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Nathan Devereux scowled as he hung the handicapped placard from his rearview mirror. He hated handicapped parking. But if he didn't take this spot, he'd have to park a couple of blocks away. That much walking and his leg would hurt like a son of a bitch by the time he got home.
Which meant that physical therapy tomorrow would be difficult. Less effective.
Slamming the car door, he limped to the front of FreeZone. Bright lights illuminated the interior of his sister's teen center, and the groups of people mingling. Frankie and her fiance. Cal, were laughing and talking in the middle of one of them.
Nathan's dark mood slipped away. Frankie deserved this happiness. She deserved to have all her dreams come true.
"It's not that scary, is it?" a low voice asked behind him.
He turned to see a tall woman standing behind him, smiling. Her blond hair was a mass of curls around her face, and dangly silver earrings peeked out of the curls. A tan scarf was intricately wrapped around her neck, and her brown eyes twinkled. "No teens in there right now. It's safe."
"Right. Because I can actually hear what you're saying." He held the door and watched her walk in ahead of him. Her black leather jacket clung to her curves, and her jeans-clad hips swayed. Her scent was citrusy and sweet. "I was just admiring the, um, the way Frankie and Cal pulled this place together." As the woman turned to face him, he cleared his throat and forced his gaze back to her face.
"You must be a friend of theirs, then. Most of the donors never saw the old place."
The blonde's low voice and direct gaze washed over him. The noise in the room faded. "Frankie's brother," he said, holding out his hand. "Nathan Devereux."
"Emma Sloan." Her hand was slender and cool, and her grip firm. "I work with Frankie occasionally."
Her eyes were the color of honey. They met his for a moment that stretched a little too long. When she gently tugged her hand away, he released her. "Good to meet you, Emma."
"You, too. Frankie has a bunch of brothers, doesn't she?"
"Three of us," Nathan said, his gaze lingering on those expressive eyes. "Which Frankie says is way too many. She claims we're overprotective."
"Nice to have someone on your side," Emma said lightly, but a momentary shadow swam behind her clear gaze.
"Feel free to remind Frankie of that," he said, wondering about the shadow.
Nathan registered the murmur of voices, the clink of champagne glasses passed by waiters and the slam of an air-hockey puck hitting the sides of the table. But he could focus on nothing but the woman in front of him.
The moment stretched out. Emma broke the eye contact and unzipped her coat. A swirly patterned aqua and green V-necked shirt covered soft curves. A silver pendant with a cutout pattern nestled above a hint of cleavage.
Nathan wanted to lean closer and examine the pendant.
"It's nice that you could come to Frankie's open house," Emma said in a husky voice.
"I wouldn't have missed it." He tore his attention away from Emma and glanced at Frankie, dressed in a blue suit and wearing heels. Even her spiky hair was under control. "Although I want to know who stole my sister and put that businesswoman in her place."
Emma followed his gaze and smiled. "Yeah. She cleans up nicely."
She glanced at him, and neither of them spoke for a beat.
"Well," he began.
"Nice to have met you," she said at the same time.
They both smiled, and Emma gestured toward Frankie and Cal. "I guess I should say hello."
"Yeah. Right. I'll, ah, talk to you later?"
"I'd like that." She held his gaze for a moment, then turned and walked toward his sister. Maybe it was the heels she wore that made her hips sway like that. Whatever the reason, he admired the result all the way across the room.
"I know that woman." Darcy, his brother Patrick's fiancée, looped her arm through his and stared at Emma. "Can't remember how, though."
"She said she works with Frankie. Her name is Emma Sloan." She was laughing at something Frankie said, gesturing with her hands.
"You look smitten, Nathan," Darcy said, grinning.
"I don't even know her." He yanked on his tie. "We walked in the door together. Of course we introduced ourselves."
Darcy nudged him with her elbow. "Really? I guess you're all googly-eyed because you're awed at what your sister did with this place, then." She tugged at his arm. "Come sit down. You can admire Frankie's place from the couch."
Nathan allowed her to lead him to one of the new, denim-colored couches, where Patrick was sitting. "Your fiancée has gotten real bossy, Patrick."
"You have no idea," Patrick said with a secret smile at Darcy.
"TMI, Paddy," Nathan said hastily. Patrick and Darcy leaned into each other as Nathan lowered himself carefully to the couch. He was thrilled that Patrick and Darcy had found each other, just as he was happy for Frankie and Cal, who were getting married in the spring. So what if it underlined his own loneliness? His problem. Not theirs.
Time to focus on something else. "How's the investigation going?"
Patrick's smile faded. "We came here to help Frankie celebrate. Let's not spoil the mood by talking about the case."
"Trust me—you're not going to spoil anything." The whole mess was never far from Nathan's thoughts—especially his responsibility for what had happened. "Just fill me in."
Patrick sighed. "Can't you let it go for one night?"
"Humor me, Paddy." He held up his left arm, still weak from the accident. "Or do I need to arm wrestle you for information?"
Patrick rolled his eyes. "We're stalled, okay?" He rested his elbows on his knees. "Alderman O'Fallon may be in jail, but he still won't talk, and neither will anyone else. It's as if the guy who gave O'Fallon the money is a ghost. Anyone who can hide like that has a lot of juice. It's not going to be easy."
"You're a forensic accountant for the FBI. There must be some way to follow the money."
"We're working on it. But they're not stupid. They know how to cover their tracks. It's not going to be easy unless we can get someone to crack. So far, that hasn't happened."
"I'm doing a little digging on my own. I gotta find this guy."
Patrick leaned toward him. "You ever hear 'don't do this at home, boys and girls'? This isn't your job, Nate. Leave it to the professionals."
"Yeah, it is my job," Nathan said quietly. "I'm the one who screwed up. I'm the one who took the money. Now I have to make it right."
"You're being way too hard on yourself. Yeah, you made a mistake. We all did. We're fixing it, and now we're moving on. We're all moving on."
"You do your thing and I'll do mine," Nathan said.
He eased back on the couch and accepted the glass of champagne a waiter offered him. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't make this right. He'd almost destroyed the family restaurant because he'd thought he was smart enough to make a sketchy deal and not pay the price.
Last winter, when he'd needed to remodel the restaurant kitchen, he hadn't been able to get a loan from a bank. Knowing that the building inspectors would close Mama's Place if he didn't remodel, he'd gone to his alderman—in Chicago, the alderman was the guy who made things happen. The go-to guy for bureaucratic problems.
The guy who could find a bank willing to lend money when others had refused.
Alderman O'Fallon had offered Nathan a special deal—he could get financing from a private individual. The interest rate would be higher than a bank's, but he'd get his money. Nathan had been so desperate that he'd agreed. And he'd been careful not to ask where the money came from.
His whole family had gotten sucked into the mess. Worst of all, because his brother Patrick had been distracted by the problem Nathan created, Darcy had almost been killed.
He'd known the deal with the alderman was suspect, but he'd taken it anyway. So there was no way he was going to sit back and let his brother handle it for him. He'd taken the money. He was going to find out who had given it to him.
"Here's a news flash, Nate." Patrick leaned over Darcy to get in his face. "Until we find out who gave O'Fallon the money, we don't even know if a crime has been committed. Maybe the ghost paid taxes on the interest he got from you. Maybe it was just a benefactor who wanted to help you out."
"Yeah, and maybe I'm really George Clooney in disguise," Nathan retorted.
Darcy pushed the two men apart. "Hey, Nate, Emma looks like she'd pick you over Clooney any day."
Distracted, Nathan glanced toward Frankie. Emma, standing on the edge of the group surrounding his sister, was sipping a glass of champagne and watching him. When their eyes met, she turned away. But not before he saw her flush.
"Fine," Nathan muttered, not looking at Patrick. "Let it drop." For tonight, anyway. He'd harmed the family and almost lost the restaurant. The FBI could investigate out the wazoo. He'd work his own contacts in the neighborhood.
No way had that loan been legal.
He'd known that when he took the money.
So what did that make him?
"I'm going to say hello to Frankie," he said, pushing himself off the couch.
"You sure it's Frankie you want to say hello to?" Darcy asked.
When Nathan glanced at her, she was grinning. "Funny, Darce."
As he walked away, she called after him, "I just want you to be happy, Nate."
Finding the guy who'd given him the money would make him happy. Being sure his family was safe would make him happy, too. So would getting away from the restaurant after everything was settled. He was going to Italy, and he was staying for a while.
It had been a while since he'd felt the kind of spark that had arced between him and Emma. Any other time, he'd want to pursue it.
Right now, he had too many other things going on.
As he got closer, she laughed at something Frankie said.
Maybe he could find the time.
Emma watched Nathan limp slowly toward her. His gait was uncertain, as if he were getting used to walking again. She'd noticed how carefully he'd moved earlier, and she wondered how he'd been injured.
"That's my brother Nate," Frankie said in her ear, and Emma started. Had she been that obvious?
"He was hit by a car a few months ago," Frankie continued.
"Nasty breaks in his arm and leg. The casts came off a couple of weeks ago. I told him to stay home tonight and put the leg up, but he never listens to me."
"I, ah, met him earlier." She glanced at Frankie. "He sounds pretty proud of you. Of course he wanted to come."
"He's my brother," Frankie said. "He has to say stuff like that."
A tiny burst of jealousy hit Emma squarely in the chest. "You're lucky to have brothers."
"Most of the time." She nudged Emma. "Go keep Nate company."
"I think he probably wants to talk to you," Emma replied.
"I don't think so," Frankie said with a grin. "I saw the two of you talking earlier. The little birds circling around your heads were very cute."
"Knock it off, Frankie." But Emma's heart beat a little faster as Nathan got closer.
She'd noticed his bright blue eyes the moment he turned to open the door for her. She'd seen the faint smile lines, too. The thick, wavy black hair. He was tall enough to tower over her—not many men could do that.
And his shoulders filled out his suit very nicely.
Then he'd smiled, and her heart had missed a beat.
She was thirty-one—too old to feel this giddy. Too old for little birds to fly around her head. But she hadn't been able to take her eyes off Nathan Devereux.
As he got closer, he glanced at her and smiled. She smiled back, her palms suddenly sweaty. While he was still several feet away, her phone rang.
She was tempted to ignore it. But she pulled her phone out of her bag to check.
It was her friend Sonya Michaels. "Can I call you back later, Sonya? I'm at the FreeZone reception."
"Is this Emma Sloan?" a male voice said.
"Yes." Her relaxed tone disappeared and she gripped the phone. "Who is this?"
"This is Officer Trenton of the Chicago Police Department. Are you Harley Michaels's aunt?"
She wasn't. Why did the officer think she was? "Is Harley okay?"
"There's been an accident. Harley gave us your number."
"What happened? Is Harley okay?" Emma's heart began to pound as she hurried toward the door, shrugging on her coat as she juggled her phone and purse.
"She's fine. Her mother had an accident. We need to talk to Harley's closest relative."
"That would be me." The lie slipped easily off her tongue. Sonya and Harley had no family. "Where are you?"
"We're at Ms. Michaels's apartment."
"Give me fifteen minutes."
As she opened the door and stepped into the cold wind, she glanced over her shoulder. Nathan stood alone in the middle of the floor, watching her. He wasn't smiling anymore.
She raised her hand briefly, and he nodded.
As she hurried toward her car, she glanced at FreeZone one last time. Nathan was standing where she'd left him. Still watching her.
Twelve minutes later, she was pounding on the apartment door. A police officer opened it. "I'm Emma Sloan. Where's Harley?"
"Emma?" Harley's voice wobbled from the living room, and Emma pushed past the officer.
Harley barreled toward her and threw herself in Emma's arms. Emma held her tight, the girl's wet cheek against her own. "I'm here, Harley," she whispered. "It'll be okay."
"No, it won't." Harley's fingers dug into her spine and her body shook with sobs. "M.Mom's dead."
"What?" Emma reared back and stared at Harley. "What happened?"
Instead of answering, Harley clung to Emma and sobbed into her chest. Emma held Harley protectively, stroking her back and her bright hair.
Over Harley's shoulder, a female police officer sat on the couch with Mrs. Vilnius. The older woman who stayed with Harley until her mother got home was weeping into a handkerchief.
The officer stood up and walked over to Emma and Harley. "Ms. Michaels lost consciousness on the bus," she said quietly. "By the time the paramedics arrived, she was already gone."
"My God." Emma felt as though she'd been punched in the chest. Sonya and Harley Michaels had started off as clients. But she'd become close to both of them, and now Sonya was one of her closest friends. Her throat tightened. Had been.