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Stars: Hidden Star/Captive Starby Nora Roberts
Cade Parris wasn't having the best of days when the woman of his dreams walked into his office. His secretary had quit the day before—not that she'd been much of a prize anyway, being more vigilant about her manicure than maintaining the phone logs. But he needed someone to keep track of things and shuffle papers into files. Even the raise he offered out of sheer desperation hadn't swayed her to give up her sudden determination to become a country-and-western singing sensation.
So his secretary was heading off to Nashville in a second-hand pickup, and his office looked like the ten miles of bad road he sincerely hoped she traveled.
She hadn't exactly had her mind on her work the past month or two. That impression had been more than confirmed when he fished a bologna sandwich out of the file drawer. At least he thought the blob in the plastic bag was bologna. And it had been filed under L—for Lunch?
He didn't bother to swear, nor did he bother to answer the phone that rang incessantly on the empty desk in his reception area. He had reports to type up, and as typing wasn't one of his finer skills, he just wanted to get on with it.
Parris Investigations wasn't what some would call a thriving enterprise. But it suited him, just as the cluttered two-room office squeezed into the top floor of a narrow brick building with bad plumbing in North West D.C. suited him.
He didn't need plush carpets or polished edges. He'd grown up with all that, with the pomp and pretenses, and had had his fill of it all by the time he reached the age of twenty. Now, at thirty, with one bad marriage behind him and a family who continued to be baffled by his pursuits, he was, by and large, a contented man.
He had his investigator's license, a decent reputation as a man who got the job done, and enough income to keep his agency well above water.
Though actual business income was a bit of a problem just then. He was in what he liked to call a lull. Most of his caseload consisted of insurance and domestic work—a few steps down from the thrills he'd imagined when he set out to become a private investigator. He'd just cleaned up two cases, both of them minor insurance frauds that hadn't taken much effort or innovation to close.
He had nothing else coming in, his greedy blood-sucker of a landlord was bumping up his rent, the engine in his car had been making unsettling noises lately, his air conditioner was on the fritz. And the roof was leaking again.
He took the spindly yellow-leafed philodendron his double-crossing secretary had left behind and set it on the uncarpeted floor under the steady drip, hoping it might drown.
He could hear a voice droning into his answering machine. It was his mother's voice. Lord, he thought, did a man ever really escape his mother?
"Cade, dear, I hope you haven't forgotten the Embassy Ball. You know you're to escort Pamela Lovett. I had lunch with her aunt today, and she tells me that Pamela just looks marvelous after her little sojourn to Monaco."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he muttered, and narrowed his eyes at the computer. He and machines had poor and untrusting relationships.
He sat down and faced the screen as his mother continued to chatter: "Have you had your tux cleaned? Do make time to get a haircut, you looked so scraggly the last time I saw you."
And don't forget to wash behind the ears, he thought sourly, and tuned her out. She was never going to accept that the Parris life-style wasn't his life-style, that he just didn't want to lunch at the club or squire bored former debutantes around Washington and that his opinion wasn't going to change by dint of her persuasion.
He'd wanted adventure, and though struggling to type up a report on some poor slob's fake whiplash wasn't exactly Sam Spade territory, he was doing the job.
Mostly he didn't feel useless or bored or out of place. He liked the sound of traffic outside his window, even though the window was only open because the building and its scum-sucking landlord didn't go in for central air-conditioning and his unit was broken. The heat was intense, and the rain was coming in, but with the window closed, the offices would have been as airless and stifling as a tomb.
Sweat rolled down his back, making him itchy and irritable. He was stripped down to a T-shirt and jeans, his long fingers fumbling a bit on the computer keys. He had to shovel his hair out of his face several times, which ticked him off. His mother was right. He needed a haircut.
So when it got in the way again, he ignored it, as he ignored the sweat, the heat, the buzz of traffic, the steady drip from the ceiling. He sat, methodically punching a key at a time, a remarkably handsome man with a scowl on his face.
He'd inherited the Parris looks—the clever green eyes that could go broken-bottle sharp or as soft as sea mist, depending on his mood. The hair that needed a trim was dark mink brown and tended to wave. Just now, it curled at his neck, over his ears, and was beginning to annoy him. His nose was straight, aristocratic and a little long, his mouth firm and quick to smile when he was amused. And to sneer when he wasn't.
Though his face had become more honed since the embarrassing cherubic period of his youth and early adolescence, it still sported dimples. He was looking forward to middle age, when, with luck, they'd become manly creases.
He'd wanted to be rugged, and instead was stuck with the slick, dreamy good looks of a GQ cover—for one of which he'd posed in his middle twenties, under protest and great family pressure.
The phone rang again. This time he heard his sister's voice, haranguing him about missing some lame cocktail party in honor of some big-bellied senator she was endorsing.
He thought about just ripping the damn answering machine out of the wall and heaving it, and his sister's nagging voice, out the window into the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.
Then the rain that was only adding to the miserably thick heat began to drip on the top of his head. The computer blinked off, for no reason he could see other than sheer nastiness, and the coffee he'd forgotten he was heating boiled over with a spiteful hiss.
He leaped up, burned his hand on the pot. He swore viciously as the pot smashed, shattering glass, and spewing hot coffee in all directions. He ripped open a drawer, grabbed for a stack of napkins and sliced his thumb with the lethal edge of his former—and now thoroughly damned to perdition—secretary's nail file.
When the woman walked in, he was still cursing and bleeding and had just tripped over the philodendron set in the middle of the floor and didn't even look up.
It was hardly a wonder she simply stood there, damp from the rain, her face pale as death and her eyes wide with shock.
"Excuse me." Her voice sounded rusty, as if she hadn't used it in days. "I must have the wrong office." She inched backward, and those big, wide brown eyes shifted to the name printed on the door. She hesitated, then looked back at him. "Are you Mr. Parris?"
There was a moment, one blinding moment, when he couldn't seem to speak. He knew he was staring at her, couldn't help himself. His heart simply stood still.
His knees went weak. And the only thought that came to his mind was There you are, finally. What the hell took you so long?
And because that was so ridiculous, he struggled to put a bland, even cynical, investigator's expression on his face.
"Yeah." He remembered the handkerchief in his pocket, and wrapped it over his busily bleeding thumb.
"Just had a little accident here."
"I see." Though she didn't appear to, the way she continued to stare at his face. "I've come at a bad time. I don't have an appointment. I thought maybe "
"Looks like my calendar's clear."
He wanted her to come in, all the way in. Whatever that first absurd, unprecedented reaction of his, she was still a potential client. And surely no dame who ever walked through Sam Spade's hallowed door had ever been more perfect.
She was blond and beautiful and bewildered. Her hair was wet, sleek down to her shoulders and straight as the rain. Her eyes were bourbon brown, in a face that— though it could have used some color—was delicate as a fairy's. It was heart-shaped, the cheeks a gentle curve and the mouth was full, unpainted and solemn.
She'd ruined her suit and shoes in the rain. He recognized both as top-quality, that quietly exclusive look found only in designer salons. Against the wet blue silk of her suit, the canvas bag she clutched with both hands looked intriguingly out of place.
Damsel in distress, he mused, and his lips curved. Just what the doctor ordered.
"Why don't you come in, close the door, Miss ?"
Her heart bumped twice, hammer-hard, and she tightened her grip on the bag. "You're a private investigator?"
"That's what it says on the door." Cade smiled again, ruthlessly using the dimples while he watched her gnaw that lovely lower lip. Damned if he wouldn't like to gnaw on it himself.
And that response, he thought with a little relief, was a lot more like it. Lust was a feeling he could understand.
"Let's go back to my office." He surveyed the damage—broken glass, potting soil, pools of coffee. "I think I'm finished in here for now."
"All right." She took a deep breath, stepped in, then closed the door. She supposed she had to start somewhere.
Picking her way over the debris, she followed him into the adjoining room. It was furnished with little more than a desk and a couple of bargain-basement chairs. Well, she couldn't be choosy about decor, she reminded herself. She waited until he'd sat behind his desk, tipped back in his chair and smiled at her again in that quick, trust-me way.
"Do you— Could I—" She squeezed her eyes tight, centered herself again. "Do you have some credentials I could see?"
More intrigued, he took out his license, handed it to her. She wore two very lovely rings, one on each hand, he noticed. One was a square-cut citrine in an antique setting, the other a trio of colored stones. Her earrings matched the second ring, he noted when she tucked her hair behind her ear and studied his license as if weighing each printed word.
"Would you like to tell me what the problem is, Miss ?"
"I think—" She handed him back his license, then gripped the bag two-handed again. "I think I'd like to hire you." Her eyes were on his face again, as intently, as searchingly, as they had been on the license. "Do you handle missing-persons cases?"
Who did you lose, sweetheart? he wondered. He hoped, for her sake and for the sake of the nice little fantasy that was building in his head, it wasn't a husband. "Yeah, I handle missing persons."
"Your, ah, rate?"
"Two-fifty a day, plus expenses." When she nodded, he slid over a legal pad, picked up a pencil. "Who do you want me to find?"
She took a long, shuddering breath. "Me. I need you to find me."
Watching her, he tapped the pencil against the pad. "Looks like I already have. You want me to bill you, or do you want to pay now?"
"No." She could feel it cracking. She'd held on so long—or at least it seemed so long—but now she could feel that branch she'd gripped when the world dropped out from under her begin to crack. "I don't remember. Anything. I don't—" Her voice began to hitch. She took her hands off the bag in her lap to press them to her face. "I don't know who I am. I don't know who I am." And then she was weeping the words into her hands. "I don't know who I am."
Cade had a lot of experience with hysterical women. He'd grown up with females who used flowing tears and gulping sobs as the answer to anything from a broken nail to a broken marriage. So he rose from his desk, armed himself with a box of tissues and crouched in front of her.
"Here now, sweetheart. Don't worry. It's going to be just fine." With gentle expertise, he mopped at her face as he spoke. He patted her hand, stroked her hair, studied her swimming eyes.
"I'm sorry. I can't—"
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