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By JoAnn Ross Isabel Sharpe
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFORCING HERSELF TO IGNORE the thousands of hot needles pricking her legs, Jessica O'Neill reminded herself that pain was all in the mind. The fact that her thighs felt as if they were on fire was merely a temporary mental aberration. While Jessica had been repeating that axiom for the last four blocks, the words were beginning to ring false, even to her own ears.
Only a fool took up jogging on San Francisco's hilly streets, she considered, urging her weary body back to her Haight Ashbury town house. Or a masochist. Jessica decided she was probably a little of both. She dragged herself up the concrete steps and leaned against the bright blue siding, gasping for breath. Just then she heard the telephone ring. And ring. And ring.
"For Pete's sake," she muttered, flinging open the screen door, "you'd think someone could answer the damn phone."
Her rubbery legs proved scant support, and intent on reaching the telephone, Jessica failed to notice the matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage in the foyer. She tripped, sprawling ignominiously over the oak flooring. The strident demand of the telephone was unceasing, and giving up on walking for the moment, Jessica crawled the rest of the way into the front parlor of her Victorian home.
"Jill," she shouted upstairs to her eldest daughter, "turn down that music! Hello?" she got out, lying on her back, gasping like a grounded trout, her breath stirring her unruly auburn bangs. The room was suddenly bathed in a brilliant light as an eleven-year-old girl aimed a video camera at her.
"Knock it off," Jessica snapped, scowling into the camera lens.
There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. "Are you talking to me?" a hesitant female voice finally asked.
Jessica was still waving her hand at the whirring camera. "No, not at all.... Mallory Anne O'Neill, get out of here," she hissed at the aspiring cinematographer.
The caller's voice was a frantic combination of a screech and a sob. "You have to do something!"
Now what? Jessica sighed as she struggled to a sitting position. "Jill!" she shouted again, covering the mouthpiece with her palm before returning to her hysterical client. "Mrs. Thacker? What's the problem?"
"It's Keith!" the woman wailed.
Vowing never to handle divorce cases once her law career was established, Jessica closed her eyes, garnering strength to continue this conversation. "What's he done now?"
"I can't believe it! Mrs. O'Neill, I want that man arrested. Right now!"
"Mrs. Thacker," Jessica crooned in a calm, authoritative voice, "why don't you take a deep breath and start at the beginning?"
A sound like a steam engine came across the line as the woman obviously followed Jessica's advice. "It's my Mercedes," she said finally in a voice that cracked slightly, but was at least understandable.
"He had it stolen," Jessica guessed.
She was at her wit's end with the antics of Mr. and Mrs.
Thacker. Jessica empathized with her client - what discarded ex-wife wouldn't - but the term "civilized divorce" was obviously not in the Thackers' vocabulary.
"I only wish he had," Sylvia Thacker wailed, her voice high enough to shatter glass. "Then at least it would still be in one piece.... The bastard cut it in half. With a hacksaw!"
"A hacksaw?" Jessica arched an auburn brow. "Is that even possible?"
"He left the saw behind. Shall I call the police?"
"Let me handle it," Jessica suggested. "I'm certain if I contact your husband's attorney, we can settle this without pressing charges."
"I'd rather see the creep in jail," the woman muttered.
"I'm certain you would. But if we press charges for this act of vandalism, you may end up behind bars yourself. He could always countersue for your little display of temper last week."
The tears stopped abruptly as Jessica's client recovered her poise. "I thought you were supposed to be on my side, Mrs. O'Neill. Mr. Bennington assured me that you were quite capable of handling my divorce."
The threat was sheathed in silk, but Jessica recognized it for what it was. Mrs. Sylvia Thacker nee Montgomery, came from one of San Francisco's oldest families. One suggestion to the head of Bennington, Marston, White and Lowell that the newest member of the firm was not treating a valued client with due respect and Jessica would be lucky to end up working in the public defender's office.
"Of course I'm on your side," she said quickly. "And if you're certain you'll be all right, I'll hang up now and contact your husband's attorney immediately."
"Tell him that if I catch that worm of an ex-husband on my property, I'm going to shoot first and ask questions later," Sylvia Thacker warned.
"Please don't do that, Mrs. Thacker. I'm sure we can all come to an amicable settlement."
"Terrific. Now I've got Pollyanna representing me," the woman muttered as she hung up the phone.
Jessica went onto her knees, riffling through her Roledex on the cluttered desk top. "Marston ... Martin ... Masterson. Quinn Masterson, you'd better still be in your office," she mumbled, knowing it to be a long shot. It was past seven o'clock, and if the man's reputation was halfway warranted, he usually spent his evenings in far more pleasurable pursuits than working on legal briefs.
His answering service confirmed Jessica's suspicions. The woman agreed to try to get a message to Mr. Masterson, but her bored tone didn't give Jessica a great deal of confidence. She was debating what to do next when her eye caught an invitation she'd glanced at and dismissed several weeks ago. The San Francisco Committee for the Preservation of the Arts was having a fund raising ball at the Fairmont Hotel. The chairman of the ball was none other than Quinn Masterson. As Jessica read the date on the invitation, she decided her luck was looking up.
"Mrs. Thacker's having trouble with her husband again, right?" The youthful voice cut through her musings.
In the midst of her client's problem, Jessica had forgotten all about the video camera still trained on her. "Put that thing down," she instructed firmly. "I'm getting sick and tired of living in a goldfish bowl."
Blue eyes as wide and vivid as Jessica's held her mother's stern gaze with implacable purpose. "It's my class project. Do you want me to fail?"
"I want you to find another project," Jessica snapped.
"Whatever happened to rock collections? Or Styrofoam models of the moon?"
"I'm doing a sociological study of a family in transition," Mallory O'Neill stated resolutely. "You'll love it."
"I doubt that, since I already hate it," Jessica countered, raising her voice to be heard over the throbbing beat of rock music. "Jill," she called, going in search of her eldest daughter. "I'm going out."
Jessica followed the sound to the upstairs bedroom shared by two of her three daughters where she found her thirteen-year-old lipsyncing to the latest Cyndi Lauper record.
"Hey!" Jill protested as Jessica lifted the needle. "I'm rehearsing for Mallory's movie!"
Excerpted from Windfall by JoAnn Ross Isabel Sharpe Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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