White Hotby Carla Neggers
Mollie Lavender just moved to Palm Beach to start a public relations business and things are going swimmingly. So far/i>/i>
New York Times bestselling author of Cold Ridge Florida's lush Gold Coast lends an exotic backdrop to this dazzling tale of fiery sensuality and searing suspense from New York Times bestselling author Carla Neggers.
Mollie Lavender just moved to Palm Beach to start a public relations business and things are going swimmingly. So far her clients include a dog, a ninety-year-old ventriloquist, and a grumpy astronaut. But when she runs into hard-hitting reporter Jeremiah Tabak, she learns that even a decade isn't enough time to heal a broken heart.
Society parties aren't Jeremiah's usual beat, but there's a cat burglar on the loose and a hot tip suggests his old flame is right in the thick of things. Seeing Mollie stirs up old desires...and new suspicions. Is it coincidence she attended every gala where the burglar struck? Jeremiah thinks not. The only way Mollie can prove her innocence is to help set a dangerous trap to catch the real thief. But Jeremiah's touch triggers powerful emotions...and the next thing stolen might be Mollie's heart.
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Read an Excerpt
Jeremiah Tabak squinted at the scrawny kid sitting across from him at a popular South Beach sidewalk cafÉ. "You want me to check out who?"
"A woman up in Palm Beach. Her name's Mollie Lavender."
Croc spoke in his usual matter-of-fact, it's-nothing-to-me tone. He claimed to be twenty-four, which was a stretch, and he liked scavenging the streets for information he could bring to Jeremiah, an investigative reporter for the Miami Tribune. He would be the first one to admit that Croc occasionally came up with good stuff. But never in his wildest flights of fancy would Jeremiah have imagined Croc, aka Blake Wilder, would come up with Mollie Lavender, the one woman on the planet who had damned good reason to roast his balls on a spit.
Croc had to be talking about another Mollie Lavender. Or maybe he'd somehow learned of Jeremiah's week-long affair ten years ago with a college flute player named Mollie Lavender, down from Boston for spring break, and was pulling his leg.
Jeremiah shifted uncomfortably in his chair at the rickety wooden outdoor table. It was winter in south Florida, and Ocean Drive, famous for its restored Art Deco buildings and jet-setters, was crowded with scantily clad Rollerbladers, trendy Europeans, snowbirds down from Michigan, retirees in sensible shoes, and everything in between, all out to enjoy the beautiful afternoon. Water, sun, sand, pastel-colored ornate buildings. Jeremiah had first bumped into Mollie not too far from here, sitting out on her big beach towel emblazoned with musical notes. She'd had Saturday Afternoon at the Opera playing on her radio, and she was wearing a floppy hat and tons of sunscreen because she was fair-skinned and burned easily. She'd left her flute at her hotel. She'd said she felt lost without it, and Jeremiah had fallen for her on the spot.
Ten years was a long time, but some memories stuck. His week with Mollie was one of them.
Croc had to be talking about a different Mollie Lavender.
But he said, "She's living above the garage at some fat opera singer's place up in Palm Beach."
Pascarelli, Jeremiah thought, swearing to himself. Mollie -- his Mollie -- was the goddaughter of world-famous tenor Leonardo Pascarelli. He owned a house in Palm Beach. She'd declined to stay with him that week ten years ago, she'd said, because she wanted to experience an ordinary college student's spring break. She hadn't, of course. Instead she'd had a fling with a hard-news reporter out for his first front-page story, and had gotten herself burned in a way she'd never imagined.
Not that she'd have had an "ordinary" spring break even if she'd never met Jeremiah. She was not, he recalled, an ordinary twenty-year-old. When he'd ended their affair and packed her off to Boston, she'd tilted her chin, flashed those lovely blue eyes, and said philosophically, "Well, I suppose every woman must have her encounter with a dark and dangerous man."
He'd felt like a rake out of a Victorian novel. Then, less philosophically, she'd called him a lying son of a bitch, and he'd felt better. Lying sons of bitches he could understand. Apparently so could she, because he hadn't heard from her in the ten years since she and her flute and her wounded pride had boarded the plane home to Boston. He sometimes pictured her playing in an orchestra, traveling the world with other people who listened to opera on the beach, teaching young flute students, perhaps cautioning them about falling prey to men like him -- but secretly pleased she'd lost her own virginity not to some washed-out tuba player but to her one and only "dark and dangerous man."
Croc slurped his chocolate shake. He'd ordered the same lunch he always ordered when Tabak was buying: chocolate shake, well-done burger with tomato, lettuce, extra pickles and mayonnaise, and well-done steak fries. Yet he remained skinny to the point of emaciation, although Jeremiah had no reason to suspect he was on drugs or even smoked cigarettes. Their only contact was always at Croc's request. He had no permanent address and no regular work, which made it impossible for Jeremiah to reach him on his own. He did odd jobs: detailing cars, mopping floors, washing dishes, hauling boxes -- anything that didn't require a long commitment or extensive contact with the public. No one wanted Croc waiting tables or standing behind a checkout counter.
He sat back in his chair, jittery, which wasn't unusual; he always had a foot or a hand moving. "She's some kind of publicist. She's on her own, not with one of the big firms."
Jeremiah frowned. "A publicist?"
"Yeah. That dog that's in the commercials is one of her clients. You know, the mutt with the attitude? And some ex-astronaut who's taken up jazz piano, and this old geezer who's written a book about his days in vaudeville. I guess he's got pictures of George Burns and guys like that, stuff nobody's ever seen before."
Maybe it was a different Mollie after all. Jeremiah said nothing, watching Croc drag a well-browned fry through a mound of ketchup. "She's got a few regular clients -- a couple of upscale music shops, a Renaissance music society. Most of them have something to do with the arts." He wiped his fingers on a napkin. "I guess she's been in town five, six months."
Jeremiah kept his face expressionless. His past relationship with Mollie, he felt sure, would be news to Croc. "If you already know so much about her, why do you need me to check her out?"
Croc lowered his shoulders and glanced surreptitiously at the surrounding tables as if he expected eavesdroppers. A German couple had taken a nearby table and were having coffee, laughing, and two women with four cranky toddlers were making a big production out of dividing up three pieces of key lime pie. Two old men were eating hot dogs at another table. There was a tableful of loud teenagers, and another of a lone woman in a business suit who looked as if she'd been stood up. No one struck Jeremiah as having the least interest in what Croc might have to say.
Finally, he leaned forward and said in a dramatic, conspiratorial whisper, "I think she could be the Gold Coast cat burglar."
Jeremiah nearly spit out his coffee. "The who? Croc, for chrissake, if this is some kind of joke --"
"No, no, man. When have I ever bullshitted you about something this important?"
Jeremiah hissed through his teeth, his control shattered. Sorting out Croc's hard facts and reliable leads from his fantasies and nonsense was a constant challenge, and why Jeremiah, who'd taken off on more than one wild-goose chase at Croc's behest, put up with it was beyond him. He'd first turned up at Jeremiah's desk at the Miami Tribune two years ago with a tidbit about an eighteen-year-old selling stolen guns to twelve-year-olds for twenty bucks each. It proved solid, and every few weeks since, he checked in. They'd developed a rapport that Jeremiah, a seasoned journalist, found alternately mystifying and frustrating. He had other sources, but none like Croc. He wasn't a chronic liar or a hopeless paranoid so much as an imaginative kid who engaged in hyperbole and wishful thinking, sometimes blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
"You've heard about the cat burglar, right?" Croc asked.
Jeremiah gritted his teeth. "No."
"Oh." He seemed momentarily taken aback. "I figured you'd be on the story, but maybe it's too...I don't know, too mundane for you or something."
"Mundane? Croc, where'd you learn a word like mundane?"
"Television." He grinned, his teeth reasonably healthy, if in need of routine dental care. He wore baggy jeans and a threadbare T-shirt, and his scraggly hair had recently been washed. He was just, so far as Jeremiah could tell, a mixed-up kid who lived on the edge and liked to be in the know. "Come on, Tabak, you telling me you haven't heard a word about a jewel thief loose in the land of polo and croquet?"
"Not a word, Croc. So, what jewel thief, and what makes you suspect this Mollie Lavender?"
"Stay with me, okay? I'm onto something here, I can feel it. See, this guy's hit maybe a half-dozen times in the past two weeks -- thirteen days, to be precise. We're not talking about your Cary Grant type who sneaks over rooftops and into people's hotel rooms. He -- or she -- hits right out in the open at dinner parties, charity balls -- you know, your high-class gigs. Someone makes a mistake, and next thing, they're out a fifty-thousand-dollar bracelet."
"What kind of mistakes?"
"You take off a piece of expensive jewelry for any reason -- it's too heavy, it's got a loose clasp, somebody else is wearing an identical piece -- and drop it in a pocket, a handbag, leave it for two seconds, and our thief sees it and takes advantage."
"He's an opportunist," Jeremiah said, interested in spite of himself.
"Exactly. I figure he's netted damned close to a half-million in jewelry so far, retail value. He's worked as far south as Fort Lauderdale and as far north as Jupiter. That's probably why the police haven't put all the pieces together and figured out they have a clever jewel thief on their hands. Too many departments involved -- they just haven't compared notes yet. Once they do, the shit'll hit the fan."
"You're just one step ahead."
"Any evidence this stuff was stolen and not just misplaced?"
"I don't know, I haven't read the police reports. That's where you come in. I don't deal with officialdom, you know? You're between stories, right? I figure you're at a loose end, maybe you can help."
"Croc, listen to me." Jeremiah pushed aside his coffee mug and leaned over the table, the sun warm on his neck. "I find my own stories. I don't work on assignment. And I can't have you running around hunting up stories for me. I won't be responsible for you getting hurt or stepping over the line, be it ethical or legal. You got it?"
"Yeah, sure, no problem." He seemed unoffended by the lecture. "This is just off the record. Friend to friend. Okay?"
Jeremiah wasn't about to agree to any terms. And he didn't consider Croc a friend-to-friend kind of friend, not when he didn't know where he lived and wasn't even sure he knew his real name. He said it was Blake Wilder, but he could have pulled the name out of a James Bond movie for all Jeremiah knew. But he couldn't end it here and walk away, not until he'd heard Croc out. "Tell me about Mollie Lavender's connection."
"Ah." He popped another ketchup-slathered fry into his mouth, looking smug, proud of himself for having survived another Tabak firestorm and pricked Jeremiah's interest. "She's the common denominator. She's been at every gig that's been hit. Every one, from a jazz party in Fort Lauderdale to cocktails with the opera society in Jupiter."
"And how did you get this information?"
He shrugged his bony shoulders. "I have my ways."
"I suppose you've had access to all the guests lists and have checked out every hanger-on and every journalist and every guest who brought someone at the last minute or turned their invitation over to a friend and --"
"Okay." Croc was unruffled. "So she's the only common denominator I've found so far."
Jeremiah sat back, already regretting his outburst. If he thought about it, Croc might wonder why his reporter buddy was getting so upset about what was, in reality, just another weird lunch with an informant. "What's the point here, Croc? Why the interest in this story?"
"It just kind of grabbed my attention. You going to check it out or what?"
"I don't do Gold Coast jewel thieves." Especially if they involved a woman he'd once slept with, something that didn't bear thinking about with Croc's beady eyes on him.
"Then just check into it for me, Tabak. As a favor."
In two years, Jeremiah's twitchy, independent, cagey, young informant had never asked him a favor. Money wasn't an issue because Jeremiah would never pay for information, but Croc had never so much as asked for a ride across town. Whatever satisfaction he received from providing the occasional useful tidbit to a high-profile Miami reporter was his alone to understand. Croc's main skill was to pull his tidbits, whether useful or ridiculous, seemingly out of thin air. Like Mollie Lavender as jewel thief.
"You've never asked a favor of me, Croc," Jeremiah said, calmer. "Why now?"
"There's something about this thing...I don't know..." He pushed his plate aside, his food only half eaten, another departure from the norm. "You don't have to write the story, Tabak. I don't care about that. Really. If it's not your thing, fine. Just look into it. You know, you've got sources and access that I don't. You go through the front doors. I go through the garbage."
"You don't have to." Jeremiah spoke quietly, trying to get his sincerity across to a kid who'd probably never had anyone in his life he could trust. "You've got good instincts. If you want a job at the paper, maybe there's something I can do. You'd have to start at the bottom of the ladder --"
"But seeing how I'm in the gutter now, that'd be a step or two up." He grinned suddenly, his gray eyes sparkling with self-deprecating humor. "You get used to the gutter, you know? After a while, you don't fit in anywhere else." He got to his feet, snagging two last fries. "I'll be in touch."
"You don't want to stay for dessert?"
"Nah. Mollie Lavender, Palm Beach. Cary Grant loose on the Gold Coast. You got it?"
Jeremiah might have had a hot knife twisting in his gut. "I've got it."
Eight hours later, Jeremiah sat in his beat-up, disreputable truck, his prize possession, outside the exclusive Greenaway Club in Boca Raton, just south of Palm Beach. His was the only pre-1990 vehicle -- never mind the only truck -- he'd seen in the last hour. This was the Florida Gold Coast, another world from the one he covered, and lived in, fifty miles to the south.
He had shocked the hell out of the Miami Tribune's gossip columnist when he surfaced in her office looking for information on tonight's goings-on up the coast. A classical dessert concert at the Greenaway had struck him as the most promising for Leonardo Pascarelli's goddaughter and a flute-player-turned-publicist.
He had not explained his interest. Helen Samuel, a million-year-old chain-smoking Trib fixture, had winked at him and said, "You don't have to explain, Tabak. I'll find out on my own."
She would, too, which was something Jeremiah refused to think about on the trip north, 95 clogged with tourists and locals enjoying the balmy winter Wednesday evening.
He had his windows rolled down. Orchestral music floated across the manicured lawn of a pink stucco mansion designed by society architect Addison Mizner in 1920 and now the posh Greenaway Club. The soft chords mingled with the sounds of crickets, ocean, and wind, creating a sense of luxury and relaxation that he resisted. This was not the Florida Jeremiah knew. His Florida was the Everglades outpost where he'd grown up with his widowed father, and it was the diverse, pulsing, sometimes violent, sometimes sublime streets of Miami. There were days when he wondered if south Florida should have been declared a national park a hundred years ago, its land left to the birds, the alligators, the panthers, the hurricanes. The bugs.
He had tried parking inside the tall wrought-iron fence. No dice. No ticket, no membership, no tuxedo, no proper press pass. Ugly truck. So, now he was parked outside the fence, enveloped with the smells of salt off the ocean, the palms and banyans and live oak, some particularly sweet, fragrant flower.
If not for Mollie Lavender, he'd be off stalking the criminal and the corrupt or at least home with a beer and a good ball game on the tube.
A dessert concert. Hell, he'd rather watch his turtle eat lettuce.
Which led him back to the main reason he'd told his twenty-year-old flute player he was unethical and not a man she should have trusted. He'd have told her anything she needed to believe in order to go back to her life of classical music and concerts. She couldn't get sucked into his world of crime, corruption, despair, and violence. He knew it, even if she didn't, at least not consciously, not then, at twenty, on her first ordinary spring break. He remembered watching her while she was asleep in her hotel bed and knowing he had only to ask her to stay and she would.
But he hadn't, and she'd returned to Boston, where she belonged.
It hadn't been an amicable parting. He'd let her believe he had deliberately used her to get his first front-page story. It was on drug use and drug dealing among college students on spring break, and it had helped launch his career as an investigative reporter. He had fallen for Mollie accidentally, unintentionally, without motive, while covering the story, not as a way into it. Acting on a tip about where the dealers were selling their stuff, he'd spread his blanket next to hers. At first he hadn't realized she was a college student. Her poise, her intelligence, her sense of humor, and her self-awareness distinguished her from the loud, fun-loving students who'd flocked to the beaches. Lunch led to dinner, and next thing, they were in bed together.
He'd told her he was a reporter, although not any details of the story he was working on. By its conclusion, he'd realized that the drug use and dealing had occurred right in front of her, and she'd been oblivious, not because she was naive, but because she was so intensely focused. Music was her life. Nothing else could get in. He had, for that week. She'd responded hungrily, gobbling up everything she could about him, the passion of sudden romance, the excitement and energy of everything they'd been together for those seven memorable days. But when they ended and she had to go back to her conservatory in Boston, Jeremiah felt an obligation to make sure she did.
Now she'd moved to south Florida, and Croc thought she was a jewel thief.
"It's a strange world," Jeremiah muttered, and climbed out of his truck, restless and not at ease with what he was doing.
He stood on the smooth, unpocked sidewalk, debating his next move. Knee-high impatiens in a half-dozen colors and squat, well-trimmed palms softened the imposing austerity of the iron fence. Inside the fence, strategically placed ground lights illuminated the sprawling lawn with its impeccable landscaping, and royal palms lined the long driveway to the main entrance. He supposed he could find a way inside if he put his mind to it. He received invitations and complimentary tickets to benefits, parties, and every manner of south Florida do on a regular basis. Unless it was a command appearance, he tossed them. He didn't like parties. He didn't like small talk. He didn't like the encroachment of celebrity status onto his role as a serious journalist.
And he didn't know if Mollie was even at this particular party on this particular night. She could be at Leonardo Pascarelli's practicing her flute, or working up copy for her astronaut-turned-pianist client.
He shut his eyes, his gut twisting, his mind flooding with the memory of a sweet, airy tune she'd played after they'd made love their last time, when she'd had no idea what was coming, when he refused even to fathom that what they'd had that week was anything that could last.
Two more minutes, he decided, and he was heading home.
He watched a dark, gleaming Jaguar roll through the gates ahead of the crowd. No, this wasn't his territory. The car stopped, the driver checking for oncoming traffic. He caught the toss of pale blond hair of the woman behind the wheel, then, as she turned in his direction, her face. The mouth, the straight nose, the high cheekbones.
His stomach knotted.
So Croc hadn't been kidding. She was in south Florida.
Jeremiah remembered eyes that were a clear blue with flecks of ice white, intelligent, cool, yet sparkling when she laughed. He stiffened, willing away the sudden surge of regret. Whatever had existed between Mollie and himself had been meant to last only a week.
The Jaguar turned up the street and sped off.
Jeremiah returned to his truck and quickly checked his watch. He would stand there for five minutes before he permitted himself to leave. Otherwise he might run into the Jaguar and be tempted to follow it.
In precisely four minutes and forty-two seconds, a police car arrived with fights flashing and went through the gates of the Greenaway Club.
Jeremiah gave a low whistle. He got on his phone and called the paper, had the desk check into why the Boca Raton police had just arrived at the Greenaway Club. He would hold. He stood outside his truck and waited, impatient, phone stuck to his ear, until he got his answer.
It looked as if a jewel thief had struck a dessert concert at the Greenaway.
"Well, well, well," Jeremiah said under his breath as he tossed the phone back into his truck. "Croc, my friend, you could be on to something."
And whatever it was, Mollie Lavender just could be in the thick of it.
Copyright © 1998 by Carla Neggers
Meet the Author
Carla Neggers is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 60 novels, novellas and short stories. Her work has been translated into 24 languages and sold in more than 30 countries. She is a popular speaker around the country as well as a founding member of the New England Chapter of RWA, past president of Novelists, Inc., and past vice president of International Thriller Writers. She and her husband live in a house on a hilltop not far from picturesque Quechee Gorge.
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