Read an Excerpt
“Simon? Please tell me that Leila’s there!
” After a brief silence, Simon Hunt’s familiar voice said, “I could tell you that, Francine, but I’d be lying. My sister’s not home right now. She and her future husband went to their third meeting with the caterers. If you ask me, this wedding thing is getting way out of hand.”
Frankie Paresky closed her eyes and swore silently. “Simon, look, I need your help.” She spoke quickly, not allowing her best friend’s older brother time to speak, let alone a chance to refuse her. “I’m over at the airport. A charter flight just came in and I picked up the fare–only to find out that this man has come to Sunrise Key to see me. I asked him where he was headed, and he gave me my address. I need you to do me a humongous favor–I need you to go over to my office and unlock the door. When I drop this guy off, let him into the waiting room and stall him until I can come in the back and change my clothes.”
Simon was laughing at her, damn him. “You mean you don’t want a client to know that you moonlight as one of this island’s most illustrious cabdrivers?”
“There’s nothing wrong with my earning a few extra bucks driving a cab,” Frankie said, “but . . . I really want this guy to take me seriously.”
“And you think he’s going to take you seriously if you quickly change into your trench coat and fedora and pretend he doesn’t know you’re the same person who drove him from the airport?”
“Will you please stop with the trench-coat jokes for once?” Frankie demanded. “I don’t even own a trench coat, and you know it.”
“I thought you were issued one when you graduated from private eye school.”
“Thanks a million, Hunt. Lord, why did I even bother–”
“Relax, Francine. I’m going to help you. But are you sure you shouldn’t just be honest with this man? Tell him who you really are?”
Over the crystal-clear telephone wires, Simon’s voice sounded warm and rich and smooth, as if he were standing right behind her, his breath warm on the back of her neck. If Frankie turned around, she’d see him, his brilliant blue eyes gleaming with amusement, his elegant lips curving into a smile, his blond hair tousled by the soft ocean breeze. Frankie closed her eyes briefly, trying to rid her mind of that distracting image.
“He hasn’t actually looked at me,” she said. “He’s tired, and I think the charter hop from the mainland made him airsick. Besides, I spent the morning at the beach and I’m wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. I’m not even sure he realizes I’m a woman.”
“Getting airsick doesn’t make you blind,” Simon pointed out. “You’re hardly five feet tall, Paresky. I’d bet last month’s profits that he knows you’re a woman.”
“I could be a sixteen-year-old boy–”
“No,” Simon said decisively, “you could not.” Across the metal Quonset hut that served as the airport’s shelter, the door to the men’s room swung open and the man from the charter flight came out.
“I’ve got to go,” Frankie said quickly. “Are you really going to help me?”
“You want me to unlock the door and stall, right? I’ll go right over.”
“Please don’t blow this for me.”
“I would have thought ‘thank you’ was the correct response.”
“You’re going to owe me, Francine.”
Frankie hung up the phone and hustled outside. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab before the man–her first off-island client–came out of the Quonset hut. She watched in the rearview mirror as he squinted and staggered slightly in the bright Florida sunshine. He used a folded white handkerchief to wipe sweat from his forehead as he carefully squeezed his big frame into the taxi’s backseat.
He wasn’t dressed for Sunrise Key’s muggy tropical heat. Frankie guessed he was from Chicago, or some other midwestern city. Cleveland, perhaps. She’d seen on the TV news that the unseasonably hot April weather that was warming most of the East Coast and turning Florida into a steam bath hadn’t moved as far west as Ohio. She’d put a heavy, lined raincoat into the backseat of the cab along with his luggage–he wouldn’t have brought the raincoat if it hadn’t been cold and wet where he’d come from.
Whoever he was, his initials were C.A.Q., and his luggage was leather and very, very expensive. Everything about this man, from his well-tailored wool business suit to his manicured fingernails, screamed money.
As Frankie pulled the cab out onto Airport Road, she felt a surge of anticipation. Frankie Paresky, Private Investigations, Inc., could certainly use an off-island client who had money.
She glanced at him in the mirror again as he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He was a tall man, several inches over six feet, with the big, bearlike build of a former high school or college football player. It had been some years since he’d last played though–he was probably close to forty years old–and his once-muscular physique had softened quite a bit. His hair was brown and thinning slightly on top. His face was still handsome, with deep laugh lines around his eyes and mouth.
Why did this man need the services of a private investigator? And why was he in such a hurry that he couldn’t take the time to stop at the hotel and recover from his obviously unpleasant flight before he got down to business?
Frankie was dying to ask him some questions– any questions that might give her a clue as to his purpose for being on the island, but she was afraid to speak and draw attention to herself. The answers to her questions were going to have to wait. As she took the left turn onto Ocean Avenue, heading toward the cluster of shops and offices that made up the downtown area of Sunrise Key, Frankie tried to remember which clean clothes were hanging in her closet. Usually when she was working a case she wore jeans shorts and a Tshirt. But she had a feeling that such casual attire would not impress this man, who wore a designer necktie, gold cuff links, and Italian shoes. On the other hand, if she changed into one of her two dresses–which she knew were clean because she rarely wore them–she might come across as being too feminine. As loath as she was to put on long pants in this ninety-five-degree weather, she was going to have to go with her khakis and a white button-down shirt.
Frankie hoped Simon had the good sense to turn the air conditioner to its coldest setting. She turned onto Harcourt Street and pulled the cab into the drive of the beach house that served as both her home and her office. Her potential client opened his eyes and dug into his jacket pocket for his wallet.
“How much do I owe you?” he asked.
“There’s a five-dollar minimum per trip.” Frankie pulled her baseball cap down over her eyes and made her voice lower, scratchier. Simon’s Jeep was parked across the street, bless him. He’d come through for her.
You’re going to owe me, Francine. Simon’s bedroom-soft voice echoed in her mind, leaving her to speculate on the limitless possibilities for payback. A vision of Simon Hunt, all lean, tan muscles, golden-blond hair, and gleaming white smile, sprawled across her queen-sized bed made Frankie roll her eyes in self-disgust. As if she’d ever get involved with the man who was Sunrise Key’s answer to Don Juan. Simon dated the women who came to the island on vacation. They stayed for a week, and then they bid him a teary farewell. Occasionally one of them would stay longer– much to Simon’s dismay. After two weeks he’d get that haunted look in his eyes, and after three weeks, tops, the woman would leave the island, usually brokenhearted.
No, Frankie was much too smart to add herself to Simon’s list of conquests. Sure, he was one of the most attractive men she’d ever met, but she’d successfully buried that attraction for years. And years and years and years. She’d known him for close to forever. She was best friends with his sister. She’d practically grown up in his house. His mom and dad were the closest thing to parents she’d ever had. No, indeed. Simon was–and would remain–her friend and only her friend. The man in the backseat handed her a tendollar bill. “Keep the change,” he told her.
As soon as he had closed the door behind him, Frankie backed out of the driveway and took off down the street. She made a quick left onto Ocean Avenue, then another left on the side street that ran parallel to Harcourt. She parked the cab in front of the house whose backyard connected to hers and jumped out. A dog barked, startling her as she ran alongside the cottage. She put on a burst of speed. The thick bushes that separated the two backyards were more difficult to get through than Frankie had anticipated. She pushed and wriggled her way into her own yard, crawling on her belly in the soft dirt. And then she was up and running again. It took but a second to cross her small yard and clamber up the back deck, onto the rail, and up onto the roof above the kitchen.
The only way into her upstairs apartment was through her downstairs office–or through the second floor windows.
But she’d forgotten to ask Simon to make sure she left the window in her bedroom unlocked. Please, she prayed silently, please be open. Locked. It was locked. Damn!
But then the curtain moved, and Simon was there, unlocking the window. He opened both the glass and the screen and reached out, giving Frankie a hand, pulling her inside.
She stumbled, and he caught her easily, his arms solid around her.
“Whoa,” Simon murmured, his mouth mere inches from her ear. “Slow down, Francine. You’re going a mile a minute.”
She was. Her heart was pounding, and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. The fact that she was pressed full against Simon’s hard, lean body was making matters worse. Lord, save her from herself.
Simon didn’t realize that he had the ability to make Frankie’s pulse race, and she was damned if she was going to let him find out. She pulled free from his embrace. “You’re supposed to be downstairs, distracting the client.”
“I left him in the outer office, sipping iced tea. You’re supposedly on the phone long distance with another client, so you’ve got a few minutes at least. Oh, yeah, and he gave me this.” Simon held out a tastefully lettered business card.
Frankie took it from him. Clayton Alan Quinn, she read, Attorney at Law, from the firm of Quinn, Conners, Alberts & Maine, in Grosse Pointe, Mich - igan. The jeans shorts and a T-shirt would definitely remain in the dresser drawer.
She pulled off her soil-streaked T-shirt. The blue-and-white tank bathing suit she was wearing underneath was dry. It was scratchy from salt and sand, but she could live with that.
“Get my khakis and a white shirt from the closet, will you, Si?”
She crossed to the tiny adjacent bathroom and began washing the dirt from the garden off her hands and elbows. She glanced into the mirror as Simon opened her closet door. Instead of finding her slacks and shirt, he pulled out the dress with the tiny blue-flowered print.
“Francine.” He held it up so that she could see it in the bathroom mirror. “Aliens have invaded your home, leaving behind strange garments–the likes of which your closet has never before seen.”
“It’s a dress, Simon.”
“I know what it is. But barring Halloween, I don’t think I’ve ever, in my entire life, seen you in a dress.” He reached back into the closet and took out her green dress. “Yo, and what’s this? Another dress? Now I’m really confused. Paresky, have you been wearing women’s clothing on the sly?”
Toothbrush in her mouth, Frankie stuck her head out of the bathroom, trying her best to wither Simon with a single look. But he was at his most obnoxiously wither-proof, so she took the toothbrush from her mouth and explained. “I got the green dress three years ago for Evan Water’s funeral. The blue was for Kim and Noah Kavanaugh’s wedding–”
“Oh, man, what’s this?” Simon lifted the protective plastic covering of the most decadent item in Frankie’s closet–a dress that her best friend, Simon’s sister Leila, had ordered her from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. It was minuscule and black and Leila had bought it despite the fact that Frankie had sworn up and down and over and across that she would never, ever, ever wear it.
Frankie quickly rinsed her toothbrush and her mouth, then hurried across the room, snatching the dress from Simon. “That’s Leila’s idea of a little joke.” She hung it as far back in the closet as she could reach, then quickly began the search for her slacks and shirt.
“Frankie, you know how you’ve been wanting to go up to Sarasota, to the ballet?”
“No one will go with me.” Frankie pulled her khaki slacks off their hanger and tossed them onto her bed. She glanced at Simon, who was leaning against the wall, watching her, arms and ankles crossed.
“Except for Leila, and she’s not going to have any free time until after the wedding.”
“I’ll take you to the ballet,” Simon said, “provided you wear that black dress.”
He was completely serious. “I’ll even take you to dinner at Chez Jean-Paul. Five-star gourmet cuisine . . .?”
“That’s a lot of trouble and expense to go to for a cheap laugh.”
“Who said anything about laughing?”
“Yeah, right.” Frankie found the shirt she wanted and pulled it on right over her bathing suit. She wriggled out of her shorts and stepped into the slacks, buttoning the shirt and tucking the tails in. She slipped her feet back into her sandals as she fastened the waistband and straightened her collar. A quick brush through her short dark hair and . . .
“How do I look?”
Simon had an odd look on his face, and at her words he snapped to attention, then squinted slightly.
“You need a belt.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. For Clayton Alan Quinn from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, you definitely need to wear a belt.”
“Then you better lend me yours, ‘cause I don’t have a prayer of finding mine in the next few minutes.”
“It’ll wrap twice around your waist,” Simon protested.
Frankie held out her hand. “Give it.” Simon started to unfasten his brown leather belt.
“If I lend you this belt, you have to promise to wear that black dress someday soon.”
“How about you lend me your belt and I promise I don’t kill you?”
“I like my deal better.” Simon handed her the belt. It didn’t wrap quite twice around her, but even on the tightest setting it was loose. But it looked better than empty belt loops.
“Just out of curiosity, Francine,” Simon said, moving to block her way out of the room. “What would it take to get you to wear that dress?” Frankie looked up into Simon’s eyes. “Maybe not what. Maybe who.”
“Not me, huh?”
Frankie snorted and pushed past him. “Definitely not you.”