The Grand Finale, страница 1
The Grand Finale
Berry Knudsen eased her battered army surplus Jeep over to…
Berry looked at the stacks of pizza boxes and wondered…
Berry saw the strange little puff of black smoke two…
Mrs. Fitz, Mrs. Dugan, and Miss Gaspich perched on the…
It was close to eleven o’clock and Berry’s street was…
He was doing it again. He was dressing in front…
Berry sipped her orange juice and watched Jake from the…
Berry slumped deeper into the couch and furiously zapped stations…
Berry stood in the doorway and watched the last of…
Berry opened one eye and sniffed. Someone was cooking bacon.
Berry thought she might begin to purr. It was a…
About the Author
Other Books by Janet Evanovich
About the Publisher
Berry Knudsen eased her battered army surplus Jeep over to the curb, pulled the emergency brake on, and studied the only mailbox in the deserted cul-de-sac. No name. No street number. Terrific. She squinted into the blackness and reread the address taped to the large pizza box on the seat next to her. 5077 Ellenburg Drive. This had to be it. This was Ellenburg Drive, and this was the only house for a quarter of a mile. She thunked her forehead onto the steering wheel and groaned. Last delivery of the night, and it had all the earmarks of a prank.
The house was a three-story Victorian perched on a small hillock. A sliver of moon ducked behind the clouds throwing ghostly highlights over the house, and a chill March wind moaned through a giant oak standing guard over the lawn on the south side. Berry grimaced and decided Jack the Ripper would have felt comfy here. Quasimodo could have added a bell tower and been happy as a clam at high tide. And Count Dracula would have traded half the blood in Transylvania for a house like this. But it’s not in Transylvania, Berry reminded herself. It’s in suburban Seattle and probably belongs to some nice little old lady and her nephew…Norman Bates.
She grimly noted that there wasn’t a light shining anywhere. No car in the driveway. No sign of life that might require a large pizza with the works. Damn. She really should go up and ring the doorbell. How bad could the thing lurking behind the ornate, hand-carved front door be? Probably just some hungry pervert, sitting in the dark in his boxers, waiting for the pizza delivery lady.
Berry pushed her short blond curls behind her ear. She was being ridiculous. How did she come up with these ideas? Mr. Large Pizza with the Works simply wasn’t home. He probably went out for a six-pack of beer and maybe a hatchet. Happened all the time. And since he wasn’t home, there certainly wasn’t any reason that she should go up and ring the doorbell. What she should do was get her keister the heck out of this creepy cul-de-sac.
A cat cried in the distance, and the hairs on Berry’s neck stood on end. Beads of sweat popped out on her upper lip. She held the steering wheel in a death grip, and the pathetic little meow, filled with fear and wavering uncertainty, echoed through the still air again. Berry closed her eyes and slumped in her seat. It was worse than a cat. It was the cry of a kitten. She was doomed. She was a sucker for lost dogs, fallen nestlings, and stranded kittens. It called out again into the darkness, and Berry grabbed the pizza box and set off across the lawn, drawing courage from the fact that the Victorian house looked less sinister at close range. It had been freshly painted lemon yellow. The intricate gingerbread trim sported a new coat of white. The windows were curtainless, but the panes reflected a recent cleaning. The cat looked down at Berry from a tall oak tree and swished its tail.
“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” Berry called softly.
Berry bit her lower lip. The dumb cat was stuck in the tree. A blast of wind ruffled the kitten’s fur, causing the little ball of fluff to huddle closer to the limb. Berry rolled her eyes and plunked the pizza box on the ground beside the tree.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Berry explained to the cat as she scrambled to shinny up the tree. “It’s not that I don’t like kittens. And it isn’t that I mind climbing trees. It’s just that I’ve about filled my good deed quota this week.” She grasped at the lowest limb and hauled herself up in perfect tomboy fashion. “Do you know what I did this week, kitty? I advertised for a delivery boy, and then I hired three little old ladies instead. Now they’re doing the baking, and I’m doing the delivering.” Berry stopped to catch her breath. “I’m not a delivery sort of person. I get lost a lot, and I’m not too brave about knocking on strange doors. And if that isn’t bad enough, I moved the old ladies into my apartment.”
The kitten looked at her and blinked.
Berry sighed in exasperation. “Well, what could I do? They were living in the train station.”
Berry wriggled next to the kitten and looked up toward the stars. It was nice in the tree. The wind whistled through the limbs and whipped her short hair around her face.
“People should sit in trees more often,” she said to the cat. “It’s peaceful and exciting, all at the same time. And you can see forever. Practically clear down to the little bridge at the lower end of Ellenburg Drive.”
She watched in quiet fascination as headlights smoothly moved over the bridge and snaked uphill toward her. The soft rumble of an expensive car broke the silence.
“Just great,” she breathed, suddenly aware of her predicament. “Large Pizza with the Works is coming home, and I’m sitting in his tree!”
A Great Gatsby–type car purred up the driveway. It was a large, cream-colored machine with a brown leather convertible top, spoked wheels, and running boards. The garage doors automatically opened, swallowed up the antique car, and closed with a neat click, plunging Berry and the cat back into quiet darkness.
Berry exhaled a low whistle. “Impressive,” she remarked to the cat. “What was that? A Stutz Bearcat? Or maybe a Stanley Steamer? Definitely something old and flashy, and perfectly restored. I’ll say this for Quasi, he has style and money. I bet he’s some eccentric gangster. Some drug runner who’s watched too many old movies.”
Berry imagined him as looking like Quasimodo in a panama hat. The white pizza box on the ground caught her attention. She should probably deliver it, she thought guiltily. Quasimodo was home now and might be hungry. After all, she did take pride in her job.
“Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow shall keep me from delivering pizza,” Berry explained to the kitten. Of course there was nothing in that zippy little slogan about weird people and spooky houses. Maybe what she’d do was leave the box on the porch, ring the bell, and run like heck. She tucked the kitten under her arm. “Don’t worry, cat,” she whispered. “If I got up this tree, I can get down this tree.”
Berry slithered toward the trunk, looking for a branch within stepping range. A hall light sparkled at the other side of the house, and then a light flashed on directly in front of her. It was a bedroom. Quasi’s bedroom. And she was sitting eye level to it, getting a crystal-clear picture of the most mouthwatering male she’d ever seen—more than six feet tall with broad shoulders and slim hips and wavy almost-black hair that curled over his ears and scraped his crisp white shirt collar. Definitely not Quasimodo.
He flung a book onto the bed and popped the top button of his shirt open. Then another button. Then another. Berry involuntarily inched closer to the window. After all, she ratio
He pulled the shirt off and draped it over a chair. Berry closed her eyes for a split second, swallowed, and made a mental note that there was no hunchback on Quasi. Just lots of muscle in all the right places, and a flat stomach with a thin line of black hair, leading to his…Holy cow! He was unzipping his pants.
“I’ve got to get down,” she whispered to the cat. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
Berry desperately looked for a foothold, willing her eyes to behave themselves and not return to the window. This wasn’t the sort of thing pizza delivery ladies were supposed to do. Peeping in men’s bedroom windows was a definite no-no. It was rude and immoral and could get you into a whole bunch of trouble. In fact, Berry decided, there was something about this man that smacked of trouble. He had the ability to fascinate, to mesmerize, to incite riot in a woman’s body…in her body. Berry’s body hadn’t rioted in a long time. Working fourteen hours a day making pizzas didn’t leave much time or energy for romance. Lately she’d been convinced her hormones were in premature retirement, but there was something about this man that caught their attention. The way he moved with the fluid efficiency of an athlete, plus something else, something more elusive than perfectly toned muscle. There was a good-humored set to his mouth.
Berry’s pulse quickened. With or without clothes, the man was a menace to mental health and glandular stability. And she was dying to take one more peek. Her eyes focused on Mr. Large Pizza with the Works. He had stripped to a pair of navy bikini briefs. He stuck his thumbs into the elastic waistband, gave a downward tug, and…
“Holy cow!” Berry gasped, covering her face with her hands. Her heart jumped to her throat, she lost her balance and went over backward, tail over teakettle, frantically grasping for branches as she fell, her leg scraping against a lower limb as it cracked under her falling weight. Then whump! She landed flat on her back, knocking the air out of her lungs. Little black dots floated in front of her eyes, and the ocean was pounding in her ears.
A few seconds—or was it hours?—later, Berry blinked at the hunk of masculinity that bent over her. “Am I dead?”
“I feel dead. I must be bleeding. My back is all warm and sticky.”
The hunk squatted beside her and looked more closely. “I don’t see any blood, just some pizza sauce oozing through this crumpled box. Lady, you’ve squished this poor pizza to smithereens.” He extracted the pizza box. “Is this mine?”
Berry nodded. She was relieved to find that he was fully clothed in a pair of jeans and a navy hooded sweatshirt. She made an attempt to sit up and began a methodical check of any bones that might be broken.
“What happened?” he asked. “I heard something crashing around out here, and there you were, flat out on my pizza. Are you okay?”
He picked bits of bark from her tangled hair. He glanced at the profusion of broken branches scattered on the ground and his attention turned to the tree, his gaze traveling up the height of it, resting on the large limb just outside his bedroom window. Incredulity registered on his face.
“Lady, you must be kidding! You can’t be that hard up to see a naked man.”
“I’m not hard up at all,” Berry said with a toss of her head. “I’ve seen lots of naked men.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Lots?”
“Well, maybe not lots. A few. Actually, not too many.” She threw her hands into the air in frustration. “Well, dammit, I’ve been busy. I don’t have time to go around looking at naked men. I have a pizza business to run. I have old ladies to take care of. And anyway, you’ve got this all wrong. I was rescuing a kitten.”
They both looked up at the tree. No kitten.
Berry pointed. “There was a kitten up there!”
The hunk didn’t believe her! Of all the nerve. Berry tipped her nose up and gave him her most withering look. Well, phooey on you, her most withering look said. I don’t care what you think, anyway. She retrieved the crumpled pizza box and thrust it into his hands. “Here, this is yours. Seventeen ninety-five, please.”
He looked down at the flattened box that was oozing pizza sauce. “Shouldn’t I get a disaster discount?”
Berry had to admit, seventeen ninety-five was a little high for a smashed pizza. “Fine,” she said, “it’s on the house.”
“Thanks. The strip show is on the house, too,” he said, smiling. “Now we’re even.”
Berry looked at him. Two eyebrows, nice nose, suspicious brown eyes. And a mouth that looked like it might be laughing at her. His mouth wasn’t too big, and wasn’t too small, and it was slightly turned up at the corners. Truth was, it was probably the greatest mouth she’d ever seen.
“Are you going to kiss me?” he asked.
Berry snapped to attention. “Certainly not!”
Laugh lines crinkled around his eyes. “You were staring at my mouth.”
“I thought it might be laughing at me.”
He looked at her tangled blond curls, big blue eyes, and cute little nose. And he looked at her mouth. Full and soft. Not smiling. His gaze moved south over her red down vest, long-sleeved shirt, and faded jeans. She was slim. Maybe five-five. Hard to tell her age. Somewhere between sixteen and thirty-two, he guessed. He hoped she wasn’t sixteen because he was having thoughts about her that would be inappropriate if she was sixteen.
“Jake Sawyer,” he said, extending his hand. “How old are you?”
“I’m too close to thirty.”
“I suppose you’re the owner of that dilapidated Jeep.”
“That Jeep is not dilapidated. That Jeep is almost in A-one condition.”
As if on cue, there was a loud spronnnng at curbside, and the Jeep slowly began rolling backward, down Ellenburg Drive.
Berry gasped. “My Jeep!”
The Jeep picked up speed on a downhill curve, jumped the curb, merrily bounced over a grassy area, and headed for an opening between two large birch trees. Berry took off running and raced alongside, trying to get a grip on the door handle. Her fingers had just touched metal when Sawyer tackled her, and they both went down to the ground. She picked her head up in time to see the Jeep squeeze between the two trees and catapult itself off a twenty-foot cliff.
“Get off!” she said, twisting under Sawyer. “You must weigh two hundred pounds.”
“One-eighty and it’s all muscle.”
Berry already knew the part about it being all magnificent muscle. Besides being permanently engraved in her brain, she could feel it being firmly pressed into her. His knee was cozily nudged against the inside of her leg, and his delicious mouth was hovering just inches above her own.
“You’re staring at my mouth again,” he said.
And he kissed her. Nothing serious. Just a single, testing-the-waters kiss.
“Jeez,” Berry said.
“Is that good or bad?”
It was terrific, Berry thought. Not that she would admit it to Mr. Large Pizza.
“It was entirely inappropriate,” she said, wriggling out from under him, getting to her feet. “And that was my Jeep. I needed it. I can’t deliver pizzas without it. You had no business jumping on me like that.”
“Are you crazy? You would have killed yourself.”
“Well, fine. Now I’ll slowly die of starvation because I’m deprived of earning a living.”
Good grief, Berry thought, she sounded like an uptight, whining moron. It was so unfair. Why couldn’t she have met this gorgeous guy under more favorable circumstances? Like maybe winning him in the lottery. She turned on her heel and strode off to the birch trees to inspect the damage.
She’d gotten the Jeep two years ago, the day after her divorce had been finalized, and it had never given her a moment’s trouble. Of course, she had to give it a quart of oil ever
They stood at the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the Jeep, belly-up and slightly squashed in the moonlight.
Berry sighed in morose resignation. “It’s dead.”
“Doesn’t look good.”
Berry was at a loss for words. After all, what on earth can you say when your entire future has just gone over a cliff? What can you say when faced with certain bankruptcy? And I’m not going to cry, she told herself, frowning. I absolutely am not going to cry.
He studied her face in the moonlight. “You’re not going to cry, are you?”
“Absolutely not.” A large tear oozed over her lower lashes and streaked down her cheek. “Damn.”
She was pretty, he thought. And she was nice to kiss. But she was a little nutty. Not that he would hold that against her. He put an arm around her shoulders and wiped the tear away with his thumb.
“It’s okay,” Jake said. “The insurance will pay to replace your car.”
Berry slumped and did another sigh.
“You don’t have insurance,” he guessed.
“Not that kind. Only if I run over somebody.” She squared her shoulders and turned on her heel. “Well, good-bye.”
Good-bye? He wasn’t ready for good-bye. He wanted to look at the blond curls some more. He needed to know why she didn’t have insurance. And what was her favorite ice cream flavor? And when was her birthday? And was she really okay after falling out of his tree? And in fact, he wouldn’t mind knowing what she thought of him naked, but probably he shouldn’t rush that one.
He walked beside her. “Where are you going?”
“That must be miles from here.”
Berry shrugged. “It’s not so far.”