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The full-on chaos of San Francisco's Union Square on Friday night surrounded Garrett Berringer as he walked down the concrete steps of the Westin St. Francis. A warm November breeze blew through the city, and he hadn't bothered with a coat. People hurried by as he stood, taking it all in.
The flight from Philadelphia had been uneventful and long. Tonight, there was time to relax before spending all of Saturday at a friend's wedding. Ed was an old friend from college, and he'd been one of the ushers at Garrett's wedding.
A trolley packed with tourists rolled by. The grinding sound of the wheels on the tracks was much louder than he'd imagined, and not nearly as romantic as it came across in the movies. Across the street, people in the square were setting up for a weekend art festival. Onlookers milled around, standing in line at a small cafe located in the center of the square by the bronze statue of the Goddess of Victory.
Garrett's eye was drawn to two huge painted hearts that were poised on either side of the square, one beneath a towering palm tree. The palm trees, he'd read, were not native to the city, but brought in and planted at significant cost. The hearts were the city's ornamental symbol.
A young couple embraced in front of one of the hearts while someone snapped a picture of them. Garrett's heart experienced a slight pinch. He hadn't left his heart in San Francisco, but part of it was back on the east coast, where his late wife, Lainey, had diedor rather, where she had been killed. They'd been married for six years when it happened, and now she'd been gone equally long. A strange kind of circle, he thought. They'd married young, their future full of so much promise, all destroyed in one instant.
Lainey, a junior state prosecutor, had been working her first big casea murder trial against a local gang member. She'd been so excited about it all. After earning her guilty verdict, she'd been on her way to meet Garrett and his family for a celebration. However, the brother of the convicted killer had waited for her to leave court, following her in his SuV.
All prosecutors received threats now and then, but there had been none during the trial. There was no reason to think she was in specific danger. Or so Garrett told himself, thousands of times when agonizing about not having picked her up that day. The crash would still have happened, but so many times he'd wished he'd been with her.
The gang member's brother had broad-sided her at full speed, killing her instantly. Garrett supposed he'd hoped to make it look like an accident, hoping to walk away, but he'd been seriously injured as well. Garrett waited until he was released from the hospital and testified at his trial. Both brothers ended up convicted to life sentences. Garrett had attended their trials and planned to attend any probation hearings to make sure they never went free.
Suddenly, the palm trees, the people, the colorful hearts, all made him a little homesick for life back east. He'd thought he'd wanted to leave it all behind. Cold, dark days and the impending holiday. Only seven days away, Thanksgiving was always a stark reminder in itself. The crash had happened a few days before the holiday. Had he really thought he could outrun the memory by traveling across the country, changing the scenery?
Turning away from the couple and the hearts, he stepped out to cross traffic. He'd let his grief go, thankful for what he'd once had with his young wife, but sometimes he wondered if he would ever meet anyone as right for him as Lainey had been. In six years, he'd had no significant click with any woman he spent time with. Sex, a few dates, but no click.
He'd met her when he was studying business management in college; he also had a minor in criminal justice. He'd been thinking about following in her footsteps and attending law school. After her death, he'd thrown himself into creating the bodyguard businessBerringer Bodyguardswith his brother Jonas, who had quit the Philadelphia police force around the same time. He couldn't save Lainey, but he had saved many others since.
Garrett had always enjoyed that he and Lainey had similar sensibilities and goals, the same appreciation for organization and a quiet life. They were both practical thinkers and rarely fought. Those were qualities that now made him feel antiquated, even at a youthful thirty-six years old. Stepping back, a young man with orange hair zipped by him on a skateboard, and Garrett smiled at the timing.
Garrett hadn't taken time away from the business since the funeral, as his brothers frequently pointed out. Who needed time off? What was he going to do with it? He had weekends and evenings to fish, spend some time with family. He was a simple, basic man.
Finally, though, vacation was thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. Jonas had taken off on a holiday trip with his new wife, Tessa. They'd barely returned from their honeymoon when they were off again with her father to spend a few weeks in Europe over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Garrett couldn't be more thrilled for his brother, but some parts of the wedding had been difficult. Dancing with Tessa in her gorgeous dress made him recall dancing with Lainey on their special day, and he'd been happy to escape afterward. He knew his real fear, down deep, was wondering if there ever would be anyone else for him again. Maybe he'd had his shot at happiness.
If so, he'd live with that. He would do it all over again, even if it ended the same way, he assured himself.
About to gently decline flowers from a street person attempting a sale, he gave in and bought the thatch of daisies that looked like they had seen better days, too, then stood looking down at them, feeling ridiculous.
What the heck was he going to do with a bunch of daisies?
Chance, his youngest brother, had been itching to go on a survivalist training trip that was only offered for the month of November. Their parents were off to Florida, their first year as "snowbirds," escaping the cold winter to live in the Florida sun. Ely had taken off with a bunch of old military friends for a wild vacation somewhere, so they'd decided to close the business through the New Year.
When Garrett had gotten the invitation to the wedding, it seemed like a better choice than haunting around Philly with too much time on his hands or following his parents to Florida.
He walked down a few blocks and turned left, remembering the general directions the concierge had given him to get to Chinatown. The daisies swung at his side, gripped tightly in his hand, all but forgotten as he walked on, pondering his evening.
Later he could grab some dinner and go back to his room to read or look through brochures and maps, planning for what he'd do over the next month.
As he passed small shops loaded with all kinds of Asian items, he saw a beautiful, hand-carved garden statue that he knew Tessa would love for the window of the soaps and lotions shop that she owned back in Philly. A late wedding present, as he hadn't been sure what to buy at the time. This would be perfect. Garrett turned into the store to ask about it when his cell phone rang.
"Garrett," he answered absently, still studying the ornate fountain, looking for a price tag.
"Gar, my man! You're here?"
It was Ed, and Garrett smiled at his friend's familiar, boisterous tone. "Yep. Walking through Chinatown as we speak. How are you doing on your last night as a single man?"
"Happy to leave it behind," Ed said. "I can't wait for you to meet Isabel."
"I'm looking forward to it."
"You have plans for tonight?"
"Nothing much. Just unwinding from the flight and hanging out."
"Um, would you be interested in coming to the rehearsal dinner?"
Garrett squinted, looking down at the daisies, which were starting to look a little wilted. How to gracefully decline?
Ed was only being polite since Garrett was in town alone, he was sure. Garrett had often encountered the same from well-meaning friends since becoming a widower. He appreciated the intention, though it was unnecessary. He didn't mind being alone; he'd more or less gotten used to it.
"Isn't that for people in the wedding party?" he hedged, pointing out the obvious.
"Um, well, that's kind of the other reason I'm calling. I need a favor."
"Sure, shoot." Garrett offered, assuming it might be a simple thing, like picking up more film.
"Isabel's cousin, one of our ushers, has food poisoning. It's bad, and he's in the hospital for the next few days."
"Sorry to hear it."
"Thanks. But we're down one usher the night before the wedding "
Garrett's warning bells rang a second too late.
" and we were hoping you could take his place."
Words deserted him for the moment, so Ed quickly filled in the silence.
"I know. I didn't ask you to stand up for us in the first place because I didn't want to make you feel obligated to come out here. And I know things are busy, with the business, and everything else."
Garrett knew "everything else" was the fact that he was a widower.
"I completely understand if you can't do it, bud. I'm happy that you're even here."
Garrett took a deep breath, releasing it. "It's just, I well, I don't have a tux, right? Or, anything " he finished lamely, knowing his goose was cooked. How could he say no when Ed needed him?
"Not a problem. Jimmy's around your size, if I recall, and his tux could probably be fit to you pretty quickly, if we can get to the tailor early tomorrow."
"Oh, well, that's good, then," he said with false brightness, running a hand through his hair and wishing he could think of some way to get out of this, but he couldn't. He'd been totally caught off guard.
"I'll owe you, Gar. Isabel was freaking out. I told her two girls could be escorted by one of the other ushers, but she was upset about pictures being out of balance or whatever," Ed said, the familiar male tone making Gar-rett smile.
He remembered how frantic Lainey had been in the days before their wedding, too, even though theirs had been a small one. Things like how pictures looked or what people wore were important, at least to the brides. He sighed, accepting his fate.
"It's my pleasure. How do I get there?"
"I have a car on its way to pick you up outside the hotel."
Garrett had to laugh out loud at Ed's characteristic brashness. "I'll be there, but your driver will have to wait for me to change. I'm not exactly dressed for a rehearsal dinner at the moment."
"It's pretty casual tonight, so don't worry about that. Just hop in and come. In fact, if you let me know where you are, I'll have them come to you."
"Thanks, Ed." He clicked the phone off after telling him the name of the shop. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, Garrett thought, trying to convince himself while keeping an eye out for the car and kissing his restful night alone goodbye.
Tiffany Walker looked at her watch and tried to avoid wrinkling her dress too badly as she twisted to focus her 35-millimeter lens on the hotel window. The camera was eleven years olda high-school graduation giftfrom when she was sure she wanted to study to be a professional photographer. It was a high-quality piece of equipment that she had, at the time, imagined using to frame brilliant nature shots that would appear in national magazines, or maybe using it among the throng of photographers on a fashion runway.
Never in a million years had she imagined using it to get the money shot of a cheating spouse at a seedy hotel in a San Francisco neighborhood she didn't normally visit. This was her third attempt before her client had threatened not to pay if she didn't come up with something Mrs. Hooper could use to nail her philandering husband. At this point, all she had were pictures of Mr. Hooper entering the hotel, and the length of a female arm holding the door open for him. Not very incriminating.
The pay was minimal; what Tiffany was more worried about was the ding to her fledgling reputation as a private investigator. It was competitive, and there were dozens of P.I.s more experienced than she was in the area. She'd found one agency so overbooked that they'd decided to throw her the few bones they tossed out. She'd only gotten her license the month before, after completing her online certification, and this was her second job.
Much like the bent trajectory of her photography ambitions, this wasn't exactly what she wanted to do as a private investigatorshe wanted to solve cases, murders and other important, life-changing crimes. But everyone had to start somewhere.
Marcus Hooper was definitely cheating on his wife. Tiffany had seen him come to this hotel several times now, and had seen a woman's hand on the door as she let Marcus in. But after that, they were out of view. The woman never stepped outside the door. What Tiffany knew and what she could prove were two different things. She'd taken all of the makes of cars and plate numbers from the lot, looking for repeats that she might track down to the woman in the room, but she must have taken a caba theory Tiffany was currently pursuing. Unsuccessfully. Cab companies were difficult to penetrate, let alone getting any one particular cabbie to talk. But she didn't need to know who the woman wasall she needed to do was catch Mr. Hooper in a compromising moment. Let him explain who it was to his wife and her lawyer.
Looking at her watch again, Tiffany groaned in frustration. The rehearsal dinner was tonight, and she had to be on time. As the lights clicked off up in Marcus's hotel room, she mentally calculated how long she had to spend on wedding responsibilities. No more than three hours.
If she was lucky, maybe Marcus would be here longer than that, and she could come back and finish the job. Maybe it was time to get a little more creative, pretend to be room servicewait, no, this place didn't have room service. But she could come up with some ruse to get him to open that door, and if she was standing right there, maybe she could get the shot and run.
It was risky, but she had to make this work. Good detectives did whatever they had to do to get the job done. She couldn't fail, not again.