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"Mommy? What's that red thing floating in the lake?"
Kayla Wilson glanced in the direction her five-year-old daughter, Brianna, indicated. The bright sunlight reflected blindingly off the water. Kayla squinted and raised a hand to shade her eyes.
Something red bobbed up and down in the water. She shivered. Not something. Someone. A body. A bloated, dead body. Lying face down, partially snagged on the rocky shore of Lake Michigan.
She sucked in a harsh breath and clutched Brianna close, turning her daughter away from the grotesque sight. She fumbled for her cell phone, her fingers trembling as she dialed 911.
"What's the nature of your emergency?" the dispatcher asked.
"There's ad-dead body floating in the lake, about a mile north of Pelican Point." Kayla didn't like the idea of her daughter listening to the conversation, but there was nothing she could do.
"A dead body?" Brianna echoed in a high-pitched squeak, tightening her grip on Kayla's waist.
"It's okay, sweetheart. We'll be fine," she murmured reassuringly.
"We'll send a squad. Do you have any reason to suspect you're in danger?" the dispatcher asked.
Suddenly apprehensive, Kayla swept a glance around the area. This section of the lakeshore was usually deserted in December. She and Brianna had wandered north from Pelican Point, away from the memorial that had been recently placed in honor of her dead husband, Jeremy.
Her gaze landed once again on the dead body. She was hardly an expert, but considering the decomposition she could see from here, she suspected the body had been in the water for a while.
"No, I don't think there's any danger," Kayla assured the dispatcher.
"I need you to stay at the scene until the officers arrive," the woman informed her.
"We will." Kayla snapped her phone shut and looked down at Brianna, bundled in her bright pink winter coat and hat. "The police are on their way, Bree."
Brianna kept her face hidden against her side, and Kayla smoothed a hand over her pink knit cap. Her daughter had been only three when her father had died in a freak drowning accident when his charter fishing boat was caught in an unexpected storm. On this second anniversary of his death, she'd brought Brianna here in an effort to keep her husband's memory alive. She worried about Brianna growing up without a father.
Lately, her daughter talked about her friends' fathers with a subtle longing in her voice. Kayla knew Brianna desperately wanted a father of her own.
"Do you think he fell off his boat, too?" Brianna lifted her head to ask, her tiny face pulled into a compassionate frown. Kayla grimaced. Unfortunately, instead of sweet memories, they'd stumbled upon a grisly reminder of Jeremy's death. Brianna had obviously made a connection between the dead person in the water and her father's drowning.
"Brianna, we really don't know what happened," she started to explain, and then broke off, when a movement off Brianna's left shoulder caught her attention. She shifted to see better and her eyes widened when she saw a man wearing a brown canvas jacket and a green stocking knit cap. Something about him was familiar, and as she stared at him, recognition dawned.
Greg Landrum. The guy who'd rented a room in her bed-and-breakfast last weekend.
She didn't know where he'd come from, since she hadn't seen any sign of him earlier, but there he stood staring at them. Belatedly, he smiled and waved, as if he'd recognized them, too.
She swallowed hard and waved back, even though she was keenly aware of their isolation. She wished desperately they'd brought Clyde, their cocker spaniel puppy, with them on this venture. Clyde loved everyone, except Greg Landrum. For some reason, Clyde had taken an instant dislike to her guest. At least his constant barking, growling and nipping might have kept Greg Landrum away.
Kayla turned and opened her phone again, pushing the speed dial button for her brother, Alex, hoping desperately Greg Landrum wouldn't walk over to strike up a conversation.
The guy gave her the creeps.
"Hi, Kay. What's up?" Alex asked.
Comforted by her brother's familiar voice, she managed to keep calm. She didn't want to alarm Brianna by letting her fear show. "Hi, Alex. Where are you? Do you think you could come down to meet me and Brianna at the lakefront?"
"Sorry, Kay, Shelby and I brought Cody to the museum in Milwaukee. Why? What's wrong?"
Her heart sank. Just her luck Alex would be out of town. "Nothing really, but Brianna and I were walking along the lakeshore and we, uh, found a dead body floating in the water."
"What? A dead body?" Alex shouted in her ear. She pulled the phone away with a wince. "Where are you? What part of the lakeshore? Pelican Point?"
"Yes, we're about a mile north of Pelican Point. Don't worry, I've already called the police. They're on the way."
"Are you all right? Is Brianna all right?"
"We're fine. But it's a little creepy being out here." She glanced over her shoulder to the spot where Greg Landrum had been standing, but he was gone. Puzzled, she swept a glance over the entire area. Surely she hadn't imagined him.
The distant sound of a car engine drew her attention and she realized Greg Landrum had simply gone back to his car when she'd called Alex. She watched with overwhelming relief as the bright taillights of a small silver car pulled away from the curb and headed south.
She was glad he'd left. Greg Landrum was an odd guy. He'd claimed he wanted to spend some time hiking in the woods, but he hadn't really dressed appropriately for the cold weather and had complained when his new hiking boots caused blisters on his feet. She hadn't been at all disappointed when he'd packed up to leave.
"I'm sorry, what?" she asked, belatedly realizing Alex was waiting for some sort of response.
"What are you and Brianna doing all the way out there? Don't you have guests at the bed-and-breakfast?"
"My next guests aren't due in until tomorrow afternoon sometime." She didn't mention that they were the only guests booked for the rest of the month. After this weekend, she had nothing scheduled until mid-January. No point in burdening her brother and his new wife with her financial concerns.
"I wish I could come out there to be with you." Her brother sounded concerned. She suspected the idea of a dead body intrigued him, since there was a part of him that missed the action he'd seen while working as a DEA agent.
"Don't be silly," she said with false confidence. Actually, now that Landrum was gone, she wasn't nearly so unsettled. "We're fine. I'm sure the police will be here any minute." At least she hoped so. Where were they? What was taking so long?
"All right. But call me if you need anything," he said firmly.
"I will," she promised. She hung up the phone and within minutes, red and blue lights in the distance caught her attention. The police. Finally. "See, Bree? Here's the police."
"The police are going to help us, right?" Brianna asked.
"Absolutely," Kayla promised, tucking her cell phone into her coat pocket. "They're going to find out who that poor person is and what happened to him."
Several police cars pulled up, along with an ambulance and the local coroner. When Kayla pointed them in the right direction, they all headed down to the shore to examine the dead victim. She swallowed hard and turned away when they eventually pulled the body out of the water, not wanting to see too much.
The police officers and the medical examiner spent so much time at the rocky shoreline, talking amongst themselves, that Kayla grew impatient. They'd mentioned wanting to talk to her, but what was taking so long? It was growing late, the sun was already low on the horizon and Brianna was getting antsy. They needed to get home.
Finally, one of the officers approached them, his expression grim. "Ma'am," he greeted her with a polite nod. "I'm going to need some information from you. Can you give me your name and address?"
"Of course." Kayla dutifully recited the information.
"And what brought you here to this section of the lakeshore today?" he asked.
Kayla explained how she and Brianna had come to Pelican Point to visit her husband's memorial and had decided to take a walk up the path along the lakeshore.
"And did you go down to the body? Did you touch anything on or near the body?" he asked.
"No." She couldn't quite suppress a shiver. "I could tell " Her voice trailed off, as she didn't want to get into gruesome details in front of Brianna. "I could tell theperson was dead."
"Kayla?" A familiar male voice called her name, making her turn around in surprise. For a moment she could only stare in shock when she saw Rafe DeSilva striding toward her, handsome as always dressed in his crisp navy blue coast guard dress uniform. His normally bright smile had been replaced by a concerned frown.
"Uh, hi, Rafe," she greeted him awkwardly, trying to ignore the erratic leap of her pulse. Why she reacted so strangely around him, she had no idea. Rafe was a friend of her brother, Alex, and far too attractive for her peace of mind. She'd loved Jeremy and she had no business thinking about how handsome Rafe looked. Besides, Rafe wasn't at all what she was looking for in a man. If she ever married again, and that was a very big if, she'd pick someone stable. Dependable. Not someone who was gone all the time. Like Jeremy had been. She smiled uncertainly. "What are you doing here?"
"Alex called. He was worried about you." He raked a glance over her, as if reassuring himself she was unharmed and then smiled down at Brianna. "How's my favorite five-year-old?"
"Mr. Rafe!" Brianna greeted him with an enthusiastic hug which only made Kayla's scowl deepen. Her daughter had taken to Rafe from the first moment they'd met, and she had no intention of encouraging the friendship. The last thing she wanted was for Brianna to be hurt. "I'm glad you came. We founded a dead body in the water."
"I heard," he murmured, giving Brianna a brief hug, before glancing up at Kayla. "I'm sure that was quite a shock. Are you both all right?"
"We're fine," she assured him, feeling a bit foolish. There was no reason for Alex to have called Rafe. Obviously, she hadn't done a good job of covering up her fear. She turned toward the police officer. "Is there anything else you need? I'd like to take my daughter home."
"Yes, we're finished here," the police officer said, stepping back and closing his notebook. "I don't have any more questions and if I need anything further, I know where to get in touch with you."
"Thank you," she murmured.
"Do you have an ID on the victim?" Rafe asked.
The officer's expression turned impassive. "We have a strong suspicion based on his shoulder tattoo, but we won't release a name until we have a positive ID and next of kin has been notified."
Rafe glanced down at the group down by the lake-shore, as he nodded slowly. "I understand."
Kayla wondered if Rafe knew more than he was letting on. But she'd had enough of hanging around the gruesome scene. She took Brianna's hand and glanced up at him. "We need to get going, Rafe. I'm sorry Alex called and made you come all the way down here for nothing."
Rafe turned toward her with a gentle smile that made her feel incredibly warm despite the definite chill in the air. "Checking on you is never a waste of time, Kayla. Where's your car? I'll drive you back."
"It's not far, just a mile or so down the road," she protested, unwilling to put him out any further.
"I'll drive you," Rafe repeated, steel lining his words. She sighed, recognizing that tone. He'd used it before, a few months earlier, when he thought she and Brianna were in danger from the man who was after her sister-in-law, Shelby. Rafe had gone into protector mode back then and she'd learned that when Rafe made up his mind to do something, there was no dissuading him. Arguing was futile.
"If you insist," she agreed, forcing a smile. She wished she was immune to his charm, but she wasn't. Her normal cool logic seemed to fly out the window around Rafe. Thankfully, she wouldn't have to endure his presence for long. The drive to Pelican Point's parking lot wasn't far.
But the way Brianna gazed adoringly up at Rafe caused the muscles in her stomach to clench in warning. Fatherless Brianna was more susceptible to male attention than Kayla liked to admit. Especially now.
She couldn't help thinking that with Rafe's lethal charm, even five minutes could be too long.
Rafe escorted Kayla and Brianna down to his jeep, which he'd left parked on the road, but he couldn't help glancing back at the group huddled around the dead victim, his mind buzzing with questions.
He believed with instinctive certainty the police knew the identity of the victim. And he couldn't help thinking he knew who the dead person might be, too.
The prime suspect in his current investigation was Bill Schroeder, the owner of a charter fishing operation out of Pelican Point. Schroeder had been missing for the past week. Long enough for Rafe to fear their suspect was dead.
He'd kept his investigation a secret from Alex because of Kayla. Her husband had once been Schroeder's partner, but since Jeremy Wilson had died two years ago, they'd pretty much ruled him out as being involved in the most recent criminal activity.
His team at the coast guard had been watching Bill Schroeder for the past few months, searching for proof that the owner of the charter fishing business was involved in an underground criminal escape ring, secretly whisking well-known criminals out of the United States through the Great Lakes into Canadacomplete with new identities.
If Bill Schroeder was really the dead guy floating in Lake Michigan, then their investigation would take a serious hit. They had a few other potential suspects, but none as promising as Schroeder.
He glanced at Kayla and Brianna once they reached his jeep. He opened the passenger door for them. "Kayla, I need to go back and talk to the police for a minute. Will you wait for me? Please?"
Kayla flashed a puzzled frown but nodded. "I wouldn't mind a ride, since darkness comes so early now. But if you could hurry, I'd appreciate it. I'm sure Brianna is hungry."
Relief washed over him. He was afraid she'd insist on walking back to her car. He turned on the jeep's ignition and cranked up the heat. "I'll be quick, I promise. Five minutes."