COME FOR THE ADVENTURE...STAY FOR THE ROMANCE!
Los Angeles, California
“Damn it, he’s getting away!” Scrambling into the passenger seat of David’s Honda, Chase watched Steve Nolan’s Porsche zigzag through the afternoon traffic and zip around a corner. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to track that bastard down and convince him to come talk to us?”
“Yeah, about as long as it took me to ferret out his name in the first place.” David peeled out of their office parking lot, inundating the car with the smell of burning rubber. “Guess we should’ve tied him to the chair before we told him what we were really after.”
“You think?” She braced her arms on the dashboard as he squealed through a left turn. “I’ll keep that in mind. Not that it’ll do us any good if you lose him.”
She didn’t have time for this shit. The client wanted results. Yesterday. Yet, even if they caught up with Nolan, then what? How the hell could she make him talk?
Like an idiot, she had guaranteed her client she’d clear his name. But without the information Nolan refused to give her, the investigation was dead. And she’d been so close. Now she’d have to return the client’s deposit—money she needed to keep her struggling PI business afloat.
Just once, couldn’t things go right? No, that'd be too much to ask.
Brakes squealed. Horns blared.
“Jesus,” she snapped. “That was a red light you just ran. Are you deliberately trying to kill us?”
“You told me not to lose him,” he said, swerving out of the path of a car. “If I’d stopped for the light, we would have.”
“My bad.” She shot him a dirty look. “Just don’t scrunch us. Okay?” Turning back to the window, she scanned the traffic. “There! Two blocks up. Looks like he’s turning right at the light.”
Nolan suddenly whipped across three lanes of traffic and headed for the freeway.
“He’s seen us. Hit the gas. If we lose sight of him again, we’re screwed.” When he didn’t respond, she groaned. “You can’t turn into a wuss on me now. Come on, damn it, punch it.”
He cursed but stomped on the gas. The car shot forward, zipped around a truck, and darted into the right lane—just as an elderly man stepped into the street from between two parked cars.
“Look out!” She held her breath, prayed.
David slammed on the brakes. The Honda screeched to a halt, but it was too late. The old man bounced off the right front fender, crumpling out of sight.
“Oh, my God.” She jumped from the car and rushed to the man’s side. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”
His face was pale and pinched with pain, his eyes closed. His left leg stuck out at an odd angle, obviously broken. But at least he was alive.
Weak with relief, she sank to her knees beside him. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she promised, though she didn’t like the look of his aura. It was faint, a pale gray tinged with a hint of muddy blue.
David hurried over, talking on his cell phone.
“If that’s nine-one-one,” she said. “Tell them to hurry.”
“They said their ETA’s five minutes.” He snapped his phone shut. “Christ, Chase, I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “It was more my fault than yours.”
The old man’s eyes fluttered open then widened as he stared up at her. A look of triumph flashed over his worn, pain-contorted features. “Chase?” he asked in a clipped British accent. “Would you be Chase Alcott, the private detective? With an office three blocks down?” She nodded. “Splendid,” he said. “I was on my way to see you.”
She blinked. “You were? What did—” The question died on her lips as the man’s eyes rolled back in his head. “Shit.”
Sirens screamed in the distance. Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while. Tears burned the back of her throat. Nolan was long gone. Why the hell couldn’t she ever get a frigging break?
Rain dripped down the back of Roman’s neck and trailed along his spine like cold, wet fingers. Forcing himself to ignore the disturbing sensations, he focused instead on the preacher’s droning voice and the coffin being lowered into Melinda’s grave.
“This wasn’t an accident, Andy,” he whispered to his solicitor. “I tried to tell Chief Inspector Clayton that, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Stepping closer to Roman, Andrew Wright shifted his umbrella to shelter the both of them. “Have you considered going to his superiors?”
“Yes. But I doubt it would do any good. They’d be as stumped by the lack of motive as Clayton.”
The parish priest closed the graveside service with a prayer. Finally. Breathing a communal sigh of relief, the two dozen mourners headed out of the dismal little cemetery.
Roman slowed his pace until he and Andy fell behind the others. “I’m also afraid this may have been done by one of my kind.”
Andy stopped walking and stared at him. “A Lycan or a Vampire?”
“If that were true, wouldn’t there be marks on her—” Breaking off when Roman made shushing gestures, Andy shot a quick, darting glance around the graveyard. “Sorry,” he said in a lowered voice. “But wouldn’t there be some evidence of that?”
“Only if the killer was feeding.”
“Oh. Right. Would you like me to hire a private investigator for you? There must be someone we can trust to look into this.”
“Not until we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.” Roman started walking again. “Besides, my father will be home soon. And I’d like to discuss the matter with him first.”
“Er, ah—” Andy cleared his throat. “Lord Fernwood’s stay across the pond has been extended. He was involved in a motor vehicle accident yesterday.”
“Oh, Christ!” Roman cringed at the images flooding his mind. “Not him, too.”
“Re—relax. He’s not bad—not seriously injured, I mean.” Andy’s words rushed out, tumbling over one another. “I—I’m sorry. I should have told you that first. He has a broken leg, two broken ribs, and a fair-sized collection of bruises. But that’s all.”
“Thank God.” Overwhelmed by relief, Roman stumbled on legs that didn’t feel attached to his body. He grabbed Andy’s shoulder to steady himself. “How did it happen?”
“From what he told me when he called from the hospital, he was crossing a street in Los Angeles—apparently against the light and in the middle of the road—when he was hit by a car.”
Roman sighed. “That sounds like Father.” Then the implication of Andy’s words hit him. “Wait a minute. Father’s supposed to be in New York. What the hell’s he doing in Los Angeles?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” Andy paused as they neared Roman’s Rolls Royce. He waited until they were seated inside the limo before continuing. “All I know is what he told me on the phone. He said he’d postponed his meeting in New York and had gone to California to check out something. Or someone. It wasn’t the best connection, so I’m really not sure.”
Roman rubbed a hand over his face. “Well, knowing him, whatever it is, it’s bound to make my life more complicated.”
A chill skittered through him—one that had nothing to do with the weather.
Los Angeles, California
“Why us, Mr. Wright?” Chase didn’t like the way the British attorney’s aura flickered. “You must have plenty of private detectives in England.”
“Yes, I dare say we do. But Lord Fernwood’s afraid a member of his family might be involved. And he’s anxious to avoid a scandal. That’s why he wants you to pose as interior decorators. The English press won’t recognize you, of course, so his family won’t expect you to be anything but what you say you are.”
She glanced at David. He wiggled his eyebrows, rolled his eyes. Stifling a grin, she turned back to Wright. “Why did Fernwood bring you all the way from London to approach us? Why didn’t he just ask us himself? After all, we spent almost two hours a day with him for nearly three weeks while he was in the hospital.”
She got to her feet and paced, wondering why she’d been so restless and uneasy lately—other than the pile of unpaid bills in her in-box.
“When I asked him why he’d been coming to see us just before the accident, he told me the problem had been resolved.”
“Yes, well.” He shifted in his seat, his pale blue eyes looking everywhere but into hers. “Lord Fernwood felt you’d been extremely kind under the circumstances. He didn’t want to impose any further. But there was another incident last Saturday, and he decided he had no choice. By then he was in New York attending to the urgent business delayed by you—I mean, by the unfortunate accident.”
“We didn’t hit him on purpose,” she retorted. “The old fart was jaywalking.” And you were going way too fast, quipped a little voice in her mind.
“Oh, there’s no question Lord Fernwood was in the wrong,” he said. “Or that you were a big help in his convalescence.”
“We felt sorry for him. All alone over here in the hospital.” Snatching a pencil off her desk, she twirled it in her fingers as she paced. “I like him. He’s a great old guy. But we can’t afford to go chasing off to England right now. We took a serious financial hit on the case we lost because of the accident.”
“And Lord Fernwood’s offering you considerable compensation. To make up for what you lost on that case, as well as for the work you’d do on this one.” He pulled a check out of an inside jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Here’s half the offered fee up front, plus a generous allowance for expenses.”
She gaped at the amount then passed the check to David.
His eyes widened. “This is in pounds, not dollars?”
“Yes. As I said, it’s generous. Especially with the strength of the pound against the dollar.”
Chase chewed her bottom lip. Damn, this was enough money to clear all their current bills, plus hold them over awhile if they didn’t immediately find more clients. And this was only half of the fee?
Still, she didn’t want Wright to think they could be bought so easily. “How can we go to England under the guise of redecorating the family’s ancient manor? We aren’t qualified for that.”
“How hard can it be? After all, Lord Fernwood doesn’t expect you to do any actual decorating. Your visit will be covered as observing what needs to be done in order to submit a plan and an estimate.” He gave a little cough. “Though, I think you’ve misunderstood me. Lord Fernwood actually wants Mr. Bronson to pose as the decorator,” he said, nodding toward David, “and you to pose as his assistant.”
“Now wait just a minute—”
David flashed her a grin. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Wright spread his hands. “You must understand, Ms. Alcott. We English are still very traditional. Most of us, especially the aristocrats, rarely credit women with enough intelligence for undercover work. So you’ll have an advantage. No one will suspect you’re anything other than what you appear on the surface.”
He ran his tongue over his lips and swallowed. “Another reason we felt it best you should pose as the assistant and Mr. Bronson as the decorator is...” Stretching his neck, he pulled on the knot of his tie. “I understand Mr. Bronson is, er, ah...”
“Gay?” David asked with a chuckle.
“Quite. Such people are more the type English aristocrats expect decorators to be, so no one will suspect he’s posing as someone else.” He glanced from one to the other. “If you get my meaning.”
Chase shot a look at David. His grimace told her he was biting his cheeks, trying not to laugh. That had her biting her own, but it didn’t help. She burst into gales of merriment. Once she started, he joined in.
Wright looked appalled. “I fail to see the humor.”
“I’m sorry.” Leaning against the wall, she tossed the pencil on the desk and used both hands to wipe the tears off her face. “It’s just that David poses as someone else all the time. Most of the gay men we know love role-playing. I can’t believe the English don’t know that.”
“Most Englishmen give little thought to American peculiarities.”
“Apparently not.” Chase looked over at David again and raised her eyebrows. He nodded. Oh, what the hell. It wasn’t like they had a choice.
“So how would this work? Do we just show up and say, ‘Joe sent me’?” At his blank expression, she waved a hand. “Never mind. What I’m asking is, do we have a cover story? I mean, we can’t just show up out of the blue.”
“The blue? Oh. Yes, of course. If you agree to take the job, I’ll contact Roman Fernwood, Lord Fernwood’s, er...grandson and tell him you’re coming. Your cover story is that Lord Fernwood asked you to take a look at the manor house.” He grimaced. “Roman won’t be happy about it, but I’m sure he’ll cooperate. He’s very fond of his grandfather, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make him happy. He’ll have to know the real reason you’re there, of course, but none of the other family members or staff will know.”
“Terrific.” She glanced back at David. When he nodded again, she sighed. “Suppose we agree to do this, what’s our timeline?”
“Lord Fernwood would like the matter settled before his return to England. As he’ll be in New York for about a month, that should give you plenty of time.”
She studied the attorney’s aura. Once again, it pulsed with dingy gray. “There’s something you’re not telling us. What is it?”
“Well, yes.” He smoothed his thick, white hair then studied his fingernails. “I, er, you’ll, ah, have to know, of course,” he said as he brushed some non-existent lint off the lapel of his jacket. “One investigator, a reporter named Melinda Carter, has been killed.”
“She fell over the railing of a third floor balcony.”
David leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. “If she fell, why—”
“The balcony railing is at chest height for an average height woman. Ms. Carter was short, barely five feet tall, so the railing would have hit her at the shoulder. Could she really have fallen over something that high?”
“What do the police think?” Chase asked.
“Scotland Yard ruled it an accident. The woman had a habit of walking in her sleep, and they decided she must have tried to climb the railing while sleep walking.”
“But you don’t agree?”
Wright shrugged. “Personally, I haven’t a clue. But Roman says it was murder.”
“Does he have any suspects?”
“None that he’s mentioned.”
She turned to David. The relaxed posture of his rangy body belied the keen interest in his piercing gray eyes. “Still think it’s a good idea?”
“I’m game. If we go as decorators, we should be safe enough.”
She combed her fingers through her hair, an unconscious stalling technique she’d used all her life when her instincts said something wasn’t right. Attuned to it, the fact she used it now told her not to rush into this. Not that she could afford to pass up the money Fernwood was offering.
“Very well,” she said, despite her misgivings. “We’ll do it.”
“Excellent.” Beaming, Wright handed her a business card. “Call me when you’ve made your flight arrangements. And send me the contract as soon as possible. I’ll take care of getting it signed.”
Chase stared out the front window as the attorney left their office.
“He’s lying to us about something. I don’t know what, exactly, but something.” She paused a moment, distracted by a man leaning against a building across the street. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. Shrugging it off, she turned back to David. “I’m concerned about what we may be getting into.”
“How do you know he’s lying?”
“You mean, aside from the fact he was as nervous as a mouse at a cat show?”
He groaned. “Aside from the bad jokes, yes.”
She stuck out her tongue at him. “His aura flickered with splotches of dirty gray.”
“Ah, his aura.”
“Fine,” she snarled. This was a familiar argument. “You don’t have to believe me about seeing auras, but have I ever been wrong when I told you someone was lying?”
“Not as far as I know.” He jammed his hands in his pocket. “At what point did his—did you notice he was lying? If you can recall the subject, it might tell us what he was lying about.”
“I noticed it several times, but more strongly when he talked about the grandson.”
“So, you don’t think it’s about the murder then?”
“No. I’m sure he told us the truth about that, at least as much as he knows it. It has something to do with Roman Fernwood. Although it may only be about how much cooperation we’ll get from him.”
She pressed her fingers to her eyes, troubled, and exasperated because of it. “I can’t believe I’m even considering taking on a case when I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
“We don’t have a choice, and you know it. We need the money too badly.”
“And if it gets us both killed?”
“I’m not sure I understand your concerns.” He held up a hand when she tried to interrupt. “Let me finish. The only reason someone’ll want to kill us is if they think we’re a threat, which they won’t if we’re posing as decorators.”
“What about when we blow our cover?”
“Why should we?” When she rolled her eyes, he sighed. “Look. You know as well as I do, we can pull off a cover as decorators. Especially, if all we have to do is make notes about a project that isn’t even going to happen.”
She stuck out her tongue again and made a face.
He laughed. “God, Chase, you’re such a lady.” Perching a hip on the edge of her desk, he studied her. “Now, what’s really bothering you?”
“I don’t know.” She rubbed a hand over her stomach. It felt like something trapped inside was clawing its way out. Digging in her pocket, she pulled out a roll of Tums and popped one in her mouth. “And not knowing bugs me. Plus, there’s all the unanswered questions.”
“Such as, why the hell Fernwood would hire American PIs in the first place. Or why he’d pick two unknowns like us. Or why he came all the way from New York to see us then just happened to be on that street so we could hit him with the car.” She paused, shook her head. “No, I don’t see how he could’ve planned something like that.”
The Tums hadn’t done her much good, so she popped another. “Then there’s the size of the deposit. It just seems too much like a setup to me.”
“Maybe Fernwood feels guilty for causing us so much trouble,” he said. “After all, I made no secret about the fact his carelessness cost us a client. And a simple credit check would’ve revealed our financial problems.” When she opened her mouth, he held up his hand again. “But even if—and I think it’s a pretty big if—he does have ulterior motives, we can still protect ourselves.”
“Oh, really? How?”
“You know how you’ve been nagging me to update our standard agreement form?”
“That’s not true,” she protested. “I mentioned it once. And only in passing.”
He grinned. “Okay, maybe nagging’s not the best choice of words. Anyway, I’ve done a little research, and there’s a clause I was planning to add to our boilerplate contract. It basically ensures that if a client misrepresents the facts to gain our services, we’re free to back out without refunding the deposit.”
Opening a file cabinet, he pulled out a stapled document and handed it to her. “Page three, paragraph six. We’ll include that in all future contracts, starting with Fernwood’s. Once we get to England, if things aren’t on the up and up, we can walk away—and keep the money we’ve been given so far. Besides, Wright needs to learn not to lie to American PIs. Or not to lie to you, anyway.”
He patted her shoulder. “So, does that make you feel any better?”
“No, but it’s a start.” She saw the yearning on his face and knew it had nothing to do with the money. “You want to go because it’ll make a good case to fictionalize for those crime magazines you write for.”
“So? It’s also like a paid vacation to England, and I’ve always wanted to go there. Plus, with Fernwood as our client, we’ll be rubbing elbows with the upper class. There’ll be fancy parties and dress-up balls. Hell, we might even get laid.”
“Oh, God, I’m really not going now.”
“Chicken.” He ruffled her hair, kissed her temple. “Afraid to have a little fun?”
“I think your definition of fun and mine are so different they’re not even in the same dictionary.”
“Ah, come on, Chase. What have we got to lose?”
“It boggles the mind.” Another sigh escaped. She’d been sighing a lot lately. She wondered if it meant anything. “I’ll probably regret it, but if Fernwood signs the contract, you can make the travel arrangements.”
“Cheer up, girlfriend. Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
She didn’t answer. He was usually right. But for reasons she couldn’t understand, she feared this time might be the exception.
Fernwood Manor, outside Letchmore Heath, England
“Damn it, Andy.” Roman paced in front of the fireplace in his study. “I wish to hell you’d talked to me about this before you went to California.” He shoved another log on the fire—more out of frustration than a need for added warmth. “The last thing I want is another damned woman prying into things she shouldn’t.”
“Your father specifically asked me not to mention it until the contract was signed.” Andy sighed. “I’m actually his attorney, you know.”
“Why does he think I need another woman here? One who might die trying to uncover secrets best left alone. At least by a human.”
“You’ll have to ask him that. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’s matchmaking again. This one’s beautiful: twenty-nine, tall, and slender, with shoulder length hair that’s a lovely cinnamon color. The same color as her eyes.”
The wistful tone in Andy’s voice alarmed Roman. Women usually didn’t affect the stalwart solicitor this way.
“It’s quite unique. I’ve never seen anyone before whose hair was the same color as her eyes.” Andy gave a rare chuckle. “Her language is quite something, though. I couldn’t understand half of what she said.”
Rising from his chair, he headed for the door. “Oh by the way, she thinks your father is your grandfather, so be careful what you call him.”
Roman rolled his eyes. “Christ. Why does Father insist on this tomfoolery?”
Andy stopped on the threshold and turned to face him. “You know how he is. He’s worried about you being alone after he dies. After all, he’ll be eighty-six next month and won’t be around much longer. He claims you need a wife. However, I suspect what he really wants is a grandchild.”
He cleared his throat. “Maybe you should just marry one of these women. It might stop his interfering. Although, what he expects you to do with her when you...”
“When I feed?” Roman finished for him.
Andy winced. “Couldn’t you call it ‘hunt’ or something?” He hesitated, his lips pursed. “I suppose you can always drug her on those nights.”
“Yes, and you saw how well that worked for Melinda.” Roman’s hands rose and fell as frustration fought with annoyance. “I’m still not sure who committed that murder. So I can’t promise I can prevent another one.”
“If you want, I can tell Ms. Alcott the job’s been canceled. However, I’d like you to be the one to tell your father she’s not coming.”
“No, I’ll go along with it.” Roman pinched the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger. “The old coot’s using his age and declining health against me. He knows I can’t refuse him anything.”
“He loves you, and he’s never forgiven himself for the accident that killed your parents.”
Roman sank into his favorite chair. “I’ve told him countless times it wasn’t his fault—for all the good it’s done. He considers it irrelevant he saved my life by taking me in when none of my relatives wanted me.” Shaking his head, he chuckled. “Amazing. A human raising a Vampire-Lycan cross-breed. But he’s been a wonderful father to me. I doubt my own parents could have loved me more.”
He raked his fingers through his hair. “Who knows? After this latest scheme fails, and the woman goes home in defeat, perhaps he’ll finally give it up. I’ll just have to protect her while she’s here. And hope like hell I can prevent another murder.”
© 2011 by Pepper O’Neal