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"You dirty, no-good, low-down son of a bitch." Ty Brodie's eyes widened at the sight of the little man standing, fists clenched and red-faced, in the doorway of Riggs and Brodie Private Investigations. "What the hell?"
Pug Calloway was no more than five foot five, barrel-chested and brawny, and he was fire-spittin' mad.
"Mess with my wife, will you?" Pug swung hard, but Ty, being six-two, dodged the first punch simply by stepping out of the way. "Hold on, Mr. Callowayyou've got this all wrong."
"Bullshit! I saw you with my Nettie down at the Cockadoodle Inn." Another punch sailed out, straight from the shoulder. Determined not to hurt the older man, somewhere in his sixties, Ty danced backward out of arm's reach.
"We were talking business, Mr. Calloway. I'm a private investigator. Your wife hired me to look into some personal matters for her."
"Liar!" Pug's left arm shot out, two sharp jabs that sailed harmlessly into the air, followed by a right cross that would have been painful if it had connected.
After five years in the Marines, Ty was more afraid of hurting the old guy than Pug doing any real damage.
"Listen to me, Mr. Calloway"
Pug swung a punch that whizzed past his jaw. "She's mine, you understand? You stay away from her!"
"Dammit! I wasn't trying to steal your wife!" He clamped a hand over Calloway's head, holding him back as the little man swung several more harmless blows. "All right, Pugthat's enough."
Ty shoved the shorter man backward hard enough to make him stumble. He heard a noise behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see his next-door neighbor, Ellie Stiles, standing beside a long-legged, good-looking blonde in tight jeans and a crop-top that showed tanned skin and a sexy silver belly-button ring.
He flashed a grin the instant before Pug Calloway's fist connected with his nose. Ty flew backward, tripped, went ass-over-teakettle and landed hard, the impact sending him sliding across the tile floor to wind up at the women's feet.
"Don't call me Pug," the little man growled. "Only my Nettie calls me that."
Ty glared up at Pug, whose fists were still clenched, ready to hit him again. Catching a glimpse of the pretty blonde's smile, Ty felt a rush of heat to the back of his neck that slowly crept into his face.
"For chrissake, man. I wasn't trying to steal your wife." Nettie was old enough to be his grandmother. He used the hem of his white T-shirt to wipe away the blood leaking out of his nose. "Nettie hired me to follow you. She thought you were cheating on her."
Pug's bushy gray eyebrows shot up. "That's crazy.
Why would she think that? I love Nettie. I'd never cheat on her."
"Yeah, well, that's what I told her." He rolled to his feet, checking his nose, relieved to find it wasn't brokenit just felt that way. "Now if you don't mind, I have better things to do than solve your marital problems."
Pug just grinned. "She really thought I was cheating? She was jealous?"
"Yeah, so why don't you go home and show her how much you love her? You might use some of that energy you're wasting on me for a better purpose."
Pug's irritating grin widened. "Good idea." The little man started walking, stopped and turned back. "Sorry about your nose."
Ty scowled as he shoved to his feet. "You'll be even sorrier when you get my bill."
Pug just smiled. Chest puffed out, he headed for the door. The P.I. office occupied the lower floor of the house Ty's partner, John Riggs, lived in with his wife, Amy. It had once been the guesthouse on Ellie's Hollywood Hills estate. The smaller house had been a wedding gift from Ellie, the silver-haired woman now standing at the bottom of the porch stairs.
Remembering she was still there, Ty turned, and Ellie handed him a wet washcloth she had retrieved from the bathroom.
"Thanks." Tipping his head back, he pressed the cold cloth beneath his nose, stanching the flow of blood. He tried not to look at the blonde, who was still grinning, digging a pair of dimples into her cheeks.
"I see you had a little misunderstanding with Mr. Calloway," Ellie said dryly. At seventy-one, she was still pretty, still kept a trim, athletic figure. She lived in the big house up the hill, and her mind was as sharp as the day she was born.
"I guess when you referred his wife to me as a client, you neglected to mention her husband was the jealous type."
Ellie sighed. "Well, knowing Pug and Nannette for so many years, I suppose I should have said something."
Ty grunted. "I suggest you make sure things get straightened out between them."
"Oh, I will." She hid a smile as she turned. "In the meantime, I've got another client for you. Tyler Bro-die, I'd like you to meet my grandniece, Haley Warren. Haley's out here from Chicago. Her grandmother was my sister."
Just to regain a little of his dignity, Ty let his gaze roam over her, starting at the frosted-pink toenails peeking out of strappy high-heeled, open-toed sandals, sliding up a pair of long legs in snug-fitting jeans, across that bare midriff with its glittering belly-button ring over a set of nicely rounded breasts to a pretty face framed by long, softly curling honey blond hair.
She had big blue eyes, and an Angelina Jolie mouth that made him think of dirty sex. Maybe she read his thoughts for a faint blush rose in her cheeks.
Good. A little payback only seemed fair.
Besides, she was a real pleasure to look at. Not beautiful in the classic sense like some of the women he knew, but with those dimples and big blue eyes, she was way beyond cute.
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Warren."
The smile was gone and she assessed him coolly. "Aunt Ellie tells me you're a friend, as well as an investigator."
"I like to think that's true."
"Of course it's true," Ellie said. "That's why I know we can count on Ty to help us."
Wariness slid through him. Ellie had a way of bringing him clients who were nothing but trouble. "How's that?"
"Well, you see, three months ago Haley's father died when his powerboat exploded."
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said to her.
Grief flashed in her eyes an instant before she glanced away. "Thank you."
"At the time everyone thought it was an accident," Ellie continued, "a gas leak of some kind that turned deadly. Haley's stepmother doesn't believe it. About a month ago, Betty Jean started emailing Haley, trying to convince her to come to Los Angeles and help her find out the truth."
Ty focused on the leggy blonde. "And you think she's right because.. "
"I don't know if she's right or not. I've never met her. Before he died, my father and I had been estranged for nearly five years, ever since he left my mother and ran off with another woman."
"Betty Jean," he said, just to make sure he was getting this straight.
"That's right. After he moved to L.A., Dad tried to mend our relationship, but I just. I couldn't get past his desertion." She glanced down and her eyes misted. "Now my father's gone."
Ty nodded, beginning to get the picture. "So your dad's dead and you regret not mending your fences."
"Yes, I do. Very much. But the thing is, some of the things Betty Jean says make sense. I owe it to my father to find out what really happened."
He flicked a glance at Ellie, whose features looked a little too bland to suit him. "I take it you're here to convince me to help her."
"That's right. You know how good you are at these things, Tyler. I know Johnnie's out of town but Haley will be helping you. That'll save you from having to do everything by yourself."
Haley would be helping him. He could think of any number of things he'd like her to do for him, but none of them had anything to do with business. The fact was Haley Warren was Ellie's niece. Seducing her probably wasn't a good idea.
"Have you talked to the police?"
"Betty Jean has," Haley answered. "The police said there was nothing to indicate any sort of foul play. But my stepmother isn't convinced and if she's right"
"I'll tell you what. I'll look into the circumstances of the accident, see if anything looks suspicious. I've got friends in the department. If something's not right, I'll talk to them myself."
Haley reached over and caught his arm. He felt a little zing of awareness and figured she must have felt it, too, since she stepped back as if she'd been burned.
She glanced away, took a deep breath and forced her eyes back to his face. "I want to be involved in this, Mr. Brodie. I need to find out for myself. I owe it to my father to find out the truth."
"It's just Ty, and I can get things done faster if I work alone."
"I want to be there when you talk to Betty Jean. I want to hear what she has to say."
He figured Haley also wanted to find out why her father had dumped her mother and run off with another woman. Probably someone younger and prettier, the usual motivation. Truth was, it didn't really matter if Haley went along. And it might help the stepmother open up.
"All right, when I go you can come with me. Make an appointment with Betty Jean, and you can fill me in on what you know on the way. I gather you're staying with your aunt."
"When would you like to go?"
"How about tomorrow morning?" Ellie suggested, the twinkle in her eyes warning him he had just stepped into another of her traps.
Or maybe he was just being paranoid. Maybe this time Ellie was just trying to help her niece. He reminded himself that as pretty as Haley was, getting involved with her wasn't an optionnot for either one of them. Not when Ellie Stiles was such a good friend.
Night had settled over the valley below the house by the time Haley got home after supper. Her aunt Ellie had taken her to a little bistro called Le Petit Four on Sunset Strip, and though the food was excellent, Haley hadn't really been hungry.
She hadn't had her usual appetite since she had received the news of her father's death. But she had already lost four pounds so she'd forced herself to eat, and the broiled halibut with a Parmesan crust and lime butter had been delicious.
With a tired sigh, she drew back the blue satin coverlet on her bed in the guest wing of her aunt's opulent Hollywood Hills home and slid between the Egyptian cotton sheets.
The house was at least eight thousand square feet, perched on a hillside, modern in design, white stucco with dark brown trim, a flat roof and a four-car garage. There was an infinity pool on the lower level of the yard, a deck off the living room and bedrooms that stretched across the entire back of the house, with spectacular views of the L.A. basin.
With its twelve-foot ceilings, the inside was equally impressive, the decor also modern, a showcase for the valuable contemporary art collection Ellie and her late husband, movie mogul Harry Stiles, had amassed before his death.
Haley hadn't been to visit her aunt since her parents divorced five years ago. At the time, she had just turned twenty-one and was finishing her degree in fine art at the University of Chicago. Art was an interest she and her parents had shared, kind of a family tradition that even her great-aunt and her husband, Harry, had enjoyed. Allison Warren, Haley's mother, had started taking her to galleries when she was just a child.
Armed with both an art history degree and one in art design, for the past four years she'd been working at the Seymour Gallery in downtown Chicago. She'd hoped her dad would come to one of the openings she arranged for both up-and-coming and well-known artists.
Her heart squeezed. She'd always believed that in time she and her dad would talk things out, breach the rift between them. But the years had slipped past and now her father was dead.
Not just dead, Haley amended.
According to her stepmother, her father had been murdered.
Haley thought of the woman she had never met. Betty Jean. She sounded like a waitress in an Alabama biker bar. Or some kind of country bumpkin. Have you heard the joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter, Betty Jean? Just the whisper of her name at the back of Haley's mind made her stomach burn.
The woman had to be some big-busted bimbo with bleached blond hair and no morals, just the sort a good man like James Warren would fall prey to. Nothing like her mother, who enjoyed the opera and symphony and was a patron of the arts.
Her father had been extremely intelligent. Before the divorce, he had been working for her grandfather as president of the Wentworth Insurance Group. Then he'd met Betty Jean Simmons when he was in L.A. on business. Six months later, he quit his high-powered job, left his wife, abandoned his daughter and moved to California.
Tomorrow Haley would meet the woman who had destroyed her family.
A light knock sounded at the door. Haley turned as the door cracked open and her aunt poked her head into the bedroom. "Oh, good, you're still awake. So, what did you think?"
Haley scooted backward until her shoulders came up against the headboard. "What did I think about what?"
"Why, Tyler, of course."
She thought of the man her aunt had insisted accompany her in the morning. Tyler Brodie. "He looks like a college boy. And he fights like a wimp."
Ellie laughed. "He's thirty years old, and he's no wimp. Ty spent six years in the Marines before he moved here from Dallas. He just didn't want to hurt poor Pug, is all."
She remembered the punch Ty had taken and bit back a smile. Clearly, he had been trying not to hurt the older man.
"He's good at his job," Ellie added. "If the accident that killed your father was more than that, Ty will help you find out."
Ellie had told her a little about Tyler Brodie. That he was raised in Texas and had been working as an investigator for the past three years. She'd neglected to mention he was handsome as sin with a body to match. Tall and rangy, with dark brown hair a little too long and interesting hazel eyes that seemed to change color with the light.
He had shoulders that would fill a door frame and an impressive set of biceps that stretched the sleeves of his plain white T-shirt and hinted at the solid muscles underneath. He had a V-shaped body with a lean waist and long legs that ended in a pair of scuffed leather cowboy boots.
"I hope he's as good as you say. I guess we'll know more after I talk to Betty Jean."
"So you called her?"
Haley nodded. "We're supposed to be at her house at ten tomorrow morning."
Ellie smiled. "Then I guess I'd better let you get some sleep. Good night, dear. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, Aunt Ellie."
Her aunt closed the door, and Haley's thoughts returned to the man who would be taking her to meet her stepmother. Her girlfriends in Chicago would call Ty a hottie. Fortunately for Haley, she had never been one of those women who fell dumbstruck in the presence of a particularly virile male.
The only reason she was letting him come along was that her aunt had insisted. Brodie was a trained investigator. Since Aunt Ellie had even more money than Haley's mother's family and was paying his feeshowever extravagant they might beHaley had agreed to accept his help.
Besides, the thought of facing Betty Jean Simmonsnow Warrenby herself was daunting.
Haley closed her eyes, shutting out the distant spots of colored light blinking through the huge plate-glass windows on the far side of the bedroom. She should have closed the drapes, but the lights kept her mind off the meeting she dreaded in the morning.
And any unwanted images that might pop into her head of Tyler Brodie.