Come to Me
Linda Winstead Jones

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“You’re fired,” she said, ignoring his steady hand. “In case you haven’t already figured that out for yourself, Mister Big Shot Private Investigator.”

“We need to talk.”

“No, we don’t.”

Sam stood there, hand extended. Lizzie continued to ignore him. “Your purse is back at my office.” Lucky for him, considering that there was a Taser in that purse and at the moment Lizzie looked as though she’d gladly use any handy weapon on him. “You don’t have your cell phone, cash, credit cards or the keys to your car, which means that until we get back to the office you’re at my mercy.”

“Cruel and a liar.”

“I’ll buy you a cupcake. That’s hardly cruel.”

“I don’t want a cupcake.”

“You always want a cupcake. I also plan to explain myself, if you’ll let me.” Hell, he was all but begging. Others in the parking lot were starting to stare. If Lizzie didn’t hurry up and take his hand, he was going to drag her inside and force-feed her that damn cupcake.

Yeah, that would go over well.

She used one hand to shoo him back, and then she stepped out of the car, moving regally in spite of her baggy, paint-splattered attire, her displeasure evident in every move, every glance. How was it that all women knew how to do that? Was it in their DNA or was there a secret class the men of the world were not privy to? How to make a man feel two inches tall with a single glance 101.

They walked into the small bakery and were assaulted by the scents of baking bread and sweets and coffee. A handful of customers were waiting at the counter. Along one window sat a half-dozen small, round tables, each with two hard chairs. All but one was empty, since most of the customers were getting their orders to go. Sam motioned to the nearest table, and Lizzie turned in that direction. She walked past the table he’d indicated and continued on, taking the table farthest away, as if she couldn’t stand to be any closer to him.

It was going to be a long conversation.

Eventually Sam reached the counter, where he ordered two coffees, a strawberry cupcake, four chocolate chip cookies, a piece of peanut butter fudge and a blueberry muffin. Ten years ago strawberry cupcakes had been Lizzie’s weakness. He couldn’t be sure what she preferred now, and he wanted to be prepared.

When he had his order in hand, Sam turned away from the counter, not a hundred percent certain he’d find Lizzie where he’d left her. She was mad—rightfully so, he supposed. Knowing her, she might hitchhike to his office and break into the building to retrieve her purse. She could borrow a cell from a stranger and call a friend to collect her. She could walk home. The walk would take her half a day, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try. He didn’t for one minute think she was helpless. If she stayed, it was because she wanted to hear what he had to say.

His eyes fell on the empty table where Lizzie had once sat, and he groaned. He’d hoped she might be willing to listen. He’d hoped she’d have an open mind. Yeah, he’d hoped she’d be where he’d freakin’ left her. His eyes flitted to the parking lot, but if she was gone then she’d left minutes ago, while he’d been dealing with the girl behind the counter. She wouldn’t stick around and give him the chance to catch up with her and try to change her mind.

As Sam’s heart sank into his stomach, Lizzie brushed by without sparing a glance for him or his purchases. She held a stack of napkins, stirrers, sugar and little containers of creamer in her hands. She returned to the table where he’d left her, slapping the napkins onto the center of the table and then sitting, lifting her head to glare at him once more. How to tell a man he’s scum without ever saying a word.

He smiled.

She didn’t like it.

Sam placed the coffee and goodies—which were all stored in a large white bag—on the center of the round table. Lizzie took one of the coffees and removed the lid, fixing it as she liked, with lots of sugar and creamer. She didn’t look at him while she stirred, not until he sat, reached into the bag and drew out the cupcake, which was large and pink. The thick frosting was dotted with tiny bits of real strawberries.

It wasn’t his imagination that her expression softened a little. “You remembered.”

“How could I forget? While we were working together, your dad brought me here every year on your birthday so he could buy your favorite strawberry cupcakes.”

She took the sweet from him and began to gently pull away the paper cup to expose the cake. “Fine. The cupcake has bought you a brief reprieve. You can explain now.” She glanced up at him, eyes narrowed. “It had better be good.”

Lizzie picked at the cupcake while Sam talked. It had been foolish of her to make Sam Travers any more than he was, in her apparently irrational mind. He was no knight in shining armor, no noble and perfect man whose honor would never allow him to tell a lie. He was just a man like any other, skating through life the easiest way he knew how, lying when it was convenient, doing whatever was necessary to get his way.

He told a good enough story, she supposed. Whatever he’d done, he’d done for her father, who really had been a good man. Noble and all that. Charlie hadn’t wanted his little girl to know that he’d screwed up so royally; he hadn’t wanted her to know she had a sister she could never meet. Her father had been trying to spare her the pain he experienced in having a child he couldn’t claim; Sam had been trying to spare her the pain of realizing how completely her father had lied to her. So, who was going to spare her the pain of dealing with overly protective men? No one, apparently.

Charlie had been certain, it seemed, that Jenna would be better off without them. She had a decent stepfather; all that money; a nice, stable, privileged life. Sam had kept that secret until now because Charlie had asked him to keep the secret.

Sam even suggested that Charlie had been afraid that if he pushed the matter there would be a paternity test, and what if it turned out he wasn’t Jenna’s father after all? He’d come to love the child from a distance, and to be dragged into court and have the belief that the girl was his daughter ripped away would’ve been more than he could bear. Too, he was thinking of Jenna. They wouldn’t have been able to keep the suit a secret, and she’d know what kind of woman her mother was.

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