Lovely readers, I have some wonderful news! Dropping the Dime is available today at all the finest online booksellers. This is the second book in the Miranda Vaughn Mysteries series and I had such a great time writing it.
You can get your copy here:
Here’s a peek at Chapter One! I hope you have as much fun reading about Miranda’s latest adventures as I did writing it!
My heart pounded, and my legs ached, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I struggled for breath and grimaced at the pain in my side. Gasping, I struggled onward through the empty city streets in the gray early light.
“I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.”
There was no one out on the street to hear my complaints, so I voiced them, chanting in time with my footsteps on the sidewalk.
“Hang in there, pretty lady. Your butt will look good.”
“Eeep!” I leapt sideways at the voice and saw the bearded man reclining in a doorway. He lifted a paper-covered bottle and winked a bleary eye at me.
I picked up my pace and crossed the street, my heart rate well into the aerobic range thanks to the new rush of adrenaline.
It’s pretty much impossible for me to explain how much I loathe running.
I hate feeling like a lumbering elephant as my feet pound away at the unforgiving sidewalk. I hate sweating. I hate sports bras.
But I kept moving at a pace that could be considered a jog. It was barely daylight, the only sane time to go out in public and humiliate myself. At least there were few people out and about to see me attempt the concept of exercise.
Why was I doing this if I hated it so much? I asked myself this question as I tried to focus on the music streaming in through my earbuds. It was healthy, though it made me feel like I was dying. It would let me fit into the cute dress I just bought that was a little snug.
And the next time I was chased by gun-toting psychopaths, I’d be ready to run.
I hoped there was never a next time. But after recent events, I wasn’t going to rule it out.
By the time I reached the entrance to the alley that led to my apartment I was a huffing, sweaty mess, and all I could think of was showering then stopping by my aunt’s bakery and grabbing a hot almond croissant right off the baking tray. My mouth watered at the thought of the pastry as I opened the gate to the backyard that led to my apartment over Aunt Marie’s garage. I’d been living in the apartment for a couple of years and though it was small and cramped and I could now afford to move out, I liked living near my only family member. And her yummy bakery.
I’d been on the lookout for a new place to live, but nothing had caught my eye yet. Living downtown near my new job was convenient, but there weren’t a lot of rentals, at least not affordable ones. There were some nice houses in my price range in some nearby suburbs, but I wasn’t sure if I was suburban material. I was unmarried, didn’t have kids, and wasn’t crazy about long commutes. Until something perfect lured me out of the garage, I was staying put. At least it was cheap, and I could save up some money.
I stepped into Aunt Marie’s backyard and froze at the sight of a man standing in the shadows outside the backdoor.
A year’s worth of adrenaline flooded my body, and my heart, already racing from exertion, nearly burst from my chest. My skin prickled, and my mind ripped through a thousand scenarios, none of them good. Burglar. Home invasion. Or something personal.
The tall, lanky man stepped out from under the patio cover and into the early morning gray light, and it was worse than I feared.
My former attorney, now my boss.
In his boxers.
Good morning, awkward.
He set down a bowl of cat food and gave me a wave. I returned a weak greeting then ran up the wooden steps to my apartment.
Well, that settled it. I had to move.
It wasn’t that I begrudged Aunt Marie her “happily ever after.” The woman was a saint, who had taken me in when I was three years old, had worked like a dog building Sugar Plum Bakery into a successful business, and had put her love life on hold all these years to do both of those things. If dating my boss made her happy, I was all for it. From a distance.
Seeing her and Rob holding hands and laughing and exchanging those warm glances sparked something in me. And I wasn’t too proud to admit it was a little bit of jealousy. I thought I was on my way to finding that happiness myself, but that didn’t happen. My engagement to Dylan Holland ended two years ago when I’d been arrested on bogus fraud charges. That turned out to be for the best.
Plus, witnessing Aunt Marie’s flourishing love life just reminded me of a time six months earlier when Jake Barnes and I were flirting, touching, kissing. We were also dodging bullets and bad guys as I tried to clear my name. While it had certainly felt like there was something between us at the time, I had since convinced myself that it was just adrenaline. Now I was moving forward, without the sexy FBI agent to deliciously complicate my life. So, yeah, I wasn’t entirely convinced that “happily ever after” was something that could happen for everyone.
No amount of scrubbing in the shower could scour my brain of the image of my boss in his underwear, but an hour later I was dressed and ready for work. I couldn’t put it off. I had to go spend the day working with Rob and trying to pretend I didn’t know he’d made a booty call at my aunt’s last night.
The Sugar Plum Bakery was two blocks from my apartment, and there was a line out the front door, as usual. I ducked down the alley behind the building and peeked through the screen door. Sheldon, the hulking kitchen manager, loaded trays into the industrial dishwasher while Aunt Marie checked the stocks of breakfast supplies.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Aunt Marie said, coming over to kiss my cheek. Her blue eyes sparkled, and her cheeks were rosy, and she looked happier than I’d seen her in a long time. “You’re cheating, sneaking in the back.”
“I don’t have time to stand in line, and the thought of an almond croissant was the only thing that got me moving this morning,” I said.
I found a bag and loaded up enough pastries to share at the office. Then one more because I needed to eat something on my way to work. Tilting my head, I studied the buttery fruit Danishes next to the croissants and added a couple of those for good measure. Damn. At this rate, I’d need to start running every day instead of just a few times a week.
Aunt Marie disappeared into the walk-in refrigerator and came back with a bottle of orange juice.
“You need to eat a balanced diet,” she said, handing me the juice. She peeked in the bag. “Hungry this morning?”
“I’m taking them to work,” I said.
She gave me a quick hug then picked up a tray of Danishes and started back to the line of impatient customers. “Make sure you get a bear claw for Rob. They’re his favorite.”
She winked and used her rear to bump open the swinging door to the front of the bakery. I added a bear claw, said goodbye to Sheldon, and let myself out the backdoor. I was happy for Aunt Marie. And for Rob. But I was definitely too close to the action, so to speak.
On the five-block walk to Rob’s law office, I chowed down on my extra pastry. By the time I hit the door, I was ready to brew a pot of coffee and nosh on another croissant. I’d run three miles. I figured that entitled me to a little extra breakfast. Plus, I’d had the orange juice, so that’s like a fruit.
“Mmmm, bear claws?” Rob greeted me with a grin and an outstretched hand. At his side, his massive golden retriever, Basil, looked up with hopeful brown eyes that never left the white bag.
“Of course,” I said, handing over the treats.
Rob, too, had a satisfied aura around him, and I wished I didn’t know the source of it. He pulled the bear claw out of the bag.
“I’m glad you’re here early. We’ve got a new client coming in this morning, and I’m going to need your help with her. Let’s talk when you get settled.”
I made my way toward my desk in the corner. Rob’s office wasn’t quite big enough for his staff, at least not since he added me a few months ago. Theresa, his secretary, had staked out the reception area. My friend Sarah Girard, Rob’s paralegal, had a desk in a wide area between Rob’s office and the library/conference room. There was a small office off the reception area, but it was rented by Burton Worthington, a private investigator who worked with Rob on most of his cases. I couldn’t intrude on his space, and Burton was in no danger of being evicted, since he was far more valuable to Rob than I was.
I had worked in the small conference room while helping Rob defend my own case, but the windowless cube we called the “war room” was claustrophobic, so Rob moved some old filing cabinets out and had pushed a small desk into the corner of the main office space. It wasn’t ideal, but at least I wasn’t stuck at my desk forty hours a week. My duties consisted of reviewing evidence in Rob’s white-collar criminal cases, so I could set my own hours and work from home if I wanted.
Rob looked up from his computer as I walked into his office and took a seat in front of his wide oak desk. He pushed a folder across the desk toward me, and I took it.
“Background for our new case.”
The folder contained newspaper articles, about two dozen, on Leonidis Developments, Inc., a local real estate company that had built most of the suburbs surrounding the city. CEO Simon Leonidis was a prominent man in the community. The articles detailed his business successes and his charitable giving. The photos accompanying the articles showed a man in his mid-sixties, still very handsome, with thick silver hair and warm brown eyes.
Rob shook his head. “No, we’re representing Kathryn Hammond, the corporation’s chief financial officer. She’s agreed to cooperate with the government, turn over information about Mr. Leonidis’s illegal activities.”
My eyebrows shot up at this news. “Really? He seems like such a pillar of the community.”
Rob smirked. “Looks can be deceiving.”
Ain’t that the truth.
“Ms. Hammond will be here later. Can you sit in on our meeting? I’m going to need someone to translate the finance terms for this old cowboy,” he said with a grin.
It was a little unusual for Rob to have a client who wasn’t a criminal defendant, like I had been. Almost two years ago, I’d been charged with fifteen fraud counts, along with two of my bosses at the investment bank Patterson-Tinker Investment Strategies. Thanks to Rob, a jury had found me not guilty of the charges last summer. Since then, I had learned there was a difference between not guilty and innocent. As an attorney, Rob was satisfied with not guilty. But as the person accused, I wanted to be found innocent.
“What do you do when your client isn’t charged with a crime?”
Usually, when a new case came in, we investigated, reviewed the evidence against the client, determined whether it should go to trial, or if Rob should negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor. But having a client who was a witness was new to me.
Rob ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair. “Well, she’s a whistleblower basically. She’s turning over information to the government so they can go after Simon Leonidis, maybe others in the corporation. But we want to make sure she’s protected, that the government isn’t violating her rights. That she doesn’t say something that gets herself in hot water. I’m working out an immunity agreement with the prosecutor, and once that’s finalized, she’ll sit down with the FBI agents investigating Leonidis and tell them everything she knows, provide them with the documents to prove it. If the case moves forward and someone is indicted, then she’ll testify at trial.”
I frowned at the thought of working for the federal prosecutors. My own trial wasn’t so long ago that I was ready to forgive and forget that they’d tried to put me in prison for a decade. Plus, the prosecutor had made sure that my trial was high profile, and even after the jury found me not guilty, my reputation in banking was muddied up enough that I’d probably never be able to use my degrees in economics and finance.
“What can I do to help?”
Rob grinned. “She’s bringing in a few years worth of annual financial statements, and I sure as hell don’t want to read them.”
It looked like my finance degree was going to get a workout after all.
“There is one other thing.” Rob bit his lip, and his eyes flickered away for a moment.
“Okay,” I said, unsure of myself. Had I screwed up something?
“The FBI agent on this case is Jake Barnes,” he said.
My stomach did a gentle somersault at the mere mention of his name, but I struggled to keep my face neutral.
“That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” Rob glanced up at me, a concerned expression crossing his face.
Damn it, I didn’t need or want his pity.
“No, that’s not a problem.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Because if you and he were still involved, then there might be a conflict, and I’d need to disclose that to the client and make sure she understood and waived any conflict. And I’d probably need to inform the prosecutor.”
I forced a smile. “Rob, it’s fine. Jake Barnes and I are not, and were not, involved.”
Jake had made that clear with a quick and adamant denial six months ago when we were in Miami. So we’d exchanged a few kisses. A few hot, mind-melting kisses. No big deal. It clearly meant nothing to him. Sure, he had to stay away from me while the investigation into our adventures in Central America was still pending. But then after that case was closed, Jake had vanished from my life like a wisp of smoke.
Rob’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t respond.
“I’ve only seen Jake once in the last six months,” I said.
Rob gave me a gentle smile that deepened the laugh lines that framed his eyes. “Mainly, I just need to know that you are okay working alongside Barnes.”
His protective nature gave me a warm feeling. “I’m fine, Rob. Really.”
After a second, he nodded and smiled. “Okay, then. Let’s move on.”
He stood and grabbed another stack of documents from the printer. “Here’s all the information Theresa could find online about the Leonidis Development company and the family. Simon is the CEO and president, and his three children are all vice presidents. It’s a closely held corporation, and all the shares are held by the family.”
Rob then pulled out another envelope. “And these are the papers that Ms. Hammond gave us to review. Looks like a bunch of financial information that I’m going to let you sort through. I’d like you to be there when we meet with the agents.”
I took the papers and was heading back toward the door when I heard Rob clear his throat, so I turned back.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, Davy Donnelly is coming by today, too,” Rob said, rubbing his forehead in the way he did every time he mentioned his client who had pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud.
“Is he all right?”
Davy Donnelly was twenty-eight, a bright and charming young man, who had made the mistake of lying on his mortgage application. Well, on several loan applications, to be honest. He and his best friend bought up a bunch of houses and flipped them, moving up to bigger and bigger houses and always selling them before they had to make too many of the payments—which they could in no way afford. Then the housing bubble burst, and they couldn’t sell their current investment houses for half of what they’d paid for them. The banks foreclosed, found that Davy and his buddy had inflated their income by a very large factor and should never have been approved for the loans, and called the FBI.
Now Davy was facing nearly two years in prison and had to report next month. In the meantime, he was calling Rob every other day to ask about the federal prison where he’d been designated and what his life would be like after he was released.
“Davy’s fine. He’s going to meet with Quinn Bishop in the library,” Rob said.
I shook my head. “I don’t know Mr. Bishop.”
“He’s a former client from before your time here. He’s going to talk to Davy about FCI Lompoc. Quinn spent some time there a few years back. I thought it would be good for Davy to meet someone who got his life back together after being convicted,” he said. “Quinn does this for me from time to time. You’ll like him.”
He said that about all of our clients, and he was right. Sure, they were accused of crimes, but they were just people. People who had made mistakes and sometimes were sorry for what they did. Even the ones who were unrepentant were respectful to Rob and his staff. I’d spent more than a year working on my case in Rob’s office and met several of his clients then. Now I was working for them, part of the professional staff, and could hear their stories and see the evidence against them. And more importantly, I could see a bumpy future ahead for most of them.
Especially Davy, whom I worried about like he was a kid brother. A good football player, he’d gotten through college on a scholarship, his good looks, and his playful charm. Prison was going to be a whole different experience for him, and he knew it. And it scared him.
Putting thoughts of Davy aside, I focused on the papers in front of me, careful not to drop too many crumbs on the articles. The information was interesting reading—Simon Leonidis, the family patriarch, started a small construction company when he was in his twenties. Forty years later, he was the largest homebuilder in the region. He’d built whole cities of houses, designing communities from the dirt up. His more high-profile developments were a community of custom-built mini-mansions in an exclusive enclave called Garden of the Gods and a major subdivision north of the city that would eventually have fifteen-thousand homes over five-thousand acres, essentially quadrupling the population of the town of Newbury.
His three adult children all worked in the business. His son Milo was a vice president of operations. His daughter, Ana, was in charge of design and marketing. Alexi, the younger son, headed up the construction division.
A sharp rap on my desk jolted me out of my reading, and I looked up to find Sarah standing at my desk, her hands on her hips. Her long, shiny black hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and she was wearing her leather motorcycle jacket over a crisp white T-shirt. Her helmet sat a few feet away on her desk next to a pair of gloves. She had a take-no-prisoners expression on her face.
“Where are the goods, Vaughn?” she asked.
“Kitchen,” I said, popping the last piece of my pastry in my mouth before she could steal it. Despite her slim figure, she was known to do that.
“There better be some Danishes left,” she said, crossing the office.
“Man, you’re cranky,” I said, getting up and following her to the break room to refill my coffee mug.
Sarah peered into the bag and then pulled out two large pastries. “These will help.”
“Bad night?” I asked.
“Bad date,” she said and then took a savage bite out of the berry Danish.
“Sorry to hear that.” I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and waited for her to finish eating so I could hear the details.
Sarah sighed and leaned back against the counter. “You know Marcela’s, that Mexican restaurant on the river?”
“Mmmm, yeah. Good margaritas,” I said with a nod. Tangy, not too much salt on the rim. Quality tequilas. “He took you there?”
She nodded. “I had a margarita. One of the good ones.”
“With the fresh fruit?”
“No, those are not margaritas. Those are girly drinks. Anyway, I hadn’t eaten much since lunch—”
“Well, it had only been six hours…”
She waved a hand to dismiss my logic. “As I was saying, drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea. Especially on a first date. And we were hitting it off. Then at some point, we were joking around, and I leaned over and ruffled his hair.”
Sarah paused, and I waited, my coffee halfway between my mouth and the counter.
“And I felt something,” she said.
“What, like crawling?” I had a sudden urge to scrub at my arms.
“No! Like canvas. Like the part of the toupee that holds the hair on,” she said.
“Oh. My. God. No.”
She dropped her head and reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose, as if the memory were causing her pain. “That’s not the worst part.”
“Oh, no. Did it come off in your hand?”
“No, no. But then I couldn’t stop staring at his hairline. You know when you’ve had a drink or two and you sort of lose control of your impulses? Well, I couldn’t look anywhere but his forehead, trying to see if he was really wearing a rug.”
My eyes watered with the effort to suppress a laugh.
She looked up, her expression pained. “I thought it would be better to just address the issue directly.”
My eyes widened at the thought. Sarah could be very direct.
“Well, long story short, we ended up in the restaurant bathroom, shaving his head.”
I clapped a hand over my mouth. “You did not!”
She nodded. “It looks a million times better.”
The laughter burst forth, and I nearly doubled over. Sarah wasn’t laughing, though. Instead, she had a thoughtful expression, almost serious.
“And you know what he said when he looked in the mirror?”
I shook my head, wiping at my eyes.
“He said, ‘It does look good. But how am I going to explain this to my wife?’ Can you believe that?”
“He’s married?” I choked out the question. “What did you do?”
She shrugged. “Locked him in the bathroom, told the hostess there was a pervert in there shaving himself, and took a cab home.”
I tried to disguise my laughter behind my coffee mug, but the glare Sarah shot me said it wasn’t working. Then she sighed. “Why is it so hard to find a decent guy?”
Without meaning to, I turned toward the door to Burton’s office and then looked back at her. It was widely if silently acknowledged that Sarah and Burton definitely had feelings for each other. Unfortunately, neither one of them seemed ready to act on it, so instead they channeled that pent-up sexual energy into bickering. If Sarah saw me look toward Burton’s door, she ignored it, tucking into the next Danish.
“Yeah, it’s not like men are just showing up at work, yours for the taking,” I said.
“No shit,” she mumbled through a mouth full of fruit filling.
I rolled my eyes and left her to her breakfast, hearing Rob greet someone in the lobby. I turned the corner from the break room, expecting to see our new client and stopped in my tracks.
It wasn’t our new whistle-blowing accountant standing at Theresa’s desk.
The man was tall, a couple of inches taller than Rob even, with tousled light brown hair and bright blue eyes. When he smiled at Rob, his eyes crinkled in the most appealing way, as if he were someone who laughed often. He had an aura of casual confidence, from his smile to the tips of toes, encased in worn leather.
Holy Marlboro Man.
The man was sex in boots.
“Miranda, come here and meet Quinn Bishop,” Rob said, seeing me standing like a moron in the doorway.
Quinn Bishop, who appeared to be in his mid-to-late thirties, stepped forward and took my hand in a firm grip, his fingers wrapping around mine in a warm embrace. I blinked up into his face. His incredibly handsome face.
I was literally dumbstruck in the face of his rugged good looks. I gave myself a mental shake and tried to look normal. It wasn’t easy.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Bishop,” I said.
His smile grew, doing nothing for my self-control.
“Call me Quinn, please,” he said. “It’s nice meeting you, too. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
I nearly grimaced at the thought of what he’d heard. It wasn’t that long ago my image had been on the front of the newspaper and video of me walking out of the federal courthouse had looped on the evening news.
“Rob says you’re his new secret weapon in white-collar cases,” Quinn said, letting go of my hand.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I mean, I guess so.”
The front door to the office opened, and Theresa held the door for Burton, who carried a stack of two Bankers Boxes with ease.
“Just set those in the war room, please, Burton,” she said then looked up to see us standing at her desk. “Oh, Quinn!”
Theresa wrapped her arms around him and squeezed with affection.
“Hi, Theresa. You look great,” he said, returning the hug.
“It’s been too long,” she said with a smile. “You need to come by more often. How’s the ranch?”
A ranch, of course, I thought. He’d look right at home on a horse.
Burton dropped the boxes and shook Quinn’s hand. “Good to see ya, Q.”
“You, too, Burton.”
A squeal from behind startled me, and Sarah launched herself at the cowboy.
Quinn picked her up and twirled her around, something I’ve never seen anyone else ever try.
“Sarah Mei! How’s my girl?” He kissed her forehead as he set her down, and she beamed.
“It’s so good to see you!”
I’d never seen Sarah show such joyous affection for anyone or anything. Not even food, which she loved beyond measure. No trace of her foul mood remained as she wrapped an arm around the visitor and hugged him to her.
Quinn laughed, keeping an arm around her shoulder. “Burton, you still want to catch the game tonight?”
The investigator nodded and smiled, not a bit of jealousy on his face, which was unusual because he always seemed to get a little edgy when Sarah talked about dating. Yet here she was with an arm around a gorgeous cowboy’s waist, and Burton was as relaxed as always.
“You got it,” he said, unlocking the door to his office. “Let’s meet at Finnegan’s around five.”
Burton disappeared into his office, and Theresa ushered the rest of us out of her lobby and into the library, where Quinn could have some privacy to talk to Davy.
“I’ve got to run,” Sarah said, picking up a stack of filing to take to the courthouse. “You guys have fun tonight. Come visit more often, Quinn.”
“I will,” he said, his eyes meeting mine, causing a flush to creep up my cheeks. “You should come out to the ranch next weekend. We’re having a party for the ranch’s centennial and my parents’ wedding anniversary. I’d love to have you all there.”
Sarah stood up her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I’ll be there.”
“Bring a date,” he said.
“Nah, I’ll bring Miranda, though,” she said over her shoulder as she left the office.
He gave me a wink that sent my pulse skipping. Damn. What was wrong with me?
I followed Sarah out quickly, fumbling through an excuse to go work in the library before my cheeks exploded into confetti from the blushing. I closed the library door behind me and leaned against it, then fanned my face and exhaled.
Maybe I was finally getting over that inconvenient crush on the FBI agent.
Dropping the Dime is available now!