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Authors: Carol Rose

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Double-Cross My Heart

 

 

Double Cross My Heart

By

Carol Rose

 

Copyright Carol Rose 2012

 

Cover image courtesy of
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Cover by Joleene Naylor

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part (beyond that copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, “fair use” in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying, or in published media by reviewers in limited excerpt), without written permission from the publisher.

 

CHAPTER ONE

“I ain’t never beat up a guy in a tux before,” the grinning thug commented, his outstretched hand closing around the crisp hundred dollar bills.

“Enjoy yourself,” Alex Holt recommended, “just don’t break my jaw or any other vital part.”

Dusk had settled on the parking lot next to the hotel, only a few stragglers still making their way into the Gala.  The chill wind off Lake Michigan careened around the tall buildings as evening fell, tugging at Alex’s dinner jacket.

“So you’re clear on what you’re to do?” he asked.

“Hell, yes. When this bitch,” he held up a photo, “comes to her car, I do a snatch and run.”

“That’s right. Make sure you get the right woman. I’ll be right behind her as she leaves the hotel. Then when you’re mugging her, I come to her rescue. You run off, dropping her purse as you go.”

The grin on the mugger’s face broadened. “I don’t usually drop things.”

“Don’t worry about your reputation,” Alex told him sardonically. “I’m paying you handsomely to botch this purse snatching.”

The other guy shrugged, shoving the bills into his pocket.  “Weird way to try and impress a woman.”

“I’m a weird kind of guy,” Alex said. He’d never before done anything as strange as pay to get assaulted in order to meet a woman, but this was a special situation…and he suspected a special woman. “You know which car is hers?”

“Yeah.” The thief looked affronted. “That black BMW sports car over there.”

“Memorize the plate number I gave you,” Alex instructed. “I don’t want any mistakes and if you mug the wrong woman, you’re on your own. I never met you.”

“I won’t go handling anyone but your woman,” the mugger assured him.

“Go easy on the ‘handling.’ I don’t want her hurt.”  Alex’s words were crisp. He might be coloring outside the lines by approaching Eden Merritt this way, but he wouldn’t forgive himself if he let her get hurt. “In fact, I don’t want a scratch on her. Focus your efforts on me and make it look realistic.”

“Okay,” the other guy promised, the grin still on his face.

***

Eden sipped from the glass in her hand, her gaze idly surveying the glittering crowd. As these kind of charity events went, it was a good party, but she had other things on her mind. If her boss, Michele Broussard of Michele Cosmetics, hadn’t gone on a protracted vacation, Eden would be at home working on the details of the “Passions” ads.  The ad campaign had to be looked over before she could sign off on it and she still had the latest report from Robert Bergere to read.

Moving through the chattering crowd, the women beautiful in designer gowns and jewels, the men looking elegant in tuxedos, Eden worked her way around the room. She spoke to a number of acquaintances, moving steadily toward the door.

Feeling tired, her feet aching in a pair of costly new heels, Eden headed toward the exit. Through the ballroom doorway she went, leaving the hotel.

The wind off the lake skittered around her, lifting playfully at the skirt of her short green evening dress. Because she was cutting out early, the sidewalk leading to the lot where she’d parked her car was empty.

Her head full of plans for the new wrinkle-reducing product, Eden didn’t notice the shadow beside her car until it moved suddenly.

A startled shriek escaping her throat, she shrank back in terror from the masked man, her heart rate tripling in a matter of seconds. He seemed huge in the inadequate light, looming up between her and the hotel.

“Your purse, lady,” her attacker said in a bizarrely genial tone as his big, meaty hand latched on to her arm.

Involuntarily, Eden squeaked and pulled back from him, the sensation of his hand on the skin of her arm panicking her. The cold metal of her car behind her, her attacker in front of her, she could see no escape.

Her hand shaking, she held out her purse.

“Hey!” A man’s voice called out from across the parking lot, the sound of his footsteps coming closer. “Is someone in trouble?”

Her power of speech suspended by terror, she couldn’t do more than croak out a strangled plea, the sound seeming to evaporate as it left her mouth. Turning toward the newcomer, her attacker kept hold of her arm, her purse now in his huge hand.

“What are you doing?” the other man demanded, his voice sharp as he sprinted up to her car. “Let go of her!”

The last word was barely out of her rescuer’s mouth when the attacker’s fist slammed into his face. His head snapped back, but he blocked the bigger man’s next blow in a surprisingly wiry move.

Frozen, Eden watched as the two men traded blows, in the narrow space between the parked cars, her formally-attired rescuer taking the worst of it. He was not quite as tall as the mugger and not as heavy. Taking a couple of vicious blows to his midsection, her rescuer doubled over. He fell back against her car with a grunt of pain.

It was over in a matter of seconds. Without a glance at her, the thief turned and fled into the darkness.

“Oh my God,” she said, moving to where he sagged against the trunk of her little Z4. “Are you all right?”

“Did he…hurt you?” the man asked, his words painfully labored.

“No. Thank God, you came out just then.”

In the dim light, Eden couldn’t see clearly, but she could see well enough to identify him. She knew her Sir Galahad had a nice pair of muscular shoulders, short, dark hair and the kind of blue eyes that got women in trouble.

He was Alex Holt, the big-dog businessman who’d been honoree of the evening’s charity event. Feared and respected for his business-acumen, tonight he had been lauded for his significant donations to cancer research.

Looks, money and chivalry all in one incredible package.

Eden smiled inwardly. She might have gotten the bejeebers scared out of her and lost her purse, but she couldn’t imagine a better consolation prize. At least one area of her life was looking up.

***

“You want four boxes of Payday candy bars?” the grocery store clerk asked incredulously. “We don’t normally sell them by the box, ma’am.”

“I know,” Eden Merritt said shortly. She stood in a discount grocery in Buck Town which was far from River North where she lived. Lately, her demand for her daily fix of Payday bars and chocolate milk had grown to such proportions she could no longer supply her need at her usual grocery. It was just too damned embarrassing.

No matter how much she wanted to call Alex, go over to his place and toy with the thought of having sex with him when she'd only known him two weeks, she knew she wouldn't. Too soon, and she was too damned distracted. A moment like that she wanted to enjoy, if it did end up happening for them.

Now, she plunked down a hundred dollar bill on the counter and said tersely, “Just ask the manager if you sell them by the box, okay? And could you make it quick?”

It was already past ten o’clock in the evening and before returning to her apartment, she had to stop at the grocery two blocks over to pick up several gallons of chocolate milk. There were worse addictions. At least, the stress-relieving properties of Payday bars and chocolate milk wouldn’t land her in jail, although diabetes was a possibility.

She still remembered the day she ate her first Payday bar when she was ten years old. Her father’s half-sister, Kim, who was Eden’s age, had forgotten the salty-sweet treat she’d left at the Merritt’s ratty apartment. After Kim had gone, Eden had stuffed the pilfered candy bar into her mouth as she lie on her narrow bed in the stifling, small room she shared with her step-brother of the moment. Back in those days, even treats as inexpensive as candy were hard to come by.

From that day on, Payday bars—soon joined with dark and chocolaty milk—had been her drug of choice.

Collecting her change from the mentally-dense checker five minutes later, Eden carried her boxes of treasure out to where her BMW Z4 sat waiting. The lights overhead buzzed noisily underlining the emptiness of the dark parking lot. Eden had lived in Chicago so long, she discounted the ever-present city noises.

Getting into her car, she locked the doors, shuffling her boxed Payday booty into the passenger seat next to her slim briefcase.

From the console between the seats, her phone beeped, an indicator of a missed call. Despite her growing sugar craving, Eden started the car and picked up the phone. She ought not to care if anything were wrong at Michele Cosmetics corporate headquarters, but habits died hard and she knew any number of department heads would respond to an emergency by punching in her number first.

Cocooned against the night as she sat in her locked car, Eden listened to her voice mail.

“It’s me,” Jessica’s recorded voice proclaimed. “Just checking in on how things are going in corporate hell. Sure glad I’m not there anymore and wishing you weren’t either. Call me.”

With a wry smile at her best friend’s message, Eden tossed the phone next to the boxes on the passenger seat. She tore into the top box, ripping the flimsy cardboard as she struggled to get the lid off.

The candy wrapper opened easily and she sighed as the smell of salty, roasted peanuts and candy nougat filled the car.

How could Michele have stabbed her in the back this way?

Biting into the Payday, she fought off the sense of unreality and made herself grapple with the truth.

After years of devoting her life to her company goals, Michele Broussard, Eden’s boss and mentor at Michele Cosmetics, had gone off on a seniors’ cruise, found a younger man and lost her mind. Those were the pertinent facts as far as Eden was concerned.

The woman she’d looked up to and respected, the closest thing she’d had to a successful female role model, had apparently reconnected to her emotional side and given her rational mind the heave-ho.

At the prompting of her sixty-year old lover, Michele was busily making-ready to appoint his niece as Michele’s successor at the head of the company. As hard as it was to comprehend, Michele was jettisoning Eden along with her rationality.

Never mind that as director of operations Eden had worked as her right-hand these past five years. Never mind the fact that promises had been made many times over. Forget all that.

Her teeth severing a bite of Payday bar, Eden told herself to particularly forget how she’d thought she’d found a mother figure in Michele…someone she could respect and trust.

Her own mother lived her life in a series of emotional and financial crises. The seemingly sane, calm and supportive Michele had been a wonderfully refreshing change.

That should have been her first hint at how wrong her perception of Michele had been, Eden thought. Maybe there weren’t any sane women when it came to the male species.

Angrily crunching her way through another bite of peanut-covered nougat, Eden snapped her seat belt in place and shifted into gear, wheeling out of the lot.

She was eating too many Paydays this last month. She knew that, but this particular taste on her tongue had always meant a furtive sense of reward to her. Growing up with a father who rarely worked and a mother who’d never come to terms with her poor relationship choices, Eden hadn’t found many rewards. The ones she had discovered, unfortunately, never came without a price.

Never was that fact more evident to her.

Even that original stolen Payday had haunted her. Despite growing up with nothing, she’d never been able to cheat or steal, particularly from someone she liked. Two years after the fact, she’d mailed three bucks to Kim with a confession.

But regardless of that original, absolved guilt, salty peanuts and sweet nougat still tasted like reward to Eden.

She’d never understood how she’d escaped the family tradition of lying, stealing and generally living off of other people. But even if her situation now would be easier if she were more like her shiftless, irresponsible father, Eden identified more with her uncle George’s work ethic. George might be a prick, but he’d single-handedly built his own multi-million dollar cosmetics company.

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