Run Away Home
by Lois Carroll
Cara directs the movers to pack everything in the penthouse so they can pick it up the next day. Exhausted, she falls asleep remembering forty years ago when she was a private investigator of white-collar crime and took on an industrial theft case she could not forget. She had been a childhood friend of the company owner’s son James. The year she entered college, he left town without telling her. Despite her trying to forget him, she still cares deeply for him. He returns to town but worries that her job is too dangerous. Insisting on helping on the case at his company, his actions put them in jeopardy when they face a gun in the criminal’s hands. When a gun goes off, their lives are changed forever.
Release Date: March 15, 2022
Genre: Romantic Suspense
A WHITE SATIN ROMANCE
“Yes!” Cara Winters concentrated on the screen of the computer. The passwords from JP for the email programs had worked, but this outdated machine was taking forever to function. She glanced at her watch. Less than five minutes before the secretary would be back.
“Come on. Come on,” she urged, knowing her whispered words accomplished nothing but the release of some of the tension she felt. She stretched out her fingers to relax them. She had no recourse but to continue, but she still needed enough time to search the outgoing email addresses.
Her fingers again poised over the keyboard, she listened to the welcome silence behind her in the hall of the Manhattan offices of the engineering design firm, Blake & Son. Without swiveling the chair, Cara glanced at the two closed doors opposite the secretary's desk where she sat.
Director Vincent Graves, whose office was on the left, had the afternoon off. No potential problem from him walking in.
The other door led to space awaiting the arrival of James Blake, Junior. He was due back next week after heading the company’s San Francisco branch for the past six years.
Cara quickly stifled the anxiety she felt from merely thinking about seeing James again. She had several more days yet to steel herself. She inhaled deeply and tried to refocus on the empty office and not on James. But it wasn’t easy.
She’d heard that public relations director Morrison wasn’t happy about losing his staff area to give James more office space, but there hadn’t been much he could do. JP, that's James P. Blake, Senior, the owner of Blake & Son, needed the area for his son's new office.
The computer screen changed, drawing Cara’s attention. The cursor blinked in the upper corner. She rapidly keyed in another short directive.
Her hands remained steady over the keyboard with a confidence born of two years of professional investigative experience, preceded by years of studying computers at college.
“Not this one,” she thought when she could not find the email address she was looking for on this machine. Whoever had stolen the design had used another computer to send it out.
“One more done,” she whispered as she absently wiped a little stream of perspiration running down her temple from under her wig. Time was running out, but as she watched the screen, she smiled. She loved the excitement of her job. Never a dull moment.
She pressed her damp palms against her wildly patterned miniskirt. She’d picked this particular one because it looked too short and way too tight. The black heart-shaped beauty mark below her lip tickled, but she couldn’t remove it yet. Both were to draw any observer's gaze to something about her that she could easily alter. Then a witness would not be likely to identify her as the woman they saw.
An echoing ding from the arriving elevator sounded from down the hall. “There’s the bell. End of this round,” she announced in muted tones as she keyed in the last command to put the computer back into the sleep mode where she had found it.
Her task completed, she jumped up from the chair and pushed it back under the desk. Digging into her enormous cloth shoulder bag, she pulled out a hand-written note, specifically prepared for this eventuality. She darted around the tall silk-leafed plant to the visitor’s side of the L-shaped desk and posed bent over as if she’d just written the note. If someone came in the office, she hoped her exposed thighs would take their attention off her face.
She couldn’t hear anyone in the carpeted hall but sensed someone was coming. The door to the hall opened and Madeline Cory, the secretary, walked in. She viewed Cara with open-mouthed alarm. Her hand flew to her chest as if to steady her heart beat.
Obviously startled to find Cara standing by her workstation, Madeline made her feel appropriately unwelcome in such reputable offices. She could almost hear the secretary say, “A hussy dressed like this has no place here.”
Cara resisted smiling. She knew her see-through blouse and mini-skirt, not to mention her curly red wig, were a far cry from a conservative image created by the secretary. Madeline’s gray suit and high-neck blouse were exactly what Cara would expect to see there: proper and staid...dependable. But that last part was in question now that someone had stolen a complete set of designs.
Madeline's hand continued pressing her chest above her ample bosom. Cara hoped her unauthorized appearance had not been too great a shock for the older woman.
After a long moment, Madeline inhaled deeply and asked, “Who are you and....”
Concluding that Madeline wasn’t close to fainting, Cara sprang into action. She waved the note in Madeline’s face as she walked by her to the hall door.
She spoke in a nasalized voice with as much Brooklyn accent as she could muster. “Oh, there you are. I was just gonna leave a message, ya know, for Jimmy. I heard he was back in town. I just had to come up and get reacquainted—if ya know what I mean.” Her tone of voice and suggestive inflection left no doubt as to what she meant.
Madeline Cory flushed and tried to focus on the paper fluttering in front of her. “Jimmy indeed,” she muttered.
Cara cracked her gum for emphasis. “But I can't wait no more. He don't need a note anyhow, ya know. You just tell Jimmy I'll catch him at home. Gosh, I can't wait to see his new place. Thanks ever so much, hon.”
Stepping toward the door, she crumpled the note and stuffed it into her bag. “Ya know, you're a real peach. I was real curious to see what his secretary was like. Ya know, see my competition, and like that. I'm real glad he's got a secretary like you.” She giggled. “I'll bet you can even type good.”
Cara slipped out the door. Turning toward the elevator, she had to sidestep to miss the man entering the office she had just left. He was in a hurry. A glance was all she needed to know that he was just under six feet, about fifty-five, with well-trimmed graying-brown hair. Director Vincent Graves. She made a mental note of his preoccupied demeanor. Muttering to himself, he apparently was worried about something.
She wondered what he was doing heading for his office when he had requested the whole afternoon off. Could his problem be related to the situation that had brought her here in her professional capacity as a private detective?
She exhaled through pursed lips, thankful he hadn’t returned earlier to find her at the computer outside his office. She hurried on down the hall to the far door in the bank of three elevators. Her heartbeat was rapid, but thanks to staying in shape with weekly visits to a gym, she wasn’t breathing hard. She glanced back to see Madeline still at the door, watching her. She smiled and curled her fingers in a little wave.
But when she had pushed the call button, she froze with her hand in mid-air as the bell sounded and the first elevator door to her left opened. A tall man exited, and without a glance back in Cara’s direction, turned down the hall toward the office where Madeline stood. The doors closed behind him and the elevator moved on.
“Why, Mr. Blake, you’re here early!” the secretary cried. “Oh, your father will be so glad to see you. He’s been in here twice this morning to ask if I knew exactly when you were coming.”
“He knows I just couldn’t stay away,” James responded with a laugh.
Cara watched James walk down the hall. Six years had passed since the night when she saw him last, but there was no mistaking his black wavy hair and tanned face as he turned toward Madeline.
She blinked her eyes, trying to erase his image as he suddenly turned and looked back down the hall at her. She felt his gaze sweep over her garishly clad body.
“I think I’ll just pop up and let him know I’m here,” he told the secretary without taking his gaze off Cara. He started walking back toward the elevators.
Cara gasped. Her hand shook as she repeatedly pressed the elevator call button. When the middle elevator doors opened, Cara darted in and pressed the button to close the doors rather than waiting for them to close automatically.
“Hold the elevator!”
Cara heard James calling. The doors lurched shut, and she glanced at the two men standing behind her. Knowing they would have expected her to try to hold the doors open, she shrugged as if there was nothing she could have done to hold them open.
The car glided upward, and Cara exhaled the breath she’d been holding. The men behind her went on with their discussion and paid her no mind. Seconds passed before the doors opened on the next floor.
Cara exited alone and hurried down the carpeted hall to two unmarked doors. A quick glance up and down the hall told her that no one saw her. She ducked in through the first door and closed it quietly behind her.
The long conference room in which she stood contained a highly polished walnut table surrounded by burgundy leather upholstered chairs. The drapes on the windows were drawn closed, but the open weave of the almond-colored fabric provided plenty of light to allow her to cross the room and enter another unmarked door at the end of the room.
Switching on the light in the private powder room, she took a deep breath before she got to work. A long, navy-wool skirt and matching jacket came out of her oversized shoulder bag and went on right over her miniskirt and blouse. She whipped off the outrageous wig and pulled on a grayed one with a bun, covering her long hair that she’d pinned tightly against her head under a wig cap.
The beauty mark peeled off easily. She rubbed away the gaudy lipstick with a disposable wipe while she buttoned the jacket with her other hand.
She winced as she peeled off the long eyelashes and then slid horn-rimmed spectacles into place. They were for the look and did nothing to affect her vision. The big gold clips came off the shoes, leaving sedate navy pumps. Her gum landed in the toilet with the soiled wipe. She flushed away the evidence. A quick coat of pale lipstick and a powdered nose completed her desired appearance as a sedate older woman.
The wig, shoe clips, lashes, and the collapsed bag went into the thin leather briefcase that had been inside the huge shoulder bag all along.
The briefcase latched, Cara did a quick check in the mirror and straightened her ID tag on her lapel. She thought of how easy it had been to enter the office and access the computer illegally. If she’d been an industrial spy, this place would be a treasure trove. But she was not on the wrong side of the law. An industrial spy working within the company had brought her here. She had to find the computer that had sent the stolen designs.
A second reason that JP had hired her was to have her test the security procedures by having her appear in various offices without an ID pass, as she had in Madeline’s. Armed with the results of her tests, he would be able to identify the design thief and instruct the personnel in better security measures for the future.
When she appeared without an ID pass, employees ought to call security at once. Nonetheless, the idea of getting caught was abhorrent to Cara. If she were caught and outed as a professional agent, she'd have to give up the job. So, she played her roles as carefully, or more carefully, than a crook would. With a change of clothes and wigs, she could move in and out of places that a male investigator could not as easily, or as willingly navigate.
Cara was just a few visits into her search for the industrial spy that had stolen a design from JP's company. Cara judged that the thief must have made serious inroads into the company's bottom line, as well as their reputation, to warrant JP taking this step. Having been a life-long friend of the family as well as a determined private investigator in a company her own father had established, Cara felt all the more focused on success in this case.
She wanted to think her dedication to her job contributed a great deal to putting Winters and Company on the leading edge of investigating white-collar crime, especially computer fraud. She had worked for her father’s firm since college and wanted her father, who had started the business when she was a kid, to think that, too. Unfortunately, he rarely said if he admired her work or not. Although that saddened her, it hadn’t stopped her for a minute.
“Cara?” a male voice called from the conference room. The thick carpet in the room had muffled his approaching footsteps.
More tense than she realized, Cara flinched but recovered easily. Satisfied with what she saw in the mirror, she reached for the knob, switched off the light, and exited the small room with her briefcase. “I’m here, JP,” she responded with an easy smile.
“How’d you make out? That timing was close.”
JP’s pure-white hair contrasted with his dark suit, which he had accented with a silk jacquard tie. A tall man, he was like a loving uncle to her. Grasping his offered hand, she placed an affectionate kiss on his cheek.
“Piece of cake,” she said, laughing quietly so he wouldn’t know just how close it had been for her. Because he’d hired her, she had a responsibility to him, but as his friend, she didn’t want him to worry unnecessarily. He had enough to worry about with a spy among his ranks.
“I was done when I heard Madeline arriving, but Vince passed me just as I was leaving. If he'd shown up a few minutes earlier, I would have been in a sticky situation. But he paid absolutely no attention to me. Just charged down the hall toward his office, like a man with something important on his mind. Didn’t he take the afternoon off, JP?”
“He did. Told me himself at the meeting yesterday. Said he had to take some personal-leave time from lunch on.” He shook his head. “I don't know why he came back here.”
He raised his hand to snap his fingers. “By the way, at the meeting this morning, Morrison was complaining more about being down-sized to such a small space to make room for James’ office. He’s known his office would be smaller since we began the reorganization, but he can’t seem to accept it. Nothing seems to please him anymore, and I suppose that's something I should consider now.”
Cara could see the look of dismay and pain on his face. JP obviously cared for his employees a great deal.
“Damn, I hate suspecting all these people who have worked for me for years.” JP absently rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Sorry, my dear. I still want to believe that no one working for me would be stealing from me.”
“Well, Vincent is back in his office now. Just when we're looking for someone who’s behaving in an other-than-normal fashion, everyone decides to act differently.”
“I don't know what Vince is up to, but Morrison? He complains all the time about something but give me a room full of reporters trying to sniff out something going on at Blake & Son, and I'd pick Morrison to calm them down every time.”
“And your trouble started before you downsized the office space,” she commented as she rested her briefcase on the arm of the end chair.
“I nearly forgot.” JP’s face lit up with a broad smile. “Everything is happening at once today. You'll be happy to hear that James is back already.”
Cara's fingers tightened their grip around the briefcase handle. Her heart was pounding so rapidly she felt certain it would burst. The pounding echoed in her ears. “Yes, I...”
“Security called from the lobby to say he was on the way up just before Madeleine called to say he’d stopped there first. I can't wait to see him. I told my secretary to send him in here. Just like James to pop up without calling to say he was in town already. Must have gotten back last night.”
Cara could not let the mention of James, or the threat of his walking in affect her like this. Years of trying to erase his image from her memory had failed. Why couldn’t she forget?
“It's a good thing you were quick, Cara.” Her attention snapped back to JP’s words. “A few minutes more and James might have walked in on you. He knows that's to be his office but seeing you in disguise…that would have been something to see.”
Cara tried to laugh with him at the idea. To her ear, it sounded brittle. “If he’s coming, I'd better leave now, JP. I won't intrude on his homecoming. I'm done here for today, and we can talk about it and the breaches in your security at our regular meeting Sunday.”
JP’s eyebrows rose. “Can’t you wait to see James? I know he’d be delighted to find you here—but of course, you’ll see him later,” he concluded easily. “And I suppose you'd better get out of the building before someone else recognizes you and wonders what a private investigator is doing here. We don’t want to ruin all your work now.”
Yes, she had to leave, but not just to protect her identity. She had to get out because the last thing she wanted to do now was see James and have to explain what she was doing here. But what had JP meant about her seeing him later?
Cara raised her chin and swallowed to clear her throat. “Yes, I've got to get out past the security desk the same way I came in. No one other than you, or James, of course, now that he's back, must know I'm working on this case for you. We want your spy to feel safe. If he or she connects my being here with an investigation, then they could prove to be even harder to catch. They’ll pay more attention to covering their trail.”
JP nodded. “We'll see you as usual on Sunday night at the house. We'll plan our moves for next week. Should be ready to bait the trap, right?”
“Whenever you’re ready with the faked specs.” Cara turned toward the nearer of the two doors that exited the long room to the hall. “I have just a few computers left to check.”
“I'm very anxious for this nasty business to be done with. I don't like the feeling it's given me. I'm in the dark as to whom I can trust in my own company. And as you know, I really wanted this cleared up before James got back.”
So did I, Cara thought, inhaling deeply. She needed to escape quickly before James arrived to see his father. His secretary would have said he'd gone to the conference room by now. Oh, why did he have to come back a week early—before the investigation was all wrapped up?
“You are going to tell James what's going on, aren't you, JP?” She hoped her voice sounded stronger than it felt.
“I'll have to, but I think I'll wait a bit. No sense ruining his first few days home.”
Cara smiled. “See you Sunday, then.” As a habit, she placed a quick goodbye kiss on his cheek, something she’d done since childhood.
Over his shoulder, she saw the far door to the conference room open. A tall man in his early thirties stepped in. James.
He hesitated as he witnessed what he must have believed to be improper behavior—a gray-haired woman kissing his father in a dimly lit conference room. Suddenly, she felt his anger toward her like a slap on her face.
There was anger in his expression, but no recognition! No, not with the gray wig and glasses, she realized. She stepped back, keeping JP between her and James. Relieved, she was able to draw a deep breath.
“Father?” James called out hesitantly.
JP spun toward the voice. His face curved into a broad smile. “James! It's so good to see you, son.” JP walked toward his son and greeted him with his arms outstretched.
Desperately, Cara sought escape. With a voice not any louder than it had to be for JP to hear her, she addressed his back. “Thank you, Mr. Blake.”
She foolishly took one more look down the length of the room before she exited. Embracing his father, the man that Cara had known and cared deeply for as long as she could remember, James looked over his father's shoulder at her. His gaze locked on hers. His face was filled with animosity for her. Again.
That same horrible glare had been directed at her once before, the last time she saw James before he left to head the California office. For six years, she’d tried to forget that look.
With a chill running down her spine, Cara opened the hall door and fled down the carpeted corridor to the nearby elevators. She pressed the call button on all three.
She could hear JP saying, “We didn't expect you until next week. Your mother will be so pleased you're home early.”
Waiting for an elevator car to arrive, she watched them from the corner of her eye as they exited the same door Cara had used and walked down the hall in the opposite direction.
“I got in too late last night to call,” James said.
Cara could feel the effect of his baritone voice warming her like stepping into a hot bath after ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. Momentarily, she wished James would look over his shoulder at her so she could see his face again. But he didn’t. He was still very adept at walking away from her without a backward glance.
“Come on into my office and let's get a cup of coffee. You'll have to...”
The elevator doors closed behind her, cutting off their voices. Cara rode down in silence and exited into the lobby on the street level. She concentrated on achieving a normal heart and breathing rate. She wasn’t in the clear yet.
As she approached the security desk, the guard was checking in a delivery. She tossed the pass he had given her into the basket on the desk and went out onto the busy sidewalk. Without looking back, she dashed to the corner where she hailed a taxi to take her directly home.
The taxi ride sped by in a montage of blurred street scenes and honking horns. Her hands trembled, hindering her attempt to hurry through the two locked entrance doors to her building. Once inside her apartment, she collapsed against the door that closed and locked behind her.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but still could not erase the image of James. His physique, well-muscled from swimming and sailing, had filled out and matured. He’d looked so handsome with his broad shoulders framing his dark suit—as desirable as ever. Even across the distance between them, she’d seen the light blue of his eyes set beneath his dark brows. Black hair and blue eyes. On him, the combination looked spectacular.
She used to dream that the children they would have one day would all have his blue eyes. To a girl of eighteen in love with such a handsome man, everything had seemed so simple.
“No,” she cried out loud, her outstretched hand slicing through the air like a karate chop. She would not let herself think about their last night together. She slid the extra deadbolt on her door closed, pushed away, and headed for her costume room.
Cara was glad she lived alone in her apartment. The second, smaller bedroom made a perfect wardrobe room to hold her disguises, wigs, and makeup. Dressing in there for her special assignments left space in her bedroom for her desk with her computer and printer stand beside the case files. The dresser and queen bed filled the rest of the room.
An apartment in the city was a big advantage and allowed her to be near the companies for which she got most of her investigation assignments. Winters and Company employees were not private investigators like in the movies, with trench coats and cigarettes in the corner of their mouths. They were men and women who discreetly uncovered industrial fraud and found design thieves. No searches for missing persons or following wayward spouses with a camera, but the Winters PIs could track down manuscripts stolen from a computer system. They could show companies how to make their computer systems safer from thieves, as she was doing for JP.
There was no son to share the company name with her father, Matthew Winters, just an only child—Cara. All her life she had been made painfully aware that because she was a female, she couldn’t measure up as a successor to his business. But that never stopped her from trying to succeed—to be the son Matt had always wanted.
By now, however, she had proved she could be just as successful as a son could have been. She was a good investigator, and she waited for her father to agree. Although her father had never said as much to her, she never stopped wishing he would.
The wig and double layer of clothes off, Cara pulled on her terry robe and only took time to brush out her long thick hair before she sat at the computer. Her shower would wait until she wrote her report describing exactly what had transpired at the Blake & Son offices.
Composing a thorough report, she included comments about Madeline Cory not doing as much as she should have to identify a stranger without an ID tag in the administrative area. In order for the company to be secure, the staff would have to show no hesitation about questioning strangers and calling security quickly when they needed to.
Madeline had been promoted to be executive secretary for James. Until today she was secretary to an empty office, but that was no excuse. Had the spy gotten past Madeline to steal the design information from JP? Cara only knew he or she hadn't used Madeline's computer.
She finished the report and stepped into a hot shower to let the water wash away the tension as she tried to clear her mind. Just relax, she told herself as she massaged shampoo into her hair.
By the time the suds were rinsed away, her mind had shelved the investigation in progress. Instead, it presented a picture she had tried earlier to discard.
James on the last night she saw him.