nine years ago
Daisy Parker gave a little sigh of pleasure as the weight of Nick Coltrane's
naked body pressed her into the mattress. Sweat bonded their bodies together,
while his muscular arms held her tight. She could hardly believe she'd
just surrendered her virginity to him-- let alone with such enthusiasm.
As he pressed kisses into the side of her neck, her body hummed with little
aftershocks of satisfaction. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she stretched
with voluptuous delight.
To think she almost hadn't attended Mo's wedding reception--
which was still in full swing ten floors below. Two years ago, she'd tried
to sever all ties with the Coltranes. She'd detested Nick and Maureen's
father for the cold premeditation with which he'd ended his marriage to
her mother, not to mention the way he'd arranged to have Mama's name smeared
all over the tabloids. She'd seen no point in staying in touch with any
But Mo had refused to let the connection lapse. She'd sent
occasional notes that would have been rude to ignore, since Daisy's beef
had never been with her stepsister. So Daisy had written back, and every
now and then they'd gotten together for a lunch or dinner. When the invitation
to Mo's nuptials had arrived, Daisy hadn't been able to resist.
The wedding at Grace Cathedral had been like something out
of a fairy tale to Daisy's nineteen year old eyes, and Mo and her handsome
groom had looked deliriously happy. But when Daisy arrived at the reception
at the Mark Hopkins Hotel a few hours ago, she'd had second thoughts about
the wisdom of attending.
She didn't belong with the throng of San Francisco's elite
that crowded the Peacock Court-- she never had. Being thrust into their
company again had simply driven home the fact, and she'd planned to leave
as soon as she paid her respects to the bride and groom.
Until Nick had swept her off her feet and blown all rational
thought clear out of her mind.
She still couldn't believe he'd greeted her like a long
lost friend and ditched the reception line to squire her around. He'd
always done such an excellent job of ignoring her that the sudden attention
had been like grabbing hold of the business end of a live wire-- hot,
terrifying, and excitingly disorienting.
There'd been a look in his eyes that she hadn't been able
to define: a sense of displacement maybe, an impression of recklessness
for sure. But he'd charmed her and kept her so off balance with his touch
--a guiding hand in the small of her back here, long, warm fingers wrapped
around her forearm or brushing her bare shoulder there-- that she'd told
herself it didn't matter. He was a golden-skinned god with flashing white
teeth and streaky brown hair, dancing attendance on her, snapping pictures
of her from the camera around his neck, leaving her breathless, exhilarated,
And that was before the dancing began and she got a taste
of being in his arms.
When the lights went low and the music turned slow and torchy,
she'd been a goner. He'd held her so closely she'd felt him from chest
to knees, and he'd been warm, hard, and very happy to see her, as the
old saw went. The next thing she remembered, they were in the hotel elevator
and he was kissing her; then they were in this room, on this bed, and
her heart was pounding, pounding, pounding, her pulse throbbing in places
she hadn't dreamed had a pulse, and he'd been on top of her, inside of
her, and practically before the slight sting of her hymen rupturing had
a chance to pierce her consciousness, his slow hands and urgent hips had
driven her to a place of screaming release.
And all Mama's talk about love finally made sense.
She breathed in his scent as he slowly pushed up on his
elbows. He looked down at her.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." She was more than all right. She felt stupendous.
"Good." He rolled off her and climbed to his feet, and Daisy
propped her head in her hand to admire the play of lamplight across his
naked flesh. He was so gorgeous.
That wasn't the most masculine word in the world, she supposed,
but it suited him to a T. And no one in their right mind would ever deny
he was masculine. Consummately, incomparably masculine. His shoulders
were wide, his biceps hard, and lean, strapping muscle defined his chest.
Body hair that looked silky and soft grew in a tree-of-life pattern, a
fine fan that spread over his pectorals, then dwindled into a narrow trunk
that ran down rigidly defined stomach muscles to disappear into the waistband
of the tuxedo slacks he'd pulled up his hard flanks.
She blinked. He was dressing? "What are you doing?"
"I've got to go."
A moment ago she'd felt supremely confident in her nudity;
now she suddenly felt exposed. Looking around for her dress, she blushed
to see it dangling from the bedside lampshade where it had snagged by
a strap. Plucking a couple of tissues out of the box on the table, she
dabbed surreptitiously at the smear of blood on her inner thighs and shot
him a glance. "Why?"
She watched as Nick pulled on his shirt and his jacket but
didn't bother to fasten them up. He scooped the handful of shirt studs
into his palm and dropped them in his pocket. Tie dangling, hands stuffed
deep in his pant's pockets, he looked over at her. His blue eyes softened,
the corner of his mouth crooked up, and he took a step toward the bed.
Then, just as she was sure he was going to reach for her
again, he pulled himself up short and squared his shoulders. "I've got
an appointment in the morning," he said lightly. "This has been great,
but a guy needs his sleep."
"But, I don't understand. What about...what you said?" What
about when you said you loved me?
He stared at her and just for a moment she could have sworn
his eyes reflected tenderness and longing... regret. Then he shrugged
and the moment was gone. "You really are young, aren't you, Blondie? You
know how the game is played-- people'll say anything in the heat of the
She hadn't known, hadn't even realized it was a game, and
she could only stare at him in humiliated misery as he bent down, gave
her a friendly peck on the cheek, and murmured for her to take care. Then
the door swung closed behind Nick's back, and the opportunity to analyze
the discrepancy passed.
And Daisy was left all alone in a room high atop the Mark
Hopkins to contemplate her passage into adulthood.
Daisy hadn't even cleared the office door before she caught
a load of grief.
Her secretary screeched and stared at her in horror. "Please
tell me you don't actually plan on wearing that."
Stopping short, Daisy glanced down at her gold wool blazer
with the crest on its breast pocket and the navy and gold plaid kilt it
topped. Then she shut the door behind her and looked back at Reggie. "What's
wrong with it? You're the one who told me to wear a skirt."
He rolled his eyes and smoothed his own dapper suit as if
to reassure himself that one of them at least was blessed with fashion
sense. "I didn't tell you to dress like Mary Catherine Parochial meets
"What, the boots, you mean?" She gazed down the navy nyloned
length of her legs to her lace-up boots and the bit of scrunched sox that
topped them. "They're navy; they go."
"Sure, if you're bucking for the Best Dressed Combat Soldier
Who Ever Rolled a Schoolgirl award. Why don't you just throw on a set
of cammies and be done with it? I can probably scrounge up some green
and brown eye-shadow-- we'll camouflage your face, too."
She scowled at him. "You said put on a skirt; I stopped
at home and put on a skirt. I'm sorry if it isn't up to your high standards
of sartorial elegance, but I'm a security specialist, not a debutante.
I don't wear heels, Reg, so you can just forget it. I'd be useless if
I needed to run."
"It's my fondest hope that the only running you'll need
to do is straight to the bank to deposit this new client's check." Reggie
gave her outfit a final disparaging glance before he turned back to his
computer, muttering, "That's if he gives us a check once he gets
a gander at your idea of professional attire."
Knowing it made him crazy to be loomed over, Daisy slapped
her hands down on his desk and leaned her weight on them. "Maybe,
unlike most men," she said between her teeth, "he'll actually have half
a brain in his head and realize this is professional. Granted,
it's not dress-for-success banker pinstripes, but it's eminently suitable
for a woman he'd like to guard his ass."
Reggie was clearly unimpressed, and she straightened. "For
crying out loud, Reg. Who is this guy, anyway-- the crown Prince of
"Close," said a cool voice from the door behind her.
No. Oh, dear God, please; no. Her heart pounding an erratic
tattoo against her ribs, Daisy slowly pivoted, hoping against hope that
her ears had played a trick on her.
They hadn't. It was exactly who she'd feared it would be.
Nick Coltrane. The last man in the world she wanted to see.
He was as gorgeous as ever, too, damn his blue eyes. That
long, beautifully formed body looked as hard and fit as she remembered,
even covered by an old pair of jeans and a V-necked sweater that was accessorized
by the camera around his neck. Mo used to say that Nick looked like he
was born in his tennis whites, and it was true. He had an air of casual
sophistication, of belonging, that was as natural to him as breathing.
But then, why shouldn't he? Sucking in a deep breath, Daisy
squared her shoulders. He did belong; he always had. It was she who had
been the outsider.
She watched him look around her office and, seeing it through
his eyes, she immediately disregarded the inviting butter-cream paint
job she and Reggie had given the walls to showcase the bright posters
they'd framed and hung up. She didn't see the glossy six foot Ficus tree,
or Reg's gleaming genuine wood-like desk. Instead she noticed the scuffed
linoleum and the two battered wooden chairs with the garage sale table
between them against the window wall.
Then she shrugged. So, big deal, it wasn't upscale. It was
nevertheless all hers. Well, hers and the bank's, anyway.
Nick gave her a through perusal. "How are you, Blondie?
You're looking good."
"Don't" --she took an incensed step forward before
she caught herself-- "call me Blondie," she finished with a mildness
that burned her gullet. The nickname was a hot button, and he damn well
knew it, which was undoubtedly the reason he'd pushed it. She'd been sixteen
years old to his twenty-two when he'd first started calling her that,
and fish that she was, she never quit rising to the bait. Feeling heat
radiating in her cheeks, she drew in another deep breath and held it a
moment before easing it out again, perilously close to losing her composure.
She would eat worms before she gave him that satisfaction.
And certainly before she'd allow him to see that when he looked at her
with those cool, casually amused eyes, she felt the screaming ache of
rejection all over again.
Thrusting up her chin, she gazed at him without speaking.
He lounged against the door, ankles crossed and hands in his jeans' pockets,
and looked back at her.
"I take it you two know each other," Reggie said when the
silence had stretched thin.
"My father was married to her mother for a while," Nick
Daisy froze. That was what he saw as their strongest
connection? It shouldn't hurt-- not after all the other ways he'd
managed to hurt her. Yet it did, and she badly wanted to get in his face
and hurt him back, but damned if she'd let him see he still had the power
to get to her.
Reg came to attention behind her, giving her a distraction
to focus on. "Yeah?" he demanded. "Which marriage was that?"
"Her third," she said.
"It was my dad's fifth," Nick offered.
Reggie, bless him, ignored Nick. "That woulda been the rich
guy then, right? The one who landed your mom on the front page of all
Daisy narrowed her eyes at Nick, daring him to say one word.
If he knew what was good for him, he'd keep his mouth shut, because it
was his father's fault her mother had been hounded by those journalistic
rags in the first place.
Nick merely gave her a level-eyed gaze, and determined to
behave like an adult, she met it with a levelness of her own. "So, what's
it been, Coltrane, six, seven years since we last saw each other?" As
if she didn't know to the minute.
"That long? My. Time really flies when you're not being
annoyed. What brings you slumming in my neck of the woods?"
"Uh, he's our two o'clock, Daise."
Slowly, she turned to look at her secretary. "He's what?"
Reggie held his palms up in surrender. "When I made the
appointment I had no idea he was your step--"
"I am not her brother," Nick cut in peremptorily,
his voice flat.
Daisy turned her attention back to him. "No," she said,
"you certainly never wanted that role, did you?"
He met her angry gaze head on. "No. I didn't. And if you
haven't figured out why by now, you're not half as bright as I always
thought you were."
She felt her face flame again, in remembrance and in shame.
"You want to hire me?" she demanded incredulously.
"I don't want to be within five miles of you."
She was proud of her reasonable tone when she suggested,
"Then go home. I don't have time for your rich boy games; I've got a business
Nick looked around. "Yeah, I can see you've got clients
stacked up like cord wood, all right. How do you ever get anything done?"
Please, God, let me hit him just once. Just one little
pop and I'll never ask anything of You again. "Goodbye, Nick." Her
pleated skirt flared out around her thighs as she twirled on her heel
and stalked to her office.
Reluctantly, she turned back to face him, aware of Reggie's
acute interest. Great. He'd be all over her the minute Nick left, and
this fiasco would never be allowed to die a natural death. Face stony,
she looked at Nick.
"I apologize," he said. "That was uncalled for. I do want
to talk to you about hiring your services."
Damn. The gesture she made toward her door was jerky with
nerves, and she blew out a frustrated breath. "Come into my office. Reg,
hold my calls." The phone hadn't exactly been ringing off the hook lately,
but Nick didn't have to know that.
The walls seemed to close in on her the moment he stepped
through the doorway. She'd forgotten how tall he was until she found herself
at eye level with his collarbone as he moved past her. His camera brushed
her breast, and her gaze flashed up to lock with his. Jerking it away,
she waved at the visitor's chair facing her desk. "Have a seat."
She scooted around the desk and flopped into her own chair,
angry that she was still so aware of him after all these years. Crossing
her arms beneath her breasts she gave him an impassive look across the
desk. Without Reggie as an audience, she didn't feel compelled to mind
her manners. "What the hell are you doing here, Coltrane?"
Excellent question. It was one Nick had been asking himself
since the moment he'd walked through the door and seen Daisy leaning over
her secretary's desk. He could have gone to any number of security firms,
and if he was smart, he wouldn't be within miles of big-eyed Daisy Parker
and her wise-ass attitude. There was just something about her that never
failed to access feelings he was better off not feeling.
But when he'd started calling around, her name had kept
popping up as one of the best in the business. At the same time, he'd
heard from more than one source that her fledgling company was barely
staying afloat. So why not kill two birds with one stone and throw his
business her way? It would help her, and he'd get the protection he needed
at a price he could afford.
What the hell, that night at the Mark Hopkins was years
ago-- they were both adult enough to put it behind them.
"I find myself in need of your services." he said coolly.
"What's the matter, Coltrane-- fast living finally catch
up with you?"
He'd debated all the way here how much to tell her. Up until
this moment, he'd actually considered the whole truth, but it didn't take
a genius to see that wouldn't fly. It'd hit too many of Daisy's hot buttons.
The mess gathering momentum around him had all started because
he hadn't given his usual one hundred and fifty percent on Saturday. He
had a reputation for his one-of-a-kind, can't-find-them-anywhere-else
photos. People said they spoke intimately to the moment, and the truth
was, he wasn't particularly modest when it came to his ability with a
camera-- he had a sixth sense or an inner eye or something that simply knew when the shot was there. And since he was exceptionally good
at capturing the essence of his subjects and pretty much wedded to his
Nikon, people tended to forget it wasn't actually an extension of his
The result was that he sometimes caught moments on film
that had the potential to damage or outright destroy a reputation. The
tabloids routinely offered him a small fortune for any embarrassing photos
he might care to pass along, but he always destroyed the negatives. Having
grown up a part of the society that kept him employed, he knew very well
that a significant part of his success was due to his discretion.
But Saturday afternoon he'd been worried about the phone
call he'd had from his sister just before he'd left to drive up to the
Pembroke estate in the wine country, and he hadn't given the big society
wedding his trademark single-minded concentration.
Who would've thought, though, that practical, level-headed
Maureen would do something so criminally un-Mo-like as to juggle funds
between the escrow accounts in her real estate business? He didn't doubt
for a moment that she'd done it for a good cause, given her propensity
for smoothing over everyone's problems, but it was still idiotic. It was
also guaranteed to land her in serious trouble, since the commission she'd
counted on to pay back the account had vanished when her sale of a Nob
Hill apartment building fell through.
Wracking his brain for a way to help her, he'd photographed
Bitsy Pembroke's wedding on auto pilot. Which no doubt accounted for why
he'd missed what was going on in the background.
When he'd left the Pembroke estate, he'd gone straight down
to Monterey. His concentration had been better on that shoot, but he'd
still been chewing over Mo's dilemma when he'd climbed out of his car
last night in the carriage house garage he lived above and found two muscle-bound
bruisers tearing up his darkroom. They'd pounced on him, demanding his
They'd hadn't specified from which shoot, and he hadn't
volunteered that all his film from the past two days was in his duffel
bag, which had still been in his car behind the driver's seat. Instead,
upon seeing all the contact sheets from other shoots that they'd ruined,
he'd told them to eat him-- a suggestion to which they'd taken exception.
His Nikon had been around his neck as usual, and they'd
offered him one last chance to do things the easy way and it over. He'd
declined, and before the wail of cop sirens had broken up the party, they'd
dislocated his shoulder trying to get it.
He'd told the cop who had shown up everything he'd known,
but unfortunately that was damn little. It wasn't until he'd gotten back
from the ER that he'd been able to develop the film the goons had been
so hot to get their mitts on. And at first he hadn't seen a thing worth
being roughed up over. He'd blown up frame after frame before he'd spotted
what the goons had tried to prevent him from discovering.
And he was stunned.
Bitsy had insisted at the last minute that he shoot her
and her groom in the gazebo. In the background was a beautifully restored
gatekeeper's cottage. And inside the cottage, were a man and a woman having
sex. The light and the angle were such that they could be seen through
a window, if one knew enough to search it out.
The surprise wasn't that a couple was screwing their brains
out. People sometimes knocked back more champagne at these functions than
was wise and ended up celebrating in ways they'd never intended and had
years and years to regret. God knew he was a walking testament to that.
The shocker was the man's identity.
J. Fitzgerald Douglass was an icon, the grand old man of
San Francisco society. At the age of sixty, he was the stuff of legends.
He'd inherited a declining family business and turned it into a multi-million
dollar enterprise. He had then turned to philanthropy, using much of his
newly realized profits to endow libraries and churches.
His moral rectitude was the stuff of legends, and the media
had been all abuzz recently about his probable appointment as an American
ambassador to a small but strategic Middle Eastern country. Everyone considered
him a shoe-in-- it only needed the stamp of approval from a very conservative
congress at this point. And since no one was more conservative than Douglass,
that appeared to be a mere formality.
So what the hell was this living monument to morality doing
in two of Nick's frames with his very married hands all over a woman young
enough to be his granddaughter?
Considering Douglass's goons had left Nick with a messed
up arm, a trashed darkroom, and an unhappy insurance agent, his attitude
toward the older man was seriously unsympathetic. But he now knew how
he was going to raise the money for Mo. He was breaking his own iron-clad
rule and selling the damn pictures to the tabloids.
He didn't think he'd share his solution with Daisy, however.
Although the screaming pain of his dislocated shoulder had dissipated
as soon as the ER crew had put it back in place, he'd been left with deep
tissue bruising from shoulder to elbow. The arm was usable but weak, and
would be of no use at all if Douglass' men came back. Which he knew they'd
continue to do until they finally got their hands on the film they sought.
He needed a bodyguard. Blondie needed the work. So what was the sense
in telling her that his plans included the one thing she'd never tolerate?
Fingers snapped in his face. "Are you zoning on me?"
He snagged her hand and moved it away from his nose. "No.
I'm thinking." Shaking off the sudden, unbidden awareness that touching
her brought on, he released her.
"Then perhaps you can tell me why you want to hire my services."
Rubbing her hand against her kilt, she scrutinized him speculatively.
"Why wouldn't a ritzy guy like Nicholas Sloan Coltrane call one of the
"Who says I didn't? But uptown firms demand uptown retainers,
Blondie." Which was true, even if he hadn't really considered one of the
uptown firms. He needed every dime he could scrape together if he ever
hoped to bail Mo out of trouble.
"What does that make me then, the Kmart of security specialists?"
She surged to her feet and pointed a slender finger at the door. "Get
out of here, Nick. I knew this was a mistake the minute I saw your lying
He looked at her standing there, all long, lanky arms and
legs, big flashing eyes, and hot-cheeked indignation, and said, "I'm telling
the truth, Daisy. You're what I can afford, all right?"
She blew out a disgruntled breath, but nevertheless resumed
her seat. Looking pointedly at the Rolex on his wrist and his cashmere
sweater, she said, "You honestly expect me to believe you're on a budget?"
"Hell, yes, I'm on a budget! The family fortune is long
gone and I live on what I earn. Dad had six wives. They didn't come cheap,
doll face, especially when it came time to say goodbye." He wasn't about
to share that his father had been a spendthrift in far worse ways than
that. It was none of her damn business.
"Oh, please. Your father didn't fork over a dime when he
kicked Mom and me out of that great white hotel you Coltranes called home.
I bet he made a bundle when he manufactured that horseshit about
my mother and sold it to the tabloids." She gave him a look of disgust.
"She and I, on the other hand, had the clothes on our backs when we returned
to the 'burbs. And we were damn lucky to have that much."
"You want me to admit my dad screwed over your mom? I freely
admit it. But he did that, Daisy, not me."
"It's sure as hell an inherited trait with you Coltrane
men, though, isn't it?"
Too fast and overpowering to defend against, visions of
the night of Mo's wedding exploded across Nick's mind. Daisy, hot and
responsive, moving beneath him, tendrils of her blonde hair stuck to her
damp face, chocolate brown eyes heavy-lidded and out of focus, sassy mouth
for once in her life following his lead without a single argument. Ruthlessly
stomping the memories down, he forced himself to meet her gaze calmly.
"Yes, I suppose I behaved badly, too."
"But, hey, boys will be boys, right? You were just a chip
off the old block."
It was a direct hit, considering he'd spent his entire life
trying to be the exact opposite of his father. "It was a long time ago,"
he said stiffly.
"Yes, it was," she agreed. "How many years did you say it
was again? Seven?"
"Nine." And he'd never forgotten it, no matter how
hard he'd tried. The fact that she didn't seem equally burdened by unwelcome
memories bugged the hell out of him. Rash words sang a siren song in the
back of his throat, but he swallowed them unsaid.
With deliberate aloofness, he said, "The fact remains that
my budget is extremely limited, and that's why I'm here."
"And just what makes you think you can afford me?" One of
her eyebrows rose superciliously, disappearing into the shaggy tendrils
that flopped over her forehead, and he got sidetracked by her haircut.
Short petals of white-blonde hair exploded from her head like the flower
for which she'd been named. . . or a dandelion gone to seed. Uneven wisps
clung to her cheeks and her nape. Had she actually paid someone
to do that to her?
Shaking off the thought, he stated flatly, "Your secretary
said a four thousand dollar retainer would get you started." He saw her
swallow hard and pressed his advantage. "So are you interested or not?"
He had to hand it to her, she recovered quickly. Picking
up a pen, she held it poised above the legal pad on her desk and met his
gaze squarely. "That depends," she said briskly. "Why do you need my help?"
Because he'd set a bidding war in motion between the journalistic
bottom-feeders otherwise known as the tabloids. For the first time in
his life he planned to sell a compromising picture for publication.
His decision would undoubtedly come back to haunt him by
destroying his credibility with the very society that kept him employed.
Had J. Fitzgerald simply trusted in his reputation and left him the hell
alone, it never would have occurred to Nick to cash in on the man's indiscretion.
But Douglass hadn't left him alone, and when Nick weighed
the interests of a hypocrite with political aspirations against those
of his sister, there was simply no contest.
Of course if he told the truth to Daisy, she'd probably
toss him out on his ass. She hated the tabloids. It was hard to fault
her for it when they had publically branded her mother a slut, but that
was a long time ago, and he had a bad feeling he needed someone to watch
his back until Friday night when the highest bidder would be determined
in this dangerous game he played.
He summoned his most charming smile and lied without compunction.
"I took some . . .compromising. . . pictures of a lady. Her almost-ex-husband
is a bit irate."
It never occurred to Daisy to doubt his story. Nick had
charisma to burn and probably went out with a different debutante every
night of the week. That he had sunk so low as to mess with a married woman
made her long to denounce him as a pig and toss him out on his ear, but
the thought of a four thousand dollar retainer stopped her. "How irate?"
"A couple of his goons dislocated my arm and trashed my
She looked up to study him. He looked hale enough to her.
"What's its condition now?"
"It's weak, but no permanent damage was done. I'm on anti-inflammatories
for a week or so."
She stood up and came around the desk. "Let me take a look
He stared at her for a moment, then struggled out of the
left side of his sweater. She could tell by his awkwardness that the arm
was still tender.
She saw why the moment it emerged from his sleeve. The arm
was bruised dark purple from his elbow to where the short sleeve of a
white T-shirt stretched over his hard biceps. She sank to her heels at
his side, and gently pushed the sleeve up as far as she could. She studied
the discoloration, probed it gently with her fingertips, then glanced
up at his face. "Looks painful."
"It's not so bad. I just don't have a lot of strength in
it, but the doc said it would get stronger every day."
"Hmmph." She eased the sleeve back into place, then pinned
him in place with a stern look. "This is what you get for messing around
with a married woman."
A sharp crack of laughter escaped Nick's throat. "Beautiful.
Is that the kind of sensitivity training they're teaching bodyguards these
He shrugged, then winced. "Whatever. Don't they teach you
folks that the customer is always right? Whatever happened to TLC?"
She glared at him. "If I take this job, Coltrane --and
that's a pretty big if-- tender loving care will not be part of the
package. Deal with it or go home." She picked up a pencil and tapped it
irritably against the desktop. "Did the goons use a weapon?"
"They used their great hurkin' fists, sweetheart. I assume
they also wore guns, but the cops arrived before they got around to using
"Who called the police?"
"My neighbor. She saw them break in before I got home. I
walked in to catch 'em in the act."
"Why don't you simply give the guy his wife's photos, Nick?
It was tacky to take them in the first place. It seems kinda low to hang
Something crossed his expression, but she was unable to
pin it down before he said, "I don't have them to give-- I gave the
negatives to her. What she does with them is her business."
"Then what's the problem? Tell him that and get him off
"The problem, Blondie, is that I refuse to sic him
on her. I don't know what this guy will do. I mean, do you really find
it rational to send a couple of hired guns after me just for taking a
few nudie shots of his estranged wife?" He laughed then and held up a
big hand to forestall her answer. "Never mind, don't answer that--
you probably do. But I don't. They've been separated for a long time,
and until she tells him herself, I'm gonna have a couple of muscle-bound,
pistol-packing morons tracking my every move and doing their best to beat
the information out of me in order to locate the negatives."
She pulled over a legal pad. "I'll need Hubby's name."
Nick stilled. "I don't want you getting him all riled up."
"I don't have the authority to question him, Nick." She
kept her voice noncomittal. "But neither can I keep you safe from the
world at large. So give me a starting place."
He hesitated, then said, "John Johnson."
"John Johnson." Hard-to-verify aliases tended to make her
suspicious. "Not Smith? That ought to narrow it down considerably."
"Okay, that's it-- I tried." He pushed his chair back
and stood. "If you're going to doubt every word that comes out of my mouth
this isn't going to work."
It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that she was doing
exactly that, so she focused on the other thing he'd said. "What do you
mean you tried?"
He ignored the question, looking at her though narrowed
eyes. "Coming here was a dumb idea that's clearly destined to fail. Sorry
I wasted your time." He headed for the door.
Daisy wanted to let him walk away. Desperately, she wanted
that. But four thousand dollars. . . Her firm was only six months old
and she was operating on a shoe string. She had rent to pay, both here
and on her apartment, plus Reggie's salary. And she had this sneaking
fondness for eating on a semi-regular basis. So she stood and said to
the tense set of his shoulders, "Nick, wait."
He halted and turned to face her, his blue eyes free of
Have a seat. I apologize." She pulled a contract from her desk drawer
and slapped it on the desktop. Punching down the intercom button, she
said, "Reggie, would you come in here, please?" Then, as Nick resumed
his seat, she looked across the desk at him.
And, hoping she wasn't making the biggest mistake of her
life, she separated the fee schedule from the contract, pushed it across
the desk to him, and said, "Let me explain how your retainer will be allocated."
End of Excerpt.