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At the woman's voice, Jake paused to look around. It was noon, and the first sunny day after two days of rain, so even a small park like this one was busy. Half the benches beneath the trees were already occupied by people eating their lunches. A pair of men in suits brushed past him, using the sidewalk to cut through to the next street. That's where Jake had been headed, with the intention of hitting the corner diner and adding a nice, greasy burger to the three cups of coffee that had been his breakfast. He shaded his eyes against the sun, trying to see who had called him.
It didn't take any special detective skills to spot her. With her wide-brimmed yellow straw hat, neon pink blouse and billowing, yellow and pink flower-splotched skirt, she would stand out in any crowd.
The fact that she waved at him helped, too.
Jake rested both hands on his cane and studied her as she approached. She moved with the grace of a dancer, her long limbs slender and in perfect proportion to her height. He estimated she was only a couple of inches short of six feet, another reason she stood out among the lunching locals. And the closer she got, the more striking she looked.
No, striking was an understatement. This woman was a knockout. Absolutely beautiful.
And she looked familiar.
That didn't make sense. He was certain he had never met her before. He would have remembered if he hadany man who possessed a pulse would remember meeting this womanyet he felt an unmistakable tickle of recognition.
"Mr. McMasters?" she repeated, stopping in front of him.
He nodded. "That's me."
"I apologize for chasing you down like this. I hadn'trealized you closed your office for lunch. I meant to be there earlier but I was held up and by the time I got here it was already twelve and I must have just missed you. I was going back to my car when I guessed that must be you crossing the park and" She stopped talking and pressed her palm flat against her midriff. She breathed deeply a few times before she extended her hand and smiled. "Sorry for rambling. Let me start over. I'm Becky Peters."
It didn't seem possible, but that smile made her look even more beautiful. It involved every part of her face, turning features that were already perfect into a harmony of what? Honesty? Friendliness?
He was jumping to conclusions about her character. Aside from her outward appearance, he knew nothing about her. Realizing he was staring, he clasped the hand she offered.
And he was jarred by another round of recognition. Not from her name, but from her touch.
Her eyes were a warm, smoky blue. It was a memorable color, a shade that reminded him of a summer horizon at dusk. They widened slightly, as if she felt the same odd tickle from the contact of their palms that he did.
This was getting stranger by the minute. Jake leaned forward. "Miss Peters, have we met before?"
"No." The word came out rough. She cleared her throat. "No, we haven't met."
"Then how did you know who I was?"
"Mostly it was a lucky guess. I also asked my friend about you before I decided to come."
He returned his hand to his cane. Right. Sometimes he forgot about his most distinguishing characteristic. "I see. Is your friend a client of mine?"
"Not really." She looked past him. "You must have been on your way someplace. I hate to hold you up but I have to be at work later this afternoon, so would you mind if we talked now?"
His stomach did a little roll to remind him about the burger he'd promised it. He could ignore his hunger, but he couldn't afford to ignore potential business so he led the way to a vacant bench in the shade of a chestnut tree. He waited until the woman sat, then settled at an angle beside her, leaned his cane against the seat and stretched out his left leg. "It's lucky you caught up with me. Most days my work takes me out in the field. The only sure way to catch me in my office is to make an appointment."
"Of course. I should have guessed that a private investigator would be out, well, investigating."
"You must be anxious to employ my services."
"You have no idea." She took off her sun hat and laid it on her lap. "I've been waiting most of my life for this opportunity."
Jake allowed himself a few seconds to admire her hair. It was light brown, with streaks the color of honey. It flowed over her shoulders in lush waves, enough for a man to wrap around his fingers He shifted on the bench to take his notebook from his pants pocket. "Which is?"
"Mr. McMasters, I want to find out who I am."
That makes two of us, he thought, pulling the stub of his pencil from the notebook's spiral binding. The sense of familiarity was growing with each moment that passed. The name Peters didn't ring a bell. Maybe he'd known her under a different one. He checked her left hand but there was no wedding ring in sight. No tan line from one, either. "Perhaps you could explain further, Miss Peters."
"I was adopted. I tried to find my birth parents for years, but there aren't any official records of my adoption."
"And you want me to try my luck?"
"Yes. Well, there's more to it. I heard that you were already looking into the Gina Grosso case."
Not another one!
Jake scribbled a few words in his notebook to give himself a chance to cover his disappointment. Becky Peters hadn't struck him as a crank. But that could be because he hadn't been exactly objective in his assessment of her so far.
So she thought she was Gina Grosso? Well, welcome to the club. Forty-two women who claimed to be Gina had shown up at Jake's office since the story had gone public, but none of them had proven to be legitimate possibilities. They'd had various motives for making the claim. Some wanted a share of the Grossos' money, some wanted to bask in their fame. Who could blame them? The Grosso family was NASCAR royalty, which gave them star status here in Charlotte.
It hadn't always been that way. Thirty-one years ago, Dean and Patsy Grosso had been a pair of teenagers living on love and dreams of NASCAR glory. Patsy had given birth to twins at a Nashville hospital, a boy and a girl they named Kent and Gina, but the girl was abducted from the hospital nursery, supposedly by a ring that sold babies through private adoptions. All indications at the time had led the police to believe the infant had died, but a few months ago someone had started blogging about the incident, claiming that Gina Grosso was still alive.
Sometimes hope could be cruel, but false hope could be even worse. It was always better to know the truth. That was why Jake had agreed to take the case when his cousin Patsy had asked him, even though the FBI were looking into it, too. The Grosso family deserved to know what had really happened to their child.
Jake doubted whether the forty-two women he'd already met who'd thought they were Gina would have been so eager to claim a connection if Dean and Patsy had been anyone else. He flicked his pencil between his fingers and returned his gaze to the woman beside him. "Miss Peters, why do you believe you might be the missing Gina Grosso?"
She pressed her lips together, as if unsure how to proceed. Jake waited her out. When she did speak, her tone was hesitant. "I have no way of knowing for sure, but I honestly believe it's a possibility. I've thought about it since the story came out, but it seemed so tabloid, I didn't want to say anything at first or I'd look like a crank."
Well, at least she was realistic. "You evidently changed your mind."
"Yes. That's why I came to you. Tara said that you've been checking out the information she gave you and that a lot of the facts that have been posted about Gina matches me."
"Tara Dalton, the friend I mentioned earlier."
That got his attention. Tara was a journalist who was writing a book about the prominent NASCAR families. She had come across the story about the missing Gina during the course of her research, and she was the one who had first alerted the family to the possibility that Gina might still be alive. She'd cooperated completely with Jake's investigation and had readily shared her source. Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to identify the anonymous blogger who was posting the information. The FBI had more clout than him when it came to tracking someone through cyberspace.
All right, he'd call Tara later. If she could vouch for her friend, maybe this woman wasn't like the others. "Tell me about these facts that you think may match."
"My blood type is B positive."
The blogger claimed that Gina's blood type was B positive, which was the same as Patsy Grosso's. Though the baby hadn't been tested before she'd been abducted, there was a good chance she shared her mother's type. "I hope you're aware that you have that in common with almost ten percent of the U.S. population," Jake pointed out.
"I was adopted as an infant the same summer that Gina went missing."
Score two more. "Go on."
"My father used to be a mechanic on a NASCAR team. My parents would have been in Nashville for a race the weekend Gina was abducted."
This time the notes he scribbled were real. "What are your adoptive parents' names?"
"Floyd and Lizzie Peters. My mother died sixteen years ago and my father moved to Australia after he remarried. He lives in Melbourne."
Her words were matter-of-fact, but Jake could hear the effort that took. It sounded as if she still missed her parents. Was that one of her reasons for hoping to find another set? "You said there were no records of your adoption?"
"No, none. When I first tried to find my birth parents, my adoptive parents were dead set against it. I'd assumed they were just sensitive about the adoption issue, and I didn't want to upset them, so I stopped looking."
He studied her openly. Her eyes were blue like Patsy Grosso's, although a bit brighter. Apart from the streaks in her hair, its color was similar to Patsy's, too. She was taller than either Dean or Patsy, but not as tall as Kent, Gina's twin. Taken individually, none of her facial features were exact copies of those of the Grossos, yet there was still that sense of familiarity about her
Was that what he had felt when he'd first seen her? Maybe his subconscious had picked up on an overall family resemblance, and it had made him think he'd recognized her.
Or maybe lack of nourishment was causing him to imagine things.
Either way, it was his job to investigate every claim. "Could you give me a number where I can reach you, Miss Peters? And your father's number in Melbourne, if you have it with you?"
"It's in my directory," she said, pulling her phone from a pocket in the side of her skirt. She read out her father's number, then gave him both her cell and her home numbers. "Does this mean you're going to look into this for me?"
"I'll follow up on some things and get back to you in a few days. How's that?"
Her face moved into another smile. This one wasn't as broad as the first, yet it seemed even more genuine. "Oh, that's wonderful. Thank you so much."
She sure didn't look like a gold-digging crank. Her eyes shone with an eagerness that she didn't try to hide. And beneath her very grown-up beauty, she carried a hint of vulnerability, almost like
Like a lost child searching for her way home.
That intrigued him. It also served to remind him of how young she was. He returned his notebook to his pocket, retrieved his cane and stood. "No problem. It's what the Grossos are paying me for."
She rose to her feet gracefully. Still smiling, she stepped toward him, bringing herself into his personal space. She was close enough for him to catch her scent. Gardenias. Lush, soft and feminine. And definitely not childlike.
His nostrils flared, but otherwise he remained motionless. Even though he knew that his brain had to be addled from hunger, it looked for all the world as if she were about to put her arms around him.
Her eyes widened, just as they had when he'd taken her hand, only they weren't touching each other this time. Not yet, anyway. But all he needed to do was lean toward her
She stepped back fast, narrowly missing the front wheels of a baby carriage that a woman was pushing along the sidewalk. She apologized for the near collision, placed her sun hat on her head and continued to back away. Her cheeks reddened. "Uh, thanks again, Mr. McMasters."
Keep it casual, he told himself. She couldn't really have meant to hug him, could she? As a rule, gorgeous thirty-one-year-old women didn't go around throwing themselves at middle-aged men they had just met. At high noon in a public park. His blood sugar must be tanking. He lifted his free hand to his forehead in a two-fingered salute. "Miss Peters."
She turned and crossed the park. Her yellow hat, pink blouse and flowered skirt flashed in the sunshine like a parting smile. Once she reached the street, she headed for the row of parked cars in front of the building that housed his office. She didn't look back as she folded her tall frame into a red compact, for which Jake was grateful. He didn't want her to notice that he was still standing in the same spot where she'd left him and watching her like some pathetic, abandoned dog.
"Man, you need that burger," he muttered, turning away. He crossed the road and headed for the diner on the corner. Barely halfway there, he stopped dead and looked behind him. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of Becky Peters in the window of the clothing store he'd just passed.
That was impossible. He'd watched her get into a car on the next block. He retraced his steps anyway, needing to prove to himself he wasn't going insane.
No one was in the window, not even mannequins. The space was filled with glossy, life-size posters that hung like banners from the ceiling of the display space. The posters were all the same. They advertised jeans. And in the center of each one, a woman posed half turned away, with her hands on her hips and her long, honey-streaked hair flowing past her shoulders. Her eyes were the smoky blue of a summer horizon, and they sparkled in an eagerand familiarsmile. It was Becky Peters, all glammed up and more striking than ever.