Excerpt from HIS MOTHER'S WEDDING, January 2006

PROLOGUE

"Hi, baby. It’s me. Where’ve you been lately? Are we still on for this weekend?"

As he listened to his voice mail, Rico Garcia leaned back in his tufted leather desk chair and blew out a sigh.

Damn. He and Suzette had a date on Saturday, and he’d completely forgotten. Talk about a subconscious desire to cut bait and run.

Not that he’d been stringing her along.

On the day they’d met, he’d made it clear he didn’t commit, and she’d eagerly agreed to his terms. Now, two months later, she was having second thoughts.

And so was he.

Not about committing, though. About their relationship.

He opened the file drawer on the lower, right side of his desk where he kept it full of candy and reached into an open bag of Reese’s Pieces. He had a stash of goodies in the glove box of his car, too.

As a kid, he spent the bulk of his allowance on sweets. But after his step-dad was shot, and the proceeds of the life insurance policy dwindled, any money Rico could scavenge went toward rent and utility bills.

He grabbed a handful of the autumn-colored candies, popped them into his mouth and savored the peanut butter taste. The first time he’d eaten them was back in the early eighties, after watching E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial at the Sunday matinee. And they’d been one of his favorites ever since.

After listening to the rest of his messages and making the appropriate return calls, he pulled the rolodex across his mahogany desk.

He needed to break things off with Suzette. But he wouldn’t do it on a night she was expecting dinner and a sleepover. He’d just have to cancel their date. Then, at the beginning of the week, he’d stop by her house and tell her she ought to look for someone who wanted the same things out of life that she did.

As he flipped through the tabs, he found V and looked for Vio...Vya...

What the hell was the name of the company Suzette worked for?

As a private investigator, details like that never slipped his mind. But sometimes, when it came to relationships with women, his brain didn’t work the same way. The selective memory thing bothered him a bit, though. Probably because he prided himself on the ability to recall trivial details about a case.

There was a real rush when an investigation struck pay dirt, as most of his did.

Most--but not all of them.

He glanced at the only photograph that sat on his desk, a dark-metal-framed picture of Frank Stafford standing beside his 1963 Corvette Stingray--tuxedo black, with a split back window and a three-twenty-seven cubic-inch, fuel-injection engine.

The photo had been taken right after Frank had bought the vintage vehicle. That was a year before his stepfather had died in a hunting "accident," a case Rico hadn’t been able to solve. One that wouldn’t grow cold until his memory of Frank died.

He glanced out the window, catching a view of the Empire State Building. It was cloudy and overcast today. Rain, most likely. He hoped to get out of here before the storm hit, but that wasn’t going to happen. He still had work to do.

Rico owned and operated a highly successful private investigative firm. Garcia and Associates was and always would be his baby, his life. He’d built the elite and discreet agency to the level where he had a top-notch office staff and the most skilled and professional private investigators in the business. He could probably take some time off--if he wanted to. But he thrived on having the focus his work provided.

The intercom light flashed, then buzzed.

Beep. "Mr. Garcia?"

"Yes, Margie."

"Your mother is on line three."

"Thanks." Rico let the rolodex cards slip through his fingers. He hadn’t talked to his mom in weeks and hoped everything was all right. He worried about her sometimes.

No, make that a lot.

He pressed the lit button on line three and took his mother’s call. "Hey, stranger. What’s up?"

"Oh, Rico. You’ll never believe what happened." His mom’s voice, while innately cheerful, held an even more upbeat tone than usual. "I have wonderful news."

"What’d you do? Hit the lottery?"

"No. It’s much better than that."

Better than money?

He didn’t like the sound of that already. He’d spent the first twenty years of his life living with and looking after his sweet, softhearted but gullible mother. And her "good news" always put his skeptical nature on alert.

She’d better not be talking about another pyramid scheme she’d been roped into. The last time, he’d had to put some pressure on the guy who’d preyed on divorcees and widows, making him give the money back. Then he’d turned the sorry son-of-a-bitch in to the local police.

His mother had gotten her investment back--that time.

"Listen, I’ve only got a couple of minutes before my next appointment, Mom. Why don’t you just tell me your good news?"

"Well, all right. I’ve met the most wonderful man in the world. And I’ve fallen in love."

Oh, for cripes sake. Again?

It’s not as though Rico didn’t want to see his mom happy, but he’d been through enough heartbreak with her as it was. He just wished she’d stop believing that some Romeo was going to ride into her life and carry her away to a castle in the sky.

She, more than anyone, ought to know that.

"Rico?" she asked. "Did you hear me?"

"Yeah, Mom. I heard you."

"You’re not excited?"

Hell no, he wasn’t excited. At fifty-two, his mother had been married four times already. When was she going to put away those fairy-tale dreams and call it quits?

But damn, he couldn’t snap at her like that. She’d probably start crying. And Lord knew he couldn’t handle her tears.

He leaned back in his chair, leather creaking. "You know I want to see you happy, Mom. But who is this guy?"

"His name is Daniel Osterhout. He’s a dentist. And he’s my soul mate."

A soul mate, huh? Well, that’s a term she’d never used before. Couldn’t she just sleep with the guy? Why did she have to marry every man she was attracted to?

"How long have you known him?"

"Nearly a month."

"That’s not very long."

"It seems as though I’ve known him forever."

Rico sighed.

"Oh, come on, honey," She said softly. "I understand your skepticism, but Daniel is different. You’ll see. And someday, you’re going to meet someone special, too."

Rico rolled his eyes heavenward in a God-help-me way. He loved his mom, he really did. But he wished she wasn’t so trusting. Her heart had been tromped on too many times in the past. And she certainly didn’t deserve the pain and disappointment she continually set herself up for.

Couldn’t she be just a little more realistic about love?

"Daniel and I have decided to get married in June," she added, a singsong enthusiasm resonating in her voice. "What do you think?"

Truthfully?

Rico thought it was a joke to have a big hoopla, especially under the circumstances. Hell, this guy would be her fifth husband. "When you say wedding, you’re talking about a little ceremony down at the courthouse with a justice of the peace and a couple of witnesses, right?"

"Well, actually, Daniel and I would like a church wedding, an organist, a few close friends and family. That sort of thing."

As far as Rico was concerned, that sort of thing sounded way too involved. But what the hell. "I guess there’s nothing wrong with June, as long as you’re sure about this."

"I’ve never been more sure about anything." She undoubtedly thought that would make him feel better.

It didn’t.

"Of course, I may need to borrow a little money," she added. "The bride is supposed to put on the wedding, and I might come up a bit short."

They both knew she wouldn’t be "borrowing" any money, but Rico would step up to the plate. He always did. Heck, he’d never been able to deny his mom anything.

Ever since his father died, it had been just the two of them--well, other than a progression of stepfathers who for some reason or another swung in and out of their lives as if they where traveling through a revolving door. Each one had offered a lonely mother and child the promise and hope of a family and then provided them everything but.

He glanced at Frank’s picture, picked it up. Okay, so that one hadn’t hurt them on purpose, but his unexpected death had left them alone and hurting just the same.

"All right," he told his mom. "I’ll spring for the wedding if you’ll try and keep it small."

They both knew Rico wasn’t a cheapskate. He could well afford a fancy wingding. But he wasn’t into dog and pony shows.

"Oh, honey," she said, her voice getting all soft and mushy. "You’re so good to me."

"Yeah? Well, you’ve been pretty good to me, too."

They’d been through a lot together--more than their share of pain and struggles. There was a time when they’d both had to work to keep a roof over their heads, and Rico hadn’t even hit his teen years.

"I love you."

"Me, too," he told her. But the words weren’t necessary. She knew he loved her unconditionally even if she frustrated the hell out of him at times.

"Are you sure about this?" he asked again.

"Absolutely."

Dead silence.

Then he blew out a sigh and reeled in his ever-present cynicism the best he could. "Okay. Then I’m happy for you." Well, not exactly happy. Resigned, he supposed.

But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do a little background check on Prince Charming, D.D.S.

He picked up a pen. "What did you say this guy’s name was?"

"Daniel Osterhout."

"Spell it."

"You’re not writing that down, are you?"

"Humor me."

"You’re not going to have one of your investigators dig into his background, are you?"

"Of course not." Rico wasn’t about to pass this job on to anyone else.

She spelled out the name.

"Is that German?"

"On his father’s side."

"So where did you meet him?"

"I found a coupon in the Dollarsaver offering a free dental exam and x-rays to new patients at his office in Westlake, so I called and made an appointment. I know you don’t believe in this sort of thing, but it was love at first sight."

In a dental chair? How romantic.

Open your mouth and say "aah."

Aah...ooh, baby.

"Nope, I’m a skeptic when it comes to stuff like that, Mom. But I’m glad you’re happy." He just hoped she’d stay that way.

As an adolescent, he’d pinned his hopes on each man she’d brought into their lives. And after weathering each disappointment, he’d become tough--and callused when it came to buying into the fairy-tale of love. But he’d managed to survive, to become strong.

His mom, on the other hand, had been a slow learner. And he was afraid that one more failed marriage, either through death, divorce or abandonment, would do her in rather than toughen her up.

"Daniel and I would like to take you out to dinner this weekend," she said.

Garcia and Associates, with offices in New York, Chicago and L.A., hadn’t become a booming company without its owner working long, hard hours and pouring his blood, sweat and tears into the place. Rico couldn’t just take off on a personal jaunt for the hell of it.

Okay, due to the agency’s success, that wasn’t entirely true anymore.

"I don’t know if I can get away," he lied, hoping that if he dragged his feet, her budding romance would blow over before he had to meet the guy.

"Oh, come on, honey. You put in too many hours as it is. Besides, you’ve hired some new investigators, like that man you call Cowboy. So surely you can drive up here for a day."

He glanced at his calendar. Once he gave Suzette a call, he’d have some free time this weekend. "All right. I’ll come down on Saturday afternoon. We can have dinner, I’ll meet your dental soul mate, then I’ll head back to the city."

"You can also stay the night in my spare room. I’ll make homemade biscuits and sausage gravy in the morning."

"Nothing like twisting my arm. The last woman I was seeing tried to get me on a health kick--tofu, wheat germ and a bunch of other crap--so I’m ready to bolt."

"You’re between ladies right now?"

Warning bells went off. There was no way he wanted his mother fixing him up with anyone. No way. She thought the perfect woman for him was someone a lot like herself, someone with her head in the clouds and her eye on true love forever.

And for some dumb reason, she couldn’t get it in her mind that he’d quit believing in pipe dreams like marriage a long time ago. And not just because of his mother’s marital history.

He had a friend, Mac McGuire, whose wife had tried to force him to give up being a cop, who’d tried to make him move to the suburbs and trade in his police cruiser for a minivan. They’d even had a kid together, which had only made things worse.

And then fate, as it was prone to do, threw Mac a nasty curve. He and his wife divorced, his son was later killed in a traffic accident and the resulting grief led to some heavy drinking, a misconduct charge at work...

Nope, he wouldn’t set himself up for something like that.

"Listen," he told his mom. "I’m not looking for a date, if that’s what you’ve got on your mind. But I’ll come up and have dinner with you on Saturday. And if the biscuits-and-gravy deal is still on, I’ll spend the night."

"I’m so glad. And by the way..."

Uh-oh. Rico instinctively braced himself.

"I have a good friend who needs a private investigator. And I thought..."

"You thought that I’d do it."

"You’ll help her, won’t you?"

Oh, he’d grumble a bit. But he’d do it, as he always did. His mother seemed to gravitate toward people who needed his services.

But what the hell.

Rico loved his mom--big old heart, rose-colored glasses and all. "What’s the trouble this time?"

"My friend is trying to locate a sister she hasn’t seen since they were children. It would mean so much to her. And to me."

"All right. I’ll see what I can do."

"Good. I’ll have her at my house on Saturday afternoon. Maybe she can join us for dinner."

If there was anything that made him even more determined to avoid commitments, it was a chat with his mother--God bless her sweet, ever-trusting heart.

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