The Pretender (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1693)

The Pretender (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1693)

by Kathleen Creighton

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Struggling actress Abigail Lindgren feels it's her duty to notify her roommate's family of Sunny's murder. Problem is, a tangled web including lies, a reclusive grandfather and an inheritance makes things more than complicated. Impersonating Sunny in the mountains of California—just for a while—is part of the plan. Getting tangled up with sexy rancher Sage Rivera is not.

Sage stands to lose it all. He doesn't need an attachment to Sunny or her well-kept secrets. He can't shake the feeling she's hiding something big. But she needs a protector, a friend, a lover to give her the passion she's been missing…and he decides he's the only man for the job.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781459220935
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Series: Scandals of Sierra Malone Series , #2
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 293 KB

Read an Excerpt

Abi gail Lindgren buried Sunny Wells on a cold rainy day in April. Or rather, she watched while cemetery workers placed the small box containing her roommate and best friend's ashes in a hole in the muddy ground.

Abby took some comfort in the fact that she wasn't the only person who'd bothered to show up at the cemetery to say goodbye in spite of the gloom and the steady drizzle. There were maybe a dozen others gathered on the soggy turf amongst the drooping daffodils. Huddled close together in their dark coats, she thought they resembled a small wet flock of blackbirds.

Most were from the club where Sunny worked—where she and Abby both worked, actually, although Abby's gig was solely that of cocktail waitress, being as how there wasn't much call for a dancer's talents in a small, smoky after-hours joint like Donovan's. It had been a good fit with Sunny's whiskey and cigarettes voice, though, and she'd been a popular feature on the nights she took over the mike. They'd passed the hat at Donovan's to help pay for Sunny's burial, and Abby thought she recognized most of those who'd contributed at the graveside today.

The police were there, too, she noticed. The two detectives assigned to Sunny's case, standing back and a little apart from the rest.

"Ironic, isn't it?"

Startled, Abby jerked toward the speaker, just in time to watch water drops cascade from the edge of her umbrella and splash onto his glasses. He took them off and wiped them matter-of-factly on the trailing ends of his neck scarf. Pauly Schulman was—had been—Sunny's agent. And still was Abby's. Both his head and his body were egg-shaped, and the beret that sat askew on his bald head topped Abby's shoulder by a couple of inches. In addition to the maroon beret and matching scarf, he wore a black trench coat today, and since he didn't seem to have an umbrella, Abby shifted politely so as to offer him a share of hers.

"Thanks," he said, then replaced his glasses and glanced up at her. "You know what I mean? Burying somebody like Sunny on a day like this." He gave a bleak one-shoulder shrug. "It's wrong. With her looks and her name. Just seems…ironic."

Abby nodded, but personally she thought the weather was kind of fitting, and that it was actually Sunny's name that was ironic. Because in spite of all that golden hair and a smile that could light up a room, all anybody had to do was look in her eyes to see that down deep she was anything but sunshine. Surely, Abby couldn't be the only person to have seen the sadness in Sunny's eyes, the darkness that reflected the places in her soul where no light could ever reach.

"Nice turnout, anyway," Pauly observed, gazing at the knot of watchers half-invisible beneath their glistening umbrellas. "Sunny had friends."

Again, Abby only nodded. But she was thinking: Friends? Coworkers, customers, neighbors, maybe, but hardly friends.

Where were they, she wondered bitterly, those people Sunny had called "friends," the ones who had been with her at the party the night she died, the ones who had let her walk home alone? Where were they now? Abby couldn't imagine any of them caring enough to make the effort to come to a cemetery in the rain.

At least you had me.

Only…am I any better than they were? I wasn't there for you that night, was I? I was working late, and got home too tired to bother to check to see if you'd made it home safely. Though probably even then it would have been too late. By that time you were already dead, lying in that alley, cold and alone.

The knot of watchers was breaking up, people beginning to drift away in ones and twos in an aimless way, as if they weren't quite sure they should. The two cops had already disappeared.

"Can I give you a lift?" Pauly was looking at her again, light reflecting off his glasses so she couldn't see his eyes. But there was a crease between his eyebrows, and it occurred to Abby that he was actually a kind man. Either that, she thought more realistically, or he'd just had a soft spot—or the hots—for Sunny.

"No…thanks," Abby said. Kind or not, she didn't feel like making polite conversation with him. Or anybody. "Thanks anyway." She gave him a lame smile and started to walk away.


She turned to look at him, her smile fixed but growing tenuous. He was reaching inside his trench coat, pulling out his wallet. Reflexively, she held up a hand to stop him, but he took out several bills and thrust them at her with one of his apologetic half shrugs.

"Come on—at least take a cab. You'll catch your death."

She actually hesitated for a moment—purely out of an old habit of pride—before accepting the money with a muttered,


"Use the rest for…you know." Pauly tilted his head toward the cemetery workers now methodically tamping mud over the box containing Sunny's ashes. "Expenses and…whatever."

"Thanks," Abby said again. She looked away, then back at Pauly and made a lousy attempt to smile. "I don't suppose you've got anything coming up…."

He shook his head and gave a grimace as if he felt a sharp pain. "Wish I did. Hey, it's the slow time of year, y'know? Later in the summer…new shows'll be hiring for the fall openings. Check back with me then, okay?"

She nodded and said, "Sure."

He hesitated, shifted awkwardly, then muttered, "Take care, kid." Head down, hands in the pockets of the trench coat, he went trudging down the grassy slope to where a few cars were still parked, lined up along the curving drive.

Abby watched him go, then turned to look back one more time. Pain sliced unexpectedly through her chest, but she refused to give in to it, and instead threw back her head, and with eyes closed, lifted her face to the rain. As if letting the sky do her weeping for her.

After a moment, she took a deep breath, whispered, "Bye-bye, Sunshine." And walked away.

It was very quiet when she let herself into the tiny apartment she and Sunny had shared. The neighbors were most likely at work—or maybe just avoiding her because they felt guilty about not doing more to help. Some of them had contributed to Sunny's burial fund, but none had made it to the cemetery. Abby didn't really blame them. A lot of the people in the building were elderly, and the others had to make a living, after all.

Pay the rent.

At the thought, she felt a cold squeezing sensation in her chest. Her rent was a week past due, and she'd cleaned out her bank account and maxed out her only credit card to pay for Sunny's burial.

She propped the umbrella next to the door, closed the door and locked it behind her. As the last lock clicked, a fluid shape leaped to the arm of the chair closest to the door, then to the top of the backrest, uttering a trill of welcome.

"Hey, Pia, m'baby." Abby reached to pet the cat and got a small wicked bite for her trouble. "Witchy-cat. Bad cat," she muttered, as the cat went bounding away to disappear into the closet-size bedroom that had been Sunny's. Should've left you in the woods where I found you.

Not that she could have. The kitten had simply demanded to be be found. To be rescued.

What else could they have done? When they'd first heard the cries, during a rare outing last fall in the Adirondacks, Abby had thought it was a bird. It was Sunny who'd said, with absolute certainty, "That's not a bird." They'd followed the sound to a shallow trench at the base of a rocky cliff, filled, at the time, with newly fallen leaves. Abby had reached down into the leaves and come up with her hand full of gray tiger-striped kitten, no more than a few days old, eyes shut tight, squalling its head off.

She remembered the way she and Sunny had stood there, staring at each other, asking each other what in the world they were going to do. "What are we going to do with it? We can't keep it," Sunny had said, and Abby had replied, "Well, we can't leave it here. We'll have to find a home for it. There must be somebody who…I don't know, rescues animals like this?"

Yeah, right.

Full of optimism, they'd taken the kitten—still squalling—back to their motel, where the nice man at the front desk had directed them to a pet supply store in the next town. There a nice lady had supplied them with kitten milk replacer and a kit that included a bottle, several nipples of various sizes and a cleaning brush. "You know the mother cat licks their little bottoms to make them go to the bathroom," the lady had told them. "You will have to do that, or the baby will die." She'd laughed at the looks of horror Abby and Sunny had given her, and added with a smile, "But, warm water and a cotton ball works very well."

And it had. And a good thing, too, because they'd soon discovered no shelter would accept a kitten so young; they'd have to raise it until it could eat—and go to the bathroom—by itself. Roughly eight weeks, they were told. By which time, of course, both Abby and Sunny had fallen in love with the kitten, in spite of—or maybe because of—the fact that she was rapidly turning into a hellion with paws. They'd named her Pia. Sunny told everyone it was short for Pain-in-the-Ass.

"That's what you are," Abby yelled after the cat, as she unwrapped her scarf and unbuttoned her coat. "You're a pain in the ass, and it will serve you right when we're both out on the street. What are you going to do then, huh?"

What am I going to do then?

She stood in the middle of the living room, absently rubbing the back of her hand where the prick of Pia's teeth stung but hadn't quite drawn blood, looking around at what amounted to everything she owned in the world. What did she have that was worth selling?

Other than the futon that doubled as her bed—she still couldn't bring herself to take over the one bedroom Sunny had won in a coin toss—most of the furniture had already been secondhand when they'd gotten it. The pictures on the walls they'd bought on eBay for a song. The books—mostly dogeared paperbacks—had come from the library's once-a-year used book sale. The television was the big boxy kind that no self-respecting burglar would even bother with. So was the computer, its operating system probably way beyond obsolete. It did work, but she couldn't see getting rid of it. It wouldn't bring much, and she needed some kind of computer, didn't she? How could anyone get along these days without email?

What do I have that I could sell to raise enough money to pay the rent?

The obvious answer to that question was.

Nothing. Not one thing. No old jewelry, no silver baubles, no family heirlooms. A person didn't collect many of those bouncing from place to place in the Minnesota foster care system.

Which left.Sunny's things.

Dreading what had to be done, Abby went slowly into the bedroom and sat on the bed. Everything was neat and tidy, the way Sunny always left it; the police hadn't spent much time here, probably having already written off Sunny's death as a random mugging. Tears stung Abby's eyes and as always she fought them off, not even sure now whether the sorrow she felt was for Sunny, or herself.

She took a deep breath and looked around.

So. This is what nobody tells you about. What you do when somebody close to you dies. Is murdered. After the police and the questions. After the funeral, after the sympathy cards and flowers.

How did you go about cleaning up after a life? Tying up the loose ends of someone's existence on this earth? As far as Abby knew, Sunny had had no family. She'd told Abby she'd been on her own since she was fourteen, when she'd come home one day to find her mother dead of a drug overdose—suicide, the police had said. Sunny said she'd split that day and never looked back, preferring to take on the world on her own terms rather than let herself be swallowed up by the system. Smart girl.

Now Sunny was gone, and all Abby had to do was figure out a way to get along without her. Without her friendship, her company, prickly as that had sometimes been. Without her share of the expenses.

She hitched in another breath, rose to her feet and began methodically to go through the dresser drawers, the closet, making a pile of clothing, shoes and odds and ends in the middle of the bed. Some things she would keep; she and Sunny had been the same height and had sometimes borrowed each other's clothes, even though their tastes had differed considerably. Sunny had had way more curves than Abby, and had liked to show them off, whereas Abby's tastes ran more to jeans, vintage jackets and boots. For sure none of the shoes would fit her; Abby's feet were bigger—she had a dancer's ugly feet. Still, there would be a few things she could use, and she was sure Sunny would want her to have them. The rest she would take to the women's and children's shelter down the street.

When the drawers and closet were empty, she stood for a moment surveying the shoebox-shaped room—windowless, its walls covered with vintage posters and playbills from Broadway plays, most of which had come from eBay. The single bed and dresser took up nearly the entire room, and it occurred to Abby that with space so limited, no storage possibility would likely be wasted. With that in mind, she dropped to her knees on the bare wood floor and looked under the bed. Sure enough, there was a flat plastic box there, and a suitcase. Abby assumed they'd both be full of summer clothes, things that wouldn't fit in the closet.

She was right about the storage box. She hauled it out from under the bed and dumped its contents onto the pile of clothing on top of the mattress, then put the box itself aside. That, she could definitely use.

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