“Written with precision and care, this intriguing romance/murder mystery is a fun read that will keep readers guessing until the very end.” – Publisher’s Weekly
Tess Madison walked away from her two-timing fiancé, a multi-million dollar trust fund and a cushy corporate law job to pursue the single life indulging in chocolate and fancy French underwear. But her newly reordered life comes unraveled when she reluctantly accepts an invitation to a dinner party and stumbles upon the host’s dead body. Now Tess is in the middle of a murder investigation pitting her wannabe-boyfriend police detective against Jack Valentine, a man from her past with blue-green eyes and sinful smile that causes her to rethink her self-imposed celibacy. Tess has many reasons to avoid Jack including the fact that he’s the prime suspect in murder. But Tess doesn’t believe Jack’s the murderer and with an honest attempt to keep her hormones in check, she agrees to represent him. With Jack’s help, she uncovers a 30-year-old secret someone is killing to keep hidden and discovers sensual delights that don’t include chocolate or French underwear. But when her professional and personal relationship with Jack threatens to ruin her career and end her life, Tess has to decide if Jack, is worth the risk.
Deadly Valentine is the first in the Valentine Mystery series featuring Tess Madison a chocolate and French underwear connoisseur and Jack Valentine, her handsome, environmentalist love interest.
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Deadly Valentine Chapter One
I think I’m going to puke. Tess studied her face in the nineteenth-century Louis XV-style mirror in Asa Worthington’s foyer. Pale, but not green. Still, the rolling in her stomach told her things could get worse. Why she’d let Daniel Showalter talk her into attending his uncle’s dinner party she didn’t know. It had disaster written all over it even before her stomach threatened to embarrass her in front of the town’s most elite family.
Recently, Daniel’s actions suggested he wanted more than friendship. Not that Daniel was a bad guy. He was handsome, down-to-earth and Tess loved his parents as if they were her own. But she was as committed to celibacy as one could get, short of joining a convent. She’d given up on the idea of love ever after, preferring the sensual delights of chocolate, Marvin Gaye tunes and couture French underwear instead.
But it wasn’t Daniel’s affection for her that threatened to ruin the night. It was his uncle. Asa Worthington was a volatile, intolerant, self-serving man whose gatherings usually involved patronizing or humiliating everyone in attendance. Even Asa’s sister, Helen, found him so distasteful that she hadn’t been to a family function in over twenty years.
The night was proving worse than Tess anticipated when Daniel’s cell phone rang, calling him back to duty as a police detective just as they arrived. So she stood abandoned and stranded in the foyer hoping her lunch didn’t reappear and mess up the beautiful Italian marble floor. The things one did in the name of friendship.
She pushed a tendril of chestnut hair out of her face and hoped that the glass of water the butler was bringing would settle her stomach until she could figure out how she was going to get home.
“You look beautiful.”
Tess lifted her gaze to find a pair of brilliant blue-green eyes reflecting back at her through the mirror. She hadn’t thought the night could get worse. She’d been wrong.
Was it too much to hope to go through the rest of her life never seeing those eyes again or anyone else from her old life? After all, Jefferson Tavern, Virginia was a long way from Washington, D.C., not so much in distance as in social importance. There was no reason for him to be so far from home. Perhaps the man whose reflection she watched move toward her was an apparition. Maybe the mirror was one of those commonly found in historic homes in which ghosts appear through the reflection. The only problem with that idea was that most ghosts in Virginia were from the Revolutionary or Civil wars. This man was very modern.
So maybe her brain was as addled as her stomach and conjured up the vision. Her head was feeling a little foggy. The only way to find out for sure was to turn around and face him.
Gawd! He was even more stunning than she remembered. “Jack.”
He grinned displaying a single sexy dimple. “I was beginning to think you forgot who I was.”
That was laughable. No one ever forgot Jack Valentine. Particularly women. Even a woman like Tess who’d given up on men. He was a romance novel’s alpha male come to life— gorgeous, rich, arrogant, and yet somehow endearing. There was a time she would have liked to indulge her attraction to him. That time was long gone.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
His brows drew together. Clearly he expected a different reaction. He probably thought she’d throw herself at him like she did the last time they were together. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
He gave her an affable smile. “I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. You look good, Tess. Really good.”
“Still a charmer, I see.”
“You don’t believe me?”
She smirked at him. He should have been a politician, the way he could talk and make you feel it was genuine. She didn’t look good compared to when she last saw him nearly three years ago. Aside from the fact that she felt like the Crypt Keeper, she’d also put on ten pounds, which on a five-foot three-inch frame was significant. “I think you’re being nice to an old friend.”
“I’m glad to hear you still think of me as a friend. I was worried you were still mad about the last time we—”
“What are you doing here?” she asked not hiding her impatience.
A flash of annoyance crossed his handsome face. It was so fast that she would have missed it if she wasn’t staring at his mesmerizing eyes.
“Asa invited me.”
“I didn’t know you knew Asa.” What were the odds that Jack would know Asa Worthington? Jack was in in the security tech business while the Worthingtons were in media. When would their paths have ever crossed?
“I don’t very well. It’s business.”
“You’re doing business with him?”
“Not yet. I probably won’t.” He shifted, moved closer. “Are you here alone?”
One dark brow lifted.
“I came with someone, but he was called away,” Tess clarified.
“Too bad for him.”
“He’ll be back.”
“Too bad for me.”
He was standing close, too close. He was studying her and she did her best to hold his gaze without giving away her unease. Or worse, blushing. He didn’t need to know that after all these years he still made her insides flip-flop.
“There you are!” Asa Worthington’s booming voice echoed through the foyer followed by his immense body. “Appointed yourself the official greeter of beautiful women, eh?”
“Only this one.” Jack maintained his gaze on Tess.
Asa laughed and like everything else about him, it was large and loud. His blue eyes twinkled with delight as he reached out and slapped Jack on the back. “That’s what I like about you. You see what you want and you go after it.”
“Tess! You’re here. Good. Where’s Daniel?” Tom Showalter asked of his son as he came to stand next to Asa. The two men were complete opposites. Asa’s presence in a room remained even after he left while Tom could go unnoticed in a crowd of two. He was average in every way, from his lackluster mud-colored eyes, to thinning brown hair. It always struck her as odd that as different as they were, Asa and Tom were good friends. Perhaps Tom being married to Asa’s sister, Helen, helped. Or maybe it was that Tom was Asa’s lawyer.
“He got called away as we got here,” she said.
“Oh. Well, hopefully he won’t be long. I see you’ve met Jack Valentine,” Tom said.
“Jack is thinking of expanding his business in this area in anticipation of a joint venture we’re negotiating,” Asa said. “He’ll certainly want someone local to represent him when he does. If Ms. Madison is as good a lawyer as you say she is, Tom, perhaps she’d be up to handling Jack here.”
“I’d enjoy being handled by Ms. Madison.”
Tess’ eyes grew large, then narrowed with suspicion. It wasn’t unusual for Jack to be brazen. What was disturbing was that it was directed at her. “Have you ever been handled by a woman, Mr. Valentine?” she said, with bravado she didn’t feel.
A wicked smile spread on his face. “Not one like you.”
“Damn, it’s hot in here,” Asa said with a look to Tess and then Jack. “Let’s get a drink and move this party into the parlor.”
Tess followed Asa with Jack and Tom behind her. Although she’d been to Asa’s mansion before, she always marveled at the exquisiteness of his home. The Georgian-styled structure was built in the late 1800s by Asa’s great-great grandfather and it held many original pieces. With a fire to offset the February chill, the room looked warm and inviting, but it couldn’t quite overcome the stiff coolness that was the Worthington family.
“Where is Walter?” Asa asked in a clipped tone. An older gentleman appeared, looking like he stepped out of a 1930s whodunit-novel, complete with a black butler suit and white gloves.
“There you are. Champagne for everyone,” Asa said with a wave of his hand.
Walter made no acknowledgment of his boss. Instead he handed Tess a glass of ice water.
Walter gave her a brief nod in response and then headed to the bar in the corner, presumably to get the champagne.
“We’re waiting for a few more people,” Asa said. Despite the abundance of seating, everyone remained standing in the middle of the room. Ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
“While we’re waiting you can tell us what this dinner meeting is about,” Jack said.
“In time, Jack. In time.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed and he looked as if he was going to press Asa.
“You’ve got a beautiful woman at your side who has been stood up by my nephew. Why not take the time to enjoy the company?” Asa added.
Tess didn’t much like being pimped out. She could only hope that Jack wouldn’t take the bait.
He glanced her way. “Just don’t draw this out too long, Asa.”
Tess rolled her eyes.
“Finally,” Asa said as Walter handed out flutes of golden bubbly. Tess passed on the champagne. She was beginning to feel more wobbly and didn’t need people to think she was drunk.
“More water, Ms. Madison?” Walter asked.
“No. Thank you.”
“Stop flirting with the guests,” Asa snapped.
Tess bristled at Asa’s treatment of his butler. She looked to the others to see their reaction, but there wasn’t one. That’s how it was, Tess reminded herself. Few people ever really looked at or noticed the help. Her own parents treated the servants more like furniture; functional when needed, forgotten when not in use.
“To big business and even bigger money.” Asa held up his glass. Everyone joined him, raising their glasses then sipping the champagne.
“As usual, Asa, the champagne is wonderful,” Tom said.
“I’d never be able to serve less than the best champagne.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I imagine you could get away with whatever you wanted,” Jack said with a hint of accusation.
“He usually does.” Tom nodded in agreement.
Asa laughed, “You know me too well, Tom. But as my lawyer and brother-in-law you’ve shared in the fruit of my efforts. I don’t hear you complaining. You know there’s way too much of that in business today. I marvel at the new breed of entrepreneur pushing the business envelope. Too bad government keeps poking its nose in with regulations and antitrust acts.”
“Seems to me that without the antitrust act, young entrepreneurs would have a difficult time being allowed in the game.” Tess tried to sound matter-of-fact instead of annoyed. It always bothered her how rich people felt entitled to special treatment.
Asa’s smile was patronizing. “I believe Darwin’s theory exists in business, Ms. Madison. The strongest succeed and survive no matter what. That’s the point I was making earlier. Too many whiners running large business today.”
“Good evening everyone,” a young man said, as he entered the room alongside a woman who she stepped out of a glamour magazine.
“Philip,” Asa said looking at his watch. “I’d have thought with you and your wife staying here for the weekend that you’d be on time.”
“Mother called as I was coming downstairs.” Philip’s eyes asked his father not to embarrass him.
“Needed more money, no doubt,” Asa said in disgust.
Philip was a duller version of Asa with lackluster gray eyes and black hair. Even the sophisticated wife with flawless glowing skin and perfectly coifed bob did little to enhance Philip’s presence.
“What does it matter to you, Asa?” the woman said.
“I would think it matters to you, my dear. The more she takes, the less there is for you.”
“There’s plenty for everyone,” Philip said.
“That’s why you’ll never run the business!”
There was a noticeable silence following Asa’s venomous retort. While it was known that Philip wasn’t the bulldog in business that Asa was, he did work alongside his father, and as a family run business since its founding by Asa’s great-grandfather, it was assumed that Philip would be the next leader. The only Worthington not to run the company was Asa’s father, who instead had gone into politics. He’d been a Virginia senator for nearly forty years and would likely die of extreme old age in his D.C. office.
Or maybe everyone’s shock was the fact that Asa made no attempt to hide his contempt toward his son. But anyone acquainted with Asa knew that he had high expectations and low frustration when those expectations weren’t met, even by his family. Especially by his family.
“Have you met everyone, Philip and Shelby?” Tom interceded. “You remember Tess Madison, Daniel’s friend. This is Jack Valentine from D.C.” Everyone exchanged pleasantries.
“Philip’s wife and mother, and Helen, my wife, along with a few other of their friends just got back from New York on their yearly girls’ weekend out. I understand y’all made out pretty good this year,” Tom said, clearly trying to steer the conversation into a more pleasant direction.
“We did alright.” Shelby said, in a tone that made Tess think she didn’t make out nearly as well as she would have liked. Tess wondered if Asa had them on a tight allowance.
“Just what is it that women do when they’re together?” Asa asked looking at Tess.
“I couldn’t tell you.” Tess forced a smile. “I’ve been too busy with my practice to socialize much.”
“Damn right!” Asa boomed. “You’re dedicated to your career. Good for you! You prove my theory. Hard work will make you a success no matter what.” He glanced at Philip. “You aren’t riding someone’s coattails to get to the top.”
Asa was right. She was where she was now because of her own efforts. At twenty-nine years old, she had built a modest private practice in a town in which lawyers were a dime a dozen. She felt she should be proud, but pride wasn’t what she felt when her past came to mind. She gulped down the last bit of her water and immediately regretted it.
“Looks like you need a refill, Ms. Madison,” Asa said. “Jack, why don’t you escort her to the bar and get her something?”
“Tess.” Jack extended his hand to lead the way.
“I just need to sit down a minute. Don’t let me disrupt your meeting.” Tess excued herself. She hadn’t gone two steps when she felt a hand on her lower back. The zing in her blood let her know it was Jack. She felt him lean toward her, his breath tantalizingly warm on her ear.
“You don’t really think I’m going to let you go now that we’re together again?”
***End of Chapter***