“Did you see that move?” Miranda Steele gritted her teeth as she watched a masculine hand slide up a shapely thigh under a calico sundress a few tables away.
“Unfortunately, yes.” Parker pretended to study his Dom Pérignon. “Were you able to capture it?”
“Every disgusting slither.” She grinned with satisfaction, adjusted the broad brim of her flouncy silk hat, and murmured under her breath. “Thanks to this fancy equipment, courtesy of the Parker Agency.”
Tucked under the crown of her hat was a state-of-the-art mini-camcorder, so light she barely felt it. The camcorder was surreptitiously attached to a viewer hidden in her sunglasses. A very cool surveillance toy.
It gave Miranda a thrill to be sitting here with her sexy boss, ace investigator Wade Parker, CEO of the ultra-successful Parker Agency, at the ritzy Northwinds Steeplechase outside of Atlanta, acting as if they were just having drinks at an outdoor pavilion. With its linen-covered tables, its view of the rolling green fields, the Vivaldi wafting from concealed speakers, no one would imagine they were really gathering evidence on a couple of brazen cheaters.
“Have one.” Parker nudged a china saucer of appetizers toward her. Peppers laced with chipotle and wrapped in jalapeno bacon.
“Don’t mind if I do.” She picked one up by its miniature skewer and popped it in her mouth. It burned, but nothing she couldn’t handle. “Bland,” she shrugged.
Parker chuckled. Ever since she’d challenged him to a pepper-eating contest at a local restaurant, he’d been testing her endurance. “I’m pleased at how quickly you’ve picked up the feel of the equipment.” He sat back and sipped from his glass, peering at the lovebirds across the way. “Excellent work, so far.” His low Southern murmur was as smooth as Jim Beam and juleps.
Involuntarily, the corner of Miranda’s lip turned up. “Thanks.” She’d never had a real career before and she liked detective work. She was glad Parker had asked her to work this case, even though it was partly an excuse to be with her.
“What’s the first rule of covert surveillance?” he said so softly, she barely heard him.
That was a quick one-eighty. “Don’t get made,” she whispered. “So?”
“So why are you so tense?”
“I’m not tense,” she hissed through her teeth.
“My mistake,” he said dryly and set down his glass.
Watching the bubbles rise in the amber liquid, she exhaled and rotated her shoulders, even picked up her drink and took a sip. Maybe she was too tense. She really wanted to nail this guy.
“That’s better,” Parker smiled. Then he nodded casually to an acquaintance passing by their table.
Easy for him to say. Ease and charm came naturally to the cagey investigator. Especially earlier this morning, when they’d had to make polite conversation with the women of his social circle while they’d trailed their frisky targets all over the steeplechase grounds. Women who thought Miranda’s presence here with Parker proved she belonged to the species goldus diggerous. But at least she hadn’t gotten as many cold stares as she once had from the horsey set.
Could be the front-page news coverage of the murder case she’d just solved, where she’d saved a young girl’s life. A battle with a monster that left her cold and numb—and with twenty-five stitches across her chest.
A half-groan, half-giggle came from the woman in the calico sundress. The man just about drooled over himself as he draped an arm across the back of her chair.
“Smile for the birdie.” Miranda narrowed her eyes at the frisky subjects. These two belonged to the “horsing around” set.
The man was Anthony Lloyd Witherspoon. Young, clean-cut, dressed in an expensive beige suit. An upwardly mobile banker type from CK&G. The woman, tanned and carefree, with long, dark blond hair, was Farrah Simmons, a local well-to-do with connections to the steeplechase. Her stylish hat, like Miranda’s, was in deference to the Ladies’ Hat Contest, something of a ritual at equine events, Parker had explained.
Miranda caught the insignia on the woman’s tote bag. “Canterbury Stables is Simmons’s horse farm, right?” She remembered that from the file.
Parker nodded imperceptibly. “She’s part owner with her family.”
Miranda angled her head. “Got the bag. Nice extra bit of identifying evidence.”
Witherspoon reached up casually to caress Simmons’s neck. The woman turned to him with an I’m-all-yours smile, and gave him a full-lipped kiss with a bit of tongue. Would have been a charming scene—if Witherspoon weren’t married to somebody else.
Miranda growled under her breath. “That’s right, buddy. Go for it. I’ve got you covered.”
“Down, tigress.” Parker’s low laugh caressed her ear. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
She caught herself before she could smile, shrugged instead. “You know I don’t like cheaters.” Especially after trailing the bastard on her last case who’d been sleeping around on a friend. As well as beating her.
“And you know I don’t either. But are you sure you can focus? Perhaps this exercise is a bit much after—”
“I can focus just fine.” She fidgeted with her paper napkin and shot her boss a wary look. Why did Wade Russell Parker the Third have to be so damn sexy?
Those sharp, Magnum-gray eyes that could both warm you with passion, then freeze with disapproval. The salt-and-pepper sprinkled through his dark hair that he wore just over his ears. His finely tailored, dark blue suit. That distinguished, middle-aged face. That irresistible magnetism. No wonder he could turn the head of every available woman in Atlanta—a fact she had witnessed more than a few times. Since the death of his wife three years ago, Parker had been the most eligible bachelor in town.
He leaned in a little closer, those steamy gray eyes of his brimming with testosterone-fired attraction. “Are you sure you’re all right?” He let a finger trail down her arm.
Miranda swallowed as goosebumps bombarded her flesh. She cleared her throat. They’d talked about this. After her recent ordeal, she couldn’t take much more than a causal friendship, even if they had gone through that ordeal together. Even if they had slept together just a few weeks ago.
“Yes. I’m just peachy.” She shifted away and concentrated on her targets. “This outing is business, isn’t it?”
He sat back again, his gaze still piercing. “Absolutely. Why would it be anything else?”
Yesterday afternoon, when he’d plopped the file on her desk and asked if she wanted to work this weekend, she knew he had something up his sleeve. This assignment didn’t call for the chief investigator and president of the Parker Agency and his best trainee.
This morning, when he’d picked her up in his midnight blue Lamborghini, held the door for her, told her the form-fitting red-and-white sundress he’d given her to wear as a “disguise” looked stunning with her dark hair, she knew this excursion had all the trappings of a date. Parker was making an excuse to be with her, trying to keep her from moping around her apartment alone this weekend.
While the camera caught Pretty Boy and Simmons gaping at each other again, he leaned in and exhaled against her ear. “You’re doing an excellent job.”
She shifted in her chair, ignoring the chill bumps skittering down her back at the warmth of his breath. “Thanks, but you already said that.”
In a deft move, he slipped an arm along the back of her chair, with a lot more charm and subtlety than Witherspoon. “You’ve come a long way since you started at the Agency, Miranda.”
Too soon, Parker. “Really?” she asked, finding her voice had gone hoarse.
“Yes, you have.”
“Thanks,” she said. Again. And reached for her glass. She put it down again.
She couldn’t get down another swallow of wine. Her throat was too tight. Their bland conversation was too heavy with the subtext of things neither of them wanted to talk about. The horrendous fight they’d had three weeks ago. The day she’d stormed out of his office, never intending to come back. The day he’d saved her life.
How long would she stay in Atlanta and keep working for the Parker Agency? The jury was still out on that one.
Parker inhaled patiently and leaned back to study the woman beside him. He removed his arm from the back of her chair, but it took all his restraint to keep from taking her in his arms and kissing the daylights out of her right then and there. After mourning Sylvia’s death for three years, he had finally fallen in love.
But it was too soon. He was too aware of her pain. Of those dark, tempestuous feelings that simmered just below her surface. Those emotions had given them a decidedly rocky start. He had to give her space and time to settle in again. Work was what she needed now. Nothing hazardous, of course. Not yet. Just a small case or two. Something to rebuild her spirit.
He longed to see that spirit back in full bloom. She had tremendous strengths. A keen eye. A sharp mind. The persistence of a bulldog. And she had a few weaknesses. Those, he would handle. Once he finished training her, she would be one of the finest investigators the Parker Agency had ever had.
Not in all his years as an investigator had he ever met anyone quite like Miranda Steele.
She was a kindred spirit. A defender of the defenseless, driven by his own fervent passion to protect the helpless and avenge the innocent. No one had ever touched him so deeply. Or exasperated him so thoroughly.
Stubbornly, Miranda beat back the lusty emotions her boss had aroused. This wasn’t a date, no matter how much Parker wanted it to be. She was on assignment. And Witherspoon and Simmons were rubbing noses like Eskimos. She tilted her head and once more allowed the mini-cam to “capture the memory.”
Then she scowled. Would this evidence be enough? “These shots aren’t like catching them together in the sack,” she complained. “Do you think they’ll be enough for Witherspoon’s wife to take him to the cleaners?” Poor woman.
Parker waited a beat, sipped his drink. “What makes you think our client is female?”
She blinked at him. Huh? “Does Witherspoon swing both ways or something?”
Almost imperceptibly, Parker shook his head. “Objectivity, Miranda. Mr. Simmons is our client. It’s Farrah Simmons who’s the primary cheat. Witherspoon is single.”
What the hell? “That wasn’t in the file. I’d have seen it.”
“Yes, you would have. I left it out.”
Her mouth fell open. She glared at Parker. “What?”
“I wanted to see if you’d ask. You didn’t. You assumed.” He gestured toward the targets.
Miranda snapped her head back in place and thought of the pages in the file. There had been several references to “the client,” with no name specified.
“The client” thought Witherspoon had been seeing Simmons for about a month. “The client” thought they had been sweethearts in college. “The client” reported that Simmons was an old flame. Miranda had assumed “the client” was Witherspoon’s wife.
She exhaled an exasperated huff. “You trying to show me up, Parker?”
“Not at all.” He chuckled, those sexy laugh lines forming at the corners of his eyes.
She shifted in her seat, grinding her teeth. “Oh? So what’s with the double-cross?”
“It wasn’t a double-cross. It was a test.”
She arched a brow. “A test?”
“A lesson in objectivity. Without objectivity, you risk going off on tangents. You waste valuable time.” He reached over and patted her hand. “Don’t take it to heart. Everyone brings their own biases to a case. Every investigator has to learn his or hers.”
“Ever the teacher, aren’t you?” She pulled her hand away and ran her fingers over the condensation on her almost untouched champagne. “I’m not biased.”
“Not even a little bit after all you’ve been through?” There was tenderness in his voice. He knew her too well.
She’d been through a lot, but that didn’t make her unfair. “Mighty thoughtful of you to point that out.”
Parker frowned, annoyed she wasn’t getting the point. “Miranda. You’re tough, sharp, and you have an uncanny instinct for cutting through bullshit and getting to the gritty truth underneath. But…sometimes you jump to conclusions too quickly. You need some objectivity. Objectivity can protect you. Objectivity can—”
“Don’t tell me. Save my life?”
He’d said similar words to her before. She sat back and blew out a breath, wanting to lambaste the sneaky PI. “So is this case for real? Or is it just an excuse for a date?”
His eyes flashed with insult. “Of course it’s real. James Simmons paid the Agency a large sum to verify his suspicions about his wife.” The furrows in his brow deepened. “I wouldn’t bring you out here on a ruse. Or for a ‘date,’ as you put it.”
“Hah,” she snorted. “Tell that to someone who was born yesterday.” She wished she could get up and walk away, but her unbiased professionalism kept her butt in her seat.
His jaw tightened. “Your reaction merely underscores my point.”
“Oh, it does, does it?”
“You need more objectivity. This isn’t personal, Miranda.”
“Isn’t it?” she said a little too loudly. Then she sucked in her breath when she saw Witherspoon glance their way. “God, no.”
“Don’t look surprised.”
“I know that,” she hissed. She looked away. “Did he see us?”
Before Parker could answer, Simmons rose, gave Witherspoon an affectionate tweak on the nose and strolled away.
“Where’s she going?”
With a long-legged, decisive gait, Simmons strode past the tables, heading toward the far end of the track near the barns.
“Checking on her family’s horses before the race?” Miranda hoped.
She glanced back at the table. Witherspoon got to his feet, tossed some bills on the table and started off in the opposite direction. Damn. “Are they on to us?”
“I don’t know, but we can’t lose them.” Parker rose. “You follow Simmons. I’ll stay on Witherspoon. If I don’t call you, we’ll meet back at our seats near the finish line in one hour. Just before the races begin.”
“I’m on it.” Miranda rose and nonchalantly fell in behind Simmons, keeping a reasonable distance between them.
She felt awful. If she screwed up this assignment just because she’d let Parker get to her, she’d never forgive herself. She had to concentrate. Throwing off the bad feeling, she focused on the thrill coursing through her veins.
Now there was a real chase.