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Much later, when Mac thought about it he realized the story had not begun in Barcelona, but at his own funky Malibu beach house, a pistachio-colored wooden shack built in the thirties by an adventurous would-be movie actor who’d never made it. It was rumored to have been lived in by sex goddess Marilyn Monroe, in her early Norma Jean days, and had ended up like a small green barnacle stuck on the end of a row of expensive houses owned by mega-moguls and billionaires, whose sea-view decks took up more space than Mac’s entire home.
Anyhow, he happened to be sitting on his own, smaller deck, with his dog, the three-legged, one-eyed Pirate, whose underbite gave him a permanent smile and whose ragged gray-brown fur looked as though the moths had been at it. Mac had rescued him one dark rainy night driving over Malibu Canyon, stopping to scoop up what he thought was a dead mutt, only realizing when it opened its one uninjured eye and looked gratefully at him, that it was still alive. He took off his shirt, wrapped the dog in it, and drove straight to the emergency vet in Santa Monica, where they’d performed a miracle of surgery. The dog lived, and of course he had become Mac’s dog.
He’d named him Pirate because of the eye patch the dog had worn, Long John Silver–style, until the eye socket healed, and Pirate was now his best buddy. Mac loved that dog and the dog loved him.
“And never the twain shall part,” misquoted Sunny Alvarez, Mac’s fiancée. Well, she was his fiancée again, after the debacle in Monte Carlo the previous year. At least Mac hoped she was. But that was another story, and anyway, she was right about the dog.
He remembered the evening the Barcelona saga began perfectly. He’d propped his feet on the deck rail and was watching waves crashing onto the sand, comfortable in shorts and a favorite old blue T-shirt, dark hair still wet from the shower and combed hastily back, eyes narrowed against the flame of the setting sun, with not a thought in his head other than that Sunny, his girlfriend—his lover—his on-again fiancée—was busy in the kitchen. She had gone to fix “something to nibble on,” while they drank what she called “the good stuff,” which meant the bottle of expensive champagne she’d bought to celebrate their reunion.
They had been apart too much these last few months but were now as passionate about each other as ever, though Sunny still maintained it was Mac’s PI work—and his inability to ignore a ringing phone that they both knew usually meant “trouble”—that had caused the rift. As well as Mac’s calling off the wedding, one more time, due to “work,” of course, and that’s when Sunny had run off to Monte Carlo. But Mac wasn’t about to bring that up now. They would simply drink their champagne and make a toast to “true love.”
Mac had been sorting out other people’s lives for a lot of years now. He had a sixth sense for “trouble” and a double-six for bad guys, no matter how charming and plausible they might appear. In the past few years, as well as his PI “day job,” he had become TV’s super-detective, with his own show, Mac Reilly’s Malibu Mysteries, appearing on your screens Thursday nights in real-life docu-drama style, reinvestigating old Hollywood crimes, with Mac looking extra-cool in jeans and the black leather Dolce & Gabbana jacket Sunny had bought him and that had somehow become his trademark. It was typical of Mac that when Sunny told him the designers’ names he had no idea what she meant. “Dolce” sounded like Italian ice cream to him. And after all, he was more usually to be found in shorts and T-shirt hiking up Malibu Road to the supermarket, or breakfasting in Coogie’s, than decked out in black leather.
Anyhow, the show had brought him unexpected fame, though of course it was all relative, but the money was good, which had made a change.
So, there Mac and Pirate were, that glowing sunset evening, with Sunny in the kitchen fixing something to go with the celebratory champagne, when he saw the child again, walking along the otherwise empty beach. In fact it was Pirate who spotted her first. He was up on his feet—all three of them—in an instant, pointing like a hunt dog ready to retrieve.
The girl was maybe eight or nine years old, whippet-thin, wearing clumsy black granny boots, clomping along at the edge of the waves. It wasn’t the first time Mac had seen her; she’d taken to walking by his place several times a day for the past week, always in the same gray hoodie, always with the hood partially covering her face, and always alone. And she always slowed down opposite his house, casting quick sideways glances his way before hurrying on.
Sunny had noticed her too. “She’s probably just starstruck and wants your autograph,” she’d said.
But Mac didn’t think so. There was just something about this child, something in the stoop of her thin shoulders, the sheer vulnerability of her sticklike legs and the huge shadowy eyes that spelled trouble. Watching her now, coming down the beach one more time, he wondered what was up.
Sunny caught sight of her too, from the open sliding doors leading from the kitchen onto the deck. Not that she was really thinking about the child, she just sort of took in her presence in a passing glance. The sun was going down and Sunny was already in her pajamas, cream satin boy-shorts and a cami with taupe lace over the appropriate bits, plus she had on her tall black sheepskin Ugg boots, her favorite softies. A girl needed to keep her feet warm on these cool Malibu nights.
It was only six thirty but Sunny had felt like an early start to love and life tonight, with a little grilled cheese sandwich because all she could find in Mac’s fridge was an ancient lump of Monterey Jack. Still, along with the fizz and “just a little lovin’” as Dusty Springfield so wisely put it on the CD wafting from the tiny living room, it should be a wonderful night.
Looking at Sunny, you would never think she was a great cook—which she certainly was. Nor would you take her for a Wharton School of Business graduate and owner of her own PR company, which she also was, though you might have caught a glimpse of her former wild-child days if you ever saw her tearing down Pacific Coast Highway on her Harley, hair streaming from under her helmet, and her Chihuahua, Tesoro—the “fiend on four paws” Mac called her—tucked into the saddlebag.
Sunny was a golden-limbed Latina with a fall of long black hair Mac once told her, romantically he’d thought, was as glossy as a Labrador’s coat emerging wet from the sea. She had amber eyes under brows that winged up at the sides, a longish slender nose, and a mouth that defied description. Sufficient to say it was generous and infinitely kissable, especially as she always wore a bright red lipstick only she could have gotten away with. And she smelled delightfully of her own warm skin and Guerlain’s Mitsouko, a rich old-fashioned scent because, as she always said, at heart she was an old-fashioned girl.
The champagne was already cooling in an ice bucket out on the deck and Sunny grabbed a pair of flutes in one hand and the plate with the sandwich in the other and went to join Mac.
The girl had stopped opposite the house and was skimming pebbles across the waves, which had picked up speed and height and were slamming onto the shore and covering her in spray. She didn’t seem to care—or perhaps she didn’t notice. She looked small and somehow so alone on that long empty beach, that Sunny was puzzled. Children her age usually ran around in groups, laughing, yelling, pushing each other, there was always movement, noise, laughter, life.
It all happened in a moment. Pirate gave a sudden warning high-pitched whine then hurled himself down the wooden beach stairs, just as the giant wave licked over its own top, unfurled in a green glaze, and came crashing down on the child.
Mac was down those steps in a flash, wading into the swirl, aware of the fierce pull of the sudden riptide, reaching out for the girl with one hand and the struggling dog—her would-be savior—with the other. Kicking powerfully, parallel to the undertow, he dragged them both back to shore, emerging several yards down the beach where he flung himself, spent, onto the sand beyond the next wave’s reach.
Sunny was already running to them. She dropped to her knees and began thumping the girl’s back, getting her to retch up what seemed like half the Pacific Ocean, while Pirate shook himself all over her cream satin pajamas.
“I’m calling the paramedics,” she said.
“No.” The girl lifted her head, panicked. “No, please don’t. My aunt wouldn’t like it.”
It crossed Sunny’s mind briefly to wonder what kind of aunt would not want to call the paramedics to make sure her niece was not half drowned, but then the girl insisted she really was okay.
On his feet now, Mac stared worriedly down at her. The child’s voice was rough from all that choking. The gray hoodie had been ripped off by the wave and she lay exhausted, on her back, arms and legs splayed, looking like a stranded starfish. Her huge chestnut brown eyes were anxious, her pale face was dotted with freckles, and her terrible cropped thatch of carroty-red hair looked as though it had been shredded by a runaway electric razor.
“Thank you.” She spoke at last. “I’m Paloma Ravel,” she added in a small voice, as though, Sunny thought, she was embarrassed to tell them her name. Then Pirate came up and sniffed her, looking anxious too, and Paloma sat up and put her arms round him.
“I love him,” she said, burying her face in his sodden fur. Wet, Pirate resembled the proverbial drowned rat, skinny as the girl, and Sunny wondered if that wasn’t one of the reasons Paloma loved him. They looked alike.
“He tried to save me,” Paloma said, kissing Pirate’s wet inquiring nose. “I will always love him. You’re so lucky … you know, to have a dog like that,” she said, looking up at Mac.
“I know,” he said. “And I know he barked to try to warn you. You’re a lucky girl, Paloma Ravel. But, since there seems no need to call for help, you’d better come into the house and let Sunny dry you off before I take you home.” He hauled her to her feet. “I’m Mac Reilly,” he said, looking down at her.
“I know,” Paloma said, blushing as Mac took her hand and walked with her back to the house she had been casing for the past week. It was as if her dream had come true. “Thank you, Mr. Reilly,” she added, remembering her manners and that she was glad to be alive.
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Adler