Sometimes you have to sin a little to find heaven on earth....
As a private investigator, Melina Dimitris had seen more than her share of relationships gone bad. But that didn't keep her from believing that Mr. Right was out there. And she thought she'd found him in a tall, ruggedly handsome adventurer with a pair of magic hands.
So when he dumped her without so much as an explanation, Melina hid her devastation by throwing herself into her work. Little did she expect that three runaway children from the small town of Bethlehem would bring him back into her life.
Sebastian Knight knew that if anyone could find his missing daughter, it was the brash P.I. with a passion for kung fu and tight red dresses. Their affair had been brief, white-hot, and clearly heading for something more serious. Until Sebastian ended it rather than risk getting burned again.
Only now that it was too late did he realize the mistake he'd made. But with a trio of eccentric helpers watching over them -- and the children -- Sebastian and Melina would soon discover that in Bethlehem it was never too late for a miracle.
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January 02, 2002
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Excerpt from Heaven on Earth by Marilyn Pappano
The doughnuts she'd bought the night before were stale, the coffee in the thermos was lukewarm and bitter, and every bone in Melina Dimitris's body ached from spending ten hours in the cramped seat of an eighties vintage Mustang. She was definitely too old for these all-nighters, she thought as she rubbed her gritty eyes. She wasn't a two-bit P.I. trying to make ends meet. She owned the biggest and best investigations firm in all of Buffalo, so what was she doing hunkered down outside a sleazy motel watching the room where her client's sleazy husband was holed up with his girlfriend of the week? Why wasn't one of her employees doing this while she spent a lovely, comfortable night in her lovely, comfortable condo?
One of her employees had been doing it, honesty forced her to acknowledge, until she'd shown up in the wee hours of morning, unable to sleep and in need of a distraction, and had sent him home. She couldn't keep doing it, though. She wasn't as young as she used to be, and her body didn't bounce back the way it used to.
Just because Sebastian Knight had broken her heart, the rat bastard, didn't mean she had to let him break her body and spirit. Instead of moping around like some lovesick schoolgirl, she would deal with him properly, starting today. She would finish up here, shower, then go to her folks' house for the weekly Dimitris family get-together, and there she was going to ask her brother Nikos to set her up with one of his friends. Greek, Italian, or hell, maybe even plain old white-bread American--she didn't care, as long as he wasn't six feet five, incredibly broad-shouldered, ruggedly handsome, and didn't have intense hazel eyes and amazingly strong, gentle hands.
As long as he wasn't someone she could fall for. That falling was tough business, especially when you landed. She'd done it twice now, and she wasn't inclined at the moment to do it ever again. If she wanted that kind of pain, she could just shoot herself and recover a whole lot faster.
Movement at the motel drew her attention across the street. The door to Room 16 opened, and the sleaze stepped out. She raised the camera with its telephoto lens and snapped off several pictures as Miss June appeared in the doorway, showing an incredible amount of tanned skin, and examined the rat's tonsils with her tongue.
Now all Melina had to do was follow him home, where he would tell his wife all about his weekend business trip to Chicago--the difficult client and the lousy hotel that left him badly in need of an afternoon's sleep. Then she would be free to tend to her own business. Meeting family obligations. Finding a new guy. Getting Sebastian the pig out of her system.
The sleaze pulled onto the street, and after a moment, she followed. She was thinking about her client, who'd trusted this man enough to make him the father of her children, and about what an amazing risk love and marriage were for any woman, when too late she realized she'd been spotted. Instead of trying to lose her, though, the bastard slammed to a stop, his car angled across the quiet residential street, and he jumped out, grabbed a baseball bat from the backseat, and ran toward her.
"What the hell are you doing following me?" he shouted, his face mottled. "Did my wife hire you? Do you really think I'm stupid enough to let you give her evidence against me so that bitch can divorce me and take everything I have?" He smashed the bat against the Mustang's driver's door, rocking the entire car, then leaned in the open window, forcing her back in the seat and making a grab for the camera.
His fingers were knotted around the camera strap when Melina brought her weapon up and pressed the barrel against his temple. The Sig Sauer was warm and hard, and it made his eyes practically pop out of their sockets. "Go ahead," she said softly. "Give me a reason. Threaten me with a bat. Steal my camera. Breathe too loudly."
He froze, and beads of sweat broke out along his forehead. She could smell his fear, along with Miss June's perfume, a hint of Cool Water cologne, and the stink of sex. "I--I--"
"Let go of my camera."
"Drop the bat."
He did that, too, and it landed with a clatter before rolling to a stop.
"Now back away. Slowly." Keeping the gun aimed at him, she grabbed her cell phone, then got out of the car. The door panel was crumpled from top to bottom, side to side, and was so flat at the point of impact that odds were, the window was shattered, too.
As she dialed 911, she gestured with the pistol. "Get on the ground. Facedown." Under different circumstances, she might have let the bastard go, or at least get his wife's opinion before she had him hauled off to jail, but if he was angry enough to take a bat to a stranger's car, who knew what he might do to his wife given the chance? Besides, she was nursing a healthy dislike for anyone with testosterone this morning. He'd be lucky if she didn't shoot him before the cops arrived.
The officer arrived within minutes, a female cop whom Melina knew and had tried on several occasions to hire away from the department. Faced with two women with guns, the sleaze stayed sullen and silent. Once he was handcuffed in the backseat of the patrol car and a wrecker arrived to hook up his car, the officer approached Melina. "Still stirring up men wherever you go, huh?"
"All men are bastards."
"Ain't that the truth. But like the saying says, we can't live with 'em and we can't live without 'em."
"I thought the saying was we can't live with 'em and we can't just shoot 'em." They both laughed, then Melina went on. "Speak for yourself. I intend to live a long, happy life without 'em. Except," she added wickedly, "on occasion."
"Tell me, Melina, you ever wonder what you're doing in a job where people come after you with a baseball bat?"
"The thought has crossed my mind a time or two." Or twenty. She spent more time with sad people and lowlifes than anyone ever should. She'd been shot at, threatened, punched a few times, and run off the road. She'd feared for her life and had fought against becoming overly cynical. And she loved her job. How was that for weird?
"You know the routine," the cop said. "I'll need a written complaint from you to attach to my report, then it'll go to the DA tomorrow."
"Who will look at it and say 'Felony assault with a baseball bat on a woman? Throw the book at him. Oh, wait, it was Dimitris. She probably provoked him. Give him a better weapon and her home address, and let him go.' "
Again they laughed. Though she got along well with most Buffalo cops, her relationship with District Attorney Milligan was less than congenial. She blamed several factors--his distrust of private investigators in general, his dislike of capable, independent women, and, most importantly, the fact that she had gathered evidence for his ex-wife to use in their much-publicized divorce a few years earlier. He'd gotten caught with his pants down, and he'd hated Melina for it ever since.
"If you ever decide you want better hours, a better salary, and much cooler weapons, give me a call," Melina said as she gingerly opened the banged-up door, then slid behind the wheel.
"I'll keep that in mind."
Once the wrecker had driven away, Melina returned to the high-rise that housed Dimitris Investigations, typed a quick report, left instructions to get an estimate on the Mustang, then headed home. Within two hours of the crack of the baseball bat against her door, she was walking into her mother's house, greeting relatives and exchanging hugs for kisses as she went. Anyone coming from a normal background could be forgiven for thinking it must be a special occasion to bring fifty or sixty relatives together for dinner, but the Dimitrises weren't a normal family. They were Greek, which pretty much explained everything.
The closer she got to the kitchen, the more amazing the aromas became. Nobody could cook like a good Greek mother, and at the moment, there were about ten of them in her mother's kitchen, putting together a feast. It was a good thing the dress she wore fitted too snugly to accommodate one single excess pound. It was the only way she knew to keep from growing as round as the other women in the family.
As if reading her mind, one aunt shook her finger as she passed. "I wouldn't allow my Mona to wear such a dress in public."
"Aw, Aunt Saba, you'd wear it yourself if Uncle Gene would let you out of the house."
"Tell me one thing," Aunt Olympia requested. "Where do you hide your gun with a dress like that?"
"You'd be surprised." Melina gave her a wink and a smile. "Yaya Rosa!" Bending, she kissed her grandmother's cheeks. There had been a time when Rosa had cooked for a crowd this size single-handedly, but these days, she supervised from a comfortable chair at the kitchen table. She was about eighty years old, frail in body but not in mind, and was most definitely the matriarch of the Dimitris family.
Rosa peered up at her through thick lenses. "How many criminals have you locked up since last we saw you?"
"Only one. But we caught four cheating husbands--five, counting this morning's loser--and two deadbeat dads."
"Good for you, koretsi mou." Rosa applauded. "With a busy week like that, have you had time to meet any men?"
Every time Melina saw her grandmother--or her mother, any of her aunts, or most of her female cousins--she got the same question, but it usually didn't stir a twinge of pain in her gut. This time, as an image of Sebastian formed in her mind, it did. She'd had such hopes for him--such silly, romantic fantasies--and he'd destroyed them. "Nope," she lied. "You have to remember, the people I run into at work aren't exactly the sort I'd consider settling down with."
"Not the crooks, cheating husbands, or deadbeat dads," her cousin Antonia agreed. "But surely there's a petty thief or two. A white-collar criminal. Maybe an industrial spy?"
Melina gave her a phony smile as she circled the island to reach her mother. Antonia was a year older than she, had gotten married right out of high school, and had three kids by the time Melina had graduated from college. She'd added three more in the years since and was the accomplishment Olympia lorded over Melina's mother most often. As if producing a daughter who could breed like a rabbit was something to be proud of, Livia Dimitris groused. Deep in her heart, though, Livia was longing for grandbabies of her own, and none of her three children showed any sign of providing them just yet.
Truth was, Melina was longing for them, too. At thirty-four, she still had plenty of time, but she'd always hoped to have a few years to settle into a committed, permanent, happily-ever-after marriage before she started a family. With that in mind, time was about to get short.
She kissed her mother's cheek, then bent to inhale deeply of the fabulous aromas coming from the pan Livia was stirring on the stovetop.
"You look hungry," Livia said. "Eat."
Obediently Melina scooped up a triangle of baklava from a nearby tray. The flaky phyllo dough was golden brown and buttery, the layers filled with nuts and redolent with honey. Like everything else that came out of this kitchen, it was incredible.
"How was your week?" Livia asked.
"Busy." It wasn't entirely a lie. She'd spent a good part of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday making wild, passionate love with Sebastian. Then he'd dumped her. No excuses, no explanations, just a heartlessly cold kiss-off.
No, that wasn't exactly true, either. There'd been an explanation--the wedding band he'd been wearing for the kiss-off. She'd thought he was divorced. It was common knowledge in Bethlehem that he'd been alone since his wife left him four years ago. At the moment, though, she neither knew nor cared about the status of his marriage. She hated him, and that was all that mattered.
"I called your office Tuesday and they said you were out of town. On business?"
"Everything in my life is business, Mama."
"More's the pity. How are you sleeping? You look tired. Are you getting enough rest?"
"I'm fine. Is there anything I can do?"
Just as Livia opened her mouth, the cell phone in Melina's handbag trilled. "You can get the phone," Livia suggested. "I think we have enough cooks in the kitchen today."
"I'll be right back." Melina hugged her mother, then fished out the phone as she headed for the back door and a bit of quiet. Only a bit, though, since all the cousins under twelve were playing in the backyard. Taking a seat on the top step, she pressed the phone to her ear. "This is Melina."
"Hi. Are you busy?" It was Lynda Barone, her best friend since their first day of college, and she sounded about as down as Melina felt. She was having man problems, too, except hers were vastly different. Ben Foster was handsome, charming, and sexy as hell, and he clearly loved her, but she'd chosen to punish him for being selfishly human thirteen years ago. Melina had to admit, she found it a lot easier to see Ben's side of things than Lynda's. So he'd gotten a girlfriend pregnant when he was a kid. So he'd broken up with her rather than accept the responsibilities of fatherhood. It was a long time ago, and he'd grown up and was trying to make things right.
Of course, having been recently dumped herself, it was easier to relate to another dumpee rather than the dumper.
"I'm at my folks' house. We're about to sit down to enough souvlaki, tyropitta, and kadaifi to feed a small country. What's up?"
"You remember I told you that Ben has a daughter who lives with her aunt and uncle here?"
A grim note came into Lynda's voice. "She ran away this morning. Two other children are also missing. One is a good friend of Alanna's, and the other apparently chose to tag along. The authorities have been notified, but of course their parents are worried sick, and Ben-- We want you to look for them, Melina, please."
She gazed across the backyard where a dozen or so kids played. What would it be like to have a child of your own, then lose him? Like losing the better part of yourself, she imagined. "All right. Do you think your boss would have one of his pilots pick me up?" It was a five-hour drive from Buffalo to Bethlehem, and she'd rather not waste all that time.