Kevin pulled the new Mercedes into the parking lot outside Los Palmas restaurant in downtown L.A. and looked in the rearview mirror. Satisfied with his reflection, he checked his watch. The digital face displayed six-thirty, perhaps an hour before sunset. His belly fluttered. He had arrived too early for dinner. Damn.
He should have hung around Ventura a little longer, but that would have meant listening to more inane chatter from Melanie. Melissa, he corrected himself. Whatever. He had met her on Friday at Karma, a new nightclub. She took him back to her apartment on Veronica Lane for a little after-party that lasted into Saturday afternoon. Now, he intended to forget the address and the girl associated with it.
He looked in the mirror again, tugging at the collar of his silk shirt. He hated when girls left hickeys on his neck, as if marking him as theirs. The collar hid most of the strawberry blotch from view, except for the very edge. He slapped the dashboard in frustration. If she noticed it tonight during dinner, would the sight bother her in any way?
He smacked his forehead. “Get a grip, Kev. Doesn’t matter what she thinks of you.”
The manila folder on the passenger seat indicated the opposite was true. He eyed it with a sigh. Why had he been keeping this thing with him for more than a month? What was he, some kind of stalker now? What would she think if she ever discovered it?
He reached for it, thinking he could just dump the thing in the trash when he got out of the car. His hand halted in midair. He was not ready for that.
Instead, he pulled out the contents, admiring the photo at the top of the pile.
“Taka.” As he breathed her name, an evening wind stirred the forms, newspaper clipping and the photo. He set the latter in his lap and placed everything else back inside the folder.
He gripped the picture in one hand and traced the left edge of it with his thumb. The photo ran in the Times the day after the crash, on the morning of the Democratic primary. A copy had appeared on the newspaper’s website also. It showed four people. He rummaged for the article containing the original image and re-read the headline.
“Oakland mogul Lei Chang hosts major fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate.” He scanned the first few lines of the article preceding the picture, words he had never bothered about reading beforehand.
“On the eve of the Democratic primary on June 2, Lei Chang, the Chief Executive Officer of Chang Industries Limited gave a generous contribution…”
Kevin shook his head, wondering how Lei Chang had felt on June 3, when he learned that his contribution of ten million dollars did not help his candidate secure the Democratic nomination. Both men had attended the same schools together, served on the same boards at overlapping times. Based on what Kevin had discovered about Mr. Chang through a paralegal at Carter-Chase, he doubted whether the man would even miss the money. Not only did Chang remain in sole control of the company he had founded in China thirty years ago, he was also a long-standing board member of two leading airlines.
Chang often appeared on lists of the richest people in America, but he kept a tight lid on most information about himself, including details of his million-dollar assets. Kevin had called on other resources among his mother’s media contacts just to determine how much Chang had donated to his friend’s campaign.
Kevin’s gaze returned to the photo he had printed. The four people in the image were all smiles, no hint of fear about the outcome of the next day. Lei Chang was on the left, in a tailored, buttoned-up gray suit. A silver Rolex flashed at his wrist. He wore his graying hair parted on the left. It fell around his ears. He and the woman next to him were short. His face was round and flat, with a button nose, which was red at the tip. The double creases etched around his sunken eyes belied the warm smile and brightness of his gaze.
Next to him, his plump wife Sachiko stood in a sleeveless, silver-blue silk gown that flared out from wide hips. A scarf of the same material draped her sloping shoulders. She wore her hair in a tidy chignon. Diamonds dangled from her earlobes and around her wrists, while a large sapphire glittered next to her gold wedding band. The former gubernatorial candidate framed the shot on her right.
Kevin’s attention diverted from him to Taka, who stood taller than the rest of them, her head and shoulders a few inches above her mother’s own. Instead of the black dress that had clung to her every curve and showed off those incredible legs during the accident, a blue jacket covered her narrow shoulders. Someone had tamed that unruly bob, as well. She wore red lipstick instead of the bare, pink kissable lips he had seen earlier that day. A mockery of a smile twitched on her lips.
The half-lidded eyes gave away her boredom. No emotion reflected from their depths, or at least none of the passion she had displayed on the highway at the accident scene. He felt certain she would have preferred to be somewhere else than in front of the camera, perhaps not even at the fundraiser. Despite her blank expression, he couldn’t help the stirrings of desire. Damn if she wasn’t beautiful.
His gaze drifted to Mrs. Chang again. Taka resembled her mother instead of the father. Why was he obsessing over her like this? It’s not as if they were on a date. He had other reasons for meeting her at Los Palmas.
The claims adjuster from Kevin’s car insurance company had contacted everyone, including the police officers and two witnesses they had detained at the scene for corroboration. Since Kevin and Taka had alleged that each person bore partial responsibility for the accident, Kevin insisted they talk about it. Her easy acquiescence at the end of the phone call still surprised him.
He read the caption below the photo in the Times aloud. “Oakland-based Lei Chang, CEO of Chang Industries Limited with his wife, internationally-renowned soprano Sachiko Nishimura, their daughter…hell, they didn’t even bother to find out the daughter’s name? What’s up with that?”
A blaring car horn followed by an exchange of curses jarred his concentration. The photo and clipping slipped from his grasp. He retrieved them and returned everything to the manila folder.
“Hurry up and pay, lady! I’m trying to park here.”
Curious about the source of the commotion, Kevin unbuckled his seatbelt, took the keys out of the ignition and turned in the driver’s seat.
At the entrance to the parking lot, the driver honked at the red cab idling in front of him. A thin woman extended a hand through the driver’s side window of the cab, with her narrow butt sticking out, as well as her middle finger, which she directed at the Jeep.
Kevin chuckled. Even after six weeks, he would have recognized her skinny ass and lean legs anywhere. He had not noticed the slight dimples at the backs of her knees until now.
Taka pulled away from the cab and glared at the Jeep’s driver. Even at a distance, her stare flickered like the tip of a burning cigarette. “Feel better now, asshole? Like, seriously, learn some patience and manners next time, fucker!”
Kevin’s belly rumbled with laughter. She dared lecture the poor Jeep driver about proper decorum while she cursed at him across a crowded parking lot. That mouth, another unmistakable trademark. How had a nondescript business executive and a demure opera star produced this little fireball? She was a total misfit.
As she picked her way around other cars, he admired the beauty of her long-legged stride. The untidy black mop atop her head made an appearance again, except this time it had a slight curl from some hair mousse or the shower. The A-line, pinstriped skirt fitted her just above her knees, paired with a white, button-down shirt with three-quarter sleeves. With a leather clutch in her hand and open-toed mules on her feet, she shuffled through the parking lot. Her cheeks glowed with vitality and a pretty blush, with a smear of pink lipstick across her mouth.
He didn’t expect this side of her. She was upbeat and vibrant, but still sexy as hell. Thin eyebrows arched like half moons. Heavy mascara made her wide stare exotic and arresting.
When her eyes alighted on him, she drew to a halt on the walkway that led to the restaurant. He shoved the manila folder beneath the seat and opened the car door. He cursed when he remembered the steering wheel lock.
She clasped the handbag in both hands and stood silent. Their gazes locked, even as he closed the collar one more time. It would have looked suspicious to anyone if he buttoned it up to the top. The temperature hovered in the upper eighties.
He locked the car, tucked his keys into his pocket and approached her. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Ms. Chang.”
She looked past him at the vehicle and whistled. “Whoa! Nice car. I see Daddy came through again. Lucky you.”
“My father’s not around to buy me anything. The Senior Golf Open happened today. He’s still in Pacific Palisades, as far as I know.”
“Uh-huh.” She kept eyeing the car. “This shit’s even nicer than the BMW.”
His jaw clenched but he ignored the baited comment. “This is a nice place you suggested, my mother’s dined here before. She said the food was good, so I hope we’ll enjoy it, too.”
She eyed him with an upraised eyebrow. “I work here. My shift starts at seven thirty.”
He jerked a glance at his watch and sputtered, “It’s six forty-three! I thought we were having dinner.”
She responded with a half-hearted shrug.
He threw his hands in the air. “Why did you tell me about this place if you only intended to give me thirty minutes of your time?”
Despite the frustration roiling in his gut and his muddied thoughts, his voice dropped. What an idiot! He had blundered straight into another mess with her, but he had made this one. He couldn’t blame her, although he wanted to make the whole fiasco her fault. How had he misunderstood? How could he have just assumed they would have dinner tonight? She probably thought he was a total spaz.
He ducked his head, certain a blush crept across his cheeks. It didn’t help that she stared at him without saying a word. He shuffled on his feet, wanting to sink sandal first into the pavement or backpedal to his car without another word. He tugged at the collar again. It felt hot and oppressive around his neck.
A howling snort escaped her. She shook her head and strolled past him. “Not my flipping fault if you heard what you wanted to hear. I never said we’d have dinner, but you can eat here, if you want and wait for me until the end of my shift, guy.”
“My name is Kevin. Don’t act like you don’t know it.”
“Uh-huh.” The near whisper drifted over her shoulder.
He followed her up the three terracotta steps outside the restaurant. “What time’s your shift over?”
“We stop seating at eleven-thirty, so maybe I’ll knock off around one o’clock.”
“In the morning? What the hell?” He covered his face with his hands.
Her snigger frazzled him. He glared at her obvious enjoyment of his confusion.
She held the door ajar with a manicured hand, the nails short and trimmed. “What, I’m not worth the wait? The way you were looking at me when you got out of the car, I could have sworn you thought otherwise.”
Her eyes sparkled with teasing mischief. He stared, entranced. She had been beautiful before, but now with her pink cheeks and that delectable mouth curved in a smirk, she bewitched him.
“That remains to be seen, Ms. Chang.”
Her smirk widened into a full-blown grin. “It’s Taka. I’m sure you remember that, Kevin. You might want to close your collar again. The hickey’s like, showing. Want all of downtown L.A. to guess how your night went?”
With a wink, she entered the restaurant. He raked a hand through his hair, adjusted the shirt collar for the last time and followed her inside.