With fugitive parents, a brother dodging loan sharks, a hunky cop who's made her outlaw family his business, and her ex-fiancé back in the picture, Carlotta Wren thought her life couldn't get any more complicated. And then...
Her fugitive parents phone home.
Her identity is stolen by a look-alike.
Her look-alike is found, well...dead.
Under suspicion for murder, Carlotta discovers that her devious double might have been bumped off accidentally—and that she could be the real target! Throw in dealing with her motley crew of family, friends and wannabe lovers, and Carlotta begins to think that jail isn't such a bad alternative after all....
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"Sweetheart, it's me…Daddy."
Carlotta Wren stepped off the up escalator in the Atlanta Neiman Marcus department store where she worked, so shocked by the sound of the voice on the other end that she dropped her cell phone.It landed on the shiny,waxed floor with a smack, bounced and skidded away. With her heart in her stomach, she frantically scrambled after the fleeing phone, the baritone of her long-lost fugitive father ringing in her ears.
Was it really him calling after ten years of silence? Ten years during which she'd put her life on hold to finish raising herself and her younger brother Wesley after her parents had skipped bail—and town—on investment fraud charges. Ten years of feeling alone and abandoned after her friends and even her fiancé had withdrawn their affection in light of the scandal.
The tiny phone spun away like a mouse scurrying for cover. Carlotta gulped air as she clambered after it, brushing the shoulders of people in her path, darting between racks of clothing. The foot of a striding customer struck the phone and sent it spinning in another direction. Carlotta hurtled after it, feeling her father slip farther from her grasp with every agonizing second that passed. She was practically hyperventilating when she fell to her knees, curled her fingers around the elusive phone and jammed it to her ear."Hello? Daddy?"
Dead air. If it had been Randolph Wren on the other end of the line, he was gone.
A sob welled up in her chest."Daddy, can you hear me?" She couldn't bring herself to hang up, unwilling to sever the only connection she'd had with her father in over a decade. Then she realized that he might be trying to call her back and stabbed the disconnect button. Sitting under a rack of beaded bathing-suit sarongs,Carlotta stared at the phone,willing it to ring again, thinking how ridiculous she would seem to an onlooker—an almost thirty-year-old woman sitting on the floor waiting for a call back from her long-lost daddy.
Somewhere between her nonexistent career goals, her brother's legal problems, their hulking debt to loan sharks and her confused love life, she'd made the transition from pitiful to pathetic.
Suddenly she remembered the callback feature and realized with a surge of excitement that she'd at least be able to see what number he'd called from. She stabbed at buttons on the phone,but was rewarded with a rather sick-sounding tone and noticed with dismay that the display was interrupted by a hairshattered family. Carlotta felt less forgiving, esher mother Valerie, who hadn't been a crime, yet had chosen a life on the lam over She sat on her heels for five long minperspiraA shadow fell over her. When she standing with her eyebrows raised.
narrow blonde, conservatively Patricia
is there a problem?" Lindy asked.
You know you're not supposed to be using "Yes," Carlotta said, her throat closing. "But this is a—an emergency."
"Oh?" Lindy crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Are you on an organ-donor list?"
"The phone-a-friend for a contestant on a national trivia show?"
"Waiting to hear back from your next employer?" Patricia snickered and Carlotta swallowed."N-no."
Lindy extended her hand. "Hand it over. You can pick it up at the end of your shift."
"No buts, Carlotta. You're already skating on thin ice around here."
Carlotta bit her tongue. Lindy had been more than fair to give her a get-out-of-jail-free card for buying clothes on her employee discount, wearing them to crash upscale parties, then returning the fancy outfits for full credit.Ditto when she had been involved in a knock-down drag-out fight with a customer right here in the store—and been implicated in that customer's subsequent murder. That particular misunderstanding had since been cleared up, but Carlotta's once-stellar sales record had slipped badly in the interim. It hadn't helped that the murdered woman had been a high-volume customer.
She was lucky that she hadn't been canned weeks ago, and since she and Wesley depended on her paycheck for little things like paying the mortgage…with a shaky smile, she handed the phone to Lindy. "Carlotta, have you met Patricia Alexander?"
"Not formally." She extended her hand to the blonde.
The woman's hand was just as cold as her smile."Hello." "Patricia is number one in sales this week," Lindy said. "Congratulations," Carlotta murmured, stinging with the knowledge that not too long ago, she had owned that number one spot.
"Thanks," Patricia said, then laughed—a sound that reminded Carlotta of a test of the Emergency Broadcast System."No hard feelings, I hope."
"Why should there be?"
The woman angled her head."Because I plan to break your sales record. Better watch your back." Her frosty smile didn't match her breezy tone.
Lindy gave Carlotta a pointed look, then dropped the phone into her jacket pocket. Carlotta watched the women walk away, along with all hopes of talking to her father today.
Had it really been him? And if so, would he think she'd hung up on him purposely,that she didn't want to talk to him? Worrying her lower lip, she wondered— did she?
If anyone had asked what she would do if her father called out of the blue, Carlotta would've sworn that she would hang up on him. Over the years her anger had grown into an almost tangible mass,like a tumor.Yet at the sound of his voice, she had regressed to Daddy's little girl—the entitled, spoiled teenager she'd been when he'd disappeared, the naive, young woman who couldn't conceive that her parents would desert her and her nine-year-old brother. With a mere four words uttered from his mouth, she'd been ready to accept his explanation and his apology…assuming he'd had either to offer.
She covered her mouth to suppress the aching wail that lodged in her throat. Knowing that her father still had that much power over her made her feel even less in control than usual. How dare he dive-bomb back into their lives like that?
Perilously close to losing it,Carlotta backtracked to find her shoe, but was blinded by tears of frustration. She wiped at her eyes angrily and swore under her breath.
"Is this what you're looking for?"
She winced, then turned at the unmistakable noise of Detective Jack Terry's voice. She blinked away the moisture to find him studying her red Dior stiletto-heel slide with the same intensity that she'd seen him study evidence at crime detective into close proximity at a couple of crime scenes, with abrasive results. Jack Terry was the one person she didn't want to see right now—the brute had recently reopened her father's case.
"Yes," she snapped, snatching the shoe out of his big hand.
"What are you doing here?"
"Irritating you, apparently." Then he suddenly looked sheepish and she realized he was dressed too casually to be on duty. He cleared his throat."If you must know, I need a monkey suit for a bigwig department dinner and I could use your…uh…help…picking out something."
Her anger receded. He had no idea what had just transpired. And wouldn't know unless she told him…or unless he'd made good on his threat to put a trace on her and Wesley's phones. He wasn't convinced that a handful of postcards was the only contact they'd had with their missing parents.
He gestured over his shoulder."Maybe I should just go to the place where I usually shop."
"I didn't realize that Dick's Sporting Goods sold formal wear," she said dryly.
"This was a bad idea." He turned to go.
"No, Jack. Wait." He stopped and Carlotta wondered if he realized it was the first time she'd called him anything other than Detective Terry—or one of the several unsavory nicknames she had uttered privately. But recently he—and one of her collectible Judith Leiber breastplate necklaces, circa mid1980s—had saved her from the bullet of a murderer, and in the aftermath,something electric had passed between them.She felt that confusing jolt now, at a loss to explain why she would be attracted to this good old Southern boy who—between arresting her brother for hacking into the Atlanta courthouse records, resurrecting her father's case and grilling her about her customer's murder—seemed to have made her family's lawlessness his pet project.
"What?" His nose flared and she sensed that he too felt the unwelcome sexual energy bouncing between them.
To break the moment, she narrowed her eyes."No way are you going to deny me the pleasure of seeing you buttoned into a tux."
She smiled and dropped her shoe, trying to compose herself as she pushed her bare foot inside. Her father would call back…of course he would.She wobbled and Jack reached out to steady her.
He gave a little laugh, his gold-colored eyes narrow with sudden concern."Are you all right? You seem on edge."
Carlotta stared at his big hand on her arm, reminding herself that if Jack Terry appeared concerned for her well-being, it was only because he was trying to get on her good side in the hope that she would lead him to her parents.
She pulled away."I'm fine, Detective. Follow me."
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