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GO FIGURE—Marina Reston found it impossible to drive with cold cucumber slices over her eyes.
Even though she'd carefully cut out iris-sized holes in the centers of them with a sterling-silver grapefruit knife and had removed all those icky little seeds.
Even though she'd pulled a Saks Fifth Avenue baseball cap down to her brow-line and tucked the slices under the rim to keep them in place.
And even though, when that had failed, she'd used a very large manuscript rubber band to hold them on. Driving under the influence of cucumbers just didn't work.
The juice ran into her eyes even when they did stay on. And they created huge blind spots, playing havoc with her depth perception. She was simply going to have to meet private investigator Gina Keys with horrifically puffy eyes.
Thanks, Ben. This wouldn't be a problem if I could stop crying over you.…
How could her fiancé have broken up with her in a letter? How could he have just disappeared? And how could he not answer his cell phone or respond to the increasingly desperate messages she'd left over the past four days? Not only was she devastated, she was worried sick.
And then there was the question of the charity calendar Ben had promised to pose for. The shoot was next week. She had to find him before then or Frameworks for the Future would be short a model—but he'd obviously forgotten. Just like he'd forgotten her.
Well, that's just fine…because I hate him.
Marina's hands tightened on the wheel as if it were Ben Delgado's neck. As if she could drive him around a corner, floor his gas pedal and run him straight into the plate-glassstorefront of that Taco Bell… But, oh, hey!
What was she thinking? Ben was so not worth a storm of shredded cheese stuck to her 911's paint job. Not to mention all the irate people in paper hats and food-service gloves who would be sure to yell at her.
Marina went back to the problem of her gruesomely puffy eyes. She could always leave her sunglasses on inside the P.I."s office, but that seemed so aloof and pretentious.
With a sigh, she pressed the small silver button that unrolled her 911's window and then tossed the cucumber slices out the window, so they took to the air like mini flying saucers.
She rolled up her window again and frowned at the electronic GPS map in the Porsche's console. Since she was traveling south, or upside down according to the map, it always took her a moment to figure out if the GPS wanted her to go left or right next. Because left, upside down, was like right, right-side up, and Marina had no sense of direction whatsoever.
Her delayed deductive reasoning eventually kicked in, and Marina turned right on 17th, heading for Little Havana. Soon she was on Calle Ocho, passing tiny meat markets, fruterias, herbal shops and cigar stands.
She craved a cafecito, or Cuban coffee, but given her already frayed nerves and shaky emotional state, it was a bad idea. A woman who'd been crying for almost four straight days and living on a diet of wine and Advil should definitely avoid caffeine.
Two blocks, another left and one parking slot later, she found herself in a small cluttered strip mall that housed G K Investigations. She gathered her purse, Jumbo Jamba-Juice cup and little Ziploc bag of cucumber slices and then headed toward G K's office door.
She remembered that Ms. Keys kept her door locked for security reasons and pressed the button next to it.
A buzz indicated that she could now open the door and she clicked inside in her new bargain sandals. She'd saved thirty percent off the $595 retail price by ordering them from Bluefly.com.
And Ben says I don't know how to spell economize. Her lip trembled.
Ben. Where was he? She had to find him. He couldn't do this! She needed him. Loved him. They had a life together—he couldn't just disappear this way.
"I'll be right with you," a voice called from the back. Marina's eyes welled up again as she looked around Ms. Keys's very plain, very small office and wobbled over to one of two green velour easy chairs that had seen better days.
Oh, God. The swelling around her eyes would never go down before the silent auction tonight if she didn't stop this. And she had to emcee.
Marina set her purse in her lap and her Jumbo Jamba-Juice on an old trunk cluttered with magazines. The only other piece of furniture in the reception area of the office was a very large dog crate that served as a stand for a beat-up coffeemaker.
She wondered a little nervously where the dog was—she was petrified of big ones. Curiously, the air held not a whiff of eau de canine—just a faint mustiness that was all too common in south Florida.
With unsteady fingers she opened her Ziploc bag and removed two more cucumber slices from her reserve stash.
She was just leaning back and placing one on her right eyelid when an inside door opened and a striking girl with white-blond, short, spiky hair stuck her head out. "Mrs. Reston?"
The girl stared at the cucumber slices. Then she took in Marina's five-inch silver sandals and her adorable, silver leather Ferragamo bondage bag with the scarlet silk lining and tasselties. Her pale blond eyebrows shot up.
Meanwhile, Marina stared in fascination at the tiny sapphire in the girl's nose. It actually looked fabulous on her and deepened the gray-blue of her eyes.
Marina sniffed woefully. "It's actually miss."
She tottered to her feet and gathered her belongings in her left hand, pinching the cucumber slices between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. "It would have been Mrs. in just four months," she blurted, "But then I found it." She swallowed. "The letter."
"I see," said Gina Keys, not unsympathetically. It had to be you—"
"He broke up with me in a letter! Can you believe that?"
"A letter." Marina brandished the Jumbo Jamba-Juice while Ms. Keys nodded calmly.
"Yes. That does seem a little—"
"Low-down? Cowardly? Generally crummy?" Marina's voice rose and cracked.
"I need you to find him for me. Can you do that?"
"Yes." Gray-blue eyes met hers. The tiny sapphire glowed.
"Why don't you come into my office and sit down? And though I think you've figured this out by now, I'm Gina Keys." She smiled.
"Marina Reston. And I'm sorry but I'm a bit of a mess right now."
"Your fiancé's disappeared. It's understandable."
Marina sniffled again. "Yes. Well. Thanks for not offering me ranch dressing for these. That's what the guy at my bank did." She dropped the bag of cucumber slices into Gina's trash can, followed her into the other room and sat down in another slightly battered chair opposite her desk, which was actually a door with screwed-on legs.
Gina's lips twitched. "Do the cucumbers really work?" Marina nodded vigorously, stared at the door-desk and wondered how long the P.I. had been in business. But she came highly recommended by a friend, so maybe she was just one of those no-frills types.
Gina handed her a box of tissues, pulled a legal pad and pen closer to her and leaned back in her chair. "Well, why don't you tell me about, ah, Ben. Delgado is his last name?"
"Yes." Marina fought to get her thoughts under control, to push back all the images crowding her mind: Ben's slightly dazzled expression when they'd first met in her garden to draw up landscaping plans. His self-assurance when he'd asked her out. The feel of his hand gripping hers as he helped her onto his friend's boat and served her champagne with cold, sliced nectarines.
Ben's expert salsa, his feet never missing a step and his hips gyrating and making her blush. The way he'd made love to her the very first time, as if she were the eighth wonder of the world. And the night he'd proposed to her. I'm not a rich man, mi corazÃ³n, but I'll take care of you…I will love you until the day I die…you will want for nothing that is in my power to give you.
The words and images moved through her head like a personal film trailer and she was helpless to stop them.
"Ms. Reston?" Gina brought Marina back to reality with a jolt. "Can you tell me a little bit about Mr. Delgado?"
Her chest ached from inside; it physically hurt. Her throat was raw and her sinuses felt stuffed with fiberglass. Her stomach churned. She wished her brain would dissolve and free her from the mental torture of her memories, but they remained all too sharp. Pull yourself together, Marina. Tell her about Ben.
"He's half Peruvian, though he spent his teenage years in Venezuela after his mother remarried. He has a U.S. passport, since his father's American—of Spanish descent."
"Do you have a photo?"
Marina nodded and fished a 5 x 7 out of her bag. Ben stared coolly from the picture, his black hair lifting in a May breeze. His stubborn jaw showcased a sensual mouth and even, white teeth.
He had long lashes and dark eyes, faint lines of humor—and mulish male pride—etched at the corners. Above them stretched black eyebrows, which used to form playful, sexy squiggles.
But lately, since the horrific early storm, they'd been slashes of deep worry and anger. Hurricane Ernestine had destroyed everything Ben had worked so hard to achieve. Did it have to ruin their love, too?
Marina ran her finger over Ben's image, trying to feel his familiar, warm olive skin, the rock-hard arms emerging from the sleeves of his T-shirt. Of course, it was useless, since he had vanished just like every greenhouse tree, shrub and flower of his formerly thriving landscaping business.
But, while they had blown or washed away, he, the hopelessly handsome bastard, had walked.
She knew it had devastated him. That he'd spent weeks in a hopeless rage against fate and the weather and the small print in his insurance contract.
She'd tried to be there for him, but he'd pushed her away. She'd offered help but he'd rebuffed it. She'd offered comfort but he'd behaved as if it were emotional charity. How did a woman reach a man like him? How could she channel his futile fury into something more constructive? The answer: She couldn't. She had to let him rage until he'd gotten it out of his system. But why was he punishing her for something nature had done?
Gina inspected the photo and then put it down on her desk without comment. She made a couple of notes on her legal pad. "Do you have others?"
"Yes. I can get them to you tomorrow."
"What are his clothes like?"
Marina bit the acrylic tip on her index finger. "The ones I buy for him or the ones he buys?"
"I'm asking about his general look."
"Jeans, Levi's—nothing fancy. T-shirts, usually black and snug. No belt. No socks. Nice leather sandals. Maybe work boots if he's on the job."
"Jewelry?" "A simple gold chain around his neck. No watch—he sold his Rolex after the storm ruined him. He wouldn't let me give him another one."
Gina nodded. "Clean-shaven?" "Well, sometimes he'll go a couple of days without a razor. He looks so hot when he does that…" Marina bit her acrylic nail again and this time she succeeded in cracking it. She stared at the nail as if it were a metaphor for her heart: Split down the middle with a jagged edge. The difference was that she could pay two dollars to have the nail repaired.
"When did Ben leave? Any idea where he's gone?"
"H-he left when I went for my Tuesday massage. I came back totally relaxed—this guy Manuel is amazing—and I found the note, propped up against Gnarly's food canister."
"Did you say Gnarly?"
Marina nodded and tears started falling in fat droplets onto her quite-salty-enough nose. "Gnarly is the cat from his landscaping business. He showed up out of the blue one day and his fur, poor thing, was so snarled and matted and filthy that we called him Gnarly. I went to a vet for the equivalent of kitty Valium, got him nice and dopey and gave him a bubble bath. Then I spent three hours on him with a comb and a pair of scissors—some parts of his coat were beyond help. He's the most beautiful cat now. But we still call him Gnarly."
No doubt about it, Gina was hiding a smile. It was a nice one, not mocking. Still, Marina was suddenly conscious that she'd been babbling, focusing on an issue that didn't make her cry. She felt…fluffy…next to Gina Keys. Had Ben left because she was fluffy? Because he didn't take her seriously?
She'd never been more serious about a man than she was about Ben. She'd brave stretch marks and labor and the ruination of her breasts to have his children….
"So the note was next to his food. What did it say, exactly?" Marina cleared her throat. "Well, it's kind of personal and embarrassing." "I'm sure this is hard for you, Ms. Reston. But I really need to gather all the pertinent information in order to help you."
Marina nodded and squelched the full-fledged bawl that threatened to get past her tonsils. "Okay. He said…it said…that I am still his amor, his corazÃ³n, his vida, but because he lost everything he can no longer give me any kind of a future—" Her voice cracked again.
"And so I have to forget him. I'm not to offer him my money because he won't take it, won't be an aprovechado. I think that means "kept man" or something. And because he knows I'm not listening to him properly—ha!—he will put it in very blunt, vulgar terms—he can no longer afford me." She said the last words bitterly.
Just thinking about it made her furious. Marina jumped out of her chair. "Cannot afford me! Like I'm some kind of greedy call girl!"
Gina Keys blinked at her. "I don't ask him to pay my bills," Marina ranted, cut to the core. "He doesn't need to. But it's not my fault that my father died and left me a lot of money!"
"No," Gina agreed politely, "I'm sure it's not."
"I run charities! I give back to the community! I'm not a wart on society's butt."
Gina choked on a sip of coffee from a foam cup on her desk. "This is all about stupid, stiff-necked, macho, moronic male pride. And he's ruining our lives." Marina dropped her face into her hands and the bawl rolled right through the teeth she'd just paid almost a thousand dollars to have whitened.
She couldn't control her grief. "I love him," she said with a hiccup. "I can't live without him. I can't sleep and I can't eat. I feel as if I'm going to explode—go through the roof." Something nudged her arm and she raised her head to find it was Gina's tissue box again.