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Carlotta Wren bumped her cast against the door frame leading from the kitchen to the living room. "Son of a
" She bit back tears as pain lit up her entire left arm. Although she was lucky the fall from the balcony of the Fox Theater hadn't resulted in more serious physical injuries, the prospect of another four weeks in this clumsy cast left her frustrated and antsy.
It wasn't enough that she couldn't do her job at Neiman Marcus at a time when she desperately needed the money (short-term disability paid only partial wages). But yesterday when Peter Ashford had brought her home from the hospital, he'd shown her a ring he'd had made for herher Cartier engagement ring, which he'd recovered from the shop where she'd pawned it, with two more large diamonds mounted, on either side of the original stone. The past, the present and the future. He would keep it for her, he'd said, until she was ready to make a decision.
And on top of everything else, her brother, Wesley, was missing.
Wesley was supposed to have picked her up at the hospital yesterday in a taxi, and when he hadn't shown, his boss, Cooper Craft, had offered to go look for him. As of last night, Coop hadn't found Wesley, but Carlotta was hopeful that her brother would turn up this morning. He'd come strolling into the house, whistling, with a mouse in a jar to feed his snake, Einstein, oblivious to the fact that Carlotta had barely slept last night, worrying about him
Worrying about Wesley seemed to be her fate in life. She'd raised him since he was nine years old, when their parents had skipped town so their father could elude charges for investment fraud. Over the past decade, they'd heard from their parents only through a handful of postcards
When a look-alike had stolen her identity and been murdered, Carlotta had agreed to fake her own death. The D.A. wanted to try to smoke out her parents and in exchange, they'd offered to suspend Wesley's probation for hacking into the courthouse computer records. But Kelvin Lucas, the D.A. who'd been denied the chance to prosecute her father, Randolph Wren, had reneged on his deal when her parents hadn't shown.
After Carlotta had alienated Wesley for going along with the plan.
After she'd put her friends and coworkers through the traumatic ordeal of thinking her dead.
And after she'd slept with Detective Jack Terry, her temporary live-in bodyguard.
What no one knew was that Carlotta's father had shown up, in disguise, and he'd recognized her, even though she was also in disguise. She hadn't known it was him until later, when she'd found the note he'd slipped into her pocket: "So proud of you both. See you soon. Dad"
The scrawled words left her conflicted. During her parents' long absence, Carlotta had worked up a powerful resentment. Sometimes, she even cheerfully hated them. Leaving without saying goodbye. Leaving her to finish raising Wesley when she was just a few months shy of graduating high school and barely equipped to take care of herself. Leaving no money, only a paid-for town house in a transitional section of Atlanta that was a far cry from the palatial home in Buckhead that they had lost.
College had no longer been an option. The only real expertise she'd had was
clothes. Her father had been a wealthy investment broker; Carlotta had worn nothing but the best since she could dress herself. Thankfully, she'd been able to turn that dubious skill into a career in retail. She'd been a top salesperson for most of her years at Neiman's
until lately, when her life had seemingly exploded with complications and new relationships.
And old ones.
"Did shithead make it home yet?"
Carlotta turned to see her friend Hannah Kizer standing there, hands on hips. Dressed in pink pj's with white bunny rabbits and without her severe goth makeup, Hannah looked almost humanpretty, even.
"Have you heard from Coop?"
"Don't worry. Wesley can take care of himself, whether you want to admit it or not."
"I wish you were right, but history has taught me otherwise."
"How's the arm?"
"Getting dressed is an aerobic workout. Thank heaven for front-closure bras."
"Yeah, I had a broken arm once. Men wanted to jump in bed with me. I guess it made me seem vulnerable or something."
"Or less likely to eat your prey?"
Hannah gave her the finger, then dropped onto the couch, picked up the remote control and turned on the small TV When the picture came on, it was warped. "What happened to your big-screen TV?"
Carlotta sat next to her friend and pointed to the living room window, still covered with the boards the police had tacked in place. "Taken out during the drive-by shooting. I'm waiting for a new window to be delivered and installed, but we can't afford to replace the TV. Wesley shouldn't have bought it, anyway," she grumbled. "We could've used that money for other things."
Like paying toward what he owed his odious loan sharks, Father Thom and The Carver. Or paying down their credit card debt, which had ballooned in size since her identity had been stolen. Or catching up their loan payments, or any one of a hundred other bills they were late on.
Wesley said he'd sold his motorcycle to buy the TV, but she knew the television had cost more than his bike was worth. She figured he'd been gambling again, despite his claims to her that he'd stopped.
She turned her head to look at her friend. "Where could he be?"
"A thousand safe places," Hannah assured her.
"Or a thousand unsafe places. Those thugs for The Carver who tried to force me into their van the other day said that Wesley had pulled a stupid stunt and was in big trouble. What if they kidnapped him?"
"Look on the bright sidehis loan sharks probably won't kill him because they want to collect their money."
Carlotta glared at her.
Hannah's smile fell. "Sorry. Just trying to lift the mood." She flipped channels past the midmorning game shows, and stopped on a local talk show, Atlanta & Company, where local celebutante KiKi Deerling was being interviewed in all her silky blond, micro-mini glory, snuggling her pet pug on her lap. It was the guilty pleasure that Carlotta needed to take her mind off Wesley.
But a minute into the interview, Hannah scoffed, "Give me a break. This girl is only famous for being famous. She's a total poser."
Carlotta nodded, but nursed a little pang of envy toward the young woman who had inherited beauty, money and a last name that adorned a jewelry empire headquartered in Atlanta. "It would be fun to live her life for a day, though. No worries, just party after party."
She gave Hannah a pointed look. "For once, we wouldn't have to crash."
"That girl is a waste of human skin. You'd think with all that cash she'd buy some underwear. I've seen her twat more than my own."
"Thanks for the wholesome image."
"And you'd think she'd learn by now that if she's going to have sex with someone, she should sweep the room first for hidden cameras. I always do."
"Really?" Carlotta said. "What married man are you dating this week?"
"His name is Troy and he's a college professor."
"What does he teach?"
"Oh, well then, plus ten points."
On television the starlet held up her pet pug, which she'd dressed in a T-shirt bearing the name of the camp she was promoting.
"Camp Kiki?" Hannah said. "Is that where kids go to breathe fresh air, learn to snort coke and become anorexic?"
"Cut her some slack," Carlotta said with a little laugh. "I've heard of this camp. It looks like she's at least trying to do something good for underprivileged kids."
"Underprivileged to her probably means anyone who doesn't have a driver." Hannah gave Carlotta a sideways look. "Sorry. I forgot that you used to be rich."
"Not that kind of rich."
"Are there classifications for how rich you are?"
"Sure." Carlotta used the fingers on her good hand to count them off. "There's inherited wealth, the kind that's so massive the heirs live off the interest. Then there's inherited wealth that has to be maintained, like taking over the reins of a family business. There are ranks within inherited wealth, depending on how prestigious the business-jewelry is near the top of the list. Then there's aristocratic wealth, meaning there's no cash flow, everyone just kind of exists off their family name and estate. My parents were farther down in the pecking orderthey were bourgeois rich. My dad worked for his money."
Hannah lifted an eyebrow.
"Or stole it, depending on who you believe."
"And who do you believe?"
The note her father had slipped to her scratched the skin of her chest where she was keeping it in her bra. She was afraid that Wesley might find it if she left it in her bedroom. And truthfully, she just wanted to keep it close. "I honestly don't know. He was indicted for fraud, so the D.A. must have had a case, right?"
"Maybe. Maybe it was personal. What do you really know about the D.A.?"
"Just that he's a lying asshole for reneging on our deal."
"Well, there you go. Maybe he had some other motivation for charging your dad."
"So why didn't Dad stay and fight it? Why skip town and abandon his own kids?"
"I don't know."
"Would your parents do something like that?"
Hannah shifted on the couch, and it occurred to Carlotta that she had never talked about her parents. And frankly, Carlotta couldn't picture the people who had spawned her bizarre friend.
"Has your father called you again?" Hannah asked, neatly sidestepping Carlotta's question.
Not that it had been much of a conversation. He'd phoned her at work a few weeks ago and said, "It's Daddy." She'd been so startled, she'd dropped her cell phoneand the connection.
"And I broke my cell phone, so I couldn't even call back."
Hannah frowned and pointed to the end table. "Whose cell phone is that?"
it's a new one."
"How did you afford a new phone?" Hannah asked suspiciously.
"Peter gave me an extra one that he had lying around."
Hannah picked up the sleek, razor-thin phone. "Right. This state-of-the-art gadget was just lying around. Did it belong to his murdered wife?"
"No!" At least Carlotta didn't think so.
"Is he paying for your service, too?"
"It didn't cost anything to add me to his plan," she said defensively.
"Yet. Don't kid yourself-the man plans to collect."
"Peter's been very good to me," Carlotta murmured.
"You mean the man who dumped you years ago when your parents left town? The man who's suddenly all over you when his wife has only been dead for a few weeks? Yeah, he's a real stand-up guy."
"It's complicated." No one knew that her father had also called Peter, who now worked for Mashburn & Tully, the investment firm where her father had been accused of stealing from customers' accounts. Randolph Wren had asked Peter for his help in finding an alleged file that could prove his innocence. It was a secret that bound her and Peter together.
Then there was the ring
The sound of a car pulling into the driveway made Carlotta leap off the couch. "It's Coop," she said when she saw the white van. She watched until he got out of the vanalone. "But Wesley isn't with him."
She opened the front door and stepped out on the stoop in the early morning heat, eager for news. "Did you find him?"
Cooper Craft was tall and lean, with light brown hair and long, neat sideburns. He lifted his gaze to hers and shook his head. "No. You haven't heard from him?"
"No," Carlotta said, feeling the stirrings of true panic. "I've been calling his cell phone every hour. How far could he get on a bicycle?"
He gave her a little smile. "He'll turn up."
But she could tell by his haggard expression that Wesley's body-moving boss was worried, too. It made her sick with fear. "Come in. I'll make coffee."
When Coop entered the house Carlotta noticed that he was wearing the same clothes he'd had on yesterday. His hair was disheveled; his sideburns merged with an unshaved jaw. Her heart tugged when she realized he hadn't been to bed. "Did you drive around all night?"
"I checked the hospital emergency rooms and a few places I thought he might be, but no one had seen him."
He looked up and did a double take at Carlotta's stripe-haired friend standing barefoot and fresh-faced in her unexpectedly cuddly pj's. "Hannah?"
She flapped her eyelashes. Hannah had a huge crush on Coop. "In the flesh. Um, this isn't what I normally sleep in, in case you're interested."
Carlotta rolled her eyes as Coop smothered a smile. "Okay. Did you keep Carlotta company last night?"