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Edward Masen shifted the car into park and switched off the engine and lights. He peered through the late-night darkness at the house he had sought and found by taking the address from Esme's address book and consulting a map bought at an all-night liquor store.
The house was on of those low, flat-roofed structures, without any distinguishing features. Edward thought it a surprisingly average-looking place for an ex-lover of Esme.
Wondering ruefully if he'll ever see a good-night's sleep again, he rubbed his stiff muscles at the back of his neck. He had a problem with insomnia and hadn't been able to sleep last night. And tonight, of course, would end up a total loss. His eyes felt grainy, his tie too tight. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in a futile effort to massage away the tiredness, then loosened his tie.
Guilt, dread and anger had carried him this far. But now he hesitated. Was he doing the right thing? He spent several seconds debating, staring rather blankly at his watch. The time was 3am. He really hated to disturb the house's occupants at this ungodly hour.
If he had any sense at all he'd give up. Return to L.A and get on with his life.
But he couldn't. He was too worried about Esme. Growing up with her for a mother hadn't been his idea of the perfect upbringing. But still, she had done her best. He loved her, and he owed her. And the note she'd left behind for her stunned fiance when she ran out on her engagement party had rung a shrill warning in Edward's mind and heart,
My secret sister needs me in Palm Springs, so I must go to her at her hotel there.
And I want to be honest with you, my love. I must see Jack Smith before I can marry you. I was in love with him once, long ago. And he lives there now. I must have some time to be sure. Please understand.
Carlisle had handed Edward the note without saying a word, and then told Edward very quietly that he wanted to be alone. Just thinking of the stunned, despairing expression on the older man's face made Edwards stomach twist with guilt.
Carlisle Cullen was the senior partner in Edward's law firm, Edward's mentor and father he never had.
Carlisle never would have met Esme Platt if Edward hadn't introduced them two years before.
But worse than Edward's guilt, even worse than his rage at his mother for pulling this stunt, was his dread.
"My secret sister needs me..." she had written. What the hell was a secret sister? Edward was afraid he already knew. He was all too aware of his mother's fatal weakness for odd societies and fringe groups.
Edward was terrified that if he didn't get to her soon, she'd sign over everything she owned to this secret sister. He was afraid she was throwing away her happiness and her solvency. As her only child, he just couldn't sit by and let her ruin her life.
Positive that he was in the right, he left the car. He strode purposefully up the walk, past the crouching shadows of spiky-leaved century plants and a pair of runty yuccas. There was a wooden plaque beneath the porch light that read The Smiths.
Edward rang the doorbell. When there was no immediate answer, he waited a respectable ninety seconds and rang again. A light went on in a side window. He waited some more and then the door, held by a chain, opened a crack.
A middle-aged woman, her head covered by pink foam rollers and a flowered hair net, peeked around the door.
Edward's quick mind drew the logical conclusions. This had to be the ex-boyfriend's wife. The likelihood that he'd find Esme wrapped in Jack Smith's arms had just greatly diminished.
"Yes?" Through bleary eyes, the woman peeked at him. He knew that his clothes and manner spoke well for him, and he was careful not to present a threatening stance. He gave her a moment to look him over before he spoke.
"Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you..." Edward began.
"It's very late," the woman murmured, looking a bit less wary.
"I know, but I'm trying to find somebody and I was afraid if I waited until a more respectable hour, that "-he paused significantly, hoping he was taking the right track on this"- trail would be cold."
The woman narrowed her eyes.
"Are you with the police?"
"No." He cleared his throat officiously, and then dropped his voice to a confidential whisper. "This is a private matter." he whipped out a picture of Esme to show the woman.
The woman gave it one quick look and then swore in a distinctly non matronly manner. "I should have known."
"Then you've seen her?" Edward asked. "What's she done?"
She glanced over her shoulder, no doubt eager to get Esme in as much hot water as possible before her husband could come out and interrupt. "All I can say is, about seven last night, she came into the store that Jack and I own. She strolled in bold as you please and pranced right up to the counter where Jack was ringing up a sale. 'Hello Jack' she says in this low, sexy voice. Then grabs him by the neck, kisses him right on the mouth in a way that left no doubt they'd once been, well you she steps back, shakes her head, and prances out. Jack swears he hasn't seen her in forty years, but I-"
"Enid, what the hell is going on out there!" The man's voice came from somewhere in the back of the house.
"Nothing, Jack!" She grinned at Edward, rather slyly."He's sleeping in the back room tonight." She turned as footsteps approached behind her.
Then Jack, older than Enid and totally bald, was squinting around the door. " What's this? Man can't get no sleep in his own damn house."
"I'm sorry to bother you-"
Then Edward stuck his foot in the door before Jack could slam it
"Please. Just one question."
"Make it snappy."
"Do you happen to know where Esme Platt might have gone?"
Jack crackled. "Nope." He shook his head, and a gleam came into his watery eyes. "What a woman."
"Jack!" Enid screeched from behind him.
"She didn't happen to mention anything about a secret sister, did she?"
Jack shook his head. "Get your foot out of the door, sonny. As you can hear, I got me a little domestic problem to take care of."
"Thanks." Edward removed his foot and Jack shut the door.
Edward stood on the walkway for a moment, hearing the arguing voices behind the door and wondering what to do next. Then he returned to his car.
The problem was that he had no lead at all on this mysterious secret sister. A call to Alice Whitlock, Esme's assistant at her hair salon, had revealed only that Alice "Though it was something to do with a woman's group," which told Edward nothing. Calls to two or three of Esme's closer friends had gotten him no more information. They all said they had no idea what he was talking about, but that Esme always had been one to get involved with "interesting" people.
Intent on finding some kind of clue, no matter how minimal, Edward took the crumpled note from the glove compartment and, by the dim interior light, read it again.
My secret sister needs me in Palm Springs, so I must go to her at her hotel there...
Edward switched off the light and sat in the total darkness, staring at the shadows of the surrounding mountains against the night sky.
How many hotels could there be in a resort town like Palm Springs?
"Too many," he answered his own question aloud with a weary sigh.
But what else did he have to go on? Zero.
He pictured Palm Canyon Drive in his mind. Several miles of street, packed with exclusive shops, restaurants- and countless hotels.
Grimly, he slid his key into the ignition and started up the car again. If he intended to visit every hotel in Palm Springs in hopes that his mother had registered in one of them using her name, he'd better get started. Somehow, he had to find Esme before her "secret sister" took her for everything she was worth.