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"You weren't at the funeral," Lizzie blurted. It was an awkward way to start a conversation with a man she hadn't seen in nearly eight years, but she had a bad habit of saying whatever popped into her head. It was a trait that had gotten her into trouble more than once in her twenty-four years.
Sitting on the other side of a massive, polished walnut desk, Sam's sharply featured face revealed no emotion as he said, "I was out of town and didn't find out about your dad's accident until days after the funeral. I'm so sorry. He was a good man and a good cop. Did you get the card?"
"Yes. Thanks for the thought." The card had arrived nearly four months ago—a week after the funeral—and she'd almost thrown it out in a childish fit. Since Sam had been away, she supposed he could be forgiven for missing the funeral. It wasn't as if she'd gone to any trouble to hunt him down and share the news. She'd been in shock, at the time.
In a completely perverse manner, Lizzie wished this man she'd once had a heart-wrenching teenage crush on had gotten bald or fat or horribly wrinkled in the years they'd been strangers. She wished she could write off her memory of him as the perfect specimen of a man as childish fiction. She wished she could laugh at her stubborn and unwanted habit of comparing every man she met to this one.
Instead, Sam Travers, once her father's partner with the Birmingham police force and currently a successful private investigator, carried the years well. Too well. He was as perfectly handsome as she remembered. His dark hair, cut fairly short but gently mussed, was as thick as ever, and his eyes were even bluer than she remembered. There wasn't an ounce of fat on his now-thirty-two-year-old body, and the only wrinkles she could see were very faint lines around his fantastically blue eyes, lines that only made him more attractive. He wore a perfectly fitted suit these days, instead of the uniform or jeans and T-shirts she remembered, and she was dying to ask him how he'd gotten the small, almost invisible scar on his right cheek—but she didn't.
Lizzie squirmed in her chair, uneasy and questioning her decision to be here. When planning her wardrobe for the day she'd purposely dressed down, determined not to make herself attractive for a man who didn't deserve such efforts. Now she realized she should've gone to someone else. Sam looked a little harder than she remembered. He wouldn't understand. This would never work!
The problem was she didn't trust anyone else. Not with this.
"I have a sister," she said, carefully placing the letters she'd found in her father's papers on Sam's desk and, after a brief pause, pushing them toward him with both hands. "Half sister, that is. I should say probably a half sister. If you read the letters, you'll see there's some question about that, though Dad seemed pretty sure. Her name is Jenna. According to these letters she'd be twelve years old now."
Sam glanced at the short stack of envelopes but didn't pick them up. "I'm sure finding out that you might have a half sister was a shock. What exactly do you want me to do?"
"Find her," Lizzie said sharply, perturbed that Sam hadn't figured out that part of it for himself. Some private investigator he was! The word from her father's old cop buddies was that Sam was the best, a fixer of momentous problems, a man for whom no case was too difficult. He took on the toughest court assignments as well as private cases, and had built what had once been a one-man business into a well-respected agency.
"And?" he queried, tapping one long finger on the top letter in an annoying and strangely sensual rhythm.
Lizzie shook her head, annoyed—mostly with herself. "And what? Just find her!"
Sam's face remained emotionless, as if he were totally unaffected by her outburst, but there was a hint of something in his eyes that might've been irritation. Sam and her father had been partners for almost three years, the new kid and the veteran striking up a deep friendship in spite of their age and lifestyle differences. There had been plenty of fishing trips and cookouts in those three years, birthday parties and football Saturdays. For those three years, Sam had almost been family. Lizzie remembered him being handsome and funny and one of the good guys. She remembered how he'd casually winked at her on occasion, the same way he probably winked at every other female who crossed his path. She didn't remember him being so steely.
He leaned back in his chair as if relaxing, but the muscles in his body remained tense. He was not relaxed. "Odds are this little girl knows nothing about you or the question about her parentage. You might stir up a lot of dust that's best left settled."
She wasn't an idiot; she'd thought of that. "For now, I only want to know where the girl is and that she's okay. I was only eleven or so when Monica was around, but I remember her fairly well." Lizzie instinctively wrinkled her nose. "Monica Yates was one of the unfortunate string of inappropriate girlfriends Dad experimented with after Mom left. From what I recall, she wasn't exactly brilliant mother material, so it only makes sense to check on the girl. If Jenna is happy and well cared for and in a safe place, I won't shatter her world." How dare Sam not even consider that a girl who was most likely her father's daughter by another woman might want a big sister!
Stoic and unshakable, Sam stared at her. Sadly, Lizzie's girlish crush on Sam Travers had not entirely dissipated. He was hot, even now. He was the kind of man who could give a girl shivers just by walking past or glancing in her direction. Maybe she should've dressed better and put on some makeup, after all. If he so much as winked at her now she'd probably tremble and tingle in all the wrong places. There might even be drool involved. She might embarrass herself completely with a nervous giggle. Too bad his wife was such a bitch.
"I can afford you, if that's what you're worried about," Lizzie said, digging her checkbook out of her oversize brown leather purse and slapping it on Sam's desk. "I have a successful business, and Dad left me some money, so paying your fee is not a problem."
Now Sam really looked annoyed. His lips thinned and his eyes grew cold. "I don't want your money."
"I won't take your money," he said sharply, "not under any circumstances."
At least it sounded as if he was considering taking her case. "Well, I won't take charity, not even from you."
He leaned forward and drummed his fingers against the desk. His lips thinned a bit more. Yep, he was definitely irritated. Irritated and macho and apparently accustomed to getting his way in all things.
"How about a trade?" Lizzie dropped her checkbook into the bowels of her purse. "You find Jenna for me, and I paint your office." She glanced with undisguised disdain at the flat off-white walls.
Sam's eyes narrowed. "I don't want a mural of any kind on my walls."
"That's good, because I don't paint murals." Not anymore. Yes, there had been a time when she'd been into landscapes and bowls of fruit, and between the ages of twelve and fourteen she'd painted an insane number of fairies and woodland creatures and kittens. Lots of kittens. She'd painted an awful fairyland mural on her bedroom wall at one point. She shuddered at the memory.
As an adult she'd all too soon recognized that she was a competent but mediocre artist. Maybe she could eke out a living painting Elvis on velvet or kittens with big eyes, but she'd discovered that her real gift was in reviving dull, lifeless rooms. "I paint interiors." She shifted her gaze to stare at the wall behind Sam, and she let her mind go, the way she did when she worked. A calmness settled over her. "These walls would look great in cinnamon taupe. I'd do the trim in heirloom lace, I think. Maybe California cream or Carolina beach beige."
"You paint walls."
"Isn't that what I just said?"
Sam shook his head. "Fine, we have a deal. I'll find this maybe half sister of yours, and you paint my office. But…" He grabbed the letters and drew them toward him as he leaned slightly forward. "If this child's life is settled and she's happy and safe, you steer clear." He used a voice that was cool and demanding. It was the voice of a man who expected his every word to be law. "It wouldn't be nice to drop a bomb like this on a kid."
Lizzie didn't argue that she didn't think of herself as a bomb of any sort. If she argued, Sam might change his mind. "Deal." She stood and offered her hand across the table in a businesslike manner. Sam stood and took it. His hand was warm and large and strong, and she liked the way it felt around hers. To keep from sighing in delight, or perhaps jumping across the desk for a kiss, she asked, "So, how's that bubbleheaded wife of yours?"
Sam dropped Lizzie's hand. "I'm divorced." "Oh," she said, blushing prettily.
"Six years now." And the marriage hadn't been good for two years before they'd ended it formally.
"That's…" Lizzie stammered, she pursed her lips, her hazel eyes cut to the side and she shook her chestnut hair, most of which was currently caught in a long, thick ponytail. The bangs and wayward strands which had fallen out of the ponytail danced softly. "Heaven help me, I can't say I'm sorry. I can't force the words from my lips." Her voice was quick, as if the words tumbled out of their own volition. "I can't even say 'that's too bad' because it's not. Dottie Ann was nowhere near good enough for you. Gorgeous, yes, and heaven knows she had the kind of body you guys make yourselves fools over, but she didn't have half a brain and she was so incredibly selfish. Dottie Ann, what a ridiculous name for a woman who's under eighty. Dad told me she got weird on you after the shooting, which I completely understand. No, no, I don't understand her reaction. I don't get it at all. I understand what happened when you shot that guy, that's what I was trying to say. Dad said you were totally justified. I don't know why he didn't tell me you got divorced. Six years." She took a moment, perhaps lost in a flash of mental math. "I had just moved to Mobile and started school, and I guess Dad thought I didn't need to know."
Sam felt the ice settle in his gut. No one mentioned the shooting. That was in the past. Nothing had ever been out of bounds for Lizzie, though, and apparently that hadn't changed. Her father had been one of the few who'd stood by him in those dark days, even though their official partnership had ended. Sam hadn't seen Lizzie at all during that time. She'd been sixteen; he'd been angry and took to drinking too much, for a while.
It was no surprise Charlie hadn't taken him home during those bad days. He was surprised Charlie had talked about the shooting with his daughter at all. He'd always been determined to protect his little girl. Even from Sam, apparently.
Was that why Charlie hadn't told Lizzie about the divorce? No, it was probably much simpler than that. Two years after the shooting he and his old partner had grown apart. They'd been busy; their lives had taken them in different directions. Later on—just a few years ago—they'd reconnected, but things had never been the same.
"He was so mad about that," Lizzie continued. "That she didn't stick beside you like any decent wife would've. That's only one strike against her, in my book. That first time y'all were at the house together, not long before you got married, she told me that maybe one day I would be passably pretty if I lost some weight and outgrew my awkwardness and the rest of my face caught up with my nose and I grew or purchased boobs. Who says that to a fourteen-year-old?"
The conversation was not a happy one; it had stirred up a lot of memories best left buried, and still Sam smiled. "Same old Lizzie, I see. You never did have a problem saying exactly what you think."
She pursed her lips together, as if physically trying to restrain herself.
Amy Elizabeth Porter had grown up to be more than passably pretty. She'd lost a little baby fat, though in spite of Dottie Ann's cruel words she hadn't had a lot to spare. Her face had most definitely caught up with her nose, and the long limbs that had once been awkward were now elegant and sexy—even though she obviously didn't dress to call attention to herself. The jeans she wore were a little bit baggy, and the dark green button-up blouse was at least two sizes too large. Still, Lizzie had a model's bone structure and legs that went on and on. She'd grown into herself very nicely—even if she didn't have what anyone would call a curvaceous figure.
She'd changed dramatically, but for the mouth, which looked fine—more than fine, to be honest—but still opened too often and too freely.
Dottie Ann had been an idiot to say those things to a child. Why hadn't he seen what she was like before it was too late? Ah, yes, thinking with the little head. His wife had always had plenty to say about his partner's young daughter. She'd picked up on the crush Sam had been oblivious to, and for some reason she'd been jealous of a shy, gawky kid. Maybe Dottie Ann had seen what Sam had not; that Lizzie would grow into the beauty before him, that even as a child the barely teenage girl had something Dottie Ann never would. Quality. Character. Heart.
"I'll read the letters and start doing some research." Maybe Lizzie was right to be concerned. After his wife had run away from home like a petulant teenager, leaving her husband and her eight-year-old daughter behind, Charlie hadn't exactly been the best judge of women. His heart had been broken and he'd pretty much given up. Some of his girlfriends in those early single-father years would've given Dottie Ann a run for her money, and Monica Yates had been among the worst.
"When can I start painting?" Lizzie surveyed his office, mentally dissecting the room.