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Authors: Darlene Gardner

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Wish Upon a Christmas Star

BOOK: Wish Upon a Christmas Star
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Giving up is not her style

The odds are about a million to one. But after eleven years,
P.I. Maria DiMarco jumps at the possibility that her brother might still be
alive. And when she makes a wish on a rare pre-Christmas shooting star, well, it
could be a sign. Logan Collier doesn’t think so. Not that Maria should put her
trust—or hope—in her ex-love, who long ago left her heart in pieces.

Yet here Logan is in Key West, helping Maria chase down leads
and, like her, trying—and failing—to ignore the attraction heating up between
them. Even if her search takes her nowhere, Maria isn’t giving up. Not on
finding her brother…or on a second chance with Logan.

“It’s late. I should get going.”

“Logan, you haven’t been here twenty minutes yet,” Maria

“I can’t last any longer without doing something, uh,
stupid,” he said, moving past her to leave her hotel room.

“What if I want you to do something stupid?” she whispered,
closing the distance between them until he could smell her light flowery scent.
She anchored her hands on his chest, stood on her tiptoes and put her mouth on

He didn’t try to resist her. He couldn’t, even if he’d wanted
to. It had been almost a dozen years since they’d kissed, yet she tasted
familiar. Their mouths nipped and suckled as though time had never passed.

Dear Reader,

I’m delighted to announce exciting news: beginning in January
2013, Harlequin Superromance books will be longer! That means more romance with
more of the characters you love and expect from Harlequin Superromance.

We’ll also be unveiling a brand-new look for our covers.
These fresh, beautiful covers will showcase the six wonderful contemporary
stories we publish each month.

So don’t miss out on your favorite series—Harlequin
Superromance. Look for longer stories and exciting new covers starting December
18, 2012, wherever you buy books.

In the meantime, check out this month’s reads:

Liz Talley

Jeanie London

Cathryn Parry


Darlene Gardner

Dorie Graham

Happy reading!
Wanda Ottewell,
Senior Editor,
Harlequin Superromance

Wish Upon a Christmas Star

Darlene Gardner


While working as a newspaper sportswriter, Darlene Gardner
realized she’d rather make up quotes than rely on an athlete to say something
interesting. So she quit her job and concentrated on a fiction career that
landed her at Harlequin/Silhouette Books, where she wrote for the Temptation,
Duets and Intimate Moments lines before finding a home at Harlequin
Superromance. Please visit Darlene on the web at

Books by Darlene Gardner


1360—A TIME TO

*Return to Indigo Springs

Other titles by this author available in ebook

To my sister Lynette Revill, the private investigator, for
patiently answering my questions and for having such a cool profession.

And to the families of the victims of 9/11, especially the more
than 1,000 victims whose remains weren’t identified.


at the photo of her once vibrant brother, then back up at the woman who’d broken
Mike’s heart when he’d been barely eighteen.

“Why would you come here out of the blue and show me this?”
Maria asked, a bite to her voice.

The angry question had barely escaped her lips when she caught
sight of the glittering gold star on top of the Christmas tree in the corner of
her office. In the season of goodwill toward men, she needed to keep better hold
of her temper.

“Why wouldn’t I come to you?” Caroline Webb asked. “You’re a
private investigator.”

Caroline had been waiting outside her office door at the strip
mall on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, when Maria returned from her
appointments late that Monday afternoon. At first Maria hadn’t been positive she
recognized her. In a red coat that matched the stripes in the candy canes on the
light poles and high-heeled black leather boots, Caroline looked more like a
fashion model than the girl she remembered. Caroline had also lost weight,
played down her Kentucky accent and was no longer a brunette but a blonde.

Maria handed back the photo. “Perhaps you’d better

She shrugged out of her black pea coat and hung it on a hook
next to the door. Bracing herself to talk about the brother who had died in the
9/11 terrorist attack, she flipped the switch that turned on the tree lights.
The festive sight didn’t stop the waves of sadness from washing over her.

“Can we sit down?” Caroline indicated the chairs flanking the
desk at the back of the room. Perhaps she realized it would be tougher for Maria
to get rid of her if she acted as though she’d come here with an

“After you,” Maria said with a sweep of her hand.

Caroline took off her coat, too, revealing a long-sleeved green
dress that hugged her slim figure. Above her left breast was a pin of a holly
wreath, and she smelled of an expensive perfume. She took her time settling into
one of the utilitarian chairs, then passed the photo over once more. Maria’s
black-haired, blue-eyed brother wasn’t the only one in the picture. He had his
left arm slung around a much-younger Caroline’s shoulder. Mike was smiling. She
was not.

“The photo’s from senior year, a few days before Mike dropped
out of high school and went to New York City.” Caroline brushed her newly blond
hair back from her face, calling attention to her expertly made-up eyes. “It
came in the mail yesterday.”

“Who sent it?” Maria asked.

“That’s the thing. I don’t know. There was no return address,
no note.” Caroline pulled something from the outside pocket of her leather
handbag—Coach, as trendy as it was expensive—and held it out. “There was,
however, a second photo.”

The teenage Caroline was the only person pictured. It was a
side view of her sitting on a bearskin rug beside a fireplace with her knees
pulled to her chest, completely nude but with none of her private parts

“Mike promised me he’d destroy that photo,” she said, her voice
a murmur.

“Obviously, he didn’t.” Maria couldn’t imagine how the person
who’d sent the photo had come into possession of it. However, she still didn’t
understand why Caroline was here. Did she want to hire Maria to make sure no
other nude pictures of her surfaced? “Are there more?”

“No, just the one.”

“As these kinds of photos go, this one’s pretty mild,” Maria
said. “I suppose I could try to find out who sent it, but I don’t see the

“I think I know who sent it,” Caroline said, her voice steady.
“I think it was Mike.”

“What?” The word erupted from Maria. Pain lanced through her,
strong enough to have felled her if she hadn’t been sitting down. “You know
that’s impossible. Mike died at the World Trade Center.”

Her visitor leaned forward in her chair, her gaze pinned to
Maria’s. “What if he didn’t? What if he’s still alive?”

Maria had clung tight to that hope after the terrorist attack.
Mike had started working as a busboy at the Windows on the World restaurant only
a few days before. She’d rationalized that he might not have shown up for work
that day. As the days and the weeks and the months went by with no contact from
him, however, she’d had to let go of the hope.

With as much calm as she could muster, she handed the two
photos back. “I’d like you to leave now.”

Caroline made no move to take them. “I haven’t even told you
yet why I think they’re from Mike.”

Maria reached for the other woman’s cool hand and pressed the
photos into it. “Somebody sent you the pictures as a prank, Caroline. I assure
you it wasn’t my dead brother.”

“It wasn’t only the pictures,” Caroline said. “Mike called me,

Maria shook her head. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, coming in
here and lying to me like this, especially eight days before Christmas.”

“It’s not a lie!”

“Oh, no? What did Mike do? Leave a message on your voice mail
that he wasn’t dead, after all?”

“You don’t have to be sarcastic,” Caroline said.

But she did. Even though eleven years had passed, the pain of
losing her brother was still so raw Maria could barely stand it when someone
mentioned his name. Of all the DiMarcos, he’d been the most like her, in both
looks and temperament. That hadn’t always been a good thing.

“What would you have me do?” she asked.

“Hear me out,” Caroline said. “Can you at least do that?”

Maria’s law enforcement training kicked in. She’d been a
dispatcher and a police officer before she’d become a private investigator. She
knew not to discount anything, no matter how preposterous, before hearing the
entire story. She nodded once.

“Thank you.” Caroline took an audible breath. “I got the first
call about a week ago on my apartment phone. It was a man. He said in this
whispery voice, ‘I miss you, Caroline.’ I asked who it was. ‘How could you
forget me?’ he said, and hung up.”

It sounded like a classic prank, although more insensitive and
cruel than most. “What came up on your caller ID?”

“It said Wireless Caller but didn’t give a name or number,” she
said. “I only picked up because Austin was asleep and I didn’t want the ringing
to wake him.”

Maria’s eyes dipped to Caroline’s ring finger. The overhead
light glinted off a pear-shaped diamond that appeared about two carats in

“Austin’s my fiancé,” Caroline explained. “We’re getting
married on Valentine’s Day.”

Mike’s impassioned voice insisting that Caroline would be his
wife someday came to mind, along with her own, telling him he was being a fool.
Maria couldn’t bring herself to offer congratulations.

“Why did you leap to the conclusion the caller was Mike?” she

“I didn’t, not then,” Caroline said. “After a while, I even
started to forget about it. But then Saturday, the day the photos arrived, I got
another call. I probably shouldn’t have picked up, but I couldn’t stop myself.
It was the same man. Again he told me he missed me.”

“Is that all he said?” Maria asked.

Caroline shook her head, her teeth worrying the red lipstick
off her bottom lip. “I demanded to know who it was. He said it was Mickey. And
that’s when I thought it really might be Mike.”

“Mickey?” Maria repeated.

“We took a shortcut through an alley once when we were in
downtown Lexington. A mouse darted out from behind a Dumpster and Mike
screamed,” Caroline said. “So I started calling him Mickey. You know, short for
Mickey Mouse.”

Maria refrained from saying she thought the nickname was
mean-spirited. If she tallied up the transgressions Caroline had committed
against Mike, that one might not even make the top five. Dumping him in the
cafeteria in front of all his friends topped the list.

“I never heard anybody call him Mickey,” Maria said.

“Nobody else did, only me, and only when we were alone,” she
stated. “You know how macho Mike was. He hated the nickname, because he didn’t
want anyone to know he was afraid of mice.”

That sounded like Mike. He’d projected a tough-guy exterior
that only those closest to him knew shielded a vulnerable heart. Maria could
feel her own heart speeding up, thumping so hard she thought Caroline might hear
it. “Are you sure nobody else knew about the nickname?”


Mike’s remains had never been found. They’d never spoken to
anyone who had seen him go into the World Trade Tower that day. They’d never
buried him.

“Did the caller say anything else?” Maria asked.

“No,” Caroline said. “He hung up. And Saturday I got the
pictures in the mail, just like I told you.”

Maria felt almost dizzy. That wouldn’t do, not if she was going
to get to the bottom of this. She tried to shut off her emotions and think like
the private investigator she was. “Do you have the envelope the photos came

“I do.” Again Caroline dug into the side pocket of her handbag.
“Here it is. And here’s a printout of my phone record I got off the internet. I
circled the two anonymous calls in red pen.”

The envelope was plain and white, with what appeared to be a
computer-generated typed address. Handwriting comparison, then, wasn’t a
possibility. There was no return address. The postmark was from last Wednesday
in Key West, Florida.

Think, Maria,
she commanded herself
before looking back up at her visitor. “Does anyone you and Mike went to high
school with live in Key West?”

“I don’t think so,” Caroline said.

Something to check out, Maria thought.

“How about Mike?” she asked. “Did he ever talk about going

“I don’t remember,” Caroline said. “But I do remember the
warmer the weather, the better he liked it.”

That was true. Even during light snowfalls, about the only kind
they got in Lexington, Mike had complained as though they were enduring blizzard
conditions. The climate in Key West would appeal to him.

If he were alive. Oh, God, could her brother be alive?

Maria was holding Caroline’s phone records. That was the place
to start. She’d just finished a background check she was running for a client,
leaving her free to unravel the mystery. She got up from the chair, went to her
desk and picked up a pad and pen.

“After I look into where the phone calls came from, I’ll be in
touch,” she said. “What’s a number where I can reach you?”

Caroline crossed one long leg over the other. “I’d rather you
didn’t call me.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll contact you.” She tapped a manicured finger against her
lips. “Here’s the thing. I don’t want my fiancé to know about this. I don’t want
anything to interfere with the wedding.”

“Why would it?”

“Austin’s last name is Tolliver,” she said. “His father,
Samuel, is the former governor.”

Caroline could have added that the family was rolling in cash.
Maria seemed to remember the Tollivers had amassed their fortune from tobacco
and horse racing. She recalled that Samuel Tolliver had provided the bulk of the
financing for his campaign for governor.

“Austin’s following in his father’s footsteps. He’s a state
senator. This fall he’s running for Congress. I can’t take the risk the press
will pick up on this story.” For the third time, Caroline rummaged in her
handbag. This time she pulled out a checkbook. “I can pay you.”

To find her own brother? Maria’s stomach turned over at the
thought. “I don’t want your money, Caroline.” She was surprised her voice was
even. “The question is, what do you want?”

“If Mike is alive,” she said, her eyes narrowed and her lips
pursed, “I just want him to leave me alone.”

When Caroline was gone, Maria tried to call up the routine
steps she took on missing person cases. She heard blood rushing in her ears. Her
heart beat so fast she couldn’t concentrate. After all this time, could Mike
really be alive?

She got up from her chair and stepped outside, hoping the cool,
fresh air would enable her to think more clearly. A chill ran through her and
she hugged herself. At five-thirty, and almost the shortest day of year, it was
already dark. A thin streak of light slashed through the sky.

A shooting star!

Shooting stars were magical, her mother had claimed when Maria
was growing up. If you saw one before Christmas and wished upon it hard enough,
she used to say, your wish would come true.

The only other time Maria had spotted a shooting star before
the holidays, she’d wished for Rollerblades, and they’d appeared under the tree
on Christmas morning.

What could it hurt?

She focused on the streaking light and wished with all her

* * *

tall, bulky box containing the artificial Christmas tree against the stairs and
positioned himself behind it.

“Need any help down there?” his mother called from the top of
the steps.

“I’ve got it,” he answered. “I just need you to move out of the

He shoved, inching the box a few steps at a time up the stairs
until reaching the tile floor of the kitchen. Like the rest of the modest,
two-bedroom house where his parents had lived for more than thirty years, the
kitchen was big enough but just barely. It would be a tight squeeze to get the
box past the table.

“Can you get it to the living room for me?” His mother was a
warm, cheerful blonde who got way too into the spirit of the season. On her
green sweatshirt, Santa jumped his reindeer-driven sleigh over a snowy

Logan pushed, propelling the box across the tile floor, onto
the carpeting in the living room and toward the spot where his mother always set
up the tree. He’d been surprised not to see it decorated already when he’d come
home last night from Manhattan, where he’d lived for the past twelve years since
he’d graduated from college.

BOOK: Wish Upon a Christmas Star
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