“AND THIS PHONE has a dual aperture camera,” the sales guy said.
Carlotta Wren squinted, thinking the smart phone he held looked pretty much like the other six sitting on the counter. In hindsight, she should’ve brought along her tech-nerd brother Wesley to help her choose. “Um… what’s a dual aperture?”
Priscilla Wren lifted on her tip toes to peer over the top of the counter. “It means you’ll look better in selfies, even if the lighting is bad.” The little girl smirked. “You should definitely get that one.”
Carlotta pursed her mouth. For a nine-year-old, the girl had a cutting tongue.
The sales guy smothered a smile. “Your daughter seems to know her stuff.”
“I’m not her daughter,” Priscilla supplied. “I’m her sister.”
“Ah, well that explains the resemblance.”
“I’m much prettier,” Priscilla said matter-of-factly.
“Prissy,” Carlotta chided.
The guy laughed. “Yes, you’re very pretty.” Then he glanced back to Carlotta with open admiration. “And so is your big sister.”
“We didn’t know about each other until a few weeks ago,” Prissy prattled on. “I was in hiding with my parents.”
The guy suddenly looked concerned. “In hiding?”
Carlotta gave Prissy a warning glance, then coughed up a laugh. “My little sister has an active imagination.”
He seemed appeased, then pointed to the phone Prissy had recommended. “It’s also on sale, a really good deal if you sign a service contract.”
Ah, now he was speaking her language. “Okay, I’ll take it.”
“Can I have one, too?” Prissy asked. “Please?”
“We talked about this. Maybe when you’re a little older.”
Her sister pouted, but didn’t argue—for once.
Carlotta turned back to the sales guy, holding up her old phone. “Can you transfer my contacts?”
“No problem,” he said, taking her phone. “Plus photos, music, whatever. Do you want to stay with your same service provider?”
“Sure,” she said, then glanced at her watch. “Will this take long?” Hannah Kizer was meeting them for lunch after some shopping of her own.
“Not at all.” He moved toward a computer terminal and typed in her name as she spelled it. “Yes, here’s your account.” His flirtatious smile faded. “You’re on the friends and family plan of a Peter Ashford?”
“Um… yes,” Carlotta murmured. “That needs to be changed.”
The guy grinned. “You broke up, huh?”
“He’s in jail,” Prissy supplied helpfully. “For stealing money from a bunch of rich people.”
“Peter didn’t steal money,” Carlotta corrected her sharply. “He only… helped.” In the sense he knew about the money counterfeiting scheme at Mashburn & Tully, but he didn’t report it.
“Everyone blamed it on our dad,” Prissy told the sales guy. “That’s why we were in hiding my whole life.”
The guy looked thoroughly confused, then grinned at Carlotta. “So… you don’t have a boyfriend?”
“No, she doesn’t,” Prissy said. “And she’s getting kind of old. Do you want to be her boyfriend?”
“That’s quite enough,” Carlotta said through gritted teeth.
“I have a boyfriend,” Prissy said to the salesman. “His name is Jack and he’s a policeman. We’re getting married.”
“Wow, he sounds… older.”
Prissy nodded. “But he said he’d wait for me.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Carlotta muttered for her ears only.
Add her little sister to the long line of women who’d fallen for Detective Jack Terry’s charms, and were destined to be disappointed.
“Hello, Wren twins,” came a voice behind them.
Prissy turned and grinned. “Hannah!”
Hannah Kizer sported black leather shorts, red tube top, and combat boots. She set down her shopping bag and opened her arms wide for a hug from Prissy, who ran to her.
Carlotta squashed the stab of envy over how quickly her little sister had taken to her tatted up, stripe-haired, foul-mouthed friend. In fact, it seemed Prissy had bonded with everyone new in her life—Hannah, Wesley, Chance, Jack, and Coop—more than she’d bonded with her big sister who’d found where her parents and Prissy had been living in Las Vegas under assumed names.
Still, Carlotta’s chest welled with love and pride as she studied the little girl interacting happily with Hannah. Priscilla was a precocious, bright child, with a winning personality. And although she resembled Carlotta almost exactly at the same age, she was more mature than Carlotta had been. And small wonder, considering how, outside of school, Priscilla had been mostly sequestered in the house with adults, including their mother Valerie, who was, sadly, suffering from some sort of early onset dementia.
Prissy had grown up quickly.
“This nice man wants to be Carlotta’s boyfriend,” she told Hannah.
“Does he?” Hannah asked. “And what did she say?”
They all looked at her expectantly, including the sales guy. He was good looking, if a little young, but she wanted to laugh out loud at the absurdity of adding anything—or anybody—to her overflowing plate. “Thank you,” she said, “but I’m not available.”
His mouth turned down, then he shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Hannah narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re pining for Peter Ponzi-Scheme Ashford?”
Carlotta sighed. “No. And for the record, Peter didn’t know about the fraud until after the fact.”
“Then I hope you’re not letting Jack Terry come around again? I thought he’d be too busy dealing with his crazy baby-mama jailbird Liz to try to worm his way back into your bed.”
Carlotta frowned and nodded toward Prissy. “Language.”
“Oh, please,” Hannah said. “This girl is going on forty.”
“Jack doesn’t want Carlotta,” Prissy said, hands on hips. “He’s going to marry me.”
Carlotta smiled at Hannah. “See? Besides, Jack and I are just friends. We made our peace before we left Vegas.”
The sales guy cleared his throat, then pointed at the two phones. “I’m just going to step over there to finish this.”
“Who then?” Hannah’s eyes flew wide. “Coop?”
Carlotta shook her head. “Not Coop, not anyone. I’m taking a break from… men.”
“Are you a lesbian?” Priscilla asked. “That would explain a lot.”
Carlotta’s jaw dropped. “No.”
Hannah howled with laughter.
“I’m taking a break from dating altogether,” Carlotta said evenly. “I’ve been kind of busy.”
“How are things at the house?” Hannah asked lightly.
Carlotta noticed she didn’t say “home”… her friend had warned her moving back into the Buckhead house where she and Wesley had grown up would feel weird, but Dillon Carver’s thugs had trashed the townhome looking for the rest of the three hundred million in counterfeit bills Randolph had stolen, rendering it almost uninhabitable. She’d convinced her friend and herself she could handle being back in her childhood home.
But she wasn’t handling it. Not well, anyway.
She gave a slow nod, careful not to betray her true feelings in front of her little sister. In truth, the Wren family reunion wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamed it would be. The initial exhilaration of having her parents back—with the surprise addition of Prissy—had given way to the reality that the Wrens had spent the last ten years apart. What they were, it seemed, were a group of strangers with the same last name. “Great,” she said. “Everything is just… great.”
“Is Wes still walking on air to have his parents back?” She winked at Prissy. “And a new little sister?”
That, at least, made Carlotta smile. “Yeah… Wes is like a kid again, happy and eager to please.” Seeing her brother so animated gave her strength when she felt overwhelmed. She’d hidden her mounting anxiety from him—Wesley deserved to revel in his family being reunited. “He’s staying at the townhome, handling repairs. And looking after his snake, of course.”
That python of his was one thing about living at the townhome she did not miss.
“But he visits almost every day and helps Birch with the cooking,” Prissy added. “He’s a really neat brother.” The little girl smiled up at Carlotta as if to underline the omission that she was a neat sister.
The two of them had settled into a push-pull sistership. The one thing that convinced Carlotta her prickly little sister really did care for her was the fact that Prissy had never removed the pink plastic bead bracelet Carlotta had given her in Vegas. She even slept in it, and that said more to Carlotta than Prissy could express.
“How’s all the legal stuff?” Hannah asked.
“The D.A. is still working on smoothing over Wes’s charges in Vegas. But thankfully, the charges against Randolph have been dropped.”
“That’s the least the D.A. can do after the way he pursued your father.” Then Hannah grimaced. “We were all wrong to think the worst of him.”
Hannah’s family had been on the list of investment clients allegedly swindled by Randolph Wren when in reality, he had been set up by his own firm.
“That’s all over now,” Carlotta murmured. After all, she’d thought the worst of Hannah when they were in Vegas, but the villain had turned out to be Liz Fischer.
Who was now cooling her heels in jail awaiting trial, pregnant with Jack’s baby.
The notion still sent little shards of disbelief through her system. She had come so close to giving her heart to Jack… now she felt as if she’d survived a very close call, like stopping just short of a cliff. She was still swaying.
“How is your mother?” Hannah asked carefully.
Carlotta’s heart squeezed. “The same. Good days and bad. She seems happy to be back in a familiar house… unfortunately, it’s as if she’s gone back in time to when we were all living there. But Birch is a huge help.” As opposed to her father, who seemed eager to pick up his life where it had left off, sans Valerie. “And Coop is researching the best doctors and facilities for a full battery of tests.”
“I guess Coop is too busy working at the morgue to do much body moving,” Hannah said with a sigh. “I kind of miss it, don’t you?”
Surprisingly, Carlotta was missing a lot about her former life, including the intrigue of helping Coop move bodies from crime scenes. But just thinking it filled her with guilt—she certainly couldn’t say it out loud.
“Is Dr. Coop a dancer?” Prissy asked.
“Hm?” Carlotta asked, confused.
“You said he was too busy working to move his body—is he a dancer?”
“A body mover—” Hannah began.
“Yes,” Carlotta cut in, giving Hannah a lethal look. “Coop dances in his spare time.”
Hannah snickered, but let it go. “When are you returning to Neiman’s?”
“Next week, when Prissy starts school. My boss has been patient, but it’s time. Then I’ll probably start spending some nights at the townhouse.” She needed an occasional break from the tense atmosphere in the Buckhead house. Carlotta angled her head. “How’s married life?”
“Terrific,” Hannah said. “Every married couple should have his and hers apartments.”
Especially, Carlotta noted wryly, when Hannah was keeping so many secrets from her stoner husband, such as the fact that she was heir to a hotel dynasty and her family was at the top of the society food chain.
“You don’t live with your husband?” Prissy asked.
“Nope,” Hannah said. “I have my place and Chance has his.” She made a face. “That way we don’t have to share a bathroom.”
Prissy giggled. “Or a closet.”
“Good point,” Hannah said, then gestured to Prissy’s orange sundress and white sandals. “Is that a new outfit?”
She nodded, posing. “Carlotta and I like to shop.”
“Yes,” Hannah said wryly. “I’ve met your sister. You two are definitely blood related.”
“What did you buy?” Prissy asked, gesturing to the shopping bag Hannah had set on the floor.
Hannah grinned and reached inside. “I’m so excited… this is something I’ve always wanted.”
“A Chloe bag?” Prissy asked.
“Givenchy boots?” Carlotta asked.
Hannah frowned. “I said something I have always wanted.” She pulled out a box the size of a small suitcase, then lifted the lid.
Prissy’s eyes went from intrigued to puzzled. Carlotta experienced a similar reaction.
“What are they?” Prissy asked.
“What do you mean?” Hannah said, lifting one of the pair out of the box and displaying it lovingly. “They’re roller skates!”
“They look old,” Prissy said.
“They’re retro,” Hannah insisted, in defense of the cream and black color scheme with stars.
“They’re very cool,” Carlotta soothed. “Is this a new hobby?”
“It’s more than a hobby,” Hannah said, puffing up. “I just finished boot camp training and I was asked to substitute on a team.”
Carlotta squinted. “What kind of team?”
Hannah grinned. “I’m a roller derby girl!”
Their silence exasperated Hannah.
“A roller derby girl!” she repeated.
“What’s that?” Prissy asked, looking dubious.
Hannah sighed, clearly disgusted at their ignorance. “It’s where two teams of girls skate against each other to try to earn points. We have bad-ass costumes and bad-ass names and we try to knock each other down.”
Carlotta bit her lip. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Hannah drew herself up. Standing nearly six feet and clad with lean, inked muscle, she looked formidable. “I can handle it.”
“I was talking about the other girls,” Carlotta said wryly.
“Our first match is this Saturday. Will you come and watch my debut?”
“Can we?” Prissy asked Carlotta, jumping up and down. “Please?”
At the sight of her sister’s shining face, Carlotta felt her mood lift. “Sure. It sounds like fun.”
“Wes, too,” Hannah said. “Chance will be there.”
“I’ll let him know,” Carlotta said, already looking forward to an excuse to be out of the house—and away from her newly-returned parents.
Minus ten points.