Trading Places

Trading Places

by Fern Michaels

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Twin sisters pull off a daring identity switch in this contemporary classic from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sisterhood series.

Atlanta police detective Aggie Jade is still recovering from the raid that nearly killed her and took the life of her partner and former boyfriend. Though she’s not ready to hit the streets again, she’s desperate to hunt down the cop killers who shattered her world. But there’s only one person who can help her in her quest for vengeance—her identical twin sister.

Lizzie Jade is as flashy and fiery as Aggie is quiet and conservative—and the high-rolling Vegas gambler loves a challenge. But the gutsy charade gets complicated when sexy investigative reporter Nathan Hawke senses something different about the new Aggie, especially since she suddenly isn’t shying away from his flirtations. As they join forces to uncover a web of lies and corruption, Lizzie finds herself giving in to his charms. But how can she confess that she’s not who he thinks she is? And how can she let herself fall in love when she and her twin might have to run for their lives?

With her signature “real and endearing” (Los Angeles Times) prose and plenty of electrifying suspense, Fern Michaels delivers another unforgettable romantic thriller.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982147815
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 07/28/2020
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 178,853
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author Fern Michaels has a passion for romance that stems from her other joys in life—her family, animals, and historic homes. She is usually found in South Carolina, where she is either tapping out stories on her computer or completing some kind of historical restoration.


Summerville, South Carolina

Place of Birth:

Hastings, Pennsylvania


High School

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Detective Agnes Jade was so tense she felt brittle. If these people don't get out of here, I'm going to shatter into a million pieces, she thought. She did her best to tune out the conversation. She thought she heard someone say something about awarding her a medal at some ceremony. That would be the day.

Aggie looked up to see the officer from Internal Affairs she'd been dealing with staring at her. Go ahead, stare, you bastard, see if I care. For six months he'd hounded her until she thought she was going to lose what little mind she had left. And now he was forced to hear one of her colleagues say not only was she reinstated on the force, all charges dropped, but they were going to give her a damn medal in the bargain. She wished she cared enough to interpret his expression. She didn't.

She could see her gun and badge on the desk waiting to be claimed. No one was saying where she'd be assigned, which probably meant a desk job. Well, you can all just kiss my butt. For one wild moment she thought she'd voiced the thought aloud. She hadn't.

"Ninety days' leave with full pay, Officer Jade," the police commissioner said.

Aggie nodded as the police photographer did his best to position her, the mayor, and the commissioner, and still get both of her walking canes in the picture. The canes were for effect. She really didn't need them anymore. Well, hardly ever. They wanted her to smile and say something. Her tired brain struggled for the words. She wanted to talk about Tom. Maybe she should pick up the gun and badge. Would that satisfy the photographer? Like she cared. They were waiting for something important to pass her lips. You want important, you bastards. I'll give you important.

Aggie looked directly into the camera. "Where's my dog?"

Taken by surprise, the little group of dignitaries stared at her. It was the mayor who responded first. "The K-9 is at the pound, and he's being taken care of. We tried to put him back to work when he recovered, but he refused to cooperate. He wouldn't obey his handler. You can pick him up anytime you're ready, Detective Jade."

Aggie digested the information. Gustav uncooperative. Never. He was safe and sound, and that was all she cared about. She had to smile now and say what they wanted so she could get out of there.

At best it was a sickly smile. The words were just words. She was glad to be reinstated, glad her six-month medical ordeal was over, and glad that she'd been given a clean bill of health. She didn't care to answer questions about Detective Madsen at this time. She had plenty to say about him, but that could come later.

Outside the mayor's office her friend Alex Rossiter waited for her. He tapped his horn lightly. Once, a long time ago, she'd had a serious crush on Alex. The only problem was, Alex had been engaged to a model who looked good on his arm. Unfortunately for her, Alex's relationship ended after she became involved with Tom Madsen. She'd been there for Alex because that's what friends were for, something Tom never understood. Alex had been there for her, too, during those horrendous weeks when they didn't know if she would live or die.

She knew he was there even when she'd slip into her black hole. He'd squeeze her hand and say, "C'mon, Aggie, fight. We have things to do and places to go."

It had been his mantra for six long months. When she finally climbed all the way out of her black hole, he'd switched up to a new mantra in the therapy room which was "Show me what you're made of. You can do it!" He was better than any of the physical therapists. He'd been so bossy, so sure of himself and his capabilities, he'd managed, somehow, to schedule her therapy when his last class was over. Dr. Alex Rossiter was the head of the engineering department at Georgia Tech.

Aggie looked at him now as he stepped out of the car in the dark, gray morning. He was wearing jeans that fit him like a glove, Nikes, and an old tee shirt that said he was a member of some fraternity. He was tall, lean, and muscular, with a shock of dark brown hair that was so unruly he tended to wear a baseball cap to smash his hair against his head. The one he was wearing today said, Atlanta Braves. He had remarkable pearl gray eyes and a magnificent smile.

She wondered how she looked to him. She'd lost a lot of weight these last six months. When they'd weighed her before discharging her from the hospital, the nurse had wagged her finger, and said, "Eat a gallon of ice cream every day." Of course it was a joke. Her hair just hung about her face. She needed a good haircut, some conditioning treatments, and maybe a hair color touch-up. She'd seen gray hairs yesterday. She'd been tempted to pull them out but knew two more would sprout in their place. In the end, it was just easier to look away from the mirror. It was better not to think about the sack dress she was wearing.

He hugged her. It felt good. "I want to pick up Gus. Will you take me to the pound?"

Alex held the door for her, made sure she was comfortable and belted in before he tossed her two canes into the backseat of the Pathfinder. He nodded.

Settled behind the wheel, he looked over at Aggie. "I swear to God, Aggie, I did everything but turn myself inside out to get Gus. The department said he was police property and wouldn't release him. I went every single day to see him. I know, I know, you bought and paid for him yourself, but they wouldn't let me into your house to get his papers. That damn crime scene yellow tape is still across your door. I don't get it, your house wasn't a crime scene. As late as yesterday afternoon, I tried to get them to remove the tape so I could send my cleaning lady there to spruce up the place. No dice. You work for a bunch of assholes, Aggie."

It was true. She leaned her head back. "Cleaning up the place will give me something to do. I'm okay. I can do stuff like that now."

"Maybe tomorrow but not today. Don't argue. We're taking Gus to my place and I am going to cook you a big spaghetti dinner and I'm making a steak for Gus. I bought him some new toys and a bunch of dog treats. He really likes me."

"I bet he does," Aggie said. "I hope he remembers me. Six months is a long time for him not to see me. I thought he would feel I abandoned him."

Alex threw back his head and laughed.

Alex's laugh was one of the things she liked best about him. It was always genuine, and his eyes crinkled up at the corners.

"I don't think you have a thing to worry about. That first day, after he was on the mend, and they let me visit him, I took him an old sweatshirt of yours that you left at my place one time when we went running together. I tried to get it away from him to wash it, but he wasn't parting with it."

"No kidding! Thanks, Alex."

"What are friends for?" He reached across the console to pat her shoulder. "It really is going to be all right, Aggie. Okay, we're here. He knows you're here. Listen."

Aggie closed her eyes and listened. She could pick his bark out from a thousand different dogs. She laughed then, her face lighting with joy. She would have hopped out of the truck and run through the gates, but she was a bit slow these days. She had to take it easy for a little while. Shattered femurs, shoulders, and gut wounds healed, but she was still fragile. Kevlar vests didn't protect those parts of the anatomy.

And then she saw Gus in his cage. She started to cry. The big dog whined and tried to scale the cage, only to slip and fall down. She opened the latch and dropped to her knees. The shepherd lathered her with kisses, his big paws on her shoulders. Then he was in her lap and hugging her with his big paws.

Alex watched in awe. In his life he'd never seen such devotion. He smiled. She was whispering something to the dog, and he appeared to be listening, as if he understood the familiar words. He strained to hear what Aggie was saying.

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog.

"You're his life, his love, his leader.

"He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.

"You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.

"God, I missed you, Gus. From now on, you are not leaving my side. Ever." The dog burrowed deeper into her lap, happy at last.

Cicero's words. Alex knuckled his eyes. "If you hold him any tighter, you're going to squeeze the life out of him, Aggie." His voice was so husky, sounded so gruff, he had a hard time believing it was his own.

Aggie loosened her fierce hold on the big dog. "Are you sure he's all healed and has no problems?"

"The surgeon told me he's good to go. He's as healed as you are, Aggie. I think now, that you're both together, it's going to be even better. It's a good thing you bought him that bulletproof vest. His legs are healed, his tail is two inches shorter, but he's as healthy as ever."

"How much do I owe you for the operation, Alex?"

"We can talk about that later. Right now I just want to get my favorite person and my favorite dog home. Let's go."

"Come on, boy, we're going home." Home was a small three-bedroom house on Peachtree that she'd bought eight years earlier. It had a front porch and a fenced-in yard. In the spring and summer she filled the porch and the yard with flowers. At Christmastime she always bought two Christmas trees, a balled tree that could be planted in the spring, which she decorated on the front porch, and a second one for her living room. It was a cozy house, small and comfortable. She'd furnished it slowly, buying a piece at a time, agonizing for weeks until she was certain it was just the right piece, and always paying cash because she hated seeing bills arrive in her mailbox.

Aggie gave the dog a quick hug. "Actually, we're going home tomorrow. Today we're going with Alex to his house. Okay, let's go."

Tears continued to drip down Aggie's face as she watched the big shepherd sprint to the far end of his cage to return with her tattered sweatshirt. "Do you want that other stuff in the corner?" The dog looked at her as if to say, why would I want that junk? His cropped tail swished importantly as he waited for her to fasten his leash. He hugged her legs as they made their way out to Alex's Pathfinder.

"I'm going to sit in the back with him, Alex."

Alex listened, a smile on his face, to the soft murmurings coming from the backseat as he drove to Buckhead, where he lived in a big old house with wonderful shade trees and woodburning fireplaces. He'd gutted and refurbished the house summers and holidays when he was off from school. He'd done a lot but still had the second floor to go. It was the kind of house that begged for a bunch of kids and a couple of dogs. He had two goldfish named Yin and Yang, though. Until he could get the kids and dogs, not to mention a wife, Yin and Yang would have to do.

He took his eyes off the crowded highway long enough to risk a glance in the rearview mirror. Aggie was sound asleep against Gus's broad back. The dog's eyes were closed, too. He returned to his thoughts. There for a while he thought he was ready to trip down the aisle because he'd been convinced he'd met his soul mate. Stacey had said she was willing to sign the prenup he insisted on. What she objected to was his friendship with Aggie. And she hated Gus, which meant he wasn't going to have a bunch of dogs running around his house. He'd cooled it right then and there because there was no way in hell he was going to give up his friendship with Aggie or Gus.

He'd thought his heart was broken, but Aggie convinced him it was just bruised. Citing the vet who tended to Gus, she'd said, "As long as you can eat and poop, you'll be all right." She was right, of course, because he had survived. Stacey, the last he'd heard, was engaged to some disc jockey.

Alex risked another look at his passenger. His heart fluttered at how wasted she looked. They'd been friends for longer than he could remember, even before it was fashionable to say you had friends of the opposite sex. Even after all these years he still couldn't get over the fact that his friend packed a gun, wore a badge, and was an expert in martial arts and knew everything there was to know about automatic weapons. It was still a mystery to him how she'd managed to have a relationship with Tom Madsen with all she packed into a twenty-four-hour period.

He'd never liked Tom Madsen. He'd tolerated him for Aggie's sake just the way she had tolerated Stacey Olin. He wondered now the way he'd wondered hundreds of times during the past six months why he and Aggie had never hooked up as a couple. Once, he'd thought she had a crush on him. She'd pooh-poohed that idea right out of his head. He'd lusted after her, that was for sure, but she'd chopped him off at the knees from the git-go, saying she'd invested too much time and energy into making their friendship work to have him foul it up. If he'd had a tail, it would have been between his legs when he'd scurried away after that remark.

It was a wonderful friendship. One he cherished and treasured.

Alex slowed the Pathfinder and drove up the long driveway that led to his house. Gus reared up and looked out the window. A paw slapped down on his shoulder. Smart dog. He knew they weren't home.

"It's just for today and tonight, Gus. Up and at 'em, Aggie! We are at my abode."

"Really. So soon? I can't believe I fell asleep. I can't wait to sleep in a real bed with nice sheets. You have some nice sheets, don't you, Alex? Do you have some with flowers on them?"

"Nah. I'm a guy. I have striped ones — 360-thread count. My sister gave them to me. Will they do? They're kind of soft, you know, slithery."

"Slithery, huh? Stripes will do just fine. Do you mind if I give Gus a bath in your tub? I want to wash away all that smell. I don't want any reminders of the pound. I'd like to borrow some of your clothes. I know I'll swim in them, but that's okay. Did I thank you for everything, Alex?"

"About five hundred times. C'mon, I'm going to cook for you. You're going to eat it, too. I even bought you a bottle of super-duper vitamins this morning. While the sauce is cooking, I'm going to your place and rip off that damn crime scene tape and meet my cleaning lady there. Tomorrow when you go home, it will be like you never left."

She nodded. "I always liked this house. It's an Alex house. I never met a guy who has as much junk as you do. You have to stop storing stuff for other people or else charge them rent. Sometimes you are so dumb, Alex. I wish you'd quit being such a soft touch. People take advantage of you." She waved her arms to point out three mountain bikes, assorted cartons and boxes, picture frames, and other things she called junk.

"You want me to be hard as nails like you, is that what you're saying?"

Aggie stopped in her tracks and looked up at him. "Is that how you think of me, Alex?" she asked softly.

"Sometimes. Most of the time. A lot of the time. Yeah."

"Hard as nails goes with the job. I do know how to...purr."

He was standing on a slippery slope, and he knew it. "That's great. You know where the bathroom is. Do your thing, and I'll start the sauce. It has to cook all day. Stir it every so often. I'll bring something for lunch when I get back from your place."

"Okay. Thanks for signing me out and bringing me here. I'll make it up to you somehow."

Alex got a vicious pleasure out of ripping away the yellow crime scene tape. He wadded it into a ball before he tossed it on the front porch. He took a moment to look around. The porch looked drab and ugly, like no one ever walked or sat on it. He knew Aggie loved the porch. She'd fix it up as soon as she got back. Spring flowers were out now. The next time he came here it would probably look like a rainbow.

The key fit easily into the lock. Before he turned the knob he looked down at his watch. Sophia, his twice-a-week cleaning lady, was due any minute. He walked into the dim interior, did a double take, then backed out to the porch. This was the right house. He'd been here hundreds of times. He liked it because it was small, cozy, and comfortable, the way Aggie could be when she wasn't packing heat and her billy club.

He sucked in his breath, reentered the house, where he fumbled for the light switch. Seeing the front room or as Aggie called it, the parlor, in the dim light was one thing but seeing it flooded with light was something else.

He cursed then, using every obscenity he'd ever learned. The room, and probably the rest of the house, was a shambles. The furniture, the comfortable two-seater chair that Aggie liked to curl up in with Gus was nothing but a frame, the contents of the cushions spilled everywhere. The couch was in worse shape. The lamps were smashed, the pictures ripped and tattered. Even the rug in the middle of the floor was slashed and half-rolled-up.

Shambles was too kind a word.

"Who did this?" Sophia asked, coming up behind him and scaring the daylights out of him.

Alex whirled around. "I don't know. I just got here. I'm no cop, but even I can figure out someone was looking for something. That's as far as I've gotten. I'm sure the rest of the house is just like this. Look, I can't let Aggie come back here until we get this fixed. I'm going to leave you my cell phone. Call the trash people and have them come here now to cart off this stuff. Pay them whatever it takes." He stuffed some bills in her hand. "This is a lot for you to handle, Sophia, so call a couple of your nieces and have them come to help you. I'll pay you all double. Just get it all cleaned up. I'm going out to buy some new furniture. Take this credit card and go to the Lenox mall and buy some new sheets with flowers on them. Make sure they're soft."

The cleaning lady nodded. "You better check the bedroom to see if the mattress has been cut up before you go shopping, Mr. Alex."

Alex sprinted up the steps. "Son of a bitch!" The bedroom and the guest room were just as bad as the living room and dining room. A murderous look on his face, he careened down the steps and out to the kitchen. Every dish appeared to be broken. Flour, sugar, coffee, and pasta crunched under his feet. The oven door was hanging on one hinge. The refrigerator door hung open, everything in the freezer smelled rotten. He looked at the back door to the house, which opened into the kitchen, and saw the dead bolts in place.

As he bolted from the house, he called over his shoulder. "Send one of your nieces to the store to replenish the refrigerator. Buy some staples to get her through a few days. And, for God's sake, don't forget the dog food and hamburger meat for Gus."

Two hours later, he had the promise of the furniture salesman that delivery would be made by six o'clock. While the furniture wasn't the same as what Aggie had had, it was brand new, comfortable, and soft. It was the best he could do.

There was no way he was going to mention this to Aggie today. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

He was almost to his own house when he realized the front door to Aggie's house had been locked. The kitchen door had a dead bolt at the top and one at the bottom, and were keyless. The bolts were for nighttime use. Whoever had entered the house had a key. Tom Madsen would have had a key. Tom Madsen was dead. Who got his personal effects? Or were they still at the police station?

Aggie looked down at her empty plate. "I don't remember the last time I ate that much. I think it's your kitchen, Alex. I like all your green plants and this big bow window. I might get up early in the morning and sit here with the sun coming through. Do not even think about trying to shove that ice cream into me. Maybe later if I can stay up long enough to even want it. You make better spaghetti than I do." She hitched up the oversize tee shirt that was sliding off her shoulders.

Alex leaned back in his captain's chair. "Do you have a game plan, Aggie? Or are you going to go home and vegetate?" His conscience pricked him. Tell her now.

"I might veg out for a few days. I've done nothing but think these past two months. The four months prior to that I was in too much pain even to think."

Alex made his voice carefully neutral. "Do you want to talk about it, Aggie? Two heads are better than one. I've been known to come up with a good idea now and then. I think what I want to know right now is are you going to go back to work at the end of the ninety days? You don't have to. You majored in criminal justice. The FBI would love someone like you." This might be the time to tell her about the condition of her house.

"I'm...working on something in my mind. It could be dangerous, and it could be risky. I don't have to take the whole ninety days. As long as I show up for the shrink appointments, I'll be in compliance with the department's rules. I can do it over the phone, too. If I wanted to, I could go back to work next week. I don't want to. I'm going to go to the farm and raise organic carrots. Gus will have a great time running around in all the open areas. He needs lots of exercise now." At her friend's look of disbelief, she grimaced. "What's wrong with raising organic carrots? Nothing, that's what.

"Don't you get it, Alex? They won't be able to find me. You and Lizzie are the only ones who know about the farm. Hell, they don't even know about Lizzie's being my sister much less my twin. I didn't exactly lie on my application, I just didn't include that information. I didn't want anyone to know my sister was a professional gambler. Among other things I'd rather not talk about. I was born and raised right here in Atlanta. The farm came to me and Lizzie from an uncle on my mother's side of the family. It belonged to his wife, but they never had children. Lizzie and I were next in line to inherit. I never even told Tom. Before you can ask, I guess I didn't trust him enough to tell him. Our relationship was over months before the...the accident. I call it an accident because I don't know what else to call it."

Alex fiddled with his napkin. Organic carrots. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Aggie ran her fingers through her hair. She looked away. "Because I didn't want to hear you say, I told you so. Two days...before...I put in for a transfer. If Tom knew, he didn't let on. He really thought we would get back together at some point."

Alex looked down at the old brick he'd laid for his kitchen floor. He looked for flaws but couldn't see any. Maybe he should have been a mason. He really didn't mean to ask, but the words tumbled out. "What went wrong?"

Aggie licked at her dry lips. "That blue wall. I didn't like some of the guys Tom hung out with. He told me he thought three of them, Dutch Davis, Joe Sandors, and Will Fargo, the property clerk, were helping themselves to some of the confiscated drugs and selling them. He said they didn't know he was on to them. That was the reason for the stakeout that night. The Big Three, as he called them, were going to peddle several kilos of cocaine to two buyers in that alley. A whole kilo would have been missed, so Fargo stole little bits at a time. Then when they had enough for a big score, they'd sell them. We're talking big bucks here. I'm not sure in my own mind that Tom wasn't in on it. I think Tom thought I was on to him and that was why I broke it off. He never said that. It's just my opinion.

"I can't get it straight in my mind. Either it was a setup to take me out, or he was on the up and up and they took him out. I guess I was supposed to die, too. And, of course, Gus. I want to know what happened, but I'm realistic enough to know I might never find out."

Alex thought he probably should change the subject to organic carrots rather than the condition of her house. The only thing was, he knew squat about carrots other than they were on the sweet side and crunchy as well as good for the eyes. He knew even less about breaking and entering and cop stuff. He opted for another alternative altogether.

"Where does your sister enter into this?"

"I don't know. I thought...maybe I dreamed it, but I was going to call her and ask her to take my place while I..."

"Raise organic carrots."

"Yeah. See, even you got it. Keep it simple, I always say." She yawned, then apologized.

"You said your sister was squirrelly, a flaky kind of gal. I tend to think your department would frown on such shenanigans, and isn't it against the law to impersonate a police officer? That's what she would be doing, you know."

Aggie yawned again. "Everything you said is true. Look, I didn't say I was going to go ahead with it. I said I was thinking about it. I could pull it off. Lizzie looks just like me. Maybe not right this minute, but in a couple of weeks, after I put some weight back on, no one will be able to tell the difference.

"One time, when we were seniors in high school, Lizzie was juggling three or four different boyfriends and she got things a little mixed up. She liked these two guys and somehow or other made a date with each of them for the same night. She asked me to stand in for her on one of them that particular night. Then she said I had to date the other guy so we could decide which one to pick. Do you believe that? I did it because I always did what Lizzie wanted for some reason. Even back then she liked living on the edge. Anyway, I picked guy number two because he didn't have arms like an octopus. Two weeks later she was on to some other guy and neither one of those guys had a clue they were going out with me.

"We used to fool our mother, too. You'd think a mother would know her own kids. Ours didn't. For a long time she made us wear bracelets with our names on them, but as we got older, she just gave up. It was fun, I do have to say that. Today, there isn't anyone who can tell us apart. Unless they look at Lizzie's butt. She has a tattoo there. They'll probably assign me to a different precinct, where no one knows the old me.

"In her...ah...line of work, Lizzie had to learn about firearms. She's a crack shot. She's almost as good as me in the martial arts arena. Again, in her line of work, those skills are necessities. Plus, she can bullshit her way out of any situation. The end will justify the means, Alex."

Alex tipped his chair backward and stared up at the ceiling. "Let me make sure I have this straight now. You and your squirrelly sister are going to trade places in the hopes that she can ferret out what went down that night. While she's doing that, you are going to be at the farm you think no one knows about, raising organic carrots."

"I might try onions and peas, too. Yeah, that's right. I don't ever have to work again unless I want to. That takes a lot of the pressure off me. Lizzie and I inherited five hundred thousand dollars when our uncle died and left us the farm because with our parents gone, we were the only surviving relatives. We split it. It was his insurance money. Lizzie is a multimillionaire these days. She wanted to take my share and gamble with it, but I was afraid, so I only gave her seventy-five thousand. Guess what I have today in my bank account?"

"A hundred and fifty?"

"Think BIG, Alex."

"Double that?"

"Really BIG, Alex. Lizzie is a high roller."

"A million dollars!"

"Times five."

Alex's eyes popped wide. "No kidding!"

Aggie's head bobbed up and down. "It's a good thing I'm smart, considering my present circumstances. I'm sure the department already ran a check on my finances. It's all in Lizzie's name in Vegas and the Caymans. And she pays the taxes on the earnings."

"I guess that means you trust her."

"Of course I trust her. She's my twin. We're close. Besides, she knows I'd kill her if she ever touched a penny of it. She knows how to do that offshore thing, too. I could probably start up a truck farm of some sort with my organic vegetables."

Alex groaned at her confidence. "Do you know anything about raising vegetables?"

"Not one little thing. When I get home, I'm going on the Net. How hard can it be? You dig a hole, put a seed in it, cover it up, and wait for it to sprout. You water and then you harvest. Voilà, organic whatever."

Alex didn't have the heart to tell her there had to be more to gardening than that. Then again, what do I know? I'm just a stupid engineer. "I'm going with you, Aggie. I just decided. I wouldn't miss the first batch of carrots for anything."

"Really! You don't have any conferences or summer classes scheduled?"

"Nope. I was going to putter around upstairs installing new woodwork and new door frames. I can do that over Christmas break. I think we're going to need a plan, though."

"You're real good with plans, Alex. Why don't you do that while I take Gus out for his walk. Then, if you don't mind, I'm going to bed. I know you cooked, and I should be doing the cleaning up, but I'll do both next time. Okay?"

"Well, sure." Now, tell her now. Get it over with. He knew he wasn't going to tell her because if he did, she wouldn't sleep all night long. She'd also demand to be taken to her house, something he wanted to avoid as long as possible. Morning would be time enough.

He was a whirling dervish as he cleared the table, stacked the dishwasher, and scrubbed out the spaghetti pot because it was too big for the dishwasher. The leftovers would do for lunch for a few days. He was sitting at the table, his feet propped on a chair, smoking his pipe and swigging on a Corona, when Aggie returned.

"You're going to make someone a good wife." Aggie grinned.

"When and if I get married, I'm hanging up my apron and my culinary skills. I only cook because I don't want to starve.

"Aggie, I think you should call your sister from here. They might have bugged your phone at home. They do that on television all the time."

"Oh, you're good! I was thinking the same thing on my walk." She looked over at the digital clock on the stove. "Vegas is three hours behind us, so it's only five o'clock there, which means Lizzie should still be home. I wish you could see the penthouse where she lives. It's got wraparound windows, and her view is of the whole city. At night, it boggles your mind. It's really luxurious. It's a comp. That means it's free. All her food is comped, and so is her car. She drives a candy-apple red Mercedes convertible. She even gets a clothing allowance from the man she works for. Of course, if anything goes awry, like she hits a losing streak, it's all gone."

"We're in the wrong business, Aggie. How much does she make a year, do you know?"

"Different amounts. It depends on how high the stakes are. She gets a percentage of her winnings. She travels all over the country for the guy she works for. The advantage of Lizzie's working for someone else is that he covers her losses on the rare occasion that she losses and pays her expenses, which are pretty high. Lizzie is a smart cookie who likes the good life and knows how to play the angles.

"Do you know what she really wants to do? She just does the gambling thing because she's good at it, and it pays off big-time." Alex shook his head. "She wants to open a dive shop on one of the islands. Her real passion is the water. She loves to snorkel, deep-sea dive, and just swim. Two more years and she can do it and own everything outright. And she won't have to touch her principal. She can be a beach bunny for the rest of her life. She has a degree in marine biology plus a master's. My sister might be a wild card, but she's smart as hell."

"Maybe she can open a produce stand next to her dive shop and sell your carrots." Alex guffawed.

"That wasn't funny. Look, I'm not laughing. Don't ever make fun of my sister again. Hand me the damn phone."

Aggie dialed her sister's private number and waited. "It's Aggie. Listen, sis, I need to talk to you. Yeah, well, I've been kind of busy the last six months. You told me you could take a vacation anytime you wanted. Can you take three months off? You can. Great. Listen, this is what I want you to do...."

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