Read an Excerpt
Lexi Vanderbilt's mother taught her two very important lessons. One, always wear coordinating lipstick, and two, recognize an opportunity when it presented itself.
Standing in the ballroom of the newly renovated Gold Coast Country Club, Lexi planned on employing those lessons.
All around her workers prepared for the throng of club members who would descend inshe checked her watchninety-three minutes. As the interior designer about to unveil her latest masterpiece, she would spend those ninety-three minutes tending to everything from flowers to linens to centerpieces. A waiter toting a tray of sparkling champagne glasses cruised by. She took in the not-so-perfect cut of his tux and groaned. The staff's attire wasn't her jurisdiction. Still, small details never escaped her. At times, like now, it was maddening.
Oh, and just wait one second. "Excuse me," she said to a woman carrying a stack of tablecloths. "The sailboat ice sculpture belongs on the dessert table by the window. The Willis Tower goes by the champagne fountain."
The woman hefted the pile of linens, a not-so-subtle hint that the sculptures weren't her problem. "Does it matter?"
If it didn't, I wouldn't ask. Lexi sighed. "It matters. Unless you'd like to tell your boss, who specifically requested the placement of the sculptures, that it doesn't."
For added effect, Lexi grinned and the woman rolled her eyes. "I'll get the busboys to move it."
One minicrisis averted. And maybe she could have let that one slide given that the club's manager had to be 110 years old and most likely wouldn't remember which sculpture went where, but why take a chance on something easily fixed?
Besides, tonight everything had to be perfect.
Functions attended by the richest of the rich were a breeding ground for opportunities. Opportunities Lexi craved for her fledgling design company. At twenty-nine, she'd already been profiled by the Banner-Herald and all the major broadcast stations in the city. She was quickly gaining ground on becoming Chicago's "it" designer, and that meant dethroning Jerome Laddis, the current "it" designer. He may have had more experience, but Lexi had youth, energy and fresh ideas on her side. A few more insanely wealthy clients touting Lexi's work and look out, Jerome.
Then she'd hire an assistant, rehab her disaster of a garage into an office and get some sleep.
Lots of it.
Right now, as she glanced around, took in the exquisite silk drapes, the hundred-thousand-dollar chandelier and hand-scraped floor she'd had flown in from Brazil, no questions on the tiny details would haunt her. She'd make sure of it. Even if stress-induced hospitalization loomed in her near future.
The upshot? She'd lost five pounds in the past two weeks. Always a silver lining.
Lexi turned, her long gown swishing against the floor and snagging on her shoe. She smiled at Pamela Hennings while casually adjusting her dress. Darnedfloor-length gowns. "Mrs. Hennings, how nice to see you."
Mrs. Hennings air-kissed and stepped back. On her petite frame she wore a fitted gown in her signature sky blue that matched her eyes. The gown draped softly at the neckline, displaying minimal cleavage. As usual, a perfect choice.
"I love what you've done in here," Mrs. Hennings said. "Amazing job."
Being a club board member, she had no doubt shown up early to make sure the unveiling of the new room would be nothing short of remarkable. "Thank you. I enjoyed it. Just a few last-minute details and we'll be ready."
"Everything is lovely. Even the damned ice sculptures Raymond couldn't live without. Waste of money if you ask me, but some battles aren't worth fighting."
A loud bang from the corner of the room assaulted Lexi's ears. Please let that be silverware. She shifted her gaze left and spotted the waiter who'd passed her earlier scooping utensils onto a tray. Thank you.
Mrs. Hennings touched Lexi's arm. "By the bye, I think I have Gerald convinced his study needs an update. All that dark wood is depressing."
Now, that would be a thrill. If Lexi landed the job and nailed it, the top 10 percent of Chicago's executives would know it. And competition ran hot with this social set. Before long, they'd be lined up outside her office for a crack at outdoing Pamela and Gerald Hennings.
"I think," Lexi said, "for him we could leave touches of the dark woods. Macassar ebony would be fabulous on the floor."
"Ooh, yes. Do you have time this week? Maybe you could come by and work up some sketches?"
"Of course." Lexi whipped her phone from her purse and scrolled to her calendar. "How about early next week? Tomorrow I'm starting a new project that might eat up the rest of my week."
"I'll make sure I'm available. What's this new project? Can you share?"
Rich folks. Always wanting the inside scoop. "Actually, it's quite fascinating. Remember the murdered broker?"
"The one from Cartright? How could I not? The entire neighborhood went into a panic."
The residents of Cartright, the North Side's closest thing to a gated community without the gates, employed private security to help patrol the six city blocks that made up their self-titled haven. That extra money spent on security kept the crime rate nearly nonexistent in those six city blocks.
Except for the offing of one crooked stockbroker.
"That's the one," Lexi said. "I've been hired to stage the house. The real-estate agent suggested it to the broker's widow and she hired me."
"I heard they couldn't sell. The market is destroying her. That poor woman. He left her with a mountain of trouble. He paid top dollar and if she lowers the price again, she won't make enough to clear his debts. Add to that any retribution owed to the clients he borrowed funds from without their knowledge."
As expected, Pamela Hennings was up to speed on the latest gossip. Gossip that Lexi would not share. Being told this information about a client was one thing.
Sharing it? Not happening. "I'm looking forward to the project. It's an incredible house."
Being an interior designer didn't always give Lexi the chance to change someone's life. Her work allowed people to see the beauty in color and texture and shape and made their homes more than just a place to live, but she didn't often get the opportunity to alter an emotionally devastating situation. Now she had the chance. Getting this house sold would free the broker's widow from debt and give her children a comfortable life.
And Lexi wanted to see that happen.
Plus, if she got the thing sold in forty-five days, she'd make a whopping 20 percent bonus. The bonus alone would pay for an assistant and give her a life back.
Nap, here I come.
Mrs. Hennings made a tsk-tsk noise. "They never did find the murderer, did they?"
"No. Which I think is part of the problem. I may do a little of my feng shui magic in there. Clear all the negativity out. When I'm finished, that house will be beautiful and bright and homey."
"The debt, the children and now the police can't find the murderer. And it's been what, two years? No woman deserves to be left with that."
Again, Lexi remained quiet. Don't get sucked in. But, yes, it had been two years, and from what Lexi knew, the police were no closer to finding the man's killer. Such a tragedy. "The case has gone cold."
Sucked in. She smacked her lips together.
"You know," Mrs. Hennings said, "my husband's firm recently did some work with a pro bono cold case. I wonder if the investigator who worked on that wouldn't mind taking a look at this. I'd love to see the man's family given some relief. And, let's face it, it would certainly be good PR for the firm." It certainly would.
Investigative help wouldn't hurt the real-estate agent's chancesor Lexi'sof getting the house sold in forty-five days. "Do you think they'd be interested?"
"Oh, I'm sure it can be arranged."
Gerald Hennings, aka the Dapper Defense Lawyer, pushed through the oversize ballroom doors, spotted the two women and unleashed a smile. Even in his sixties, he had charm to spare. Salt-and-pepper hair and the carved cheekbones of a man who'd once been devastatingly handsomeall combined with his intelligenceadded up to someone who ruled a courtroom.
"Gerald," Mrs. Hennings said, "perfect timing. The board meeting will be upstairs. Believe it or not, we're the first ones here."
The Dapper DL eyed his wife with a hint of mischief, smiling in a rueful way that probably slayed jurors. "Shocking." Then he turned his charm loose on Lexi. "Alexis Vanderbilt, how are you?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Hennings. Thank you. And yourself?"
"I was quite well until fifteen seconds ago when my wife announced my timing was perfect. That means I'll either be writing you a healthy check or she's volunteered me for something. Either way, I'm sure it will be painful."
Brodey Hayward blew out a breath as he watched his sister saunter into the Hennings & Solomon reception area. Finally she'd stopped wearing her blouses unbuttoned to her belly button. He never needed to see that much of Jenna's skin and said a silent thanks to whichever saint covered brothers in distress.
Jenna stopped in front of him and gave him a half hug so she didn't bump his sling and the wrecked arm inside of it.
"Nice shirt," he said.
She waved him off. "Don't start."
Hey, he couldn't help it if he had opinions. "Just commenting is all."
"How's the elbow?"
"So, it's killing you."
He didn't bother answering. What good would it do? Six weeks ago he'd blown out his elbow changing a damned tire. The guys at the precinct tore that one up. Hey, Hayward, helluva way to go out on disability. Hey, Hayward, you 'd better make up a better story. Hey, Hay-ward, real detectives don't get hurt changing a tire. Each day a slew of texts came in from his squad mates, and it didn't look as if the taunting would end soon because the surgery on his elbow left him with a raging infection that earned him a second surgery and another six weeks of leave. Leave that was slowly, deliberately, driving him insane. Torture was the only way to describe the abundance of nothingness that filled his days. As a homicide detective, he could tolerate a lot of things.
Boredom was not one of them.
Hell, he'd even taken to driving to his parents' house each day for cop talk with his retired detective father. A week into that, his mother had booted him and told him to get a life.
Jenna motioned him down the long corridor. "Thanks for coming in first thing. We're meeting in the conference room. You sure you're okay with this?"
"Yeah. I'm not getting paid. All I'm doing is giving you my opinion, right?"
"Then I'm not violating any rules."
Jennaa private investigator for Hennings & Solomonhad called him the night before asking if he'd assist on a cold case that somehow landed in her lap. Why not? He could kill timeno pun intendedand keep his mind sharp for his eventual return to the job. Plus, there'd be no emotional involvement with this case. Technically, it wasn't his, so he could walk away without running himself through a meat grinder over it.
"Good. I've looked over all the files, but I'm missing something."
Brodey followed Jenna while eyeing the art lining the walls. Some would call it modern. He'd call it weird with all those slashes of color, but whatever. Art meant a real picture of something. A woman in a park, a kid flying a kite, something he could look at and recognize. This hoity-toity stuff, he didn't get.
They reached the conference room, where a huge whiteboard smothered with notes and charts covered one wall. His sister had been busy. She'd also done a fine job of organizing her evidence.
She gestured to the wall. "I have it all laid out for you. Just the way Dad taught us."
He wandered to the board and glanced at Jenna's notes. Victim's name, Jonathan Williams. Scene of the crime, brownstone on the cushy North Side. Cause of death, gunshot to the head.
"No. I was hoping you or Dad could help with that." Not if he wanted to stay under the radar he couldn't. "I'll talk to Dad. Tell me again how you got this case."
"It's kind of convoluted."
"It always is, Jenna."
"Remember how I worked on Brent's mom's murder case a few months back?"
How could a guy forget Brent, the giant deputy US marshal who had stolen his sister's heart and managed to convince her she didn't need to walk around half-naked for people to notice her? Brent had enough baggage to fill a 747 jet and Jenna had still fallen in love with him. If nothing else, it showed a boy could overcome a rotten childhood and grow into an honorable man.
"So this has to do with Brent?"
"No. Mrs. Hennings. She was the one who convinced my boss to take on Brent's case. She's at it again with this one."
Did someone say convoluted? "Oooookay."
"Mrs. Hennings attended a social function and ran into a decorator she knows."
Brodey gawked. A decorator? This should be good.
Jenna held her hand up before he could crack wise. "The decorator was hired by a real-estate agency to stage the house of the murder victim. The house has been on the market for two years and they're about to drop the price. Before they did that, the victim's estranged wifethey were separated, but not yet divorcedwanted to try redecorating it. I suppose when a house is worth close to two million hiring a decorator isn't an issue."
Brodey let out a low whistle. "I'll say. Why am I here?"
"The decorator told Mrs. Hennings about the house, and here we are."
"What do you get out of it?"
"My boss's undying gratitude for keeping him out of trouble with his wife."
Brodey laughed. One thing about Jenna, she knew how to stay on a man's good side. He pointed to the board.
"You may remember this case. He was a stockbroker living the good life until the market crashed. For years he'd basically been running a Ponzi scheme with his clients' money. His marriage fell apart and he was drowning in debt. The FBI eventually caught up to him and he was under investigation."
"He was murdered before the Feds charged him, right? Is that the guy?"
"Yes. On the day his body was found, he didn't show up for a meeting with his biggest client. That was unusual so his firm called his wife. Apparently he hadn't updated his emergency contact at the office so her cell phone was the only number they had."
"Ah, damn. Don't tell me the ex found him."
Jenna nodded. "In the laundry room."
Poor woman. Brodey still hadn't gotten used to viewing murder victims' bodies, inhaling that nasty metallic odor of blood and trying to remain unaffected. Forget about a loved one. That? No way.
Refusing to give in to his thoughts, Brodey stood, arms folded, studying the board. "I think I remember this. Looked like a robbery gone bad, right?"
"Yes. In the two years since the murder, the widow has spent most of the insurance money settling their debts, but she's not in the clear yet. It's a mess. With the divorce pending, the finances hadn't been worked out. The house was paid off, but she can't unload it and needs the cash."
"Enter our illustrious decorator."
Jenna gave him a snarky grin. "You're so smart."
Whatever, wisenheimer. "The house is empty?"
He waved at the board. "No photos. I don't know what you want me to do without seeing the crime scene."
His sister should have known he'd need photos or some kind of visual. Or maybe that was just the way his mind worked. Needing to see how the crime occurred, run the scenarios, figure the timing and options. All of it helped him work a case.
"I wasn't sure how involved you wanted to be."
Outside of being bored out of his skull, he didn't want to be involved. He'd made detective only a year ago and wasn't about to aggravate his boss by poking around in another guy's case. This case wasn't even his jurisdiction. This belonged to the North Side guys, while he worked Area Central.
"Yeah, but I can't help you if I don't know what I'm dealing with. Take me to the house. I'll walk through it and then study what you have here. Then I'll tell you what I think, and I'm out."
Tops, he was looking at two days of research. Two days of not being bored. Two days of getting closer to the end of his disability leave.
All he had to do was pony up an opinion and send his little sister on her way.
Piece of cake.