The music was classical, tasteful, sedate. The wine was white Bordeaux. Dry, rare. The caviar was Black Russian. Crisp, tasting of the ocean. And the women…ah, the women. Glamorously dressed in their latest designer gowns, the ladies were as alluring as they were lovely.
Wade Parker leaned against a tall Ionic column near the grand staircase of the Georgia Governor’s mansion and sipped from his champagne flute. Beneath the Italian chandelier, an elegantly coiffed redhead smiled at him. Near the portrait of George Washington, a blond winked. Under the archway to the hall, a brunette cast him a flirtatious glance.
Parker chuckled to himself. Were they all after the man that audacious reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had dubbed the town’s most eligible forty-four-year-old bachelor?
His gaggle of admirers amused and wearied him at the same time. As beautiful and enticing as they were, not one of them could replace Sylvia, the love of his life. It had been three years now since cancer had stolen her from him. His heart ached at the thought as if it were yesterday.
But then, he wasn’t here tonight to flirt. Or for the mid-April fundraiser.
His gaze drifted across the room to a thin and pale man standing alone near the great fireplace, nervously fingering a drink. His name was Thomas Jameson. The Governor’s steering committee would have thrown him out, if Parker had not persuaded them to honor the invitation he’d wheedled out of a member.
Not a hair out of place, Jameson was impeccably dressed in a fine Gucci suit, but it was all a veneer. The scoundrel was lower and more revolting than the bird droppings the servants had to scoop out of the fountain in the front yard.
Tonight, Parker would prove that by catching him in the act.
One of Parker’s devotees glided across the floor toward him, and he braced himself as her perfume waylaid his nose.
“You seem bored, Wade,” the attractive redhead said, low laughter in her voice.
“Do I?” Focused might be a better word.
She inhaled. “These affairs can be as dry as the champagne.”
He nodded, sipped from his glass. “An understatement, Patricia.”
She gestured at the crowd of Atlanta’s most well connected personages. “Everyone loves coming to this historical Greek-Revival house with its sprawling lawns, drawing rooms, and fine Federal Period furniture. But I’d rather be outdoors.”
Parker smiled. “I’m sure you would.” Patricia raised horses and was rather good at it. They’d ridden together as teens.
She gave a little yawn. “Besides, if you’ve seen one Buckhead luxury home, you’ve seen them all. In fact, it’s a tad smaller than the one you grew up in, isn’t it?”
Parker’s gold-digger alarm would have gone off, if he didn’t know Patricia was independently wealthy. “My father would be delighted to hear that observation.”
“Ah yes.” She wrinkled her face and feigned a newscaster’s voice. “‘Wade Russell Parker, junior, Atlanta’s most prosperous real estate developer and son of Wade Russell Parker, senior, one of our city’s most renowned judges.’”
He shook his head. “I wish I’d never given that interview.”
“But now everyone knows you’re ‘Atlanta’s ace detective.’”
He felt a muscle in his jaw tense. He didn’t want to admit he’d been pleased when he’d read that. “Everyone was well aware of my profession before the article was printed.” Many of his peers tonight had become clients over the years.
Her laugh was musical. “You’re too sensitive about it, Wade. How is your father?” Her lovely blue eyes widened. “Why isn’t he here?”
He was glad to change the subject, even if the topic was his father. “He had a heart attack recently. He’s had to move into a nursing home.” Though the old gentleman had seemed fine the last time he spoke with him. The man was a notorious flirt and Parker suspected an ulterior motive.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I know he’s sorry to miss this fundraiser.”
“I imagine he is.” And sorry to miss charming the ladies away from his son, as if it were a competition. His father thrived on social affairs. While for Parker, they were mere obligations. But he’d learned to work such occasions to his own purposes. As “Atlanta’s ace detective.”
Some called him obsessive. He preferred the term thorough. He didn’t see himself as some sort of savior. He’d merely discovered at a young age that it was in his nature to right wrongs, to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty. It was his calling. A calling that drove him, spawned as it was by a deep, shadowy need, a dark episode from his past that had plunged him into a career both his father and grandfather had disapproved of.
Patricia smiled coyly, trailing a finger around the rim of her glass. “It’s such a beautiful night. The dogwood and cherry trees are in full bloom. Maybe we could go for a walk?”
Moving in for the kill? “Perhaps later.”
“Or,” her voice took on a sensuous note, “we could leave early and go to my place for a nightcap.”
Parker grinned, noted the plunging neckline of her sequined, ruby-red gown, her round breasts rising and falling beneath the fabric. Tempting. But he had business to attend to. He turned his eye to Jameson again. The man hadn’t budged.
Parker watched Jameson’s deep-set eyes carefully scan the room. His straight features, his curled lip gave him a surly look that made him even more disagreeable.
About a month ago a young woman named Elizabeth Kinkade had contacted Parker’s firm after someone looted her upscale apartment, stealing thousands of dollars in jewelry. She’d broken off an affair with Jameson recently and swore he’d robbed her for revenge. After tailing the suspect for several days, Parker discovered revenge wasn’t Jameson’s motive. It was simple greed.
Jameson had a string of ex-girlfriends all over town. His M.O. was to romance the ladies until they let down their guard, then abscond with their valuables. He had been at his game for about six months now, responsible for a run of thefts the police hadn’t been able to solve. Tonight, Parker suspected, he would attempt something even more shameless.
Parker had gathered an abundance of evidence against the man but not quite enough for an arrest. Tonight, he hoped to seal the case. His jaw tightened as Jameson set his glass on the mantelpiece and made his way along the wall to the grand staircase, which was now deserted.
Parker watched him ascend.
“So what do you say, Wade? Shall we make our apologies to our hostess?”
Parker turned, forced a grin. “Perhaps some other time, Patricia. If you’ll excuse me.” He wasn’t pleased with the shock on her face at his ill-mannered behavior, but he had no choice. He headed for the stairs.
It was quiet on the mansion’s third floor and the lighting was dim. Parker caught the tail of Jameson’s suit just as he slipped through the entrance to the master bedroom. The insolent bastard. Silently, he moved to the door, put his ear to it. Nothing. He waited a moment, then slowly inched the door open.
Movement. Barely perceptible. Another inch and Jameson’s dark figure came into view. He stood at the dressing table, his back to the door, a fistful of sparkling jewels in each avaricious hand. Evidently, during his short career, the thief had learned that wealthy women tend to keep their valuables in plain sight, feeling secure in their own private quarters.
Parker slipped inside the room, reached for his lapel pin and snapped several shots with the microscopic camera hidden in it. Jameson was still unaware of him.
He cleared his throat. “Stealing from the governor’s wife? How politically incorrect.”
Jameson spun around, shock peppering his face. “Who are you?”
Parker smiled casually. “A very, very bad dream.”
Fumbling with the gems, Jameson tried to put them back where he’d found them. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I—I lost my contact lens.”
Parker chuckled. “On a lady’s dressing table covered with jewels? How convenient.”
“It’s true. I swear.”
“And how do you explain the things you took from Elizabeth Kinkade? Sarah Smith? Tamara Johnson?”
Jameson looked as though his eyes were about to pop from his head.
“I’m afraid your career as a jewel thief has come to an abrupt end.”
Jameson glanced toward the window.
“I wouldn’t try it.” Parker slipped a hand into his pocket.
The thief froze. His eyes bulged even more as Parker slowly drew out a small metallic object.
Parker couldn’t hold back a chuckle as he flipped his cell phone open and pressed speed dial. “Hosea, you’re still downstairs, aren’t you? Having a good time? Well, I have something on the third floor that will make your night. Yes. The master bedroom.” He closed his cell and turned to his subject. “That was Lieutenant Hosea Erskine of the Atlanta Police Department.”
Jameson took a step toward the window.
“Uh uh,” Parker scolded him. “You don’t want to risk finding out what I have in my other pocket.”
Looking as though he might soil his slacks, Jameson stood without making another move until Hosea and several other members of the APD who were downstairs, burst into the room.
While his men placed Jameson in handcuffs, Hosea narrowed his eyes at Parker. “Have you been meddling in police business again, Mr. Detective Man?”
Parker chuckled. Hosea hated it when he one-upped him. “Merely serving my client.” He reached into his jacket pocket.
“Look out,” Jameson cried, struggling against the cuffs. “He’s got a gun.”
“Our perpetrator seems a bit paranoid.” Parker drew out a slip of paper and handed it to Hosea. “I believe you’ll find the stolen goods in this safe deposit box at the Freedom Bank on Peachtree Street.”
With a huff, Erskine snatched the paper from his hand.
Satisfied, Parker left the room and made his way down the hall, wondering if Patricia was still below. A case closed called for a celebration.
Before he reached the first stair, his cell rang. He flipped it open again. “Parker.”
“Wade, thank God we’ve gotten hold of you.”
The urgency in his friend’s voice made Parker stop dead in his tracks. “Jackson. I thought you’d be here tonight.”
“At the Governor’s mansion. The fundraiser—”
“I completely forgot about it. The most dreadful thing’s happened…” His voice broke.
Parker’s spine went rigid. He’d known Jackson Taggart since high school. As Chief of Staff at Saint Benedictine Hospital, he was no stranger to emergencies. He never panicked. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Madison. Our little girl.”
God, no. Parker knew that desperate tone. “What about Madison?”
“She’s disappeared.” He broke off, stifling a sob that tore at Parker’s heart.
Knowing he had to be calm, Parker forced himself into professional mode. “What makes you think she’s disappeared, Jackson?”
There was a pause, he could feel the insult through the phone, and then the anguished words gushed out. “Last night Madison spent the night at Tiffany Todd’s house. She was supposed to be back this morning. She never came home. When we checked with Tiffany, she said Madison had left hours ago and walked home. She never got here.”
The news hit him like a jackhammer. Madison was just thirteen. First step, keep the parents from panicking. Or rather, keep the panic from festering. “Calm down, Jackson,” he said as gently as he could. “Is there anywhere else she could be?”
“We called all her friends. No one’s seen her. She’s simply gone. Cloris is beside herself.”
The mother always suffered the most. “What time did she leave Tiffany’s house?”
“Eleven this morning.”
“Have you argued with her recently?” It was a hard question but important.
“No. We’ve been closer than ever.”
Parker’s mind raced through the possibilities. Runaway. Kidnapping. Possibly for money. If that were the case, the Taggarts might be contacted soon. “Have you called the police? The Special Crimes Unit—”
“Yes, but they haven’t done anything. I want you, Wade. Both Cloris and I do. We know you can find her.”
He was flattered, humbled by his friends’ trust. He’d do his best. “Very well, Jackson,” he said. “I’ll be right there.”
He clicked off, glanced at his watch as he raced down the stairs, his heart sinking. It would be a long night. Twelve hours since Madison Taggart was last seen and no word from any kidnappers. Not good. He would have his work cut out for him, but he would do all in his power to find her.
With all his heart, he wished he could bring the girl home to Jackson and Cloris tonight. But experience told him it could be days or weeks before that happened. If she were still alive. The world could be a dangerous place for the young, even in the shelter of well-to-do Buckhead.