Hedged Heart (Erotic Thriller, Fiction)

A hedge fund manager struggles to trust the men stealing her heart or her investments.

1. Private Ed

No Monkey or Magpie waiting at the curb. Not a good sign.

With the partition window of the limousine down, Heidi Carlton could check the view through the windshield. Eyes disappeared from the mirror. Had the liveried driver checked her out again? Unimportant.

“I'll have to call you back.” She hung up on her new prospect. Unimportant, too.

She needed to find her kids among the sea of pale blue and navy, the colors of the dress code of their private school in Lower Manhattan. For months now, nine-year-old Margaret had taken pride in shepherding first-grader George, holding hands with him on the sidewalk at the south corner of the building. Not today.

Luxury automobiles honked their way toward the end of the cul-de-sac created by the barricades erected since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Teachers in orange vests kept a semblance of order among their pupils.

Heidi checked her smartphone. Right on time. Too early to panic and call her daughter. Maybe the A-student had made a calculated decision to avoid the crowd and moved closer to the cross street. Heidi looked back toward the intersection.

A low-riding, flaming-red flash turned into the street. She'd seen that distinctive Rosso color not 10 minutes ago, when the limo picked her up. Had the Lamborghini followed her here?

Although the car with the bull logo may feel at home this close to Wall Street, its image didn't exactly go along with school-age children. And a new enrollee less than two month to summer recess? An itch spread under the wool covering her arms. Her finger hovered over the first speed-dial entry, Margaret's cellphone. Had a stranger accosted her? Had she followed her training and found safety with a teacher?

The limousine stopped at the entrance of the neoclassic building. Inside the glass door, Ms. Jenny, the assistant principal who couldn't be more than forty, waited with Heidi's two kids in hand. No abduction, but still no routine pickup. Instead, she'd have to venture outside into the April chill of the shady skyscraper canyon and face bad-parenting innuendos. She dropped her phone into her basketball-size handbag stuffed with the necessities of a stylish mother.

The driver turned his head. “Should I wait here, ma'am?”

“You don't know the drill?”

“Sorry, ma'am, I'm new.”

Perfect. She had a standing order with a local transportation company, but personnel changed based on availability. As if she had calm left to break in a newbie. “I need a few minutes to pick up my kids, then we're heading home.” She reached for the door handle.

“Yes, ma'am.”

Did her stress show? Impressions mattered when meeting administrators of an exclusive school. She checked her face in the glass. Honey Blonde perm in place. Face powder even. Lipstick subtle. Too late to pick a more conservative outfit. Her black mini dress would have to do. Some may not consider it appropriate for a middle-aged woman, but she'd sacrificed time and effort to keep the figure that nearly won the local pageant leading to Miss Virginia.

Heidi stepped onto the curb and into the stench of idling traffic. A cold gust bit through her stockings.

The massive portal with its three-story-high columns looked down, accusing her of spending too much time chasing money and too little raising her kids. A message from the snobs who selected the imposing architecture and the flags and signs all around that made sure to advertise the establishment to any passersby. What did they know about her life? This former small-town girl got her kids' tuition the hard way, not from a trust fund.

A few stragglers dodged Heidi's approach.

Monkey bore the carefree smile of a six-year-old boy while Magpie stared at her feet. A square adhesive bandage on her knee poked out below her skirt.

Victim or culprit? Irrelevant. Blood is blood. Heidi pushed through the door and crouched in front of her daughter. “Are you okay?”

Still looking down, Magpie nodded.

Heidi rose to face the assistant principal. “Ms. Jenny, nothing serious, I hope.”

“A minor altercation, Mrs. Carlton. Margaret pushed a classmate and he pushed back. Ms. Sylvia had a talk with the children and everything's all right. I didn't want you to worry.”

“Paulie pulled my hair again.” Magpie's voice swung between indignation and defiance, but her gaze stayed on the floor.

“Nobody pulled my hair.” Monkey's smile broadened.

Ms. Jenny remained silent, hiding her opinion behind a tight-lipped smile.

Lifting her daughter's chin, Heidi met her eyes. “Magpie, we talked about this. Violence is no solution to problems.”

“But you threw a vase at Daddy.”

No makeup could possibly hide Heidi's cheeks flushing. Margaret had reached the age where she saw through the do as I say, not as I do routine in time with the disintegration of Heidi's marriage. They'd have to have a heart-to-heart. Not now. Not in front of the assistant principal. “We'll talk about this later, okay?”

Magpie nodded.

Ms. Jenny pulled a phablet from her jacket pocket and presented the signature field of the usual acknowledgement form after a parent-teacher talk. “If you could, please.”

With a finger, Heidi formed a meaningless squiggle on the display. She led the kids out the door and toward the waiting limousine. For a change, Magpie allowed handholding without protest.

The Lamborghini stood across the street. Heidi's blood froze. Behind the tinted glass, the man she'd dubbed "Mr. Bad” had an eye on her.

The first time his pungent cologne suffocated her, in an elevator of a high rise in the Financial District where she plied her trade, his narrow eyes bored into her like a wolf staring down his prey. Bushy brows and moustache over narrow lips frightened her like a movie from her youth, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Topped with a black wide-brim hat, he could easily pass as the villain from that spaghetti western.

Her fear hadn't dissipate in the months since, his tailored suits notwithstanding, although she pretended to ignore him when their paths crossed. Hard to overlook his showy car standing in a de facto pedestrian zone. Many Wall Street parents took advantage of the prep school's convenient location, but none of the few pupils remaining on the sidewalk moved toward Mr. Bad.

Once in the back of the limo, Heidi strapped Monkey into the high-tech booster seat. Despite his size, he still insisted on using the harness.

Another furtive glance from the new driver.

“Take Church Street north.”

They rolled past the Lamborghini. Goosebumps spread. Mr. Bad did his best to hide his face in a folded out map. Too obvious a feint. In the age of GPS, what driver could get so lost that he'd end up in a cul-de-sac crammed with after-school traffic? And after he coincidentally started at the same time and place as her?

She craned her neck to catch his license plate.

“Mommy, why does Paulie pull my hair?” Magpie tugged at Heidi's arm.

Startled, she faced her daughter. “Yes, dear?”

“Why does he pull my hair?”

“Some boys don't know any better.” Neither did some men bent on frightening her. Heidi turned her head, but the red car had receded too far for her to read any numbers.

“Do I know better, Mommy?” Monkey yanked on his shoulder straps like a paratrooper adjusting his parachute.

“Of course you do, my dear.” She laid her arms on her kids' shoulders.

During the short ride, they snuggled up against Heidi as best as their restraints allowed. She kept to small talk or the occasional direction to the driver. No need to let him in on sensitive family matters. The limo turned off Broadway into a crammed one-way side street. All curb spots taken, he double-parked at the entrance to her building. A limitation of living close to the moneyed area around Wall Street, where she found many of her clients. With the real estate market falling apart after the financial crisis, investing in a condominium in a spacious area near Central Park made even more sense, but at the price of tripling travel time to the school the kids loved so much.

“I'll be back in a few minutes. Keep circling the block.” Heidi unstrapped Monkey.

“In case we miss each other, here's my cellphone number.” The young driver's head and arm jerked through the partition. His business card dropped short of her hand. “I… I'm so sorry, ma’am.”

“It's all right.” The first time she saw more than a slim face. Short blond hair, slender body, not her notion of hot stuff. Probably a college student in need of money. He'd done a decent job traversing the city and she'd show her appreciation with a nice tip later. Nothing more.

She took Monkey by the hand and smiled at Magpie. “Let's see what Lizzie has for you two.”

After a short elevator ride, the kids burst through the door, raced into the dining room, and climbed the chairs at the bar counter where the nanny waited with homemade vanilla pudding garnished with fresh fruit.

Heidi pulled up her daughter's skirt. “How's your knee?”

“I'm fine.” A spoonful of pudding with a piece of strawberry vanished into her mouth. “Ms. Sylvia's a drama queen.”

“Do you want something for your boo-boo?”

“I'm nine!”

“Okay, big girl. And it's okay to get angry, but promise me, no shoving or hitting. And Mommy will promise too.” As far as Heidi could go with the nanny hovering nearby.

“Fine.” Magpie scraped the last bit out of the glass bowl.

Heidi kissed her kids goodbye and headed to the foyer. While she called the driver, she checked her makeup in the mirror of the small guest bathroom.

The pickup in front of the building meant they had to circle the whole block one more time to reach Broadway heading south. She should have walked half the block to the corner. Next time.

As the limousine crawled toward Church Street, Heidi's heart stopped. Nestled among the cars on her left, a flaming-red Lamborghini.

No doubt now. She had to get the plate number. Her hand stopped short of the power window button. What if Mr. Bad saw her? She peered through the dark glass. Nobody inside. Chills raced down her legs to her feet. The kids. Crowds on the sidewalks hid anyone casing her building. What if he made it past the doorman?

Heidi dialed the nanny. “Lizzie, no one enters the condo today for any reason.”

“Something wrong, Mrs. Carlton?”

“Call it a mother's instincts.”

While the limo inched forward, she lowered the window, took a picture of the license plate, and attached it to a message to her husband. No speech-to-text. Typing with her long nails on the tiny keyboard gave her headaches, but the driver had overheard too much already. She ignored the mistakes and hit Send.

Roger who drives this URgent he's after the kids