Jade Radcliffe had her iPod plugged in and the volume cranked. But while the Black Eyed Peas were doing a fine job of keeping her awake after so many hours on the road, her Porsche’s windshield wipers weren’t doing squat. Even set to high, they couldn’t compete with the rain that was coming down in buckets. Route 95 had become a regular Slip’N Slide. While sliding over water-slicked surfaces was a favorite summer amusement of her nieces and nephews, Jade had been driving too many hours. Her initial “whee”s whenever the Porsche lost traction had turned into tired complaints of “oh, shit.”
The traffic had slowed to a crawl, making the driving marginally safer. But at this speed there was no way she was going to reach Warburg tonight. When she left Ocala, Florida, this morning, she was confident that she would reach Rosewood, her family’s home in Virginia, by dinnertime. She badly wanted to see them all: Margot and Travis and their kids, Georgiana, four, and Will, nine months old now and thus starting to get interesting. Margot was so besotted she sent Jade daily email updates with photo attachments chronicling Will’s achievements, just as she’d done for Georgie. Jade was the only person she knew whose computer kept running out of storage space because she had so many e-photo albums of babies staring up at brightly colored mobiles or giving toothless grins in their high chairs.
The cute munchkins populating Rosewood didn’t stop there. Now there was also Jordan and Owen’s baby boy, Edward, nicknamed Neddy, who had been named after Ned Connelly. Having worked his entire life at Rosewood Farm, Ned was like family to Jade and her sisters; Owen and Jordan’s gesture had made the old man nearly burst with pride and joy.
And when it came to being completely gaga over their new baby, Jordan and Owen rivaled Travis and Margot.
Earlier in the spring, Jade got a video of Neddy taking his first steps, with Owen filming and narrating the clip. Owen was a pretty cool guy. Suave and sophisticated. But from the excitement in Owen’s voice, Neddy could as well have been Neil Armstrong taking that first step on the moon for mankind rather than tottering toward his big half sister Olivia’s outstretched arms, while the rest of the Rosewood clan cheered him on.
Neddy would probably be fairly steady on his sneakers by now, and doing his best to keep up with his older half brother, Max. Kate, the oldest of the bunch from Jordan’s first marriage, was showing in children’s hunter classes and doing a really fine job on Doc Holliday.
Yeah, Jade definitely wanted to be back in the Radcliffe–Maher–Gage fold, insane though her sisters were sometimes. She’d missed everyone this summer while she was down in Ocala, but now, in addition to having a brand-spanking-new degree in education, her training session in Florida had given her the right to boast that she was certified as a hunter/jumper trainer by the United States Hunter Jumper Association. It would come in handy when she began spreading the word about the riding program she was starting at Rosewood Farm.
Through the swish of her windshield wipers, Jade saw the sudden bright flare of brake lights as the cars ahead of her went from a crawl to a stop, turning the highway into a long, thin, rain-drenched parking lot.
She sat, drumming her hands to Phoenix’s “1901” and jiggling her legs against the leather bucket seat so that at least something was moving. Damn and double damn. The dashboard clock read nine-thirty p.m. and she hadn’t even reached Norfolk yet. There was no way she’d make it to Rosewood tonight. It wouldn’t be right to show up on the doorstep at 1:30 a.m. and wake Margot and Travis. Moreover, if Margot heard that Jade wanted to push on through in a storm this bad, she’d freak.
Perhaps she’d show Margot—and Jordan, as Jade knew Margot would get on the horn to their older sister within seconds—how much she’d matured. Leagues removed from the Jade of yesteryear. And it was even all right to pick up her cell and speed-dial Margot’s number, since the car hadn’t moved an inch since she’d made her decision.
Margot answered on the second ring. “Jade? Where are you? God, it’s pouring and the wind is picking up.”
“It’s pouring here too. I’m stuck on 95 somewhere south of Norfolk—”
“Norfolk! That means you still have a good four hours of driving.”
More than that, Jade thought, since every car around her was going nowhere fast. A flash of lights in her rearview mirror alerted her to an ambulance coming up the breakdown lane. “There must be an accident up ahead. An ambulance just drove past. Listen, I’m going to get off at the next exit and find a place for the night. But I’ll hit the road first thing, so make sure somebody does a Braverman’s run, okay? I’ve been dreaming of their cinnamon raisin bagels for the past two nights.”
“Stopping for the night is a very good idea.” Surprisingly, Margot didn’t sound stunned speechless by Jade’s announcement. “But, Jade, make sure it’s a nice place and well lit.”
“Got it. No Bates Motel for me.”
“Ha. Very funny. You’ll call as soon as you’ve checked in?”
“It might not be for a while yet.”
“That’s fine. And use the credit card on my account, sweetie. I want you to have a nice night.”
“Norfolk Ritz, here I come.”
“No need to get carried away,” Margot replied with a laugh. “But you’ll remember to call, right? I won’t be able to sleep until I know you’ve found a place and are safe and sound.”
“I’ll call,” she promised before hanging up.
As Jade’s legal guardian, Margot had probably passed a lot of sleepless nights while Jade was off at college. She’d have passed a lot more of them if she’d known some of the things Jade got up to on the weekends when she wasn’t competing with the collegiate equestrian team. A good acre of wild oats had been sown.
That was the Jade of old, the one who sometimes felt the need to step right up to the edge and do something crazy with a wild, fiery lick of danger. But though she’d had her share of parties and experiences, it hadn’t prevented her from getting straight A’s even with a supercharged course load, being the top scorer on her riding team, and writing a very popular advice column for the school paper.
The four years of parties and serial relationships (she liked the sex just fine, but her life had been way too busy to bother with the guys afterward) while she earned her college degree were over. She was returning to Warburg with a plan she intended to execute with the precision of a military campaign, her ultimate goal being to banish her hometown’s less-than-fond memories of her by turning into the most model of model citizens. From now on, her activities would be restricted to teaching at the elementary school, training Rosewood’s horses, and concentrating on building a young riders’ program. Who could find fault with such a life of utter respectability?
Admittedly, her campaign to present a squeaky-clean image would be easier if she didn’t also have hiring a detective on her to-do list. But discovering who was the TM her mother had gushed about in her diary was an absolute imperative. The need had sprung full blown inside Jade the second she’d accidentally stumbled upon her mother’s private journal in her half sister Jordan’s closet.
Like curious Pandora with her box, Jade had opened the gaudy pink diary and, recognizing her mother’s handwriting, started reading. Having entered Jordan’s closet simply to borrow a sleeveless ratcatcher for an upcoming horse show, she’d left it with her perception of her mother forever altered. Damningly so.
She’d not only learned that her mother had been having an affair with someone she called TM, she’d also learned in entry after entry the depths of her mother’s resentment and dislike for her only child. According to her mother, Jade was endlessly spoiled and obnoxious, a drain that sucked all the energy out of her.
If Jade was the black hole in her life, this TM was her sun, the frigging life-affirming center of her universe.
It must have utterly destroyed Dad to read those words. And he had read them. Her sister Margot had been the one to stumble upon the diary first, finding it in a drawer in their father’s office desk. Jade knew her dad well enough to realize that he’d have read the journal as obsessively as she, feeling more and more betrayed with each reading.
Jade despised whoever this TM was for getting involved with her mother. And since she now had access to the money her mother had left her, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t use it to hire a private investigator. Dad would approve, even if Margot and Jordan didn’t.
So the trick would be to make sure they never found out.
Thank God, she thought, as the traffic ahead began to move. She was actually going to get to shift into first gear and leave these dark thoughts behind.
Jade found a hotel outside Norfolk. The place was ablaze with lights. No Bates Motel–like features about it. It occurred to her as she drove in to the crammed parking lot that it might be a bit too busy, and as she grabbed her duffel bag from the Porsche’s trunk, she hoped there was a free room.
The rain was still coming down in lashing sheets. In the few minutes it took to shoulder her bag, double-check that her car was locked, and sprint across the parking lot, she was soaked. Stepping into the lobby, she blinked, disoriented by the bright lights and colors after staring into silvery blackness for so long.
Several guests were huddled around the reception desk, asking questions about breakfast and airport shuttles and what might entertain the kids if it was too wet to go to the beach tomorrow and God knew what else, while she shivered slightly in the chill of the air-conditioning and left wet footprints on the plush maroon carpeting. Finally the last guest ambled happily toward the bank of elevators and she stepped up to the desk. Dropping her duffel bag and placing her ultra- sweet Prada hobo bag (a graduation present from Margot) on top of the wooden counter, she smiled at the black-jacketed receptionist.
“May I help you?”
The man was in his mid-thirties and looked as if he’d been on duty for a while—in other words, tired and harassed. He also wore a wedding ring. Deciding that he didn’t look the type to hit on her, she gave him a friendly smile. “Yes, please. I’d like a room for the night.”
“Do you have a reservation?”
“I’m afraid not.”
He expelled a breath. “I’ll have to check whether anything’s available. We’ve had a crazy week with two conferences going on. On top of that, a large wedding party arrived today.”
“I really hope you have something. I’ve been on the road all day, driving up from Florida.”
He looked up, his brows raised in surprise. “Florida?”
Jade nodded. “From Ocala. I’m heading to Warburg. The storm started somewhere in North Carolina, and then there was a pretty bad accident about twenty miles south of here. That’s when I realized it might be smart to call it a night. I Googled hotels in the area and yours had the best reviews. I’d like to avoid getting back in the car if at all possible.” Dragging her soaked hair from her face, she gave him another cheerful smile, as if she had no doubt he’d do everything in his power to help her.
Margot and Jordan would never guess how much she’d picked up from them when it came to the art of sweet-talking. It definitely had its uses. Like now.
“Well, you’re in luck,” he announced happily. “We do have a room. It has a king-size bed, water views.”
She didn’t give a fig about the view, since she’d be on her way to Rosewood at first light, but a big bed would be heaven after the lumpy twin bunk bed she’d been assigned in Ocala.
“That sounds perfect.” Jade was already reaching into her bag. “Here’s my credit card. Do you need my driver’s license too?”
“Yes, and the license-plate number of your car, please.”
As Jade waited for him to take down her information, the notes of a Rob Thomas song reached her. Turning her head toward the source, she saw couples wandering into a softly lit area.
“The bar looks nice.”
His eyes still fixed on the computer, the receptionist nodded. “It’s got a dance floor, and Chaz, our DJ, plays good music. On a night like this, the guests really appreciate having a nightspot they don’t have to drive to. Plenty of Norfolk residents like to come here for a night of dancing. Here you go, Miss Radcliffe.” He handed back her ID and credit card as well as another plastic card. “This is your electronic key. Your room number is 412. Take the elevator to the fourth floor and turn right down the hallway. The room will be on your right. Do you need help with your luggage?”
“No, thanks, I’ve got it.”
He smiled. “Then have a good night.”
“After nearly thirteen hours on the road, I’m going to sleep like a baby.”
After dumping her duffel bag in the corner, Jade dutifully rang Margot, letting herself fall back onto the king-size mattress as she said, “Hi, sis. I’m here, safe and sound.”
“You got a room?”
“Yeah, but the only one they had left was the honeymoon suite. It’s a thousand bucks a night, but the champagne’s free, so you didn’t come out too badly.” She grinned up at the ceiling.
“Ha. So in addition to getting your instructor certification, you’ve been fine-tuning your comedy act.”
“Yup. Nice to know motherhood hasn’t turned your brain to Swiss cheese.”
“If my brain could survive your teen years intact, I should be safe.”
“I was prepping you. Now you’re ready for anything.”
“Thanks,” Margot replied drily. “The room’s okay?”
“It’s got a great bed. Nice and firm.” She jounced on it again for good measure.
“Well, get a good rest, sweetie. You must be wiped out after such a long drive.”
Strangely enough, now that she’d gotten horizontal, Jade was wide awake, twitchy with adrenaline. But knowing her sister would like to think of her curled up and sleeping as blissfully as Georgie and Will, she replied with a noncommittal “Mmm-hmm.”
“We’ll all be waiting for you, and so will the cinnamon raisin bagels. Sleep tight, Jade.”
“You too, sis.” Pressing the off button, she sprang up from the bed and began stripping out of her still-damp clothes. A hot shower might do the trick and relax her.
She faced facts after she’d dried her hair with the blow-dryer provided by the hotel. She was more awake than ever, and if she tried to sleep now, she’d drive herself insane tossing and turning.
She was also kind of hungry. There was room service, but then she thought of the bar downstairs. She could go down and have a drink and relax and munch on a few salted peanuts and potato chips. They’d balance out the M&M’s and Twizzlers and Reese’s Pieces she’d consumed along with her Red Bulls and iced coffees. And it’d be fun to go to a bar in Virginia legally. After getting busted with a fake ID, she’d steered clear of Warburg’s bars, convinced that if she made one false step, a particularly scary cop would somehow appear, all wrath and righteousness, to nail her butt. But now that she’d almost reached the ripe old age of twenty-two, she figured she could walk into a bar without glancing over her shoulder. There were definite advantages to growing up.
Dropping her towel, she went over to her duffel bag and dug out a bra, a pair of undies, her white jeans, and a Jean Paul Gaultier chiffon tank, which Margot had been given on one of her modeling shoots but decided looked better on Jade than it did on her. She also grabbed the only semi-dressy shoes she’d packed for Florida: a pair of high-heeled sandals—another hand-me-down from Margot.
Having a fashion model for an older sister, who just happened to wear the same size from head to toe, was pretty darned fantastic. Economical too. Second-grade-teacher pay scales couldn’t cover Jean Paul Gaultier or Christian Louboutin sandals.
The steady stream of designer rags and trimmings wasn’t likely to run dry either. Even though Margot had two kids and had announced her semiretirement, her agent, Damien Barnes, continued to receive requests for her. That she was still in high demand in the fashion world came as a surprise only to Margot. In Jade’s opinion, Margot was more beautiful than ever. Jordan was too, for that matter. Happiness could do that.
Dressed, Jade dragged a brush through her hair and applied some lip gloss. Grabbing her handbag and room key, she headed down to the hotel’s bar to have a nice relaxing drink.