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Carlotta Wren skidded onto the sales floor of the Neiman Marcus at Lenox Square in Atlanta soaked in a flop sweat. Late on her first day backminus ten points.
Carlotta turned and manufactured a smile for Lindy Russell, her boss, who was standing with arms crossed. "Thank you. It's good to be back."
Lindy pursed her mouth. "Too bad you couldn't make this morning's staff meeting."
Carlotta's smile wavered, but she massaged the flexible cast on her arm. "Sorry. This morning was the first time I'd driven in a while, and my car battery was dead." She didn't think it would help to mention that the MARTA trains were being single-tracked for construction. Still, she decided not to dwell on transportation challenges since her recent medical leave had come on the heels of a two-week suspension to "get her personal issues worked out."
Personal issues such as her brother's gambling debts, her ruined credit, the fact that her parents were long-lost fugitives and oh, she'd been entangled in a couple of murders as a by-product of her part-time hobby as a body mover for the morgue.
"Things happen," Lindy conceded. "Is your arm healing well?"
Carlotta flexed the fingers of the arm that had been broken when a killer had pushed her over the balcony of the Fox Theatre, where she'd dangled with her skirt around her waist for all the attendees of an Elton John concert to see. "Almost as good as new." Though, at the moment it was throbbing like a toothache.
Sympathy crossed Lindy's face. "I can't tell you how sorry I am about Michael."
Michael Lane, aka the person who'd pushed her over the balcony, had been Carlotta's former coworker and friend. He'd alsoturned out to have some very dark secrets.
"Me, too," Carlotta murmured, wishing her heart could be splinted like her arm had been.
"I don't suppose you've heard from him?"
She shook her head. "I was told he's in the psych ward at Northside Hospital until he's deemed competent to stand trial."
"So terrible." Lindy sighed, then checked the clipboard she held. "Well, life goes on, doesn't it?"
Carlotta blinked. It was true, but still
"I'm glad you could come back in time for the Eva McCoy appearance." Lindy swept her arm toward the small dais that had been erected on the sales floor with several rows of cordoned-off chairs for seating.
Olympian Eva McCoy's return to her hometown had been hyped on all the media outlets for weeks. "That's today?"
Lindy arched an eyebrow.
Carlotta backpedaled. "I mean that's today."
"Since you missed the staff meeting, here's the info." Lindy handed over a memo. "It's going to be a mob scene so I'll need all my best employees on the floor."
Pleasure suffused Carlotta's chesther history of being a consistent top salesperson still meant something.
"And here's one now," Lindy said, looking past Carlotta's shoulder. Carlotta turned and swallowed a curse when she saw Patricia Alexander, aka Stepford Salesclerk, complete with rounded-collar suit, helmet hair and strand of pearls, walking toward them.
The blonde flashed a waxy smile. "I'd heard you were coming back, Carlotta, but when I didn't see you at this morning's staff meeting, I assumed that something else had happened. You're so accident prone."
Carlotta's mouth tightened.
"I'll let you two catch up for a couple of minutes before the crowd arrives," Lindy said, handing them each a roll of tickets to be passed out to customers who wanted to meet the guest of honor. Then she gave Carlotta a pointed look. "I tend to agree with Patricia. There's going to be a lot of security on hand today, so try not to do anything that might draw extra attention." Lindy walked off, leaving Carlotta properly chastisedin front of her nemesis.
"Ouch," Patricia chirped.
Carlotta was able to hold her tongue because she knew she deserved far worse from her boss than a reprimand for all her mishaps. Determined to get along with Lindy's new pet employee, she turned toward Patricia. "I suppose you took Michael's place in Shoes?"
"Yes. It's such a shame, isn't it, that he turned out to be totally insane?"
Carlotta bit her tongue.
"So, I'll bet you're happy to be back to work," Patricia offered. "You were probably bored to tears doing nothing all day."
"I didn't exactly do nothing," Carlotta muttered, although she couldn't exactly tell Patricia about the road trip she'd taken with Coop for a VIP body pickup, the unexpected appearance of her father, and the capture of a murderer while she'd been "incapacitated," on leave with a broken arm. Instead she pasted on a smile. "But I am happy to be back in my element."
Patricia made rueful noises in her throat. "I hope you had time to rest, you poor thing. The heartbreak you've been through the past decadeyou must be close to the brink of insanity yourself."
Carlotta's hands fisted. Patricia moved in the Buckhead social circles, so she knew the sordid Wren family historythat ten years ago Carlotta's father had been accused of stealing from his investment clients and had skipped town rather than face a trial, with her mother in tow, abandoning Carlotta and her younger brother to fend for themselves.
At the thought of her brother, Wesley, Carlotta stole a glance at her watch. He should be arriving at the Fulton County D.A.'s office right about now, hopefully working out a plea agreement, testifying against one of his loan sharks in return for reduced charges for his part in the attempted theft of a body. His attorney, Liz, was hopeful that Wesley would get off with having his community service sentence from a prior computer hacking charge extended. But Carlotta was worried that even Liz Fuck-Me Fischer wouldn't be able to parlay enough sexual favors to make it happen. Carlotta had wanted to go with Wesley today, but he'd refused, saying it was something he needed to take care of himself. It might have been the moment she'd been most proud of him.
Except for the fact that he could be sitting in a jail cell before her shift ended.
What would she do for bail money? And what if Wesley didn't get out this time?
Patricia waved her hand in front of Carlotta's face. "Did I lose you?"
"No," she said, squaring her shoulders. "And I'm coping with everything just fine."
Patricia leaned in. "If you need something to take the edge off, I can spot you some antianxiety meds."
"No, thank you," Carlotta said through gritted teeth, although beneath the cast her arm was hot with pain. Knowing it would really hurt, though, if she slugged the woman, Carlotta changed the subject. "Looks like we're going to have a big crowd today for Eva McCoy."
"Yeah, speaking of crazy . The woman wins a marathon after a bout of food poisoning, gives all the credit to a lucky charm bracelet and suddenly charm bracelets are selling like mad." Patricia shook her head, apparently bemused with the trend.
Carlotta smirked. Her coworker was only frustrated because she wasn't working in Jewelry, earning commissions on the trinkets that Eva would be promoting.
Customers were already gathering in the area of the dais where posters featured the smiling, fit Olympian with a gold medal around her neck and a "Lucky Charm Bracelet" on her slender wrist.
Carlotta and Patricia positioned themselves in front of the GET YOUR TICKETS TO MEET EVA McCOY HERE sign and began handing out tickets, and directing early comers where to sit or stand.
"So," Patricia asked without making eye contact. "How are you and Peter Ashford?"
Choosing her words carefully, Carlotta said, "Peter and I are old friends."
"So I've heard. Tracey Tully Lowenstein belongs to my club. She said that you and Peter used to be quite the item before your family issues."
"That was a long time ago," Carlotta murmured.
"Tracey intimated that you two have picked up where you left off."
"Tracey talks too much," Carlotta said pointedly.
"I think it's nice that you and Peter have each other," Patricia said. "You can support each other. You know, with his wife having been murdered, and then all that you've gone through." The blonde winced. "Wait a minute. Weren't you a suspect in her murder? Gee, that has to be a little awkward."
"Not at all," Carlotta said pleasantly.
Patricia sniffed and turned her back.
Carlotta shot daggers into the woman's bony shoulder blades. In truth, Carlotta was still wrestling with her recent decision to cozy up to her former fiancé. When her father had walked up to her, unannounced and in disguise, at a rest area a few weeks ago in Florida, he'd told her to stay close to Peterthat since Peter worked for Mashburn & Tully Investments where her father had once been a partner, he was in the best position to help prove Randolph Wren's innocence. Until that moment, Carlotta would have sworn that if her long-lost father had ever approached her, she would slap him, kick his shins, spit in his face and call the police. Instead she'd been gelatinous and cooperative and hopeful.
The fact that he made her want to believe that he'd been framed for his white collar crime made her feel used all over again.
Her father was using herand she was using Peter. Since his wife's untimely death, Peter had made no secret that he wanted to get back with Carlotta. He'd even recovered the Cartier engagement ring that she'd pawned, and he'd had a diamond added on either side of the original solitaire. He was holding it for her, hoping she'd agree to pick up where they'd left off years ago. Just as if he hadn't ripped out her heart by turning his back on her when she needed him most.
But he was trying to make amends, she conceded. He'd helped Wesley out of a couple of scrapes and continued to be attentive to her. A couple of weeks ago, though, after she'd returned from Florida, his patience had worn thin. He'd been offered a position in New York and had been going to take it, unless she could make room for him in her life. She couldn't risk him leaving, on the chance that her father might call or put in another appearance soon, in need of Peter's inside access. So she'd told Peter to stay and had committed herself to making their relationship a priority.
Normally, being on the receiving end of a handsome, rich man's attentions wouldn't pose a problem, but there were extenuating circumstances. Namely, two other men bouncing around in her head and in her heart.
"I wondered if I'd see you here."
At the sound of a familiar rumbling voice, her pulse spiked. She turned around to see one of those two men, Detective Jack Terry, standing there with a sardonic smile on his ruggedly handsome face, as if she'd conjured him up. Her entire body smiled. "Hi, Jack."
"Back to work, huh?"
She nodded. "First day."
"Are you okay? You look flushed."
She put a hand to her warm cheek. "Hectic morning. What are you doing here?"
"Extra security for Eva McCoy. It's a favor for the mayor."
Carlotta frowned. "What does the city have to do with this?"
"Apparently Eva's uncle is a state senator. He wants APD on the scene just in case. And since a uniform might send the wrong signal " He shrugged. "Here I am."
She surveyed his gray suit and gave his red tie a tug. "You look good."
"I keep telling him that red is his color."
At the sound of a purring voice, Carlotta turned her head. A doe-eyed, exotic beauty in a dark suit stepped into Jack's personal space.
Jack gave the woman a proprietary smile. "Carlotta, I don't think you've met my new partner, Detective Maria Marquez. Maria, this is Carlotta Wren, a friend of mine."
Carlotta tried not to react. Friends? Is that what she and Jack were?
She had seen the woman once, at a distance. Up close, Maria was even more wow. She was almost as tall as Jack, with killer curves, and caramel-colored hair smoothed back from her face in a clasp at the nape of her neck.
"Nice to meet you, Carlotta." Maria's English was precise, seasoned with the kind of curling accent that made words like blitzkrieg and psoriasis sound sexy.
"Same here," Carlotta murmured.
When she'd razzed Jack about getting a partner, she'd envisioned a grumpy middle-aged man with hair in his ears, not a Latina siren with perfect teeth and no wedding ring. Damn, the woman even had good tasteher suit was Ellen Tracy and the pumps were Stuart Weitzman. Carlotta knew her own Betsey Johnson tunic dress and Fendi platform sandals could hold their own, but the cast on her arm was an unsightly accessory she couldn't wait to be rid of. And she tongued the gap between her front teeth self-consciously.
"So you work at Neiman's?" Maria asked. The way she said it left the unspoken comparison of "and I carry a gun" hanging in the air.
"That's right," Carlotta said.
"Carlotta also moonlights for the morgue," Jack supplied cheerfully. "She's a body mover."
Carlotta squirmed. The gorgeous giantess packing heat made her feel like an underachiever. And short.
"A body mover? How diverse. Is that how the two of you met?"
Carlotta exchanged a glance with Jack. He looked at Maria. "Not exactly. I'll fill you in later," he added in a low voice.
Great. He'd tell Maria all about her criminal family her fugitive folks, her delinquent brother Not to mention Carlotta's own scrapes with the law. And her futileand ineptefforts to hold her life and family together.
"Speaking of your morbid hobby, how is Coop?" Jack asked her with wry amusement.
Cooper Crafther brother's body-moving boss who had pulled her in on a couple of jobs and who'd made it known that he wouldn't mind them being more than friends. Coop was a former medical examiner. He and Jack maintained a relationship that existed primarily of circling each other like two big-racked bucks, but collaborating when necessary.
"With this bum arm, I haven't been helping Coop lately," she said. "And after Wesley conspired with those thugs to steal the body we were hauling from Florida back to Atlanta well, let's just say he needs to earn back Coop's trust before they work together again."
Her brother with the genius IQ somehow rationalized making the wrong choice at almost every juncture. She bit her lip and wondered how he was faring in court.
"Despite Wesley's interference, Coop received a lot of attaboys for the way he handled that VIP body pickup and the aftermath," Jack said. "I hear that Abrams might give him more access to the active cases at the morgue."