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Dangerous Secrets


By C.J. Darling

Artwork by Linda Cappel


Copyright @ 2017 - C.J. Darling


This book is available wherever quality paperbacks and electronic books are sold.



DEDICATION

To Kevin, for Cúl Dín

To Helen, for Ireland,

and to Michael, for everything else!




1



He didn’t believe in ghosts.

Conor Fitzpatrick was a pragmatic man—the only sort, he often thought, who could stay sane in the frenzied glamour of modern-day Hollywood. The memorable characters he played on television and the illustrious silver screen might range from dusty immigrant pioneers to lofty industrial tycoons, and everything in between. But he himself was well grounded in reality. Ghosts were nothing more than excellent special effects inspired by a creative director’s vivid imagination.

So if he hadn’t seen a ghost—and he quite definitely did not believe in ghosts—then there could only be one of two explanations. Either the pretty young woman strolling across North Hollywood Park was the same girl he’d left behind in Ireland nearly thirteen years ago, or he was having a nervous breakdown.

His feet were in motion before his brain caught up enough to slow his impetuous headlong dash. This was Hollywood, after all, where gossipy tourists and nosy paparazzi swarmed elbow to elbow. One survived either by breaking every rule in the book with a flamboyance that kept the voracious public hungry for more scandalous antics—or by maintaining an impeccable image. Conor had always viewed the ‘wild child’ crowd with cool disdain, so he maintained an air of dignified sophistication whenever he entered the public’s discerning eye.

All the same, he couldn’t still the pounding of his heart as he hurried, in a manner he hoped looked dignified to any curious onlookers, across the dusty grass.

Peggy?” Ireland’s greenest hills shimmered through his rich voice as the elusive scent of wildflowers tickled his nose. An electric shock tingled through his long fingers when his hand closed over her slender arm.

The girl spun around, and gaped up at him in blank shock. And even before she stepped back, with a stammered, “My name isn’t Peggy!” he knew he’d been wrong.

There were similarities, enough to baffle the mind. But Peggy’s hair had been the purest sunlit gold, and this girl’s long curls were ever-so-slightly touched with auburn fire. Peggy’s eyes had been sapphire-blue, the color of a deep summer sky. And though their shape was nearly identical, this enchanting stranger was staring up at him with eyes the color of a deep Irish lake, full of mossy green shadows and mystical secrets.

“I’m sorry, you looked so much like…”

“My name is Kiera Donovan.”

They both spoke at the same time, then stopped in momentary confusion. Conor broke the baffled silence first by flashing her a smile guaranteed to melt even the stoniest heart.

“You are from Ireland.” It was more a question than a statement as he absorbed other subtle differences between the woman he’d once loved and this girl standing before him. Definitely younger than Peggy would now be, perhaps by a good six or seven years. And though his memories had surely dimmed with the passage of time, it seemed to him that Peg’s lovely body had been, well—softer, more rounded in all the best places. A bit less slender and athletic.

But perhaps, like everything else about that long-ago relationship, his wistful mind had exaggerated the details.

“County Wicklow, yes.” Kiera offered him a tentative smile, and breathed a silent sigh of relief when he eased back a step. He was so much taller than she’d expected—and he had such presence! How could any woman not feel totally overwhelmed when Hollywood superstar Conor Fitzpatrick turned on the full force of his charm? “My mother and I lived near Dunbur Park, close to the bay.”

“Kilbaha, County Clare.” Opposite sides of the isle, then—which explained the faint eastern lilt to her light musical voice. “It’s amazing, you know, your resemblance to Peggy Malone, the girl I knew back home. And I’m completely forgetting my manners.” With a rueful grimace, he offered his hand. Another electric jolt sizzled along his nerve endings as their fingers met. “I’m Conor Fitzpatrick.”

“Yes, I know.”

The entire world knew Conor Fitzpatrick’s astoundingly handsome face. And Kiera felt mesmerized as she stared up at him, drinking in details made even more stunning by proximity. It was as though all the gods had saved their very best, then bestowed it all on this one man. His eyes, a piercing Irish blue, were framed by shiny black hair so thick and full it defied imagination—and positively begged a woman’s fingers to glide through it, she acknowledged with an uneasy twinge. Add tall, muscular, and unbearably sexy, and you had one seriously potent package on your hands.

He was the hottest name in Hollywood…and with good reason. Thirteen years ago, he’d exploded on the scene in the unforgettable action flick, Master Mercenaries, where he’d played the leader of a teenage street gang bent on avenging his mentor’s brutal death. Since then, he’d starred in ten more box office blockbusters, and guest-starred in dozens of popular dramas and sitcoms. Already, despite his relative youth, he commanded a higher salary than most seasoned veterans.

There was even talk about him becoming the next Bond sensation—partly, she was sure, because of his striking resemblance to an earlier Bond actor. The media played up that angle at every opportunity, even though both actors had laughingly denied any familial connection.

Still, there was no denying they’d become the best of friends, and were often seen together at the better clubs and resorts. The one movie they’d made together, playing a devoted father and son on the run from the Russian mafia, had broken every possible box office record. Rumors abounded that more joint scripts were being bandied about—unless, of course, he chose the highly-coveted Bond role instead.

And he was smiling down at her with that multimillion dollar smile, and clasping her hand like a long-lost friend! The sheer energy radiating from his lean body made Kiera feel like she’d grabbed the wrong end of a bare electrical cord. At any moment, smoke might start pouring from her ears!

“I’m sorry I’m not your Peggy.” She didn’t know why that popped from her mouth, except she didn’t really know what else to say. And anyway, it was true. She was sorry, in more ways than she could possibly explain.

“So am I.” He was sober for a moment. Then another warm smile curved his lips as he inclined his head and studied her golden-tanned face and wary green eyes. “Well, it’s a lovely treat to hear a familiar voice so far from home. Will you have lunch with me, Kiera Donovan, and tell me about Dunbur Park near the bay?”

Any other woman would have sold her soul for the chance to stroll down Sunset Blvd. on Conor Fitzpatrick’s muscular arm. But for Kiera, the prospect was a terrifying nightmare. Her heart slammed against her ribs like a jackhammer as she hastily tugged her hand free, and backed away.

“I can’t.” Even in her own ears, her panicked refusal sounded rude and abrupt. Quickly she forced an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. My lunch break is only an hour, and I’m due back in ten minutes. If I’m late, Chandra will have my head.”

He’d expected her to either play coy, or leap at his offer and invent a suitable excuse for the boss later. It was, after all, what most women would do. But Kiera seemed genuinely agitated by his impulsive invitation. So her feeble explanation only fueled his curiosity.

“Tomorrow, then. Or whenever you have a day off. My schedule’s flexible right now.”

Before she could concoct a plausible excuse, Kiera felt a restless movement in the worn navy knapsack draped across her chest. Then a tiny head popped out, and gigantic golden eyes peered curiously up at her.

“Rowr?”

Taken aback, Conor gaped at her in surprise. “You have a cat in your purse!”

A tiny paw joined the tiny face, and gently patted against Kiera’s smooth throat. Then the kitten swivelled its head in Conor’s direction, and slowly blinked twice at him. “Rowr!”

“Phantom!” Exasperated by her pet’s awful timing, Kiera lightly rubbed between its black and gray striped ears. “We’re running late.”

“Rowrrrr!”

“Oh, all right.” Sighing, Kiera lifted the knapsack higher, so that the kitten’s head was nestled beneath her chin. “This is Phantom. It’s a long story how she came to me, but we travel everywhere together. And sometimes she’s a rotten little pest.” But the lyrical words were spoken with deep affection, and Phantom responded by rubbing her downy head against Kiera’s chin.

He’d always been a dog person, but this appealing little bundle of fluff was too cute to resist. Cautiously Conor extended his hand, and rubbed a finger between the kitten’s perked ears. Phantom began to purr, and wrapped both paws around his tanned wrist.

“She likes you.” Kiera tried to keep surprise from coloring her voice. Normally Phantom was as shy as her name suggested, and rarely even peeked out of her makeshift carrier unless they were alone.

“Animals are good judges of character.” Laughter danced in Conor’s blue eyes as he petted the kitten again, and at the same time, slyly stroked the long column of Kiera’s neck. She jumped like she’d been bee-stung, and took a hasty step backwards.

“I really do need to go now.” Her heart was pounding so loudly she could barely even hear her own breathless voice. Quickly she tucked Phantom back into the knapsack, and tugged the drawstring tight. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Fitzpatrick.”

“Conor.”

But his automatic correction met thin air as she turned and scurried toward the small parking lot.

Conor watched the graceful sway of her back as she unlocked the door of a small, battered black Honda, and slid inside. Then he made his thoughtful way back to Liam Kerry, his personal assistant and bodyguard, who’d been carefully watching the entire exchange from a tactful distance.

“What on earth did you say to her, Con?” Liam looked as baffled as he felt, and it showed on his deceptively-boyish, freckled face. “That’s not the usual effect you have on women!”

“For a moment, I thought she was an old friend from Ireland. I suppose this proves the old tale that everyone has a double roaming about somewhere.” Conor leaned one broad shoulder against a nearby tree, and slowly shook his head. “Irish she is, and alike enough to be Peggy’s sister. But Peggy Malone she’s not. It’s all very curious.”

Something in his voice made the younger man look closer, and then a crafty grin curved his lips. “You aren’t going to let her get away, are you?”

“Oh, no.” Smug satisfaction colored Conor’s rich voice. “Lady Luck’s with me today, boyo. I know where she works. Chandra the Dragon Lady is her boss.”

Liam greeted that accidental tidbit of information with an undignified snort of laughter. “Chandra the Dragon Eater, you mean! Well, that is a stroke of luck, if you’re into big, mean, and ugly. So you’re going to brave the fearsome ogre in its lair?”

“No, you are.”

“What?”

Conor’s mouth quirked in a disgruntled scowl. “I’ve a gut feeling there’s more to this Kiera Donovan than meets the eye, and I want to see her again. But if I go chasing after her, I’ll scare her even more. You, on the other hand,” he added, drilling a long index finger into Liam’s chest, “can come and go without raising her suspicions. So I want you to get friendly with her mates, and learn what you can about her.”

It sounded to Liam like a recipe for disaster. “And when she finds out I work for you?” he frowned. “Because sooner or later, she’s bound to make the connection. She’ll be pissed as hell.”

That, too, was a likely possibility. But Conor shrugged away that problem for now. “First things first. I don’t like Chandra any more than she likes me. But she’s a goldmine of information, if you play her just right.”

“Bribery?” Liam wrinkled his freckled nose in feigned horror. “For God’s sake, Con, have a heart! Please don’t tell me I have to sleep with her!”

That made Conor chuckle as he moved away from the shady tree. “God forbid! She makes a bulldog look sexy by comparison! No, it’s more an exchange of favors,” he assured the younger man. “She gives you the information I want, without tipping off Kiera Donovan I’m asking; I bring in a nice big crowd of customers by shopping there for an hour or two. Even trade.”

Arrogance was an actor’s stock-in-trade, but Liam figured Conor was right enough on that score. Still, he was dubious about the entire prospect. No woman appreciated being spied on, and he wasn’t all that keen to be stuck in the middle when she rounded on Conor in a righteous fury.

But he knew his duty, even if he didn’t always enjoy it. Conor paid his salary, and he was nothing if not loyal—even when he did think his boss had clearly lost a few screws. “I suppose you’ll want me to get started on this right away. Should I drop you off at the club on my way over?”

“No, I think I’ll have lunch at Off Vine. It’s been a while since I enjoyed some really good home cooking. And if I should get mobbed by screaming groupies during dessert,” he added with a wry grin, “you’ll only be just around the corner.”

Liam’s mouth watered at the memory of their delicious pastries. “Grab me a few slices of Four Berry Pie, will you, mate? I’ll need ’em after dealing with the Dragon Eater.”

Conor chuckled again and slapped him on the back, then followed him to the dusty sunbaked parking lot.

The average person might have expected Liam to unlock the door of a long, lush limousine, or a snazzy upscale sports car. But he wasn’t considered one of the world’s top bodyguards for nothing. And he was a master at the fine art of creative misdirection.

When Conor wanted to impress the masses, Liam ferried him around in a gleaming fully-loaded silver Jaguar XJR. When he wanted to fade into the background, and escape all the adulation of being Hollywood’s newest mega-superstar, Liam drove a faded tan Mustang GT. It looked like a strong breeze would blow it to pieces. But thanks to one of the studio’s top stunt mechanics, its weatherbeaten appearance was deceptive; Conor had paid dearly to retrofit both cars with bulletproof glass and specially reinforced doors. There wasn’t a paparazzo who could match their speed or maneuverability.

The Mustang got a lot of use.

Kiera’s hands trembled with reaction as she shot back onto the interstate, and left the dusty park far behind. What on earth had she been thinking of? She’d heard Conor was back in town! Why had she decided, today of all days, to leave the store for even a few minutes?

Luck of the Irish, she thought, then sneered into her rearview mirror. Luck of the Irish, indeed! Bad luck, the worst possible luck in the world! She’d managed to escape Conor Fitzpatrick’s notice for four years now by being oh, so careful whenever he was in town.

Blogging made it easy to track his movements around the globe, and as a result, she was probably the world’s foremost expert on The Life and Travels of Hollywood Superstar Conor Michael Fitzpatrick. On any given day, she knew where he’d been, where he was headed, what he’d done, and who he’d done it with.

Anyone else who followed his life so closely would be considered dangerously obsessive, a stalker, a viable threat to his safety. She considered her intimate knowledge the bare necessity for survival.

So why, when she knew he’d returned from Tunisia three days ago to begin contract negotiations on a new movie, had she been idiotic enough to venture into a public place? Home, work, home again. It was the only way to be sure he wouldn’t notice her.

“It should have been safe,” she muttered under her breath as she maneuvered the aging Honda through restless bumper-to-bumper traffic. “He should have been at his agent’s office all afternoon.” Who could have expected him to be slumming in that dusty little wedge of grass that passed for a luxurious downtown park?

Hollywood was big, bustling, frenetic with activity at all hours of the day and night. She’d gotten careless, she admitted with an inner pang, counting on the distraction of a million eager tourists to veil her presence. And homesick for the fresh, vibrant green of growing grass and flowering trees.

She could only pray her lapse wouldn’t prove fatal.

And damn it, she realized, glancing quickly at her watch, she was going to be late after all! Only a few minutes, but Chandra was sure to give her grief. Just one more injustice, she supposed, to cap off a really lousy day.

Chandra Weizowski wasn’t actually one of the store managers, but she’d been at Amoeba Records for so many years that she might as well be—and everyone treated her like one. So it didn’t matter that Kiera had never been late by even one single minute until today. Chandra would give her hell if she didn’t have a damned good reason for her tardiness.

Being hit on by the great Conor Fitzpatrick himself qualified as a damned good reason. But Kiera didn’t want to discuss that brief, unexpected meeting with anyone. At least not until she’d had a chance to replay it all in her own mind, and decide how much—if anything—was safe to divulge.

Another soft “rowr?” echoed from her knapsack as Phantom sensed her anxiety. “Hush, baby,” she murmured, reaching in with one slender finger to rub the kitten’s velvety head. “It’s all right. We won’t be seeing him again.”

With a soothing purr, the tiny cat settled back down in her comfortable pouch. And Kiera pulled into the store’s huge underground parking ramp without a backward glance.

Amoeba Music was a Hollywood landmark, and an institution in its own right. Its vast selection of new and used posters, LPs, CDs, DVDs, tapes, and discs was arguably the finest in all of California. Musicians from across the globe flocked through its doors to promote their newest releases, and play beloved favorites for delighted customers. Every day, locals and tourists alike thronged into the massive store to browse and buy.

Many of the clerks, like Kiera, were musicians themselves, so they took their work seriously. And sometimes, when the evening was balmy and the mood was right, she joined them for an impromptu jam session at any of a dozen nearby cafes or open street corners. Like Phantom, her battered Irish pennywhistle and cherished wooden flute were always tucked into her trusty knapsack. The generous tips she earned were carefully saved for a future rainy day.

But some days, it just didn’t pay to stagger out of bed. And today, she thought with a resigned sigh, was definitely one of those days.

Chandra was waiting for her by the information desk. And the angry scowl on her ugly face spelled Trouble.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t get you fired, Donovan.” Her voice was deep and raspy, and somehow seemed to fit her broad-shouldered, blocky body. “I’ve warned you…”

“Two words.” Maybe the shock value was worth her loss of privacy. So Kiera strode past her without breaking stride, and gently tucked her knapsack deep under the counter. Maybe Chandra knew about Phantom, and maybe she didn’t—but now wasn’t the time to risk her certain wrath on that score. “Conor Fitzpatrick.”

As she’d expected, the magical name stopped Chandra in her tracks. And turned heads in every row close enough to overhear her lilting voice.

“You met Conor Fitzpatrick for lunch?”

Not quite the way you mean it! But since it suited her purpose, and wasn’t entirely a brazen lie, Kiera feigned an admiring smile. “He’s even more handsome in person than he is on the screen. And sooo sexy! I couldn’t believe it when he asked me out again tomorrow.” Not that she had any intention of following through!

“I saw him once, going into the Cinerama Dome, for the premier of The Final Dark.” Lisa, who stocked the main floor three afternoons a week, was still new enough to be thrilled by even that chance sighting.

“Big deal.” Chandra shrugged her massive shoulders. “They all come out of the woodwork whenever there’s a premiere. In another two months, you’ll pass them on the street without even noticing.”

“Not him!” Lisa’s perky voice was reverent as she gazed into the movie section, where an autographed Final Dark poster hung in dramatic splendor beside a priceless framed Jimi Hendrix tour poster. Conor Fitzpatrick looked sexy and powerful, despite his dirt-smudged face and shredded clothes, as he courageously led a stranded team of coal miners to safety.

Privately Kiera had to agree. No matter how many years she’d spent in sunny California, and no matter how many glittering superstars paraded past Amoeba’s spotless doors on their way to the neighboring Cinerama Dome Theatre, Conor Fitzpatrick would always stand out from the rest.

“You are going out with him again tomorrow, aren’t you?” Chandra’s gravelly voice scattered her troubled thoughts like dust.

“Oh, you have to!” Half a dozen eager customers flocked to the info counter when she hesitated, torn between silent panic and outraged fury that Chandra was trying to manipulate her. “He’s so handsome!”

“Think what he could do for your music career!” That was from Lisa, who hadn’t a musical note in her voluptuous body. But that didn’t stop her from trying, much to the dismay of the store’s real musicians.

“Lisa, I don’t have a music career.” Kiera felt her patience dangling by a thin thread, and struggled to keep a cheerful smile pasted on her face. “I just like to play. It’s what we all did, growing up in Wicklow.”

“This is Hollywood.” Chandra was all no-nonsense as she marched over to straighten a rack of New Age CDs. “Everyone here has a career. And you’re a fool if you don’t grab at anything that can boost it along.”

The mere thought of Conor Fitzpatrick striding through ‘her’ doors had dollar signs sparkling in her squinty little eyes. His very presence would lure in a tanker-load of enthusiastic tourists. Just look at how jam-packed they’d been the last time Mick Jagger had appeared! And Conor was a helluva lot better looking!

But the very idea of sharing a whole hour, tomorrow or any other time, with Hollywood superstar Conor Fitzpatrick made Kiera’s stomach twist into very painful knots. It was just too dangerous—for everyone concerned!




2



Night had already fallen by the time Liam returned to the modest white Bel Air ranch home he shared with Conor. Though he slept in the detached in-law suite, he was never more than a minute away, should his services be needed. It was a comfortable arrangement for both men, giving Conor the privacy he so desperately required after a stressful day on site, but still providing him topnotch security or a friendly ear at a moment’s notice.

Fortunately for him, genuine threats were few and far between. He was well-liked by his peers, and the public fawned over his every move. The biggest danger he’d faced so far was from an overzealous fan who’d tried to sneak into his trailer in hopes of a personalized autograph.

She’d been summarily escorted off the set by security, and warned never to try it again, or she’d spend her next six months in jail. But since she’d been such a good sport about getting caught, she’d left clutching the cherished autograph, which he’d kindly scrawled on a rather good photo she’d taken the previous day. The following week, she’d sent him a very pretty letter of apology and thanks for his generosity. And that had been the end of that.

Conor had spent all afternoon with his agent, reviewing treatments for various new movie scripts he’d been offered. Already, in his heart, he knew which one would suit him best. And his agent, being one of the best in the biz, wholeheartedly agreed with his choice.

But—being one of the best in the biz—she also understood the need for tactical maneuvering. So now they were entering the long phase of contract negotiations with the studio’s agents. It was very much a game of cat and mouse, with each side playing coy until they could reach a satisfactory arrangement. She was a pro…and he’d long-ago decided never to play poker against her.

Liam was another pro, in his own specialized field. No one, looking at him, would have guessed he was one of the world’s finest professional bodyguards. His youthful freckled face and tousled sun-streaked hair made him look like an innocent choir boy. But no one was more skilled with weapons, or able to elicit information without seeming to ask a single question.

To the outside world, he was Conor’s efficient, devoted personal assistant. To those few who knew his reputation, he was Conor’s first line of defense against the myriad dangers of stardom. He spoke over a dozen languages fluently, could blend into any background with surprising ease, and—much to the dismay of various poor-spirited Hollywood celebs—could mimic any voice or personality with deadly or hilarious precision.

He was also a consummate tease. His puckish sense of humor was, in Conor’s opinion, one of his finest non-lethal qualities…when it wasn’t directed at him personally.

So the sight of his trusted aide leaning back in his comfortable leather recliner, shoveling in a huge bite of Off Vine’s exquisite berry pie—and purposely stalling over the info Conor knew he’d gathered that day—was slowly driving him insane.

“Damn, they make good food! Even if it is several hours’ cold.” Liam heaved a blissful sigh of delight, and savored the delicate blend of sun-ripened berries.

“Liam.” Conor’s deep voice held a subtle warning.

Deliberately the younger man took another slow, ecstatic bite, and rolled his eyes with pleasure.

“Liam…” The warning was stronger this time.

“Just one more bite. Mmmm!” His low moan held a distinctly erotic overtone. Liam loved to eat. And he never gained a spare ounce.

“Liam!”

Conor’s temper was rare, but notorious. And Liam figured he’d just about played the scene for all it was worth, anyway. So he capped his humorous little melodrama with an exasperated sigh, then reluctantly straightened and assumed a properly sober expression.

“Okay, okay. Here’s what the Dragon Eater gave me. And you owe her big-time for the info,” he warned, waving his fork at Conor. “Don’t think she won’t find a way to collect!”

That didn’t dismay Conor; he’d deal with the Dragon Lady (or Dragon Eater, as Liam insisted on calling her) in his own way. A few lengthy visits and lucrative purchases would settle the debt, and he’d had his eye on several of Amoeba’s more expensive collectible posters for a long time. “What did she say?”

“Her full name is Kiera Katherine Donovan.” Once Liam stopped fooling around, he was all business. “She does hail from a little town called Dunbur Park in Wicklow, Ireland. And she moved to the States about five years ago, for reasons Chandra didn’t know. Your little enigma is friendly with the other clerks, but doesn’t mingle much. And almost never talks about herself.

“According to her job application, which Chandra broke a dozen corporate rules to show me, she spent several months in New York City, working for a big-name record company. Then she transferred to their St. Louis branch—and when an opening came up at Amoeba Music, she moved to L.A. She’s been working full-time at Amoeba ever since.

“I’d say Chandra resents her, but then Chandra hates everyone,” he added with a mocking grin. “So that isn’t saying much. In this case, though, it’s probably because she came highly recommended by one of your favorite music groups, Inish Crossroads. Seems she’s in tight with the lead singer, Moira ní Cathmhaoil.”

Conor’s dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “Now how on earth would a tender young girl from County Wicklow be traveling in Moira’s circle?”

“I suppose you’ll have to ask her, next time your paths cross.” Liam’s voice was carefully neutral. Not under the direst torture would he admit that fiery Moira Campbell (as she was called by the world-at-large) had totally captured his heart one summer night, six years ago, at a party in Conor’s honor. And since that fateful night, every other woman had paled in comparison. His devotion was absolute—but since her path rarely crossed Conor’s, it was also unrequited. She had no idea he was deeply and irrevocably in love with her.

If Conor suspected his aide’s torn loyalties, he kept it well hidden. “Find out where she’s performing right now, will you? It’s been too long since we’ve tipped a glass together.”

That would take about five seconds, Liam estimated, if the group’s website had been updated lately. If not, he could reach Moira herself, anywhere in the world, in less than a minute. Piece of cake. And long overdue, in his humble opinion.

“Regardless of how she got the job,” he continued, ruthlessly pushing his tangled emotions into the background, “Kiera’s done well for herself there. She’s well liked, and has her own group of regular customers.

“Her personal information is sketchy, though.” And that was guaranteed to raise crimson flags in his security-conscious mind. He wouldn’t rest easy until he’d done a full background check on her—for Conor’s sake. “No siblings that Chandra knew of, though she did think there was a young cousin still living back home. Part of her salary goes into a minor’s savings account in Dublin, under the name of Melissa Delaney.

“Most recently, she lives in the converted Federal Reserve Building, over on Olympic Blvd. It’s a nice place…the apartment lofts are all fairly new…and quite convenient, as she’s only eight miles from work.

“And by the way, toward the end of next month, she’ll be twenty-five.”

Thoughtfully Conor tipped back a frothy mug of Guinness, and drank deeply. “The Federal Reserve Building…wasn’t that originally a big bank, back in the 1930's? Lovely stone carving over the main door. I considered renting a loft there myself, a few years back, while I was building my home overlooking Malibu Hills. But then I bought this place instead. Better privacy.”

“Not to mention better security, and more in keeping with the image you project,” Liam commented as he savored another hunk of pie. Bless Conor for bringing home several generous slices! “The Reserve is pricy digs for a store clerk. Tomorrow I’ll dig deeper into her family background and financials. If you’re seriously thinking about becoming involved with her, it’s only sensible to map out the land mines before you stumble over them.”

“No.” Conor set his empty mug down with a muted thunk, and reached into Liam’s well-worn pretzel bowl. “She’s not a drug dealer or prostitute, and I doubt she’ll try to play me for my money.”

“And you base this on what? The fact that she’s Irish?”

Personally, Liam agreed with Conor. He’d seen Kiera before, and even talked with her a few times, during previous visits to Amoeba Music. Now that the boss was showing an interest, he’d watched her more closely while covertly chatting with the Dragon Eater.

His well-honed instincts affirmed that Kiera was hard-working, motivated, and honest to the point of naivety. There was a sweetness about her, too, that seemed too natural to be an elaborate act. But then, she seemed to get along well with everyone, even the pierced and plugged street gangs who often browsed the store’s busy aisles.

“I base it on my own instincts, which have served me well for over thirty years.” Conor waved a pretzel in the air to emphasize his point. “After a while, you get to recognize the type who wants to take advantage. She has none of the earmarks.

“Besides, if I knew everything about her beforehand, there’d be no intrigue, would there?” And he did find her intriguing—disturbingly intriguing.

It’s only because she looks so much like pretty Peg.

Or was it?

What an ironic twist his life had taken! He’d come to America to seek his fame, and build a fortune worthy of pretty little Peggy Malone. And the moment he’d been gone, she’d turned away and forgotten all about him.

The love they’d sworn would never end had died of bitter starvation as she’d ignored his frequent letters home. So after a while he’d stopped writing, and hoping, and yearning. And he’d turned his boundless energies into his blossoming acting career.

He’d made the right decision. Acting was his only true love. He came alive when the cameras started rolling. Peggy hadn’t really understood that, he supposed. And for all her talk of following him to America, the reality of leaving her aging father had obviously been too difficult. He shouldn’t blame her for not wholeheartedly sharing his deepest passion.

There had been women in his life since then, of course; he could hardly avoid them without being branded gay, or worse. And in any case, he was a healthy man with healthy appetites. He enjoyed women. And they enjoyed him. He’d just been careful never to offer his heart again. He didn’t need the distraction, or the inevitable pain.

“Con?” Across the low coffee table, Liam was eyeing him with veiled amusement. “Earth to Con!”

“Sorry.” Ruefully he snapped his attention back, and flashed his friend an apologetic smile. “What did you say?”

“I said, since you know where she lives and works, what are you going to do next?”

“I asked her out to lunch tomorrow, and she turned me down flat.” It should have been annoying, a grievous blow to his fragile actor’s ego—but instead Conor found himself amused by the girl’s wary caution.

“Maybe I should ask her out myself,” Liam teased. “See if she’s that skittish around all men, or just you. Or not,” he amended, when Conor aimed a dangerous glare in his direction. “It was just a thought.”

“Leave it as one.”

Touchy subject. Liam prudently changed course. “Send her some flowers. Women always get sappy over that kind of thing. Or look up her phone number, and call her. Even in downtown L.A., how many Kiera Donovans can there be?”

It was a good idea…and he was determined to hear her lovely voice again tonight.

If her number was unlisted, he’d just have to figure out some other way to make contact. Any excuse would do, as long as it worked.

And as it turned out, he had a perfect alibi in his agent, Angie Carson…

Home again. Kiera sighed with quiet relief as she closed and locked the door behind her, then pulled Phantom from her knapsack and set her on the polished tile floor. “Now you behave while I change my clothes,” she warned as the cat skittered on tiny feet toward her compact kitchen. “No teasing poor old Boulder. And then we’ll have something delicious for dinner.”

Her snug little efficiency was a constant source of pleasure. She’d hated her last apartment, with its paper-thin walls, where she’d had to wear earplugs to drown out the discordant scream of rap music or angry neighbors arguing. Phantom had lived in perpetual terror, and even tranquil Boulder had hissed in protest when it got too noisy.

Her loft was beautiful—and in comparison to the old place, it was sheer paradise. She loved the extra-high ceilings that allowed full use of her ‘attic’ space, that wide inner balcony along the far wall where she’d laboriously hauled her comfortable queen-sized bed and dresser. Every time she clambered up the metal steps to flop on her rose-hued bedspread, she felt like a little kid at summer camp.

Immediately beneath the ‘attic’ was her bathroom, which sported a delightfully decadent Roman tub. The tiny kitchen boasted all brand-new appliances, and she loved the high breakfast bar she’d installed herself, with its sturdy ivory marble tabletop and long-legged white wooden stools. Soft bronze leather sectional pieces were grouped in one corner of the spacious room to form an intimate entertainment area, and her crowded bookshelves lined the opposite wall.

Her outer balcony was small, but offered a lovely view of downtown Los Angeles. It was especially pretty at night, when the air was relatively clear, and all the buildings sparkled like year-round Christmas trees. She still missed Dunbur Park’s quiet serenity, but the big city held a vitality that energized her.

She needed that energy tonight. The afternoon had been exhausting! Everyone had been so excited about her chance encounter with Conor, pumping her for details (as if she’d been involved in some wildly illicit sexual affair!), and pressuring her to meet him for lunch tomorrow.

She didn’t want to think about Conor Fitzpatrick right now. And she certainly didn’t want to meet him tomorrow for lunch! That would just be courting disaster.

All the same…

A shiver rippled down her spine as she remembered the way his long fingers had felt, curling so possessively around hers. The sheer energy he radiated was astounding!

No, no, and no! She absolutely was not going to waltz down that road! It could never lead to anything but heartache. And the stakes were too high for her to risk failing now!

A soft scratching sound notified her that Phantom had done her duty in the high-sided plastic litter box. Obediently she scooped out the two tiny piles, and dumped them into her trash compactor. Then she vaulted up the narrow ladder, and kicked her sensible work shoes into the closet.

An antique silver picture frame was propped up on her night stand. Smiling, she touched it with gentle fingers. Three beaming faces laughed up at her, frozen forever in that last happy moment they’d shared five years ago. Peggy Malone Delaney, her seven-year-old daughter Melissa, and a much younger Kiera.

“I won’t let you down,” she whispered to the two women she’d known and loved so well. “No matter what it costs me.”

The ringing telephone jolted her, and sent her panicked heart into overdrive. Had something terrible happened to Lissa? Quickly she grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”

“Kiera?” Conor’s rich lilting voice filled her small bedroom. “Good, it is you. I was hoping I’d dialed the right number.”

“Conor.” Momentary relief weakened her knees, and she sank down onto her mattress. Then her hands began to tremble—from delayed reaction, she assured herself. Just because she’d been worried about Lissa. Never, ever because she was thrilled to hear his deep, lyrical voice. “How did you find me?”

His laugh was warm and full of boyish delight. “Directory assistance, of course. Did you think I’d followed you from the park?”

“No, of course not.” Why, after all, would an important man like Conor Fitzpatrick bother tracking her movements?

Because her quick refusal this afternoon had intrigued him, she realized with a quick mental groan. She’d have done better to fawn on him until he got bored, and lost interest in her.

Oh, she never should have let the phone company list her number when she’d changed it again last October! But she’d been so sure no one would suspect innocuous K. Donovan of having even the slightest connection with a far-distant Irishwoman named Peggy Delaney.

Careless, careless, careless! Five cautious years of successful anonymity had dulled her sense of self-preservation!

Before she could start formulating a damage-control plan, Conor’s lilting voice scattered her chaotic thoughts. “I thought maybe we could get together for dinner tonight, since you won’t have time for lunch tomorrow afternoon.”

“Why?” Kiera struggled to keep panic from ringing through her voice. “I’m not an actress or anyone famous. Why bother with me?”

There was a moment of silence, so brief she wondered if she’d imagined it. Then he chuckled. “Obviously you haven’t looked in a mirror lately.”

A hot flush rose to her tanned cheeks. She could almost see him on the other end of the phone, smiling in that sensual way that made women’s hearts flutter. Sternly she ordered her own to settle back down into her chest, and stop trying to batter its way through her rib cage.

“Conor, I don’t think…”

“West Olympic Blvd. That would be the old Reserve Building, right?” Conor overrode her nervous protest before it was half-formed on her tongue. “Listen, I’m over at the Waterworks Plaza off South Olive and 4th Street. That’s only about a mile away from your place, right?”

“Yes, but what on earth are you doing…”

Oh, of course, she thought with another quick groan. Now he was at his agent’s office! Didn’t that just figure?

And now that he knew she existed, it was far too close for her peace of mind!

“All-afternoon meeting with my agent.” Again he cut her off so smoothly that her head spun. “And it turns out I’ll probably be swamped tomorrow, too…these contract negotiations can take forever! So I thought, if you haven’t had dinner yet, we could go somewhere informal and catch a bite. Lost Souls Café, maybe, or Pitfire Pizza.”

You like Pitfire Pizza?”

The amazement in her voice made him grin. “Their Margherita pizza is the best in town.”

“Well yes, but…”

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Well no, but…”

“Then my timing’s perfect! I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Conor, wait! You can’t just…”

“Kiera.” A slow smile curved his lips, and his voice dropped to a deliberately intimate murmur. “I’m not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Then he was gone.

Shaken, Kiera stared blankly at the buzzing phone in her hand. This just couldn’t be happening! Conor Fitzpatrick could not be calling her, flirting outrageously with her, taking her out for pizza!

Oh sweet heavens, what was she going to wear? A different kind of panic, purely feminine, washed through her like an icy wave. What could she wear that would impress Hollywood’s sexiest new superstar? None of her clothes were glittery or slinky or risqué, like the sultry models constantly being paired with him in the gossip rags. She was so far out of their league, it was pathetic.

She wasn’t trying to impress him. He’d simply have to take her as she was. And if that wasn’t good enough…well, too bad. She didn’t want him around, anyway.

But oh, her work clothes stank of Lisa’s obnoxious clove-scented cigarettes. And her long hair was all mussed from driving home in freeway traffic with the windows down. And…

Peggy’s picture! He mustn’t see it! Gasping, she snatched it off the table, and thrust it deep into the bottom of her lingerie drawer. Not that she was ever going to allow him up into her bedroom. But still. He was a clever, persuasive fellow, and she couldn’t be too careful. If he ever learned of her connection to Peggy, the results could be catastrophic.

The Waterworks Plaza was so close, even by L.A. standards, that he might arrive at any minute. Oh, if only she’d had more warning! Maybe then she could have figured out a way to wriggle out of this predicament.

But that was probably what he’d been counting on. Conor Fitzpatrick was no one’s fool.

A quick survey of her makeshift closet was depressing. Most of her clothes were purely practical. Blouses, slacks, a few sweaters for those rare chilly days. Nothing good enough for a date with Conor Fitzpatrick.

It’s not a date! He just wants to share a pizza with someone from his homeland.

Then why was she feeling so panicky?

Scowling, Kiera hurled her dirty clothes into the hamper, and snatched a colorful sundress off the rack. The evening was balmy; and in any case the pizza parlor was always warm, so she wouldn’t need a jacket. She rarely bothered wearing makeup, and blessed that fact now as she dragged a brush through her unruly auburn curls, then secured the entire length in a simple ponytail.

If that wasn’t good enough for a quick, informal pizza, he had only himself to blame.

Right on cue, her intercom buzzed. Her heart pounded as she swung down the narrow staircase and raced across the room to answer it. “Yes, Frank?”

“A Mr. Fitzpatrick is here to see you, Miss Donovan.”

The current building concierge was a retired cop who’d spent twenty years as one of L.A.’s finest. He was tough as nails, bland as skim milk, and utterly unflappable. Even when a midnight party had gotten out of hand, several months back, and three guests had been rushed to the hospital on stretchers, he hadn’t twitched an eyebrow. Surely she wasn’t hearing a trace of excitement in his gruff voice now!

“Shall I pass him through?”

Well, she was as ready as she could get, on such short notice. Heaven help her! “Yes, Frank. Thank you.”

She’d never once dreamed of becoming a movie star—but as she nervously paced back and forth across the single room, she felt just like an actress waiting for her cue.

Please, God, don’t let me say or do anything tonight to put us all in danger!

From her corner by the stove, Phantom offered her an encouraging “rowr!” And then it was too late for prayers as she stepped forward to open the wide double doors.

“Miss Donovan.” Conor swept into a courtly bow as she moved back to allow him entry. He looked magnificent in his lightweight chinos, short-sleeve shirt, and trendy gray sweater vest. Lamplight from the hall gleamed in his thick black hair.

“Mr. Fitzpatrick.” If he could be absurdly formal, so could she. And maybe it would set the right tone for tonight’s outing, keeping them from getting too intimate.

Quite suddenly, the quaint little ritual made her homesick for Dunbur Park. She straightened from her half-mocking curtsy with a wistful sigh that shifted to wondering delight as he offered her a delicate flower. “You brought me a rose. Conor, you didn’t need to do that!” How could he have possibly known her weakness for romance? Already she could feel her heart melting into a puddle at his feet.

His long fingers brushed against hers before she took a hasty step back. “I wasn’t sure what kind of flowers you liked.” His wry confession was entirely too endearing. “But roses are nearly always a safe choice, even for a very unusual woman.”

Oh God, she was sinking fast! Quickly Kiera turned away, before his unorthodox flattery shook the foundations of her world. “Let me find a vase. It won’t take a moment.”

“I’m not in any hurry.” Lazily he closed the door behind him, and took a moment to study her cozy single-room apartment. Everything was clean and tidy, and her furniture, though obviously second-hand, was in good repair. He liked the way she’d decorated the place in warm earthy jewel tones. A rust-and-emerald throw rug separated the tiny kitchenette from her living room; contrasting sapphire and ruby pillows were neatly angled on her bronze sectional couch. Even her inexpensive paintings and wall hangings were rich with vibrant color.

“I like it.” His approving gesture encompassed the room…but it was Kiera herself who drew his greatest appreciation. She looked fresh and wholesome in her colorful summer dress and cross-laced white sandals. Thin aqua spaghetti straps emphasized her golden tan, and the explosion of muted ocean colors across her bodice and flowing skirt made her seem delicate without being fragile.

In back, the sundress dipped into a deep vee that exposed her slender back, and ended just above her waist. Conor’s mouth watered. How could any woman look so innocent and so unbearably sexy at the same time?

What would it feel like to ease that silky wisp off her body, freeing those beautiful breasts and…

No! With a tremendous effort, he thrust the provocative fantasy away. Tonight wasn’t about sex; it was about forging a friendship. God willing, there would be time later for lots of hot, steamy sex. But not now, and probably not for quite some time. Liam had been right; Kiera Donovan was as skittish as a newborn colt. It would take time to earn her trust, and her friendship. He’d just have to keep his raging libido under control.

Kiera turned then, and the look in his vivid blue eyes made her knees tremble. How was it possible for any one man to radiate such potent raw sex appeal? It was no wonder women across the globe fell at his feet and doted on his every word!

What on earth was he doing here, in her humble apartment?

Did he know? The sudden horrifying thought made her suck in a panicked gasp. What if he’d already had her checked out, and he knew about Peggy and Melissa?

Oh, she’d have to be so very careful tonight, and not say a single word that revealed her dangerous secret!

“Is anything wrong?”

“No, of course not.” Quickly she marshaled a carefree smile, and brushed back a loose wisp of hair. “I just realized, I still need to feed Phantom and Boulder.”

On cue, the tiny cat greeted him with a high-pitched “rowr!” from her comfortable bed by the kitchen stove. It was so obviously a friendly welcome that he grinned in response. “See? I told you she has good taste.”

Kiera pointedly ignored him, and reached into the fridge. “Here you go, baby,” she smiled, placing what looked like a raw hamburger patty in the kitten’s shallow food dish. Then she set down a large bowl, which was loaded with dark leafy greens, by the dishwasher. “Time to eat, Boulder!”

And Conor gaped in amazement as a huge dome-shaped rock, which he’d previously taken for some weird piece of sculpture, sprouted thick feet and a long curving neck, and began plodding across the room.

“What the hell is that?”

His visible shock made Kiera burst into laughter. “An African tortoise. His name is Boulder—for obvious reasons.”

“I can see it’s a tortoise.” Conor’s voice sharpened with exasperation. “What the bloody hell is it doing in a Los Angeles apartment?”

“Living.” Kiera’s simple reply made him want to strangle something. “We belong to each other.”

“What?”

Okay, he could see how it might belong to her. Though he wasn’t sure why any sane person would want to lug around a huge lumpy hundred-pound tortoise.

But how could she possibly belong to it?

“Boulder originally came with an old roommate of mine,” she explained, taking pity on his obvious frustration. “She couldn’t pay her half of the rent, and skipped out—leaving him behind. We understand each other well enough, and he seems to enjoy being with me. So I brought him to California. He loves basking out on the balcony, when the smog levels are low.”

“Just like that.”

“Just like that.” Kiera smiled, and bent to lay a hand on the tortoise’s bumpy shell. “He’s sixty years old, believe it or not, and likely to live at least another sixty. And grow twice his current size. I couldn’t just abandon him. He’d have ended up in a zoo, being poked and prodded all day. And he’d have hated that. He’s very smart.”

A sixty-year-old tortoise, and a cat that rode around in her purse. Conor gave himself a brisk mental shake, and wondered what other surprises Kiera Donovan had in store for him.

Well, one thing was certain…tonight was definitely not going to be boring!




3



“So tell me about Phantom.” The pizza had just arrived, and Kiera was already reaching for her first slice. Delicious smells wafted around them, promising a delightful meal. Conor tugged a slice onto his own plate, then blew on his fingers to cool them.

“Careful, it’s hot.” Kiera’s automatic warning came a moment too late.

“I noticed.” He grinned at her from across the small table, and took a long sip of his wine. “Worth it, though. This is the best pizza west of St. Louis.”

“You come here often?” Avoiding personal questions was a skill she’d honed into keen instinct, but she was even more a pro at turning the tables. “I’d think that would be tough, now that you’re so well known.”

Conor grimaced a little at her unwelcome reminder. “Liam—my personal assistant—usually picks up a pizza while he’s running errands, and we eat it at home. It’s safer than risking a mob scene wherever I go.”

“No one’s mobbing you tonight.” Kiera cast an appraising eye around the cozy restaurant. Every table was filled with hungry diners, and the muted background hum of happy voices, popular music, and the open hearth stove was comforting. “They’re all too busy eating.”

“It’s magnificent pizza.” Conor picked up his piece, and carefully took a bite. The delectable blend of basil and mozzarella tickled his tongue. “Mmmmm.” His blissful smile was almost comical. “So, tell me about Phantom. How did you end up carting around a kitten every day?”

He was only going to keep probing until she told him. Well, maybe if she could distract him with humorous stories about her animals, he wouldn’t bother asking more personal questions. So Kiera took a slow, savoring bite herself, then washed it down with the fruity Zinfandel he’d chosen. It was a delicious vintage. Give the man credit, he knew his wines.

“One of my best friends, back in Dunbur Park, was Wiccan.” That was usually enough to discourage questions, because most people looked askance at alternative religions. But Conor’s only reaction was to raise one eyebrow slightly, inviting her to continue.

Okay, he’d asked for it.

“When I left Ireland, Brie made me promise to stay in contact through the local covens. Wiccan groups are more widespread than most people realize.” She took another bite, and debated how much to reveal. Not everything, of course; but she knew how to spin a good story out of sketchy facts. “They take care of their own, and Brie had taken me under her wing. So they made me welcome in New York and then St. Louis, helped me find an apartment and enough work to get by, that sort of thing.”

“So you’re Wiccan.” He supposed that explained quite a lot.

“Not really, just curious.” Her correction was instinctive. “But then, I’m curious about a lot of different religions. ‘Wicca’ doesn’t mean ‘witch,’ you see; it just means ‘wise.’ I don’t subscribe to any particular religion; I try to keep an open mind, and accept that each different group may have something useful to teach. In the end, we all believe in the same Maker; we just all get there by different roads.

“Anyway,” she added, before she could be sidetracked into a philosophical (or worse yet, religious) debate, “when I reached L.A., Brie’s older sister looked me up. We hit it off right away, and she let me stay at her place for a few weeks while she was off traveling.”

“Just like that.”

“Well, I did have trusted credentials,” Kiera reminded him with an impish grin. “Brie and I grew up together, so it’s not like I was some stranger off the street. I stayed there long enough to find work, then got my own apartment—such as it was. I don’t like to impose on anyone. And then last year I moved to the Reserve.”

A startling hunch was beginning to tickle in his mind, but Conor wisely kept his suspicions to himself. “How did Phantom enter the picture?” he asked instead.

Anger turned Kiera’s eyes a stormy jade green. “Some kids at the old place had found her hiding under the dumpster, and they thought it was funny to keep her crammed in a little box and feed her occasional scraps. The poor thing was nearly starved to death when Boulder heard her crying, out in the alleyway. He kept butting his head against the wall until I let him outside, and then I heard her, too. It took forever to find her, though. She was so tiny and so weak, she barely had enough strength left to make a sound.”

“I hope you read them the riot act!” Conor’s indignation flared at the very idea of abusing a helpless animal.

“I did worse than that.” Vindictive pleasure coursed through her lyrical voice. “I sicced the coven on them. There’s nothing like the threat of witchcraft to put the fear of God into those ignorant little bastards!”

His startled laugh rang through the restaurant, and turned heads on all sides. Conor ignored them all—the way a lofty Greek god would ignore lesser mortals, she thought with an irreverent mental smirk. Though there was nothing arrogant about Conor Fitzpatrick. At least, not that she’d seen so far.

“They probably thought they’d all be turned into toads.”

“Or worse,” she agreed, this time allowing the smirk to openly curve her lips. “Moira showed up in full theatrical regalia, and had them all flat on their faces, shaking so hard they nearly peed their pants. By the time she was through, they’d anted up all the money in their wallets, and tossed in their fancy gold jewelry, the keys to six stolen cars, and the names of all their drug suppliers and clienteles. Moira turned the keys and the lists over to the police, and they’re probably still serving hard time. The money and finder’s fees from the jewelry paid for Phantom’s medical expenses. She was sick for a long, long time.”

Moira. So he’d been right about Brie’s sister…and that explained how Kiera and Moira ní Cathmhaoil were connected. No wonder she’d been able to get Kiera a job at Amoeba Music!


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