Lovely Little Liar (Blackwell-Lyon Book 1), Page 2J. Kenner
She draws a breath, and I can tell she’s trying to gather herself. “So if you’re all about the details, then you already know my problem.”
I lean back, grateful when the waiter returns with my drink, as that gives me time to think. Problem? The only problem I remember her mentioning in her profile was that she’d been working such long hours she hadn’t been properly laid in months. I’d assured her I could remedy that, and she’d promptly accepted my RFD—which is 2Nite speak for “request for date.”
“Well, you’ve been going a hundred miles an hour,” I say, and she nods, looking pleased that I remember.
“And all this drama with my sister is adding a whole new layer of insanity.”
She looks at me sharply, and I immediately, regret my words.
“I thought you’d done your homework.” There’s a challenge in her voice, but I barely notice it. I’m too mesmerized by the way her lips now close over her straw.
I shift, my jeans feeling uncomfortably snug. And honestly, what the hell? Because I can already tell this woman is bad news. Intriguing, maybe. Challenging, definitely. But way, way too much trouble.
Apparently, the parts of me below the table aren’t nearly as critical, however. But I’m going to attribute that to a general desire to get laid, and not necessarily to Jez.
“Well?” she presses.
“Are you always this…” I trail off, thinking better of saying what I was thinking. Bitchy.
“It’s just that this smells remarkably like a job interview. Which seems a bit like overkill for just one night.”
“One night? Oh, no. I’m looking for something for at least three weeks. After that, we can decide if a long term commitment would make sense.”
“I was with Larry for over five years,” she says, which explains why she’s been so awkward tonight. I’m guessing this is her first time to even use a dating app.
“That’s quite a while,” I say.
“It is. And honestly, I prefer the continuity that goes with a long-term arrangement. With someone I can trust, of course. That’s what I’ll be evaluating with you, of course. Assuming you check out and can prove yourself. Which, frankly, I’m starting to doubt.”
I wince, suddenly picturing a panel of Olympic judges at the foot of my bed as I attempt a double rolling dismount with a flip.
I shake my head, dismissing the thought.
“Right. Okay. Let’s back up.” I slam back the rest of my bourbon. “Now it’s my turn to call you out for being unprepared. Because my profile is crystal clear. No long term commitments.” I flash that charming smile again. “Forget marriage. I’m all about the one-night stand.”
“That’s absurd. You’re seriously considering doing this for just one night? And you think that would be okay with me? That I want to do this repeatedly?” She gestures at the table, as if having a man buy you a drink is the most hideous torture imaginable. “Are you insane?”
“My shrink doesn’t think so.”
She stands, then hooks her purse over her shoulder. “I wish your policy had been made clear. This has been a complete waste of time in a week when I don’t have any time to waste.”
“Jez—” I stand and reach for her, but she steps back. I have no idea why I want her to stay, but I do.
She, however, isn’t giving me the chance to convince her.
“Thank you for the drink.” She draws a breath, and I can see her effort to settle herself. “I really am sorry for the misunderstanding. Despite everything, I think it would have been… interesting working with you.”
And then she turns.
And then she’s gone.
What the hell just happened?
“Another?” the waiter asks, as I sink back into my chair.
“Yeah. A double this time. I think I need it.”
I sit there for a minute, a little shell-shocked, and I’m not sure why. I damn sure shouldn’t be disappointed she walked, because that one would have been trouble for sure. The last thing I need is a woman who wants to cling.
But still, I’ve sat in a bar and had a drink by myself on several occasions. But never before has the empty seat across from me seemed quite so empty.
I sigh, then lift the drink the waiter slides in front of me. I savor the bite of the whiskey, wondering if it’s the alcohol that’s messing with my head. Making me think that maybe two dates wouldn’t be the end of the world. Hell, maybe even three.
Because the truth is, even though I never quite figured her out, I haven’t been that entertained by a woman in a long time.
My phone chirps, signaling an incoming message from 2Nite.
I snatch it from my jacket pocket, certain it’s a message from Jez.
But it’s not.
Oh, it’s from J, all right. But as I read it, I get a dark, twisting feeling in my gut.
Sorry I missed our date. Work blew up and I had to fly to Dallas. Rain check?
I read it twice, just to make sure that the bourbon isn’t making me hallucinate.
But, no. The message is clear. J—the woman I was all set to meet here tonight—isn’t in Austin. She’s two hundred miles away.
Which means that she didn’t show.
Which means that Jez isn’t J.
Which means that I have no idea who Jezebel Stuart is.
And I damn sure don’t know what the hell we spent the evening talking about.
I sit in the bar and nurse my drink for a full fifteen minutes before lightning finally strikes, and I get it. And, yeah, maybe I should have made sense of the whole convoluted mess faster, but my head wasn’t in the game. Instead, it was on those never-ending legs. That soft skin. Those sultry, penetrating eyes.
Not to mention a mouth that was made for both sin and sarcasm.
I’d been distracted, yes. And more than a little slow on the uptake. But I give myself credit for pulling it together at the end. And the moment I do—the moment I finally understand the complete and total clusterfuck that was our conversation—I bolt out of my chair and head for the door.
Jez, of course, is long gone.
I head back inside and drop into the chair I’d abandoned. My watered down drink is still there, although the bus boy’s about to grab it. I practically growl at him, like an alpha lion claiming the last scrap of a downed gazelle, and he backs away, eyes wide.
I slam back the dregs of my drink, then chew on the ice as I tap my phone thoughtfully.
Now that I see the big picture, the real scenario is painfully obvious. I’d come here expecting to meet my hook-up. She’d come expecting to hire some unreliable cop-in-a-box who hadn’t showed.
Or had he?
I frown, pondering the coincidence. Had he? More specifically, had I showed?
With a groan, I lean back in my chair, and take a deep whiff. Because right now, I’m afraid I smell a rat.
I pull out my phone, dial Kerrie’s home number, and wait for her to pick up.
“Don’t I get enough of you at work?” my sister says.
“You can never get enough of me, and you know it.”
She snorts. “Seriously, what’s up? I’m running a bath, and there’s a sexy Scottish laird waiting for me to join him.”
“Anticipation,” I say. “Makes everything all the sweeter.” Our mother had a collection of Barbara Cartland novels that my little sister discovered when she was eleven and I was twenty-one. She was my parents’ surprise-it’s-not-really-menopause-yet baby, and because of that she spent more time hanging around the house as a kid than I had. My parents were older and working and less inclined to drive her all over creation, and I was in the Middle East for my first tour, and not around to play big brother.
Apparently Dame Cartland is a gateway drug, because I’m pretty sure that Kerrie has now read every romance novel ever written. All of them, t
hat is, except for ones featuring ex-Special Forces heroes. She says she pictures me and that it’s just too weird.
“Especially since you’re hardly romance hero material,” she once quipped. And considering that a romance requires more connection than a late night hook-up, she’s probably right.
Now she sighs dramatically. “What do you need?”
“Did you schedule a meeting between me and a woman named Jezebel Stuart?”
“Wait—what?” Her voice is sharp now, interested, and I’m certain that she’s my culprit.
“Dammit, Kerrie. If you schedule an appointment, you have to push it through to the calendar. That’s about as basic as your job gets.”
“I know how to do my damn job, and I didn’t schedule an appointment with you. But—”
“With Cayden? Connor?” I rattle off my partners’ names.
“No. No appointment. Nada. Zip. Now do you want to drop the bullshit and tell me what’s going on?”
“Are you at your computer?”
“Yes, I have a computer in my bathroom.” I can practically hear her roll her eyes. “What do you need?”
“I want some background on this woman. Jezebel—”
“Stuart. Yeah, I know. You said. I don’t need a computer for that. She’s from Phoenix, but she’s lived in LA for the last ten years. She’s in Texas right now, though. Her sister’s filming a movie. And why am I telling you all this?”
“Are you already online? How do you know all that?”
“Um, maybe because I have a life and read things other than Tactical Weapons and Security Magazine.”
“And Peanuts,” I add dryly. “I never miss Snoopy in the Sunday paper.”
“Her sister’s Delilah Stuart,” she continues, ignoring me. “And Jezebel’s her manager. Is that why they’re hiring us? Because of all the harassment Delilah’s been getting since she cheated on Levyl with Garreth Todd?"
“Not exactly.” I have no idea who Levyl is, but I’m familiar with Garreth Todd. Mostly because all of my spare time isn't spent buried in my magazines, despite what my sister thinks. I also have a deep affection for any movie with a high body count and at least one kickass car chase, and Todd has starred in three of my recent favorites.
As a general rule, I’d rather shove bamboo under my fingernails than read, discuss, or think about Hollywood gossip. But now that Kerrie’s brought it up, I do remember a conversation a while back. A date of mine kept droning on about some former child actress who’d recently skyrocketed to superstardom as an adult. At first, she’d been beloved by fans. Not only because of her breakout role, but because she was dating the lead singer of a popular boy band. The kind of band whose songs send tween girls into convulsive fits and have grown women secretly buying unauthorized biographies in the grocery store checkout line.
Apparently, the actress and the singer’s romance played out in the tabloids, with the two being a sugary-sweet power couple that everyone rooted for.
But then the actress was awarded a plum part in a major movie opposite Garreth Todd. When the news broke that the actress had slept with Todd—thus breaking the singer’s heart—she immediately went from being America’s sweetheart to being a soulless harpy who shredded men’s lives. She was still making the front page of entertainment magazines, but now it was because she was reviled and hated by females the world over, all of whom were taking the singer’s broken heart way, way, way too personally.
As far as I know, there were no death threats against the actress, but considering my date’s vitriol when she relayed the whole soap opera to me, I wouldn’t be surprised.
My date had ended the story by saying the actress got what she deserved. Apparently, she’d been fired from some big franchise movie, and was pretty much a pariah as far as getting a job was concerned.
Like I said, a soap opera.
At the time, the actress’s name meant nothing to me. Now, I’m certain it was Delilah Stuart.
Before I get the chance to ask Kerrie for more details, she plows on. “This is going to be great. I bet Delilah has all sorts of security assignments coming down the pipe. And if we have her business, we can get more entertainment jobs. There’s so much film and music work in Austin, and even with all the controversy, a recommendation from Delilah would be golden. We could totally plug the hole left by Talbot, you know?”
I did know. Blackwell-Lyon is still a relatively new business, and when the guys and I broke off from our old firm we’d anticipated a steady stream of contracts with Reginald Talbot, a Silicon Valley billionaire who moved his family and his business to Austin about ten years ago. But five months after Blackwell-Lyon opened its doors, Talbot decided to retire, sold the entirety of his operation to some huge corporation, and headed to the Mediterranean with his wife.
In other words, he’s working on his tan, and my partners and I are scrambling to fill the gap in our client base.
“So what exactly happened?” Kerrie asked. “You had a meeting with her? How?”
“Irrelevant,” I say, because once Kerrie knows the real story, I’ll never hear the end of it. “Right now, I just need to find out where she’s staying.” I’m a security expert, not a PI. But over the years, I’ve cultivated some resources. “Call Gordo and tell him I have a rush job.”
“Please would be nice.”
“Well, since you asked so nicely…”
“Kerrie.” There’s a warning in my voice.
“I’m just messing with you. I don’t need to call Gordo. Delilah’s staying at the Violet Crown. So I bet Jezebel is, too.”
“And you know this how?” I ask, already mentally calculating how long it will take to drive there. The Violet Crown is a high-end boutique hotel in central Austin. And, conveniently, just a few miles away from Thyme.
“Twitter. Someone at the hotel snapped her picture and posted it. Hashtag Delilah Stuart.”
I frown. “When was it posted? Are there others?”
She’s obviously at her computer now, because I hear her tapping keys. “Um, the post went up about fifteen minutes ago. And it’s got a couple of dozen likes.” There’s more tapping. “But I don’t see any more posts. Lots of retweets, though. Why?”
I ignore the question. “I’ll call you later.” I’ve left a fifty on the table, and I’m already on my way to the valet stand.
“Pierce,” she presses as I pass my ticket to the valet. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, I hope.”
I hang up, then drum my finger on the ledge of the valet stand. I want my car, and with every second that passes the knot in the pit of my stomach cinches just a little tighter.
I may not have the full story yet, but I know enough.
I know that Jez came to Thyme because she was looking to hire a security detail. I know she mentioned her sister in our conversation.
I know that Delilah’s still reviled by fans.
And I know that her location is now public.
Call me paranoid, but that doesn’t sit well with me.
“I need you to connect me to Jezebel Stuart’s room.” I’m racing down Fifth Street toward Lamar Boulevard, my phone hooked up to the Range Rover’s audio system.
Hopefully, I’m worrying about nothing. Surely the current production company has security on Delilah. But if so, then why was Jezebel looking to hire me? Or, rather, why was she looking to hire the guy who was supposed to have shown up instead of me?
I don’t know, and at the moment, I don’t care. Bottom line, Jez may think I’m a total incompetent prick, but I can’t walk away until I’m certain she and her sister are safe.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no one by that name registered here.” The girl doesn’t sound like she’s old enough to legally drink, and I know that I’m ruining her day. But better hers than Jezebel’s.
“Excellent,” I say, adding a little charm to my voice. “That’s exactly how
you were supposed to respond. I’ll be sure and let your manager know that you’ve stuck with protocol.”
I pause long enough to let her tell me that she has no idea what I’m talking about. When she stays silent, I know I guessed right: Jez and Delilah are guests, management is fully aware, and the staff has been ordered to protect their privacy no matter what.
“I’m with the studio’s publicity department. Jezebel’s expecting my call.”
“But I’m not supposed to put anyone through.”
“No, you’re not,” I say. “And I commend you for being so diligent. You were informed of the call in protocol, I assume?”
“My apologies, you should have been made fully aware. Obviously we have to be able to get through to the Stuarts, even if they’ve turned off their cell phones. So you just put me on hold, then call up. Tell Jezebel that Pierce Blackwell needs to speak to her. PB,” I add. “Be sure to tell her it’s PB. And tell her it’s important.”
I’m pretty sure my name isn’t going to win any points with Jez. But I’m hoping she’ll pick up the call out of sheer curiosity.
“That’s the designated procedure,” I insist as I make a right turn onto Lamar and head toward the bridge. “Once Ms. Stuart accepts, you just need to patch through this call.”
“Oh. Okay. Hold please.”
Elevator music starts to play, and I give myself a mental high five.
My victory fades quickly, however, as my time on hold extends. I’m at the bridge. I’m on the bridge. Now I’m stuck at a light. I glance to my right at the moon reflecting on the surface of the river that we locals called Town Lake until the city renamed it Lady Bird Lake about a decade ago. It’s a dammed off section of the Colorado River, and why we don’t just call it that is one of life’s little mysteries.
I let my eyes travel up to the low, rolling hills on the south side of the river. I can’t see it from this angle, but I know the Violet Crown’s up there. And Jezebel.
By the time I’m over the bridge and making a right turn onto Barton Springs Road, I’m still on hold, and I’m thinking that Jez has shut me down entirely, and I’ll never get through.