Read Nobody's Fool Online

Authors: Sarah Hegger

Nobody's Fool (9 page)

BOOK: Nobody's Fool
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Another short explanation was needed, with Grace yukking it up all the way. Grace sobered abruptly. “Portia went looking for him? What the hell?”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Across the table, Josh finished his call and hung up.
“Is he still hot?”
“Uh-huh.” Holly raised her voice. “And he's sitting here. Right now. Right across the table.”
Josh sat back, a small smile playing around his mouth.
“Can he hear me?”
“Yes, he can,” Josh said.
“You have got to be shitting me.” Grace gave another short bark of laughter. “You hated that guy. Didn't he do that thing to you at some sort of dance?”
Josh's eyebrow shot up in query. He was getting every word of this.
Heat crawled up Holly's face. “Anyway, it's water under the bridge.”
“Really?” Grace snorted. “Because as I remember it, you cried—”
“Yes. Well.”
Ground, open, right now!
Josh leaned forward, making no attempt to disguise his interest in her call.
Holly shot Josh a weak smile. “He's been great.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
Holly squirmed a bit. “I'd have been up to my neck in it without him. He found me after my car was stolen and has been helping me ever since.”
“Do you need me to do anything?” Grace was all business again.
“No, that's fine, I spoke to Emma.” Grace made a rude noise. “If she doesn't come through in a day or two, I'll call back.”
“Call me if you need anything else and keep me posted.”
“I will. How's Greg?” Holly asked out of obligation.
Grace paused. “Greg's good.”
“Is everything okay with you guys?”
“Of course it is.” Grace made an impatient sound. “Greg is fine, I'm fine. We're fine.”
“That's great.” Holly backed off. “I'll call you in a couple of days and tell you what's happening.”
“Okay.” Grace sounded unenthusiastic. “Holly?”
“I love you,” Grace blurted out. “I wanted you to know.”
Holly's throat tightened. Grace loved her; they were sisters, but she didn't say it much. The unexpected expression of love caught her off guard.
“I wanted you to know,” Grace said. “And I know it can't be easy taking care of Emma and Portia.”
“We get along.” Her heart swelled into her throat and she suddenly wanted to cry. Except she never cried. Never.
“Those two get along because of you, Holly,” Grace said. “I know you put your own life on hold for them.” Grace gave a dry, humorless laugh. “For all of us, actually. You've been there for all of us and I love you for it.”
“I love you, too, Gracie.” Holly disconnected the call and focused on the table's wood grain. Tears threatened beneath her eyelids and she blinked them away. No crying.
“Everything all right?” Josh's voice, soft with concern.
Nope, everything was definitely not all right. Grace had opened up a tender place. “I'm fine. Let's order.”
“What dance?”
“It doesn't matter.” She wasn't going to get into that, now or ever. “It's over and done with. Let's concentrate on Portia.”
His eyes narrowed.
Drop it, just please, please drop it.
“Let me tell you what I've been doing. This is what I've found out.” Leaning his elbows on the table, he moved into her space.
Holly moved back. It was hard to concentrate when he was within touching distance. She got all hot and flushed and stupid.
“Portia spent last night in a hotel in Bucktown. She tried to use the same credit card this morning, but it was refused. The credit card was in your name?”
“That's right.” Okay, so now Portia was officially out of funds, unless she had cash with her. Not okay at all. “My phone call, in the bar yesterday, it was about that.”
“Ah.” He tilted his head as if he wanted to ask more.
“Is that it?” Holly prompted.
“No. It seems she had enough cash on her to pay for the room when she left the hotel a few hours ago.”
At least Portia had been safe up until this morning. “So where is she now?”
“That I don't know.” He made a wry face. “Yet. She's disappeared again, but at least we know we're closing in on her.”
“How did you get this information?” Holly had to ask as he ordered more coffee for them.
“I know some people.” He shrugged. “Money leaves a trail, and I know lots of money geeks.”
“You know everyone.” Holly rolled her eyes at him. “Most of them women.”
“But not all.” His jaw tightened.
Holly grunted.
Right on cue, he produced his stay-back smile and waved across the restaurant.
Holly gave him a flat stare and he laughed. “People like me. I told you before, I'm nice.” He tapped one finger against the tip of her nose. “Even if I was an ass in high school.”
Holly's cheeks heated. “So what do you suggest this morning? To find Portia.”
“I can make a few more calls, but I need you to level with me.” He let her get away with the dodge, but the questions built behind his eyes.
“I don't want to talk about high school,” Holly said.
“About Portia.” He threw her a minatory look. “I need you to level with me about Portia, first. And then we can get to high school.”
“What do you mean?” She could hear the prevarication in her voice, and so could he. Up went one eyebrow as he called her on her evasion.
Holly lifted the menu. She swore those eyes of his could ferret right into the back of her brain.
He reached over with his index finger and lowered the menu until he could stare at her eyeball to eyeball. “There's something going on and you're not telling me.”
Holly opened her mouth to deny it, but he shook his head slowly from side to side, and she snapped her mouth shut.
“Come on, Holly. There is so much here you're not saying. I don't need to hear your life story, but I'm trying to help you and I need some answers.”
Holly wrestled with herself. He made it sound so reasonable.
He sat there and waited.
Holly wanted to tell him—she sensed she could trust him with Portia at least—but the words wouldn't come.
“Let's start with this.” He gave a long-suffering sigh. “Why doesn't she have her own money or credit cards? Why is she using yours?”
That was an easy one and Holly answered promptly. “She can't be trusted with money because she's been known to give it away or go on these huge spending sprees.” Holly tapped the table for emphasis. “And now she doesn't have any money. We have to find her fast.”
“We will.” He made it sound like a sure thing. “And you weren't bothered she had your credit card?”
“The limit on the card is fairly low.” Holly pulled a face at her own stupidity. It had honestly not occurred to her until he said it. “And it seemed the least of my concerns.”
“Okay.” He nodded. “Now tell me the rest.”
“Holly.” He trapped her hand beneath his. “You're such a hard-ass, you know that?”
“It's not that.” Holly shifted in her seat, tugging her hand away from the safe warmth of his. “It's a trust thing.”
“As in, you don't have any?”
“Maybe.” Holly screwed her face up. Talking about this was like a mosquito bite you couldn't reach. “And also, you and I, bad history, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” He pulled the corners of his mouth down. “Let's put that aside for the moment and concentrate on finding your sister.”
“Okay.” Holly tapped the top of his hand as it lay on the table. “I'm not sure why you're helping me.”
His jerked a tiny bit. “Does it matter? Isn't it more important that we find Portia?”
When he put it like that, she had no argument.
“You can yell at me later, when we've found Portia.” He trapped her fingertips between his. Warm shocks of energy sizzled up her fingers and along her palms. “But I can be a whole lot more effective if you trust me with the truth.”
“I don't really do the trust thing.” Damn, this was harder than she could have imagined.
“I'm getting that.” His grin was a pure, bad boy flash of white teeth.
Heat crept over her skin and her heart gave a jump.
“Emma and Portia live with you, right?” He frowned in thought.
Holly cursed herself as her bristles snapped to attention. “What do you mean, why?”
“Oh, come on, Holly.” He raised an eyebrow again. “Three grown women living together? It's like something out of another era.”
“We like it that way.” Holly hated the defensiveness in her voice. “And we live together because we can't afford any other way. It's not everyone who comes up with some software brainstorm—”
“Whoa.” He grabbed both her waving hands and pinned them to the table. “I'm not judging. Honest to God.”
Like hell he wasn't.
“It's unusual and there's got to be a good reason for it. And I suspect it's the same reason for all of this and I'm asking you to tell me. So, Holly, enough with the sidetracks; let's hear it.”
Across the table she locked eyes with him.
Don't do it.
The teenage girl was out and on the rampage again.
He can't be trusted. He's mean and he hurt you.
Josh waited her out.
You can trust him
, her intuition whispered. He'd been straight up with her since she'd talked to him at Scants
She was the one keeping secrets that could end up hurting her and her sister.
“Portia isn't well.”
Just tell him
, yelled her instinct. A lifetime of secrets rose up in defense. “I live with them because she needs taking care of and she can't work a regular job.”
He sat forward, his eyes keen and alert. “Are we talking about some kind of mental illness?”
Holly nodded, not wanting to speak the words. Her heart raced and she took deep breaths to steady it. She was overreacting. It wasn't such a big deal, but she didn't talk about stuff like this. Not even Steven knew the full story. Even after all these years, the habit of keeping it hidden and secret was almost too powerful for her.
Her father had ingrained it in them. The Partridge family didn't talk about what went on in their house. They didn't tell their secrets to anyone. And they didn't stay anywhere long enough for anyone to guess the truth.
“Okay.” His face grew thoughtful. “But you're going to have to give me more. Is she dangerous?”
“To herself,” Holly admitted. “Portia is bipolar.”
“Ah!” He nodded. “That sucks.”
It was such an understatement it drew a reluctant smile out of her. “Yes,” she said. “It really, really does, and now she's here in Chicago and I'm not sure what she's doing for money and I need to find her before she crashes.”
He sat patiently, waiting for her to finish her explanation.
“Portia is having an episode.” The words came easier. “Her moods will cycle wildly. When she's up, she's flying higher than anyone, and when she's down . . .” She didn't want to finish her sentence.
“Why Chicago?”
Holly shrugged and tried to keep it light. “You might not remember this, but Melissa, my mother, died in Willow Park. We think Portia is fixating on Melissa and her death.”
“I remember,” he said and his face softened
“Portia is still in the early stages of the disease, but it's progressive and it's a vicious process of cycling through ever worsening highs and lows.” Holly hurried on before he interrupted with more questions she didn't want to answer. “Strange environments stress her, and she needs to avoid those sorts of stresses. We may have lived here as kids, but that was a long time ago.”
He absorbed the information in silence. “Why me? Why did she come to find me?”
“I don't know.” With relief, she led him away from the rocky waters of Melissa. “Perhaps because she heard Grace and me talking about you all those years ago. You were quite the topic of conversation in our house.”
“Because you despised me?”
Holly nodded. “Because of that.”
“Okay,” he said. “So let's find your sister before she gets into trouble.”
“Yes.” The weight lifted off her shoulders. He wasn't going to ask about Melissa.
“I've got an idea.” He reached for his phone. “Are you hungry?”
The ghost of a smile chased across her mouth. “I could manage something,”
He scrolled through his contact list. “Okay, order yourself a feeding frenzy and I'll make a call.”
Chapter Ten
“Who?” Dr. Richard Hunter gaped at his receptionist, nurse, and general thorn in his side.
Carmen gazed back at him with her pale eyes; cold and calculating like something on a fishmonger's block, they glittered behind the lenses of her round glasses.
“Joshua is on the phone.” She enunciated, carefully and loudly.
His waiting patients swiveled their glances in his direction and stuck as they sensed blood in the water.
“Your brother,” Carmen said. “The one who lives downtown?”
“Josh?” His face heated, but he still couldn't quite believe Josh was on the phone.
As per usual, her expression remained exactly the same. “You have another one who lives in Chicago?”
Richard had grown a thick skin working with Carmen all these years. She was about as pleasant as a barracuda, but she was plugged into the medical network of Chicago and could, and occasionally did, get things done for him.
Richard could count on one hand the number of times his brother had called him, and it was normally on the cell. Richard reached to pick up the phone.
“This is the reception phone.” Carmen put one plump hand over the phone. “Use the one in your office.”
Richard opened his mouth to argue with her, but their audience watched each word as if it were their personal soap opera. He stalked down the hall to his office, the tattered remnants of his dignity creeping along behind him.
“Josh?” He put the phone to his ear. “Is everything all right?”
“I need your help.”
Richard gave a surprised bark of laughter. Unfortunately, he'd just taken a sip of his lukewarm coffee and he choked. Coffee freckled the manila patient files on his desk and he dabbed at them. Carmen was going to have a cow. His lab coat had escaped mostly unscathed, but he had to take several more hacking breaths before he could respond. “You want my help?”
“Are you laughing?” The guard came up on Josh's voice.
“Nope.” Richard worked on the coffee stains. “I was choking. I don't think you've ever asked for my help.”
“I'm sure I have,” Josh said.
Christ. He could say the sky was blue, Josh would come back and say it wasn't. Probably. Only a year separated them in age and they'd been competing fiercely since the day Josh entered the world. Actually, Richard blamed most of it on Josh.
“I'm as sure you haven't. Not even when you were a kid.” Richard chuckled at the memory. “You must have been the only three-year-old in the country trying to tie your own shoelaces.”
“I was a fast developer.”
“You were trying to do what I did.”
“That's bullshit.”
“Oh, yeah?” Richard settled in to enjoy the taunt. “So how is your triathlon training going these days?”
“Screw you.”
“Ten hours and fifty-six minutes,” Richard said with relish.
“No problem,” Josh said.
Richard smiled. Josh would beat his time or die trying.
“What can I do for you?”
He wasn't smiling five minutes later when he hung up. Josh was heading for a whole ugly, crapload of mess. Bipolar disorder was not something you took lightly.
Holly Partridge had been behind him at school and he could only form a vague outline of a short, rather determined girl. Not surprising. At the time, he'd only had eyes for one girl.
Richard allowed himself a great, stupid, soppy grin. He still only had eyes for one girl.
He told Josh what he knew about the condition, which wasn't much. He would look into it more closely tonight. There was something more, however, that he could do. It was risky, though. It would require some groveling and some humility. It would put him in debt and it would take him a lifetime to pay off that debt. But a brother was a brother.
He braced for impact and picked up the line to reception. “Carmen, I need to ask a favor.”
“I'm going to have my morning coffee in five minutes.”
“Actually, it's more for Josh than for me.”
“Speak to me.”
Richard allowed a triumphant smile to split his features. Apparently, not even Carmen was immune to the Josh magic.
“Hey?” Josh said.
She sat beside him, curled and almost fetal as he headed back toward the city.
A day of trawling the streets, asking anyone and everyone if they had seen Portia, had resulted in a big fat zero. Josh had called in all the friends and contacts he had and now there was nothing to do but wait and see.
“We'll find her.” He uncurled one of Holly's small hands from her raised knees.
She'd kicked off her shoes and sat with her knees hunched up to her chin. The anxiety had built in her as the hours dragged past, but no tears.
Laura had cried a lot, especially toward the end.
Josh got the sense Holly rarely cried, but her despair squatted toadlike in the car between them.
She put up a token resistance but let him take her hand.
Josh smoothed her fingers. It was a small hand, almost like a child's against his own. Her nails were neat and short, the skin dry with slight calluses across the pads, as if she often carried things or worked with heavy grips. It was a capable hand, a functional limb that served its owner.
Her sigh seemed to come all the way from the sole of her Converses. She dropped her head back against the seat but left her hand quiescent in his.
“Nobody's seen her,” she said, as if she couldn't quite credit it. “How can one girl be invisible? I was sure someone would have seen her.”
“Someone has.” He wanted to put his mouth into the center of her palm and make a visceral connection. The urge to comfort her rode him hard.
Holly would fight him.
He did it anyway, pressing his mouth against the slightly roughened skin. Trying to communicate with his touch that she wasn't alone in this.
She gasped and turned her head to stare at him.
“Someone has seen her.” He released her hand and leaned forward to turn on the ignition. “We haven't found that person yet, but I have everyone I can think of looking. Sooner or later, we're going to get some good news.”
Holly frowned at the hand he'd kissed. “What's with you and the touching?”
“I'm tactile.” He eased into the light traffic. And with her, he wanted to go tactile over every inch of her, but it was more than that. He wanted to wrap her up and shield her from all the shit swirling around her. He needed her to know he had her back. For now.
Holly stopped and waited as a woman stepped into their path.
“How are you, Josh?” Brunette, stacked, gorgeous hair and killer smile—Holly barely even paid attention.
Josh responded to the girl like he did with the others as they made their way across his lobby.
Philip was on duty, and he waved and smiled at Holly.
She dredged up a response as Josh admired the small dog tucked against the capacious bosom of a woman who was eighty if she was a day.
He was your basic chick magnet, that's all there was to it. No woman was immune. It wasn't as if he flirted with them either. Like now, he listened attentively to a description of the dog's various ailments. It sounded as if the creature would be better off put out of its misery. But Josh bent his dark head and paid attention, as if he had nothing better to do and nowhere he needed to be.
“Is this your young lady?” The octogenarian turned and fastened her sharp eyes on Holly.
Josh slipped an arm around her waist and tucked her into his side. “Holly is a good friend, Mrs. Sherman.”
Holly's stomach slid south.
“Friend?” Mrs. Sherman leaned forward with a wicked twinkle that coaxed a smile out of Holly. “A woman doesn't keep a man like this as a friend, dear.”
Josh stiffened beside her.
The woman winked one eye caked with plum-colored shadow. “A man like this is strictly a playmate.” She jerked her head at Josh.
Holly was rendered speechless. She wanted to protest that he made a great friend, but they weren't friends. Allies, perhaps; old acquaintances, definitely.
Josh's face hardened into a blank mask as he said his good-byes to Mrs. Sherman before tugging her toward the elevator.
Again with the touching. Her forearm tingled beneath his palm, and it didn't totally suck, or suck at all in fact. She could have shrugged off his light clasp, but for some reason she left it there.
Holly didn't get it. Sure, he had a smart mouth and could throw down the charm like a matinee idol, but the best parts of Josh were the glimpses she caught in between all that. The caring man, the patient one who'd spent his day doing everything he could to help her find Portia. “Why do you let them think those things about you?”
“What things?” The mask remained in place.
“Assume that you're shallow.”
He shrugged, but the muscle ticked in his jaw. “People see what they want to see, Holly. And I reckon I've done enough to earn my reputation anyway.”
It sat wrong with her. “I promise not to call you pretty boy anymore.”
“Ah, Holly.” The flirt slid over his features as smoothly as oil over water. “Does that mean my charms are fading on you?”
Nope. She dragged her eyes away from his megawatt smile. His charms were only getting more appealing, and they had very little to do with his beautiful face and sinful body.
Josh was impressed. “Where do you put it all?”
She'd worked her way through most of an extra-large pizza. It wasn't as if the food was even a sensual experience for Holly, like some women were about chocolate. No, she fed the machine. And the machine needed a lot of feeding.
Her eyes widened and she swallowed her mouthful. “I don't know, but I always seem to have space for a bit more.”
She glanced at the piece of pizza in her hand like she dearly wanted to eat it but didn't dare.
Man, she was fucking adorable. Josh laughed and nudged her hand toward her mouth “Don't pretend you don't want it.”
She grinned and bit down with her straight white teeth.
He liked making her smile. Holly didn't do enough of it. And he especially liked it when he could make her laugh. He got a smile now as she went back to her eating. It made his chest burn with a curious sort of warmth.
Another thing he liked was having her here, and that surprised the shit out of him. He'd broken another rule of a lifetime by letting her take up residence in his place. One night was understandable, given her circumstances, but he'd brought her home with him tonight as if she belonged there. First, he'd let her eat in his car and now she was in his haven. If he didn't watch out, she'd be making space in his underwear drawer and alphabetizing his music.
He wasn't sure what it meant, but the more time he spent with her, the less it seemed to matter. He couldn't stop touching her. His hands wouldn't stay off her.
Tactile, my ass.
He kept the laughter inside as he got up and put on some music. The cool Latin rhythms of Santana filled the condo.
He grabbed the empty pizza box and went to the kitchen.
Holly uncoiled from the floor and walked over to the window.
He could sense her worry gnawing away at her insides. Actually, there seemed to be rather a lot fighting for space in one small container. Being around her was like sharing space with a can of pop. If he shook, he was never entirely sure what was going to come out. So many contradictions wrapped up in that tiny bundle. He wanted to make sense of them all.
Her hips swayed to the music, drawing his gaze like a lodestone. Her hideous jeans hid the full swell of her hips, but every now and then he caught a flash of the smooth line of her small waist or, even better, the taut curve of her belly. He wanted to run his hands over those curves, stroking down until he could move around and cup her ass.
She had a body that made a man want to touch and worship. Her skin made his mouth water. He wanted at what lay beneath her butt-ugly sweatshirt. He hated the fact she hid her dangerous curves. Then again, there was a lot of her she kept hidden, and he wouldn't accept it. He wanted to unwrap her like a Christmas present. She was a foreign country, an uncharted territory he had to explore and conquer.
Man, he was losing his fucking mind. It must be the near permanent lack of blood to the brain. Holly had enough weight on her shoulders right now to sink someone twice her size. He pulled a bottle of red from his wine rack and scanned the label. It was rather pathetic. He was walking around semihard, knowing only a jerk hit on a vulnerable woman. It was like being sixteen again. Only this time, he was going to play it better, even if it killed him or caused permanent brain damage.
BOOK: Nobody's Fool
2.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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