Ford Evans Hamilton opened his eyes and
blinked the blurry room into focus. Pain splintered through his skull
and throbbed along his nerve-endings, and he lifted a cautious hand
to probe the back of his head. It felt like an overripe cantaloupe.
What the hell had happened? Hearing muted voices,
the clink of heavy crystal, his eyebrows drew together. Was there
a party going on?
Images flickered and floated on the peripheries
of his mind, and his brow cleared. Ah, yes. That's right. There was a
party- the one he'd thrown to watch McMurphy squirm. Well, McMurphy
and one or two others, but the point was he had guests and he'd come
into the library for a box of cigars to go with the after-dinner
brandy. And. . . Jared had been here, right? He scowled as bits of
their argument came drifting back and he suddenly recalled the shove
his son had given him as he'd stormed for the door. That boy was
nothing but a blotch on the Hamilton name. Both his children were big disappointments.
The faint swish of fabric
brushing the Aubusson rug snagged his attention. He turned his
head, wincing as fresh agony stabbed like a series of icepick
thrusts from cranium to tail bone. He was going to make Jared
rue the day he was born. Peering sourly at the slowly-merging
double image of the person kneeling by his side, he demanded, "What
the hell are you doing
he brushed the question aside with an impatient wave of his fingers. "Never
mind that." He extended his arm imperiously, furious that he hurt
all over. "Give me a hand."
"Oh, I intend to," the person murmured. "I
plan on giving you a helping hand straight to hell."
Then faster than Ford's confused mind could sort
through all the facts, the razor sharp silver-handled letter opener
that usually reposed on his mahogany desk flashed downward. And his
on, darlin'," John Miglionni murmured to the
curvy little redhead. "Just let yourself go. You know you wanna- it'll
feel so good."
He sucked in a pleased breath when she did as he urged. "Yes!" he
whispered. . . and zoomed in the lens of his camcorder on the woman across
the field as she quit glancing around and finally swung herself up onto
the back of a quarter horse at least fifteen hands tall. His client Colorado
Insurance would be ecstatic, since this would go a long way toward putting
a serious crimp in the woman's multi-million dollar disability claim
against them. The injury she had insisted under oath rendered her unable
to ride her beloved horse was clearly fraudulent.
He kept his camera trained on her as she took the
horse over the paddock fence and galloped across the high plains that
spread out east of Denver. Once she was no longer identifiable through
the lens, he packed up his equipment and headed down the road to where
he'd left the dusty, beat up old tan pickup truck he was using for this
Forty-five minutes later he banged through the front
door of Semper Fi Investigations, grinning when his office manager
Gert MacDellar jumped and slapped a hand to her bony chest.
"Good Gawd Almighty," she snapped, glaring at him
over the tops of her rhinestone studded, cats-eye glasses. "You scared
a dozen years off my life! And at my age, boy, I can't afford to lose
a single minute, much less more than a decade."
"As if you aren't gonna outlive us all, Mac." John
hooked a leg over the corner of her desk, perching a bun on its solid
oak corner. He handed her the camcorder. "Download this for the Colorado
Insurance file. Then tally up the final invoice to include three and
a half hours for today."
Her faded blue eyes, which were several shades lighter
than her rigidly upswept hair, lit up behind the pristine lenses of her
glasses. "You got her?"
"Yes, ma'am. Dead to rights."
Gert whooped and plugged the high-tech digital camcorder
into its docking station. Downloading its contents with one hand, she
pulled a short stack of pink While You Were Out slips from beneath a chunk of polished quartz with
the other. "Here. You had a few calls."
John read the first slip, then slid it to the back
of the stack. He handed the second message back to Gert. "Give this one
to Les," he said referring to the engineer he'd recently hired to handle
the increased spate of products liability cases that had been coming
his way. Scanning the next message, he narrowed his eyes and looked back
up, pinning Gert in place as he thrust that one, too, at her.
"You know I don't do domestic cases anymore."
"Well, you oughtta," she said unrepentantly, making
no move to take the slip. "They pay very well."
"Yes, they do. They're also chock full of highly
charged emotions and invasion of privacy problems, and frankly I'm not
interested in sneaking around taking pictures of people having quickies.
Now, if one of the spouses is hiding assets on the other, I'm your man,
and I'll be more than happy to ferret them out. But if they just want
someone to dig up dirt they can use to bury their partner, refer 'em
to the Hayden Agency down in LoDo." He dropped the message slip onto
Gert huffed and gave her lacquered up-do a comforting
pat, but she argued no further, and John looked at the last note.
And smiled. "All right, now this looks much more
my thing. Give me a runaway any day of the week." Settling himself more
comfortably on the edge of the desk, he gave Gert his full attention. "Tell
me about this one."
She perked up, her disgruntlement forgotten. "Have
you read about that tycoon down in Colorado Springs who got himself stabbed
through the heart with a letter opener?"
"Yeah. Somebody-Somebody Hamilton, wasn't it?"
"Ford Evans Hamilton. His daughter Victoria is our
potential client. Well, I actually talked to the lawyer, but you get
my drift. Ms. Hamilton's seventeen-year-old half-brother Jared disappeared
the same day Daddy bought the farm."
"The kid kill him?"
"According to Robert Rutherford, the attorney, Ms.
Hamilton, or Evans Hamilton, or whatever she calls herself, swears young
Jared isn't capable of that kind of violence. But he's been in trouble
before, and he's definitely a person of interest to the police, so she'd
like to locate him before they do. Apparently he has a tendency to give
a lot of attitude when he's cornered or scared, and she knows that lipping
off to the cops won't improve his situation."
Having suffered similar tendencies as a youth, John
could readily identify with the teenager, and he flashed his office manager
a big, feral smile. "Then isn't it lucky for her that her lawyer called
in the best." It wasn't couched as a question.
"Lord, you are the cocky one." Gert bared her own
bright white dentures. "It's one of the things I've always liked best
He laughed. "Aw, Mac, admit it, you like everything
about me. We're so compatible, in fact, I'm surprised we haven't run
off and gotten hitched by now."
Her puckered mouth looked as if she'd sucked a lemon,
but John knew the flush tinting her cheeks stemmed from pleasure, not
disapproval. She loved being teased, but he was much more likely to see
her update her stuck-in-the-Fifties look sometime in the new millennium
than ever hear her admit it.
As if reading his mind, she gave him a stern look
over the tops of her glasses. "I swear you could go to a wake and end
up flirting with the corpse."
He slapped a hand to his heart. "Why, Gert MacDellar,
I'm crushed you'd think so. You know I'd only do that if it were female."
Her lips quirked, which was no doubt what prompted
the impatient flip of her fingers that waved him off. "Get out of here,
you fool. Go call that lawyer back and make us some money."
"Yes, Ma'am." He snapped off a smart salute. "I know
how you love those billable hours." Then he rose from the desk and headed
for his office to talk to a man about a case.
Victoria knew she had to get a grip. Sometimes, though,
that was a lot easier said than done and, pacing the parlor of her late
father's mansion, she freely admitted her emotions were in chaos.
At the small, quiet core of her, she was simply glad
to be back. As much as she loved the hustle and bustle and history-soaked
atmosphere of London, it wasn't home, and she'd never quite gotten past
feeling like a dispossessed expatriate while living there. She'd only
gone in the first place because her Aunt Fiona was there and, more importantly,
because she'd needed to get Esme out of Father's range before he could
screw up her daughter the way he'd screwed up her and Jared.
But as glad as she was to finally be home, the circumstances
gave her no peace at all. Her father was dead. And not merely gone forever- which
heaven knew would have been traumatic enough, given all her unresolved
feelings for him- but murdered.
Damn him. Half the time he'd been such a bastard.
Most of the time, really. But he'd still been her father, and no one
deserved to die the way he had.
Yet, wasn't it just typical of him to go out in a
blaze of notoriety? He'd never minded that for himself, with his increasingly
younger wives, and his cut-throat business practices. But when she or
Jared made even a fraction of the waves Ford Hamilton had, he'd given them no
end of grief. The two of them had been expected to be good little Hamilton
clones always, and there was a part of her that was so steamed her father
had died on her before she could unload just once her opinion of his parenting skills.
Which of course made her feel guilty, which in turn
rendered her so twitchy she could barely sit still for more than twenty
seconds running. So here she was, waiting for her lawyer to show up with
a private eye in tow. Dear Lord. Whoever would have guessed she'd live
to see the day The Maltese Falcon intersected the life of
an Evans Hamilton? Old film noir images of men in fedoras who referred
to women as dames and legs as gams kept flicking through her mind
A bark of laughter that sounded dangerously close
to hysteria escaped Victoria, and she slapped a hand over her mouth to
contain it. Carefully, she regulated her breathing.
Okay, let's try not to lose it here.
focused on a priceless piece of art showcased on one of the sitting room's
pale yellow, watered-silk-covered walls. Just don't think about any
of this too closely. Take it minute by minute, and let the details blur
. And if that smacked suspiciously
of The Ostrich School of Coping Skills, so be it. The only way she knew
how to deal with this mess was one problem at a time. Anything else was
The telephone rang, and she started. Then, fed up
with her raw, edgy nerves, she crossed to the small credenza and picked
up the receiver. "Hamilton residence."
"Victoria, dear, is that you?"
The voice hiccoughed in and out in the tell-tale
manner of a cellular phone about to leave its service range, but she
was pretty sure it was her lawyer's. "Robert? Is that you?"
His voice faded out.
"I'm sorry, I can barely hear you."
"Oh. Hold on." Then suddenly his voice came through
with crystalline clarity. "There, I switched to a new channel. Is that
"I'm calling to let you know I won't be able to make
our appointment with the Semper Fi investigator. I've been called into
court. I apologize Victoria, but I want to assure you that I've talked
extensively with Mr. Miglionni, and everything is in order. To get him
started, you merely need to meet with him, tell him about Jared, and
answer any questions he may have. You do have the number for my cell
phone, don't you?"
"Excellent. If you think I might be able to answer
any of the questions you can't, give me a call."
"I will. Thank-" The call abruptly disconnected. "-you." She
blew out a breath and set down the receiver. "O-kay. Looks like
I'm on my own."
Nothing new there. She'd been on her own most of
It was about time, however, to be a little less reactive
and get a lot more proactive. God knew she owed Jared that much, since
she'd always felt that by leaving she'd sacrificed him to save Esme.
She took a firm grip on her emotions and walked to
the sitting room desk, where she forced herself to sit. She began sorting
condolence cards into one stack that could be answered by her father's
secretary and into another requiring a more personal touch. By the time
she heard the doorbell ring a short while later, she felt far more composed.
Heading for the front entry, she smiled at the housekeeper when she saw
the woman bustling down the hallway from the kitchen. "It's all right,
Mary; I'll get it." Reaching the immense mahogany door, she pulled it
Bright afternoon sunlight poured into the foyer,
blinding her and backlighting the man standing on the brick steps. The
only thing she could tell for sure was that he was tall and lean. Not
that seeing his features was necessary in order to give him her best
social smile- she'd attended far too many upscale girls' schools for
manners not to be second nature by now. "Mr. Miglionni?" she inquired
softly. "Please, won't you come in?" Stepping back to allow him entrance,
she extended her hand. "I'm-"
"Tori," he acknowledged in a husky tone that feathered
down her spine. Her hand remained suspended between them for a moment
when he made no move to take it.
Then she dropped it to her side, but it was the use
of her nickname that knit her eyebrows together. Only a few of her closest
friends, Jared, and Aunt Fiona ever called her that. Robert Rutherford
must have somehow let it slip, however, so she smoothed her brow and
gave the private investigator another polite curl of her lips. "Actually,
I go by Victoria."
"Un-frigging-believable," he said hoarsely.
She didn't see why, and surely the vulgarity wasn't
necessary. Nevertheless, she needed this man's help if she were to have
any chance of finding Jared, she reminded herself. She took refuge once
more in the lessons learned from years of etiquette. "I'm sorry- what
must you think of me to keep you standing on the doorstep. Please, do
He stepped forward and bent to set something on the
floor. The strong lines of a tanned throat flashed briefly into sharp
focus, and sunlight caught a sleek, black ponytail that unfurled over
his shoulder with his movement. The thick rope of hair was so shiny it
shimmered with blue highlights. Then he straightened and once again turned
into an impenetrable shadow limed by the blinding sun. . . all except
for the olive-skinned, long-fingered hand that he extended toward her.
Just as she accepted the belatedly offered handshake, he took a forward
step that rendered his features a bit less obscure.
And Victoria's stomach dropped with a sickening swoop.
Flabbergasted, she stared up into the coal black eyes of the one man
she'd never thought to see again. She snatched her hand from his warm
Hearing herself say the only name she'd ever known
him by, realizing the consequences that his presence could have for her,
a lifetime's worth of composure vanished. Oh, God, oh, God, this was
the last thing she needed. She had to get him out of here. She
had to get rid of him before-
He swung the door shut behind him and for the first
time jumped sharply into focus, all wide shoulders, dark skin, and flashing
white teeth. She'd barely begun even the quickest of inventories, however,
before he reached out to pull her into his arms for a quick, hard hug
that lifted her Ferragamos clear up off the floor. Setting her back on
her feet, he gripped her shoulders and stared down into her face.
Youhavetogo, youhavetogo, youhaveto-
"Damn, girl," he said, "it's good to see you again."
End of Excerpt.