The sign above the glass door scrolled out “Scants” in hot pink neon, blinked twice and started again.
“Bugger.” Holly yanked her clinging sweatshirt away from her body, squared her shoulders and braced for hell. She might need her bloody passport or something.
The door flew open and the clamor from the bar roared out onto the sidewalk where she stood. A couple of girls brushed past her, giggling as they hurled themselves into the preening frenzy. Holly eyed the mass of beautiful bodies through the window. She was way, way out of her element. There was nothing for it, though. According to his doorman, Josh Hunter was in there.
As Holly stepped over the threshold, the noise crashed into her. It was the manic melody of singles bars everywhere; the clink, the chatter, the bass rumble of male voices juxtaposed against the higher pitches of women. Underscoring the babble, the throb of amplifier and subwoofer ground out an elemental jungle beat, quickening the blood.
Welcome to the mating ground of Genus Homo sapiens. Holly’s lip curled. Exactly where you would expect to find someone like Josh Hunter. Proof she and Joshua were an entirely different species. She’d suspected as much in high school. The evidence was now incontrovertible.
Her phone buzzed in her hand and Holly checked the screen. Emma, again. This made it the fifth call in the last hour. What a pity Emma hadn’t thought to panic four days ago when Portia first went missing.
“Yes,” she snapped into the phone. She had to stick one finger in her ear to hear what her sister said.
“Did you find her?”
“I just arrived in Chicago.”
“What have you been doing?” Emma wailed loud enough to rise above the storm of noise around her.
“Driving.” Holly clenched her hand into a fist by her side. Did Emma expect her to hop on her bloody broomstick?
Only this morning, she’d discovered Portia missing. Emma, Portia’s twin, had broken down and confessed Portia left four whole days ago for Chicago. Not only was their younger sister gone, she’d left London, Ontario without her medication. The sheer stupidity of it made Holly want to growl.
“Did you find Joshua Hunter?” Emma persisted. “Portia spoke about him when she called.”
“Yes, you told me already.” Holly cursed her height as she levered herself onto her toes to see over the heads in front of her. “I’m looking for him now.”
She had no idea if she would even recognize Josh Hunter anymore. A lot could have changed in the years since they’d gone to high school together.
“She didn’t sound good,” Emma’s voice quivered. “You have to find her, Holly.”
“I know I do,” Holly almost snarled. Four days and Emma hadn’t said a word. Holly could barely get her head around the fact. A phone call from Portia, flying perilously high and prattling about Josh Hunter, had sent Emma scurrying for Holly and help. “I have to go.” She hung up while Emma was still talking
The name of her high school nemesis had knocked Holly off balance for a moment. It was not a name she’d wanted to hear again. She shook it off and buckled into go mode. It couldn’t be helped. The most important thing was finding Portia and she’d make a deal with the devil if she must.
In his school days, Josh had lived in Willow Park and it seemed the most logical place for Holly to start. Their house had been down the street from Holly and her family and she’d guessed it was where Portia had run into him. Secretly she'd been hoping to find Portia standing on the sidewalk, gazing wistfully at the old, family home. If you could call a house you'd only ever lived in for two years an old, family home.
Holly dodged a weaving waitress and stopped to avoid a collision. The two women in front of her spotted each other and squealed like a pair of happy piglets. Holly stood and waited for the cheek kissing ritual to end. Cheek kissing gave way to feverish chatter and Holly pushed past. She was on a mission.
Why had Portia gone searching for Josh Hunter? Holly frowned as she wobbled on her tiptoes and tried to see past the mass of bobbing heads. It was one of the questions she would ask her sister when she caught up with her. And catch up with Portia, she would.
She had been standing outside the house in Willow Park and wondering where to go next when the door to the house opened and luck stepped out – trailing spangles and a cloud of perfume. God knows how, but the woman remembered her and was thrilled to see her. Holly was still hard put to recall anyone called Brooke. Fortunately, Brooke of the sequins and Christian Dior had remembered Holly and her sisters clearly. And better yet, had been able to tell her the name of the upscale condo on the Gold Coast where Josh now lived.
Brooke went on to say yes, she had seen Holly’s sister. Portia had been by a couple of days ago and she had also been looking for Josh. Brooke confirmed Emma's report that Josh and Portia had found each other and were briefly spotted together. Here Brooke had given a dramatic pause and treated Holly to an abbreviated version of Josh's infamy. Holly couldn't remember most of it, but it centered on women and more women and when was he going to settle down. Holly ran for cover between Brooke’s pause for breath and an invocation to God for Josh to stop breaking his mother's heart and get married already. So, same old Josh Hunter.
Holly had located the condo building easily enough and a bit of creative truth bending with the doorman had her standing on the sidewalk outside “Scants”, exactly the sort of place she would rather chew her arm off than enter.
The crowd in front of her parted and, oh, sweet Mother of God, there he was.
She would have known him anywhere. Like she would know if someone had shoved their fist in her gut. He'd barely changed since high school except to get even hotter and more chiseled and more – whatever. Holly huffed in irritation.
Low blood sugar was her problem. She'd been driving all day, having a shit fit about Portia the entire way and steeling herself to come into contact with Joshua -"God made me this way and aren't I lucky"- Hunter. She'd also forgotten to eat and the peanuts on the bar were calling her name.
She sidled past a blonde cackling over the top of her designer blue martini. Holly dragged her eyes away from the peanuts and eased closer to Joshua. There was no need to tell him the whole story. She’d tell him only what was strictly necessary and nothing more. Right now, she leant towards: "I see you're still a prick. Where's my sister?" She was willing to concede, however, this might be the blood sugar talking and, probably not the most constructive of beginnings.
Holly managed to wedge herself between two, thirty-something suits who paid no attention to the short woman in the tatty sweatshirt with the whack-job hair, but carried on posturing at each other, simultaneously scanning smart phones that jittered and hummed away at them.
From here she had an even better view of him. Of all the people who had lived in Willow Park when Holly and her family did, Portia had chosen him. Why? He stood with one hand propped against the bar and spoke to another man whose back was to her. The dim lighting in the bar played peek-a-boo with the finely chiseled lines of his face. His eyes were shadowed, but Holly already knew they were blue. Blue as the inside of an iris, blue as a pansy, blue enough to break a girl’s heart and make her want to come back for more.
"Excuse me." One of the suits deigned to look down from his lofty height and notice her jammed between him and his companion. He smoothly sidestepped her and Holly was closer to Josh and the mouth you wanted to suck on. He wrapped his lips around the neck of his beer bottle. If his face was any less hewn his mouth would make him look girly. As it was, its full, sensuous sweep made an irresistible counterpoint to the aquiline strength of the rest of his features.
Holly took a deep breath. Why couldn’t Portia have chosen someone else to cling wrap herself to? Josh laughed at something his companion said. It was a broad slash of white teeth across his tanned face; a heart-stopping affair of crinkling eyes and deep, sexy brackets on either side of his mouth. God, she didn’t want to have to make nice with him.
He looked up and Holly was trapped. His glance narrowed in on her like a Scud missile. She heard music, the earth moved and the suit turned to her.
"I think that's you." he glanced pointedly at her phone. Holly’s face went hot as she jerked her eyes away. She fumbled a bit before hitting the talk button.
And like that Josh was paying attention. He'd been standing here, nursing a lukewarm beer and wondering if the fact his new book on Sir Isaac Newton was calling to him was a sign of age or boredom when the inner beast pricked up its ears and locked on target. Joshua looked down the bar at the woman who perked his interest. Surprising.
Maybe it was because she looked hopelessly out of place in her ratty sweatshirt and ugly jeans. Nope. That wasn’t it at all. The butt ugly clothing was a disguise, but he wasn't fooled for a second. She had the whole I have no idea exactly how hot I am thing going for her. A light lurking under a bushel, a diamond in the rough, a girl with an air of do me, bad boy she was oblivious to. Not so clueless was every red-blooded male in her vicinity. Josh noticed more than one covert eye slide aimed at her. Something whispered in the back of his mind. Not his stirring libido, but something more important. He couldn't quite pin it down.
She looked at him, a promising start. Josh returned the look with one of his own. I see you looking, his eyes told her. I see you looking and I'm looking right back. Josh waited for the smile to give him the green light to cruise on over and see if his instinct would pay off.
The woman ducked her head and took her call, but not before she gave him the eye so evil he was tempted to look over his shoulder for the true beneficiary.
"Argh Uhm!" Inside his head, he went all Scooby Doo. Women, as a rule, did not look at him that way. Women, dressed like bag ladies with … pencils? He peered closer. It was definitely a couple of standard HB's holding her hair tightly against her head. Women like her almost never gave him the hairy eyeball.
He wondered if his feelings might be a bruised. Nope. Feelings intact, but ego a bit grazed. Her age was difficult to gauge. She was diminutive and with her face devoid of make up, could have passed for fourteen. He sensed she was much older, however. Closer to his age, which meant old enough to drink, old enough to drive and old enough for all sorts of interesting games. Except, she didn't seem amenable.
Maybe she was gay. Josh winced behind his beer. Glad he wasn't voicing any of this out loud. He sounded like an egotistical prick. Okay, women didn't often turn him down, but they did, sometimes. Well, there was once. No. Twice? Did that time count? It didn't matter. He'd definitely been turned down before. Her eyes flickered in his direction and away again as quickly, dark eyes under a pair of determined brows. She was aware of him and doing her best not to show it. Josh felt a slow smile curl the corners of his mouth. He liked a challenge and, let’s face it, there were not a whole hell of a lot of those these days. God, he’d become a jaded prick.
Then it hit him. He knew her. Not from here, but her face was definitely familiar. She had the sort of face it was hard to forget. Not pretty, exactly, more compelling and a blank canvas for every thought running through her head. And right now she was not aiming happy thoughts in his direction. She hunched over her phone to hear better and he got the side view. This got more interesting.
He was pretty sure he'd never had her naked. Although, that was a fine ass concealed beneath those jeans at least two sizes too big. Not some skinny, adolescent boy ass, but pert and full like two apples in a sack. Josh took a more thorough inventory. She was quite stacked. The sweatshirt deflected attention, but there was a rather fine pair lurking behind the University of Western Ontario. She could be a student, but it didn't fly.
"Hey, Josh?" His name was sing-songed at him. He flinched and tried to pretend it would go away. Perhaps if he sat very still, it would. Smokin' hot Mystery Lady glanced his way and stuck her cute nose in the air. Her skin was like butter cream with the tiniest golden freckles flecked across her upturned nose. The disdain rolled across the distance between them in waves.
He kept his attention on the woman across the bar and not the one whining in his ear. Josh countered her frigid glare with a slow, smoldering blink. It should be a sure fire winner. Her eyes narrowed at him, viciously. Josh retreated. She’d got the full voltage and it left her angrier than ever. Hmm? There was something he needed to remember about this mystery honey.
The love 'em and leave 'em style of his early twenties had not always made friends and influenced people. Still, he came up blank. He was reasonably sure she wasn't one of the bodies littering his youth, but this lady did not like him.
"Hey, Josh, like, hello." A pair of breasts intruded into his line of sight, right beneath his nose. He faced the owner of the pair. Ah, shit, here we go. There were three of them and all looking at him expectantly.
Over the newcomers shoulders Mystery Honey shook her head in disgust. Her eyes raked over him and the posse in front of him and shot straight up in the air. Now, that was not entirely fair. He might even be getting a bit pissed at her and her attitude. Girls like the trio facing him were knee deep in a trendy Chicago bar, which this happened to be. They were voracious hunters and he’d only been standing here minding his own business. She needn't act like he'd encouraged them. In truth, he'd been trying to encourage her.
In the meanwhile, Bambi, Barbie and Bubbles - or whatever – posed and primped in front of him. Their cheeks pink with a combination of alcohol and excitement. His heart sank. He could almost script what was coming. It was his own damn fault, ultimately, but there had to come a point when the ghosts of the past went towards the fucking light or something.
"So, like, we were wondering…" Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles pursed her frosted mouth at him and stuck out her breasts. As if he could have missed them the first time around. Two and three were providing the flanking action; mirroring her movements and throwing in some freestyle hair tossing.
"Hi, girls." He snuck another look at Mystery Honey and was rewarded with a glare. Maybe he didn’t want to walk over there and talk to her anymore. He might have to pass. She was talking into her phone. Shit. She had a nice mouth though, full and soft and making his thoughts go interesting places.
"So, like, we were wondering if you could help us out with something." The trio dissolved into the sort of giggles telling Josh they would not be asking for directions to the library. "We, like, heard you were, like, the most amazing kisser." There was some more pouting, preening and hair tossing.
Oh, Sweet Jesus, not this and not now.
"And then we started talking and we were, like, all ‘I am the best kisser’. No, I am. Whatever! As if! And no, I am. And then we, like, thought it would be cool if you could tell us which one of us you thought was, like, the best kisser."
"Gee, girls." He writhed inside, but kept it cool on the outside. They hunted in packs, the interchangeable blondes; they could sense fear and were quick to pounce. "You make me feel so cheap."
"Oh, no," caroled the trio. "All you would need to do is, like, kiss us."
"At the same time?"
"As if." The girls rolled their collective eyes. "And O M G that would be, like, so cool but, no." Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles looked regretful. "It would have to be one at a time."
Mystery Honey pretended to concentrate on her phone call, but her eyes were locked on him, good and solid. She was getting the entire vapid conversation and her lips curled back like a she’d licked a lemon. She bared her teeth at him in undisguised contempt.
Oh, yeah? Really? His inner fuck you reflex stretched and belched. You think that's bad, chew on this Sexy Lady.
"Good evening, am I speaking with Miss Holly Partridge?" The voice in her ear was polite, distant, with none of the ooze of a telemarketing call. She couldn’t drag her eyes away from Josh Hunter.
"This is Holly."
It was typical. It was so typical it made her want to vomit. She needed to cool it here or she would blow her chances of getting any information out of the man. One minute he gave her the most terrific, nerve tingling eye meet and now this. Stay calm she admonished herself. He's a pig but you need him. He might be able to tell you where Portia is.
"Good evening, Miss Partridge, this is Sanjay from Visa security department."
Holly almost dropped the phone as the impossibly stacked blonde in the minuscule orange dress draped her arms over Josh's shoulders and sidled closer. He shook his head and laughed. She could see it was nothing more than token resistance. Women still plastered themselves over him. Calm flew right out the window.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Um ... sorry." Holly dragged her eyes away from the pair. "Who is this?"
There was a momentary, polite pause as if the person on the other side were taking a deep breath. "My name is Sanjay and I am calling you from the security department at Visa."
"Oh?" Relief flooded through her. "Did you find my Visa card?"
"My Visa, did it turn up somewhere?"
Josh looked up and caught her looking. Un-sodding-believable. A smug smile followed. Josh had been aware of her interest from the start. She sniffed and arched an eyebrow at him. He was pathetically predictable. Oh, God, let Portia not have --
Holly dragged her thoughts away from the dark hole. Portia couldn't have been that stupid. Only, and Holly threw him another glare on behalf of women everywhere, there was no telling what Portia would do. Look at him, like a pasha surrounded by his harem. Gross.
"Miss Partridge? Miss Partridge?" Sanjay sounded a mite less professional. "Are you still there? Are you saying you are unable to locate your Visa card?"
"You have got to be kidding me," Holly exploded, as orange Micro Mini made way for turquoise Hot Pants with a silver bustier.
"I am not joking with you, Miss Partridge." Sanjay soldiered on.
"Huh." Hot Pants wriggled her breasts into Josh's chest, pushed her un-muffin topped hips up against him and writhed like a professional lap dancer. Over the blonde’s head, Josh’s eyes were still locked on her and Holly attempted to lacerate him with a look. Men like Josh Hunter deserved to be castrated. Preying on young, defenseless women. He was catnip for impressionable girls and he knew it. She was thinking about Portia and not Hot Pants, because by no stretch of the imagination did Hot Pants look naive.
"I can assure you, Miss Partridge, this is a matter we at Visa take very seriously," Sanjay informed her. "You must report a lost or stolen card immediately. Need I remind you that you are liable for all charges on your account prior to the time you declare it lost or stolen? Has your Visa been lost or stolen?"
"No." Holly wondered what he blathered about as she watched the bump and grind floorshow going on in front of her. Josh's eyes never left her face and she felt the gauntlet whistle past her cheek.
You're a pig. Her eyes told him.
Ya think? He beamed back.
"Has the card been lost or stolen?"
"Neither." Holly glared at the phone. She needed to forget the show and concentrate on her telephone conversation. She was losing it here. "Give me a minute." Holly hauled in a breath and took another.
Her Visa card, the phone call was about her Visa card. Her mind limped into gear. The Visa card she hardly ever used. The one she kept tucked away for emergencies only and the one that was, suddenly and mysteriously, missing. Holly had turned the house upside down trying to find it before she left London. It had been in none of the usual places. A call to Emma had confirmed Portia had taken it with her. As far as Holly could ascertain, it was Portia’s only source of funds for this trip to Chicago.
"I'm not sure," she replied, taking more of an interest in the man on the other line. "Why are you calling me again?"
The breath Sanjay took was so deliberately calm Holly winced. There was no reason to look over and see what was happening. No reason at all. She was here for Portia. Don't even think about him. She took one more breath. There. She was calm and composed and in control of the situation. The card could be a link to Portia.
"I am calling to tell you," Sanjay manfully battled on, "there has been some irregular activity on your account. This is a standard security call, but now you are telling me the card has been lost or stolen. If the card has been lost or stolen the matter is entirely different."
"How?" Holly didn’t like where this was heading.
"If the card is missing or stolen we would immediately put a hold on it."
"Hmm." Not good. She couldn’t rely on Portia thinking clearly before she bolted. Portia could be alone in Chicago with only the card for money. Not good at all. "What sort of activity?" Holly played for time.
"Miss Partridge, I must insist on knowing if the card is in your possession."
"And I need to know what type of activity we are talking about." Holly went with the best sort of defense. "This call is recorded, correct?"
"Yes, Miss Partridge." Sanjay audibly gritted his teeth. "This call is being recorded for quality control and training purposes. Where are you currently, Miss Partridge?"
"What? Oh, in a bar," she hedged.
"Are you currently still in Canada?"
"No," Holly murmured.
Sanjay’s tone said he was not going to be fobbed off with half answers and evasions. His voice vibrated with the determination of a man in pursuit of the truth. "May I ask where the bar is situated?"
"Chicago." It should be safe enough. Portia was definitely in Chicago. Somewhere. God knows where. Josh Hunter might well know where. Holly turned to face him again.
"Son of a bitch." He had a pair of painted on skinny jeans wrapped around him. One of her legs was firmly wrapped around his hip as her perfect, cellulite free hips thrust at his crotch. Over a platinum mass of hair his blue, blue eyes mocked Holly.
"Hello?” Sanjay had gone deadly silent on the other side.
"Not you," she cajoled into the phone. "Someone else."
They didn't cover these sorts of contingencies in the training program and Sanjay defaulted to what he knew. "Miss Partridge, this is most irregular. I am going to have to put a hold on your card."
"No," Holly yelped. "You can't put a hold on the card."
"I most assuredly can, Miss Partridge. Under suspicious circumstances, I am duty bound to place a hold on your account. You should consult your nearest branch at your earliest convenience."
"Don't do it," Holly wheedled. Around her, people were giving her the beware the crazy lady eye slide. "Please, don’t do that. If you put a hold on the card, she won't have any money."
"She?" Sanjay pounced, his voice swelling with imminent triumph. "Am I to infer the Visa card is not, in fact, in your possession?" Holly groaned. Sanjay was, clearly, a man who could see the winner’s tape stretched out before him. He put on a burst of speed and cut off any response Holly would have made. "Your contract strictly prohibits the use of your Visa card by any person other than yourself."
"I didn't say she. You heard me wrong," Holly jabbered. Sanjay’s voice surged as he gave her the legalese at the bottom of the contract nobody, ever, bothered to read. She could almost hear him stepping up to the winner’s podium, another victory in the fight against fraud, the sounds of "Star Spangled Banner" playing gloriously in his ears.
"I would suggest you consult your nearest branch in the morning. Thank you for your time, Miss Partridge."
"Don't you hang up on me,” Holly bellowed. "Sanjay? Are you there? Sanjay?" The thirty-something suits took a step away as her voice rose. "You are the son of the bitch. I meant you. Do you hear me? Sanjay? Sanjay? Anyone listening to this recording?"
Holly. Holly Partridge. Holy Holly Partridge and Josh grinned.
Her name dropped into his mind, neat as you please. He broke the vacuum seal Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles had around his neck. He was already regretting the impulse to piss her off by encouraging the trio. It was something about the way she'd looked at him. It brought out the worst in him. Just like it always had. It was a sobering thought. A thirty-year-old man reduced to a Pavlov's dog type reaction under the disapproving glare of Holy Holly Partridge.
It was hearing her accent that finally did it. The sexiest tangling of vowels he'd ever heard and he'd first heard it when he was sixteen. Not quite British, not quite Canadian, a touch Venezuelan and a whole lot raspy. It still stroked up his spine like a cat's tongue. It did more for him than the combined attempts of the tightly toned trio.
Holly Partridge, the girl who almost toppled his throne as king of the tenth grade. Live and in the flesh after all these years and not having much luck. Not if the way she was yelling into her phone was any indication. Academically, she'd almost wiped the floor with him until he wised up and hit the books. He’d barely hung onto her coat tails. She knew her way around the sports field as well. He also seemed to remember something about her being trained as a dancer. A hazy vision of toned thighs and tiny sports shorts tantalized his mind.
And, damn it, he was right. He had been turned down before. There was the living proof, the one that got away. Jabbing her fingers murderously at her phone as if she could somehow reach the person on the other side and impale them. Holy Holly Partridge had only ever looked at him as if she wanted to scrape him off her shoe. Man, it had stung.
There he had been, undisputed teenage stud of not only Willow Park but all through the north side and even made inroads into Chicago. Holy Holly Partridge hadn't given a shit. She had not been impressed and she’d let him know it any way she could. Like she was doing right now.
Her eyes would go flinty and deep, sticky molasses. She would look his way, toss her honey brown mane and curl up her wide, wide mouth as if she'd been kissing a nettle. Man, she'd bruised his overinflated ego.
Josh laughed to himself. She was still cutting him down to size. It was the weirdest thing. He hadn't thought about Holly in years and now she was popping up all over the place. Only the other day her little sister had managed to track him down. Now, here she was in person. What were the odds?
Josh swore beneath his breath. Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles were still waiting, staring at him expectantly as they writhed like enthusiastic puppies. "I tell you, girls. I’m going to have to pass."
They were closing around him and he could barely see past them to Holly. Now he was seriously regretting his previous impulse. He was trying to stop this sort of thing, not start it up again.
"Maybe we should, like, go somewhere else and see if we can make it any clearer." Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles grabbed his thigh. Close enough to his balls to make his breath catch in his throat. It was not only forward. It was downright rude.
"She means like a foursome," Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles clarified for him.
He'd never get out alive. Josh kept the thought off his face.
"It's tempting girls," he smiled in what he hoped was an avuncular manner. "But I am a one woman man."
"Ahh," they chorused. It occurred to one of them, a gap had opened. "And she’s my one over there." Josh indicated Holly before the thought could work its way into a coherent sentence.
"For real?" Bambi/Barbie/Bubbles blinked at Holly in surprise. "But she must be, like, at least thirty."
"That would be about right," Josh assured them with relish.
He kept his eyes on Holly the whole time. She worked away at a bowl of peanuts like her life depended on it. A frown puckered the skin between her eyes. Josh caught Craig, the barman's, eye and nodded in her direction. Craig gave him a knowing grin and snagged a bottle of merlot.
He would wander on over there and renew his acquaintance with Holy Holly.