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“I’ll give you a hundred bucks,” I told the cabdriver, “if you get me to Georgetown in the next ten minutes.”
The cabbie, a timid guy with the face of a pug and photos of his five kids pasted to his dash, glanced at me in the taxi’s backseat. I dipped my fingertips into my Kate Spade evening bag, pulled out a Ben Franklin. When I flashed the bill at him, he hit the gas.
And I wanted to cheer.
Until he stomped on the brake.
The sudden change in speed sent me sliding across the cab’s blue vinyl upholstery. When the car skidded to a halt, I smoothed my silk taffeta skirt over my knees, shoved my square-rimmed glasses up the bridge of my nose, and glowered past the driver’s shoulder. Through the windshield, the unyielding eye of a red stoplight glowered back.
“Sorry, miss.” The cabbie grinned in apology and the expression set his jowls aquiver. “The cameras, ya know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Recently, Washington, DC’s city council had gotten serious about drivers who ran red lights. Or more accurately, they’d gotten serious about collecting fines from those drivers. In any case, I couldn’t blame the cabbie for being camera shy. I could only blame the politicians for their shortsightedness. Obviously, none of them had ever been late to one of my father’s fundraisers.
Of course, I had a good excuse for my tardiness.
Not that my father would see it that way.
He’d made it very clear he wanted me cleaned up, dressed up, and at his side when he delivered his speech. And my father, Senator James Sinclair, expected his orders to be obeyed. After all, long before the voters of the great state of New Jersey sent him to Capitol Hill, he’d been a two-star general in the United States Army.
I, on the other hand, am a private-investigator-turned-security-specialist. My client list includes that big-city mayor who ran for president a few years ago, that former basketball player in all those underwear ads, and even that jeweler who gave that movie star some white diamonds. Recently, though, I’d been hired by a hardworking family from the DC suburbs.
This family had lost a son in Afghanistan. And by lost, I mean he was missing in action. A freelance reporter thought he saw him, held captive in the hills—and Buck Levanworth, a self-styled soldier-of-fortune, swore he could get him out.
But mercenaries don’t come with résumés. They don’t provide references, either. So while the soldier’s desperate young wife leveraged all she owned to meet Levanworth’s exorbitant fee, her in-laws got busy talking to me.
It didn’t take me long to learn Buck was really named Gavin Miller. And that Gavin had no military experience whatsoever. In fact, the closest Gavin Miller had come to visiting Afghanistan was a Spring Break trip to Cancún. Because Gavin was a college dropout with a lengthy list of misdemeanors attached to his name. And I decided he wasn’t going to graduate from petty crime to all-out fraud if I could help it.
Simply put, I had zero tolerance for crooks who preyed on families. I had even less for those exploiting our soldiers. So after Gavin intercepted his target at the Lincoln Memorial, I cornered him below the great president’s stone chair.
Gavin promptly returned the favor.
By knocking me down the monument’s marble steps.
Still, with a skinned knee and a flying tackle, I got the better of Gavin Miller. The missing soldier’s wife would get her money back. So would the seven other families Miller had swindled with his scheme.
Of course, being involved in a tussle at a national monument meant I had to answer a boatload of questions for my pals in the Parks Service and the DC Police Department. I had to waste time patching up my bloody knee, too, before I could shower, wrangle my dark locks into submission, and slide into the lovely midnight-blue dress I’d hoped to wear anywhere but to an evening of stuffy old speeches. As a result, I was late for my father’s fundraiser—and stuck in a cab at a stoplight.
Red lights don’t stay red forever, though. Not even in Washington, DC. So sooner, rather than later, my cabbie and I reached Lowengren House—the site of my command performance.
Built in 1764, and perched high atop Georgetown’s Prospect Street, the brick mansion has overlooked the Potomac for more than two centuries, playing host to a bevy of presidents, diplomats, and other robber barons since the nation’s birth. This evening, the house and its family stood ready to welcome my father and his benefactors.
Being late, I wasn’t sure what kind of welcome my father would extend to me. Or—after my tumble down the Lincoln Memorial’s stairs—if I could pass his muster. Fortunately, black silk stockings hide a multitude of sins. When I paid the cabdriver his fare—and his well-deserved tip—he never so much as glanced at the bruises I knew were darkening my leg.
Neither did the Capitol Police officers checking IDs in the drive.
Eight camouflaged security cameras tracked my progress through the estate’s wild English garden. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. After all, I’d designed their layout. I’d recommended glass-break sensors on the house’s mullioned windows, too, and electronic locks drilled into the house’s front double doors. The doors themselves had come from Britain nearly three centuries ago. I hadn’t recommended their replacement. Cut from an ancient oak and older than dirt, by now they were stronger than steel.
Tonight, they stood wide to allow latecomers to enter the mansion at their leisure. As I crossed beneath the lintel, the chill of the coming autumn rose to meet me from the foyer’s black and white marble tiles. But that was the only welcome I got.
The speeches had started. I could hear the droning of an amplified voice and a smattering of polite applause from somewhere deep in the house. I cut through a delicately decorated space of yellow silk and blue toile, hustled into the darkly paneled room beyond. There, on dining tables long enough to have accommodated a mess of Napoleon’s military officers, donations for the night’s silent auction lay on luscious green jacquard tablecloths. I had to take the time to bid on something—and I had to be successful at it. Otherwise, I’d hear about it later.
Naturally, there were plenty of items to choose from. That is, if I craved his-and-hers Rolexes glittering in matching mahogany boxes, or all-inclusive stays at Scotland’s famous St. Andrews Golf Club for me and my sweetie. I liked that stuff well enough. But here’s the thing. These days, I was flying solo.
In the spring, I’d met a man. A soldier, to be precise. And a military police officer to boot.
His name was Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett. He was strong when it counted and kind when it didn’t, and he made me feel like love might be possible for even me. Thanks to a special assignment, though, he’d left the country before I could figure out if that were true.
So I was alone again. Not that I minded. Much.
Over my shoulder, the applause grew louder and a new speaker started in on my father’s attributes. I stuffed all thoughts of Barrett into the deepest chamber of my heart and snatched up a ballpoint pen. I scribbled bids for a flat-screen TV I didn’t need and custom car detailing I didn’t want.
That’s when I saw an offering that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention.
Nestled in a cut-crystal Waterford box lay a dozen handcrafted truffles—the first serving in a year of designer chocolates delivered to the winning bidder’s door.
I didn’t need the candy dish. Didn’t even need the chocolate, really. But before practicality got the better of me, I scrawled my name on the bid sheet, added a string of zeroes that had nothing to do with charity, and rushed into the adjoining room—a ballroom—just as my father ascended to the podium on the far side.
Applause thundered through the crowd like a herd of water buffalo. I threaded my way between dinner tables draped with enough white linen to supply a mummy factory, dodging society matrons in the latest Donna Karan and the latest wives in Sarah Burton. The men wore designer eveningwear, too. Some looked like they’d worn tuxedoes all their lives. The rest looked as comfortable as penguins on the lam from the zoo. Collectively, though, they could’ve bought and sold the American economy ten times over. Now, here they were, on their feet in ovation, having paid princely sums to eat a caterer’s warmed-up dinner to support my father.
His ability to inspire those around him never ceased to amaze me—and I’d seen him do it all my life. Sure, his bravery in Vietnam had been admirable and his leadership in the First Gulf War invaluable. But those experiences were written in his biography, not on his face. Like a seventy-year-old Clark Kent, his dark hair had merely silvered at the temples and his spine was as straight as the day he’d graduated from West Point. His physicality didn’t matter, though. It wasn’t my father’s looks that moved men and women. It was how he looked at the world.
“Friends,” my father began, his authoritative baritone reaching every corner of the ballroom. “It’s good to see so many of you here tonight.”
That’s when my father’s eagle eye latched onto me in the crowd. And not for the first time, I knew how a bunny rabbit feels as the raptor swoops in on her. Of course, this was my father’s strength and what garnered him such respect. The Senator could make anyone feel exposed, everyone feel inadequate. Even his own daughter.
Roger Lind, my father’s chief of staff, hovered three paces behind him and off to the side. He saw me, too, and helped me up the steps of the dais. My knee screamed so loudly, I was surprised folks didn’t hear it, but they were already hanging onto the promises my father was making.
After another round of applause, the ordeal was over.
And as my father shook every hand he could find, Roger slipped an arm firmly through mine.
At thirty-eight, he and I were the same age, but he looked a lot better than I did. Of course, he had the benefit of a recent four-hundred-dollar haircut and an intern to steam his Ralph Lauren tuxedo. Also, he hadn’t just done a tuck-and-roll down the steps of a national monument.
He said, “The Senator will be delighted you made it, Jamie.”
Really, I thought delighted was an overstatement, but I didn’t bother to point that out to him.
He steered me away from the chaos and toward a table with a ring of carefully calligraphed place cards.
My name was the only one I recognized.
Roger said, “I know the Senator wants to steal a moment to have a word with you, too.”
“Well”—I snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray—“if he’s too busy to talk tonight, he’s got my number.”
Not that my father ever called me.
The Senator had staffers to do that sort of thing for him.
Roger chuckled as if I’d said something funny and took his leave. Gladly, I sank into my seat. I didn’t know the portly banker and his wife who sat across from me, or the pretty advertising executive who’d brought a Redskins linebacker as her date. They were all nice enough. And they were enamored by the fact that I was a chip off the senatorial block. Not that my paternity held their attention for very long. The couples got lost in their own little worlds, billing and cooing like turtledoves until I began to feel as welcome as a cat among pigeons.
Most annoyingly, all this made my thoughts stray to Barrett. I hadn’t heard from him the entire summer, I didn’t know where he’d gone, and I didn’t know when he’d be back. Of course, chances were I wasn’t allowed to know. As a military policeman in the U.S. Army, Barrett often spent time overseas in places travel agents never mentioned and politicians couldn’t stop talking about. Worst of all, Barrett had the shrapnel scars to prove it.
By the time our server slipped a wilted salad dressed with too much vinegar in front of me, I was ready for more than a plate of greens. I wanted to escape this shindig and the happy couples at my table. I wanted to slip away from my father, too. I wanted to take my aching knee back to my place, curl up with a cold bottle of champagne and the luscious chocolates on offer in the next room. As the winners of the silent auction began to be announced, I wanted to hear my name more than anything.
And then I did.
But not from the auction volunteer at the podium.
“Hello, Jamie,” a familiar male voice said.
The last time I’d seen him, he’d worn the gray-and-green-patterned uniform civilians call fatigues—and he’d been on his way to board a plane. Tonight, though, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett wore a black tux and crisp white shirt worthy of a Hollywood leading man. And he was different in other ways, too. Oh, the tailoring showed off the same broad shoulders and beautiful boxer’s build I’d appreciated last spring. But now, sunburn smudged his cheekbones before fading into the paler planes of his face. And unless I was mistaken, more silver threaded his golden hair than I’d ever seen before.
Still, I was thrilled to see him. I could’ve said a thousand welcoming things. I should’ve said them.
Instead, I blurted an unsophisticated, “What are you doing here?”
Barrett grinned. Whenever he smiled, angels sang and devils danced. Possibility crossed paths with potential heartbreak, and mortals like me got hot at the thought of either.
He placed the Waterford box on the table in front of me.
“I’m here,” Adam Barrett said, “to keep you in chocolate this year.”