“So how’d you like Fanuzzi and Becker’s big fat Catholic wedding?”
Parker stretched his legs out before him, which wasn’t easy at his height, even in the first class seat of the MD-80 that had just lifted off from Hartsfield Airport. He had changed into a dark blue traveling suit—dressing down for Parker—while she was in jeans and a breezy blouse.
“I rather enjoyed myself. I’m not allergic to weddings like some people are.” He gave her a half-grin, sexy laugh lines forming at the corners of his Magnum gray eyes. His aristocratic Southern accent echoed with warm summer breezes scented with magnolia blossoms and mint juleps on the veranda. His pricey cologne smelled of old money.
Allergic. Funny he should use that word. He had to have noticed her deer-in-the-headlights march down the aisle in the church. Nothing got past Parker. And he knew her aversion to commitment personally.
She’d walked out on him twice.
She cleared her throat and twisted the diamond-and-sapphire ring on her finger. Parker’s mother’s ring. The one he had given her a few weeks ago, saying she could put her own interpretation on it, the sneaky devil. She knew his real plan. He wanted permanence, vows—marriage. He intended to wait patiently for her until she wanted it, too. Or at least believed in it enough to say, “I do.”
“I had a good time, too,” she insisted. Once she’d gotten over her initial case of shellshock. “The bride’s family can really get down.” Doing the Locomotion with Fanuzzi’s Italian relatives at the reception had been a blast and had taken her mind off her troubles for a while.
“The ceremony was lovely as well. Very tasteful.”
“It was nice.”
“The vows were…interesting.” There was a playful note in his voice, its low timbre making her think of a Southern riverboat gambler.
Miranda smiled. Fanuzzi had left the vows up to the priest to please her traditional mother. He’d put in all the “to haves and to holds.” Except when they got to that part, Becker, in his nervous Brooklyn accent, had stuttered, “to have and to have.” Three times. The crowd was in giggles before he finally got it right.
“I’m happy for the both of them.”
“I’m sure they’ll have a long and happy life together.” He punched the word “long” as he leaned a little closer.
“Man, it’s hot in here.” She reached up to adjust the air vent and turned away from Parker’s penetrating gaze to peer out the window at the twinkling lights below.
Atlanta. The city had been her residence only since April, but it felt more like home than any place she’d ever been. That had been Parker’s doing.
A long and happy life together. For Fanuzzi and Becker, sure. She wished them all the best. But Miranda didn’t believe “long and happy” was in the cards for her.
“I’d think someone with your pull could have gotten us on a flight that wasn’t the redeye. The hearing’s not until Monday.” Parker could afford a private plane, but he never liked to flaunt his wealth.
Parker scrutinized her a moment, deciding whether to let her veer off the subject he was using to distract her from the purpose of this trip. He studied her thick, dark hair, more wild than ever after her vigorous scrubbing to get out all the gel she’d worn earlier. He took in the angles of her profile, which was much lovelier than she realized.
Never in his life had he known such a woman. With her stubborn tenacity, her nose for trouble, her uncanny ability to get herself into the thick of danger, she’d put him through the gamut of emotions from terror to despair. And yet, he couldn’t stop loving her. Couldn’t stop admiring that irascible spirit, that strength of will, that need to defend the defenseless, to avenge the innocent. They were kindred spirits, and the undeniable bond between them grew stronger every day.
She would finish her training as an investigator in a few weeks, and then...he would have something he’d wanted all his life without knowing it. A partner.
On her last assignment, he had been overbearing, overprotective of her, and it had almost cost him everything, including his own life. As her boss, he’d promised to be less sheltering of her, to give her some freedom. But he suspected he’d be struggling to keep that promise for the rest of his life. Especially now.
She turned to look at him, her deep blue eyes with their spiky black lashes mesmerizing him as always. He saw yearning in them. And pain. He gave in to her need to talk about what lay before her.
“I thought it would give us time for some additional research.” He took her hand in his, turned the ring to its proper place and kissed her palm. “That is, if you’re up to it.”
Miranda shivered as a warm flutter rippled up her arm and over her heart at the touch of Parker’s exquisitely skilled lips. “What kind of research?”
“We don’t have a lot of proof about the cause of your mother’s death.”
She exhaled, wishing they had more evidence. This was her last shot. They were playing Parker’s last card to find the child her ex-husband took from her thirteen years ago.
She closed her eyes as a shudder went through her.
Even after all this time, she could still see the tiny baby smiling up at her from her crib. Still hear her cry. Still see the distinctive dark mark on her neck. Still feel the panic that had ripped through her the morning she’d found her gone. Her bastard ex-husband, Leon Groth, had taken Amy and given her up for adoption. He might have killed her, for all she knew. He was a murderer, after all. But at the time, Miranda had believed him. She’d searched for her daughter for thirteen years.
And never found a trace of her.
After joining her search back in May, and after putting out dozens of feelers that had led nowhere, Parker was convinced the best way to find Amy was to get a judge to open her adoption records. But the Illinois laws were tight. The only way to do that was to prove she might have inherited a life threatening disease.
“You’re certain your mother died of a heart attack?” Beside her, his voice was a gentle murmur. Parker had charmed, cajoled, and bribed every clerk in Chicago’s Cook County, but no one could even locate Hilda Steele’s death certificate.
Miranda turned back to him, squeezed his hand for comfort. “My mother was only forty-two when she died, so it couldn’t have been from natural causes. I remember the neighbor calling me. That’s what she said. ‘Your mother had a heart attack.’” It was sixteen years ago. She had been married to Leon a little over three years at the time. When she got the news, he’d comforted her by slapping her around and yelling at her for being so listless.
Parker sighed aloud. “We do have the letter from your aunt.”
Hilda Steele had had one older sister named Lu, who lived in Minneapolis. The last time Miranda saw her was at the funeral. Her aunt had never liked her, but she’d forced herself to look the woman up, write to her, and ask if she could verify what caused her mother’s death. Aunt Lu had replied with a terse letter saying her own daughter should know she died of a heart attack. She refused to testify in court, claiming health issues.
But there was more. “I remember everyone talking at the funeral, saying what a shame it was because she was so young. I know people mentioned a heart attack.”
“Yes,” Parker murmured thoughtfully.
“It’s got to be enough.”
“If only we had some irrefutable documentation. A specific diagnosis of her condition from a doctor.”
“Where are we going to get that?” The Steele’s family doctor had passed away five years ago. They’d found no record of heart problems at the hospital where her mother worked.
Parker’s face took on a pensive look. “It’s a long shot.”
“This whole thing’s a long shot.” She’d never had anything but long shots.
“Why don’t we try your mother’s house?”
She frowned. “I have no idea who’s living in it now.”
“But you know the address.”
“It’s a peculiar behavior, but sometimes when people move into a house, they hold onto the former resident’s belongings. My father has seen that.” Parker’s father was one of Atlanta’s top real estate moguls.
“You mean some folks are natural pack rats, even when it comes to other people’s stuff?”
“Exactly. Someone might have tucked away her medical records.”
She thought a moment, then shook her head. “That won’t work.”
“Because after my mother died, Leon went and got all her things and stuffed them in our attic. I’m surprised he didn’t burn it all. He’d been hoping to find money.”
Parker was silent a long moment. “Well, then…”
Slowly, she turned her head and glared at him. “You want me to go back…there?” Back to the house where she’d lived with Leon? Where she’d suffered so many years of agony and humiliation? The house where she’d last cuddled Amy in her arms? The house Leon had kicked her out of?
Swiftly, Parker clasped both her hands in his, kissed her knuckles, which were turning a little white. “Oh, my darling. No, not if you can’t handle it.”
In Parker’s firm grip, her fingers trembled.
A stewardess appeared at the front of the plane, rolling a metal beverage cart down the aisle to serve the passengers.
Miranda inhaled a gulp of air. “I think I need a drink.”