The sign above the glass door to the trendy singles bar scrolled out SCANTS in hot pink neon, blinked twice, and repeated.
“Bugger.” Holly yanked her clinging sweatshirt away from her body. You should never ask how much worse a thing could get because Murphy's Law went right ahead and showed you.
The door flew open, and the clamor from the bar roared out onto the sidewalk where she stood. A couple of girls brushed past her, giggling as they hurled themselves into the preening frenzy. On the other side of the window, a mass of beautiful bodies circled each other.
Holly was way, way out of her element. There was no choice, though. According to his doorman, she'd find Josh Hunter in there.
She squared her shoulders and braced for hell. Good thing she had her bloody passport with her.
Holly stepped over the threshold, and the manic melody of singles bars everywhere crashed over her; the clink, the chatter, the bass rumble of male voices juxtaposed against the higher pitches of women. The throb of amplifier and subwoofer underscored the babble and ground out an elemental jungle beat that quickened the blood.
Welcome to the mating ground of genus Homo sapiens. What a bunch of posers. Exactly where you would expect to find someone like Josh Hunter. Proof she and Joshua were an entirely different species. She'd suspected as much in high school. The evidence was now incontrovertible.
Her phone buzzed in her hand and Holly checked the screen.
Emma again. This made it the fifth call in the last hour. What a pity Emma hadn't panicked four days ago, when Portia first went missing.
She stuck one finger in her ear to hear her sister. “Yes?”
“Did you find her?”
“I just arrived in Chicago.” Did Emma expect her to fly? Six hours and twenty-four minutes, according to Google Maps, and she'd shaved it to a shade under six.
“What have you been doing?” Emma wailed loud enough to rise above the storm of noise around her.
“Driving.” Holly clenched her hand into a fist by her side.
Cool it, Holly
. They were both worried about Portia's disappearance.
Only this morning, she'd discovered Portia missing.
Emma, Portia's twin, had broken down and confessed Portia had left four whole days ago for Chicago. Not only was their younger sister gone, she'd left London, Ontario, without her medication.
The sheer stupidity of it made Holly want to growl.
“Did you find Joshua Hunter?” Emma let fly with her persistent streak. “Portia spoke about him when she called.”
“Yes, you told me already.” Holly cursed her height as she levered to her toes to see over the heads in front of her. “I'm looking for him now.”
She might not recognize Josh Hunter anymore. A lot could've changed in the years since they'd gone to high school together. Maybe he'd grown another head, to admire the one he already had.
“She didn't sound good.” Emma's voice quivered. “You have to find her, Holly.”
“I know I do,” Holly almost snarled. Four days and Emma hadn't said a word. Holly could barely get her head around it.
A phone call from Portia, flying perilously high and prattling about seeing Josh Hunter, had sent Emma scurrying for Holly and help.
“I have to go.” She hung up on Emma, still talking.
The name of her high-school nemesis had knocked Holly off balance for a moment. It was not a name she'd wanted to hear again. She shook it off. It couldn't be helped. The most important thing was finding Portia, and she'd make a deal with the devil if she must.
In his school days, Josh had lived in Willow Park, and that seemed the most logical place for Holly to start. The Hunter house had been down the street from Holly's, and she'd guessed it was where Portia had run into him.
She'd been hanging on to the secret hope of Portia standing on the sidewalk, gazing wistfully at the old family home. If you could call a house you'd only lived in for two years an old family home.
Holly dodged a weaving waitress and stopped.
The two women in front of her spotted each other and squealed like a pair of happy piglets.
Holly waited for the cheek kissing ritual to end.
Cheek kissing gave way to feverish chatter, and Holly finally pushed past. She was on a mission.
Why had Portia gone searching for Josh Hunter? Holly wobbled on her tiptoes and craned her neck past the mass of bobbing heads. It was one of the questions she'd ask her sister when she caught up with her. And catch up with Portia she would.
The house in Willow Park had changed. Dramatically. Holly had been standing outside earlier, wondering where to go next, when the door to the house opened and luck stepped outâtrailing spangles and a cloud of perfume. God knows why, but the woman had been thrilled to see her. Holly didn't recall her at all. Fortunately, she had remembered Holly and her sisters clearly.
The woman went on to say yes, she had seen Holly's sister. Portia had been by a couple of days ago, looking for Josh. She confirmed Emma's report that Josh and Portia had found each other and were briefly spotted together. And better yet, had been able to tell her the name of the upscale condo on the Gold Coast where Josh now lived.
Here the bedazzled woman had treated Holly to an abbreviated version of Josh's infamy. Most of it went over her head, but the gist was women and more women, and when was he going to settle down?
Holly ran for cover between the woman's pause and an invocation to God for Josh to stop breaking his mother's heart and get married already.
So, same old Josh Hunter.
Holly had located the condo building easily enough, and a bit of creative truth-bending with the doorman had her standing on the sidewalk outside Scants, exactly the sort of place she would rather chew her arm off than enter.
The crowd in front of her parted and, oh, sweet Mother of God, there he was.
She would have known him anywhere. Like she would know if someone had shoved their fist in her gut.
He'd barely changed since high school except to get even hotter and more chiseled and moreâwhatever.
Holly huffed in irritation. Low blood sugar made her cranky. She'd been driving all day, having a shit fit about Portia the entire way and steeling herself for coming into contact with Joshua Hunter. So she'd forgotten to eat, and the peanuts on the bar were calling her name. That's all it was.
She sidled past a blonde cackling over the top of her designer blue martini.
Holly dragged her eyes away from the peanuts and eased closer to Joshua. There was no need to tell him the whole story. She'd tell him only what was strictly necessary and nothing more. Right now, she was leaning toward
“I see you're still a prick. Where's my sister?”
This might be the blood sugar talking, and probably not the most constructive of beginnings.
Holly managed to wedge herself between two thirtysomething suits who paid no attention to the short woman in the tatty sweatshirt with the whack-job hair but carried on posturing at each other, simultaneously scanning smartphones that jittered and hummed away at them.
From here she had an even better view of him.
He stood with one hand propped against the bar, speaking to another man who had his back to her. The dim lighting in the bar played peekaboo with the finely chiseled lines of Josh's face. His eyes were shadowed, but they were blue. Blue as the inside of an iris, blue as a pansy, blue enough to break a girl's heart and make her want to come back for more.
“Excuse me.” One of the suits deigned to look down from his lofty height and notice her jammed between him and his companion. He smoothly sidestepped her, and Holly shifted closer to Josh and the mouth you wanted to suck on.
He wrapped his lips around the neck of his beer bottle. If his face was any less hewn, his mouth would make him look girly. As it was, its full, sensuous sweep made an irresistible counterpoint to the aquiline strength of the rest of his features.
This was so screwed up. Why couldn't Portia have chosen someone else to cling wrap herself around?
Josh laughed at something his companion said. His smile was a broad slash of white teeth across his tanned face; a heart-stopping affair of crinkling eyes and deep, sexy brackets on either side of his mouth. God, she didn't want to have to make nice with him.
He looked up and Holly was trapped. His glance narrowed in on her like a Scud missile.
There was music and the earth moved.
Maybe it wasn't her blood sugar after all.
“I think that's you.” One of the suits glanced pointedly at her phone.
Holly's face heated as she jerked her eyes away. She fumbled before hitting the Talk button.
Josh winced around a mouthful of lukewarm beer. Time to go. He'd been nursing this beer for the last hour and his new book on Sir Isaac Newton was calling him. Age or boredomâwho the hell knew?
He'd only come here for a quiet beer to unwind from his day. Granted, this particular bar was a shitty choice, but it was close to his condo, the beer was cold, and the bartender friendly.
A woman pushed through two slick broker types and fumbled a cell phone out of a pair of baggy GAP jeans. Her burgundy University of Western Ontario sweatshirt sneered like a rescue pound mongrel at the expensive Armanis flanking it.
Her brow puckered into a vicious frown.
She could be lost, or in disguise, but she did have the whole I-have-no-idea-exactly-how-hot-I-am thing going for her. A light lurking under a bushel, a diamond in the rough, a girl with an air of
do me, bad boy
she seemed oblivious to.
Not so clueless was every red-blooded male in her vicinity. More than one covert eye went her way.
Dark eyes, gleaming with intelligence and ringed by thick lashes, met his gaze.
A promising startâif he was looking for a pickup, which he wasn'tâbut still . . . There was something familiar about this girl.
Diminutive and with her face devoid of makeup, she could have passed for fourteen. The air of determination marked her as older, however. Closer to his age, which meant old enough to drink, old enough to drive, and old enough for all sorts of interesting games.
Ten years ago, five even, he'd have cruised right over and worked his smolder. He knew better now.
The woman ducked her head and took a call. A mane of long, wavy hair obscured her face.
The sort of hair a man liked to curl his fingers in.
Her gaze flickered up and over him. Angry eyes under a pair of lowered brows, giving him the eye so evil he almost looked over his shoulder for the true beneficiary.
Women, as a rule, didn't look at him that way. Women dressed like bag ladies with . . . pencils? No kidding. It was definitely a couple of standard number two pencils holding her hair tightly against her head. Women like her almost never gave him the hairy eyeball.
His feelings might be a bit bruised.
Nope. Feelings intact but ego definitely grazed. She kept her hostile glare going. Those eyes could smoke a hole right through him.
Maybe she was gay. Josh winced behind his beer, glad he wasn't voicing any of this out loud. He would sound like an egotistical prick. Okay, women didn't often turn him down, but it happened. Sometimes.
Her glance shifted away. She was aware of him and doing her best not to show it.
He knew her. It hit him out of the blue and he stopped to think. She had the sort of face it was hard to forget. Not pretty, exactly, more compelling, and a blank canvas for every thought running through her head.
And right now she was not aiming happy thoughts in his direction.
She hunched over her phone to hear better.
The love 'em and leave 'em style of his early twenties hadn't left many warm and fuzzy feelings behind him. Still, he came up blank. He was reasonably sure she wasn't one of the bodies littering his youth, but this lady did
“Hey, Jo-osh?” His name was singsonged at him.
And speaking of his youth, right on cue. The timing nearly made him bust out laughing.
His mystery lady stuck her cute nose in the air. The amber glow from the lighted bar counter turned her skin to buttercream and picked out the tiniest golden freckles across her upturned nose.
The disdain rolled across the distance between them in waves.
“Hey, Josh, like, hello.” A pair of breasts intruded into his line of sight, right beneath his nose. He faced the owner of the pair.
There were three of them and all looking at him expectantly.
Ah, shit, here we go.
Over the newcomers' shoulders the mystery lady shook her head in disgust. Her eyes raked over him and the posse in front of him and rolled.
Now, that was not entirely fair. He might even be getting a little pissed at her and her attitude. Girls like the trio facing him were knee deep in trendy Chicago bars, which this one happened to be. They were voracious hunters and he'd only been standing here minding his own business. She needn't act like he'd encouraged them.
In the meanwhile, Bambi, Barbie, and Bubblesâor whateverâposed and primped in front of him. Their cheeks pink with a combination of alcohol and excitement.
His heart sank. He could almost script what was coming. It was his own damn fault, ultimately, but there had to come a point when the ghosts of the past went toward the fucking light or something.
“So, like, we were wondering . . .” Bambi/Barbie/ Bubbles pursed her frosted mouth at him and stuck out her breasts.
As if he could have missed them the first time around.
Two and three were providing the flanking action, mirroring her movements and throwing in some freestyle hair tossing.
“Hi, girls.” His skin prickled. Was he really going to have to do this now? Mystery lady with the judgmental eyes was going to get her money's worth tonight.
“What you sow, you'll reap,
His mother's voice clattered around his brain.
He snuck another look at mystery lady and was rewarded with a glare as she spoke into her phone.
Shit. She had a nice mouth, though, full and soft and making his head go interesting places.
off at times. He dragged his player thought train to a halt.
“So, like, we were wondering if you could help us out with something.” The trio dissolved into the sort of giggles that told Josh they wouldn't be asking for directions to the library. “We, like, heard you were, like, the most amazing kisser.” More pouting, preening, and hair tossing.
Oh, sweet Jesus, not this.
“And then we started talking, and we were, like, all âI am the best kisser.' No, I am. Whatever! As if! And no, I am. And then we, like, thought it would be cool if you could tell us which one of us you thought was, like, the best kisser.”
“Gee, girls.” He writhed inside but kept it cool on the outside. They hunted in packs, the interchangeable blondes; they could sense fear and were quick to pounce. “You make me feel so cheap.”
“Oh, no.” They caroled in three-part harmony. “All you would need to do is, like, kiss us.”
“At the same time?”
“As if.” The girls rolled their collective eyes. “And OMG, that would be, like, so cool, but, no.” Bambi/ Barbie/Bubbles's mouths drooped. “It would have to be one at a time.”
Mystery lady pretended to concentrate on her phone call, but her pissed-off gaze was locked on him, good and solid. She was hearing the entire vapid conversation, and her lips curled back like she'd licked a lemon. She bared her teeth at him in undisguised contempt.
“Good evening, am I speaking with Miss Holly Partridge?” The voice in her ear was polite, distant, with none of the ooze of a telemarketing call.
She couldn't drag her eyes away from Josh Hunter. “This is Holly.”
Typical. It made her want to vomit. She needed to cool it here or she would blow her chances of getting any information out of the man. One minute he gave her the most terrific, nerve-tingling eye and now this.
Stay calm. He's a pig, but you need him.
“Good evening, Miss Partridge, this is Sanjay from Visa Card Protection.”
Holly almost dropped the phone as an impossibly stacked blonde in a minuscule orange dress draped her arms over Josh's shoulders and sidled closer.
Josh shook his head and laughed.
It was nothing more than token resistance. Women still plastered themselves over him. Calm flew right out the window. “Unbelievable.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Um . . . sorry.” Holly dragged her eyes away from the pair. “Who is this?”
There was a momentary polite pause, as if the person on the other side of the phone took a deep breath. “My name is Sanjay and I am calling you from Card Protection at Visa.”
“Oh?” Relief flooded through her. “Did you find my Visa card?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My Visa, did it turn up somewhere?”
Josh caught her looking.
. A smug smile followed.
She sniffed and arched an eyebrow at him. He was pathetically predictable. Oh, God, let Portia not haveâ
Holly dragged her thoughts away from the dark hole. Portia couldn't have been that stupid. Onlyâand Holly threw him another glare on behalf of women everywhereâthere was no telling what Portia would do. Look at him, like a pasha surrounded by his harem. Gross.
“Miss Partridge? Miss Partridge?” Sanjay sounded a mite less professional. “Are you still there? Are you saying you are unable to locate your Visa card?”
“You have got to be kidding me.” Holly nearly exploded as orange micromini made way for turquoise hot pants with a silver bustier.
“I am not joking with you, Miss Partridge.” Sanjay soldiered on.
Hot pants wriggled her breasts into Josh's chest, pushed her unmuffin-topped hips up against him, and writhed like a professional lap dancer.
Men like Josh Hunter deserved to be castrated. Preying on young, defenseless women. He was catnip for impressionable girls and he loved it. She was thinking about Portia and not hot pants, because by no stretch of the imagination did hot pants look naÃ¯ve.
“I can assure you, Miss Partridge, this is a matter we at Visa take very seriously,” Sanjay said. “You must report a lost or stolen card immediately. We at Visa are committed to the growing epidemic of identity theft. Has your Visa been lost or stolen?”
“No.” What the hell was Sanjay blathering about?
The bump-and-grind floor show went on.
“Has your card been lost or stolen?”
“Neither.” Holly took a careful breath. She needed to forget the show and concentrate on her telephone conversation. “Give me a minute.”
Her Visa card; the phone call was about her Visa card. Her mind limped into gear. The Visa card she hardly ever used. The one she kept tucked away for emergencies only, the one that was, suddenly and mysteriously, missing. Holly had turned the house upside down trying to find it before she left London. It had been in none of the usual places. A call to Emma had confirmed that Portia had taken it with her. As far as Holly could ascertain, it was Portia's only source of funds for this trip to Chicago.
“I'm not sure,” she said, taking more of an interest in the man on the other line. “Why are you calling me again?”
The pause Sanjay took was so deliberately calm Holly winced. There was no reason to look over and see what was happening. No reason at all. She was here for Portia.
Don't even think about him. There.
She was calm and composed and in control of the situation. The card could be a link to Portia.
“I am calling to tell you,” Sanjay manfully battled on, “there has been some irregular activity on your account. This is a standard security call, but now you are telling me the card hasn't been lost or stolen. If the card has been lost or stolen the matter is entirely different.”
“How?” Holly didn't like where this was heading.
“If the card is missing or stolen, we would immediately put a hold on it.”
“Hmm.” Not good. She couldn't rely on Portia thinking clearly before she bolted. Portia could be alone in Chicago with only the card for money. Not good at all. “What sort of activity?”
“Miss Partridge, I must insist on knowing if the card is in your possession.”
“And I need to know what type of activity we are talking about.” Holly went with the best sort of defense. “This call is recorded, correct?”
“Yes, Miss Partridge.” Sanjay audibly gritted his teeth. “This call is being recorded for quality control and training purposes. Where are you currently, Miss Partridge?”
“What? Oh, in a bar.” Safe enough and totally the truth.
“Are you currently still in Canada?” Sanjay's tone said he was not going to be fobbed off with half answers and evasions.
“No.” She couldn't lie outright because they had computers to track that sort of thing. You saw it on TV all the time.
“May I ask where the bar is situated?” Sanjay's voice vibrated with the determination of a man in pursuit of the truth.
“Chicago.” It should be safe enough. Portia was definitely in Chicago. Somewhere. God knows where. Josh Hunter might well know where.
Holly turned to face him again. “Son of a bitch.”
Josh had a pair of painted-on skinny jeans wrapped around him. One of her legs was firmly wrapped around his hip as her perfect, probably cellulite-free hips thrust at his crotch.
Sanjay was deadly silent on the other side.
“Not you,” she said into the phone. “Someone else.”
They didn't cover these sorts of contingencies in the training program and Sanjay defaulted to standard operating procedure. “Miss Partridge, this is most irregular. I am going to have to put a hold on your card.”
“No.” He couldn't do that; it would be a disaster. “You can't put a hold on the card.”
“I most assuredly can, Miss Partridge. Under suspicious circumstances, I am duty bound to place a hold on your account. You should consult your nearest branch at your earliest convenience.”