Desirée Langford’s bizarre death turned what should have been a festive afternoon into something eerier than a scene from a Greek tragedy.
When the Northwinds Steeplechase officials announced the afternoon races were canceled, shock and anger rumbled through the throng on the field like an impending earthquake. Several of the stunned spectators shouted blind accusations, blaming anybody they could think of for the terrible mishap. The trainers, the coordinating committee, the security staff. It got so tense, Miranda was glad there was an army of security guards and cops around.
The only folks who weren’t upset were the reporters. They had a nice, juicy story for the evening news. Wealthy Heiress Killed in Bizarre Horse Accident.
But was it really an accident?
Miranda leaned back against the plush leather passenger seat of Parker’s Lamborghini, glad to finally be heading home. Parker had been pleased with the evidence she’d gathered for the Simmons case, especially when she’d told him about Lover-Number-Two, but he hadn’t mentioned anything about what was now the main event—the body in the stall.
As they sped past rolling green fields, Miranda stared out the window thinking of Delta Langford. “Did you and Erskine have a nice reunion in the barn?” she said finally. Parker’s relationship with the police Lieutenant could be strained at times.
Parker shot her a wary look. “After Witherspoon left the grounds, I was heading toward the barns to find you when the Lieutenant spotted me and told me what happened. I offered to help.”
Uh huh. “Why didn’t you want me in the stall?”
He sighed, his gaze steady on the Interstate traffic, which was lighter than usual. “I thought it was too soon for you. It was an ugly sight, to put it mildly.”
Damn straight, it was. “So you think I’m too much of a wuss to handle it?”
Parker stiffened. “‘Wuss’ is the last word I’d use to describe you, Miranda.”
“If it had been anyone else from the Agency,” she said, letting her annoyance show, “even another trainee, you’d be glad to get them involved. You’d say it was good experience.”
Parker tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Miranda Steele was the most defiantly stubborn woman he had ever met. “We’ve already been over this, Miranda. I don’t want you near any violent cases until some time has passed.”
With a grunt, she glared out the window. Parker could be so damned irritating when he was trying to protect her. But he didn’t know she’d paid her respects in the stall before he got there. If she kept it that way, maybe this could turn into a case, after all. He wouldn’t keep her off it if Delta Langford called the Agency and asked for her specifically, would he?
She cleared her throat and forced a calm tone into her voice. “So you and Erskine examined the scene. What do you think happened?”
He gave her a suspicious glance as he slowed to let a pickup truck pass him. “At first sight, it appeared to be an accident. The deceased had been kicked by her horse. Then we noticed the body smelled strongly of alcohol.”
She remembered that. A couple in a Fiat convertible passed them. Parker didn’t change his speed. The Lamborghini could make mincemeat out of that Fiat. He was stretching out their time together. Two could play that game. She’d make him talk.
“Alcohol?” she asked innocently.
“Ms. Langford has a history of alcohol and substance abuse. The swelling around her eyes and the color of her skin indicated recent drug use. The coroner will be able to determine more details. But right now, Lieutenant Erskine believes cause of death is suicide.”
Really. Miranda sipped at the soda Parker had bought her before they left. “Not an accident, then.”
“Are you still involved in the investigation?”
“No. Erskine merely wanted temporary backup due to the crowd. He’s been asked to work with the local police.”
She took in what he’d just told her. After several minutes, they neared the city and the scenery grew dense with subdivisions, office buildings and strip malls.
Delta Langford insisted Usher had influenced her sister to use drugs. Had they made her want to kill herself? “Erskine thinks it was a suicide just because Langford was a user?”
Parker shook his head. “There was a note.”
The corner of white she’d seen in the hay. She’d thought it looked like a piece of paper. “Under her hat.”
The centrifugal force tugged at her stomach as he cruised along the interstate’s off-ramp. Glass structures towered over the trees. He glanced at her with that piercing look of his. “How did you know that?”
She shrugged. “I have my ways.” His own line didn’t sound so smooth coming from her lips. “What did the note say?”
He shot her another suspicious glance. “It appeared to be handwritten by Desirée. It implied she was tired of living. She wanted to die beside her beloved horses.”
She wrinkled her nose. “That’s weird.”
“Not so strange. Though horses and steeplechase racing were her passion, Desirée Langford was given to depression.”
“Her family owns Aquitaine Farms. She was one of the top thoroughbred breeders in the country.” He changed lanes as they merged onto Peachtree Road and headed toward her apartment building. “Her loss is a blow to the racing community.”
“Even more strange to do it today,” she murmured.
Traffic grew heavy. Parker slowed. “She may have wanted to make a statement. The woman was moody. She had a bizarre personal life. She was known for her peculiarities.”
“Wild parties, experimenting with drugs, and a bad temper.”
Just like Delta told her. “How do you know so much about her personal life?”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “I’ve known the Langfords since boyhood.”
Okay. She’d wondered if Delta Langford was in Parker’s social circle. So why was she so hesitant to talk to him about her suspicions? Miranda decided not to pursue that line of questioning. “According to Erskine, then, it wasn’t the kick from the horse that killed Desirée, it was the drugs she’d taken.”
“That’s what he suspects. The coroner’s exam will confirm it. Or not.”
Miranda shook her head. “The woman shoots up, guzzles down some booze, writes a suicide note, then goes out to her favorite horse’s stall and waits for him to kick her in the head to finish the job? On the day of the Steeplechase?” Didn’t seem right, even if she were depressed.
She watched Parker staring at the car in front of him. He didn’t buy it either. “According to the trainer, Calypso is a spirited animal. But something provoked him.”
“Anything could set off a nervous horse. The unfamiliar surroundings, the crowd, a child. The kicks might have been pure coincidence.”
“Why did she stand behind the horse? Wouldn’t she know better?”
“Good question. But if the drugs were hallucinogenic, as Erskine suspects, she might not have even realized where she was.”
“Too buzzed to duck when a hoof was heading for your face.” If she were lucky, too numb to feel the hit.
“They’ll know more when they do the autopsy.” He came to a stop at a light, turned and gazed at her keenly with those sexy, steel-gray eyes of his. “You didn’t answer my question.”
She titled her head. “What question?”
His eyes narrowed. “How did you see the suicide note?”
She shifted in her seat.
Man, he was pushy. “What was I supposed to do, Parker? Right after I got those shots of Simmons and Lover-Number-Two, the commotion started in the barn. It was only natural to go and have a look-see. When I saw the body, I thought I could revive her. But when I ducked into the stall, I saw she was dead. That’s when I noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under the hat.”
Parker inhaled as he gazed at the obstinate woman in his passenger seat. It was just like her to step right into the thick of trouble. If he didn’t love her so much…he wasn’t sure what he’d do with her.
Her red-and-white surveillance hat lay in her lap. Her dark curls had come down and fallen around her shoulders the way he liked. As always, her deep blue eyes with their sharp, black lashes spoke volumes to him. She was still fragile after her ordeal a few weeks ago, though she wouldn’t admit it.
Today’s incident was a tragedy. He had wanted to protect her from it, shield her from any more pain than she’d already suffered, but her independent spirit made that difficult. Yet, her stubborn tenacity was one of the traits he admired most about her. One of the traits that made him care so deeply for her. One of the traits they shared.
He studied her quietly. “What else did you see?”
Miranda pursed her lips. Parker’s look went straight through her. He could get anything out of her with that look. But there wasn’t much to tell. “I saw the body,” she murmured. “Like you said. It wasn’t pretty.”
A honk came from behind them. Miranda pointed up. “The light’s green.”
He stiffened. “I see that.” He moved through the intersection. “Go on.”
She raised her hands innocently. “A weird-looking dude. Desirée’s ex-husband.”
He nodded. “Ferraro Usher. He’s an upcoming artist. What was he doing in the stall?”
“Same thing I was. Looking at the body.”
Parker drove in silence until the Colonial Towers building rose before them. He turned into the parking lot. “How did Usher seem?”
Seem? How could she explain that dazed glare in the strange man’s eyes? “Confused. Shocked. The security guard pushed us out before we could get acquainted. You know Usher, too?”
“Slightly. I’ve been to a few of his shows downtown.” Frowning, he pulled into a space and stopped the car. “How did you know his name?”
God, he was persistent. She ran a finger along the edge of the window. Might as well fess up. He’d find out sooner or later. “Delta Langford told me.”
His brow rose. “The deceased’s sister?”
“Yeah. She recognized me from the newspaper and approached me. In her opinion, what happened to Desirée wasn’t an accident. She thinks Usher did it.”
He leaned forward with interest. “Oh? And why does Delta suspect him?”
Miranda stared down at her hat. Good thing she’d stopped the tape after she got kicked out of the stall. Wait a minute. Why had she been holding back? If she told Parker the details, he’d want to take the case.
She turned to him, excitedly. “Delta said her sister was unhappy with Usher. It sounded like they had a pretty rocky relationship. According to Delta, it was because of Usher that Desirée drank and took drugs.” She played with the hat in her lap a moment, watched Parker’s face grow thoughtful from the corner of her eye. “She, uh, asked me to take the case.”
He inhaled with surprise. “What did you tell her?”
Miranda chewed on her lip in irritated frustration. It wasn’t such a crazy idea. “I told her to contact the Agency.”
He nodded curtly. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks.” She shot him a half-sneering smile, sat back, stared out at the lawn. A thin man strutted by with a white poodle on a leash. Must be one of her neighbors. She waited a beat. “I think it’s worth looking into,” she said tightly.
His face grew grim as he turned off the ignition. “We can’t.”
“Simple. She hasn’t hired us.”
“She sort of hired me,” she countered. Sure, it was a stretch. There was no money and no contract. Not even a verbal agreement. But Miranda wasn’t the type to be bound by details. “What if I paid Mr. Ferraro Usher a little visit? You know, on my own. Just to feel him out, and—”
“Unless Delta Langford comes to the office and signs the requisite paperwork, there is no case.” Parker’s deep Southern voice was firm as Gibraltar.
Folding her arms in disgust, Miranda watched the eager poodle pull her neighbor by the leash to a side road that ran behind the building, nose to the ground. Yeah, always something holding you back. “Why not?” she said through gritted teeth.
His broad shoulders stiffened. “Investigating on your own wouldn’t do any good. Without a client, nothing you discovered would be admissible in court. You know that.”
She narrowed her eyes, suspicious. “It’s more than that.”
He sighed. “Delta and Desirée’s father is Eli Langford. He’s one of the city’s top real estate developers.”
She thought back to a night when Parker had taken her to dinner. From a view overlooking the city, he had pointed out his father’s many projects. Wade Parker, junior was a local real estate mogul. “Eli Langford is your dad’s rival?”
He nodded. “My father’s chief competitor. Though we’ve known each other all our lives, our families have never been close.”
Miranda knew Parker’s gift for understatement. “Not close” probably meant a long-standing feud between the wealthy families. But even that wouldn’t keep the Wade Parker she knew from investigating a murder like this one. “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
She watched his jaw twitch uncomfortably. A rare occurrence for Parker. “Let’s just say Delta Langford and I have an unpleasant history.”
An unexpected rush of jealousy shot through her. Parker was a heartbreaker, after all. So that was why the woman didn’t want to ask Parker to take the case. But she still wanted Miranda. The jealousy turned to a flush of pride.
“We’ll have to let the police handle this one,” Parker said sternly. “Besides, it’s too soon for you.”
“What do you mean, too soon?”
“You know very well what I mean.”
Her ordeal with her ex.
Now he was being overprotective. That was for her to decide. Hadn’t Parker admitted that she’d solved a high-profile murder? Hadn’t he offered her a promotion under his supervision? She stared out the window. The thin man and his dog were two small specks under the far trees. She’d better go before she slapped her sexy boss. But she didn’t move.
Her gaze wandered to the tall red brick building that had been her home for a little over two months now. If you didn’t count the time Parker made her so mad, she’d moved out and been on her way to another state. She’d been lucky to get her apartment back.
She turned to him and caught his gaze drinking her in. His mind had moved on to those other things that occupy a man like Parker. Bedroom thoughts. “Have you made an appointment with a therapist, yet?” he asked tenderly.
Wrong guess. She bristled, then was touched by the concern in his eyes. She shook her head. “Uh-uh.”
Parker sat back, his face thoughtful. He was in no hurry to leave. He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “As I’ve suggested before, it might help get you through this time, if you saw someone.”
She’d been to shrinks before. They’d helped at first. Now she thought most of them were full of crap. She smirked. “Might help if I didn’t keep running into dead bodies.”
Leaning toward her, he took her chin in his hand, his eyes filled with concern. “I’m sorry you had to go through that today.”
His tenderness shot straight through her. She didn’t try to escape from his hold. His look made her think of a night not too long ago when, right on the white-columned entrance to her building, he had accosted her with a round of sensuous kisses. And caresses in places that made her mouth water.
“I’ll be okay.”
He reached for her hand. She let him cradle it gently. “As your employer, I’m concerned with your health.”
Sure. All business. He’d tried that ploy before. “I’m fine. I just need to get over this cold numbness.” Except for the mixed irritation and attraction she felt toward Parker, and the sudden interest in this case, she’d waded through the past two weeks, as if her heart was packed in cotton.
“Is that still lingering?” Parker asked.
She nodded. Her fight to the death with her ex, Leon Groth, had left her anesthetized. A shrink who’d seen her in the hospital had said that was normal, but she couldn’t shake the mood. “I just wish I could feel something.”
He leaned closer, the warmth of his tender smile giving her a glow she couldn’t deny. “What does this make you feel?”
Her breath caught as his lips captured hers. His touch was gentle, as though he were afraid of bruising her.
She didn’t feel so fragile. Hungrily, she kissed him back. As if on autopilot, her hands reached up and dug into his hair. Oh, that hair of his. She’d missed the feel of it. Thick, clean, without a speck of styling gel. The style of Parker’s hair was inherent, natural. The style of his kisses was a kind of refined wildness.
She moaned as his mouth moved over hers, arched her back as his hand skillfully slipped to her breast while his tongue played over her lips and sent tingling sensations through her whole body.
He had a point. She could still feel passion.
It was their first kiss since her trauma. Two weeks ago, just after she’d been released from the hospital, she’d sat in a bistro with him, intending only to discuss the possibility of going back to work for him. But they’d ended up playing footsie under the table. She’d pulled back, gotten hold of herself. Her old demons were too much for her to handle at the moment.
She’d thought he’d understood. They’d agreed to dinner together once a week. But that soon turned into twice a week. And then there was the Steeplechase today, which he pretended to be just business. No wonder they called him the Silver Fox.
His warm breath fanned her cheek. His pressure increased, then lightened again, as if he were suddenly deciding even this was too much for her.
He pulled away, not wanting to push too hard, she guessed. He let his gaze wander out the window. “You know, I’ve never seen your apartment.”
She must have misread him. He wasn’t backing down, just warming her up slowly for the kill. She wasn’t ready for that.
She laughed, attempted to straighten her hair. “I wouldn’t want to shame you, Parker. My digs are so much fancier than yours.”
“You haven’t been to my penthouse, either.” His tone was suggestive.
“You know what I mean.”
His look grew warm, edged on searing. “I do. I remember it well.”
It was his father’s mansion where they had slept together. Where she’d first known what sex could be like with a man like Parker. It seemed like ages ago. But she still felt the sting of the bitter fight they’d had there where she’d told him it could never work between them. She had no intention of going back to that house.
She cleared her throat, picked up the hat that had slid down onto the floorboard. “Okay if I keep this over the weekend?”
She reached for the door handle.
His fingers touched her hand again. His eyes ran over her figure, her face. “How would you like to meet my father?” he said at last.
His father? She grinned. “The infamous Wade Russell Parker, junior?”
“Yes. I’m going to visit him in the nursing home tomorrow afternoon. Come with me.”
Another excuse to be together. She ought to say no. “Nursing home?” She raised a brow. Parker had told her his father had checked himself into a place like that with a heart condition several weeks ago.
“It’ll only be a short visit. We can have an early dinner afterward.”
She couldn’t let him go on concocting ways to see her. “A nursing home sounds too much like a hospital. You know how crazy I am about those places.” She’d just spent almost a week in one.
He gave her a penetrating look. “You don’t have to go if you’re uncomfortable.”
She was about to say she’d take a rain check. Then she gazed into those Magnum-gray eyes. Cool and hot at the same time. Not many women could say no to Parker. She could, but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Sure,” she shrugged. “It’ll make up for not letting you see my place.”
He chuckled. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at two.”
She nodded. “It’ll be interesting to meet the great and powerful real estate mogul who sired you.”
With Parker’s laughter in her ears, she opened the car door and got out while the getting was good.
Parker watched her lithe figure and shapely legs under the swirling skirt all the way to her doorstep. His heart swelled with desire, tenderness, and sheer love for the stubborn, feisty woman.
He reached for the ignition. Only a matter of time, he reminded himself. Only a matter of time.