Jason shook his head as he walked up three steps to the screened-in porch of the Craftsman he had purchased four years ago. He had just caught what was going to be the biggest case of his career and what was he thinking about? A chestnut-haired reporter who was destined to make his life hell for the foreseeable future. He could still feel the tingle where her hand had touched his and see the pain in those hazel-brown eyes. Pain he was sure she thought was well-hidden. Was that what had gotten to him? That vulnerability behind the tough protective shell? Or maybe he had imagined the whole thing. Maybe Jess was every bit the hard-as-nails journalist who really didn’t give a damn that her father was dead. In any case, he knew without a doubt they would cross paths again sooner rather than later.
“Dalia! Tess!” Jason called as he shut the door behind him. A willowy blonde in yoga pants and a slim-fitting baby-blue tee hurried into the foyer wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
“What are you doing home?” she asked.
“Daddy!” A little girl with long dark curls bouncing around a heart-shaped face came barreling into the entryway and flung herself into his arms.
“Hey, bebelle,” he said hoisting her up and balancing her on his hip. “What have you been up to, today?”
“Tess and I went to the park and I got to play on the swings, but I fell and a big doggie came up and I was scared, but he only licked me and it tickled and then we colored and I had ice-cream.”
“So I see,” he said running his finger over the chocolate mustache gracing her upper lip. “All that before noon?”
“I wanted to avoid the heat,” Tess explained.
“Can we watch my princess movie, Daddy?”
He felt a tug of regret in the center of his chest. “I wish we could, sweetie, but I have to go back to work.
“We caught a big one today,” Jason said when Tess gave him questioning look. “I just came to pick up my iPad. I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty late tonight. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” she answered. “No classes tomorrow, and it’s not like I have a long drive home.” She jerked her thumb in the direction of the “mother-in-law” addition.
“Thanks, Tess.” He gave his pouting daughter a kiss on top of her head. “Be good.”
“I’m always good,” she said wriggling until he set her on her feet and she raced off down the hall.
He watched until he saw her tiny form disappear into the playroom. “Are you sure you don’t mind,” he asked, turning back to Tess.
“Not a bit. She’s had a busy day, she’ll be out by eight and I can work on my thesis.”
He leaned over and brushed his lips over her cheek. “You’re the best.”
“I know,” she answered and sighed dramatically. “It’s a heavy burden to bear, but I have broad shoulders.”
“I’ll see you later,” Jason said with a smile that dropped from his face as he left his home, iPad under his arm.
I glanced down at the dashboard clock – it was already closing in on two o’clock. I hadn’t bothered with lunch, but my stomach was swirling with a mixture of excitement, anger, and disgust. The thought of food held no appeal. Kingsdale was a former coal-mining town near the West Virginia border that had been turned into a trendy tourist trap in recent years. I had driven the twisty, hilly road several times, but I couldn’t recall actually stopping for anything other than a quick fill-up at the gas station. I remembered peppermint candy-striped awnings and frou-frou shops selling various soaps, lotions, and potions. I wondered if Ms. Montgomery worked in one of the stores. Probably not. She was likely some trust-fund brat who’d never had to work. I bet she was only seeing the governor to piss off her daddy.
My teeth begin to ache ninety minutes later when I reached the edge of the saccharine-sweet town. “Welcome to historic Kingsdale!” proclaimed a sign decorated with butter churns, spinning wheels, and picks and shovels. Old-fashioned lamps lined the street and antique stores battled with candy shops and upscale boutiques for tourist dollars. And damned if there weren’t the canopies! I had hoped they had been a part of some fever-induced nightmare.
I cursed as the masculine and very British voice of my GPS told me he was “recalculating route” and found myself wondering what he would sound like with a bit of a southern drawl. Why had I gone there? Sure, Detective Anders was hot as hell in the middle of a heat wave, but he was also arrogant and more than a little irritating. It had definitely been too long since I’d been with a man if I was fantasizing about one who wanted to see me behind bars.
I tried to concentrate on not getting lost and soon “Prince Harry”, as I called him, led me to a ranch-style home on the far side of town. A yellow Corvette was parked in the driveway. Apparently, Ms. Montgomery didn’t have anywhere to be on a weekday afternoon.
My knock was immediately answered by a tall auburn-haired beauty dressed in short-shorts. A tight, neon-green tank stretched across her ample bosom. She stared at me a few seconds and then stated, in an unexpectedly rich voice, “You’re not Danni.”
“No,” I agreed, “I’m not Danni.”
“Well then, who the hell are you?” she demanded, her cupid’s–bow lips pursing so tightly she looked like a large, lipstick-wearing fish.
“I’m Jessie,” I said. “Adam Welling’s daughter.”
I slid my foot quickly into the opening before she could slam the door in my face. The sharp wooden edge hurt like an SOB, but I had to speak to this woman.
“Go away!” she cried.
The bimbo kept trying to shove the door closed, squishing my foot a little harder each time.
“Dammit, stop!” I shouted. “We need to talk.”
“I have nothing to say to you,” she said, but she did stop trying to slam the door.
“Listen,” I said, determined to convince her to let me in. “I have bad news.” I peeked through the crack in the doorway so I could watch her painted-up face. “Adam Welling is dead.”
The door flew open, causing me to lose my balance and fall face-first onto soft, vanilla carpet.
“What are you talking about?” she demanded. “Why would you say such a thing?”
I pulled myself up, brushed back the strands of hair that had escaped from my ponytail in that graceful dive to the floor. “Because it’s true. I was just at his house this morning. He’s dead.”
“No,” she insisted. “There’s been a mistake. I just spoke with him yesterday evening. He’s fine.” She reached into her bra and drew out a cell phone. She began tapping away while I pondered how on earth there was room for anything else in her undergarments besides her surgically-enhanced assets. The call must have gone to voicemail, because the fish face was back as she tossed the phone on a small table at her hip.
“He’s busy,” she said confidently. “He’s a very important man and he has a lot to do.”
“Yeah, like decomposing.” Okay, I shouldn’t have said that. He had apparently meant something to this woman. Her mouth formed a red “O”.
“How could you say that? You’re horrible! Go away!”
I saw her reach for the door again. “Wait! I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “You’re right, I’m handling this all wrong, but I really do need to talk with you. Please let me in.” I dug my driver’s license out of my back pocket and shoved it in her heart-shaped face. “See, I really am who I said and the governor really is dead.”
The door opened wider and she stepped aside. “I don’t believe you,” she insisted, jutting her sharp little chin in the air.
“Okay,” I said, rethinking my strategy. “You don’t have to believe me, just talk to me. I want to find out what happened to him. Can you please, please humor me and answer a few questions?”
The chin came down an inch. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t,” I answered. “And I don’t know if I can trust you, but I’m willing to take the chance if you are.”
I found myself sitting on a hard, straight-backed chair at a table in the medium-sized kitchen. The floor was polished pine and friendly yellow and white butterfly paper brightened the walls. The stove and appliances were modern chrome and everything was spic-and-span clean. This was obviously a well-cared-for middle-class home, which surprised me. I had expected to find the governor’s tart stashed in some fancy condo or apartment, and I wondered which one of them had chosen this particular abode.
“So talk,” she said plunking herself down in the chair opposite the one I occupied. She was trying to appear tough, but her lips quivered and she was nervously clenching and unclenching her fists in her lap.
“I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but the governor was murdered this morning. The maid found him. I thought it would be best if you heard the news from me rather than on television.” Okay, I didn’t give a rat’s ass how she heard the news, but I wanted her to open up to me.
She gasped and covered her mouth with a trembling hand. “It’s true?” she asked, “He’s really dead?”
I nodded and waited for the flood of tears, but I was once again surprised. Her china-blue eyes were wet, but there was no incoherent sobbing. Rather, she took two deep breaths and willed her tense body to relax. “I’m sorry for the way I behaved earlier,” she said. “I was expecting my yoga instructor and you showed up instead.”
As if on cue, the doorbell rang.
“I’ll send her away,” she said, standing. Cara left the room. I heard a few quiet murmurs, and then she returned and sat back down. She took a few more breaths before speaking. “I should have known you were telling me the truth.”
“Why?” I asked. “I wouldn’t have trusted me.”
She looked at me so intensely that I felt a shiver of intuitive electricity race through me. “You’re a reporter, right? You look into crimes?”
“Sometimes,” I answered, leaning forward and steadily returning her gaze despite my racing heart. Was this woman about to share something with me that would blow the case apart? Was I about to learn the identity of a murderer?
“You need to find out who framed your father,” she stated. “He was obsessed with proving it.”
I fell back, the spark of excitement sputtering. Had I driven all this way just to hear the governor’s tramp proclaim his innocence. There was absolutely no doubt in anyone else’s mind that he was guilty. Even Rosy knew it!
“I don’t want to talk about the past,” I said with a sigh. I was too wired to sit here and dick around. “I need you tell me what you know right now.”
“Right now, I know the man I love is dead!” she snapped. “And if you’d get that chip off your shoulder and investigate, you might learn something that will help you.”
Oh, no! I wasn’t about to let Little Miss Booty Call pull attitude with me! I stood and jammed my notebook back into my pocket.
“Okay, we’re done,” I said, surprised at how icy-cold my voice sounded given the rage that was burning inside of me. I turned and started for the door.
“So that’s it?” she called after me. “What kind of reporter are you? You have your mind made up about someone so you just stop looking for the truth?”
“I’m not about to stop looking for the truth,” I spat back at her, “and I’m not going to waste my time on delusions.” Deep down I knew I should play nice, that she might still be able to tell me something useful, but I just didn’t have it in me at the moment.
“Jessie, don’t go.” Her voice had turned plaintive. “No one will take me seriously, but it’s the truth.”
I softened slightly at the look of misery on her face, and she sensed it.
“You told me you were willing to take a chance on me. I’m holding you to that. Your father isn’t the man you think he is . . .,” she gulped visibly, “. . . was. He bent the rules, but he never accepted bribes or made any illegal deals. It was someone else, and I think that someone killed him.”