"Sweetheart, it's me
Carlotta Wren stepped off the up escalator in the Atlanta Neiman Marcus department store where she worked, so shocked by the sound of the voice on the other end that she dropped her cell phone. It landed on the shiny, waxed f loor with a smack, bounced and skidded away. With her heart in her stomach, she frantically scrambled after the f leeing phone, the baritone of her long-lost fugitive father ringing in her ears.
Was it really him calling after ten years of silence? Ten years during which she'd put her life on hold to finish raising herself and her younger brother Wesley after her parents had skipped bailand townon investment fraud charges. Ten years of feeling alone and abandoned after her friends and even her f iancé had withdrawn their affection in light of the scandal.
The tiny phone spun away like a mouse scurrying for cover. Carlotta gulped air as she clambered after it, brushing the shoulders of people in her path, darting between racks of clothing. The foot of a striding customer struck the phone and sent it spinning in another direction. Carlotta hurtled after it, feeling her father slip farther from her grasp with every agonizing second that passed. She was practically hyperventilating when she fell to her knees, curled her f ingers around the elusive phone and jammed it to her ear. "Hello? Daddy?"
Dead air. If it had been Randolph Wren on the other end of the line, he was gone.
A sob welled up in her chest. "Daddy, can you hear me?"
She couldn't bring herself to hang up, unwilling to sever the only connection she'd had with her father in over a decade. Then she realized that he might be trying to call her back and stabbed the disconnect button. Sitting under a rack of beaded bathing-suit sarongs, Carlotta stared at the phone, willing it to ring again, thinking how ridiculous she would seem to an onlookeran almost thirty-year-old woman sitting on the f loor waiting for a call back from her long-lost daddy.
Somewhere between her nonexistent career goals, her brother's legal problems, their hulking debt to loan sharks and her confused love life, she'd made the transition from pitiful to pathetic.
Suddenly she remembered the callback feature and realized with a surge of excitement that she'd at least be able to see what number he'd called from. She stabbed at buttons on the phone, but was rewarded with a rather sick-sounding tone and noticed with dismay that the display was interrupted by a hairline crack. Liquid gathered in one corner, much like when Wesley had broken his Etch-a-Sketch when he was little.
"You can't be broken," Carlotta pleaded, blinking back tears. What would she tell Wesley? That their father had f inally made contact and she'd hung up on him? Wesley still believed that their father was innocent and that he and their mother would return some day to clear his name and unite their shattered family. Carlotta felt less forgiving, especially toward her mother Valerie, who hadn't been charged with a crime, yet had chosen a life on the lam over her own children.
"Ring," she whispered, hoping that only the display had been compromised. She sat on her heels for f ive long minutes, her thumb hovering over the answer button, perspiration wetting her forehead. A shadow fell over her. When she looked up, she winced inwardly to see the general manager, Lindy Russell, standing with her eyebrows raised.
Minus ten points.
Next to Lindy stood a tall, narrow blonde, conservatively coiffed down to her upper class hair f lip and wearing a haughty expression. Carlotta recognized her from sales meetings; she was new and worked in accessories next to the shoe department where Carlotta's friend Michael Lane worked. Patricia somebody or another.
"Carlotta, is there a problem?" Lindy asked.
Carlotta pushed to her feet and straightened her clothing. During the dash for her phone she'd lost a shoe. "No."
"Glad to hear it. You know you're not supposed to be using your cell phone while you're working the f loor."
"Yes," Carlotta said, her throat closing. "But this is a an emergency."
"Oh?" Lindy crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Are you on an organ-donor list?"
"The phone-a-friend for a contestant on a national trivia show?"
"Waiting to hear back from your next employer?"
Patricia snickered and Carlotta swallowed. "N-no."
Lindy extended her hand. "Hand it over. You can pick it up at the end of your shift."
"No buts, Carlotta. You're already skating on thin ice around here."
Carlotta bit her tongue. Lindy had been more than fair to give her a get-out-of-jail-free card for buying clothes on her employee discount, wearing them to crash upscale parties, then returning the fancy outfits for full credit. Ditto when she had been involved in a knock-down drag-out fight with a customer right here in the storeand been implicated in that customer's subsequent murder. That particular misunderstanding had since been cleared up, but Carlotta's once-stellar sales record had slipped badly in the interim. It hadn't helped that the murdered woman had been a high-volume customer.
She was lucky that she hadn't been canned weeks ago, and since she and Wesley depended on her paycheck for little things like paying the mortgage
with a shaky smile, she handed the phone to Lindy.
"Carlotta, have you met Patricia Alexander?"
"Not formally." She extended her hand to the blonde. "Hello."
The woman's hand was just as cold as her smile. "Hello."
"Patricia is number one in sales this week," Lindy said.
"Congratulations," Carlotta murmured, stinging with the knowledge that not too long ago, she had owned that number one spot.
"Thanks," Patricia said, then laugheda sound that reminded Carlotta of a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. "No hard feelings, I hope."
"Why should there be?"
The woman angled her head. "Because I plan to break your sales record. Better watch your back." Her frosty smile didn't match her breezy tone.
Lindy gave Carlotta a pointed look, then dropped the phone into her jacket pocket. Carlotta watched the women walk away, along with all hopes of talking to her father today.
Had it really been him? And if so, would he think she'd hung up on him purposely, that she didn't want to talk to him? Worrying her lower lip, she wondereddid she?
If anyone had asked what she would do if her father called out of the blue, Carlotta would've sworn that she would hang up on him. Over the years her anger had grown into an almost tangible mass, like a tumor. Yet at the sound of his voice, she had regressed to Daddy's little girlthe entitled, spoiled teenager she'd been when he'd disappeared, the naive, young woman who couldn't conceive that her parents would desert her and her nine-year-old brother. With a mere four words uttered from his mouth, she'd been ready to accept his explanation and his apology
as-suming he'd had either to offer.
She covered her mouth to suppress the aching wail that lodged in her throat. Knowing that her father still had that much power over her made her feel even less in control than usual. How dare he dive-bomb back into their lives like that?
Perilously close to losing it, Carlotta backtracked to find her shoe, but was blinded by tears of frustration. She wiped at her eyes angrily and swore under her breath.
"Is this what you're looking for?"
She winced, then turned at the unmistakable noise of Detective Jack Terry's voice. She blinked away the moisture to f ind him studying her red Dior stiletto-heel slide with the same intensity that she'd seen him study evidence at crime scenes. Wesley's job as a body mover had thrown her and the detective into close proximity at a couple of crime scenes, with abrasive results. Jack Terry was the one person she didn't want to see right nowthe brute had recently reopened her father's case.
"Yes," she snapped, snatching the shoe out of his big hand. "What are you doing here?"
"Irritating you, apparently." Then he suddenly looked sheepish and she realized he was dressed too casually to be on duty. He cleared his throat. "If you must know, I need a monkey suit for a bigwig department dinner and I could use your
picking out something."
Her anger receded. He had no idea what had just transpired. And wouldn't know unless she told him
or unless he'd made good on his threat to put a trace on her and Wesley's phones. He wasn't convinced that a handful of postcards was the only contact they'd had with their missing parents.
He gestured over his shoulder. "Maybe I should just go to the place where I usually shop."
"I didn't realize that Dick's Sporting Goods sold formal wear," she said dryly.
"This was a bad idea." He turned to go.
"No, Jack. Wait." He stopped and Carlotta wondered if he realized it was the f irst time she'd called him anything other than Detective Terryor one of the several unsavory nicknames she had uttered privately. But recently heand one of her collectible Judith Leiber breastplate necklaces, circa mid-1980shad saved her from the bullet of a murderer, and in the aftermath, something electric had passed between them. She felt that confusing jolt now, at a loss to explain why she would be attracted to this good old Southern boy whobetween arresting her brother for hacking into the Atlanta courthouse records, resurrecting her father's case and grilling her about her customer's murderseemed to have made her family's lawlessness his pet project.
"What?" His nose f lared and she sensed that he too felt the unwelcome sexual energy bouncing between them.
To break the moment, she narrowed her eyes. "No way are you going to deny me the pleasure of seeing you buttoned into a tux."
Jack frowned. "Sadist."
She smiled and dropped her shoe, trying to compose herself as she pushed her bare foot inside. Her father would call back
of course he would. She wobbled and Jack reached out to steady her.
He gave a little laugh, his gold-colored eyes narrow with sudden concern. "Are you all right? You seem on edge."
Carlotta stared at his big hand on her arm, reminding herself that if Jack Terry appeared concerned for her wellbeing, it was only because he was trying to get on her good side in the hope that she would lead him to her parents.
She pulled away. "I'm f ine, Detective. Follow me."
During the ride down the escalator, Carlotta's neck burned with a fiery itch. She was certain Jack Terry could tell she was keeping something from him.
But the brawny detective appeared preoccupied himself. He wore what she was coming to recognize as his off-duty uniform: black T-shirt, worn jeans and black cowboy boots. And, she conceded begrudgingly, he wore it well. His rugged prof ile, close-cut dark hair and bronze skin made for a compelling view, yet he seemed completely unaware of women's heads turning as they stepped off the escalator and headed toward the men's department.
"So, what's the occasion?" she asked.
"The bigwig department dinner."
"Oh. An awards thing."
She lifted an eyebrow as she led him toward the formal wear section. "Are you receiving an award?" The blush that stained his cheeks spoke for him. "You are," she said, elbowing him. "What kind of an award?"
He cleared his throat. "Distinguished duty."
"Distinguished, huh? Did you do something in particular to earn this recognition? Like save a kid from a runaway car?"
"Guess the department couldn't think of anyone else to give it to."
"That must be it," Carlotta agreed, humoring his modesty. She angled her head and swept her gaze over the considerable length of him before pulling a jacket from a sleek wooden rack. "Black would be the obvious choice for a tux, but with your eyes and coloring, I'd go with charcoal gray. What are you, about a forty-four long, athletic cut?"
Jack looked surprised, then nodded. "Hey, I saw you this morning at a bank ATM on Piedmont."
She frowned. "My bank is on Piedmont, but I wasn't there this morning."
"Really? Wow, the woman looked just like you, then." He laughed. "No wonder she didn't wave back when I honked. I thought you were ignoring me."
"Apparently it was someone else ignoring you this time." She held out the jacket for him.
He shrugged into it and she sighed in satisfaction as the luscious fabric slid into place, hugging his shoulders perfectly. She adjusted the lapels, dismayed at the little tremors of pleasure she felt when her hands met the brick wall of his chest. Avoiding his gaze, Carlotta steered him toward a mirror. He looked ill at ease
and slightly gorgeous, she realized with no small amount of consternation. Jack Terry was easier to dislike when he was rumpled and wearing one of his infamous ugly ties.
"What do you think?" She made wary eye contact in the mirror.
"It's okay, I guess."
"Just okay? Jack, this is one of the f inest suits that money can buy."
"I'm almost afraid to look at the price tag."
"Don't," she agreed. "But a suit like this is an investmentyou can wear it to formal dinners, to weddings."
"I'm not much on weddings."
"You're not convincing me."
"Look," she said, smoothing a hand over his shoulder, "sometimes you just have to buy something because it looks so damn good on you."
His eyebrows went up and a smile curled his mouth.
"You think it looks damn good on me?"
Her cheeks warmed. "I do."
For a few seconds, that sexy buzzing thing bounced back and forth between them.
"Then I'm convinced," he said finally. "Ring me up."
"You'll need a shirt. And I'll call the tailor to mark your pants."
"I'm in your hands."
Carlotta raised one eyebrow. "Gee, Detective, that almost sounds like trust."
"I trust youwhen it comes to clothes."
She recognized the danger of discussing trust while the voice of her fugitive father still resonated in her head, so instead she pulled a smile from thin air. "You should. I promise you'll look so good, no one will recognize you."
He frowned. "Thanks."
"How's your brother?" he asked as they walked back to the clothing racks.
"Good," she replied and meant it. "I think Wesley has a crush on his probation off icer."
"At least that'll keep him motivated to check in every week."
"That's what I'm hoping."
"Does he plan to keep working for Cooper Craft?"
She nodded, then sighed. "As gruesome as it sounds, this whole body-moving business seems to agree with him." Then she remembered a phone call she'd gotten from her friend Hannah just before her father had called
if it indeed had been her father. "And now my friend Hannah has jumped on the body-moving bandwagon."
"The girl with the pierced tongue and the dog collar?"
"Yeah. She has a thing for Coop, I think."
"Funny, but I gathered that Coop had a thing for you."
It was her turn to blush. "I hadn't noticed."
A dubious light came into his eyes. "Liar. Women know when men have a thing for them."
"I'm not interested in Coop," she said quickly. Although the man had saved her when Wesley's six-foot python had cornered her in her bedroom. And she recalled the appreciation in his eyes to f ind her standing on her dresser wearing skimpy lingerie.
"I guess that means you and Ashford are back together," Detective Terry said lightly.
Peter Ashford, her f irst love, the man who had dumped her when her parents had gone missing and the scandal had burst over the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitu-tion. Peter had gone on to marry a debutantethe good customer of Carlotta's who recently had been murdered in their palatial home in Buckhead, the wealthiest area in Atlanta. Many, Jack Terry included, had assumed Peter had killed his wife, but in the end, he'd been exonerated. And had expressed interest in picking up where he and Carlotta had left off years ago.
"No, Peter and I aren't together," she murmured, selecting a cream dress shirt and holding it up in front of him. She could feel the heat emanating from his body.