She’s here again?” Dr. Allison Walker’s tone was low and almost menacing as she whirled on Kendra Michaels. “We discussed this, Kendra. I believe I made myself clear. What didn’t you understand?” “Nothing,” Kendra said quickly. She found herself feeling the same sense of panic and intimidation she’d had when she’d been scolded by the school’s head administrator during the time she’d attended here as a child. Which was totally ridiculous. Yes, Allison was impressive, but between Kendra’s work in music therapy and her investigations with the FBI, she had significant credentials of her own. So why was she backing away instead of defending herself? “It was kind of a surprise visit. We weren’t expecting Delilah Winter to show up here today.” “I certainly wasn’t expecting her,” Allison said coldly. “And I wasn’t expecting to have to tell the guards at the front gates to clear away all the fans and paparazzi who followed her onto the property. There were even more than there were last time. I understand they had to whisk away Congressman Dalborne, who’d just arrived here for a visit, to keep him from being trampled. Do you realize how important he is? Everyone knows he’s getting his ducks in a row to run for president.
” “You’re exaggerating. Congressman Dalborne was actually a good sport about it all,” Kendra said defensively. “And Delilah Winter took him with her when the guards were getting her through the gates. He was laughing about it.” “Which is more than I’m doing,” Allison said. “This is a school, not a rock concert. Those students are here to learn how to handle their disabilities, not worship at the feet of some pop star. There’s been enough disturbance here at Woodward Academy in the last months. I agreed to go along with your plans to improve our image, but not at the expense of the students. You promised me that wouldn’t happen.
” “And it’s not,” Kendra said. “Be fair, Allison. I’ve kept my word. A few months ago, this school we both love was going to be forced to shut down. You’d lost the funding to keep it open because no donors were willing to be associated with it. Not only had there been three murders on the property, but a drug lord kingpin and his men were killed here. We had to get another donor as well as convincing the parents of those special kids to bring them back. Something had to be done quickly.” “So you decided we had to develop a relationship with the media that would cause everyone to forget what happened here and make them think we were St. Jude or Shriners.
” She added sourly, “We don’t need to copy any other schools or hospitals. We work hard and we’re one of the best schools in the world for helping the disabled.” “But we had to make the public remember that and forget the ugliness they’d seen recently on TV,” Kendra said urgently. “We’re making progress, Allison. I was able to arrange one interview with 60 Minutes and two with CNN. Four positive feature articles have been written about celebrities visiting the campus and raving about the classes and students here.” Allison’s expression wasn’t changing, so Kendra rushed on: “And I managed to get that billionaire from Silicon Valley as a prime donor for the academy. That might not have happened if he hadn’t seen those CNN shots of the kids in the classroom.” Allison nodded grudgingly. “If he doesn’t back out when he sees how Delilah Winter is turning this campus into her personal playground.
Favorable publicity is one thing, notoriety is something entirely different. She’s been here five times, Kendra. She’s a disruption. Those paparazzi rob the school of any dignity it might have. Your friend Jessie Mercado arranged for her first visits here to the school. Can’t she tell her to go on tour or something?” “That might be difficult when Delilah is a superstar and she and Jessie are just good friends,” Kendra said dryly. “We’re only having a small communication problem with her. Jessie didn’t even know she was here until I called her and asked her to drive down from L.A. and talk to her.
She should be here by now.” Time to escape. She’d done all she could to soothe Allison. She turned and started across the campus. “I’ll go down to Big Rock where Delilah is performing and meet her.” “Big Rock?” Allison asked. “Now it’s an outdoor concert?” “It’s not really a concert.” Big Rock was an enormous flat rock on the grassy expanse of the gentle hills that overlooked the ocean. Kendra and generations of other students had sat there on the rock, carved their initials, and told their secrets to each other. “No one could call Big Rock a stage.
She liked what I told her about how the kids felt about it. She just sits on the rock, sings a little, and talks to the kids. By having it outdoors, it gives the kids more room to spread out.” She was hurrying away. “It’s going to be fine, Allison. We’ll take care of it.” “Then take care of keeping her away from here,” she called after her. “I don’t know why she would even want to come.” “Because she likes it here, Allison,” Kendra said quietly as she headed across the huge campus toward the hill that led to Big Rock. “She likes the kids.
And there’s no way we’re going to hurt her feelings.” She could hear the sound of Delilah’s guitar in the distance, but she wasn’t singing. Laughter. She must have said something funny to the kids while she was strumming. Delilah was so good with the kids. Why not? She wasn’t much more than a kid herself, barely twenty. She’d hit it big with her first platinum record when she was fifteen and kept on climbing. Yet Kendra had always been aware of something youthful and wistful about her from the first moment Jessie had introduced them. Jessie had told her she’d had a few big headaches from the time she’d taken over Delilah’s personal protection, but it had only been because the girl was young and scared. She’d never turned into a spoiled brat—which could well have happened considering her sudden fame.
Kendra knew Jessie had become really fond of her before she’d turned her over to another protection service, and it was obvious Delilah adored her. Kendra had wondered whether she’d first come to the school because it would give more opportunity to be with Jessie. If that had been the reason, it wasn’t now. She’d told Allison the truth: She’d seen both the gentleness and the affection whenever Delilah interacted with the students. “Coward,” Jessie jeered from behind Kendra. “Here I am to the rescue. Maybe you should have called your friends Griffin and Metcalf with the FBI to keep Dee under control. Or how about Lynch? As a black ops specialist, he should have been able to handle her.” “Shut up.” Kendra turned to watch Jessie Mercado walk toward her.
Those huge brown eyes and pixie features echoed the mischief in Jessie’s voice, but Kendra had already had enough. “I took the flak Allison was handing me, but I had no intention of yanking Delilah out of here by myself.” “She told you to call her Dee.” Jessie fell into step with her. “Do you want to hurt her feelings? She thinks you’re her friend.” “And I’m trying to maintain a professional relationship.” Which was difficult when Dee was so damn wistful and appealing. “And I am her friend, I just don’t want to have to be the bad guy. She did us a favor the first couple times she came here for interviews with the kids.” “And you don’t want to tell her to get lost now that all that celebrity bullshit is getting in the way.
Well, Dee has to live with it twenty-four seven.” Jessie added bluntly, “You’re too soft. By all means, call in the FBI.” “I’m calling in Jessie Mercado. Why didn’t you know she was going to show up here today?” “We don’t live in each other’s pockets. She didn’t mention it. When I phoned her, she told me she didn’t know herself until her car picked her up this morning. It was an impulse. She didn’t even notify her security detail.” Jessie’s lips tightened.
“She was halfway to Oceanside before those agents thought to check on why she was late for rehearsal. I’d have fired them if I’d still been heading her security.” “It was her fault.” She shook her head. “They had a job to do. Cooperation with a client is nice, but you can never count on it. Though I’ll read her the riot act for being stupid. I taught her better than that.” She glanced soberly at Kendra. “But she really wasn’t being stupid.
She’s very smart and canny about what’s going on around her. Sometimes she just has to let go and forget about being Delilah the Superstar. It keeps her sane and all the phoniness at bay. These visits here with the kids have been good for her. She’s only a kid, too, you know.” She made a face. “Not that her mother or all those sycophants around her have ever let her act like one. She’s been a meal ticket since her first Disney Channel show when they found out she could sing.” “That’s terrible,” Kendra said. “I’m glad she had you for a friend during that time right after her record went platinum.
” “Maybe I wasn’t her friend.” Her lips twisted. “She wanted me to stay with her longer, offered me a fortune to do it. But much as I like her, I could only stand that bullshit pop-star life for so long. Then I set her up with another security head, Colin Parks, and moved on.” “You were her friend,” Kendra said quietly. “You are her friend. I’ve seen you with her.” They had come over the hill and suddenly could see the huge crowd of students below surrounding the enormous flat rock where Delilah Winter was sitting, holding her guitar, with one torn-jean-clad leg tucked beneath her. Dewy complexion, tousled red hair, gray-green eyes, and that eager smile as she gazed out at her audience and tried to reach them.
She was full of life that lit her entire face with warmth. Jessie’s lips softened as she looked down at her. “You’re right, maybe I was her friend.” She started down the hill. “Though how that will turn out after today, we’ll have to see.” * * * Dee saw them the minute they got close to the Big Rock. She smiled as she waved enthusiastically at them, then turned to the people in the audience. “Hey guys, two of my old friends have just dropped in. Jessie Mercado is an awesome private investigator who’s usually busy saving not only Hollywood but the entire planet, and Kendra Michaels was once a student here just like you. You all know her story.
Blind girl has miracle operation, regains sight, and becomes an FBI superstar.” She gave a mock yawn. “That script has been written a hundred times before, but I guess it’s a classic. But I thought my audience deserved more so I got Kendra to agree to come up here and show you what the shouting was really all about.” Her face was suddenly alive with mischief. “So give her a hand to encourage her to tell us how a kid who had been blind all her life could make those FBI wizards sit up and take notice.” “What?” Jessie murmured in shock over the wild shouts and applause of Dee’s audience. Her gaze flew to Kendra’s face. “You didn’t do that, did you?” “Of course I didn’t,” Kendra hissed. She couldn’t believe it, either.
“I’m going to kill Dee. Whatever possessed her?” “She’s always had a puckish sense of humor. And Dee’s so used to show business, she probably thought it was no big deal to put you on the spot in front of hundreds of people.” She suddenly chuckled. “Good Lord, your face!” Her smile was almost as mischievous as Dee’s as she started to applaud. “Maybe look on it as a challenge?” “Not funny. Talk about tough audiences.” “Then you’re on your own.” “Why am I not surprised?” she said grimly. “It’s been that kind of day.
” She started to make her way through the crowd toward Big Rock where Dee was sitting. If anything, the young girl’s smile was even more impish than before as she met Kendra’s eyes. She made a sweeping gesture of welcome and handed her the microphone. “Have a great show, Kendra.” Kendra gazed blankly down at the mike. What the hell was she supposed to do now? Well, not freeze or stutter like an idiot. Look on it as a challenge, Jessie had said. She smiled and fell silent a moment, thinking. Then she lifted her eyes to the audience and started to speak. “It wasn’t long ago that this school was in trouble.
Serious trouble. It looked like it was going to close forever. But thanks to Delilah Winter, Congressman Dalborne, and a lot of other people, that’s changed. We have hope now.” The crowd cheered. “Do your stuff, Kendra!” It was a girl’s voice from the front row. “Do what Delilah said!” Kendra glanced down to see a fragile-looking child with a broad grin on her face: Ariel Jones, a little blind girl she’d met during her previous case. “Do it!” Ariel was clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Come on! Show us!” “What a troublemaker you are, Ariel.” Kendra shook her head.
“You guys don’t really want me to do a bunch of lame parlor tricks, do you?” More cheers, more applause. Okay, she’d give them what they wanted. As much as Kendra usually hated performing like a trained monkey, today was different. Of course these kids loved to see what was possible with the hand they’d been dealt. She turned toward the politician. “Congressman Dalborne, thanks for coming out today.” “My pleasure.” He stepped toward Kendra and waved to the crowd. Kendra looked him up and down. “I always like politicians who patronize local businesses.
You ate at the Breakfast Club Diner down on North Coast Highway this morning. I hope you enjoyed it.” He frowned, puzzled. “You saw me there?” “No. I haven’t been to the BCD in years.” “Then how…?” “You read the newspaper while you ate. Not on your phone or a computer, but a paper you probably got from a machine. And it wasn’t the San Diego Union. You went local again. The Coast News, probably.
” Dalborne turned to a bespectacled young aide standing a few yards away. “Curtis, did you tell her…?” The aide shook his head no. Kendra paced in front of the congressman’s group for a moment. “You wore braces as a child, didn’t you, sir? You were young. Younger than most kids when they wear braces.” Dalborne flashed his perfect smile. “Right again. Though I’d really rather forget those days.” “You managed to recover. From that childhood trauma and the cold you had last week.
There’s been a bug going around. I caught it myself.” Dalborne nodded. “It’s a nasty one, isn’t it?” “Absolutely.” Kendra stared at his feet. “You grew up wearing flip-flops, and I’d say you probably still wear them quite a bit when you’re off the clock. I don’t know where you call home, but this seems to indicate you live on or near the beach somewhere.” Dalborne blinked, staring at her in disbelief. “You’re right about the shoes. And I live in a beach house in Del Mar.
” “Nice neighborhood.” “Very.” His brows rose quizzically. “So are you going to tell us how you knew all this?” “By doing something most of the kids here do better than anyone else. I just pay attention.” “How did you know where I ate breakfast?” She shrugged. “I smelled your breath. The Breakfast Club Diner serves up a mean plate of huevos rancheros, with a homemade sauce to die for.” She wrinkled her nose. “And that sauce hasn’t changed in twenty years, and it’s on your breath right now.
” The kids loved that. After the laughter subsided, Kendra continued. “They’re also famous for their orange marmalade muffins. It’s a very distinctive color.” Dalborne squinted at her. “I didn’t have a muffin.” “No, but your assistant did.” The assistant quickly looked down at his shirt and tie. “Not on your clothes,” she said to the assistant. “There’s a distinctive orange splotch under your right thumbnail.
” She turned back to Dalborne. “Your breath and his orange thumb can only mean you guys ate at the Breakfast Club Diner.” “The newspaper?” “Your right fingers have newspaper ink on them, meaning you’re left-handed, by the way.” “How do you figure that?” “Only one hand is stained, meaning you were probably eating with the other hand. If you were holding the newspaper with your right hand, you were holding your fork with your left. Your dominant hand.” “How did you know which paper?” “The San Diego Union doesn’t come off on the hands nearly as much as the Coast Group of neighborhood papers. It’s a pretty safe assumption you were reading the Coast.” “The fact that I wore braces?” “Aside from that perfect smile of yours?” “Thank you.” He smiled again.
“Aside from that.” “You have a habit of breathing in through your teeth. A lot of kids who wore braces do that. And it’s a habit some people carry with them throughout their lives, even if they aren’t aware of it.” “Trust me, I’m aware of it. Every time I watch replays of myself at debates. It’s that obvious?” “Not to most people. But I bet a lot of these kids could hear it.” “Interesting,” he said as he heard sounds of agreement from the audience. “I think I just found my next debate prep team.
What else can they hear?” “A very slight rattle in your chest, a postnasal drip that’s probably a residual effect from your cold. I’m sensitive to it, because I also had it. And they might also hear the sound of your very elegant loafers snapping up against your heel. It’s the same sound someone makes when they wear flip-flops. That says to me you’re probably used to wearing flip-flops more than any other type of shoe.” Dalborne shook his head. “Incredible. Now I know why the FBI likes you so much.” “What they like about me is that I just pay attention and can help them do what they do a little better.” Kendra whirled toward Dee.
“And paying attention is how I know Delilah Winter didn’t show up at the recording studio night before last and left the crew and musicians waiting for her the entire session. Right, Dee?” Dee’s eyes widened and her jaw went slack. After a shocked moment, she finally responded. “Yeah, I was on the beach working on writing a new song. Time got away from me. I was in another world.” She added quickly to the audience, “But trust me, I felt really guilty, and I paid overtime to each and every one of the crew. That was very unprofessional of me. So you guys do as I say and not as I do. Okay?” Then her face suddenly lit with a rueful smile.
“And be sure and watch your back when you’re doing something bad around Kendra Michaels!” The kids were clapping and laughing wildly at this sudden sign of naughtiness and vulnerability in the superstar they adored. As well as at the idea that she had been bested by one of their own. A perfect time to end the performance, Kendra thought. She stepped forward and waved her hand at the audience. Then she bowed low as the applause washed over her. The next moment she jumped down off the rock and tried to escape through the crowd. But she found Dee in front of her, hurling herself into her arms. “You were terrific! Just what I wanted. Just what they needed. I’m window dressing, but you’re the real thing.
” She pushed back and grinned up at Kendra. “Wanna go on the road with me?” “No, I don’t.” But she had to smile back at Dee. “And that was a dirty trick catching me off guard. What if I’d blown it?” “You didn’t. I have an instinct about things like that. I knew you were a natural. And how could I resist doing it when I’ve wanted to know how you do all that stuff myself? I knew I wasn’t going to have much more time to find out, so I laid my trap.” She made a face. “But how in hell did you know about that session I missed the other night?” Kendra smiled.
“Jessie told me. She said your manager called her when they were searching for you.” “That’s cheating.” “A little. But you deserved it for putting me on the spot.” She paused. “Is anything wrong? You worried a lot of people that night. It’s not like you.” Dee shrugged. “Yeah, like I told you, time got away.
I was really into creating something great with that new song.” She nibbled at her lower lip. “And maybe I wasn’t into anything else that night. With music you can’t do it if you can’t feel it, you know?” “Sure.” It was only half true. She could understand the artistic problems, but balancing them with the fame and emotional traumas could only be solved by Dee herself. It troubled Kendra that there didn’t seem to be anything she could do to help her. She said lightly, “But you must have been feeling it today. You gave those kids a fantastic show.”