There were reasons Charlie Zap liked his job. Plenty of them. He liked the fact that he didn't work the kind of nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday schedule that would make him feel like a hamster running in a wheel and getting nowhere fast. He liked the fact that he was never bored. He liked the challenges and the excitement and sometimes even the danger. He liked having to think on his feet.
Mostly, he liked to lie in bed at night and know that he'd made at least a little bit of a difference. He wasn't delusional. He knew he'd never change all the things that needed to be changed. But he liked to think that in a world that was sometimes as confusing as it was complicated, he did his part to keep the right and the wrong sorted out. After all, it was his obligation. It was the price he paid for being one of the lucky ones. One of the few who saw things exactly as they were.
Good and evil. Heroes and villains. Black and white. Whether he was out on the streets or behind a desk, he was grateful he'd found the perfect job, one in which he never had to deal in shades of gray.
At least until now.
Uncomfortable with the thought, Zap squirmed in the driver's seat of his yellow cab.
In the four days he'd been following Riley Callahan from one end of Manhattan to the other, Zap had come to feel as if someone had taken his notion of the way things were supposed to be and given it a ferocious shake. Riley didn't fit into one of the nice, neat boxes he used to classify the world. No easy answers. No black-and-white. Heck, he supposed there weren't even any shades of gray where she was concerned. With Riley, everything was an explosion of psychedelic colors, and the fact of the matter was, it was driving Zap nuts.
But then, he suspected there was a lot about Riley Callahan that would drive him nuts.
As if just thinking about the woman was enough magic to make her appear, Zap watched as the door of the expensive boutique across the street flew open and Riley flounced out into the late afternoon sunshine.
It had been only fifteen minutes since she'd gone inside, and Zap had been following her since late that morning when she stepped out of the door of her rundown Queens apartment building.
He knew Riley was wearing a black leather skirt that was short enough and tight enough to tempt the devil. He knew she was squeezed into a tiny black tube top that was cut so low, the skull and crossbones she had tattooed on the top of her right breast peeked out at the world. He knew she had six piercings in her left ear and three in her right and that between all those holes--and the one in her belly button--she wore three diamond studs, five gold hoops, and two silver and onyx dangling earrings long enough to sweep her bare shoulders. He knew that her lipstick was a color that reminded him of blackberries and that her short, spiked, bleached-out hair needed a little touch-up at the roots.
Still, this time, like every time, his first glimpse of Riley left him feeling as if a fist had been slammed into his solar plexus. But then, he reminded himself, he wasn't alone. There was a file on Riley four inches thick in the duffel bag he had in the trunk of his cab. Newspaper articles. Magazine features. Tabloid exposes. Lots of tabloid exposes. And if there was one thing he'd learned from all those articles and all those features and all those exposes, it was that Riley Callahan had an amazing effect on a whole lot of people.
If he had any doubt, all he had to think about was the string of high-profile guys whose names had been linked to hers. There was the tennis pro, the race-car driver. There was that actor who later died of an overdose, a no-name poet who enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame in her orbit. And then there were the rock stars, including both husband number one and husband number two.
None of it was surprising. Riley had grown up in the glare of the camera's eye and, early on, she had learned to make the most of the delicate features, pale skin, and incredibly long, shapely legs she'd inherited from her famous mother. She'd also inherited her even more famous father's tough-as-nails personality and his headline-making lifestyle. In case anyone was dense enough not to get the message, she made sure to shout it loud and clear. From clothes sexy enough to stop traffic to her party-girl reputation, Riley Callahan was hell on wheels.
She was twenty-eight. She looked twenty-three. She acted sixteen.
As if to prove the point, a car rolled slowly down the street, its seats crammed with teenagers, its windows down and its radio cranked. Rock music pounded against the pavement, the screaming guitars and thumping drums almost sacrilegious in an area of town where every second store had a French name and every third person who walked by hid a fame (real or imagined) behind expensive sunglasses, designer clothes, and a store-bought tan.
A particularly piercing guitar riff jangled Zap's nerves, but across the street, Riley gave the car and the kids in it the thumbs-up while she dance-stepped her way down the sidewalk. There was a guy in a torn army jacket and a scruffy baseball cap panhandling on the corner, and when he applauded, Riley shifted her leather backpack from her right shoulder to her left, grabbed him by the arm, and whirled him into an impromptu jitterbug.
Just watching the woman left Zap a little short of breath and a lot convinced that the sooner he saw the last of Riley Callahan, the better. It would mean he could get his life--and his world--straightened out again. Once he was finished with this job, he could get rid of the too-tight jeans and the uncomfortable biker boots he was wearing. He could dump the black T-shirt and the ridiculous long black duster that made him look like a bad guy from a spaghetti western. The sooner he was done with Riley, the sooner he could get his life back to normal. After all he'd been through in the previous year, normal sounded really good.
Exactly what Riley wasn't.
Holding on to the thought as if it were the only thing that anchored him to his previously well-ordered life, Zap raised his camera and snapped a dozen pictures to add to the dozens more he'd taken over the past days. He had quite a collection: Riley going into her apartment, Riley coming out of her apartment, Riley wearing one of her outrageous, skimpy outfits, taking a drink at a fountain in Central Park, with water running down her chin, trickling over the skull and crossbones and into the shadowed valley between her breasts.
At the thought, a sensation somewhere between a sucker punch and an electrical shock burst through Zap. He braced himself against it with a sharp intake of breath and consoled himself with the cold, hard facts. He wouldn't be much of a man if he didn't notice Riley's very appealing physical attributes. She was what the guys he worked with--politically incorrect even though they were accurate--would, without apology, call a hot babe. Not that Zap would ever let a woman's looks get in the way of his job. He wouldn't be very good at what he did if he allowed that to happen. And if there was one thing Zap was, it was very good at his job.
When Riley got to the corner, Zap slapped the gear shift into drive and crawled along behind her, anonymous in a sea of New York City cabs. He knew her next stop was just around the corner at a pricey boutique called Merveilleux, and as he swung the cab left at the next light, he scanned the street for a parking space. When one opened up across from the boutique, he punched the accelerator, darted between a double-parked delivery truck and a group of Japanese tourists and screeched into the space before the red Mercedes that had been waiting to back into it had even begun to move. With a string of words and a couple of unmistakable hand gestures, the other driver let Zap know exactly what she thought of the maneuver.
Zap didn't care. He reached for his camera and managed a couple more shots of Riley as she paused outside the door of the boutique, glanced briefly over her left shoulder, then went inside. Once the door closed behind her, he settled back, his mind playing and replaying the events of the past four days.
None of what he'd seen in the ninety-some hours he'd been following Riley proved a thing, and it was that more than anything that should have bothered Zap. After all, he was a man who liked every i dotted and every t crossed, assets that served a deputy U.S. Marshal well.
If that was the only thing that concerned him, he would live with it. He could deal with it. But it was the shades of gray that bothered him, the uneasy feeling that tickled the back of his neck like the dark hair he had scooped away from his face and tied there in a ponytail. Maybe things weren't as black-and-white as he'd always believed? Maybe they weren't as cut-and-dried, as clear as crystal, as well defined? Maybe Riley Callahan was simply what she appeared to be: a brassy, trashy, flashy bimbo with nothing more on her mind than the next good time?
It wasn't Zap's job to ask the questions so he put them out of his mind. His superiors were convinced that Riley Callahan--full-time flake, part-time celebrity, and freelance shopper who took care of buying the items federal witnesses demanded as part of the price of their testimony--was leaking information from confidential files to underworld sources. Information that had, in the past six months, resulted in the untimely and very messy deaths of two protected witnesses.
Fresh from an undercover assignment in L.A. and so new to the district that no one in the local office knew him, Zap had taken over the job of surveillance. From the start, he assumed it would be a piece of cake. One look at Riley's file and he saw right through the woman. She was a big-time party girl and, in his experience, big-time party girls were not bright. She might have gotten lucky a couple of times, but her luck wouldn't hold. Sooner or later she'd slip up, and when she did he would be right there waiting for her.
The thought was comforting, and slowly Zap pulled himself out of the gray shadows and blinked into the welcome, blinding righteousness of his black-and-white world. The pieces of his universe settled back into place. His superiors knew there was more to Riley than the face she presented to the world. Now they wanted proof.
And it was up to Zap to find it.
Outside the incredibly elegant Manhattan boutique with a French name she couldn't pronounce even when she could afford to shop there, Riley Callahan stopped and glanced over her shoulder. Paranoid. That's what she was. Paranoid as hell. Otherwise, she wouldn't feel like someone was watching her.
With a practiced eye, she looked up and down the sidewalk and across the street. There was no sign of paparazzi. No pushy reporters or overanxious photographers ready to stick dinner-plate-sized lenses in her face while they asked stupid questions she couldn't--or didn't want to--answer. There were no crowds of Pandemoniac fans, either, as there sometimes were. No old friends who just happened to be spending their ungodly fortunes in an area of town so straitlaced and sedate, most of them wouldn't be caught dead there. There wasn't even some wild-eyed stalker type eyeing her the way so many guys did when she walked down the street. There was nothing. Nothing unusual anyway, and realizing it should have put Riley's mind at ease.
It would have put her mind at ease if every nerve in her body wasn't standing at attention. Just the way they did every time someone was watching her. The way they had been for the past four days.
A chill crawled up Riley's spine and across her bare shoulders and she banished it with a little shake. It was all Eugene's fault. If the son of a bitch hadn't up and died, she wouldn't have weird feelings nipping the back of her neck and weird ideas playing around in her head. While she wasn't the least bit sorry to see Eugene go, she did wish he would have picked a more opportune moment. There he was in federal custody, ready to spill his guts. And the guy goes and keels over. Not from the rivers of booze he'd been known to drink. Not from the mountains of coke he'd been known to snort. Not even from whatever sloppy diseases he'd no doubt gotten from the groupies he was notorious for taking advantage of. But from a heart attack. A goddamn heart attack.
Too bad it wasn't something slow and painful instead.
The thought was tactless, even for Riley, but she didn't even try to edit it. She didn't waste time second-guessing her feelings, just like she didn't waste time regretting her past. Moral dilemmas were not something she wrestled with. Ever. As far as she could tell, what she had of a conscience was nothing more than a little voice that whispered, "You go, girl!" in her ear at appropriate times. She didn't try to call up any sympathy for Eugene because she knew it wouldn't work. But she was self-aware enough to know he was probably the root cause of her weird feelings.
Guilt. That's what it was. Not guilt over what she felt about Eugene. That would never happen. Guilt because when Eugene Paynter was alive, she'd tried to play on his sympathies and a connection that went back to long before she was even born. Guilt because she'd never been able to convince the man she'd spent most of her life calling Uncle Eugene to do the right thing. Guilt because Eugene was her last chance and her last chance proved to be no chance at all. Eugene was dead and gone and that left Max high and dry, and Riley knew for certain that's what the guilt was all about. She was feeling guilty as hell because she'd let Max down.
She swallowed around the tight knot of disappointment in her throat. She came from a long line of live-for-todayers and among the useful things they'd taught her were survival skills that made the Donner Party look like a bunch of Sunday tailgaters. She knew what she had to do. Get over it. Get past it. Get her shit together and get on with it.
Excerpted from Romancing Riley by Connie Lane. Copyright © 2002 by Connie Lane. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.