“Don't do it.” The idea of Portia alone and without funds in Chicago made her want to throw up. Around her, people were giving her the beware-the-crazy-lady eye slide. “Please, don't do that. If you put a hold on the card, she won't have any money.”
“She?” Sanjay pounced, his voice swelling with imminent triumph. “Am I to infer the Visa card is not, in fact, in your possession?”
Holly groaned. How stupid could she get?
Sanjay was, clearly, a man who could see the winner's tape stretched out before him. He put on a burst of speed and cut off any response Holly would have made. “Your agreement strictly prohibits the use of your Visa card without your express knowledge or consent.”
“I didn't say
. You heard me wrong.” Holly's heart sank. She'd blown it.
Sanjay's voice surged as he gave her the legalese at the bottom of the agreement nobody ever bothered to read. She could almost hear him stepping up to the winner's podium, another victory in the fight against fraud, the sounds of “O Canada” playing gloriously in his ears. “I would suggest you consult your nearest branch in the morning. Thank you for your time, Miss Partridge.”
“Don't you hang up on me!” Holly flew way past caring what the people around her thought. “Sanjay? Are you there? Sanjay?”
The thirtysomething suits took a step away as her voice rose.
are the son of the bitch. I meant
. Did you hear me? Sanjay? Sanjay? Is anyone listening to this recording?”
Josh broke the vacuum seal Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles had around his neck.
Holy Holly Partridge.
What were the odds of meeting up with her again? Excellent, apparently.
He shouldn't have given in to the impulse to piss her off and encouraged the trio. Her glare had done it. It brought out the worst in him. Just like it always had.
Damn, a thirty-year-old man reduced to a Pavlov's dogâtype reaction under the disapproving glare of Holy Holly Partridge. He shook his head at himself.
Her accent had clued him in on her identity. The sexiest tangling of vowels he'd ever heard, and he'd first heard it when he was sixteen. Not quite British, not quite Canadian, a touch Venezuelan, and a whole lot raspy. It still stroked up his spine like a cat's tongue. It did more for him than the combined attempts of the tightly toned trio.
Holly Partridge, the girl who'd almost toppled him from his throne as king of the tenth grade. Live and in the flesh after all these years . . . and not having much luck. Not if the way she was yelling into her phone was any indication.
She jabbed her fingers murderously at her phone as if she could somehow reach the person on the other end and impale them.
Holy Holly Partridge had only ever looked at him as if she wanted to scrape him off her shoe. Man, it had stung.
There he'd been, undisputed teenage stud of not only Willow Park but all the North Side, and he'd even made inroads into downtown Chicago. An arrogant young prick with a matching 'tude.
Holy Holly Partridge hadn't given a shit. She hadn't been impressed and she'd let him know it any way she could. Like she was doing right now.
Flinty deep eyes and a toss of her honey-brown mane. She'd curl up her wide, wide mouth as if she'd been kissing a nettle. Man, she'd bruised his overinflated ego.
Josh laughed to himself. She was still cutting him down to size. It was the weirdest thing. He hadn't thought about Holly in years and now she popped up all over the place. Only the other day her little sister had managed to track him down. Now, here she was in person. What were the odds?
Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles waited and writhed like enthusiastic puppies.
“I tell you, girls. I'm going to have to pass.”
“I've got somewhere I need to be.” Josh indicated Holly, working away at a bowl of peanuts like her life depended on it. A frown puckered the skin between her eyes.
“Holly Partridge.” His breath stirred the wisps of hair around her nape. A warm ripple slithered down her spine and she shivered. Her heart yammered loudly in her ears and drowned out Taio Cruz.
Play it cool.
“That's Holy Holly Partridge to you.” Holly plastered on a smile and turned. She wasn't sixteen and hiding the world's largest, most hopeless crush anymore. She could handle him. She snapped her fingers mentally and made eye contact.
“Ah, you remember.”
“Kind of hard to forget.” The years rolled away and they stared each other down, both of them stuffed to the gills with teenage hormones and adolescent angst.
Around them the activity in the bar thumped.
“You look well.” An understatement, but she wasn't going near the truth. She drew in the citrusy waft of expensive cologne. He smelled all kinds of wonderful.
Over his shoulder, his former playmates clustered together and watched with matching expressions of disbelief.
It was a jarring reminder of who she was dealing with, and Holly grabbed onto it. The jelly in the pit of her stomach hardened and she got right back on track. “I seem to have interrupted something.”
“Not at all.” A charmingly boyish grin crept over his face. “About what you saw before, I think I should explain.”
The smile set up a visceral tug somewhere deep inside her. She stamped it out. “Don't.” It came out as a bit of a snarl and Holly regrouped. “So, Josh, how are you doing?” She cringed; way too loud.
His eyes widened with a wicked glint. “I'm well.” The corners of his beautiful mouth turned up. His eyes drifted over her. “And how are you doing, Holly?”
Holly squirmed inside, acutely aware of her GAP jeans versus whatever he wore. Holly didn't even have the name to go with his clothes, but she got expensive. Grace, her other sister, would identify the outfit in a second.
Get a grip
. She needed to stay on topic and not get flustered. “I'm good,” she said. “You?”
“Good.” His eyes danced with unholy glee.
They'd already covered that and she wanted to crawl under the bar.
Holly did a mental ten count.
“So, what brings you to Chicago?” His smooth rescue only made her want to scream louder. He was probably doing it on purpose, loving every moment of her awkwardness.
“You, actually.” It came out in a rush.
Up went one of his eyebrows. “Me? Should I be flattered?”
“Probably not.” Somehow she forced her smile to stay put.
He leaned closer. “Now, that's a real shame.”
Was he flirting with her? He couldn't be flirting with her. His eyes held her captive. Breathing got difficult.
He looked incredible, like every girl's deepest, dirtiest fantasy. She'd die before she let him know.
The bartender delivered a glass of red wine.
Holly glanced at the glass and up at the bartender.
He grinned and motioned to Josh. “Compliments of the gentleman.”
“You bought me a drink?” The full glass of red gleamed and winked at her, but she might choke on it first. Or accidentally slip and toss it over his dark, silky head.
“You looked like you needed it.” He motioned toward her phone.
“Oh, that.” She shoved her phone into the back pocket of her jeans. “Nothing I can't handle.”
He smiled at her. The slow creep of warm eyes, white teeth, and laugh lines was like a baseball bat to the back of the knees.
Smile with me
, it coaxed her.
Let your guard down and let me in.
“So, what can I do for you, Holly?” He made it sound like a proposition.
As if she would ever be dumb enough to go there.
“You said I was the reason you were in Chicago?”
“Um . . . yes.” Holly clenched her teeth. She needed to focus here. “I believe you recently saw my sister?”
“Yes.” He stopped and seemed to consider something for a moment. “It is still Holly Partridge, isn't it?”
“What?” It took her a moment to catch on. “Yes, it's still Holly Partridge.” Of all the antiquated, chauvinistic, sexist assumptions . . . “And even if it wasn'tâ”
“Relax, Holly, I'm just messing with you.” His chuckle snaked out and stroked the nape of her neck.
Her face heated. “It doesn't matter.”
You need this man. Stand down
. “I believe my sister was last seen in your company?”
It blasted out like an accusation.
Up went his eyebrow and he straightened, out of her space. “You make it sound like a bad thing.” An iron undertone laced his voice.
Holly dialed back on the antagonism. There was no need for details, especially not with him. “I need to find Portia. I came to Chicago to find her and it's important I do so as soon as possible.”
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully, as if he was processing what he heard. “I ran into her a few days ago.”
Hope flared. “You saw Portia a few days ago? How many days?”
Her sister could cover an awful lot of ground and get into a whole load of trouble in a few days.
“Two or three.”
“I ran into her in Willow Park.” He took a sip of his beer. Imported, of course. “To tell you the truth, I didn't recognize her immediately. I remember you, Holly, but your sisters . . .”
He shrugged. “I went to see my mother and I saw Portia standing outside Brooke and Christopher's house. Didn't that used to be your house?”
“Yes.” Brooke! That was the woman's name. A vague memory of a plump blonde in English class flickered. She needed to stay on track. “And you saw her again? After the time outside the house, you saw her again, didn't you?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “What's going on, Holly?”
Holly bit back a groan of impatience. Why couldn't he just answer the bloody question?
His eyes bored into her, as if he could uncover every secret she had.
Holly rubbed her arms to dispel the prickling sensation clambering over her skin. “I don't really . . .” She clamped her teeth together before she said too much. “It's important. So, could you tell me what you know?”
He stared at her.
“Wow.” He chuckled and stared down his perfect nose at her. “That nearly broke your jaw coming out.”
Holly resisted the urge to fidget. That pretty face hid a formidable brain and she needed to bear that in mind.
“You still don't think much of me. Do you, Holly? And after all this time?”
“I . . .” The right words wouldn't come. It sounded petty and ridiculous when he said it.
“This is crazy,” he said. “We haven't seen each other for years and we're both behaving like teenagers.” He took a deep breath. “Let's backtrack.”
He gave her one of his knee-wobbler smiles. “You came to Chicago looking for Portia?”
“That's right.” She nodded, grateful for the reprieve. If he could be a grown-up, it was beneath her dignity to keep behaving like a child. “Portia called home two nights ago and was talking about you.”
His eyes grew a shade wary. “What exactly did she say about me?”
“I don't know, exactly,” Holly said. “She spoke to my other sister, Emma.”
His face got guarded. The charming smile vanished, as did the twinkle in his eyes.
“All I know is she spoke of you, and that you were together.”
“We are not together,” he said. “Not in that way.”
“I neverâI need to find her.” Holly didn't want to go there. “It's important, and if you could tell me where she is, I would greatly appreciate it.”
He absorbed this, his keen gaze calculating, as if sensing there was a lot she wasn't telling him. “I can't.”
“Why not?” Frustration welled to the surface, and Holly blinked to keep his face in focus.
“Because I don't know.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I'm sure.” His voice became grim. “Just what did Portia say?”
“I told you.” Holly's control slipped. “I didn't speak to her, but judging by what Emma said, it sounded like there was . . . more.”
“Ah, gee, I don't know.” Was he kidding her? Holly's temper cracked. “You tell me, Joshua. You were the one draped in women not five minutes ago. So, you tell me what more there is.”
“There's my Holly,” he said.
“What happened with my sister?” Holly rose on her tiptoes and stuck her chin out in his direction. She meant business.
So did he. His eyebrows shot down like a pair of gathering storm clouds and his eyes went colder than ice. “Nothing happened with your sister. And about what you saw earlierâ”
“It doesn't matter.” Disappointment rose, bitter and sharp at the back of her tongue. Now what the hell was she supposed to do? She'd been banking on finding Josh Hunter and having him lead her to Portia. Where the hell was Portia now? She wanted to scream and her voice grated out through her teeth. “Is there anything more you can tell me?” It still came out harshly. “About Portia.”
“I took her to lunch because it was the right time of day and I remembered her, vaguely. She wanted to make it more. I didn't. End of story.”
“Really?” She couldn't keep the skepticism out of her voice.
“Yes, really.” His jaw tightened. “What did you expect?”
“From you? Nothing.” Her voice shook. She'd wasted all this time on a dead end. “I should have known when I saw you earlier.”
“You haven't changed a bit.” Her mouth ran on like it was on rails. “You're the same as you were in high school.”
“And how was I in high school?”
“A conceited jerk. You used women like they didn't matter. I despised you.”
“Despised?” He jerked back. “That's kind of strong, isn't it?”
“Thanks for the drink.” She grabbed the glass and tossed it back. “See you around.”