The odds are about a million to one. But after eleven years, P.I. Maria DiMarco jumps at the possibility that her brother might still be alive. And when she makes a wish on a rare pre-Christmas shooting star, well, it could be a sign. Logan Collier doesn't think so. Not that Maria should put her trust?or hope?in her ex-love, who long ago left her heart in pieces.
Yet here Logan is in Key West, helping Maria chase down leads and, like her, ...
The odds are about a million to one. But after eleven years, P.I. Maria DiMarco jumps at the possibility that her brother might still be alive. And when she makes a wish on a rare pre-Christmas shooting star, well, it could be a sign. Logan Collier doesn't think so. Not that Maria should put her trust—or hope—in her ex-love, who long ago left her heart in pieces.
Yet here Logan is in Key West, helping Maria chase down leads and, like her, trying—and failing—to ignore the attraction heating up between them. Even if her search takes her nowhere, Maria isn't giving up. Not on finding her brother or on a second chance with Logan.
While working as a newspaper sportswriter, Darlene Gardner realized she'd rather make up quotes than rely on an athlete to say something interesting. So she quit her job and concentrated on a fiction career that landed her at Harlequin/Silhouette, where she's written for Temptation, Duets and Intimate Moments as well as Superromance. Visit Darlene on the web at darlenegardner.com
Maria DiMarco stared down at the photo of her once vibrant brother, then back up at the woman who'd broken Mike's heart when he'd been barely eighteen.
"Why would you come here out of the blue and show me this?" Maria asked, a bite to her voice.
The angry question had barely escaped her lips when she caught sight of the glittering gold star on top of the Christmas tree in the corner of her office. In the season of goodwill toward men, she needed to keep better hold of her temper.
"Why wouldn't I come to you?" Caroline Webb asked. "You're a private investigator."
Caroline had been waiting outside her office door at the strip mall on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, when Maria returned from her appointments late that Monday afternoon. At first Maria hadn't been positive she recognized her. In a red coat that matched the stripes in the candy canes on the light poles and high-heeled black leather boots, Caroline looked more like a fashion model than the girl she remembered. Caroline had also lost weight, played down her Kentucky accent and was no longer a brunette but a blonde.
Maria handed back the photo. "Perhaps you'd better explain."
She shrugged out of her black pea coat and hung it on a hook next to the door. Bracing herself to talk about the brother who had died in the 9/11 terrorist attack, she flipped the switch that turned on the tree lights. The festive sight didn't stop the waves of sadness from washing over her.
"Can we sit down?" Caroline indicated the chairs flanking the desk at the back of the room. Perhaps she realized it would be tougher for Maria to get rid of her if she acted as though she'd come here with an appointment.
"After you," Maria said with a sweep of her hand.
Caroline took off her coat, too, revealing a long-sleeved green dress that hugged her slim figure. Above her left breast was a pin of a holly wreath, and she smelled of an expensive perfume. She took her time settling into one of the utilitarian chairs, then passed the photo over once more. Maria's black-haired, blue-eyed brother wasn't the only one in the picture. He had his left arm slung around a much-younger Caroline's shoulder. Mike was smiling. She was not.
"The photo's from senior year, a few days before Mike dropped out of high school and went to New York City." Caroline brushed her newly blond hair back from her face, calling attention to her expertly made-up eyes. "It came in the mail yesterday."
"Who sent it?" Maria asked.
"That's the thing. I don't know. There was no return address, no note." Caroline pulled something from the outside pocket of her leather handbag—Coach, as trendy as it was expensive—and held it out. "There was, however, a second photo."
The teenage Caroline was the only person pictured. It was a side view of her sitting on a bearskin rug beside a fireplace with her knees pulled to her chest, completely nude but with none of her private parts visible.
"Mike promised me he'd destroy that photo," she said, her voice a murmur.
"Obviously, he didn't." Maria couldn't imagine how the person who'd sent the photo had come into possession of it. However, she still didn't understand why Caroline was here. Did she want to hire Maria to make sure no other nude pictures of her surfaced? "Are there more?"
"No, just the one."
"As these kinds of photos go, this one's pretty mild," Maria said. "I suppose I could try to find out who sent it, but I don't see the point."
"I think I know who sent it," Caroline said, her voice steady. "I think it was Mike."
"What?" The word erupted from Maria. Pain lanced through her, strong enough to have felled her if she hadn't been sitting down. "You know that's impossible. Mike died at the World Trade Center."
Her visitor leaned forward in her chair, her gaze pinned to Maria's. "What if he didn't? What if he's still alive?"
Maria had clung tight to that hope after the terrorist attack. Mike had started working as a busboy at the Windows on the World restaurant only a few days before. She'd rationalized that he might not have shown up for work that day. As the days and the weeks and the months went by with no contact from him, however, she'd had to let go of the hope.
With as much calm as she could muster, she handed the two photos back. "I'd like you to leave now."
Caroline made no move to take them. "I haven't even told you yet why I think they're from Mike."
Maria reached for the other woman's cool hand and pressed the photos into it. "Somebody sent you the pictures as a prank, Caroline. I assure you it wasn't my dead brother."
"It wasn't only the pictures," Caroline said. "Mike called me, too."
Maria shook her head. "You've got a lot of nerve, coming in here and lying to me like this, especially eight days before Christmas."
"It's not a lie!"
"Oh, no? What did Mike do? Leave a message on your voice mail that he wasn't dead, after all?"
"You don't have to be sarcastic," Caroline said.
But she did. Even though eleven years had passed, the pain of losing her brother was still so raw Maria could barely stand it when someone mentioned his name. Of all the DiMarcos, he'd been the most like her, in both looks and temperament. That hadn't always been a good thing.
"What would you have me do?" she asked.
"Hear me out," Caroline said. "Can you at least do that?"
Maria's law enforcement training kicked in. She'd been a dispatcher and a police officer before she'd become a private investigator. She knew not to discount anything, no matter how preposterous, before hearing the entire story. She nodded once.
"Thank you." Caroline took an audible breath. "I got the first call about a week ago on my apartment phone. It was a man. He said in this whispery voice, 'I miss you, Caroline.' I asked who it was. 'How could you forget me?' he said, and hung up."
It sounded like a classic prank, although more insensitive and cruel than most. "What came up on your caller ID?"
"It said Wireless Caller but didn't give a name or number," she said. "I only picked up because Austin was asleep and I didn't want the ringing to wake him."
Maria's eyes dipped to Caroline's ring finger. The overhead light glinted off a pear-shaped diamond that appeared about two carats in size.
"Austin's my fiance," Caroline explained. "We're getting married on Valentine's Day."
Mike's impassioned voice insisting that Caroline would be his wife someday came to mind, along with her own, telling him he was being a fool. Maria couldn't bring herself to offer congratulations.
"Why did you leap to the conclusion the caller was Mike?" she asked.
"I didn't, not then," Caroline said. "After a while, I even started to forget about it. But then Saturday, the day the photos arrived, I got another call. I probably shouldn't have picked up, but I couldn't stop myself. It was the same man. Again he told me he missed me."
"Is that all he said?" Maria asked.
Caroline shook her head, her teeth worrying the red lipstick off her bottom lip. "I demanded to know who it was. He said it was Mickey. And that's when I thought it really might be Mike."
"Mickey?" Maria repeated.
"We took a shortcut through an alley once when we were in downtown Lexington. A mouse darted out from behind a Dumpster and Mike screamed," Caroline said.
"So I started calling him Mickey. You know, short for Mickey Mouse."
Maria refrained from saying she thought the nickname was mean-spirited. If she tallied up the transgressions Caroline had committed against Mike, that one might not even make the top five. Dumping him in the cafeteria in front of all his friends topped the list.
"I never heard anybody call him Mickey," Maria said.
"Nobody else did, only me, and only when we were alone," she stated. "You know how macho Mike was. He hated the nickname, because he didn't want anyone to know he was afraid of mice."
That sounded like Mike. He'd projected a tough-guy exterior that only those closest to him knew shielded a vulnerable heart. Maria could feel her own heart speeding up, thumping so hard she thought Caroline might hear it. "Are you sure nobody else knew about the nickname?"
Mike's remains had never been found. They'd never spoken to anyone who had seen him go into the World Trade Tower that day. They'd never buried him.
"Did the caller say anything else?" Maria asked.
"No," Caroline said. "He hung up. And Saturday I got the pictures in the mail, just like I told you."
Maria felt almost dizzy. That wouldn't do, not if she was going to get to the bottom of this. She tried to shut off her emotions and think like the private investigator she was. "Do you have the envelope the photos came in?"
"I do." Again Caroline dug into the side pocket of her handbag. "Here it is. And here's a printout of my phone record I got off the internet. I circled the two anonymous calls in red pen."
The envelope was plain and white, with what appeared to be a computer-generated typed address. Handwriting comparison, then, wasn't a possibility. There was no return address. The postmark was from last Wednesday in Key West, Florida.
Think, Maria, she commanded herself before looking back up at her visitor. "Does anyone you and Mike went to high school with live in Key West?"
"I don't think so," Caroline said.
Something to check out, Maria thought.
"How about Mike?" she asked. "Did he ever talk about going there?"
"I don't remember," Caroline said. "But I do remember the warmer the weather, the better he liked it."
That was true. Even during light snowfalls, about the only kind they got in Lexington, Mike had complained as though they were enduring blizzard conditions. The climate in Key West would appeal to him.
If he were alive. Oh, God, could her brother be alive?
Maria was holding Caroline's phone records. That was the place to start. She'd just finished a background check she was running for a client, leaving her free to unravel the mystery. She got up from the chair, went to her desk and picked up a pad and pen.
"After I look into where the phone calls came from, I'll be in touch," she said. "What's a number where I can reach you?"
Caroline crossed one long leg over the other. "I'd rather you didn't call me."
"I'll contact you." She tapped a manicured finger against her lips. "Here's the thing. I don't want my fiance to know about this. I don't want anything to interfere with the wedding."
"Why would it?"
"Austin's last name is Tolliver," she said. "His father, Samuel, is the former governor."
Caroline could have added that the family was rolling in cash. Maria seemed to remember the Tollivers had amassed their fortune from tobacco and horse racing. She recalled that Samuel Tolliver had provided the bulk of the financing for his campaign for governor.
"Austin's following in his father's footsteps. He's a state senator. This fall he's running for Congress. I can't take the risk the press will pick up on this story." For the third time, Caroline rummaged in her handbag. This time she pulled out a checkbook. "I can pay you."
To find her own brother? Maria's stomach turned over at the thought. "I don't want your money, Caroline." She was surprised her voice was even. "The question is, what do you want?"
"If Mike is alive," she said, her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed, "I just want him to leave me alone."
When Caroline was gone, Maria tried to call up the routine steps she took on missing person cases. She heard blood rushing in her ears. Her heart beat so fast she couldn't concentrate. After all this time, could Mike really be alive?
She got up from her chair and stepped outside, hoping the cool, fresh air would enable her to think more clearly. A chill ran through her and she hugged herself. At five-thirty, and almost the shortest day of year, it was already dark. A thin streak of light slashed through the sky.
A shooting star!
Shooting stars were magical, her mother had claimed when Maria was growing up. If you saw one before Christmas and wished upon it hard enough, she used to say, your wish would come true.
The only other time Maria had spotted a shooting star before the holidays, she'd wished for Rollerblades, and they'd appeared under the tree on Christmas morning.
What could it hurt?
She focused on the streaking light and wished with all her might.
Logan Collier laid the tall, bulky box containing the artificial Christmas tree against the stairs and positioned himself behind it.
"Need any help down there?" his mother called from the top of the steps.
"I've got it," he answered. "I just need you to move out of the way."
He shoved, inching the box a few steps at a time up the stairs until reaching the tile floor of the kitchen. Like the rest of the modest, two-bedroom house where his parents had lived for more than thirty years, the kitchen was big enough but just barely. It would be a tight squeeze to get the box past the table.
"Can you get it to the living room for me?" His mother was a warm, cheerful blonde who got way too into the spirit of the season. On her green sweatshirt, Santa jumped his reindeer-driven sleigh over a snowy rooftop.
Logan pushed, propelling the box across the tile floor, onto the carpeting in the living room and toward the spot where his mother always set up the tree. He'd been surprised not to see it decorated already when he'd come home last night from Manhattan, where he'd lived for the past twelve years since he'd graduated from college.
"Tell me again why we're putting up a tree two days before your trip." Logan wasn't out of breath, but neither was he breathing easy. He needed to take the time from his busy schedule to hit the gym more than just two or three times a week.
"We've got to make the most of what little time we have together, honey." She always called him that. In his early teens, it used to bug Logan until he'd found out she'd had two miscarriages before he was born and one afterward.
He ripped open the duct tape somebody—probably Dad—had used last year to bind the box, then pulled up the cardboard flaps to reveal the tree branches.
"You're trying to make me feel guilty about not spending Christmas with you and Dad, aren't you?" he asked.
"Maybe a little," his mother admitted.
"Not gonna work," Logan said. "Not when you'll both be cruising the Caribbean."
His parents would leave for the trip this Wednesday, six days before Christmas. Logan had made the travel arrangements to coincide with his own return to New York City.
"If you didn't feel guilty, honey, you wouldn't have bought us the tickets." Mom stood back while he set up the base of the tree and got the lower portion in place. "You don't have to keep treating us to trips, you know."
Actually, he did. Because his mother had battled diabetes and other health problems for years, his parents had made do on his father's salary while Logan was growing up. Dad earned enough as a forklift operator in a warehouse to cover necessities but not extras. In recent years Mom had been healthy enough to work part-time as a cashier at a grocery store, but Logan had a sense they still struggled.
"Don't take away my fun, Mom," he said. "I like treating you."
"Then I don't understand why you can't come with us," she retorted.