A Lola Cruz Mystery by Melissa Bourbon Ramirez
Going undercover is second nature for Private Investigator Lola Cruz, but she’s out of her league when the case of a murdered Royals Courtside Dancer leads her to a local nudist resort. Parading around the sidelines of Sacramento’s professional basketball scene in a barely-there cheerleading outfit is one thing—but parading around in nothing but smile? If she has any chance of hiding this from her traditional family and on-again/off-again boyfriend Jack, she’s going to have a lot more than her duct tape bra and killer dance moves to keep under wraps…
Title: Bare-Naked Lola (A Lola Cruz Mystery, #3)
Author: Melissa Bourbon Ramirez
Genre: Romantic Mystery
Length: 352 pages
Release Date: May 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-005-3
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-004-6
© 2012 Melissa Bourbon Ramirez
Abundantly flowing locks, perfectly tanned bodies, and perky breasts with enticingly rounded cleavage—these were not the things I’d expected to see walking into the Camacho & Associates private investigation office on a Wednesday morning. Pero, Dios mío, that’s exactly what I did see. Two women lounging at the conference table, each exhibiting their own take on “aloof,” stopped me dead with their blinding beauty. I was afraid I’d be scarred for life.
I could hate them on the spot, except, super-detective that I am, I knew they had to be clients. And clients meant that I remained employed as a detective. Hating them for their otherworldly beauty? Not allowed.
Manny Camacho, owner of the small investigative firm in Sacramento, ex-cop, and super-P.I., stood in the doorway of his office quietly talking with yet another attractive woman. It might as well have been the Miss America pageant—there was no escaping them. This one was older than the others by a good fifteen years or so, but she had the body of a twenty-year-old. She had a long neck, nary a wrinkle in sight, and a tall, gazellelike body. Her hair shone like black velvet and was pulled back into a severe bun. Her angular face and chiseled cheekbones intensified her exotic appearance.
Dancer. Had to be.
Reilly Fuller, part-time clerk for the agency, scowled from her desk.
“¿Qué pasó?” I asked, stopping to get the 4-1-1.
Her Spanish was limited—and often amounted to adding a strategic O to the end of a word—but she understood me and liked to use what she knew.
“No se,” she said, sounding very disgruntled that she didn’t know anything.
Reilly made a strangled noise that left me wondering if all the colorful dye she used on her hair had finally done some deeper damage, perhaps affecting her vocal cords. Reilly lived for gossip, though at the moment she was oddly silent.
I heard the zip-zip of the surveillance camera bracketed to the wall in the top corner of the room. Ah, so that was the source of Reilly’s grief. Neil, a caveman detective who could scarcely string words together in a sentence, but who was a master of technology—and Reilly’s bed buddy—was in his lair watching the Barbie show.
“Remember our motto,” I said, patting my thigh and speaking softly so only she could hear. “More to love.”
She blinked heavily and patted down her green color-washed hair. “Right. More to love, and Neil does love this,” she said, doing a subtle chair shimmy. I swallowed my laugh. Reilly was a JLO wannabe—only not Latina, pero more full-figured, and monolingual.
But otherwise, hey, they were like twins.
I noticed Sadie, fellow detective and my own personal nemesis, fidgeting uncomfortably at the table, client intake form clasped in a brown folder in front of her. Her spiky, red-tipped blond hair seemed to inch up every time one of the two women at the table moved the slightest muscle.
I’d recently surmised that Sadie and Manny had an on-again/off-again thing that defied explanation. Sadie wasn’t the lovable type. Neither was Manny, for that matter. He was tall and dark; she was petite and fair. He was bitter coffee and clipped sentences; she was Spicy Hot V8 with attitude and too much lime. He was un poquito intense and brooding, and she was, well, a shrew. What kept bringing them back together was a mystery to me, but some things were just better left unsolved.
From my vantage point at Reilly’s desk, I took a closer gander at the two women at the table. They seemed familiar somehow. I searched the recesses of my brain for answers. Were they in a breast-enhancement ad? Poster girls for plastic surgery? As much as I wanted to pull the information out of my mind, I couldn’t quite manage it.
Manny walked to the table, his barely perceptible limp altering his gait just enough to make a girl curious about what had caused it. I was plenty curious, but I had no idea. War wound from his time on the police force was my guess. His gaze caught mine. “Dolores.”
He flicked his cleft chin toward the table and I threw up my hand in an all-encompassing greeting. “Hello.”
It was my afternoon to man the agency so the other detectives—Manny, Sadie, and Neil—could be in the field. We rotated, though with my junior detective status, the ink on my California private investigator’s license barely dry, I usually pulled bonus shifts for more pay. My docket wasn’t as full as any of the three senior associates, though after my recent successes in solving several local crimes I was hoping that would change. I’d worked my behind off. Time to reap the benefits.
The exotic gazelle girl whispered into Manny’s ear. His arms were crossed over his chest and his biceps bulged under his black T-shirt. There was something peculiar about the way he was acting. He was almost, er, pleasantly attentive. Very unlike him. He subscribed to the same school of communication Neil Lashby did: cut to the chase. Punto.
“Dolores,” he barked.
I jumped. Busted for staring. Damn, not a good P.I. move. “Yes?”
He crooked a finger. “Ven aquí.”
Apparently his pleasant attentiveness didn’t extend to me. His words hadn’t sounded like a friendly “come here.” I ran through all the things Manny could have a beef with me about. My outfit topped the list. October usually had decent weather, but Sacramento was in the midst of an Indian summer and the air was heavy with uncommon humidity. I’d caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass as I’d entered the agency: my salmon-colored blouse clung to me like plastic wrap. In the right situation—say in the privacy of Jack Callaghan’s bedroom—this could be a good thing. At work? Not so much.
But I held my chin high and walked over to Manny and the gazelle. “Yes?”
“¿Cómo?” My astonishment at the order pinballed through my mind and I slipped out of my dominant English and into my native Spanish.
“Por favor,” he added as an afterthought. Speaking Spanish and being detectives were probably the only two things Manny and I had in common. He was my mentor and damn good at his job. I worked hard to impress him and still stay true to myself—not always easy, since I was Dolores Cruz to him (and to mi familia), but Lola Cruz to my friends. In my mind, I was a combination, but I didn’t think anyone really knew both sides of me.
Except maybe Jack Callaghan. He’d gotten a few glimpses of both Dolores and Lola. And he seemed to like them both.
“It’s about our new case,” he said. “Turn around.”
I heard the faint zip of the surveillance camera and I knew my Neanderthal coworker wasn’t missing a single beat from the lair, his personal high-tech office, just waiting to see what I’d do. A solid but basic roundhouse kick, perhaps? Or maybe I’d go airborne kicking both legs, one at a time, with a double whammy. Not a bad idea. I weighed my options, in case it came to that. Which it just might.
In the end, I did neither. If it was for a case, I could only assume Manny had a reason for wanting to check out my backside. I just wasn’t convinced it was a good reason. My black capris were probably just as clingy as my blouse, but I couldn’t help that and I was not going to let sticky skin stop me from doing my job. Sucking in a bolstering breath and straightening my spine, I turned around in a slow circle, hands on hips. I turned to Manny and the gazelle again and waited. She was so familiar, but where did I know her from?
Her back was as straight as a two-by-four. She had one arm across her chest, the other bent at the elbow, her fingers tapping her puckered lips. “Good bones. Nice shape. Could be taller, but I guess she’ll do,” she finally said, dropping both arms to her sides.
What was I, a horse?
“Don’t you want to check my teeth?” I asked as Sadie snickered and the Stepford women at the table shifted positions and eyeballed me.
The gazelle didn’t crack a smile, and neither did Manny. Instead, he gestured with his hand. “Dolores Cruz, meet our new client, Victoria Wolfe.”
I grudgingly held out my hand. Victoria shook it with a firm but bony grip. “Pleasure,” she said just as a man materialized from inside Manny’s office.
“She’ll more than do,” he said.
Sadie’s snicker turned into a disbelieving gasp.
“Con permiso,” I said under my breath. “What, exactly, are you talking about?” But then realization hit me and I gasped. Him, I recognized. Lance Wolfe, owner of the Courtside Dancers, Sacramento’s answer to the Laker Girls. Now I knew where I recognized Victoria from! She and Lance, along with the Courtside Dancers, cheerleaders for the Sacramento Royals basketball team, had done a reality TV show: Living the Royal Life. Their high-profile effort to combat the drug, sex, and steroid scandals that had plagued the basketball team for a few years. They were local celebrities, probably recognized everywhere they went. I hadn’t been a fan, but my cousin Chely had never missed an episode.
Victoria’s face had hardened when the man stepped out of the shadows. Now she gave me another once-over. “Yes, she’ll more than do. You were right,” she said to Manny. “She’s curvy but athletic. Fit.”
That’s how Manny had described me? Oh no. The heat of embarrassment crept up my neck.
“She definitely has presence,” Victoria continued. “How about energy?”
“I can answer that,” Lance said. He sounded calm, and to look at him, you’d think he was Mr. Businessman, all buttoned-up in his periwinkle blue shirt with thin white stripes, his brown hair brushed to the right and neatly gelled into place. But I knew from local sports lore that he was a hothead on the court. He walked around me like he had his detective radar out and was gauging my effectiveness. “She’s got it in spades. If anyone can get to the bottom of this stupid mess, it’s this girl.”
Manny’s eyes bored into me. “I agree. She’s got it.”
¡Híjole! That was as close to a compliment as Manny ever came. I had it, whatever it was. But really, it didn’t matter as long as I had active cases to investigate.
I waved a hand in front of them. Despite the praise, they still had huevos, talking about me as if I were the lone artificial plant in Camacho’s lobby entrance. “Excuse me,” I said again. “What am I perfect for?” I asked, although knowing that Lance Wolfe was involved could only mean one thing.
“Do you dance?” Victoria was clearly used to being in charge, asking her own questions rather than answering someone else’s.
“If she doesn’t,” Lance said, “she can learn.”
“She can’t learn to dance in a day,” Victoria snapped. “No, she has to be able to dance or it won’t work.”
Her husband threw up his hands. “Fine,” he said, then turned to me. “Well?”
What he didn’t say was that I better not disappoint him.
I twined two of my fingers together. “Me and salsa dancing, we’re like this.” Throw some Juanes on the iPod and I’d dance circles around Victoria, the twig. “And I can do a mean merengue.”
Victoria clapped three times, muy rapido. “Jennifer. Selma.”
They rose in unison like perfect specimen robots.
Victoria directed, telling the women where to stand. “Do the beginning of the new routine,” she ordered. Jennifer, a tall, languid beauty, glided, while Selma, who was a bit shorter and seemed more eager to please, hurried into position. Once Jennifer was ready, Victoria clapped and counted. “And one, and two, and three, and four…”
The two women launched into a professional cheerleading routine, stepping wide with their legs, dipping their torsos, moving their arms in exact rhythm. ¡Ay, caramba! They were like sex puppets tied together with invisible string.
After a series of risque moves, they stopped abruptly, both ending with their right feet extended, toes arched and knees bent in a hip jazz dance stance.
Victoria rolled her hand at me. “Okay, your turn.”
¿Está loca? Where was the salsa music? Where were Ricky Martin and Menudo? ¡Ay, ay, ay!
Sadie inhaled sharply, then broke into a coughing spasm. Pobracita. She’d swallowed her laughter and now had thrown herself into a tizzy.
I knew exactly what she was feeling, but I glared at her for a beat before turning my stare to Victoria. “You want me to do that?”
Manny took a step forward. “Dolores,” he said, pronouncing my name with a perfect Spanish accent. Do-LOR-es. It echoed in my mind. I was smart. Educated. A licensed P.I. Did he understand what he was asking me to do?
From his steady gaze, it was clear that he did. I shook my insecurities away—after all, I’d solved two murder cases in the recent past; surely I could pull off a few dance moves—and mimicked the jazz pose Jennifer and Selma Stepford had ended with. So what if I had to pretend to be a dancing sexpot? It was for a good cause. I hoped.
Victoria was a client, and this was a case I was potentially going to be working. If—and it seemed like a pretty big if to me—I could pull this off.
I got in line with the two cheerleaders, watched carefully, and copied their every move, exaggerating my steps like they did, spinning around, and feeling utterly ridiculous and on display. Dance lessons had not been part of my childhood, and as a teenager, I’d taken up kung fu. While other girls my age had been spinning in pirouettes or planning for prom, I’d been stalking Jack Callaghan and learning the Eighteen Arms of Wushu, determined to master each and every one of the main weapons in Chinese martial arts.
I was still working through them.
The mini routine ended in the same extended-toe, bent-knee position, and I tried to recapture my breath while I held the pose. Damn. Wielding a chain whip and a battle-ax was easier.
Lance lowered his chin in approval and Victoria clapped her hands three times, good hard claps that seemed incapable of coming from her petite body. “Bravo. You did fine,” she said, but her lips pursed together. Except for her furtive glances at Manny, I got the impression she didn’t really want to be here.
“Thanks. Now, can you please tell me what this is about?” I filled a paper cup with water from the cooler, downed it, refilled it, and waited.
This time Lance spoke up. His voice boomed, taking on the tenor of a game show announcer. “How would you like to be a Courtside Dancer for the Sacramento Royals?”
I choked on the water I’d just sipped, coughing my way back to life as I peered at the women standing next to me, then at the camera in the corner. A thought ricocheted throughout my brain. Was it Neil watching from the lair? Was I secretly being taped for a reprise of Living the Royal Life? Or maybe I was being hazed. Maybe this wasn’t about a case at all.
Except Manny wasn’t fraternity material and practical jokes weren’t his style. No, this had to be real.
Despite being “perfect” and getting a “bravo” from Victoria on my routine, I suddenly felt frumpy and ten pounds overweight. The size eight—occasionally size ten—hips that were so fantastic this morning when I pulled on my pants now felt way too curvy.
I poked a finger in my ear, wiggling it around, glancing at Reilly. Was she as shocked by this dog and pony show as I was?
She was riveted, like she was watching a telenova in living color. I bet she’d loved Living the Royal Life. Sadie, on the other hand, studied her fingernails, although I could practically see the steam billowing from her ears. She was not so entranced by the celebrity in the room.
I sputtered. “I’m sorry, did you say a Courtside Dancer? So this is an undercover assignment?”
“That’s right,” Victoria said. “My husband has just hired this agency”—she paused and laid a delicate hand on Manny’s arm—“and you going undercover was your boss’s idea, actually. Which means you’ll have to train as one of our dancers. It’s every girl’s dream,” she added, as if that was supposed to mean it should be my dream, too, and I should suddenly feel like Cinderella.
I bit back telling her that my dream had always been to be a private investigator, brought home by the undercover surveillance I’d done of one Jack Callaghan and Greta Pritchard doing the mamba in his car when we’d been teenagers. I’d always wanted Jack to do that with me. It hadn’t happened yet, but when it did…ooh-la-la.
Cheerleading? Not even close to one of my dreams.
When I want something, I get it. When I need something, I get it. I’m a doer, not a cheerer of other doers.
“I’m sorry. What did you say your name was?” Since we hadn’t actually been introduced. The two women glided back to their chairs and I fought the vertigo that settled over me. I’d become Alice in Wonderland and this was the rabbit hole.
“Victoria Wolfe,” she purred. “Director of the Courtside Dancers.”
The man stepped forward, right hand extended. “And I’m Lance Wolfe. Victoria’s husband and”—he paused, then continued with emphasis—“co-owner of the Royals.”
The smile that had been lacing Manny’s lips vanished. Because he hadn’t known the woman he was flirting with was married—and that Lance was her husband? Certainly not. Manny was too smart not to have known that. Because Victoria had removed her hand from his arm? Or because Lance held on to mine, clasping it so that he had me in a hand lock?
Hard to say, but the fact was that Victoria and Lance were married and she’d been making a subtle move on Macho Camacho. ¡Ay, dios!, She was brazen, a puta, as my mother would say. Judging from his grip on my hands, Lance was a player, too.
They seemed perfect for each other. Manny needed to steer clear.
“This is Jennifer, and that’s Selma. They’re two of our dancers,” Lance continued, waving toward the women grinning engagingly at Manny.
I pulled my hand free as the women acknowledged me. Did they speak? Or formulate thoughts of their own?
I sank down onto a chair. The intake form in front of Sadie had her scratchy writing all over it but I couldn’t read it upside down. Sadie’s nostrils flared and her fingers curved into claws. She was about a second away from blowing a gasket.
“So why do you need someone undercover?” I asked.
Victoria sat at the head of the conference table—in Manny’s usual spot. The whir of the surveillance camera told me Neil had noticed that intrusion. Reilly’s quiet gasp told me she’d noticed, too. Sadie started and raised her lip like a tiger on the prowl, nostrils flaring, ready to pounce to protect her territory. Which, in this case, was Manny. I waited for her typical caustic remark, but it didn’t come. Another shock.
Manny stood back, arms crossed over his muscled chest, rocking back on his alligator skin cowboy boots, the lines of his jaw hard and set. He watched Victoria and Lance with sudden intensity, like he was trying to figure them out, but he let her remain in his chair. Híjole. This day was going to be off the Richter scale.
“One of our dancers suddenly left us. Just quit the squad without a word. No notice, no nothing,” Victoria began. “The ladies here”—she gestured toward the dancers—“have all received mysterious, somewhat threatening letters.” She pushed a small stack of envelopes toward me. “The girls think Rochelle leaving and the letters are related. They came to me—”
Lance cleared his throat again.
“—to us,” Victoria added. “We’ve tried to find out who’s behind them, but—”
“No luck,” Lance interrupted. “So I said we needed to hire someone to stop whoever’s messing with our girls. Their work is starting to suffer.”
“Okay,” I said, as if I understood what he meant, but all I could come up with was that the dancers’ feet were tangling during a grapevine or they were dropping their pompoms mid-cheer.
I was an expert at reading facial expressions. Twenty-nine years living with Magdalena Falcón Cruz had its perks. “You’d rather handle it yourself?” I asked her.
“Of course. The girls are a tight group. These letters have rattled them, understandably, but my job is to keep them focused on their job. An outsider poking around is going to mean disruption—”
“But we can’t afford to lose another girl,” Lance said.
So I knew why they hadn’t called the police. I had a bit of experience with the local police department in my previous cases. An image of Detective Seavers—not my biggest fan—and his comb-over popped into my head. Him lumbering around a bunch of nubile cheerleaders at a basketball game would be muy disruptive.
“The letters are anonymous,” Victoria continued. She brushed a hand over her taut hair before continuing. “Jennifer and Selma have each received one. No one seems to know who’s writing them or what they’re about.”
She shifted in her chair, stretching her long neck to gaze up at Manny. He met her eyes, tilting his head slightly. I watched in utter amazement as his expression seemed to soften almost imperceptibly. Victoria was striking, in a scary dancer kind of way, and I’d bet a year’s worth of lunches at Szechwan House, my all-time favorite restaurant (sacrilege if my family ever found that out, considering they owned Abuelita’s), that Manny was wishing she wasn’t married.
But as far as I knew, right now he was dating Tomb Raider Girl, aka Isabel. Surely he wouldn’t dump his model girlfriend for a married woman? Or maybe her marriage didn’t matter. I didn’t actually know what direction Manny’s moral compass pointed to on adultery.
I’d always thought he’d keep business and pleasure separate, but then again, I knew something had gone on between him and Sadie. I just didn’t know what.
I slouched in my chair, feeling like I was slipping farther down the rabbit hole, but then the attack from Sadie finally came, setting everything right again. “I’m the undercover expert,” she said, nearly spitting her words across the table. “If Dolores isn’t up for the assignment, I can certainly take it.”
The surveillance camera zipped, as if in laughter, and I knew Neil had caught the double entendre. He knew something had gone on between the boss and Sadie, too. He probably knew what, for that matter.
Victoria frowned. “The Courtside Dancers have a certain, er, image. No.” The force of her shaking head threatened to undo her bun. “You’re not right for the team.”
Sadie balked, but then she started to get up. “I can do the routine.”
“No.” My voice was firm. I might not want to be ogled by sports fans or dance in an arena, but there was no way Sadie was taking an assignment from me. “It’s my case.”
I doubted anyone else noticed, but she shot daggers at me, which I boldly dodged with imaginary shields. She could thank me later when she realized how I’d saved her from her own desperate humiliation.
Victoria’s lips curved up like the cat that swallowed the canary, only it felt like I was the canary. She motioned toward me but spoke to Manny. “She needs coaching.”
I cringed, indignant. Sure, I may waffle between size 8 and 10, but I was in prime physical shape. A black belt in kung fu. A yogi wannabe. A salsa fanatic.
“She’ll do whatever it takes,” Sadie said, her voice dripping with disdain.
So apparently she didn’t like my boundary lines. Which was ridiculous, since I didn’t even know what my boundaries were and I hadn’t done anything during my career, so far, that I regretted.
“What do the letters say?” I asked, getting back to the case. I reached inside my purse for my handy latex gloves, but Manny had his on before I’d even found mine. Super detective. He was my role model.
He snapped the latex at the wrists before picking up the first envelope. He carefully pulled out the paper inside, flipped it open, and examined it. It was thin and I could see it only contained two typed lines.
“They’re all the same?” Manny asked as he slid the letter over to me.
“Not identical, but all similar,” Victoria said.
With my gloves on, I picked up the letter and silently read: “I know what you’re doing. Stop while you still can.”
“Stop what?” I asked.
Sadie turned to the dancers. “None of you knows what it’s about? Not even an inkling of an idea?”
The women shook their heads in unison.
“No idea,” Jennifer finally said.
Ha! So one of them could speak!
If I were going undercover, I might as well take the lead in the investigation right now. Show Sadie what I was made of. I’d spent the last couple of years proving myself worthy of being a lead detective. Now I felt like puffing out my chest, preening. I was beginning to really walk the walk.
“When did the letters start?” I asked Jennifer and Selma.
Selma threw back her slim shoulders, but her voice was soft and tentative. “I got the first one about two weeks ago, but Jennifer got one before that—”
“They started about three weeks ago,” Victoria interrupted. “Rochelle was the first.” She darted a glance at her dancers. “She was seeing one of the players.”
Muy interesante. “And you think it’s related?”
Selma pulled at the neckline of her tank top, shifting in her chair. “The letters keep coming, so it can’t be about Rochelle and Michael.”
Lance shook his head, disgusted. “Everyone knows about them?” he said to Victoria with a hiss.
Jennifer and Selma shot a quick glance at each other before dropping their gazes.
Victoria leveled her steely eyes at her husband. “Yes, Lance, everyone knows. Even Michael’s wife. There are no secrets with the team.”
I reached across the table, laid a flattened hand on the file folder Sadie had been guarding, and drew it toward me. “You’re Jennifer—?”
“Wallace,” the tall blonde said. “I’m the team captain.”
I wrote this down on a blank sheet of paper inside the folder.
Victoria cleared her throat, taking over. “The letters have been arriving at every home game, like I said. Jen’s received three. Selma one. Carrie, another dancer, received two letters. Some of the rest of the girls have gotten one.”
I jotted this down, shifting my attention from Victoria to Lance to Jennifer to Selma. “So you want us to find out who’s writing the notes—”
“That’s why we’re here,” Lance said, coming to stand behind Victoria.
“—and what happened to Rochelle?” I finished.
“Rochelle is gone. I don’t want her back.” Victoria shook her head, and I could almost picture her stomping her foot with finality. “You don’t shirk your responsibilities. You don’t quit a team that depends on you. You don’t break the rules. No, Rochelle is out.”
“It’s not like she’s the only one,” Selma muttered under her breath. I made a mental note to ask her about that at some point.
“Just find out who’s sending the letters and why,” Lance said. “And stop them. That’s it.”
I knew my mission, but my nerves were on high alert in the pit of my stomach. Every eye was on me. This was my first undercover case. I couldn’t blow it. I quickly opened the other plain white envelopes and found Victoria had been correct. They were all basically the same. Typed and printed on ordinary printer paper. There was no blackmail attempt in any of them.
So if blackmail wasn’t the letter writer’s motive, what was? The most obvious conclusion I could draw was that it was some unbalanced person who wasn’t targeting anyone in particular. Unless Rochelle and her affair had been the main target and the rest of the letters were just a distraction. But then why hadn’t they stopped since Rochelle was gone?
“Have the letters been read by all of you?” Manny asked Jennifer and Selma, snapping off his gloves.
“Passed around,” Jennifer said. “They’ve had us pretty freaked.”
His lips drew into a thin line. A thousand fingerprints had already contaminated the evidence. There’d be no discovery there, even if we did alert the police. Which, considering no crime had been committed—that we knew of—seemed premature, and against our client’s wishes.
“Next time one of you gets a letter,” Manny said, “try not to touch it. Getting decent prints could help.”
They nodded in perfect Stepford unison. No more muttering under their breath. No more thinking the letters didn’t mean anything. Maybe they didn’t, but until we proved that, it was better to assume that they did.
“When do I start?” I asked, getting back to business. Going undercover was expected as a detective. And I was down with it. So far I hadn’t come across anything I wasn’t willing to do, even being a Courtside Dancer. Beautiful people didn’t scare me and I had a job to do. So what if, at five-foot-six and three-quarters, I was a couple of inches shorter than the women here before me? So what if, as a dark-haired Latina (with a nice shock of highlighted hair framing her face), I stuck out like a thorny cactus in a field of wildflowers?
Híjole. Nerves rattled my gut. I sure hoped I’d be able to pull it off.
A thread of silent communication passed between Victoria and Lance. After however many years of marriage, I guess you could read your partner’s mind. Jack and I had been seeing each other for a few months now—give or take twelve years or so. But the time in high school—and all the years he’d spent in San Luis Obispo with Sarah, his ex—meant we didn’t have that kind of connection. I envied them.
Victoria broke her gaze away from Lance and sighed, deep and put-upon. “You’ll come to practice this afternoon.” She glanced at her watch. “One-thirty. We have a game Friday night. I’ll work with you until you’re ready, if it takes a twenty-four-seven schedule.”
I pressed my hands flat on the table and clamped my teeth down on the inside of my cheek. “This Friday?” I choked out. ¡Ay, caramba! There was no way I could be ready to perform in front of a huge crowd in a few days’ time. Which meant that my public humiliation on Friday would be seen far and wide. Damn. Maybe I should have considered letting Sadie take the case, after all. Sexy and curvy were overrated. I mean, I had to work double hard to be taken seriously in a male-heavy profession. After Friday, would Manny or Neil be able to look at me the same, or would they always see a cheerleader?
I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to know the answer to that.
Victoria seemed to zero in on my doubt. She threw up her hands and turned back to Lance. “See? She can’t do it.”
Manny stiffened. “Yes, she can,” he said as I forced a smile and replied, “I’ll be there.”
I could do this. I’d imagine I was salsa dancing. Only without Jack Callaghan as my partner, and without salsa music. And on the sidelines of a basketball court with zillions of people watching. But otherwise, it would be practically the same thing.
“I’ll make sure you’re ready. I’m never wrong about people.”
“Mrs. Wolfe.” I stood to face her as she rose. “There is one problem. If I’m going undercover, none of the other dancers can know who I am or why I’m there. How are you going to explain a new person on the team? I didn’t go through tryouts. The season’s well under way.” Not to mention the fact that I’d grown up in Sacramento, often worked at my family’s muy popular Mexican restaurant, and had been on the news recently thanks to a stolen-identity case where I was the victim. I wasn’t a local celebrity, but I was familiar to some people.
She waved her hand. “Not to worry. Rochelle’s gone, remember? You’ll take her spot.”
Victoria made it sound so simple, but somehow I doubted the dancers would buy it. I sidled up to Jennifer and Selma as they gathered their purses and bags, making my first attempt at camaraderie. No dice. They didn’t flash a single pearly white.
Victoria turned to Manny. “You’ll be in touch, I assume?”
“Por supuesto,” he muttered, his lips curving up.
Sadie and I both stared at him. I checked my watch to be sure it was still ticking, then I pinched myself. And grimaced from the pain. Nope, this was not a dream.
I was pretty sure Victoria didn’t know he’d said of course, but she’d gotten something from his tone. She batted her eyes, just once, then glided away after her husband and the dancers.
Manny walked them to the door, the surveillance camera zipping along as it recorded their departure. A moment later, Manny sauntered into his office, the almost nonexistent grin still lingering. He closed the door behind him without another glance at me or Sadie.
“Son locos,” I muttered as Sadie shoved back her chair and marched out. I waved at the boxy camera in the corner. “Did you get all that? Enjoy the entertainment?”