Authors: Judith McNaught
When it came to the area designated for the police department, Sara and her partners had been given a comparatively small budget and strict requirements that didn't allow them much room for flexibility or creativity.
The center of that vast area was taken up with thirty desks arranged in three rows, each desk with its own computer terminal, two-drawer file cabinet, swivel chair, and side chair. Glass-fronted offices designated for ranking police officers were at the front of the vast room, and conference rooms lined the left and right sides. At the rear of the area, concealed from view by a heavy door that was always kept closed, was a long, narrow lockup used for temporarily detaining offenders who were being charged and booked.
In a valiant effort to diminish the harsh institutional effect of a sea of beige linoleum, beige metal desks, and beige computer monitors, Sara's firm had had the center area covered with a dark blue and beige commercial carpet and ordered matching draperies hung at the windows. Unfortunately, the carpet was continually soiled by food, drinks, and dirt tracked in by the ninety police officers who used the room in three shifts, around the clock
Sloan was one of the few officers who appreciated Sara's efforts, or even noticed them, but on that day, she was as oblivious to her surroundings as everyone else. Holidays were always a busy time for the police, but this one seemed even noisier and more hectic than usual. Telephones rang incessantly, and loud voices, punctuated with bursts of nervous laughter, echoed down the hallway from an anteroom where forty women were gathering for Sloan's first self-defense class. The conference rooms were all being used by officers interviewing witnesses and talking to suspects involved in a robbery by a group of teenagers that had ended up in a high-speed chase and then a huge pileup on the interstate. Parents of the teenagers and lawyers representing the families tied up the telephones and paced in the hall.
The pandemonium annoyed Roy Ingersoll, who wasn't feeling well, and he retaliated by prowling up and down the aisles of desks, gobbling antacid tablets and looking for something to criticize. Marian Liggett, his sixty-five-year-old secretary, who was hard-of-hearing and who regarded the newly installed telephone-intercom system as evil and untrustworthy, added her voice to the din by standing in his office doorway and shouting to him whenever he had a phone call.
Officers tried to concentrate on their paperwork and ignore the distractions, but everyone was finding that a little difficult to do—everyone except Pete Bensinger, who was so excited about his bachelor party that night and his forthcoming marriage that he was oblivious to Ingersoll's sour mood and everything else. Whistling under his breath, he sauntered down the aisles, stopping to chat with anyone who'd talk to him. "Hey, Jess," he said, stopping at the desk beside Sloan's. "How's it going?"
"Go away," Jess said as he typed out a report on a minor drug bust he'd made earlier in the week. "I don't want your good mood to rub off on me."
Pete's euphoric good cheer was undiminished by Jess's rebuff. Stopping at Sloan's desk, he leaned over and tried to sound like Humphrey Bogart. "Tell me, kid, what's a good-looking broad like you doing in a place like this?"
"Hoping to meet a smooth talker like yourself," Sloan joked without looking up from the notes she was making on the class she was about to teach.
"You're too late," he crowed, throwing up his hands in delight. "I'm getting married next week. Haven't you heard?"
"I think I did hear a rumor like that," Sloan said, flashing him a quick smile as she continued to write. The truth was that she, and nearly everyone else on the force, had been directly involved in his entire rocky courtship. He'd met Mary Beth five months ago and fallen in love with her "at first sight" by his own calculation. Unfortunately, neither Mary Beth nor her well-to-do parents had been particularly enthusiastic about marriage to a police officer whose occupational and financial prospects were far less than dazzling, but Pete had persevered. Armed with a great deal of advice from his fellow officers, most of which was very bad advice, he'd pursued Mary Beth and triumphed against all the odds and obstacles. Now, with his wedding only a week away, his boundless enthusiasm was boyish and utterly endearing to Sloan.
"Don't forget to come to my bachelor party on the beach tonight," he reminded her. Jess, Leo Reagan, and Ted Burnby had originally planned to have a party with a female stripper and the usual sort of drunken revelry, but Pete wouldn't hear of it. His marriage to Mary Beth meant too much to him, he declared, to do anything right before it that he might regret…
or that she might make him regret
, Jess Jessup had added. To make certain he got his way, Pete had insisted that his bachelor party be a "couples" party, and he was bringing Mary Beth to it.
"I thought the party was tomorrow night," Sloan lied, sounding as if she might have a problem being there tonight.
"Sloan, you have to come! It's going to be a great party. We're going to light a fire on the beach and barbecue—"
"Sounds like a violation of the Clean Air Act to me," she teased.
"All the beer you can drink," Pete cajoled.
"Drunkenness and disorderly conduct—we'll all get busted, and the news media will turn it into a national scandal."
"No one will be on duty to make the bust," he countered happily.
"I will," Sloan said. "I'm splitting a shift with Derek Kipinski tonight, so he'll be at the beginning of your parry and I'll be there later." Pete looked a little crestfallen, and she added more seriously, "Someone has to work the beach; we've got a serious drug problem there, particularly on the weekends."
"I know all that, but we aren't going to stop it by busting some small-time pusher under the pier. The stuff is coming in by boat. If we want to get rid of it, that's where we should be stopping it."
"That's a job for the DEA and they're supposedly working on it. Our job is to keep it off the beach and off the streets."
She glanced at the entrance and saw Sara walking in; then she jotted another note on her list of reminders for the self-defense class. "I've got to teach my class in ten minutes."
Pete gave her shoulder a brotherly squeeze and wandered off to his desk to make a phone call. As soon as he was out of hearing, Leo Reagan got up and crossed the aisle to Sloan's desk. "I'll give you ten-to-one odds he's calling Mary Beth," he said. "He's already called her three times today."
"He's completely besotted," Jess agreed.
Sara arrived, perched her hip on the edge of Sloan's desk, smiled a greeting at the two men; then she leaned around Leo and looked at Pete, who was leaning way back in his chair, grinning at the ceiling. "I think he's adorable," she said. "And based on the look on his face, he's definitely talking to Mary Beth."
Satisfied that Pete was preoccupied, Leo pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket and held it out toward Jess. "We're taking up a collection to buy Pete and Mary Beth a wedding gift. Everyone is putting in twenty-five bucks."
"What are we buying them, a house?" Jess said. He dug into his pocket, and Sloan reached for her purse.
"Silverware," Leo provided.
"You're kidding!" Jess said as he put twenty-five dollars into the envelope and passed it to Sloan. "How many kids are they planning to feed, anyway?"
"I dunno. All I know is that Rose called some store where they keep a list of stuff the bride picked out. Would you believe your twenty-five dollars will only buy part of one fork?"
"It must be one hell of a
Sloan exchanged a laughing look with Sara as she slid twenty-five dollars into the envelope. At that moment, Captain Ingersoll strolled out of his glass-enclosed office, studied the scene, and noticed the cheerful gathering around Sloan's desk, and his expression turned to a glower.
"Shit," Reagan said. "Here comes Ingersoll." He turned to leave, but Sara was untroubled by the captain's glower or his impending arrival.
"Wait, Leo, let me donate something toward the silverware." She put money into the envelope; then she turned the full force of her most flirtatious smile on the captain in a deliberate and unselfish attempt to alter his mood for everyone's sake. "Hi, Captain Ingersoll. I've been worried about you! I heard you got sick from that awful chili yesterday and had to go to the first aid trailer!"
His glower faltered, faded, then turned into what passed for his smile. "Your friend here recommended it," he said, jerking his head toward Sloan, but he couldn't pry his gaze from the hold of Sara's. He even tried to make a joke about the money she'd just given Reagan. "Don't you know that bribing a police officer is a felony in this state?"
He really had an atrocious sense of humor, Sloan thought as he added in a jocular voice, "And so is interfering with an officer in the performance of his duty."
Sara batted her eyes at him and he actually flushed. "How am I interfering?"
"You're a distraction, young lady."
"Oh, am I?" she cooed.
Behind Ingersoll's back, Jess opened his mouth and pretended to be sticking his finger down his throat. Unfortunately, Ingersoll, who was no fool, looked around at that moment and caught him in the act. "What the hell is the matter with you, Jessup?"
Sloan choked back a laugh at Jess's predicament and came to his rescue. "I think I'll get some coffee," she interrupted hastily, standing up. "Captain, would you like a cup?" she asked in a sweetly subservient voice designed to startle and disarm him.
It worked. "What? Well… yes, since you offered, I would."
The coffeepots were located on a table across the aisle, just beyond the copy machines. "Two sugars," he called when Sloan was halfway there. Sloan's telephone began to ring, and he picked it up solely to impress Sara with how busy he was at all times. "Ingersoll," he barked into the receiver.
The male voice on the other end of the line was courteous but authoritative. "I understood this was Sloan Reynolds's phone number. This is her father."
Ingersoll glanced at the clock. Sloan's class was scheduled to begin in three minutes. "She's just about to start a self-defense class. Can she call you back later?"
"I'd prefer to speak to her now."
"Hold on." Ingersoll pressed the hold button. "Reynolds—" he called out. "You have a personal call. Your father."
Sloan looked over her shoulder as she dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. "It can't be for me. I don't have a father—"
That announcement was evidently more interesting than some of the other conversations in the room, because the noise level promptly dropped by several decibels. "Everyone has a father," Ingersoll pointed out.
"I meant that my father and I don't have any contact," she explained. "Whoever is calling must be looking for someone else."
With a shrug, Ingersoll picked up the phone. "Who did you say you were calling?"
"Sloan Reynolds," the other man said impatiently.
"And your name is?"
Ingersoll's mouth fell open. "Did you say
"That's exactly what I said. I would like to speak with Sloan."
Ingersoll put the call on hold, folded his arms across his chest, and stood up, staring at Sloan with a mixture of awe, accusation, and disbelief. "By any chance, could your father's name be
The name of the renowned
San Francisco financier-philanthropist exploded like a bomb in the noisy room, and in the aftermath, everything seemed to grow still and silent Sloan stopped in her tracks with a coffee cup in each hand, then continued walking. Familiar faces in the room stared at her with unfamiliar expressions of suspicion, wonder, and fascination. Even Sara was gaping at her. Ingersoll took the cup of coffee she handed him, but he remained near her desk, obviously intending to eavesdrop.
Sloan didn't care that he was there; in fact she scarcely noticed. She'd never received so much as a birthday card from her absentee father and whatever his reason for suddenly tracking her down now, it wasn't going to matter. She wanted to convey that to him very firmly and completely and impersonally. She put her coffee cup down on her desk, shoved her hair off her cheek, picked up the receiver, and put it to her ear. Her finger trembled only a little as she pressed down on the flashing white button. "This is Sloan Reynolds."
She'd never heard his voice before; it was cultured and tinged with amused approval. "You sound very professional, Sloan."
He had no right to approve of her; he had no right to any opinion whatsoever where she was concerned, and she had to fight down the impulse to tell him that. "This isn't a convenient time for me," she said instead. "You'll have to call back some other time."
A recent newspaper picture of him flashed through her mind—a handsome, lithe man with steel gray hair who was playing doubles tennis with friends at a
Palm Beach country club. "Give it another thirty years, why don't you."
"I don't blame you for feeling annoyed."
"Annoyed—You don't blame—!" Sloan sputtered sarcastically. "That is
nice of you, Mr. Reynolds."