Eleanor Coggins paused before the three-foot-high hedge surrounding the dark patio. Scooting her tight dress up her thighs, she carefully hoisted a leg over the greenery. Midway across, a twig snagged her hose, her shoe heel caught in the hidden wrought-iron fence, and she fell in a sprawling heap onto the rough slate patio.
Eleanor grimaced and mentally added cat burglar to the long list of professions she sucked at.
Brushing off her palms, she stood cautiously. The nearby windows remained dark, and the secluded patio was blacker than the lawn she had just crossed, where she’d had to dodge and slink past streaks of yellow light from the large windows.
She hiked her skirt into place with a firm twist and brushed at her rear end to remove any grit she might have picked up from the flagstones. Not that the immaculate Westfield house and grounds would have a particle of dirt out of place this Friday evening. Even in exclusive Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the grandiose Westfield mansion made its neighbors look shabby.
Eleanor tried to fluff some semblance of neatness into her long blond waves, then peered closely at her left leg. In the dark she couldn’t see where the bush had torn her nylons. She could feel the hole, though, and the run that snaked up her inner thigh to the heavy leather strap of the holster. Damn. She pivoted her leg on the shoe heel, checking to make sure the gun didn’t show. If she had to make an appearance at the party, she needed to blend in. Firearms were probably frowned upon.
The strap was so tight her left leg was nearly white from the lack of circulation, and the weight of the gun made her feel so off-balance she nearly limped, but she felt confident no one could see what she hid on her upper thigh. As long as she didn’t cross her legs and shoot her toes off.
The tiny purse she’d slung over her neck had flopped onto her back in the fall. Eleanor repositioned the bag on her shoulder and removed two items. Switching on the little penlight, she held it between her teeth while she set to work with the lock pick on the French doors.
At least this part of the job went smoothly. The hours of diligent practice in the back room of her cousin’s hardware store paid off. After two minutes of concentration, studiously ignoring the laughter and music drifting from the front part of the house, she heard the lock click back. Eleanor softly turned the handle on the door, then slipped into the darkened library.
She was in the enemy’s lair.
Her quick, nervous breaths sucked in the scent of leather and stale cigars. Shadowy rows of books rose beside her. Eleanor walked along them, running the tiny light over volumes of leather-bound classics, and snorted quietly. It had to be for show. A man could not have been exposed to such literary enrichment without absorbing a few virtues. And as far as Eleanor knew, Banner Westfield had none.
The penlight suddenly hit open space and slid over glistening blue scales. Eleanor jumped, then shone the light along the mounted body of a fish, mouth agape and dead eye unnaturally bright. Stepping back, she bumped into an expanse of leather large enough to be a cow, knocking the wheeled chair against a desk.
Cursing under her breath, she steadied the spinning chair, then stepped around it. The desk before her was a vast expanse of polished wood and inset leather, gleaming expensively even in the thin beam of her penlight. Her lips curved at the white frame of a computer monitor, and the dull glint of brass locks on the side desk drawers. Eldorado. Right where it was supposed to be. Janet had been sitting at this desk when she found the information that got her killed. If Janet could find it, so could she. Only she wouldn’t confront Banner with it like Janet had. She’d take it straight to the police.
At least, that was the plan. If her answers weren’t here, she might have to resort to the gun, an option she didn’t want to think about.
She glanced at the dark bulk of double doors directly across the room. Still closed. And with the party at full tilt, they should stay that way. Unless someone felt the urgent need for a paperclip, or a quick dose of Tolstoy to go with their vodka, she should have a couple hours of undisturbed snooping and pilfering.
She snapped on the small brass desk lamp and blinked at the sudden glare. As her eyes adjusted, she glanced nervously at the hulking shadows of more bovine-sized chairs and sofas. Between the books, desk, and chairs, it was a wonder the room didn’t smell like a cattle yard. Dismissing her prickling sense of unease, she bent to apply her lock pick to the lower desk drawer.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Eleanor gasped and dropped the pick. The voice was low, menacing, and about ten feet to her right. She fumbled for the pick on the floor with trembling fingers, while peering into the shadows. She didn’t have to look closely. A tall man stepped forward and loomed over her. His body was visible in the dim desk light, but from the neck up he blended into the dark room behind him, a headless presence dressed in trousers, vest, white shirt, and tie.
Eleanor’s fingers closed around the lock pick. From her crouched position she asked in an unsteady voice, “Who are you?” and immediately chastised herself for sounding so defensive. If she was going to bluff her way out of this, she had to be more assertive. She needed to be in this house.
She meant to stand with slow dignity, but she yelped in surprise as he wrapped one hand around her upper arm and hauled her to her feet.
“I think the appropriate question is who are you? And what are you doing here?”
He had her beat on assertiveness, with a good amount of anger thrown in. He hadn’t let go of her arm, and in fact, had pulled her closer to get a better look. She tilted her chin up and boldly met his face, a grim visage in shades of gray, with dark, colorless eyes that drilled into her own from mere inches away, like a near-sighted predator zeroing in on its prey. A predator with a subtle woodsy-fresh smell.
Realization hit her like a fist. This was Banner Westfield. The chiseled features were softened by the darkness, but he was the right height, about six foot two, with dark hair and the attitude of a pit bull. She had fallen into his hands, first time out. This was not part of the plan.
Setting her lips in a firm line, Eleanor stared back. She had no bluff, so her only option was to remain stubbornly silent until she could figure something out.
He was not patient. Dissatisfied with either her silence or his inability to recognize her, he jerked on her arm and pulled her around the desk. She stumbled after him so closely that her foot tangled with his and she tripped, but his firm grasp on her arm kept her upright. The corner of the desk jabbed her hip before he thrust her against the front so roughly she was nearly sitting on the desktop. She uttered an offended, “Hey,” then flinched and turned her head away from a sudden, blinding stab of light. His free right hand had turned the brass-shaded lamp upward, directing its beam at her face. He released it to grab her chin and force her face toward the light.
Eleanor blinked rapidly while her pupils tried to adjust, then managed an angry glare. He could look all he wanted; he wouldn’t recognize her and she still wouldn’t talk.
While he scowled and studied her face, she took her first close-up look at evil. In the yellow glare of the desk lamp, the sharply defined nose was more blunt than she’d expected, with a high bridge. The expected thin slash of mouth had a surprisingly sensual curve, and more fullness than she’d noticed in photographs. The clenched jaw was certainly as firmly drawn as she’d known it would be, although the chin was flat and didn’t show that model-perfect cleft she’d seen in the pictures. And the blue eyes . . . Eleanor frowned. The blue eyes were brown.
“You’re not Banner Westfield.”
Her chin moved against his cupped palm as she spoke. The accusation seemed to refocus his attention, and he dropped his hand. His eyes assessed hers for several long seconds.
“No, I’m not. Disappointed?”
She ignored his question and made another stab at a bold offense. “Then who are you?”
The attractive mouth flattened into a humorless smile. “My line again. We seem to be at an impasse.”
“Right. Maybe we should just get back to the party.”
She took one step forward, as though expecting her bluff to work. He put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her back against the desk. “Let’s not.”
He spread his feet apart and stood close to her, effectively blocking any escape. Arms folded, he studied her, his eyes moving slowly from head to toe. “I don’t recall seeing you at the party.”
She smiled. “Really? Because I saw you. You were talking to a pretty blonde woman.” It was a safe bet; the guy probably drew beautiful women like flies. “Perhaps you have a poor memory.”
“Or perhaps you were never in the house until you came through those French doors.”
At least his arrogant attitude was putting her in touch with some indignation of her own. “Well, you would know, since you were lurking here in the dark. I think that looks just as suspicious.” She tilted her head and examined his attire in much the way he had looked her over. “Perhaps you came through those same doors.”
His sardonic look said she was wrong, but for a moment something had flickered across his face. A brief crack in that haughty confidence. Eleanor had watched the house for a long time before making her nerve-racking dash from the trees to the patio. No one had entered through those French doors before she had. No one had turned on the lights in the library either, not even the little desk lamp. It didn’t seem likely that he would have escaped the party to sulk in a pitch dark library.
Eleanor lifted her head and gave him a knowing smile. He might have belonged at the party, but she would bet anything he didn’t belong in this library. He might be running as big a bluff as she was, and that could be her way out.
He half-closed one eye suspiciously. But before either of them could speak, a soft click sounded from the doors across the room. A crack of light appeared from whatever part of the house adjoined the library, and the faint background sounds of talking and music grew louder.
Eleanor stiffened. She had begun to see a slight hope that she might wiggle out of a breaking and entering charge. But if someone else found her here, her chance of escaping plummeted. She had a brief, panicked thought of jumping behind the massive desk, but an arm had already appeared in the widening doorway. There was no time to hide.
“Trust me,” he said.
Jerking her unceremoniously off the desk and into his arms, he lowered his lips to hers, wrapping her in a devouring kiss.
Eleanor’s startled exclamation was muffled against his mouth and her breasts were mashed against his chest. She hadn’t realized her arms were braced stiffly against his shoulders until his teeth moved against her lips and he muttered, “Hold me, damn it!”
She did. Her first instinct had been to resist anything he said, but in the next instant she knew what he was doing. It was a diversion, not an assault. Whoever was opening the door would see a couple in a passionate embrace and, if they were decently discreet, duck out again.
Eleanor threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
She meant to peek over his shoulder to see who opened the door and when they left, but he surprised her again. His forceful kiss suddenly slowed, and his lips began moving lightly, sensuously over her own. A hand slid up her neck and cradled the back of her head. Eleanor’s thoughts faltered, then took a sharp U-turn. Her entire attention was focused on what he was doing to her. She didn’t care who was watching from the doorway, but knew whoever it was would be getting a good show.
She must have been kissed this passionately before, but not within recent memory, and not with this man’s thorough attention to details. One hand pressed her body against his while the other strayed toward her face, caressing her cheek and smoothing back tendrils of hair. Meanwhile, his mouth nibbled and touched, and made long, slow explorations of her lips. When his tongue touched hers and she made a small sound of surprise, it seemed to inspire even more ardent kissing.
She was light-headed and flushed, and startled to find she was enjoying herself. This might all be for show, but the man was good looking, obviously knew what he was doing, and she ought to salvage at least one good memory from her cat-burglary debacle. What the hell, she told herself. You have to take what life gives you, and lately life had given Eleanor Coggins damn little. A passionate kiss with a handsome stranger might fall under partial compensation.
He pressed her backward and the desk came up against her butt again. If he thought she’d be intimidated by his dominant position, he could just think again. Her kisses never faltered. She laced her fingers through his hair, clung to his neck, and leaned backward, absorbed in every languorous touch of his lips. The guy was good, very good.
His body moved more intimately against hers, and he pressed one firm thigh between her legs. Operating on pure instinct she bent her left leg and wrapped it possessively around his leg. By the time she remembered she shouldn’t do that, it was too late. She knew he had felt the gun.
Eleanor froze. So did he. In the sudden silence, the library door clicked shut.
Inches apart, they stared at each other. Eleanor’s heart pounded against his chest even louder than it had when he kissed her. His body still forced her backward, but she thought it best not to protest her position just now. He was breathing hard, and she suspected it was more from anger than passion. In the light of the desk lamp beside them, she watched his eyes go cold and stern.
When he finally spoke, it wasn’t what she expected. “Who was it?” he asked in a low voice.
“What?” She glanced toward the door, then back to his face, hovering so close in front of her. “At the door? I have no idea.”
She stuck her chin out. “I can’t, I had my eyes closed.” She knew he’d take it as some sort of compliment, and from the arrogant twitch beside his lip, she was right. “Besides, I wouldn’t recognize anyone. What difference does it make? They left.”
“The difference is, if it was old George DeMarco trying to sneak some of Banner’s imported cigars, he won’t say anything. But if it was anyone with the last name of Westfield, we are going to be interrupted again very soon. I don’t need any more problems with that dysfunctional, screwed-up family, and I don’t think you want to be discovered in here.”
She struck back with her only weapon. “I don’t think you do, either.” From his irritated frown, she could see it was true.
“Don’t call me sweetheart."
“I have no reason to trust your ethics, your motives, or your intentions. And I don’t intend to be involved in your criminal life, including any plans for murder. In which case, you’d better give me that gun.”
“Sorry, can’t do that. It matches my purse.”
He looked more surprised than angry. For about two seconds. “Yeah, you’re a whiz at accessorizing. Hand it over.”
She stiffened and tried to clasp her legs together, but his thigh was still between them, so it only felt like a sexually possessive move. “No.”
She could see his patience wearing thin with every second she delayed. “This is not up for debate. Give it to me, or I’ll take it,” he demanded.
“Try it and I’ll break your fingers.”
It was a totally empty threat. He must have questioned her harmless nature though, because he spent several long seconds looking into her eyes before his lip curved up.
“I believe I’ll take the chance.”
As fast as a darting snake, his hand reached up her dress and grasped the gun. Eleanor slapped her hand over his, clenching his through the slinky black material of her dress. He had a firm grip on the gun, but it was still holstered, and he couldn’t release it as long as she held onto his hand. The leather holster was scraping her leg painfully, and his warm fingers touched her inner thigh alarmingly close to her panties.
“Get your hand off me, you perverted creep,” she growled.
“Gladly, you homicidal thief. As soon as I get what I want.”
She was about to spit a well-constructed string of profanities at him, when the door opened forcefully, a hand hit a wall switch, and a dozen recessed lights flared on.
Eleanor jumped, and felt his hand slip away as he whirled around to face the door. She tugged her dress down, but not fast enough to escape the scathing notice of the well-dressed woman standing in the doorway.
The woman’s disdainful eyes shifted from Eleanor and rested with no more affection on the man who’d just had his hand up her dress. The woman’s mouth pursed with undisguised contempt as she addressed him. “Would you like to tell me what’s going on here, or should I assume the usual?”
He stepped aside slightly so Eleanor was able to see his relaxed smile, and she realized he’d made a vain attempt to shield her from view. Probably to spare himself, since he’d been groping up her dress.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, and Eleanor nearly did a double take. This stiff, unpleasant woman was his mother? “I’m sorry I didn’t see you when we arrived. I don’t believe you’ve met my fiancée.”
He held out a hand to Eleanor. It took several seconds to understand that he was referring to her and not some woman he had abandoned at the party. She looked at his outstretched hand in stunned disbelief, then at him. Playing at kissing him was one thing, but now she was engaged to him? She was about to inform him that he could take his charade and stuff it, when she noticed his tense stance and the silent plea in his eyes. He needed her to play along. Desperately.
Her mind rapidly sorted the available facts. Whatever reason he had for this absurd game, it could not hurt to have him indebted to her. He apparently needed her to be his fiancée. More important, being engaged to him might give her access to this house, with more chances in the future to search for the evidence she needed.
Eleanor smiled graciously and took her new fiancé’s hand, edging off the desk as smoothly as possible. Filling in the awkward hole in his introduction, she smiled and said, “How nice to meet you. I’m Eleanor Coggins.”
The woman raised one eyebrow and repeated the name Coggins, apparently searching her memory for some respectable family of that name. She must not have found one, because her cold look said Eleanor had not risen perceptibly in her estimation. Eleanor wondered what sort of woman would expend so much scorn on her own son and his future wife, when her still-nameless fiancé completed the introduction.
“Eleanor, I’d like you to meet my mother, Elizabeth Payton Westfield.”
Elizabeth tipped her head slightly at her, while Eleanor’s mind raced. His mother was a Westfield. He must be a Westfield. She could have run through a mental family tree of cousins, but there was no point. She knew Elizabeth Payton Westfield was the name of Banner’s mother. She had just become engaged to Banner’s brother.
Eleanor flashed a look at her new fiancé that promised retribution. He smiled back with bared teeth, looking dangerously prepared for the confrontation, not to mention attractive as hell.
She really should find out his name.