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When he reached the restaurant, Jack Coleman's first stop was the men's room, where he checked his reflection in the mirror. The elderly attendant who watched him seemed to think it was vanity, or so his barely suppressed grin indicated, but it wasn't. In Jack's business, appearances were important. The people he was meeting for lunch put a lot of stock on the cut of a man's suit and the names on the labels. They would take him far more seriously in his Hugo Boss suit, with his diamond tie clasp and cuff links, than they would if they saw him in his usual scruffy jeans and T-shirt.
He wanted them to take him seriously.
He adjusted the knot in his silk tie and combed his fingers through his hair, then gave his reflection a critical once-over. Satisfied that he looked the part he was playing today, he drew a deep breath, then left the men's room. In the broad entrance to the dining room, he skimmed his gaze over the crowd until he located his marksuh, prospective clients.
Sissy and Marvin Ravenel were among Savannah's historically and socially prominent residents. Marvin's however-many-times-great-grandfather had owned the biggest and most profitable plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia, along with the biggest and most lavish plantation house. Over the generations, the family had produced senators, governors, doctors, lawyers, professors, and a whole regiment of military leaders. Then there was Marvin. Not the brightest bulb in the box.
He was a lawyer by education, a gentleman of leisure by occupation. One thing every generation of Ravenels had excelled at was making money, which left Marvin in the enviable position of never wanting for anything. Why spend time in a stuffy office, taxing his brain, when he could play golf, sail, or travel with Sissy instead?
"Jack." Sissy presented her cheek for a kiss, which he pretended to give. She was part of Savannah's socially prominent, only through Marvin. Until their marriage, she'd been just another pretty girl who didn't want to live the rest of her life on the wrong side of the tracks. Having come from the wrong side of the tracks himself, Jack understood her ambition.
He shook hands with Marvin, ordered a martini from the waiter who hovered nearby, then traded small talk until the drink arrived. Truth was, he hated martinis and would be happier with a bottle of beer or, better yet, a Coke, but the Ravenels liked to drink, and liked company while they did it.
The waiter asked if they were ready to order and Sissy waved him away. "Tell us again about this investment opportunity," she said in her husky Georgia drawl. Her gaze seemed sharper than usual, her smile more satisfied.
Movement near the entrance distracted Jack for a moment. Two men in suits were talking to the maitre d', and all three were glancing in the general direction of the table Jack shared with the Ravenels. Granted, men in suits weren't out of place in this restaurantevery male diner wore thembut the two men were. They didn't look as if they made a habit of dropping seventy-five bucks for a meal and a drink or two.
Sissy reached across the table and laid her pampered, manicured hand on his. "Come now, Cole. We're about to hand over a very large check to you. Don't you think that entitles us to your attention?" she gently chided as she gave his fingers a squeeze.
The two men moved away from the doorand toward them. Every muscle tensed as he debated whether to stay where he was or make a hasty excuse and get the hell out. There were only two ways out of the dining roomthrough the main entrance, pretty much cut off by the men, and out the kitchen door. A glance that way showed a third man leaning against the wall, waiting.
He decided to stay put. If the bad feeling making his skin crawl was right and these men were looking for him, they'd caught him. If he was just being paranoid, taking flight would cost him the Ravenels' investment, which was apparently a sure thing. What had Sissy said? Come now, Cole. We're about to hand over . . .
Come now, Cole. Not Jack.
The two men reached their table and stood one on either side of him. One pulled a credentials case from an inside pocket, giving Jack a glimpse of the weapon hidden by his jacket. He showed the badge inside the case, then said, "Cole Jackson?"
Jack forced his most charming smile. "Close, but no cigar. Jack Coleman." He rose from his chair, offered his hand, and the silent cop snapped one-half of a set of handcuffs around his wrist.
"Mr. Jackson, you're under arrest."
Jack's smile slipped. "Gentlemen, there appears to be some confusion. Obviously, my name is similar to this man you're looking for, but I assure you, I'm not him. I'd be happy to show you some identification if you'll just"
The cop pulled his arms behind his back and secured the dangling bracelet around his left wrist. "We'll clear up the confusion at the station," he said in a seen-everything-heard-everything-didn't-believe-any-of-it voice.
Everyone in the dining room was staring. Most faces showed surprise, a few disinterest. Only one person was smiling. She eased to her feet, came a few steps closer, and raised onto her toes, to murmur, "I've worked way too hard to get Marvin's money to let some two-bit hustler walk away with even a dime of it."
He took offense at the two-bit hustler crack. He was a con artist, not a hustler, and he was damn good at it . . . most of the time. This time it appeared he'd made a fatal error. He'd underestimated the competition.
But they'd made a mistake, too. They'd arrested him before he took the Ravenels' money. The DA wouldn't have an easy time convicting him of theft, fraud, or anything else, when every Ravenel penny was safe in the Ravenel bank.
He grinned at Sissy as the detectives started him toward the door. "Oh, well . . . better luck next time, huh?"
She smiled smugly, picked up his martini, and polished it off.
Jackor Cole; he was comfortable answering to any number of nameswas still grinning when they walked out of the restaurant into the muggy Savannah afternoon. So he was being arrested. It had happened before and would probably happen again. He would bond out, then disappear and never set foot in the city again. That had happened before, too.
Then he saw the vehicles parked at the curb in front of the restaurant. The first two, sedans marked as police cars only by the Kojak light on the dash, belonged to the Savannah cops. The third was a black-and-white SUV with a seven-pointed star on the door, and leaning against the front bumper was a uniformed cop.
Sergeant Nathan Bishop. Of the Bethlehem, New York, Police Department.
Cole's grin disappeared and icy dread spread through him, making him shiver in spite of the heat. For one crazy moment he considered making a break for it. At best, he would get away. His hands would be cuffed, but finding someone to remove that little problem wouldn't be difficult. At worst, the cops would shoot him for fleeing.
No, at worst, they would turn him over to Bishop and send him back to Bethlehem.
He was gauging the distance between them and the cars, judging the route most likely to lead to freedom, when the cops beside him took hold of his arms. They both outweighed him by thirty pounds or more, and they both had a grip that could stop a stronger man than he in his tracks.
They stuffed him in the backseat of their car. Just before the door closed, he heard one of them tell Bishop to follow them to the station. They would turn him over there.
As the car pulled away from the curb, he tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He'd made a fatal error, all right. Now, if he could just die before he had to face the consequences of it. . . .
Time healed all wounds, or so people liked to sayparticularly people who weren't sufferingand Leanne Wilson considered herself living proof of it. Just once, though, she would like to prove true some other adage. Second time lucky, maybe, or third time's the charm. Even three strikes and you're out. If her third broken heart had taken her out of the game, she wouldn't have been around to go through number four.
But she was better now. Really. So what if she still didn't have a social life? If she spent every minute of her free time with the kids or her brother and sister-in-law? If she had zero desire to ever go on a date, share a kiss, or have sex again? She'd just turned thirty-three. She was older and wiser. She knew better than to get involved with a man again.
The bell over the door rang, signaling a customer's arrival. Dredging up a smile that she doubted would fool anyone, she rose from the wicker sofa, stepped into her shoes, and walked to the centrally located checkout counter. The smile faded a bit when she saw Mitch Walker. There wasn't much chance he was there to buySmall Wonders was a kids' store, and Mitch's wife, Shelley, did all the shopping for their kids. Maybe it was just a friendly visit, but she'd discouraged friendly visits from everyone but family over the past few months.
The only option left was a professional visit. Considering that Mitch was the chief of police in Bethlehem, she would really prefer a friendly hello instead.
He removed his hat and glanced around the shop. Big, broad-shouldered, gun on his hip, he should have looked out of place in the pastel surroundings, with all the tiny clothes, toys, and child-sized furniture. Being every inch the family man, he didn't.
"How's the family?" she asked.
He smiled briefly. "They're fine. The kids are doing well in school and are already looking forward to Halloween at the end of the month. How're your boys?"
"They're fine, too." For more than four years, her own little family had consisted only of her son, Danny, and herself. They'd added Ryan Jackson at the end of May. Twelve years old, abandonedagainand angry as hell, he'd needed a home, and she'd needed to give it. There had been other choices, probably better choices, but she'd been the only one in town who really knew him, and since they'd both been abandoned by the same man, it had seemed fitting they should deal with it together. "Ryan's wondering why he has to go to school again this year when he just went last year, and Danny's whining because he can't go yet."
"Yeah. Give him a couple days in kindergarten, and he'll get over that." Mitch glanced around again, then, clearly uncomfortable, met her gaze. "I just got a call from Nathan. He's on his way back."
And that was significant because? . . . "I didn't know he'd gone anywhere."
"To Georgia. To pick up a prisoner. Cole Jackson."
Leanne stiffened. She'd thought they would never see Cole again. He was a con artist, a liar, and a thief. He'd run an investment scam in Bethlehem, then disappeared with more than $250,000 of their money, while leaving his son behind. The fact that he'd returned all of the money a few weeks later didn't even begin to undo the damage he'd done. He'd befriended them, gained their trust, even their affection, and he'd betrayed every one of them. That wasn't easily forgiven.
She didn't intend to ever forgive him, and neither did Ryan.
"So . . ." Her voice was breathy. "He'll go to trial."
"And to prison."
Cole in prison. He'd been so good-natured, so charming and outgoing. It was hard to imagine him behind bars. . . . Not that it would be a new experience for him. After he'd taken off with their money, Mitch had uncovered an extensive arrest record under various names. He'd spent his entire life ripping off people who trusted him. If he'd worked half as diligently at a legitimate job, he could have succeeded at anything.
"When will they be back?"
"Tomorrow night, maybe the next morning."
"I'll have to tell Ryan."
Looking as if he didn't envy her the task, Mitch nodded.
"Will this affect my having custody of him?"
"Nah. In fact, Family Services will probably look into terminating Jackson's parental rights. If he goes to prison, he can't take care of the kid, and if he doesn't go . . . well, he's proven he's not fit to be a father by abandoning the boy."
To say nothing of lying, cheating, and stealing his way through life, Leanne added silently. But he was still Ryan's father, and Ryan loved him. If he didn't, he wouldn't be so angry and bitter right now. He wouldn't feel so betrayed. She knew from her own experience.
"Anyway . . ." Mitch ran his fingers through his hair, then put his hat on. "I wanted to tell you before you heard it on the street. I figured you and the boy need the time to get ready."
"Yeah. Thanks, Mitch."
As he left, she sat down on the counter where she bagged purchases, rattled a hanger, then shifted away from it. So Cole had gotten caught. Ryan had been convinced it would never happen. Cole was too good, too smart, according to the boy. He was a con artist, not a hustler . . . not that Leanne understood the distinction. To her they were just different ways of saying the same thingcrimi-nal. Crook. Bad guy. Besides, he'd had all those previous arrests. Not in a long time, granted, but still . . .
Oh, man, she really didn't want to tell Ryan his father was coming back to stand trial. Life was already tough enough for the kid, and having the entire town know what scum his father was, would only make it worse.
The bell rang again, this time announcing the arrival of her part-time help. Sophy Jones came to the counter, heaved her backpack underneath it, then flashed a grin. "Afternoon."
"Is something wrong?"
"Hm? Oh, no. I was just . . ." Leanne glanced at the clock. "You're early."
"I knew you were planning to decorate for Halloween today, and since I didn't have anything else to do, I came on in." Sophy grinned again. "I can leave again, and spend the next fifteen minutes sitting in the park across the street, if you'd like."
"No. Oh, no. In fact, I need to run upstairs for a few minutes." Without waiting for a response, Leanne got her keys from her purse, left the store, let herself in the door at the west end of the building, and climbed the long stairs to her apartment.
Today was the first holiday of the new school year, a warm Friday off for a teachers' meeting, so the television was tuned to a children's show, which she knew from experience only Danny would be watching. Ryan would be stretched out on the couch, reading one of the dozen books a week he checked out of the library. Books were his refuge, the places he went to forget that neither of his parents wanted him.
Sure enough, Danny was giggling at the antics of a cartoon dog, and Ryan had his nose in a book. She stood unnoticed in the doorway and watched them, feeling the protectiveness only a parent could knowthough, apparently, not all parents.