Excerpt: Snowbound at Christmas
Cat O'Connor sat in a white club chair in a bubble-gum-pink dressing room dreaming of her sister's demise. Not her actual sister, of course, but the character her sister played in the daytime drama As the Sun Sets. The soap's sliding numbers could use a boost, and what better way to boost them than by killing off leading lady Tessa Hart? With her sister out of work, Cat would have the perfect excuse to move back to Colorado.
Wishful thinking on her part, she knew, and she went back to adding up the numbers of the job-satisfaction quiz she'd just taken. It wasn't like she needed a quiz to tell her that she was dissatisfied. But other than dreaming of Tessa Hart's demise, she didn't have anything else to occupy her time. Whoever thought the entertainment industry was exciting had never spent fourteen hours on the set of a daytime soap opera. Mind. Crushingly. Boring.
Okay, so sitting in an unmarked car on a stakeout had been kind of boring too. But at least there'd been the potential for excitement. Nothing beat the thrill of taking some lowlife off the street. Of taking . . . She closed her eyes. She couldn't go there. Couldn't think of the hell the FBI had put her through and what she'd been forced to give up.
Refocusing on the magazine, she read the level that corresponded to her score. "Danger Zone! You are burned-out. Leave your job immediately before you destroy your mental and physical well-being."
Cat tossed the magazine onto the glass table. It was true. She couldn't wait for fate to intervene. Working for Chloe was sucking the life out of her. She felt like she was fifty instead of thirty-one. She pinched her stomach through the I Love Tessa Hart T-shirt that Chloe insisted Cat wear to work and jiggled the quarter inch of fat between her fingers. Her identical twin wasn't driving Cat to drink--she was driving her to eat donuts. Cat had consumed more donuts in the year that she'd worked for Chloe than in her five years with the Denver PD.
She stood up and bounced on the balls of her feet, shaking out her hands. She'd do it today. As soon as Chloe returned from blocking out her scene, Cat would tell her. She'd been protecting Chloe since they came out of the womb five minutes apart. Something her sister would no doubt deny, but it was true. Pudgy with an overbite and a lazy eye, her nose always buried in a book, her head in the clouds, Chloe had needed Cat's protection from grade school to high school. She didn't need it now.
Cat tensed when the door opened and her sister swept into the dressing room wearing a ruffled peach dress and matching high heels, her long, wavy dark hair flowing down her back. Sinking gracefully onto the chair Cat had just vacated, Chloe brought the back of her hand to her forehead with a dramatic sigh.
Cat rehearsed her speech in her head, gave her hands another quick shake, then opened her mouth.
"Kit Kat, I need my pills. Get me my pills, please," Chloe said before Cat got out a single syllable.
She closed her mouth, curling her fingers into her palms. What Chloe needed was a good, swift kick in the derriere. But instead of acting on the thought, Cat retrieved the prescription bottle from her sister's makeup table. Calm Chloe was easier to deal with than Dramatic Chloe. Her sister had no idea they were sugar pills. Their sister-in-law, Skye, had come up with the idea as a way to deal with Chloe's attacks. Or as Cat privately referred to them, her Scarlett O'Hara act. Most of the time they worked.
Cat opened the bottle and shook two pills into her sister's waiting palm. Chloe raised a perfectly plucked brow. "I need something to wash them down. Did you get my tea?"
Oh, she got her tea all right. She'd scoured the streets of LA looking for her Anglophile sister's special British brew. Battling gridlock traffic, it took Cat three hours to get back to the studio in Burbank.
She stifled a sarcastic retort and poured the freshly steeped tea, timed as always to be ready for Chloe's return, into the Royal Doulton teacup.
Her pinkie raised oh-so-daintily in the air, Chloe took a sip, then pulled a face. "Kit Kat, this is not the brand I asked for."
Silently counting to ten as she retrieved the yellow box from the shelf, Cat held it up. "This is what you told me to buy."
And this was why she had to quit. Not only was she bored, Chloe was driving her insane. At times Cat wanted to strangle her. She wouldn't, of course, but their relationship had suffered. Cat loved her sister, but lately she didn't like her very much.
"Well, it's not the one I want." Chloe pursed her peach-glossed lips, then waved her hand. "Don't worry about it. I have an hour before I have to be on the set. You have time to get me--"
"I'm not buying you more tea." Cat rubbed her sweaty palms on her jeans. It was now or never. "I have something important to talk to you about."
"Me too." Chloe cast her a sidelong glance, then popped the pills in her mouth. She took a sip of tea.
Chloe choked, motioning for Cat to pat her back. Gritting her teeth, Cat leaned over and did as her sister directed. Chloe's rapid blinking caused her bottom and top false eyelashes to stick together. While tugging her lid from her eyeball, she squinted at Cat. "You're quitting? But you love working for me."
It wasn't an act. Chloe saw what she wanted to see. And at the genuine confusion on her sister's face, guilt wormed its way into Cat's heart. Which Chloe erased with the next words out of her mouth. "Is it because I get all the attention?" She gave Cat a commiserating smile. "Believe me, I remember what it's like to feel invisible. But honestly, Kit Kat, where else would you make the kind of money I'm paying you for doing, well, nothing?"
There was so much Cat could say to that, but it wouldn't do her any good. Better to leave with their relationship somewhat intact. "Since I don't do anything, you shouldn't need two weeks' notice." She headed for the door before her sister could insert her foot in her mouth again, and Cat said something she'd regret.
"You're leaving now?" Chloe asked, a hint of panic in her voice.
"I thought I'd go home and start packing. Book my flight. Don't worry, I'll be back in time to pick you up." Just one more of her duties. Cat was Chloe's chauffeur as well her bodyguard, manager, and gopher. A smile played on her lips. Not anymore she wasn't. Warm, giddy relief flooded her body. She'd bask in the freedom for a few days before facing the reality of looking for a job.
Chloe flapped both hands in front of her face. "Kit Kat, I don't think the pills worked. I feel faint."
Cat walked over and shoved her sister's head between her legs. "Just breathe," she said. "Not like that," she followed with when Chloe started braying like a donkey. Dammit, she was not letting her suck her back in. Chloe was a hypochondriac. There was nothing wrong with her. Cat removed her hand from her sister's head and crossed to the makeup table, opening a drawer to retrieve a brown paper bag. As soon as Chloe put it over her mouth and nose, her breathing evened out.
Lowering the bag, Chloe lifted beseeching green eyes. "Kit Kat, I know you have much more important things to take care of, but . . . " She swallowed convulsively and rubbed her chest, "I have a physical scene this afternoon. And after my spell, I worry about my heart. I'd hate to think how guilty you'd feel if I dropped dead when you so easily could take my place."
As Cat opened her mouth to say no, Chloe continued. "I don't like to bring it up, but . . ." She brought it up all the time. Her sister was a delicate flower with the mind of a Venus flytrap. ". . . if you hadn't been so greedy in the womb and sucked up all the oxygen, I wouldn't have been born with a hole in my heart. So the least you can do is this one small favor for me."
Chloe wasn't exaggerating. Much. She had been born with a hole in her heart and spent the first months of her life in a NIC unit. Up until age four, she'd been in and out of hospital before the hole closed on its own. Growing up, their parents had overprotected Chloe, treating her like an invalid. In Cat's opinion, that had been more damaging than the hole had ever been.
Though she supposed she shouldn't cast stones. Like her parents, Cat enabled her sister too. And while intellectually she knew she was making matters worse, emotionally she couldn't seem to help herself. Which is the reason why, an hour later, she awkwardly lowered herself into the stylist chair wearing a tight black pencil skirt and black bustier.
"Wipe the smirk off your face, Ty," Cat said, adjusting the satin top.
"Moi, smirk? I think not, my darling Pussy." Ty, in his uniform of skinny black pants and tight T-shirt, grinned at her in the mirror. "If you're going to keep doing this, you should consider extensions." He tugged on Cat's wig, and it slipped to the side. In her senior year of high school, Cat had lopped off her long locks after another episode of trading places with her sister had gone horribly wrong.
Tutting, Ty reached across her for the bobby pins.
If any other man called her Pussy, Cat would probably slug them, but Ty meant it as an endearment. And she kind of liked that the nickname horrified her proper sister. Besides that, the hairstylist was one of Cat’s favorite people on the set of the daytime drama. She’d miss him when she left. But he was about the only thing she’d miss. She didn’t like Hollywood. Or Hollyweird, as she thought of it. “This is the last time.”
"That's what you said two weeks ago."
"I quit, Ty. I'm heading home on Monday." She winced when he jabbed her scalp with a bobby pin.
"I nearly lost my lunch." He patted her head. "Don't scare me like that ever again."
"I'm serious. I'm leaving." Pressing his palms together, Ty rested his chin on the tips of his manicured fingers and looked at her mournfully through large, square, red-framed glasses. She sighed. She loved him, but he was as much a drama queen as her sister. "I'm going to miss you too. But I'll see you when you come to Christmas."
A few months earlier, Chloe had heard that the production team was looking for a location in the mountains to film their holiday segments, and she suggested their hometown. She put them in contact with Madison McBride, the town's mayor, who offered free room and board to sweeten the pot. It didn't take much sweetening after the production team got a look at Christmas.
Nestled in a valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the small town was a nature lover's dream. But it was the recently completed Santa's Village that had sealed the deal.
Ty swept the back of his hand dramatically across his cheek. "Who is going to vet my dates and make sure I'm safe? And who is going to let me cry on their shoulder when I get my heart broken?" He wrapped his arms around her neck, meeting her eyes in the mirror. "Pussy, you can't leave me."
Sam, one of the crew, walked by with George, the classically handsome man who played Chloe's on-screen husband Byron Hart. The two men were caught up in an animated conversation, so she doubted they'd overheard her and Ty, but she had to be careful. "Chloe, remember?" she whispered, because no one could know she was taking her sister's place. Cat wasn't a member of the Screen Actors Guild. And no matter how ticked she was at her sister, she wouldn't do anything to mess with her career.
Ty straightened, fluffing her hair. "You're leaving because your sister is such a biatch, aren't you?"
She checked to be sure Sam and George were out of earshot before answering. "No, it's time for me . . . " The set manager called Chloe's name. "We'll go out this weekend. I'll bring Chloe along. If you give her a chance, I think you two could be friends."
He flipped up his hand. "Just because I'm a fairy doesn't mean I have a magic wand that will turn your sister into you."
Cat rolled her eyes and moved to walk away.
"Hang on." Ty grabbed her arm and shoved two more bobby pins in her hair. "Be careful. Brunhilda attacks you in this scene, and after your sister pushed for the change that cut down her on-air time, she won't hold back," he said, referring to the redheaded actress Molly. She'd auditioned for the part of Tessa Hart and ended up with the lesser role of Tessa's backstabbing sister, Paula.
Cat thanked him for the warning and headed for the set. Walking without tripping in the mile-high shoes was one thing, walking with the elegant grace of her sister another. Ten minutes at most, Cat reminded herself, and she'd be out of here for good. The thought lightened her step as she walked onto what served as the foyer of the Hart mansion.
Her heel shot out from under her on the polished black-and-white faux marble, and she smothered a gasp, clamping a hand on her head to keep her wig in place. Once she regained her balance, she made a show of checking her shoe.
"Tessa darling, are you all right?" the silver-haired Byron called down from the top of an ornate wooden staircase.
Cat frowned. Tessa darling? She shrugged. What did she know? Maybe he liked to get into character before taping. She acknowledged his concern with a small wave and took her mark, mentally going over the scene she'd practiced with Chloe earlier.
All she had to do was keep Molly from pulling off her wig. Piece of cake. Cat had a black belt and had aced her defensive-tactics training. But when the doorbell chimed and she opened the mansion's door to the redhead, Cat had an aw-hell moment. She'd never fought in heels on a slippery floor. She contemplated kicking them off when Molly launched herself at her, which wasn't supposed to happen until later in the scene. Ducking, Cat raised her arm to block the woman's long, bloodred nails. Molly kept coming, pushing Cat off her mark. Why today of all days did the actress decide to improvise? They were supposed to have their come-to-Jesus moment at the front door, not in the middle of the foyer.
Lines, Cat reminded herself. Just say Chloe's lines. "Paula, what's wrong? What . . ." She trailed off, following the direction of the redhead's gaze to where the large crystal chandelier swayed drunkenly over her head.
Grabbing Molly by the arms, Cat spun them out of the way. A gust of air brushed against her back as the chandelier crashed to the floor.
Shouts went up from the cast and crew as they converged on them. The director in his yellow Hawaiian shirt pushed through the crowd. "Chloe, are you all right?"
"I'm good," Cat assured him.
"So am I, Phil." Molly glared at Cat before storming off the set.
The director's gaze followed the other actress before he returned his attention to Cat. "Quick thinking, Chloe. Well done." He patted her back then moved from her side, waving over the set and crew managers. "Would someone like to explain to me how the hell this happened?"
Exactly what Cat wanted to know. Glass crunched underfoot as she moved to crouch beside the chandelier. She examined the brushed silver chain links; the wire had been cut. Careful what you wish for, Cat thought as she looked up at the beam. Her plan to leave her sister's employ was now on hold.
* * *
Special Agent Grayson Alexander couldn't remember the last time he'd taken a vacation. To his way of thinking, the bad guys didn't take one, so why should he? But his last case had changed his mind. He was skirting the edge of burnout. It was the only explanation he could come up with for his epic screwup. He'd put not only the operation on the line, but his life. Valeria Ramos had played him, and he hadn't uncovered her deception until it was almost too late. A gorgeous brunette with a killer bod, she'd passed herself off as a victim, when in truth she'd been the head of the human trafficking ring. The memory of how badly his instincts had failed him grated. They'd never failed him in the past. Forget that he was damn good at his job; for a guy who'd grown up around actresses, he should have made Valeria from day one. So yeah, he needed a couple of weeks off to decompress and get his head back in the game.
He propped his bag and skis by the door of his Beachwood Canyon home, anxious to get out of the smog-filled city. The mountains were calling his name. He'd get his thrills and chills on the black diamond slopes instead of on the job. Whatever tension remained at the end of the day, he'd burn off with a ski bunny or two or three. It wasn't as if he had someone to come home to. He'd learned the hard way that his job wasn't conducive to long-term relationships. Or maybe it was just him.
As he opened the panel to activate the alarm, his cell rang. He thought about not answering until he saw who it was.
"Mr. Alexander, Linda Hanson from Shady Palms. Your grandmother has gone missing again."
And he knew exactly where she'd turn up. He should have moved. He pressed a button, angling his security camera at the street. Sure enough, a yellow cab was pulling into his driveway. "She's here, Linda. I'll have her back to the home within the hour." If he had to tie her up to get her there. He wondered what her story would be this time. Last month, she was sure the nurses were drugging her.
The woman on the other end of the line cleared her throat. "Mr. Alexander, I'm afraid that won't be possible. The previous administrator was more willing than I am to look the other way. Dame Alexander is a disruptive influence. You'll have to find another facility--"
Yeah right. Shady Palms was just one of many retirement homes his grandmother had terrorized in the past five years. And he should know, since the duty of taking care of GG fell on him. Not on his cousins or his father or his aunt and uncle--him. In a voice infused with as much charm and warmth as he could manage given his frustration, he said, "Linda, we'll discuss this when I get there. I'm sure we can come to--"
"No we won't, Mr. Alexander. Your charm and good looks are wasted on me. I'm too old to be swayed by a handsome face."
He was wondering if his badge and an imaginary infraction might do the trick when a five-foot-nothing, immaculately groomed older woman with a white Angora cat tucked under her arm scowled up at the security camera.
"Grayson, I know you're there. Let me in," Dame Estelle Alexander demanded in an upper-crust British accent, lifting her cane to knock on the door.
"Linda, I'll . . . " He blew out a noisy breath. She'd hung up. At the insistent rapping, he shoved the phone in the pocket of his black leather jacket and jerked open the door before Estelle bashed it in. "GG, you promised you weren't going to run away again."
She batted him out of the way with her cane, lifted her aristocratic nose, and sniffed. "I didn't run away. I escaped. They're trying to kill me."
He wouldn't be surprised if some of the staff at Shady Palms wanted to kill her. He'd felt the same on occasion, as he imagined, did her last four husbands. His grandmother was a drama queen and a royal pain in the ass.
"Don't keep the young man waiting, Grayson." She gave a pretentious nod at the sixty-something man standing at the door with . . .four suitcases at his feet. Grayson briefly closed his eyes before digging his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. The man gave him an I-feel-for-you-pal smile and handed him the cat's pink princess bed.
"Thanks." Grayson tucked the bed under his arm and hauled the luggage into the house. As he piled the bags by the door, he said, "GG, I'm heading out of town, so you'll have to stay--" He straightened and looked over his shoulder. She was gone. Cursing under his breath, he strode to his bedroom. "Do not put that cat on my bed." Did she listen to him? Of course not. She did exactly as she pleased and placed the long-haired animal on his black comforter. "GG, you know I'm allergic to--"
"It's all in your head." She waved a dismissive bejeweled hand, then turned to open his dresser drawers. "Where's my luggage?"
"I'll get it." He stalked from the room, closing the door behind him. Her suitcases were staying right where they were. Leaning against the wood-paneled wall, he retrieved his cell from his jacket and called his cousin India. He'd had it. Someone other than him was taking care of GG. He needed this vacation. And it was about time one of them stepped up to the plate.
His call to India went straight to voicemail--with a message indicating that she was in New York. At the beep, he said, "Indy, how many times do I have to tell you not to let everyone know you're out of town? It's not safe. Call me as soon as you get this." He paused; his cousin never returned her messages."GG's dying."
He dialed his aunt and uncle and got their voicemail with a message informing him they were on safari in Africa. Of course they were. He left them the same message as he did for their daughter. He didn't bother calling his father. He'd get no help from that end. The only time Grayson heard from the eighth Earl of Waverly was when he needed cash.
He called Indy's brother, Jamie, relieved when an actual voice came over the line. "Hey, Jamie. I need--"
"Hey, Gray, my man. I was just picking up the phone to call you. I've got a job for you."
He never should have told Jamie he was taking a few weeks off. His cousin provided security for the rich and famous. "No. I'm leaving for Bear Valley in twenty minutes, and GG's here. You have to come and get her."
"She run away from Heaven's Gate again?"
She'd been in Heaven's Gate two years earlier, but Grayson didn't waste time correcting his cousin. "Yeah, and you're up. I tried to get hold of your sister and parents, but they're out of town."
"I'd help you out, but Lacy and GG don't get along."
"Who's Lacy? Never mind, just come and get your grandmother."
"Seriously, bro, I can't leave her with Lacy. I'm heading out of town on a job. Which is why I need your help. I just got a call from the executive producer of As the Sun Sets. He's worried about the safety of their star Chloe O'Connor. They want to keep it under wraps, so I agreed to provide security and investigate the attempt on her life. He wants--"
Grayson disconnected, thumbing through his contact list as he walked to the front door. There had to be a distant cousin on here somewhere. Jamie called again. Grayson didn't answer.
Two seconds later, Jamie texted. "I'm calling my marker. You owe me."
As much as Grayson hated to admit it, he did owe him. Jamie had heard a rumor about Valeria Ramos's previous relationship with one of his former clients and passed it on to Grayson. The information had changed the focus of his investigation and saved his life. He walked to the bar in the corner of his sparsely furnished living room, grabbed a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and poured himself two fingers before calling his cousin back. "All right, I'll do it. But as soon as I wrap up the case, you're taking GG off my hands."
Once Jamie reluctantly agreed, he gave Grayson a brief rundown on the cast and crew. Grayson relaxed for the first time since GG arrived on his doorstep. He'd wrap the case up in a couple of days at most, and his grandmother would no longer be his problem. He already had his primary suspect: Chloe's sister and the beneficiary of her will, Cat O'Connor.