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Nadine Kimble watched as the office printer spewed out a certificate proving she'd aced the online private investigation course she'd been taking the past six months. She knew her boss—Lindsay Fox, founder of The Fox & Fisher Detective Agency—was in her office. It was now or never, unless she wanted to be a receptionist for the rest of her life. Which she didn't, since she was only twenty-seven and the rest of her life would hopefully involve many more decades.
With the certificate still warm in her hands, Nadine marched up to Lindsay's office, rapped briefly on the door, then opened it.
Lindsay wasn't alone. Her partner and fiancé, Nathan Fisher, was sitting in the chair usually reserved for clients, while she paced the room in bare feet, her high heels, as usual, strewn on the floor next to her desk. They were arguing in a civilized yet heated manner, and didn't stop on Nadine's account.
"Printed invitations are classier than e-mail, Fox. That's all I'm saying."
"I care about trees more than I care about 'class.' What do you think, Nadine? Should we send out stuffy printed invitations to our wedding—or speedier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly e-mail invitations?"
"We're having such a small wedding, all we need is a dozen invitations. What's that—a twig? Plus, we can use recycled paper."
"Nadine?" Lindsay asked.
"Oh, no. I'm not falling for this again." Nadine thought the printed invitations would be nice, but no way was she stating her opinion. Getting between Lindsay and Nathan in one of their "discussions" was never a good idea.
While Lindsay and Nathan loved each other passionately and made excellent business partners, they had opposite ideas about many subjects…especially their upcoming wedding.
And both of them sulked like kids if she took one side over the other.
"We've left this so late. The wedding is in two months." Lindsay flipped the pages on her day-timer. "Do we even have time to get something printed?"
"The only reason we're late is because you keep putting me off." Nathan leaned forward in his chair, planting both hands on his well-muscled thighs. "I have a friend with a graphic-design shop two blocks from here on Amsterdam. She said if we come over right now, she can help us choose a design and have the invitations in the mail in three days."
Lindsay made a face, then puffed out a sigh. "Fine. But the wedding cake will be chocolate. No fruitcake. No fancy white icing that tastes like plastic."
"What about carrot cake with thick cream-cheese icing?"
Lindsay's mouth tightened obstinately. "Chocolate."
Nathan looked as if he was going to argue some more. Then he changed his mind and nodded. "Printed invitations and chocolate wedding cake."
Lindsay reached for her shoes. "All right, then. I guess we better go talk to this friend of yours."
Nadine realized her opportunity was about to be lost—again. "Um, before you go, I wanted to discuss something."
"What's up?" Lindsay asked as she slipped into her heels. She was a practical woman with a weakness for impractical shoes. One of several quirks to her character that kept her interesting.
Nadine showed Lindsay her latest certificate. "I want to start working on my own cases. I think I'm ready."
The two partners exchanged a quick look, and Nadine, recognizing their skepticism, knew she had to speak fast. "I know you did me a favor, hiring me as a receptionist when I'd never held a job before."
She'd had only her liberal arts education, and a lot of experience planning dinner parties and charity galas for her wealthy parents. Her father had always planned for her to work for the Waverly Foundation after graduation, but at the last moment Nadine had rebelled.
She had a dream. Her parents thought it was silly, reckless and potentially dangerous.
But Nadine still wanted to be a private detective.
"Despite my lack of experience, I think I've done a good job."
"More like an excellent job," Lindsay said. "But there's a world of difference between working in an office and handling a case from start to finish."
"You already do a lot of our research and record keeping," Nathan added. "Plus you handle the calls from clients and keep track of us when we're out in the field. We really couldn't operate without you."
Nadine heard what they were saying, but she wouldn't be mollified. Not this time. "This is because I don't have police training, isn't it?"
Lindsay, Nathan and their third partner, Kate Cooper, had originally all worked at the Twentieth Precinct of the New York Police Department. "I've asked around. There are plenty of excellent PI.'s in this city who didn't start out with the force."
"That's true." Lindsay ran her fingers through her delicately colored, blond hair. The blunt style ended at her jawline, emphasizing her determined chin. "I'm just not sure you're ready."
"But we're drowning in work," Nadine pointed out. "And Kate will be taking maternity leave soon." She and her commercial pilot husband, Jay Savage, were expecting their first baby in four weeks.
"We've been gradually increasing your investigative responsibilities," Nathan said.
"Yes. And I'm glad for everything you've thrown my way." She knew how to do background checks now, and she was often asked to do research for the others. "But I'm always in the office. Always behind my desk."
"But who would deal with the calls and the clients if you weren't there?" Lindsay asked.
Nadine swallowed. She wasn't quite brave enough to suggest that one of them could man the lines if she was out.
Nathan glanced at his watch. "We've got to get going. Let's talk about this later when we have more time, okay?"
Same old story. Nadine sighed as they left. She had no illusions about what would happen later. More lip service to the notion of allowing her more responsibility. Then, in a couple of weeks, they would hire someone new, someone to cover for Kate, and Nadine'd be back to the same administrative jobs she always handled.
Nadine sank into her chair, frustrated. She loved working at Fox & Fisher. Lindsay, Nathan and Kate were friends, not just coworkers.
She didn't want to leave.
But at the same time, she had a dream, and she was ready. She might not be a rabble-rouser like Lindsay, or steely minded like Kate, but she had talents, too.
Nadine went to the coffee station to rinse out the pot and start a fresh brew. Making coffee, answering phones, checking stuff on the Internet and writing up reports—yeah, she was great at that stuff. She wanted more, though. And she knew she could do it.
But no one here was going to believe it because they all thought of her as a receptionist. Worse than that, their opinions were colored by her background—her rich family and privileged upbringing.
She knew they all wondered why she bothered to work at a "real" job. But Nadine had never been comfortable with her family's wealthy status. Far from giving her added confidence, the money had only made her less secure. She wanted to be valued as an individual, not as an heiress. That was why she used her mother's maiden surname at work, and why she rarely spoke about her Waverly family connections.
She was determined to prove—to others and to herself—that she could handle the job. But how could she do that if they never let her try?
Nadine studied the calendar on her computer, where she kept track of everyone's schedules. Knowing Nathan and Lindsay, it would take a while to find something they could agree on. Meanwhile, Kate had gone with Jay for her eight-month doctor checkup.
She would be alone in the office for a couple of hours.
Supposing, just supposing, a client should walk in the door during that time?
They didn't get drop-in business very often, but it did happen. Usually, if the others were out, Nadine would book an appointment and ask the potential client to come back later.
But what if, this time, she didn't?
Nadine put a hand to her chest. Her fingertips tingled with a rush of adrenaline, and her heart raced.
Dared she do it?
She had to. There was no other way. The next client who walked in the door was going to be hers.
Patrick O'Neil couldn't be bothered with umbrellas. He just pulled his coat tighter against the cool November rain. Not to protect himself—he didn't mind the damp and he wasn't cold. Compared to Alaska, where he'd researched and written his last book, this weather was balmy. No, it wasn't his body he was trying to protect, but the letters.
He'd been watching the addresses of the brownstones as he walked along, and now he stopped. The sign was discreet, but it seemed he had arrived.
Feeling oddly self-conscious, he glanced left, then right. No one even noticed him. Most of the passersby were huddled under umbrellas. And, anyway, New Yorkers always minded their own business.
He climbed six steps to a door that led to a small vestibule. The Fox & Fisher Detective Agency wasn't the only business housed in this building. He checked the signs, then climbed more stairs, up to the next story.
A semitranslucent door had The Fox & Fisher Detective Agency lettered over the glass. He checked the hours, confirmed that it was open. Well, of course it was. What business wouldn't be at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday?
He went in.
A woman was sitting at a reception desk. She was petite, with dark hair, darker eyes and pretty red lips. Her smile was meant to be welcoming, but she seemed slightly nervous about something.
"I don't have an appointment," he said. "Is that okay?" Up until three seconds ago, he hadn't been sure he would go through with this. He wasn't the kind of guy who hired other people to solve his problems.
Then again, he'd never had a problem quite like this one before.
"That's fine. I can fit you in without an appointment."
"Good. I'm in luck then." She had a beautiful, refined way of speaking. Well educated, he could tell.
He wasn't. He'd learned about life the old-fashioned way, through work and experience, and the lack of a college education had never stood in his way. He slipped his fingers inside his jacket, reached past the book he'd just received in the mail, to the manila envelope. Still dry. Good.
He removed his coat and folded it carefully over one arm, so the envelope wouldn't fall out.
"Would you like to hang that in the closet?"
He shook his head, the muscles in his arms tightening reflexively. "I'd rather keep it with me."
"Fine." The dark-haired woman picked up a stack of files, and for no reason that he could tell, moved them to a different corner of her desk. "How can I help you?"
He was standing there like a dolt, trying not to feel absurd, yet the situation was so surreal. He'd certainly never dreamed that he would have reason to seek out the services of a private investigator.
Yet here he was.
"I'm Patrick O'Neil. I'd like to speak with one of your investigators. I—I need to find someone."
"Locating missing persons is one of our specialties. And I'd be glad to help you. My name is Nadine Kimble."
"You? But—I assumed you were the receptionist."
Those pretty dark eyes blinked. "She's on a break. I was just filling in for a few moments. We can continue our discussion in the boardroom. Would you like a coffee?"
He nodded. This situation was just getting stranger and stranger. Coffee would help. He let her pour him a cup, then added his own cream before following her down a short hall to a room on the left.
Like the reception area, the conference room was decorated in a modern, minimalistic style. He squinted at the odd black-and-white photos on the wall.
"Close-ups of paper clips," the woman explained, which really explained nothing, as far as Patrick was concerned. Why put paper clips on your wall when you could have something truly beautiful, like a photograph of mountains, or the ocean or even one graceful tree?
"Please sit down and make yourself comfortable." Nadine Kimble opened a notebook and pulled out a pen. "Now—who would you like us to find?"
He had an urge to question her credentials, but he supposed that was sexist of him. Just because she was little and cute and extremely feminine didn't mean she couldn't be a kick-ass investigator. Plus, this was the place that had been recommended.
With care, he removed the items in his coat pocket, first the book, then the package. Her eyes fell on the book. It was upside-down and his author photo was clearly visible.
"Is that you?" She reached across the table. "May I look?"
Action and Adventure in New Zealand was his sixth book. This ought to be old hat to him by now. But he still felt a rush of pride at seeing his picture, and his name, right there on the cover.
"By all means. I just received that copy from my publisher. The book won't be available in stores for another month."
"So, you're an author. Of travel books."
She sounded impressed.
Many women were.
This is not some girl you're trying to chat up at the bar. Still, he found himself giving her his regular spiel. "I prefer to think of it as adventure travel. For people who are fit and up for a challenge and want to explore new places in ways that most tourists never experience."
"That sounds wonderful." She flipped through the pages, stopping to look at some of the pictures. Then she gave him a rueful smile. "I'm sorry. I'm getting distracted, aren't I?"
She set the book to the side, then folded her arms on the table and leaned in toward him. "Tell me why you're here." She glanced expectantly at the manila envelope he'd placed on the table.
He covered the envelope with a protective hand. He felt as if something thick and hard had suddenly lodged in his throat. Even though he'd already decided this was the most expeditious solution, he suddenly wasn't sure he could share his very personal situation with a stranger.
But what choice did he have? The revisions on his Alaska manuscript were due at the publishers in three weeks. He had no time to handle this himself. Wasn't even sure how to go about it, truth be told.
"I need your help to—" His voice cracked. He took a sip of coffee, then managed to get the rest out. "To find my son."