter than her rigidly upswept hair, lit up behind the pristine lenses of her glasses. "You got her?"
"Yes, ma'am. Dead to rights."
Gert whooped and plugged the high-tech digital camcorder into its docking station. Downloading its contents with one hand, she used the other to pull a short stack of pink "While You Were Out" slips from beneath a chunk of polished quartz. "Here. You had a few calls."
John read the first slip, then slid it to the back of the stack. He handed the second message back to Gert. "Give this one to Les," he said referring to the engineer he'd recently hired to handle the increased spate of product liability cases that had been coming his way. Scanning the next message, he narrowed his eyes and looked back up, pinning Gert in place as he thrust that one, too, at her.
"You know I don't do domestic cases anymore."
"Well, you oughtta," she said unrepentantly, making no move to take the slip. "They pay very well."
"Yes, they do. They're also chock-full of highly charged emotions and invasion of privacy problems, and frankly I'm not interested in sneaking around taking pictures of people having quickies. Now, if one of the spouses is hiding assets on the other, I'm your man, and I'll be more than happy to ferret them out. But if they just want someone to dig up dirt they can use to bury their partner, refer 'em to the Hayden Agency down in LoDo." He dropped the message slip onto the desk.
Gert huffed and gave her lacquered updo a comforting pat, but she argued no further and John looked at the last note.
And smiled. "All right, now this looks much more my thing. Give me a runaway any day of the week." Settling himself more comfortably on the edge of the desk, he gave Gert his full attention. "Tell me about this one."
She perked up, her disgruntlement forgotten. "Have you read about that tycoon down in Colorado Springs who got himself stabbed through the heart with a letter opener?"
"Yeah. SomebodySomebody Hamilton, wasn't it?"
"Ford Evans Hamilton. His daughter, Victoria, is our potential client. Well, I actually talked to the lawyer, but you get my drift. Ms. Hamilton's seventeen-year-old half brother, Jared, disappeared the same day Daddy bought the farm."
"The kid kill him?"
"According to Robert Rutherford, the attorney, Ms. Hamilton, or Evans Hamilton, or whatever she calls herself, swears young Jared isn't capable of that kind of violence. But he's been in trouble beforeand he's definitely a person of interest to the police, so she'd like to locate him before they do. Apparently he has a tendency to give a lot of attitude when he's cornered or scared and she knows that lipping off to the cops won't improve his situation."
Having suffered similar tendencies as a youth, John could readily identify with the teenager and he flashed his office manager a big, feral smile. "Then isn't it lucky for her that her lawyer called in the best." It wasn't couched as a question.
"Lord, you are the cocky one." Gert bared her own bright white dentures. "It's one of the things I've always liked best about you."
He laughed. "Aw, Mac, admit it, you like everything about me. We're so compatible, in fact, I'm surprised we haven't run off and gotten hitched by now."
Her puckered mouth looked as if she'd sucked a lemon, but John knew the flush tinting her cheeks stemmed from pleasure, not disapproval. She loved being teased, but he was more likely to see her update her stuck-in-the-fifties look sometime in the new millennium than ever hear her admit it.
As if reading his mind, she gave him a stern look over the top of her glasses. "I swear you could go to a wake and end up flirting with the corpse."
He slapped a hand to his heart. "Why, Gert MacDel-lar, I'm crushed you'd think so. You know I'd only do that if the corpse were female."
Her lips quirked, which was no doubt what prompted the impatient flip of her fingers that waved him off. "Get out of here, you fool. Go call that lawyer back and make us some money."
"Yes, ma'am." He snapped off a smart salute. "I know how you love those billable hours." Then he rose from the desk and headed for his office to talk to a man about a case.
Victoria knew she had to get a grip. Sometimes, though, that was a lot easier said than done and, pacing the parlor of her late father's mansion, she freely admitted her emotions were in chaos.
At the small, quiet core of her, she was simply glad to be back. As much as she loved the hustle and bustle and history-soaked atmosphere of London, it wasn't home, and she'd never quite gotten past feeling like a dispossessed expatriate while living there. She'd only gone in the first place because her aunt Fiona was there and, more importantly, because she'd needed to get Esme out of Father's range before he could screw up her daughter the way he'd screwed up her and Jared.
But as glad as she was to finally be home, the circumstances gave her no peace at all. Her father was dead. And not merely gone foreverwhich heaven knew would have been traumatic enough, given all her unresolved feelings for himbut murdered.
Damn him. Half the time he'd been such a bastard. Most of the time, really. But he'd still been her father, and no one deserved to die the way he had.
Yet, wasn't it just typical of him to go out in a blaze of notoriety? He'd never minded that for himself, with his increasingly younger wives and his cutthroat business practices. But when she or Jared made even a fraction of the waves Ford Evans Hamilton had, he'd given them no end of grief. The two of them had been expected to be good little Hamilton clones always, and there was a part of her that was steamed her father had died on her before she could unload just once her opinion of his parenting skills.
Which of course made her feel guilty, which in turn rendered her so twitchy she could barely sit still for more than twenty seconds running. So here she was, waiting for her lawyer to show up with a private eye in tow. Dear Lord. Whoever would have guessed she'd live to see the day The Maltese Falcon intersected the life of an Evans Hamilton? Old film noir images of men in fedoras who referred to women as dames and legs as gams kept flicking through her mind.
A bark of laughter that sounded dangerously close to hysteria escaped Victoria and she slapped a hand over her mouth to contain it. Carefully, she regulated her breathing.
Okay, let's try not to lose it here. She focused on a priceless piece of art showcased on one of the sitting room's pale yellow, watered-silk-covered walls. Just don't think about any of this too closely. Take it minute by minute, and let the details blur. And if that smacked suspiciously of The Ostrich School of Coping Skills, so be it. The only way she knew how to deal with this mess was one problem at a time. Anything else was too overwhelming.
The telephone rang and she started. Then, fed up with her raw, edgy nerves, she crossed to the small credenza and picked up the receiver. "Hamilton residence."
"Victoria, dear, is that you?"
The voice hiccuped in and out in the telltale manner of a cellular phone about to leave its service range, but she was pretty sure it was her lawyer's. "Robert? Is that you?"
His voice faded out.
"I'm sorry, I can barely hear you."
"Oh. Hold on." Then suddenly his voice came through with crystalline clarity. "There, I switched to a new channel. Is that any better?"
"I'm calling to let you know I won't be able to make our appointment with the Semper Fi investigator. I've been called into court. I apologize Victoria, but I want to assure you that I've talked extensively with Mr. Miglionni and everything is in order. To get him started, you merely need to meet with him, tell him about Jared and answer any questions he may have. You do have the number for my cell phone, don't you?"
"Excellent. If you think I might be able to answer any of the questions you can't, give me a call."
"I will. Thank" the call abruptly disconnected "you." She blew out a breath and set down the receiver. "O-kay. Looks like I'm on my own."
Nothing new there. She'd been on her own most of her life.
It was about time, however, to be a little less reactive and get a lot more proactive. God knew she owed Jared that much, since she'd always felt that by leaving she'd sacrificed him to save Esme.
She took a firm grip on her emotions and walked to the sitting-room desk where she forced herself to sit. She began sorting condolence cards into one stack that could be answered by her father's secretary and into another requiring a more personal touch. By the time she heard the doorbell ring a short while later, she felt far more composed. Heading for the front entry, she smiled back at the housekeeper when she heard the woman bustling down the hallway from the kitchen. "It's all right, Mary, I'll get it." Reaching the immense mahogany door, Victoria pulled it open.
Bright afternoon sunlight poured into the foyer, blinding her and backlighting the man standing on the brick steps. The only thing she could tell for sure was that he was tall and lean. Not that seeing his features was necessary in order to give him her best social smile she'd attended far too many upscale girls' schools for manners not to be second nature by now. "Mr. Migli-onni?" she inquired softly. "Please, won't you come in?"
Stepping back to allow him entrance, she extended her hand. "I'm"
"Tori," he acknowledged in a husky tone that feathered down her spine. Her hand remained suspended between them for a moment when he made no move to take it.
Then she dropped it to her side, but it was the use of her nickname that knit her eyebrows together. Only a few of her closest friends, Jared and Aunt Fiona ever called her that. Robert Rutherford must have somehow let it slip, however, so she smoothed her brow and gave the private investigator another polite curl of her lips. "Actually, I go by Victoria."
"Un-frigging-believable," he said hoarsely.
She didn't see why and surely the vulgarity wasn't necessary. Nevertheless, she needed this man's help if she were to have any chance of finding Jared, she reminded herself. She took refuge once more in the lessons learned from years of etiquette. "I'm sorrywhat must you think of me to keep you standing on the doorstep. Please, do come in."
He stepped forward and bent to set something on the floor. The strong lines of a tanned throat flashed briefly into sharp focus and sunlight caught a sleek, black ponytail that unfurled over his shoulder with his movement. The thick rope of hair was so shiny it shimmered with blue highlights. Then he straightened and once again turned into an impenetrable shadow limned by the blinding sun
all except for the olive-skinned, long-fingered hand that he extended toward her. Just as she accepted the belatedly offered handshake, he took a forward step that rendered his features a bit less obscure.
And Victoria's stomach dropped with a sickening swoop. Flabbergasted, she stared up into the coal-black eyes of the one man she'd never thought to see again. She snatched her hand from his warm grasp. "Rocket?"
Hearing herself say the only name she'd ever known him by, realizing the consequences that his presence could have for her, a lifetime's worth of composure vanished. Oh, God, oh, God, this was the last thing she needed. She had to get him out of here. She had to get rid of him before
He swung the door shut behind him and for the first time jumped sharply into focus, all wide shoulders, dark skin and flashing white teeth. She'd barely begun even the quickest of inventories, however, before he reached out to pull her into his arms for a quick, hard hug that lifted her Ferragamos clear up off the floor. Setting her back on her feet, he gripped her shoulders and stared down into her face.
Youhavetogo, youhavetogo, youhaveto
"Damn, girl," he said, "it's good to see you again."
John couldn't seem to stop smiling. It wasn't often anything caught him by surprise, but when the door opened and he'd seen Tori standing on the other side, she could have knocked him on his butt with a nudge from one well-manicured fingertip. For an instant he hadn't been able to believe his eyes.