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By Linda Ladd
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Linda Ladd
All rights reserved.
Canton County Homicide Detective Claire Morgan roused up from where she lay dozing in the shade of a palm-draped cabana, relaxed and at peace with the world. Out in front of her, she could hear the never-ending roar of the wild ocean surf. Stretching luxuriously, she opened sleepy eyes and gazed down the long planked pier that stretched far out beyond the breakers. The cerulean blue of the South Pacific Ocean spread out to the far horizon in a panorama of incredible tropical beauty.
After a particularly traumatic homicide case in which she had been used as a punching bag by an insane serial killer, she had earned herself a lengthy and paid medical leave. Nicholas Black, who happened to be her honeybun and newly designated fiancé, had decided they were getting away for a while and then flown her off on his own private Learjet. About five thousand miles later, they ended up at Motu Teta, which had turned out to be the most glorious little private island in the Atoll of Rangiroa in Tahiti, which happened to be smack dab in the middle of the French Polynesian islands, which happened to be smack-dab in the middle of the aforementioned South Pacific Ocean. After which he declared they would never leave said paradise again.
Truth be told, she didn't put up much of a fight. Not yet, anyway. Tahiti had certainly lived up to its slice-of-heaven reputation, plus some. For almost two months now, they had slept with plantation shutters pushed aside and wide sliding doors left open to the warm tropical breezes, frolicked in the sunlit sea and made love in their own little palm-covered villa in their own little paradise on earth. Just the two of them, left alone to enjoy and explore the flora and fauna of the three-mile-long and very private island that Black had leased just for her so she could recuperate and forget some very bad things that had happened to her.
Even better, their main house was lovely and spacious, a villa that went by the well-deserved name of Bungalow Royale. It even had a personal chef who came in by boat every evening and prepared them a gourmet meal and a picnic lunch for the next day, then cleaned up the kitchen, replenished all their supplies, and took off for places unknown. Talk about pampered and privileged and obscenely sublime. No people, no cars, no murders, no death, no bloody crime scenes, and last but not least, no getting beat up by anybody wielding hammers and/or baseball bats. What more could a gal ask for?
Sighing, Claire felt so unbelievably loose and pliant that she could barely even move her muscles. Not that she wanted to. Missing her dear and ultra-generous one, Claire turned her head, shielded her eyes, and peered down the curved beach to the point, where waves pounded into the golden sands with immense power and ferocity. Black was still down there and having what looked like one helluva good time on his surfboard. At the moment, he was way, way out past the swells, sitting astride a big yellow and red surfboard, moving up and down with the waves, black hair wet and slicked back, muscles sun browned and more than impressive, waiting for the big one no doubt. He was as good at hanging ten as everything else he did, all masculine grace and balance and male confidence. Yep, he was quite a guy all right.
During their lovely sojourn upon the island, he'd even talked her into learning how to surf, which involved actually pushing herself up to standing on her own matching yellow and red board and riding it all the way in to the beach. That was a feat that she didn't think possible, considering her fear and loathing of man-eating sharks. In fact, they were probably out there now, cruising under the water and waiting for a tasty lunch of one famous American psychiatrist by the name of Nicholas Black.
Today, however, had been super fantastic, just like all their other Tahitian days. They'd both enjoyed sailing in the morning and scuba diving all afternoon long, at least until she'd thrown in the towel and retreated with her sunburn to the shady cabana in the calmer part of the lovely half-moon bay. No telling how long Black could keep it up. The man had stamina, to be sure, and he did love to surf. So, very comfortable and content, she closed her eyes again and slept some more, grateful for the peace and quiet and whispering trade winds and surging surf and warmer than warm day.
Not sure how long she had slept, she came awake later to that same and now familiar crash of the ocean and lay there on the nice soft cushion, listening, loving it, loving Tahiti, loving Black, loving life. At the moment, yes, she was a happy camper. Black was happy, too, happy as a lark in fact. He loved these islands and would probably stay forever, as he had decreed, if their future abode was left up to him. Claire, on the other hand, was now ready to go home and get back to real life and all the perils it presented. She'd had plenty of time alone to think and consider and worry about what she wanted to do next and what Black wanted her to do next and what was the best future for both of them. She had made some very tough and serious decisions wiling away the pleasant days and weeks, and all she had to do now was tell him. That opportunity came along about twenty minutes later when he finally came striding down the dock, done battling the waves, and collapsed on the cushions beside her.
"Hi, honey, I'm home," he said, reaching out and pulling her up against his chest.
"Stop, you're cold and wet." She laughed, though, at the way he was nuzzling her neck. He didn't shave every day anymore, and his whiskers were scratchy.
"You should've come back out there, Claire. The waves were magnificent."
"Yeah, I saw them. They're a little too intimidating for me, but you looked good on that surfboard, I have to say."
Black grinned and kissed her cheek, and then turned onto his back, heaved out a deep breath, and shut his eyes. Claire turned over and braced the side of her head in her palm so she could look down at him. He looked so totally at ease now, hair even darker when wet and pushed off his forehead, as tanned and fit and handsome as she'd ever seen him. Maybe she should wait some before she got so serious, let him enjoy himself a little while longer. Then again, maybe she shouldn't. Maybe the time had come. No time like the present, or so they say.
"Listen, Black, I've had a lot of time to think, you know, way out here in the middle of nowhere. So I've been thinking things through."
He didn't open his eyes or even turn his head. "Good. That's what I was hoping you'd do. This place is good for soul-searching."
"I've made some decisions."
Okay, that got his attention quickly enough. He opened those bluer than blue eyes of his and turned on his side, too, bracing his head in his palm, so they lay facing each other. He searched her face. "What kinds of decisions?"
"Number one decision. I'm ready to go home."
First, his face reflected surprise, and then a frown, but one that disappeared almost at once. Then, he said, "I thought you liked it out here. I thought you were enjoying yourself."
"I do like it here. It's been the best two months of my life."
That made him smile. "Come on, then, let's stay a little longer, another month maybe, just the two of us. Nobody around to bother us. All alone together in paradise. Like the honeymoon I've always wished we could have."
"You gotta get married first for a honeymoon to happen."
"Right, go ahead, stick in the knife, twist it around, why don't you? But at least you're wearing your engagement ring now. That's something I guess."
Claire smiled at him but got right back to business. "I really need to go back to work."
That brought out a heavy sigh. "You're on extended medical leave, if I recall. Charlie said to take as long as you needed."
"Well, I've done that. It's April, and I'm perfectly all right now. All my bruises and swelling are long gone, and I miss working."
"Oh, really? Maybe that's because you haven't stopped working since we got here. You have a conference call every single morning while I'm out taking my run on the beach. You get emergency calls from your psychiatric clinics on your sat phone all day and night long. I don't have my work, and I miss it."
"You only recently healed from a terrible beating. You need more time to get over it, both physically and emotionally."
"I am over it. I miss my friends. I miss my house. I miss everything we left behind. I miss my job."
"And there lies the problem. Your job."
Black perked up considerably. "No?"
"Well, for one thing, I've decided to quit my homicide position and go private."
Pure shock, followed by one helluva big smile and the deepest dimples she had ever seen on man, woman, or child. Oh, yeah, he looked euphoric, to be sure. "No joke? Really? You're going to do it?"
"After a lot of thought, I think it's the best thing for both of us."
"Well, thank you, God. Finally, at long last, you've come to your senses."
At that, Claire smiled a little. But she was serious, and she wanted him to be, too. "I thought I was gonna die on my last case—you know how bad it was. I had accepted it, out there when I was alone in the dark and lying in that sleet and snow. I thought I would freeze to death before anybody found me." She stopped, not liking to relive those last minutes before she lost consciousness. She tried to shake the awful memories out of her head. "Well, I've realized that I don't particularly want to die, not yet. I don't want anything quite that terrible to happen to me again, either. That night made quite an impression."
"You've handled it better than most people would. I'm just sorry it had to happen to you."
"So I'm gonna take you up on your offer to fund my private investigation business, but there's gotta be some conditions. Some ground rules. You do understand that, right?"
Black grinned. "Oh, yeah, I figured that was going to happen. But anything you want, anything at all. Just name it."
"Okay, then. You gotta let me be in charge. I am the boss. I make the decisions, I decide which cases we take, I decide who I work with and how we get the job done. Your advice is always welcome, of course, but I call the shots."
Black was still smiling and nodding. "Absolutely. No problem. Claire Morgan Investigations. I like it."
"Uh-uh. My name already pulls in way too much notoriety. I sure don't need any more. I've got a name in mind, too. Something simple."
"INTEL." She watched his face closely, curious if he'd go for it.
Black considered a moment. "Short and simple, easy to remember. I can have business cards designed and stationery made up within a couple of days. I'll order my PR guys to come up with ads and TV spots."
"You are not hearing me, Black. I just said that I want this all kept simple and quiet. I want uncomplicated. No publicity."
Nonplussed, Black just stared at her. "No publicity? None? Why not? How will clients find you?"
"That's right. No ads, no TV, no radio, no nothing. I want to do this on the QT."
"And again, I ask you, and you'll get cases how?"
"Word of mouth, friends who need some kind of help, that sort of thing. Referrals from your colleagues and friends, or mine."
"Okay, fine. Whatever you say."
"And I want a lot of it to be pro bono, you know, completely free of charge. Especially if the client doesn't have much money. Because I know how that feels."
Black frowned. "Well, I'm not so sure about that. I'm a businessman, Claire. You do want to make some money on this thing, right?"
Claire continued, ignoring his last question. "And I'm gonna stay on with Canton County Sheriff 's Department in an advisory capacity.
If Charlie'll let me do that. I'll just take a leave of absence for a while to set things up, see how I like working private. Then I can help out Bud and Charlie as a special investigator, if they need me on a homicide case. Same thing down in Lafourche Parish with Russ Friedewald and Zee Jackson. If they need me, I want to be available."
"No problem. We can iron out all the details later. We'll set things up as soon as we get home." He paused and considered her. "More important to me, when's the wedding going to be?"
Claire had wondered when he was going to bring that up. She'd been expecting it ever since they arrived, but he hadn't said a single word about getting married until that moment. "Well, actually, I've been giving some thought to that, too."
"Man, is this ever the day that I've been waiting for. So when's it going to be? How about tomorrow? We can fly over to Papeete on the big island, get married, and head home as man and wife."
"I was thinking more like some time this summer, around the Fourth of July, maybe."
"That's a long way off."
"If you'll remember and since you're so sentimental, that's around the time we met. And that will give me time to plan everything."
"I'd rather do it here and now, but I'll take what I can get. If that's what you want, July it is."
"Okay, and one more thing. Laurie Dale and Nancy Gill are gonna help me with the wedding, and they said we need some music. I need you to choose a song for the wedding. Something that reminds you of us. You know, kinda like our song."
"How about the 'Wedding March'?"
"No, no, something that fits us. You know, as a couple. A regular song."
"'Here Comes the Bride'?"
Claire laughed. "Stop, Black. Be serious. I mean it."
Black appeared to think, but only for a moment. "'Unchained Melody.' Without a doubt. My favorite song."
"Okay. How does that go?"
"You don't know how 'Unchained Melody' goes? By the Righteous Brothers? Good God, Claire, you ever listened to a radio in your life?"
"I don't have time to sit around and listen to the radio. All that noise keeps me from thinking about my cases." Nope, she wasn't particularly romantic, she admitted it. But he was, sometimes anyway, and did it rather well actually. Just so he didn't go overboard and embarrass her, it usually turned out pretty cool.
Black just grinned, and then he sang a couple of verses to her, very low, and he actually didn't sound too bad. Corny as hell, true, but not too bad.
Claire shook her head, laughing at him. "I dunno, Black. That sounds pretty damn sappy. Like we live eight thousand miles apart, and I hate you."
At that, Black stopped singing, his smile fading, his dimples disappearing, and he became very solemn, very fast. He continued with the words but now he just said them, his eyes holding hers, and in a way that sobered her expression, too.
They just stared at each other, Claire completely blindsided by his abrupt change in mood.
"Tell me you aren't going to back out of the wedding, Claire."
Claire hadn't been expecting that, either. But she had shown some reticence about getting married in the past, so she could understand his question. But she wasn't dragging her feet now, not anymore. "No way am I ever gonna back out of the wedding. Absolutely not. And that's a promise."
Black smiled. "Well, okay, then. Why don't you come over here and show me how much you love me?"
His light mood returned, and he pulled her in against his chest. Claire was certainly okay with that, so she slid her arms around his neck and found his mouth, enjoying the intimacy as much as he did. Now things were settled, and she felt happy. Happy and relieved. Black seemed pleased with their future now, too, and there would be no more worrying about what lay ahead for them. Good or bad, the die was cast. So she lay there in his arms, enjoying their closeness, his tender touch, the way he could make her feel, and gradually let go of all thoughts except for him.
Unfortunately, however, their little moment of mutual ecstasy did not last long. The insistent buzz of a boat's motor broke into the crashing of waves, a sound that was highly unusual around their isolated island. Claire immediately pulled away from Black and sat up and searched the shining sea, slightly alarmed, that vital self-protective instinct shooting alive, the one she had learned not to ignore, and learned the hard way, from many past, and yes, horrible experiences. Living nightmares followed her around like her shadow on a summer afternoon, so better safe than sorry had been her motto for a long time now. She finally spotted a big black boat that was headed straight at them and at a very high rate of speed. Which, of course, did not bode well for them now, or in the past, or in the future, or ever actually.
"That's probably just Edward, coming over to cook dinner," Black told her, reaching for her again, not worried in the least. But then again, he hadn't been recently beaten up by a crazy man with a hammer, either.
"No, it's not. It's got a much bigger and more powerful motor than Edward's does. I can tell the difference in the way it sounds."
Excerpted from Devil Dead by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 2015 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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