"You have God awful taste in men, Finley."
This, I mused, from the woman who is currently trolling for husband number five. I would have fired that shot over the bow, but I knew I was outgunned in this war. My mother was a formidable foe and for some reason, when I was being called on the carpet, I morphed from a capable twenty-nine year-old into a timid seventeen-year-old.
"And to think you brought that man to your sister's wedding. I raised you better than that."
I nearly choked on my Cobb salad. Raised me? She'd been too busy being Mrs. Somebody-or-Another to bother raising me. I used to tell my friends that I'd been raised by wolves until one of them pointed out that wolves lick their young. My mother wasn't hard-wired for affection. Well, not unless you were my perfect younger sister Lisa. She'd been perfect as a pediatric oncologist and now she was perfectly married to the perfect Dr. David Huntington-St. John, one of the richest men in Atlanta. Without even trying, Lisa has elevated perfect to the next stratosphere.
Me? I'm a paralegal. My mother sees this as a menial job and never understood why I took my LSATs but never bothered applying to law schools. She doesn't get that I want a life, not an eighty-hour-a-week job chained to a desk.
"Tony would have been a much more appropriate choice," she insisted as she chased a bit of grilled mahi-mahi around on her plate.
"Tony has a fourteen-year-old daughter and he's my boss," I defended as I dabbed at the corners of my mouth. I'd barely eaten a third of my salad, but my churning stomach couldn't handle another bite.
"You, of all people, should know that isn't a problem," my mother said as she smoothed her perfectly lacquered brown hair. As usual, everything about her was proper and in its right place. She had on a pale yellow Chanel suit with lime green pumps and - unlike every other woman in Florida - stockings. She wore a pretty lime and yellow broach up high on her shoulder. Very Jackie O. Then again, my mother fashioned herself after the American icon.
Cassidy Presley Tanner Browning Johnstone Rossi - or whatever the names and order are - was a stunning woman in her early fifties, though she looked more like forty thanks to early intervention plastic surgery. She was barely twenty-one when I was born. At the time, she was a single mother, a fact I found out when I was thirteen. Until then, I'd been told that my name was a combination of family names. What went unsaid was that Finley and Anderson were the surnames to the two men my mother was sleeping with when she got pregnant with me. And yes, that does mean my initials are F.A.T., and no, no one can make a joke I haven't already heard and disliked.
My mother likes to blame me for the premature end to her career as an opera singer at the Met in New York, but in all honesty, she developed nodules on her throat and once they were removed, her voice never fully recovered. Just as she hadn't fully recovered from my transgression at my sister's recent society wedding in Atlanta. Only it wasn't my transgression. Liam McGarrity was the sinner in question. He'd gone out of his way to take pot shots at my mother and while it had been fun at the time, the hour had come for me to shed my pound of flesh.
At least I was shedding at a good place. Saturday lunch at Ironhorse Country Club was lovely. The second story restaurant had floor to ceiling glass overlooking the manicured golf course beyond. I didn't give a flaming fig about the golf aspect; I just loved the stunning flowers and meticulously kept grassy hills. Not that we were there for the view. At least not that view. My mother had her eye on a cardiologist from the neighborhood, so we'd been lunching at Ironhorse for a while now. Guess it was lucky for mom that she'd gotten the club membership in one of her lucrative divorce settlements.
"At least do me the courtesy of listening when I speak to you," she chastised in the quiet but threatening tone I'd heard mothers use on toddlers at the grocery store.
"I am listening." Kinda. "But what more can I do than apologize? Which I have done a gazillion times already."
Her brown eyes narrowed. "You're sorry I'm upset, but you aren't sorry for doing what you did. That's the crux of the problem."
I wanted to throw Liam under the bus. After all, it was his idea to get frisky at the wedding for all to see. It was his idea to exchange verbal barbs with my mother. I was an innocent bystander. And an amused one at that. "Great Aunt Susan liked Liam," I offered weakly. My great aunt didn't just like him. I think she had a serious crush on him, especially after he'd spirited her around the dance floor a time or two.
"Aunt Susan likes every man."
Then no wonder you were named for her. Oh, right, back to the name thing. My mother was born Susan Presley but thought Cassidy was a better stage name so she had it legally changed.
"Would it have killed you to bring Tony Caprelli on the most important day in our family since Lisa graduated, with honors, from medical school? And what did you do to your back?"
"Nothing, my back is fine, why?"
"I just assumed there was a reason for the way you're slouching."
Out of habit I snapped into position. "Tony had an emergency that weekend, mom. Liam or no Liam, he still would have missed the wedding."
"That we could have explained away. But that vulgar man. He made you a spectacle."
"Since half the bridesmaids were lit and practically giving lap dances by the third hour, I think my one dance paled in comparison."
"Not in my mind, it didn't."
Thankfully Philippe came over and asked, "May I take your plates?"
"Yes, thank you," we said in unison.
Philippe took both plates and balanced them in one hand and his forearm. "Shall I bring a dessert menu?"
"No," my mother countered. Poor Philippe's face showed he didn't care for being west of the rock and east of the hard place.
"Just coffee," I relented.
"Tea for me," my mother corrected.
"When did you start drinking tea?" I asked.
"It's much better for you. You drink far too much coffee. All that caffeine will eat through your stomach lining."
"Tea has caffeine."
My mother slowly shook her head as her collagen lips pursed so she could make some sort of tisking sound. "Must you argue with me over every little thing? One would think you'd be grateful being treated to a lovely meal."
I noticed that as she chastised me, her attention was drawn over my left shoulder. I dropped my napkin on the floor and as I bent to pick it up, I glanced backward. "I am grateful," I lied. It wasn't like she'd invited me to lunch. It was more of a command performance. I could have one foot in the grave and still jump if she said jump. God, I was such a wuss. "Isn't that Dr. Chambers who just arrived?"
"Did he?' she asked coyly. "I barely noticed."
Yeah right. "I thought you were hot for him."
"Finley Tanner!" she gasped, one hand going to her throat. "I can't believe you'd be so crass."
"Sorry. How about, I thought you were intrigued with him."
"He's a lovely gentleman. Cardiologist. Widower."
"Then he's right up your alley," I said into my water glass. Thankfully my mother was busy waving demurely.
"He's coming over here. Behave."
What did she think I was going to do? Strip naked and dance on the table?
"Cassidy," the doctor greeted, taking her hand and gallantly kissing her ring. No wonder she liked him. Rich, single and a suck up. "And let me guess, this is your sister."
I couldn't help but smile at the twinkle in his blue eyes as he played out the game.
"Heaven's no," my mother answered. "This is my daughter, Finley. Sisters," she fairly gushed. "Seriously, Burt." She was practically cooing.
He took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Honest mistake. I should have guessed that this lovely girl is your daughter."
I didn't know why. My mother was dark haired with brown eyes. I, on the other hand, am a fair-skinned blonde with blue eyes and a completely different bone structure. I wondered if I should tell the good doctor that I got my looks from Mr. Finley or Mr. Anderson. No, that would send my mother into a rage the minute we were alone.
"Please excuse me," I said as I rose from my chair holding my new-to-me fuchsia Prada clutch. Just one of the items I'd treated myself to with my Ellen bonus.
I'd done well with the Ellen bonus. It paid-off to save your boss from a lunatic. The fact that I'd spent the bonus twice already was irrelevant. After what I'd gone through, I deserved a little splurge. Okay, so it wasn't so little. But seriously, it wasn't like the law firm of Dane, Lieberman, and Caprelli was going to rain money on me at a regular basis. Especially since the firm had officially changed names. I missed Mr. Zarnowski, but with his sudden demise from a heart attack, Vain Victor Dane wasted no time having the doors repainted and new stationary ordered. As the managing partner, he carried a lot of power. He also had manicures more often than I did and unlike Ellen Lieberman and Tony Caprelli, he simply tolerated me.
". . . wasn't it, Finley?"
Oh God, I'd zoned out during the flirtation stage. I took the safe route. "Definitely." Please, please let that be an appropriate response.
When I didn't get the infamous Cassidy glare, I felt the muscles between my shoulder blades relax. As nice as the passion fruit iced tea was, I could use a mojito. Or two.
As Philippe arrived with my coffee and my mother's tea, I asked, "Are you waiting for someone?"
"My golf partner. Thanks to his eagle on fourteen, we won this morning."
"Congratulations," my mother said.
I gulped down my coffee, a faux pas not lost on my mother. "Look at the time," I said. "I feel terrible but," to quote Liam, "I have a thing and if I don't leave now, I'll be late. Dr. Chambers, perhaps you could keep my mother company while she has her tea?"
"Of course," he said when he stood as I rose to leave. "It would be my pleasure."
"Thank you again for lunch," I said to my mother. She was busy staring at the good doctor. "I'll call you," I lied.
"Mum-hum," she managed as she glanced up at me. It was the first time in ages I'd seen approval in her eyes.
I wasn't sure when I'd become my mother's wingman, but I didn't care. It got me out of post-lunch chit chat and out of the club and it wasn't quite two PM. If I had a singing voice, which I don't, I might have belted out the halleluiah chorus as I made my way to my cherry red Mercedes convertible. Technically it belonged to Mercedes Leasing Corporation, but I thought of it as mine.
Slipping behind the wheel and turning over the ignition, I tuned into WILD 95.9, and then happily pointed my car in the direction of I-95 south. Going home made me happy. And why wouldn't it? I had a small but lovely cottage on Palm Beach proper with my very own little strip of beach. It hadn't always been so lovely. In fact, when my mother first sold me the cottage, which was supposed to be part of my inheritance from Jonathan Tanner, the only father I'd ever known, it was a dilapidated mess. With a partial mummy in the closet. Thanks to my darling, dear friend Sam, who also happened to be my former neighbor when I had my condo, used his magical interior design skills to turn the cottage into a showplace. It was whites, teals and corals and very, very Florida.
If I took the long way home, I'd pass right by the Gardens Mall. As much as I wanted to, I had to restrain myself. Between my mortgage, my credit cards and my car lease, I really needed to control my spending. For me that was like trying to hold my breath for thirty minutes. And now I had my friend Jane, the accountant, sitting on my shoulder making me feel guilty about every penny I spent.
Jane and I had been friends since the day we'd lied our way into a gym two-for-one promotion. Five years later, Jane still worked out regularly while I considered a brisk walk to the coffee pot cardio. Jane wasn't your typical accountant/financial planner. She looked more like one of the Pussy Cats Dolls than a bean counter. And she was quite fond of corsets and leather, but somehow managed not to look like a dominatrix. Maybe it was the perfect body. Or the pretty way her brown hair framed her face. She had big brown eyes that always mirrored her smile. With the exception of the whole Paolo incident, Jane smiled most of the time. Unless she was reviewing my monthly spending with me. Then she'd get the frown lines between her brows. If I won the next eBay auction, she'd probably need Botox to erase those lines.
I was willing to go as high as two thousand for a diamond bezel for my Rolex. Well, I technically don't have a Rolex. Yet. I'm buying the parts on eBay, and then I'll have a jeweler assemble it and viola, my very own pink oyster-face Ladies DateJust. The two thousand was supposed to come out of the twenty-five hundred I'd gotten as a bonus from Ellen. I'd already bought twenty-two hundred dollars worth of clothing, shoes, purses and accessories. I couldn't help myself. It was just so much fun to shop like the old days. Even if it was only temporary. Now it was time for me to turn back into a financial pumpkin.
Thanks to my mother, I no longer had access to my trust fund, so I was forced to live on my own salary. She thought she was building my character. In reality, she just forced me underground, into the seedy world of thrift shops and outlet malls. And eBay, of course. As long as I had a dry cleaner, I was able to work around my financial precariousness. Kinda.
Exercising a great deal of self-restraint, I made my way to Chilean Avenue and parked in the center of the horseshoe-shaped drive made from crushed shells and cut the engine. It was a truly stunning day - a clear blue, cloudless sky with temperatures in the low eighties with a nice breeze coming off the ocean.
"Take the rest of the day off," I told myself as I locked my car, then went and let myself inside. The first thing I did was kick off my heels, then I began to unzip my vintage Lilly Pulitzer shift-styled dress as I walked toward my bedroom. Thanks to Sam and my contractor, Harold the convict, the three bedroom home was down to two bedrooms with spacious bathrooms and large closets. Hey, a girl's got to have her priorities. The guest room was very girly. Lots of floral arrangements and colorful sculptural elements to cut the starkness of the white spread on the double bed. My bedroom is a thing of beauty. My room is teal, coral and white. Again, I have a white comforter, but Sam knew just how to accessorize the room to make it look homey and not sterile. And my bathroom, well, it is drool-worthy. I have one of those fancy spill tubs with a beautiful view of the ocean. In fact, every window in my room has a stunning view of the beach.
I changed into a bathing suit and sarong, and then went barefooted into the kitchen. It was all polished stainless steel and pure white counters with teal stools. Taking out some mint leaves from the fridge, I placed them in a tall glass. Next I squeezed some fresh limejuice in with the mint. I added powdered sugar - easier than making simple syrup - and mashed all the stuff together with the back of a long iced teaspoon. Some crushed ice from the spout on the front of the fridge door, a little rum and some club soda and I was in business. Still, I sipped the mojito as a form of quality control.
Taking my laptop, I headed out to the small cabana off to the left of the pool. I wanted to check my email and my auction status before I went down to the beach to veg out in my teak lounge near the water's edge.
It only took about ten minutes of salt air, and possibly the drink, to completely relax me. An amazing feat since it usually took me several hours to regain my sanity after spending time with my mother. Checking my status, I discovered that I was still the high bidder on the bezel bid. But I also knew that didn't mean much. I was holding at fifteen hundred but I wouldn't add the other five until a few seconds before the end of the auction. EBay wasn't a hobby, it was an art. One I was quite good at.
My email was pretty light. Just some social stuff from friends. I scrolled down and found one from Izzy. She was Tony's fourteen-year-old daughter and we had this bonding thing going on. With Tony being widowed since his daughter was an infant, Izzy seemed to like having a female presence in her life. It had totally backfired on me. Since Izzy liked me, Tony felt he couldn't pursue a relationship with me. He didn't want anything to get in the way of Izzy's happiness. Apparently spending time with me, be it text, email, phone or in person, made Izzy happy.
I lounged back on the cushions, lying on one side with my computer within easy reach. Sipping my mojito, I thought about Tony Caprelli and could feel my pulse quicken. He was a criminal attorney from New York and hot. Not just handsome hot, but wicked, smoking hot. He had dark hair and eyes the color of rich coffee. He was the perfect guy for me. At least on paper. He was polished, educated, articulate, honest - a biggie after the whole Patrick debacle. And did I mention he was hot? He had that kind of commanding presence that pulled at me. Worse still, he'd admitted that he was attracted to me. It was like handing me a Rolex box, only to open it and find it empty. Totally unfair.
If Tony was perfect for me, Liam couldn't be more wrong. Yet just thinking his name had my heart pounding in my chest. He was one of those guys that just screamed 'love me and you can fix me!' with one look into those crystal blue, bedroom eyes. Trust me, I know better. You can't ever love a guy enough to fix him. And Liam McGarrity needed a lot of fixing. He was secretive, still close with his ex-wife, and the sexiest man I'd ever met. Every time I saw him it took all my willpower to keep from jumping his bones. Even though the intelligent part of me knew he was Mr. Wrong, my libido didn't give a damn. I wanted him. Especially after dancing with him at my sister's wedding. I almost moaned at the memory of being pressed against his rock solid body.
"Stop it!" I snapped.
Opening Izzy's email, she reminded me about her next school dance, which was only two weeks away. This one was more important than the last because she had her first date. Only I'd been sworn to silence. Tony would never go for his little girl having a date, so I was her cover. Great, I thought. My love life is on life support but my mother and a fourteen-year-old were getting more action than I was.
Izzy still needed shoes and I'd promised to take her this weekend. Well, it would have to wait until Sunday. I was too relaxed to go through the motions of showering, dressing, and all the paint and body work associated with going out in public. I was tired. I was in my third week of fighting the Sleepy and Wanda Jean relocation battle. They were squatting on land that belonged to the lone heir of the Egghardt estate. Lenora, the heir, was willing to let them stay; she just wanted them to move their trailer to the far edge of the property so she could build an equestrian center. To date, Sleepy and Wanda Jean were not cooperating. Sleepy swore up and down that Mr. Egghardt had promised him that piece of land for life. Only he had nothing to back-up his claim. It was the kind of estate that made me crazy. Usually I loved being an estates and trusts paralegal, but lately that had changed. Dane-Lieberman had sent me back to school to be better trained to support Tony's criminal practice. I was still doing estates and trusts, I just had more duties. So the last thing I needed was a couple of hicks screwing up an estate.
My friend Liv wanted to know if I'd like to go out on a blind date. Her boy toy had a friend in town and she wanted to know if I'd like to round out the foursome. Said boy toy lived in a room above his parent's garage. Liv was so stunning she could have any man on the planet. I don't understand her attraction to barely-in-his-twenties garage boy. I wrote her back: Not just no, but Hell no. Have a good time.
I begged off dinner with Becky as well. I just felt like playing homebody. After I checked my email, I put my computer away, made myself another drink and went down to the beach. I stayed there until the sun was blocked by my neighbor's privacy fence.
Not one to cook, I called my favorite Chinese place and had some Moo Shu delivered. I even splurged on some remaki. I ate way too much, then laid on the sofa and channel surfed for a while before I settled on an old Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks movie. Maybe watching happily-ever-after hadn't been the smartest move. I felt more like a looser than ever when the credits rolled.
Some time around midnight, I decided to go to bed. Sun, three drinks and a full belly had me yawning like a newborn. I drifted off without incident. No, the incident happened in my subconscious. I was in the middle of a rather vivid dream about a man with black hair and blue eyes when my sleepy brain processed some banging. In my dream state, I started looking around for the source. Coming awake, I realized the sound was in the real world.
The dead of night means just that. Dead. As in dead quiet. So why, I wondered as I shrugged into my robe, was I hurrying toward the front door at o-dark-thirty? Well, because someone was pounding on my door while alternately by laying the doorbell. All the ringing and banging was making my head pound.
My mood didn't improve when I spotted the Mustang parked behind my car. "Liam McGarrity! You'd better have a freaking stellar goddamn reason for-"
As soon as I'd opened the door about a foot, Liam slumped inside, falling to his knees. I blinked twice, trying to wrap my sleep-addled brain around the sight before me.
The right side of Liam's shirt was stained a deep scarlet from just below the armpit to the hem. His skin was ashen. He had one arm draped around the former Mrs. McGarrity but Ashley was having trouble supporting his weight.
"Here," I said, as I worked my way under his shoulder and got him back up off the floor. "What the hell happened?"
"I got shot," Liam said, his voice steadier than his body.
"We need to lie him down," Ashley said.
"No," I pivoted on my bare foot and tried to steer his weight back toward the door. "We need to get him to a hospital."
"No hospital," Liam insisted. "Just some sleep and a BandAid."
"You think a BandAid will help remove a bullet?"
"Through and through," he said.
"Save your breath, Honey," Ashley insisted. "I've already tried. He won't go."
Honey? I glanced at the bleached blonde. Did she actually call me Honey? "Then why bring him here?"
"Nice to see you, too," Liam said with a weak smile.
"Can we take him to lie down and then chat?" Ashley asked, exasperated. She started for the sofa. The white sofa.
"Let's get him to the guestroom." Where he can bleed on my white sheets. Which, unlike the sofa, I can easily throw away.
Being one of Liam's crutches was cumbersome, especially when we started down the hallway. We did a sort of sidestep, and then maneuvered him into the virgin room. Never dawned on me that my first houseguest would be a private detective with a hole in his side. As I choked on the unappealing smell of gunpowder, blood and Ashley's ungodly strong rose perfume, I yanked back the crisp white comforter and tugged the corners of the sheets free. I tasted the metallic taste of adrenaline as I deposited Liam on the edge of the bed.
Ashley was immediately on her knees - and yes, I thought something unkind - she slipped off his shoes and helped raise his legs up on the bed.
Liam winced. "We're gonna need some towels and some steri-strips"
"Towels I have," I said as I started out the door. "Steri-strips I don't."
"You can get them at the store when we take the car."
"Take the car where?" I asked Ashley, who seemed to be the one with the plan.
Liam shook his head. "That's a little premature."
"You called me for help," Ashley snapped. "You don't get to complain about how I provide the help. I was the one who thought to bring you here, didn't I? It isn't like anyone will come looking for you in swanky-ville."
I glared at Ashley. "You woke me up from a dead sleep just to diss my address?"
"No," she said as she undid Liam's belt.
This was getting awkward. Here I was in my house watching some other woman undress Liam. "Is that really necessary?" I asked when she began to unbutton his shirt.
"I've got to see how bad it is. Could you get those towels now?"
I decided fetching towels was better than watching Ashley and Liam interact. Yeah, so he was bleeding, but that hardly explained why he was so cooperative with her. If that had been me, he would have been arguing or complaining, or both.
Obviously three mojitos weren't enough.