In the Brash & Brazen series, these three ladies are not your average private dicks. But when it comes to danger and romance, there’s no one better . . .
Two years ago, Taryn Hall was a pro football cheerleader—until she left her lecherous boss with a bloody nose and a face full of Mace. Now she’s part of a different kind of squad. An elderly billionaire named Irving has hired and trained Taryn and her two best friends to work as private investigators . . .
Taryn loves the job, though it usually involves boring stakeouts, dog bites, and listening to Irving talk about his golf shoes. Then, tattooed, steely-eyed, straight-up gorgeous undercover DEA agent Rick Silva walks into the office and shakes things up.
Rick needs help finding the con artist who’s taken his lonely mother for all she was worth. With myriad aliases and multiple victims, it will be a challenge to track down the coldhearted gigolo. And Rick insists on accompanying Taryn on the hunt, working closely, day and night. Things could get dangerous . . .
And the case might be kind of risky, too.
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The Sweetheart Racket
By Cheryl Ann Smith
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Cheryl Ann Smith
All rights reserved.
Over the course of the last two years, Taryn had often reflected upon the day, stuck on that deserted dusty road, when she, Summer, and Jess took a chance. They had climbed into Irving's limo and changed their destiny.
It was hot then, too.
At times like this, when she was sitting in a steamy car, camera in hand, waiting for a money shot, she wished Irving had just driven on and left them to follow those cows to civilization. Being a private investigator meant long hours, boredom, and gallons of coffee. And she wasn't a fan of coffee.
"I should have stuck with cheerleading," she said and waved a celebrity gossip magazine in front of her face. "At least the stadiums were shaded."
But she loved this gig and wouldn't — couldn't — trade it for anything else. She had something to prove.
A year ago, when she'd faced off with Willard in their first court appearance, he'd found out she was a PI and he'd scoffed, saying, "Girl, you're only good for shaking your ass and waving your pompoms. Nothing else." It was then that she vowed to be the best damn PI in the business.
Okay, current circumstance aside, there were exciting moments to her job, too. Interesting cases, working with her friends, and her monetary piece of Brash & Brazen, Inc. made the tedious stuff all worthwhile.
Mostly. "Why won't it rain?" she groused and grabbed a fresh water bottle from her small cooler. Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a large city, a melting pot of people and cultures that circled the University of Michigan and the U of M hospital. It was a fun place to live and work, but summers could be a bear during dry, hot days. Even now with August coming to a close, they were experiencing a heat wave. Taryn was looking forward to fall.
Hoping for some relief from the cloying simmer inside the beat-up old Oldsmobile, she rubbed the water bottle across her chest. The chilly condensation trickled down into her cleavage and took up residence in her lacy lavender bra. She sighed happily.
A polished-up, nerdy man in chinos and boat shoes walking a rodent-sized pooch past the car stopped, stared in at her, and waggled his brows as if her sigh had been some sort of sexual invitation.
Right. Like she'd ever have sex with a man who dressed his wimpy rodent in a pink wifebeater t-shirt and spiked collar. Who did he think he was impressing? Not her.
"Move along, buddy. I have a gun." She glanced evilly at the furry lump as if sizing it up for termination.
He gasped and yanked the mutt up by the leash. The dog gacked against the tightened collar and swung back and forth like a yipping pendulum. The owner tucked the mutt in a football hold under his arm, glared, and scurried away.
"That was just mean," Taryn said and sucked on the bottle. The heat made her surly. Truthfully, she wouldn't shoot a dog. The owner, maybe, but not the dog, if one could call it that.
She wondered if she should fire up the ancient car for a few minutes of questionable air conditioning. Then she decided no. The idling car with its turbo-charged engine could give her away. Besides, the air usually came out lukewarm anyway. So hot it was. In another hour or two, she'd call it a day.
"I should have stayed in bed. Darn you, Gregory Peach."
Forty-eight-year-old Gregory Peach was the owner of an auto parts manufacturing company and a cheater. He knew it, his wife knew it, and Taryn knew it. She'd followed him to this hotel, texted Penny with a smiley face emoji, and watched him vanish inside. Whoever he was meeting had obviously already arrived and pulled the drapes. Darn.
A tryst was the only reason for a hotel visit at two in the afternoon. Mrs. Peach wasn't about to put up with his behavior, not when she'd already kicked her first philandering husband to the curb.
"Gregory was supposed to be different," Penny had tearfully explained on Tuesday when she'd hired Taryn. "A good guy. At least that's what the online service, Match-Mate, said when they dumped his profile into my in box. He got a four-star rating!"
Taryn wanted to point out that there was something sketchy about finding love on a dating site that offered coupon discounts in the Sunday paper.
Instead, she'd choked back the comment and let it go. Penny hadn't yet hit rock bottom. She still believed in true love. Who was Taryn to yank her back to reality?
Taryn was once wide-eyed and delusional about love, too. But it only took one husband to smack that innocence out of her: in the form of their overly endowed maid, Gloria, riding him in their marital bed like a cowgirl on a county fair pony, cowboy hat and all.
The ensuing cat fight — which, looking back, Taryn was not exactly proud of — had somehow deflated one of Gloria's oversize silicone implants. How was still in dispute. But Tim and Gloria were still together, Gloria's cup size had gone up another two sizes during the repair, and Taryn was free of that nonsense.
That made her pursuit of cheating spouses personal. She couldn't help herself. And Gregory Peach was in her sights.
In the last week, Taryn had managed to take only a couple of grainy photos of Peach hugging his mistress in a grocery parking lot and splitting a tuna on rye at a local diner. However, those weren't the shots Penny needed to nail him in the pocketbook.
So Taryn drank sips of water, fought the urge to pour the whole content down her back, and waited outside the pay-by-the-hour hotel for Peach to do something divorce-worthy. She'd happily settle for a naked embrace in front of the window or even an amorous clutch in the backseat of his brand-spanking-new Ferrari. Otherwise the previous pics could be argued down by a good divorce lawyer to meetings with a friend.
Ultimately, though, it was Mrs. Peach whom Taryn should've been watching. Taryn was about to open the second bottle of water, her bladder be damned, when a silver Town Car flashed past her, did a hard left muffler-drag over the curb into the hotel parking lot, sideswiped Gregory's car, and crashed full on into the door of Gregory's room, causing that block wall to crumple inward.
Then, with a scream that rivaled a choking howler monkey, Penny Peach, resplendent in teased-up salt-and-pepper hair and enough makeup to drown a hippo, climbed out of the driver's window of the Town Car, carrying a golf club, as both Mr. Peach and a woman dressed up like June Cleaver, wearing an apron and all, appeared in the damaged doorway with wide-eyed expressions.
"What in the hell?" Taryn said as she clicked a quick photo, then launched herself from the Oldsmobile.
"Penny?" Gregory shouted.
June Cleaver wasn't waiting around to get her butt kicked. She quickly assessed her chances against an outraged wife in a pink jogging suit, then scrambled over the damaged bumper of the Town Car and took off shrieking for someone to call the police.
Gregory, dressed only in tighty-whities and what looked like chocolate syrup and whipped cream, ducked right to avoid the swinging club to the temple. Without waiting for a second swing, he launched through an opening between the car and the broken block wall, rolled, and came to his feet.
All while his hands were handcuffed behind his back.
He took off running.
His wife was right on his flabby tail.
"Penny, no!" Taryn yelled. Feeling partially responsible for having sent the text leading Penny directly to her cheating husband, she took up the chase. If nothing else, she was sure that if Penny was imprisoned for murdering her husband, Brash would not get paid.
"I'm going to kill you!" Penny screamed.
Mr. Peach darted right into Taryn's path. Her appearance didn't elicit more than a brief glance. Penny yelled something about Taryn getting the hell out of the way and almost knocked her over with a shoulder-to-shoulder bump.
Taryn kept to her feet and ran.
Peach, despite being barefoot, cuffed, and covered with goo, kept a good distance between himself and his murderous wife. Taryn, as any good PI would do, clicked off a few rushed photos of the action, hoping at least one or two would be clear enough for the divorce case.
With a final sprint, Taryn closed the gap with Penny. She couldn't grab her without risk of getting hit by the swinging club, so she stayed back slightly and waited for the two Peaches to tire out. How far could a forty-eight- and forty-three-year-old run anyway?
It was Gregory who ended the race when he tripped on a curb and pitched forward with a yelp. He grunted, did a half twist, and hit the grass at an odd angle. His body contorted into the protective shape of a taco shell to keep his man-parts protected from the lethal golf club.
Giddy, Taryn aimed and got the money shot. "Yes!"
"I hate you!" Penny cried, lifting the club overhead and aiming for his bald spot. Taryn swung her camera around to her back for its protection and managed to catch Penny's arm before the club did any damage to her or the supine male.
Gregory rolled onto his back and pleaded, "Honey, I can explain!"
"Explain through broken teeth!" Penny shrieked.
"Penny, stop!" Taryn grabbed Penny's arm and twisted the club out of her hand. "Remember your children! Think about little Daisy, and ... and the other one." The mention of the kids froze her client. She finally had the outraged wife's attention. Penny turned to her and the fight left her.
"Eddie Junior," Penny said and hiccupped.
"Right. Eddie Junior." Taryn stared into a pair of wounded eyes. She lowered her voice for calm reasoning. "Penny. You can't raise them from prison."
She kept her eyes on Penny but retrieved and turned her camera in the general direction of Peach and clicked off a few more shots.
Hey, why waste the opportunity?
Penny slumped against Taryn and broke into tears. "He ruined our marriage. He was supposed to be my knight in shining armor. Not like my ex, Eddie Senior. Greggie was older and stable."
"I know." Taryn frowned down at the whimpering Peach, who was anything but knightly, and turned his wife back toward the hotel. "With my help, you'll get your divorce and a huge settlement. Then you'll find yourself a revenge boy-toy half his age that lives an uncomplicated life on a surfboard ... and loves cougars."
"Do you think so?" Penny sniffed and rubbed her eyes.
"I know so.
* * *
After making a police report, and persuading the officer that he'd gain nothing by arresting her client on the spot, she'd settled Penny at the office of her lawyer, with the photo card from the camera to use as evidence, and returned to her office.
Normally, she would have gone home first to shower and change, but they had a mandatory staff meeting. Irving loved his mandatory meetings. It was the only time he had his staff all in one place.
Aside from his "girls," he had accountants and assistants and even a full time lawyer on staff. It took a lot of people to run Brash and most never missed a meeting.
She laid a box of semi-stale doughnut holes in the center of the table and dropped into the nearest chair. A dozen pairs of eyes widened. Then, within thirty seconds, like a hyena fight over a wildebeest carcass, the doughnut bites were gone.
Jess snorted and shook her head at the carnage. Summer stopped midbite, shrugged, and popped the remaining bit into her mouth. Taryn just shrugged.
Irving stood and rapped the tabletop with a gavel. "Attention, everyone. Before I get started with the boring stuff, I've passed a resolution to allow Fridays to be casual day. Tube tops and short shorts for everyone!"
Irving started each meeting as he usually did, with some sort of teasing sexual-harassment-worthy opening. He'd heard all about Willard and played Taryn's woes up like a comedy show.
Any other person would get tossed out the tenth floor window, but Taryn only sent him an eye roll. He was a harmless oldster and the father figure she'd never had. He'd willingly hobble in front of a bullet for her and for everyone who worked for him. And they'd return the favor.
"Irving," Taryn interjected before he suggested pastie Wednesdays or naked Mondays. "We've already covered this. No one wants to see you in a tube top."
The boss chuckled, flashing a new set of perfect artificial choppers. "What about bikinis?"
One hidden microphone and a really good lawyer, and she, Summer, and Jess would own the firm.
The rest of the staff was either related to him or long-time employees from his cement pipe days. They all accepted his eccentricities with good humor.
Besides, Taryn was chin-deep in depositions with Willard and weary of the legal system. The court clerk told her just yesterday that the case should be resolved soon. Of course "soon" had already dragged on for two years since she'd first filed the case, and it seemed unending. But her lawyer was confident enough in a successful outcome to have ordered a forty-foot sailboat with his cut of her future winnings. He'd be thrilled if she called him with another harassment suit.
She watched her boss, now seated back in his scuffed, yet comfy, wheelchair, grinning at something Summer said, and she smiled. His comb-over was already escaping a generous slathering of industrial-grade Brylcreem and he resembled a happy parrot in a yellow shirt and matching yellow-and-lime-green plaid pants.
He was something to see.
Jess, who'd followed Taryn's attention to Irving, leaned to whisper, "We should pass a resolution to ban plaid pants."
Taryn smiled. "He only owns plaid. Think of the alternative."
Jess made a face. No one wanted to see their boss without pants.
Fortunately for Irving, the three women adored the crusty senior citizen. He'd saved them and trained them and loved them like a father-mentor. They'd do anything for him, even letting him call them the "girls." Well, almost anything. They drew the line at wearing tube tops.
Although he tried to pass for sixty-nine, Taryn suspected he was heading toward ninety at a rapid clip. Not even a yearly facelift and jaw tuck could hide the telltale signs of a birthdate somewhere pre–World War II.
"As I've already told you a thousand times, Irving, no short shorts, no braless Tuesdays, and no feathered hair," Taryn said. "And your unfortunate choice of name for the business aside, this is a professional PI firm. Jiggle is not allowed."
"Drat." His eyes twinkled. "I guess I'll have to live with my disappointment. Let's get to business."
For most of his later years, Irving had wanted to close up his industrial cement pipe business and open his own PI firm. Unfortunately for him, his late wife liked making zillions of dollars a year in pipes and his dream was put off until widowerhood had come knocking four years ago. Then he opened his business and waited for his ideal Brash & Brazen women to appear.
And waited. And waited. Then his miracle happened.
Taryn, Summer, and Jess's bad luck turned into a happy day for Irving. He'd been visiting a sick friend in the boonies when his driver spotted them tottering down the road.
That they weren't strippers or hookers was a welcome relief to Irving. Despite his not-secret hope that one day they'd wear tube tops to work, he wanted his ladies to have class.
The meeting covered the usual dry topics involving business goals, clients, and profit margins. The three women each had a three percent stake in the company thanks to an unexpected Christmas present last year, so they had an interest in the company's success. When they broke up an hour later, Taryn was ready for a shower and dinner. She left Jess and Summer with a promise to go clubbing soon, and headed out.
Alas, her escape was foiled by a six-foot-two-ish of tattooed male, intimidating yet intriguing at the same time, who walked into the reception area wearing a black t-shirt and holding a motorcycle helmet in one hand. His short brown hair was mussed and his face covered with shadow that went way past five o'clock.
Taryn felt a tug of feminine appreciation.
When his intense gray eyes landed on her, she was eternally grateful she wasn't a giggler, because he was the kind of guy who could elicit that kind of response from women.
Maybe some swooning, too. He was dangerously sexy to look at, a hard-edged man who was the entire list of all things mothers warned their daughters away from. She didn't have to know anything about him to sense trouble. She felt it from her head to her toes, and in all her good parts in between.
So she squelched a longing sigh and glanced around for Gretchen to make him an appointment. The receptionist was MIA.
Resigned that her hot bath had to wait, she stepped forward. "Hi. I'm Taryn Hall. How may I help you?"
His eyes beat a path up and down her body, taking her measure. She may have shivered a little, and she wasn't a shiverer, either. She chalked it up to being exhausted and brain-fried. The Peaches had wiped her out with their antics.
Excerpted from The Sweetheart Racket by Cheryl Ann Smith. Copyright © 2016 Cheryl Ann Smith. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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