Phillip Barlow-Barrett was being tailed. He’d known it for several minutes, but he neither quickened his steps nor changed his direction. Instead, he ran through a list of possibilities in his mind of who might want to follow him.
He couldn’t think of any disgruntled clients or former courtroom adversaries who would bother. Even his mother wouldn’t stoop to having him tailed in her ongoing efforts to make sure her children weren’t humiliating the family in some way. That left his newest venture…running for Congress. It was possible Congressman Wainwright, the incumbent, was feeling some pressure. Phillip smiled. Perhaps Phillip’s campaign was closing the gap, just as some of the more recent polls indicated. Only one way to find out for sure.
Reaching the end of the block, he ducked around the corner and leaned against the outside of Mason’s Art Gallery. No one would question his presence here. After all, Mason Hatch was now his brother-in-law. Phillip crossed his arms.
One-one thousand…wait for it…two one-thousand…wait…three one-thousand.
A slender woman barreled around the corner, sunglasses at half-mast on her perfect nose, and her oversize bag in the process of sliding off her shoulder.
Phillip grabbed her arms to steady her, so she wouldn’t run into him and knock the breath out of herself.
“Oomph!” she gasped.
Her warmth nearly burned him. He released her, but she stumbled. Phillip made another grab to steady her.
“I-I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
He looked her over from head to toe. Chin-length, light brown hair flew away at odd angles and the expression in her wide brown gaze, visible because of her slipping shades, was as surprised as a doe’s. She looked like the younger version of a bag lady with clothing that had obviously been plucked from the sale table at the local thrift store. The hand and wrist protruding from the rolled up cuff of her sweater were delicate, even fragile, as she pushed her glasses up to cover those dark, dewy eyes.
“Care to explain why you’re following me?” Phillip drawled.
“Follow?—Oh.” She attempted to pull her purse back onto her shoulder, but the strap broke, spilling the contents onto the sidewalk. Along with the usual hodgepodge of feminine necessities was a reporter’s notebook, a small digital camera, and a high-end cellphone…definitely not typical bag lady belongings.
The last thing he needed was one more reporter after him. They’d already plowed through his past with all the finesse of a herd of elephants. His eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
Pale skin flushed a bright pink across her cheeks, and her hands shook as she scraped everything back into her purse. Phillip winced as her camera and cellphone scratched over the cement.
“Please don’t say Longstocking.” He rocked back on his haunches and handed her what looked like a small makeup bag. She blushed even more.
“What?” The glasses had slipped again, and she blinked at him wide-eyed. “Longstocking?”
“Pippi Longstocking…the children’s story,” he explained it patiently, though he wondered where she was from that she’d never heard of it. Now that he thought about it, there did seem to be the faintest trace of an accent to her speech or maybe it was just the precise enunciation. She’d gathered everything together and tied a knot in her purse strap.
“That won’t hold,” he added, eyeballing the haphazard knot.
Phillip took the bag from her shaking hands, retied the knot with quick precision into a carrick bend, and handed it back to her. She tested it, her brow furrowed as she yanked the strap, then she grinned. “How did you do that?”
“It’s a sailing knot, Pippi Longstocking.” He held out his hand and drew her to her feet as he stood back up.
“My name’s not Longstocking,” she muttered. “It’s Persephone Aleksandrov, but everyone calls me Pippi.”
Phillip blinked. Poor kid. He hadn’t heard such a mouthful since his sister, Preston Barlow-Barrett. She now went by Anna, so he could understand a nickname like Pippi. “All right, Pippi. Who do you work for?”
She ducked her head and mumbled something too low for him to catch.
“Hello? Up here, goddess.”
She gulped. “I work for…for…your opponent.”
So many smart aleck remarks raced through his thoughts, like wondering if his opponent’s contributions were so poor he couldn’t afford to pay her enough to buy new clothes. However, when he looked into those guilt-shadowed doe eyes, Phillip knew he couldn’t say it out loud. Instead, he patted her on the head, far better to do that than spend too much time thinking how his gut clenched every time she met his gaze with those amazing eyes. “Well, my office is just around the next block. That’s where I’m headed. I realize it is Saturday, but I plan to be there until about six this evening at which point I’m going to a fundraising dinner at Clairmont Country Club near Leesburg. If you’ll be following me there,” he paused and looked at her attire once more, “you might want to change. It’s black tie.”
Without waiting for a response, Phillip turned on his heels and strode down the block. He was livid. Yes, he’d suspected whoever was tailing him worked for Wainwright, but why on earth would his opponent have this poor, little, underfed sparrow trailing him like a damned lost puppy? And why on earth was he mixing his animal metaphors? Was Wainwright that desperate to dig up dirt on him?
Worst of all, why did he want to turn around and spend the next eternity finding out more about her?
* * * *
Pippi stared after him and pressed her lips together. Arrogant pig. He wasn’t nearly as nice as he’d seemed when she’d followed him the last couple of days on some of his campaign stops. It hadn’t been easy getting cabs outside the district, but she’d managed. Once they were back in DC, she’d tried to stay out of the way when he was obviously getting work done in his own legal practice, but today she’d gotten distracted thinking about the piano composition she was working on and had nearly lost him, then she’d had to run to catch up. Of course, that meant disaster. It always did.
She chewed her lower lip nervously. She hadn’t meant for him to see her. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to work. He wasn’t supposed to know she was following him. Oh heavens! If he called Congressman Wainwright’s office, she would be in trouble. The Congressman’s press agent had made it very plain she was to fly under the radar.
Mata Hari she wasn’t. Flying under the radar had never been a strong point. Pippi just needed a job, even if it didn’t pay much. Mama’s job working for Senator James was a good one, but she didn’t earn enough to cover the medical bills Papa’s insurance didn’t, and even though Mama had worked for the Jameses forever, she was too proud to admit their trouble.
Pippi had tried everything from waitressing to being a nanny, but it hadn’t worked out. She sighed. Pippi was a klutz. She’d always been one with everything but playing music. She had the credentials to teach what she most loved and had posted flyers around her neighborhood offering music instruction, but for families where she lived, piano lessons were a luxury most of them could not afford. The few students she had weren’t enough.
The job for Congressman Wainwright’s campaign had seemed perfect. Follow someone and record what they were doing and saying. On days he wasn’t campaigning, her time was her own, so she could help her parents. Piece of cake. She didn’t have to work with anyone. All she had to do was follow a good-looking guy around all day long. How tough could that possibly be? She’d thought she was good at fading into the background, but somehow he’d discovered her after just a week. Would this end up being another failure?
Pippi leaned against the wall.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed as her elbow cracked against one of the stones.
She couldn’t lose this job. Her fingers fluttered over the knot he’d tied. Doing that for her had been nice, not at all like the spoiled rich man the Wainwright press agent had described. Pippi had read the bio, youngest son of Alexander Barlow-Barrett the powerful chairman of the board of Barrett Newspapers. Phillip had two older brothers and three sisters, two older, one younger. His brothers and sisters had been involved in various scandals, but Phillip never seemed to be part of any of that. He was, in fact, squeaky clean. Given how sordid most politicians seemed, she wondered if he’d lived in a monastery or something. He seemed too nice for such a cutthroat world.
Pippi stared down the tree-lined street toward his office, a crazy thought occurring to her. Did she dare? Fingers gripping the knot, she headed to the three-story brick building.
The moment Pippi opened the door, she had to fight the overwhelming urge to turn on her heels and flee. The outer office was done in subdued colors, with leather chairs that looked plush and posh for those waiting to see Phillip. An efficient-looking middle-aged woman glanced up from her paperwork.
“May I help you?”
“I need to see Mr. Barrett.” Pippi straightened the hem of her sweater and tried to smooth her hair a little.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No…I just need to see him.”
The woman smiled, her good manners unshakeable. “Let me take a look at his calendar…”
“Please,” Pippi implored. “I need to see him…”
“Now.” Pippi and the other woman looked up. Phillip was no longer smiling as he stood just outside his office door. He opened it and stood aside. “In my office, Ms. Aleksandrov.”
He had remembered her name. Pippi smiled at the assistant before sidling past her glowering quarry. Her eyes widened as she entered the room. His office sported a picture of a sailboat behind the desk. As she glanced at the churning, white-capped water depicted in the picture, she shivered. Scattered around, Pippi saw more evidence of someone with a passionate interest in sailing. In addition to the painting, a print showing all kinds of rope knots and another with nautical looking flags hung amid shelves of books.
“I was just getting ready to call Congressman Wainwright,” Phillip said, walking past her to sit in his chair. He pointed to a seat on the opposite side of his desk.
“No! That is…please don’t. Do you have to?” She knew her tone had ended on a pathetically pleading note, but she really wanted to help out her parents. This job had been perfect to do that.
He tilted his head, his fascinating greenish-gold gaze trained on her. “My opponent in this upcoming election hires someone to follow me, obviously with the intention of recording and reporting all of my movements, so yes, I do.”
Pippi swallowed, clutching her bag in her lap. “They’ll fire me.”
He paused in lifting the phone and set it back down. With one hand, he raked back his hair. She watched the movement, riveted by his long fingers and lean, tanned hand. He had an artist’s hands or maybe a musician’s, and the sight of it was doing odd things to her insides.
“Couldn’t you just pretend you hadn’t noticed me?” She perched anxiously on the edge of the leather and wood office chair.
His bark of laughter made her heart sink.
“I wouldn’t be any trouble,” she continued, “and I promise I would do a better job of staying out of the way. It’s just I really need this job…”
The raised eyebrows and intense stare he was giving her didn’t bode well for her future employment.
“Pippi, you can’t be serious. You’re asking me to let you, someone my election opponent hired, follow me? Your job is to feed him material that will make me look bad, that they can use against me in the campaign.”
She bit her lower lip again. “Nobody told me that. They just said to follow you and let them know everything you did and where you went.”
The expression on his face told her so many things. First off, that she was an idiot. Pippi clenched the bag. She wasn’t an idiot. There were plenty of things at which she excelled, but paying close attention to politics had never been one of them.
“How can they use what I tell them against you?” she continued. “You don’t do anything wrong.”
His eyes crinkled with laughter in a way that was way, way too appealing. “How long have you been following me?”
“Give me a little time.”
She leaned forward, her hand going out to his desk. All she’d planned was to rest her palm on the edge of it, but her fingers caught the corner of a picture frame that wobbled toward a bottle of water, which Phillip grabbed to keep from toppling onto the files lying open in front of him.
“Are you always this clumsy?” he inquired, humor tilting one corner of his generous mouth.
Pippi shrugged. “Nearly always.”
He snorted. “Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. You might be a better asset working for Wainwright.”
That wasn’t kind, but Pippi chose to ignore it. She needed the job. If she made him mad enough to call Wainwright…
“How old are you anyway?” he asked, eyes suddenly narrowed. “Are you even eighteen?”
Pippi glared. She’d taken off her sunglasses when she came inside but hadn’t exchanged them for her untinted pair, so he was just a bit fuzzy. She fumbled in her purse, found the case, and put them on, hoping they made her look a little older. Now that she saw him clearly, she sighed. His expression didn’t seem all that amused after all.
“I’m over eighteen.”
“What, by a week?”
“I’m twenty-three.” This had always been a problem, everywhere but on a stage or seated at a piano.
* * * *
Phillip couldn’t stop another snort of laughter. “And I’m fifty.”
“Really? They told me you were twenty-nine.” Her expression was perfectly serious.
He couldn’t decide if she was really that naive or if it was all an act. If it was the latter, she was a much better hire for Wainwright than she appeared to be. If it was the former, perhaps he could put that to use for his own purposes.
Phillip leaned back in his chair.
“I told you the rest of my schedule for the day. Did you come here just to beg me not to call Wainwright?”
She nodded. He noticed that the glasses she now wore didn’t slide down her nose. They hooked behind her ears like aviator glasses, but with a lot more feminine profile…and they emphasized her wide-eyed look even more.
Phillip wasn’t at all sure he believed the twenty-three she claimed to be. Dressed as she was on top of her startled-doe approach to everything, she had to be either much younger, or very, very sheltered. Either way, she appeared to be completely outside the realm of the sophisticated society women he was used to. He experienced a momentary twinge of conscience. She was close to Morgan’s age, his younger sister, so was he truly planning to use Pippi for his own ends? He would go ballistic if someone tried to take advantage of his baby sister in that way.
“I thought maybe we could work out a deal,” she ventured, once again tucking a strand of fine silky hair behind her ear. “You don’t call Wainwright, and I could…could let you see what I was going to give them.”
Those small, white teeth were once again chewing her lower lip, and her forehead was knitted. She certainly didn’t appear to have an ulterior motive, but a cynical part of him decided no one could possibly be as naive as she pretended to be. The offer she’d just put on the table proved that. Now, the question was what to do with it. It might be interesting to see how far she was willing to take this particular plot. If he could play it to his advantage, he might be able to feed her false information that would make Wainwright’s campaign come off looking stupid.
He found it fascinating that the Congressman was so worried about him. Though some polls showed Phillip closing the gap, most still heavily favored the incumbent, making it Phillip who should have the tougher job, which again begged the question…why was Wainwright so concerned?
He leaned forward, shifting the more fragile knickknacks on his desktop out of her reach. He needed to get a few details of her suggestion clarified because giving her any cash was out of the question. That would be stupid. “Are you asking me to pay you?”
If possible, her eyes widened even more. “No. No. It’s like I said. I need this job. I mean all they asked me to do was follow you and tell them where you were going, what you did, and who you visited. I—I guess that means I should go to this thing tonight.”
“You won’t get to the front door, let alone through it, dressed as you are.” He paused and finally asked. “Do you have anything to wear?”
“Yes.” She appeared to be nervous enough that he was afraid she was going to run screaming from the room, or at the very least get sick. Phillip moved a few more things out of her immediate reach. “I don’t have a car,” she added.
“Are you asking for a ride?” Was he seriously even considering this? “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Pippi Longstocking, but I could arrange for a rental for you.”
She shifted and her bag fell to the floor. “I don’t know how to drive.”
Katie Christ! How could she not know how to drive at twenty-three? His gaze moved from her slender build to her baggy wardrobe. “You know, I really need to see your ID. You do have some, don’t you?” Her don’t-be-silly look didn’t faze him. “Let’s see it, Pippi.”
The sudden, horrifying thought had occurred to him that she might be even younger than eighteen, never mind the twenty-three she claimed to be. Watching those delicate hands and wrists of hers as she dug through her bag lady purse only increased his unease. She blinked behind her glasses a couple of times, her brows still drawn together, and handed him her DC non-driver ID card. The cuff of her sweater caught his pencil cup and sent a hail of black Ticonderogas across his desk.
When she started to gather them up, Phillip barked. “No. Sit.” God, that sounded too much like he was talking to a pet dog. “I mean, don’t worry about them. I’ll get them.” He set her card down for a moment and quickly tucked the pencils back inside the embossed leather cup, then moved it to one side. Picking up the ID, he scanned the information. Persephone C. Aleksandrov, age twenty-three—but just, her birthday had been last month—with an address around Bellevue.
“What’s the C for?”
“Charis, like care-iss.”
“From the ancient Greek, meaning grace.” Phillip sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, but he could finally contain himself no longer and started laughing until he had to wipe his eyes. “Oh, goddess, what were your parents thinking?”
For the first time since he’d encountered her, Pippi’s eyes flashed. She plucked her bag from the floor and stood, holding out her hand for her ID. He returned it, and Pippi tucked it in the pocket of her loose skirt. “Never mind, Mr. Barrett. I’ll figure out how to get there on my own.” She pulled a card from her pocket and tossed it on the desk. “If you need to call my boss, here’s his number. Oh…and the name? I guess my parents were expressing their hopes for what they knew would be their only child. Instead, they got me.”
With that, she turned on her heel and left his office.
Phillip shifted in his chair, staring at the card. Shit. Now he could add kicking deer to his list of vices. Except that for an instant, he’d seen a flare of spirit and determination, a kitten puffing up its fur and hissing. And here he was, mixing his animal metaphors again.
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Laura Browning Author