by Marianne Stillings
Release date: November 27, 2007
The dysfunctional Darlings are front and center once again, in Stillings' sizzling and funny new thriller. She does her usual excellent job of taking humor with a dangerous edge and blending it with sexy sizzle. This one's another winner! -
Jill M. Smith - Romantic Times magazine
"Sleeping single in a double bed? Then think pink, the color of love and romance! Wear pink to attract your Mr. Right - shell pink, rose, magenta, any hue will do. Snuggle between pink sheets, nosh on pink foods, and splash the doorway over your bedroom with passionate pink paint. When you're 'in the pink' you won't need to go looking for love, honey; it's smack right into you!"
Georgiana Mundy's Feng Shui For Lovers
A bell pinged, and the set of double doors slid open. Stepping inside the empty elevator, Ethan Darling thumbed the button for the thirty-first floor, then crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the cherry wood paneling, watching as the polished steel panels begin to glide quietly together.
"Wait, wait, wait!"
Fingers fluttered between the closing doors like a frantic butterfly.
Without thinking, Ethan thrust his hand through the narrow gap, curling his fingers around the edge of the cool metal door at the exact moment a soft pink blur shot into the car and slammed into his chest, knocking him back a few steps. Her forehead conked him on the nose, sending a sharp pain up between his eyes, momentarily blurring his vision.
She was either a klutz or a clever assassin. Before he could decide which, her heel crunched down on his right foot, and he clenched his jaw to keep from calling her a very ungentlemanly name. Her abrupt movements caused her gigantic shoulder bag to gain the momentum of a wrecking ball, and as it headed directly for his nuts, he jerked his hips back just in time to salvage his manhood.
Somewhere along the line, he'd grabbed her shoulders and pulled her against his body to keep them both from falling. Through the fabric of his suit jacket and shirt, he felt firm muscle, solid bone, and warm feminine flesh where her boobs and belly met his torso.
Her head lowered, she was panting hard, and had looped her arms around his neck to steady herself. Anybody entering the elevator would have sworn they were lovers locked in a passionate embrace - unless they happened to notice the look of agony mixed with the ecstasy on his face.
For a moment, the compartment grew quiet while he stared down at the top of her head. Finally, he murmured thinly, "You hurt?"
She kept her head bent as she disentangled her arms from around his neck and pushed herself off him. In a husky voice, she whispered, "I'm embarrassed."
He dropped his arms to his sides, suddenly not knowing what to do with them. Her body had fit him so perfectly, felt so good, he was almost sorry their little skirmish was over.
Running her fingers through her glorious tumble of long brown hair, she tried to smooth the tangled mass, but only succeeded in galvanizing his attention. Ms. Knockout was really a knockout.
Finally she raised her face, their eyes locked, and she rushed, "You're hurt! I hurt you! Oh, God, I'm so sorry!" She lifted her hand as if to touch his cheek, but seemed to think better of it, curled her fingers in, and lowered her arm.
"I'm fine," he bit out, realizing as he did so, that the pain in his side had flared up again. Maybe his abrupt movements had irritated the scarring, but suddenly, the wound burned like hell, and it was all he could do to keep from snapping at her to leave him the hell alone.
She examined him more closely. "But I see pain there, in your eyes. Are you sure I didn't---"
"Positive." He wanted to clutch his ribs, but didn't make a move.
A warning bell sounded, and he realized her purse had dropped into the open doorway, preventing the doors from closing. He reached past her to pick it up, the bell ceased ringing, the doors slid together, and the elevator began to rise.
Finally, he thought with relief as he handed the handbag to her.
She smiled sheepishly up at him. "I, um, I hope I didn't cause any damage when my bag hit you."
He shrugged, noticing the deep brown of her irises, sort of like melty pools of chocolate. Her lashes were dark, too, and sooty, making her eyes appear languid and mesmerizing. For a couple of seconds, he totally forgot how to breathe. If his heartbeat wasn't set on automatic, he'd've needed jumper cables to get it going again.
"I'm running late this morning," she explained with a flirty little grin. "Normally, I don't tackle strange men in elevators."
When he didn't say anything, she leaned back against the polished wood, crossing her arms under her breasts, drawing his attention there like a homing beacon. She tilted her head, and sent him the prettiest smile he'd ever seen. He got the impression she looked at injured puppies in exactly the same way.
Squaring his shoulders, straightening his stance, he strengthened his defenses. She was too womanly or something. Too feminine. A real girly-girl. He hated that.
"You're not exactly a chatterbox," she observed. "Do you accept my apology?"
Maybe it was the husky quality of her voice, maybe it was the sincerity he read in her eyes, maybe it was the scent of her floral perfume, but something struck him hard, square in the chest, dead center, like a shot from a crossbow.
Normally, he was smooth with women, sophisticated, but standing next to Ms. Knockout made him feel totally out of his element, as though he'd never spoken to a girl before in his life. Good thing he wasn't the talkative type, otherwise, he might blurt out something he'd really regret, such as, When can I see you again?
Unwilling to answer her question and give away how she affected him, he only nodded.
He diverted his attention to the elevator doors. Just how the hell long did it take to go up thirty-one floors? he wondered, turning his anger on the elevator buttons. He thumbed the lighted 31 five or six times in rapid succession. Yeah, it was stupid, but at least it gave him something to do that didn't involve thoughts of his elevator companion.
Who was she? What kind of allure did she have that he was practically brain dead just from hearing her voice, looking into her eyes, holding her briefly in his arms?
In a red rose scooped top thing, white skirt, and pink shoes, she looked fresh and luscious. It seemed like gilding the lily that her plump mouth was the same shade as her blouse, or that, when she smiled, she had glamour girl dimples.
She was damned cute, and if he'd been some hormonal college kid, he'd be going for it right about now, but he was thirty-seven and at this point in his life, he liked his women cool and angular, quiet, smart, classy - and in a cab headed for home before midnight.
This woman was warm and curvy, and just the type to talk a man's ear off during sex. The cuddling, mold-herself-to-you, let-me-cook-you-breakfast, do-you-like-kids? kind of woman.
He eyed the seam in the elevator doors, willing it to open.
"That's a beautiful suit you're wearing," she said, giving him an appraising look. "Expensive silk, and well tailored, too. Armani? You have excellent taste. Too bad it's the wrong color for you."
If this elevator ride wasn't over in about five seconds, he thought, he was climbing out through the ceiling. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he stabbed her with his deadliest glare.
She lowered her head a little, and smiled up at him. "All I meant was, your suit is the wrong color blue. For you. With your dark hair and hazel eyes, you need to stay away from navy. Charcoal would be much better, with a deep gold silk tie, to bring out the flecks in your eyes."
Flecks? "My eyes don't have flecks---"
"Sure they do." She gazed up at him for a moment and her eyes went all soft and sad again. Reaching into her handbag, she rummaged around in it for a moment. With a small flourish, she brought out a kind of handkerchief looking thing. "Please take this," she said, holding it out to him. "It'll help."
"Green is for healing."
"I don't need healing." Under his arm, the wound across his ribs shouted a dissenting opinion.
Before he could stop her, she took his hand and pressed the silky fabric into his palm, curling his fingers over it. The material was warm and soft and smelled faintly of her perfume. Her hand still cupped under his, she said, "Keep this scarf in your aura."
He scowled down at the fabric. "The urge for a suggestive come-back is burning my tongue."
"Resist," she whispered, sliding her fingers from under his hand, leaving a trail of heat in their wake. "Keep the scarf with you, and look at it often," she instructed, apparently unaware of the effect her touch had on him. "Any injuries you have will heal much faster. I promise."
Before he could tell her she was full of it, a bell pinged. The doors rumbled wide to reveal the thirty-first floor. Stepping out onto the thickly carpeted hallway, he held the door for her as she followed him out.
"Thanks, Mister . . ." She arched her brows expectantly, letting her voice trail off.
He hated this part. Every female he'd ever met thought she was being cute and original, and this woman would undoubtedly be no exception.
On hearing his name, she'd blink those big brown eyes, smile adorably, and coo, "Really? Your name is Darling? Why, that's just...darling!?"
Then she'd giggle or wrinkle her nose or say something coy.
When he'd been younger, he'd used it to get girls into bed. Now, it was just plain annoying.
"The name's Ethan Darling."
She said nothing, but slowly moved her gaze down his body and back up. He felt every inch of her perusal as if she were running her fingers over his naked flesh.
Nibbling thoughtfully on her bottom lip, she said, "Really. Your name is Darling." Abruptly, she burst out laughing like she'd just heard the funniest joke in the world. It was a deep throaty sound, rich and full and sexy as hell, and it affected his body in ways he really didn't want to think about right now. Catching her breath, she choked, "I can only imagine what you did in a past life to deserve that kind of karma!"
She gestured at the green silk he still clutched in his hand, and her eyes grew serious. "Please remember to keep it close. It'll help with the pain."
"I told you, I'm not in . . ."
But before he could finish the lie, she spun on her heel and took off down the hall, leaving him to watch her walk away.
He glared down at the fabric for a moment, then slid the damned thing into his pocket. A second later, he curled his fingers around it, letting it fill the palm of his hand. He rubbed his thumb against the cloth, enjoying the softness and warmth, imagining for a moment he was touching the curve of her cheek.
Everyone he'd ever met in his life had wanted something from him, from his time to his money to his very soul. Yet this woman had taken one look at him and decided he needed to be given something, and she'd given it. Instead of snarling at her, he should have thanked her.
Swallowing a curse for being the stupid jack-ass he was, he put the encounter behind him and headed for the KALM-TV offices at the far end of the hall, where, a few minutes later, a bubbly blond receptionist escorted him into the private offices of Osgood Horton.
"Welcome, Inspector Darling," Horton said, rising from behind his desk to offer Ethan his hand. "Please have a seat."
Osgood Horton, the manager of KALM-TV, looked exactly the way Ethan had supposed a man named Osgood Horton would look: forty-ish, bald-ish, short-ish, plump-ish. But the guy had a firm, sincere handshake, reminding Ethan once more that looks could be deceiving.
"You can forgo the Inspector part, Mr. Horton," Ethan said as he settled into the deeply cushioned leather chair across the desk from the station manager. "I haven't been a detective with the SFPD for six years."
Horton gave him a too-white grin. "Don't private detectives have some kind of official title?"
"Just call me Ethan. What can I do for you, sir?"
Horton pursed his lips and gave a quick nod. "Not much for small talk, eh? Right to the point. I like that, Ethan. I like that." He smacked his open palm on the edge of his desk so hard, everything bounced, including several small framed photos of what appeared to be his family.
Settling back into his chair, Horton eyed Ethan over the top of rimless half-moon glasses. "I'm told Paladin Private Investigations is the best."
"And I want the best."
"Then KALM-TV has come to the right place. Are you looking for surveillance equipment, personal security, the services of a private investigator, or perhaps risk analysis and management . . ."
"Yes!" Horton barked, raising a finger as if to punctuate the decision.
"Personal security and private investigation." His brow lowered, and so did his voice. "You watch TV, Ethan?"
"Not if I can help it."
"Never?" he whispered, as though the gods might smite him for even contemplating such a thing. "News broadcasts? Sports? Stock market reports?" He glanced nervously around as if looking for hidden microphones. Under his breath, he mumbled, "American Idol?"
"I don't have a lot of free time," Ethan said. Why bother telling the man he hated most television shows and would only watch if somebody literally held a gun to his head.
Horton took in a long, deep breath and seemed to consider Ethan's remarks. "So you've probably never seen Fetching Feng Shui or CaliforniYum, the two highest rated shows on the West Coast?"
Ethan stared at the man. "Californi . . . Yum?"
Horton beamed. "Cute, right? My brain child. She wanted to call it Cooking With Georgie or Georgie's Kitchen, or some such thing. Too vanilla, too white bread, no snap, no mass appeal! In this business, you've got to think high concept. Grab the audience by the balls, you know?" Grinning with enthusiasm, he curled his chubby fingers into a fist as if to demonstrate what grabbing an audience by its nether regions might look like.
Horton's eyes widened. "Who's Georgie? Why, why, why, she's Georgiana Mundy, Ethan. Certainly you've heard of her?" He whipped off his glasses and tossed them onto his desk. Blinking several times in obvious astonishment, he said, "Miss Mundy's our star. Everybody knows who Georgiana Mundy is. She's written three cookbooks, two lifestyle guides, has two top-rated TV shows of her own, has appeared on Today and Good Morning, America, and has been interviewed by some of the top names in journalism. Why, why, why . . . she's Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and Emeril Lagasse all rolled into one!"
A mental picture formed inside Ethan's head of Georgiana Mundy, a six-foot tall middle-aged felon with a Boston accent and a five o'clock shadow. Fighting down a cringe, he said, "Is Miss Mundy in some kind of trouble?"
Horton nodded, his whiskey-brown eyes earnest, wary. "I don't know. But something, yes, something is going on."
"Can you be more specific?"
"About two years ago," Horton said thoughtfully. "Just a little under two years ago, Georgie cancelled all her speaking engagements and took a sort of sabbatical, you might say. Her best friend was quite ill, and Georgie found it too stressful to work. She was gone for about two months."
"This friend have a name?"
"Snow something . . . no, wait. Uh, Sunny? No. That's not it. Oh, I remember. Raine. Raine Preston. They've been friends since they were kids, I guess."
"Miss Mundy ever talk about what was wrong?"
Horton shook his head and rubbed his jaw with his knuckles. "Only to say that everything had turned out okay, and that her friend had gone into remission or something. But since then, she's been, I don't know, stressed in some way she wasn't before. Nervous. Distracted. Oh, she's still the same old Georgie, but different. I've asked her about it, and she just smiles and brushes me off, but I'm worried, Ethan. Yes I am, I'm worried."
Ethan gave Horton an appraising look. "What do you think's wrong?"
"Don't know. That's why I called Paladin."
"Do you want Miss Mundy protected, or investigated?"
Horton sucked on his bottom lip. Then, "Well, I'm not sure. Because, you see, there's more. Somebody's been playing pranks on the set. Switching the labels on some of Georgie's spices so that the chili powder's labeled cinnamon, and the basil's labeled parsley, that kind of thing. If she hadn't caught it in time, well, have you any idea the culinary havoc that could have created, Ethan?"
"I'm a salt and pepper man, myself."
The station manager eyed him, shaking his head. "Yes. Yes, I can see that you are. Hmm. Unfortunate. Well, the fact remains, Georgie usually cooks for a studio audience. As part of the show, her guests sample the dishes she prepares. They're supposed to close their eyes in ecstasy and whimper, 'Mmmm, yes, oh, God, yes!' like they've just experienced their first orgasm, not gag, wince, choke, and spit up into their napkins!"
Well, there are orgasms, and then there are orgasms.
"Does Miss Mundy have any enemies that you're aware of?"
"None!" Horton insisted, his eyes wide with astonishment and sincerity. "Everybody adores Georgie. Why, why, why, she's sweet and kind and generous, beautiful, funny, charming . . ."
"Nobody's that perfect," he interrupted, before Horton got to the part where Georgie Mundy walked on water. "As to everyone adoring her, the fact is, the more popular someone is, the more likely there's somebody who's jealous or angry about it. So, bottom line, what do you want me to do?"
"Well, first off, I guess I want you to find out who's behind these tricks on the set. You know, before they get out of hand and somebody gets hurt."
"For which the station would be liable."
"A litigious nightmare, to be sure!"
"And you also want to know what's going on in her life off the set. This whatever it is that's caused her so much stress?"
"Yes. I want to know if her behavior has anything to do with---"
Horton's words were abruptly halted when the blond receptionist flung his door open. "Ozzie!" she squeaked, her eyes wild with panic. "Come quickly. It's Georgie!"
Simultaneously, Ethan and Horton jumped to their feet.
"What's wrong?" Ethan asked as the three of them headed out the door and down the hall.
"I don't know," the girl said breathlessly. "Sh-She was inside her dressing room when somebody heard her scream. When they opened her door, they found her on the floor. Somebody said she was dead!"