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Kat has to believe he's just a flirtatious vacationer...
Kat has to believe he's just a flirtatious vacationer at the Phoenix Rising Resort. But the closer they grow, the tougher it is to pretend. Now he's facing an impossible choice. Keep up the charade and get his man. Or tell her everything, risk his case…and get the girl!
Not only because Eunice's son had hired him, but also because of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God factor. Tony would want to exact a whole lot more than justice if Will Sterling destroyed his widowed mother.
Tony opened his laptop and placed it on the mission-style table in the breakfast nook of his suite. Booting up, he ran through his notes; there were precious few. It wasn't that he didn't have contacts in law enforcement. As a former Texas Ranger, he had plenty. There simply hadn't been an investigation. Treadway's death had been declared a suicide, no foul play involved.
Except Tony knew better.
His cell phone buzzed. He checked the number as he went and grabbed a bottled water from the fridge under the minibar. The Phoenix Rising Resort was top of the line, even if it was in the Arizona boonies. He thumbed the button on his phone. "Hey, Teresa, how was your flight?"
"This is Brian, Teresa's husband."
Tony's shoulders tensed. She wouldn't let anyone take her BlackBerry without a fight. Even her husband.
Tony's gut told him this case could derail before it had even begun. "Yeah, we've met a couple times. Is something wrong?"
"They just took Teresa into emergency surgery. Her appendix was about to burst and the stubborn woman insisted I call you before her family." His chuckle sounded shaky. "Wanted me to tell you she's sorry she won't be able to help you with that case in Arizona."
"That sounds like Teresa." Concern for the tough ex-cop warred with the desire to punch something. "Is she going to be okay?"
"Yeah, the doctors caught it before it ruptured. A few more hours and it could have been a different story."
Tony took a deep breath, determined not to dwell on all the women who could potentially avoid destitution or worse if Will Sterling was put in jail. "Tell her to concentrate on getting better. I'm sure we'll have the chance to partner up again soon."
"I will. I gotta go call our youngest at the University of Texas."
"Take care." Clicking off his phone, Tony swore under his breath. Without Teresa for bait, luring Sterling was out of the question. Now would be the time for plan B. If he had one, that is.
There was a knock at the casita door. When he opened it, the blond, middle-aged woman who had handled his check-in smiled warmly. "I'm Linda. In case you haven't had the chance to read your brochure, I wanted to make sure you're aware we try to keep the dining experience casual. You're invited to a welcome luncheon that starts in half an hour in the private dining room next to the Copper Dining Room. It's a small affair for the people who arrived within the past few days."
"Thank you. But I thought to get some work—"
"None of that. One of the things that sets Phoenix Rising apart from other resorts is that we encourage our guests to shake things up, meet new people, change worn-out patterns. Step outside your box, so to speak. We find that folks who form friendships with other guests are more inclined to participate in activities and are, on the whole, more satisfied with their stay here. After the welcome luncheon, our activities are more on an à la carte basis. There's a schedule on the credenza in each room."
Tony figured a con man stalking his mark wouldn't want to miss the welcome luncheon. That meant Tony couldn't miss it, either. Especially now that he was solo. And operating without a plan. "I'll be there, I promise."
"Good." She smiled warmly, clearly enjoying her job. "Will your sister arrive in time?"
"No, she just called to say her plans have changed, and she won't be able to make it at all."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I thought it was nice for a brother and sister to vacation together. We have two sisters who always stay together at Phoenix Rising, but they're much older."
"I was looking forward to catching up with Teresa. But these things happen."
"I'm sure you'll have a wonderful stay all the same. Well, I have a few other guests to remind, so I'll see you at lunch."
Tony closed the door, calculating the pros and cons of continuing without a partner. His not-so-legal surveillance of Sterling's credit card charges had shown the man had arrived at the resort day before yesterday.
Tony had monitored Sterling's accounts regularly and this was the first time in months the weasel had gone anywhere resembling a vacation destination. Since the Treadways said Eunice had met Sterling at a resort in Texas, Tony figured he was planning to target a new victim. Smart man to vary his hunting grounds.
Even without a partner, Tony intended to stop Sterling and collect enough evidence to convince the authorities a series of felonies had been committed. Fraud, at the very least. Legally, Sterling hadn't murdered Eunice Treadway. Morally, he might as well have administered the fatal dose of pills.
Because Tony had no doubt Eunice would have continued to sing in the church choir, help shuttle her granddaughters to activities and chair a few Red Hat Lady committees if she'd never met Sterling.
Kat Monroe felt her reservations fade as she strolled down the gravel footpath to the lodge. The days were cooler up here around Jasper, at nearly five thousand feet, than in Phoenix, where the spring temperatures already topped one hundred degrees.
She watched birds flit from a juniper tree to man-zanita shrubs. Tucking her long auburn curls behind her ear, she shielded her eyes from the glare and saw a red-tailed hawk soaring high in the sky.
Feeling the tension ease from her shoulders for the first time in months, Kat was glad she'd splurged on the pricey resort.
It seemed as if June Marsh, her best friend's mother, had been spot on in her recommendation of Phoenix Rising. Already Kat's messy life in Tempe seemed strangely removed, as if it had happened to someone else. She sighed, hoping Annie hadn't told her mother all the sordid details of Kat's breakup with Zach. It was humiliating to think everyone knew she'd picked the totally wrong guy again. As a thirty-two-year-old, established accountant, she should be well past picking losers. Or allowing them to choose her.
"Beautiful, isn't he?"
A tall, muscular man leaned against a wooden pole that supported a kerosene-style lantern, his silver hair held away from his face with a leather band. Most men couldn't carry off the gray ponytail look, but on him it seemed both masculine and…elegant, she decided. His skin was weathered from long hours in the sun, and his eyes were an unusual shade of gray.
She returned her attention to the sky. "Yes, it is. Solitary, yet powerful."
"He's got a female nesting nearby. Red-tailed hawks mate for life."
"I didn't know that."
"You're going to the luncheon?"
"Yes. Are you?"
The man pushed away from the pole and shuddered, his eyes sparkling. "Hell, no. The social stuff is more my wife's domain. You probably met Linda at check-in. I handle the art workshops and drive the excursion van. Don't miss the glassblowing exhibit after dinner tonight. It'll knock your socks off. But then again, I'm biased."
Kat raised an eyebrow, smiling at the affection in his voice. "Linda is your wife?"
"Yes. Don't look so surprised. She's not nearly as refined as she likes to pretend. And I don't always wear f lannel shirts and jeans. We manage to go with the flow pretty well."
Kat realized why he seemed slightly familiar. "You're Garth Fremont. The brochure says you're famous for your blown-glass art."
He shrugged. "I've done okay."
"The next Dale Chihuly, I think Wikipedia said."
"My wife probably wrote that. She thinks I'm a genius." He winked. "That's the secret to the success of our relationship. If she ever discovers I'm just a dumb guy who likes to melt glass, I'm toast."
Kat laughed. "I seriously doubt that. But I better get to the luncheon or they'll send out a search party. Your wife said so."
"She will, too. Tenacious is her middle name. Don't forget the exhibition tonight."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Kat was still smiling as she rounded the corner to the lodge, realizing it had been a long time since she'd tried something new or done anything besides what her boyfriend of the moment wanted. Now that she'd forced Zach to move out, it was time to discover what interested her, rather than jumping into another doomed relationship. This vacation was her chance to start a whole new way of living. The thought was both exhilarating and scary.
Tony's stomach grumbled as he stepped into the private dining room, a large space decorated in Southwestern style, with a stucco, beehive fireplace in one corner. The smell of food was enough to remind him he'd subsisted on coffee and power bars since hitting the road early this morning, after renting a motorcycle in Phoenix. The Harley was as much for his enjoyment as it was part of his cover playing Teresa's brother, a man facing a middle age crisis. His baggy Tommy Bahama tropical shirt was supposed to complete the impression.
He gave the buffet table a longing glance as he passed by to reach one of the two long pine tables, where several people were already gathered. He wished he'd had time to get at least the bare bones of a new plan worked out before meeting Sterling.
"Tony, why don't you sit there." Linda gestured toward the far end of the table, where there was a card with his name. There were no chairs, just a long bench on either side. "We're not formal, just trying to encourage mixing. Starting this evening, you choose your own seat in the main dining room. The round tables there seat eight—it's a good way to strike up a conversation."
See, I'm flexible. I can adapt to not being in charge.
He could almost hear his ex-wife, Corrine, refuting that statement in counseling, where she'd made him sound about as warm and cuddly as Attila the Hun.
"He treats me like one of his rookie officers. As if I should accept his word as the ultimate authority on everything. Having him home all the time during his… career transition…has been eye-opening."
Apparently so eye-opening that she'd asked him for a divorce after a few short sessions. No, not asked. Demanded. As if she couldn't stand to be with him one more second. Yet she still called to chat with him or ask for tips on fixing something around the house. He would never understand women. Maybe that was why he hesitated to jump back into the dating scene.
He turned to see a redhead waiting expectantly. She was medium height, her turquoise tank top revealing toned arms and plenty of cleavage. A purple skirt of lightweight crinkly fabric covered her from hips to calves.
Her eyes narrowed and he realized he was staring.
"My seat's back there." She gestured behind him, silver bangles jangling on her wrist. "I need to get by."
"Sure." He stepped to the side, wondering if he should help her maneuver around the bench. Judging from her stiff posture, he figured probably not.
Two older ladies were already seated at the table. Heads together, they whispered to each other, nodding toward the door, where a distinguished gentleman with silver hair had entered.
So far, no sign of Sterling.
Tony took his seat opposite the two women and next to the redhead. He hated having his back to the room, but didn't want to draw attention to himself by changing seats.
"Hello, ladies. I'm Tony."
"Lorraine and Lola," the one in blue said.
"We're twins," the woman in orange said. "Fraternal." As if that explained everything.
"Nice to meet you." He turned to the redhead, extending his hand.
She ignored it. "You're Tony. I heard."
He raised an eyebrow at her clipped tone. If she thought he'd been ogling her earlier, she was wrong. His ex-wife was tall, thin and blond; his taste hadn't changed much over the years. He preferred understated women, and the redhead dressed to draw attention. "According to Linda, we're supposed to be one big happy family. And your name is?"
"Short for Katrina?" The exotic name suited her.
She rolled her eyes. "Mmm-hmm."
Then she turned her shoulder to him as the older guy sat on the other side of her. She extended her hand, her voice warm. "Hi, I'm Kat."
Shrugging off the snub, Tony glanced around. The driver's license photo he had of Sterling wasn't good quality and showed an average-looking man in his mid-thirties—thirty-six if the date of birth was to be believed. Though Tony had seen more than a few average-looking guys in the right age range at the small resort, none of them appeared to be Sterling. What if he'd already departed? Decided some larger resort provided better pickings? Or worse yet, Phoenix Rising was merely a diversion to throw someone like Tony off track, while Sterling went on to his true destination?
Wherever the man was, Tony would find him. He would track Sterling's credit card purchases as long as it took, to see where the guy holed up.
Linda approached the table. "We're waiting for three more members of your group. Please relax and take this time to get to know one another until they arrive."
Tony glanced down the table toward the three unoccupied seats. Two cards, side by side, were decorated with wedding bells. Troy and Angie Birmingham.
Posted January 16, 2011
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