The phones had gone nuts, and she was following right behind. Robin MacNamara stabbed the buttons, repeating, “Crowne Royale Group, please hold,” in her best cheerful chirp until she’d gotten the whole pesky lot of them distributed onto the switchboard and waiting their own freaking turns. Whew. She cracked a mental whip. Take that.
She stared at the row of flashing lights, and sighed. A woman needed a cool head, a detail oriented brain and nerves of steel to work a crazy-busy switchboard. She herself had none of those things. A fact which she repeated constantly to her stubborn brothers, in her ongoing campaign to get herself honestly fired. Which was to say, liberated.
So far, they ignored her, and she hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to tell them she was quitting for good. Soon. Danny and Mac were an intimidating pair. Particularly when they ganged up on her, which was always. And worse, agreed with each other, which was relatively rare.
On this point, though, they were as one. They wanted their little sister to discover a calling for the hotel industry, and they were willing to bully and nag without rest until it happened. Forever, if need be.
They would not accept what she really wanted to do. No, rephrase that. What she had decided to do. They thought being a professional clown was a joke. Ha ha. That wacky Robin. What will she think of next.
She had yet to find the nerve to tell them her amazing, stunning, nerve-tingling career news that they so would not get. She’d auditioned six months ago in San Francisco, and hooray, she’d been accepted into the Circo della Luna Rossa, a hot, sexy new circus show from Italy that was getting rave reviews and sold-out crowds the world over. That she was starting the training program in San Francisco in less than a month. That it was a coup, an incredible accomplishment, an amazing opportunity. That they should be proud of her.
Uh huh. Like they were going to see it that way. But even so. Until she told her brothers, it was not going to seem real. Or be real.
She took a deep breath, stabbed Line 1. “Thanks for holding, how may I direct your call?” Stock phrases singsonged out of her. “I’m sorry, he’s out of the office, would you like his voicemail? I’m sorry, she’s in a meeting, may I take a message?”
She was so not made for this. She would rather wait tables, wash dishes, walk dogs, scoop poop for her day job, until she could make it as a full time clown. Anything but this. Anything at all.
She plodded all the way down to the last one, line 10, and hit it. “Thanks for holding,” she sang out. “How may I direct your call?”
“Danny MacNamara, please. Jon Amendola calling.”
She froze, and then her stomach flip-twirled and did that weird, freefall thing. Jon. Oh, God. His deep voice sent pulses of excitement up the her body. “One moment, please,” she squeaked, and hit Hold again.
Don’t be the receptionist from hell. He’s already been waiting for five minutes, she told herself, but she was so rattled, she had to hug herself to squeeze that stuttering fluttering breathless feeling that any fleeting contact with that guy set off in her body. One . . . two . . . three breaths. OK. Get a grip. She was a big girl. She buzzed Danny’s office.
“What is it, Robin?” Danny’s voice was crabby, which was normal.
“It’s Jon,” she told him.
“Put him through,” Danny rapped out, as she knew he would.
Danny never kept Jon waiting. They’d been roommates their freshman year in college, and best buddies ever since. Danny had brought Jon home for the Christmas and spring breaks, he being an orphan, just like the MacNamaras. She’d been eleven—and smitten.
Jon was tough, cynical, foul-mouthed, funny, and flat-out, drop dead gorgeous. He’d grown up knocking from foster home to foster home on the mean streets of North Portland, but he was smart, and ambitious. He’d wangled himself a scholarship to U-Dub, studying criminal psych, and now he was Detective Amendola of the PPD.
And she’d been in love with him ever since she laid eyes on him.
Hopeless puppy love, impossible to hide. She’d never been able to hide her feelings. She was a blusher. But it didn’t matter. They hadn’t taken her seriously. She was just wacky little Robin, the clown, to them.
But she wasn’t. Not anymore. Even if her brothers couldn’t see it.
She was nine years younger than Jon. Twenty-five now, and all grown up, but probably he still thought of her as a gangly adolescent with glasses and orthodontic problems. The adult braces had been a big, fat fashion challenge. She’d been so glad to bid farewell to them forever last year, in exchange for straight, lovely teeth. So glad.
And that fluttery, stuttering thing was not abating, not while line 10 was lit up. Not that she wanted it to. She actively sought out that feeling by sneaking often into Danny’s office whenever possible to peek at the photo of Jon, Danny and herself, taken a few years ago one of the times the guys had climbed Rainier. All of them grinning. Sunlight flashed off her braces. Other than that stupid detail, the picture rocked.
And if she didn’t want to walk that far, she could just flip open her wallet, and fish out the color photocopy she’d made of that same shot. She’d cut out herself and Danny, and slipped the Jon part into a plastic envelope. Just his face, laughing open-mouthed, head thrown back. Those perfect white teeth flashing, the crinkles around his electric blue eyes creased from laughing. The man was crazy gorgeous.
She could moon at that picture for hours. And sometimes did.
She stared down at the lit-up Line 10. Her finger hovered over it.
Oh, no. Of course she wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Eavesdropping was unethical, despicable. That she was tempted to do something so dumb, so contemptible, just showed up how crushed out she was. Way too old for this silly juvenile crap, and no way was she going to . . .
Her finger came down, against her volition. Hit the button. Tap.
“. . . would be great,” Jon was saying. “This case I just closed did me in. I’ve been neck deep in shit. My boss doesn’t want to see my face for two weeks, minimum. Gotta park my ass somewhere where I can’t get into any trouble. You sure you or Mac won’t be needing it?”
“Nah,” said Danny. “Mac and Jane have the twins to deal with, and I’m taking up the slack at work. I won’t be able to get up there until July at the earliest, so you’d be doing us if a favor it you aired the place out, chased off the animals. Otherwise we’ll find it full of raccoon shit.”
“Good, then.” Jon’s voice was dull and heavy, not vibrating with its usual brilliant manic energy. “I appreciate it.”
“You’ve still got the keys to my place, right? I’ll be in meetings til nine. Keys to the cabin are hanging on the board next to the kitchen door on a red canvas strap. Sure you don’t want to crash with me, and drive up tomorrow morning? We could order out. Do some catching up.”
“Nah, sorry. I’ll pass this time. I’m kind of fucked up right now. I wouldn’t be very good company,” Jon said. “Maybe on the outswing.”
Mary Ann from Accounting came bouncing by, and Robin hastily pushed Line 10 and flashed the woman a huge, guilty smile.
Another storm of phone calls came through, and Robin passed them all to the appropriate lines with a flurry of organizational energy that startled her. When she finished, Line 10 was dark and desolate.
But she buzzed with the new info. Her heart thumped. Jon, going up to Danny’s cabin on Kerrigan Creek. All alone . . . and defenceless.
The idea that popped into her head was nuts. A recipe for total humiliation and embarrassment. But still, that lonely-cabin-in-the-woods scenario was a whole sub-category of classic Jon fantasies, right along with shipwrecked-with-Jon-on-a-desert-island, or snowbound-with-Jon-in-the-Himalayas. Jon as the sexy pirate, she as the cheerfully ravished maiden. Jon as the macho Texas Ranger, she as the spunky saloon girl in low cut black and red ruffles. Always Jon, Jon, Jon. She’d tried to plug Brad Pitt and George Clooney in, just for variety, but Brad and George didn’t ring her bells like Jon did. A girl had to go with what worked, when it came to orgasms. And Jon—well, he worked. Bigtime.
And she was going do a double back flip right out of the reception desk if she didn’t move. She buzzed Eliza, the secretary who covered her potty breaks. “Eliza? Would you let me run to the ladies?” she begged.
“Sure thing, Rob. Be there in a sec,” Eliza promised.
Liberated from the monster console, she raced for the bathroom and locked herself into a stall, where she proceeded to rock back and forth and make terrified keening sounds that only dogs could hear. Oh, God, oh, God. This could be her chance. Could she . . . really?
Ever since she’d turned fourteen, Jon had ruffled her hair when he saw her and teased her about boyfriends. Were they behaving, and if not, did she want him to kick their asses. Boyfriends, hah. What a joke.
It was a sore spot. What with late blooming and unbelievably overprotective older brothers, she’d had precious few boyfriends. While she was living at home, the only guys who could get near her were ones that Danny and Mac deemed “safe.” Which was to say, total nerds. All the guys with sneak-into-her-pants erotic potential had been duly scared away by dire threats of death and dismemberment.
To be fair, though, she’d hadn’t had much time for guys even when she moved out, what with all the gymnastics competing she’d done in college. She’d been training like a fiend when she wasn’t studying, or doing clown gigs. Besides, knuckle-dragging, inarticulate jocks didn’t thrill her. Neither did alienated intellectuals with goatees. And the rest of them were gay. Or else madly in love with themselves.
The truth was, her monster crush on Jon had risen the bar impossibly high and made her insanely picky. The end result being a horrible state. Too dreadful to contemplate. To shameful to confess.
A virgin, at twenty-five. And climbing the flipping walls.
She wasn’t sure how it happened. She wasn’t the virginal type. Really. It wasn’t a moral thing, or a lifestyle choice. She had no hangups that she knew about. She had stacks of sexy romance and erotica books. And she definitely knew how to be her own best friend.
It was more a matter of poor timing, too much athletic training, and some regular, old fashioned bad luck. She’d swung in close a few times, but always veered away at the last minute, never sure if it was the right moment, the right guy. So she never broke the ice, and the ice kept getting thicker, and . . . well, crapola. A very bad state of affairs.
She strongly suspected that one of the reasons she’d stayed untouched was because she’d dreamed for so long of having that first time be with Jon. She didn’t have any illusions about him falling in love with her, or anything dumb-ass like that, but still. It would be great to have the guy she’d fantasized about since before puberty do the honors.
So she’d better get cracking, before he got another girlfriend.
Which would happen in, like, five minutes? Jon always had a girlfriend. He went through women like popcorn. Worse yet, he could get married again. His marriage to Vicki the blond bombshell had shattered her heart. The subsequent ugly, vicious divorce had promptly mended it.
She left the stall, and stared at herself in the mirror. Danny and Mac went ballistic when she showed off her navel, so she made a special point of it. Still, she wasn’t glamorous enough in the snug, lime green blouse and mini, bare midriff or no. She’d have to do better than this.
And she’d been in too much of a rush this morning to do anything intesting with her hair that would bother her brothers, like a towering neo-punk beehive, or the purple and lime green streaks with matching eyeshadow, or the space alien checkerboard of knobbly buns. It was just pulled up into a fountaining brown ponytail. But for this, she’d wear it down and loose. Down was sexiest, or so she’d been told.
She gave her body a critical once-over. She’d been working out like a freak to get ready for the Circo della Luna Rossa’s training program, so no problems there. She was lithe and trim. Had the taut tummy and the boobs happening, thank God. They weren’t excessive, but they were perky and cheerful, and they did their divinely ordained boobly duty of filling out her bra and dragging mens’ eyes away from her face. Jon had never looked at them yet. So she’d wear something sheer. Put those boobs to work. About time they stopped bouncing aimlessly around on her chest and started earning their keep.
She smiled experimentally as she studied her own face, trying to see what Jon would see. Hmm. She knew, objectively at least, that she was relatively cute, particularly with some cosmetic help, but she still saw her awkward younger face still superimposed over her actual face, in spite of all the changes. The glasses, now exchanged for contacts. That thick dark mono-brow, now carefully shaped into normal eyebrows. The buck teeth, finally, blessedly fixed. And of course, her embarrassing emotions. Sprawled out there, for all to see and marvel.
That was one of the reasons she’d been attracted to clowning in the first place. Facial transparency was an actual asset. Expressions had to be exaggerated and super-readable by necessity. Once she stuck that red nose on her face, something kicked in, and set her free, like a bird in the air. She hit the zone, and people laughed. Beautiful.
But Danny and Mac didn’t get it. She wondered if Jon could.
Then again. He was a cop, after all. It was a dark, tough, serious job. Probably clowning would seem silly and frivolous to a guy like him.
But hey. It wasn’t like she needed approval for her career choices from Jon Amendola. She needed something very different. Very specific.
She gave herself another smile. It looked tense, false. Scared. She let it fade, and in that naked moment, she saw a flash of something different in the mirror. Her future. Her woman’s face. Older, more defined. Vulnerable too, but in a different way. A deeper, realer way.
It occurred to her how different life was going to feel once she abandoned her protective shell. She usually blamed her brothers for it, but she’d done her own part in creating it and maintaining it. It had kept her focused on her goals, sure. And it had also kept her safe.
It was too small for her now. It chafed and pinched. Pressure from the inside, opposing pressure from the outside. Crushing her.
She didn’t want to start a difficult, challenging adventure like the Circo della Luna Rossa with this extra inner struggle to cope with.
Then again. Once she broke the spell, once she cast off that shell, that was it. No going back. She’d be out in the cold, where the wind whipped and the wolves howled. Where anything could happen. Brrr.
She shivered, and then blew out a sharp breath and straightened her spine to its proudest height. This was no time to wimp out.
Besides. Jon was a wolf, yeah, but not that kind of wolf. He was exactly, precisely the right kind of wolf for this job. And the chance for a good whack at him might never roll around again. Her, Jon, alone and surrounded by the immense privacy of the Cascade Mountains—mmm.
The shiver that rippled through her then was very different—a toe curling, lip biting, thigh clenching tingle of hopeful anticipation. Whew.
And enough, already. This potty break had stretched out to unprofessional proportions. She had to get her butt back to the monster console before Eliza got pissed and sent out a posse to retrieve her.
Danny swept by as she was plugging herself back into the infernal machine, his habitual fierce scowl of concentration on his face. “You coming to Mac and Jane’s for dinner tomorrow?” he rapped out.
She blinked. “Uh . . . nope. Sorry. Can’t,” she lied. “I’m working back to back birthday parties all afternoon, and I’ve got a Commedia Dell’ Arte class in the evening. Til late. Very late.”
Danny snorted, and charged off on his important CFO business. Both brothers were like that. Alpha didn’t begin to describe it.
She sat in the ergonomic chair, and vibrated. Doubts assailed her thick and fast. Jon had said he was bad company. Neck deep in shit. He’d sounded depressed. He’d probably be unthrilled to see her.
Yeah, and that was exactly the kind of chickenshit, cowardly-ass reasoning that produced twenty-five year old virgins.
It was now or never. If he blew her off, she’d cope. She might fall into a crack in the ground and be crushed to a fine red paste first, of course, but then she would just stick on that red nose and soldier on.
Jon jerked up the emergency brake on his pick-up and sat there, feeling blank. The light was almost gone. He should move, so he didn’t have to fumble through the dark. He didn’t have the goddamn energy.
The Geddes case had gotten to him. He didn’t know why. He’d worked plenty of grisly murders over the years, but this one wiped him out. Wallowing inside the twisted mind of this perp had poisoned him.
William Geddes, the “Egg Man.” So called for the blue robin’s egg he’d placed into the mouth of his victims—after he’d killed them, with agonizing slowness, in ways that defied the imagination. Five girls that they knew off, ages eighteen to twenty two. Just thinking about the guy’s frozen face and staring eyes in the courtroom gave him the shudders. Fucking head case. And Jon had seen a lot of bad shit.
He’d finally nailed that pustulant shitbag, but not until five girls—at least, he hoped to God it was only five—had died, badly. The trial had wrapped up a couple weeks ago, a drawn-out, sprawling media circus, full of press and politics and pontificating bullshit. But he’d seen to it that the prosecution’s case had been watertight.
Geddes would be inside forever. Five consecutive life sentences, in a maximum security hellhole where that pumped up prick’s tall, blond Viking good looks would not go unappreciated. Jon took a fierce satisfaction in that. Justice had been done, insofar as possible.
Cold comfort for the families of the girls, though.
So? He should be feeling accomplishment. Maybe even pride.
But he felt like shit. Nervous, jagged, on edge. He couldn’t sleep. He had nightmares, about blood, birds. He was tormented by details that couldn’t be explained. Uneasy about vibes that didn’t add up. He couldn’t pin down what the problem was. But he felt like it wasn’t over.
His boss hadn’t liked it, either. She’d kicked his ass out on a mandatory vacation after he’d been caught one too many times poring over the Geddes files after the conviction. That stung. He was a good cop. The one thing he knew he was good at. He may have been a rotten husband, he may be a no-good boyfriend, and God forbid he ever have kids. But when someone dissed him as a cop, it got his back way up.
It was the one thing in his life that he gave a shit about these days, though he knew damn well it was dangerous to care too much about anything. He’d grown up in a series of foster homes, some OK, some less so. He’d seen too many kids get exploited by predators. Now, when he heard about innocent kids being abused, something revved up inside him that he couldn’t control. Sleep wasn’t even an option. He started putting in those thirty-six hour days without even getting tired.
Or maybe that was overstating it. Look at him now. Monumentally fucked up. He got an unwelcome memory flash of how Vicki used to nag and bitch about how ‘emotionally unavailable’ he was. But how could a guy be available to a woman who constantly whined? He tried briefly to remember if Vicki had whined during their whirlwind courtship. Maybe she had, and he’d been too hypnotized by her big, jiggling tits to notice.
Fuck it. This line of thought was not going to energize him.
He forced his leaden body into action. Shoved open the truck door, grabbed his grip and the bag of groceries. He made his way with heavy feet up the switchback path to the hillside cabin—and froze.
Footsteps around the corner of the cabin. Someone was passing through the foliage. The shush shush of jeans legs, rubbing each other. The swish-slap of bushes. He heard every sound like it was miked.
He let the duffel, the groceries drop. His gun materialized in his hand, though he had no memory of drawing it, or flattening his back to the weatherbeaten shingles, creeping towards the corner . . . waiting—
Grab, twist, and he had the fucker bent over in a hammer-lock, wrist torqued at an agonizing angle, gun to the nape. It squawked.
Female. Long hair, swishing and tickling over his bare arm. A delicate wrist that felt like it might break in his grip. What the hell . . . ?
“Jon! Stop this! Let go! It’s me!”
Huh? The chick knew him? His body had ascertained that she was no physical threat, so he shoved her away to take a better look.
His jaw dropped when she straightened up, rubbing her twisted wrist. He tried to drag in oxygen, but his lungs were locked. Holy shit. No way had he met this girl before. He would have remembered. Wow.
Long hair swung to her waist. Big dark eyes, exotically tilted, flashing with anger. High cheekbones, perfect skin, pointy chin. That full pink mouth, glossed up with lip goo, calculated to make a guy think of one thing only, and suffer the immediate physiological consequences.
And her body, Jesus. Feline grace; long legs, slim waist, round hips. High, suckable, bra-less tits, the nipples of which poked through a thin cotton blouse. Low rise jeans that clung desperately to the undercurve of that perfect ass. Who the hell . . . ? This was private property, in the middle of nowhere. His dick twitched, swelled.
She did not look armed. He slipped the Glock back into the shoulder holster. “You scared me,” he said. “Who the hell are you?”
Her eyes widened in outrage. “What do you mean, who the hell am I? It’s me! Robin!”
Robin? His brain spun its wheels to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Danny’s baby sister? He’d practically pissed himself laughing the night she’d juggled flaming torches in Danny’s kitchen, although Danny had been unamused when the rib-eye he’d grilled got unexpectedly flambed. The steak had tasted faintly of petroleum fuel, but what the hell. She hadn’t burned down the building.
Robin . . . ? Robin of the dorky glasses, the mouthful of metal? Robin who was was as cute and funny as a bouncing Labrador puppy?
The irreconcilable images slammed together, like a truck hitting his mind. Those big brown eyes, magnified behind Coke bottle lenses.
It was Robin. Holy shit. In his mind he’d already been nailing this girl, right and left and center. Danny would kill him if he knew Jon had entertained pornographic thoughts about his baby sister. “Ah, sorry,” he muttered lamely. “I didn’t recognize you. You look . . . different than I remembered. Do your brothers know you’re out dressed like that?”
Her back straightened, and her eyes narrowed to gleaming brown slit. “Mac and Danny have nothing to say about my wardrobe.”
“Maybe they should.” He jerked his chin in the general direction of her taut brown nipples, all too evident in the chill, and averted his eyes.
“Why should they?” Her slender arms folded over her chest, propping the tits up higher for his tormented perusal. “I’m twenty-five, Jon. That’s a two, and then a five.”
He blinked at her. “No shit.”
“Absolutely, shit. Want to see my driver’s license? I wear what I please. I answer to no one.”
This was surreal. He dragged his eyes away from her gleaming pink lips, and pulled himself together. “Uh, I don’t mean to be rude, but what the fuck does your age have to do with anything? And what are you doing up here, anyhow?”
The gleaming lips pursed. “I could ask you the same question.”
“You could,” he conceded. “But it would be none of your goddamn business. Your brother gave me the keys. I’m crashing up here for a couple weeks to do some fishing and stare at the wall with my mouth hanging open. And now? Your turn. What did you come up here for?”
Her gaze fell. She started to speak. Pressed her hand to her belly.
“Um . . . you,” she said.
End of Excerpt