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"I think I've found your man."
Chelsea Reed froze. She glanced up sharply from the jewelry counter where she'd been taking inventory. "Devlin?" she asked, focusing on the short man with unremarkable features and small eyes. Adrenaline surged through her. "He's alive?"
Ned Jenkins tapped the countertop with his blunt fingers and a smug smile played on his lips. He was one of the best private investigators in the bay area, and Chelsea had hired him three months before to find Devlin McVey. Now, surrounded by silk dresses, brilliant scarves and designer handbags in the boutique, Jenkins looked like the proverbial fish out of water.
"I'd bet money on it," he said, seeming satisfied with himself.
"Where is he?"
Jenkins snorted. "The Caribbean. Looks like he wanted to disappear, but good."
" Chelsea swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. Her fingers gripped the counter. So Devlin, damn him, had run away, leaving her alone to deal with her grief.
Memoriessome wonderful, some filled with painswam before her eyes. Her heart began to knock in her chest. She glanced quickly around the three connecting rooms of the old converted row house. A few customers browsed lazily through the racks and Melissa, a salesgirl for the boutique, was standing in the front window display case, pinning a bright pink belt around the slim waist of a mannequin.
"Melissacan you hold down the fort a few minutes?" Chelsea asked unsteadily. She could barely concentrate on anything other than the fact that Devlin Mcvey was alive. Now he had a lot to answer for.
"Will do," Melissa said around a mouthful of pins.
"Sally will be back shortly and Carrie will be in at four. If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen." Her knees threatened to buckle though she'd waited for this day for over a year.
"Got it," Melissa replied, making an "okay" sign with her fingers and thumb.
Chelsea turned back to the small investigator. "Let's go into the back room where we'll have a little more privacy."
He shrugged. "Wherever you want."
He followed her through a door behind the counter and down a short hall to the kitchen of the old house. To keep her hands occupied Chelsea poured them each a cup of lukewarm coffee, then motioned for Jenkins to sit at a chipped Formica-topped table.
"Okay," she said, finding her voice. "Let's start over. Where exactly is he?"
"On an obscure island called Paradis. Believe me, this place is off the beaten path."
Her fingers clamped around her cup. "And you've seen himyou're sure it's Devlin?"
For an answer he snapped open a battered old briefcase, pulled out a manila envelope and dumped the contents of the packet onto the table. There were several snapshots and a large, glossy eight-by-ten color photo which he slid across the table. "Unless I miss my guess, this man is Mcvey."
Chelsea picked up the photograph, heart racing at the sight of a handsome, roguish-looking man with tanned skin, bladed cheekbones and unruly black hair that brushed across the collar of his faded denim jacket. His eyes were hidden by mirrored aviator sunglasses, his jaw disguised by a dark beard. He was grimacing and he looked tough and hard. "I don't know," she said quietly, remembering Devlin as he had beendark and sensual, with a hard edge that hinted of danger. This man could be him, but then again
"Well, he's changed his looks, of course. People usually do when they want to get lost," Jenkins said, leaning forward and tossing another picture, a photograph of Devlin taken six months before the accident, onto the table. "But check out his cheekboneshmm? And the way his hair parts a little off center? And his nose" he pointed to the larger photograph, then to the small snapshot "compare them. Identical. Looks as if that nose was broken somewhere along the linemaybe more than once."
"Several times," she thought aloud. There was a similarity in the two pictures; she, too, could see it. Her pulse started to pick up speed but she willed herself to remain calm. Even if this man did prove to be Devlin, there were still so many unanswered questions. She studied the photograph as the minutes ticked by. Yes, the man could be Devlin, but she wasn't sure
"I'd feel better about this if I could see his eyes."
"I know." Jenkins gave a snort of disgust, as if he wasn't used to being outfoxed by his quarry. "The only time he took off those damned glasses was in the cafe and it was too dark to get a shot."
"Pardon?" Jenkins's reddish brows inched upward. "His eyes. What color?"
"Oh. Blueintensepiercing," the investigator replied with a frown of dislike. "Kind of creepy, the way he stares at you. His eyes are the first thing you notice about him."
"Yes," she agreed, remembering the force of Devlin's gaze. "Did you speak with him?"
Jenkins shook his head. "Nope. Didn't want to tip my hand." His mouth drew into a defensive frown. "You did say you wanted him located but not confronted."
"Yes, that's right," she assured him. "But I want to know everything there is to know about this man."
"Mitch Russell. That's the name he goes by." Jenkins sipped from his cup and scowled. "I did a little poking around and found out that he claims to be from Chicago, just one more disillusioned American looking for the good life in a tropical paradise. It's crazy, if you ask me. Why would anyone want to leave the U.S. of A?"
Good question, Chelsea thought, but kept her face noncommittal. Why, indeed? Unless he was hiding something. Her heart wrenched a little. "Tell me aboutwhat did you call the island? Paradise?"
"Paradis. It's French for paradise, located about thirty miles southwest of St. Jean in the Caribbean. The only way to get to it is by boat or hydroplane." He waved impatiently. "There was a landing strip once, but it's overgrown and no one uses it anymore."
Narrowing her eyes, she examined the photograph again and the more she studied it, the more she was certain Jenkins was right. The man in the picture was Devlin! She'd found him, at last! She couldn't help but smile as she envisioned confronting him. What would he say? What could he?
"Did you find out anything else?" she asked, and Ned Jenkins grinned, a wide, toothy smile that made her uncomfortable.
"Here's the report." He reached into his shabby briefcase again and tossed a buff-colored file onto the table. "Not a whole lot in it. I didn't ask too many questions because I didn't want Russell to know I was on to him." He gave her a wink. "You said to keep this low-key and I always aim to please."
"Good." She skimmed the report and frowned. The typed pages didn't give her much more information than Jenkins had already told her. Seeing the bill tacked onto the last page, she reached into her purse, withdrew her wallet and wrote Ned Jenkins a check for services rendered. "Just tell me one more thing," she said, handing him payment.
"Shoot." Jenkins eyed the figures she'd written, nodded to himself and tucked the check into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"How did you find Devlin?"
Jenkins's blue eyes sparked. "I hate to admit it, but I got lucky. That happens sometimes. No one around here knew from nothing and even my friends down at the San Francisco Police Department weren't any help. Everyone acted like he really did bite it in the boat accident. But I checked back with the airlines and flashed his picture around. Eventually a stewardess on a cross-country flight recognized himor thought she did. Even then he looked a little different from the pictures I hadhe was starting to grow a beardbut she was sure it was our guy. There seems to be something about Mr. Mcvey that the ladies remember."
Chelsea didn't commentshe didn't want to think about the raw sexuality that was as much a part of Devlin McVey as the badge he wore, or had worn, for the SFPD. Nor did she want to think of the string of beautiful women who had fallen in love with him in the past few years. After all, she wasn't interested in his love life, or his sexual charms, she told herself. She only wanted to find out why he had disappeared and what had happened in the accidentthe accident from which Devlin had disappeared and that had taken her fiance's life. Her heart wrenched a little at the thought of John. If only she knew why Devlin had been so insistent that John meet with him that day. What was so all-fired important that they had to talk privately on Devlin's boat in the middle of a storm?
Jenkins scraped back his chair. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes," she said impulsively. "I'm going to have to go to Paradis. While I'm gone, I want you to keep poking around. See if anything surfaces around here."
"It hasn't for over a year," he speculated.
"I know, but it's always possible."
"Okay, I'll nose around. Maybe I can find someone at SFPD who's willing to talk. And if you change your mind, and want your friend back on American soil, just let me know. Mcvey wouldn't be the first man I tracked down and brought back home."
"No, thanks. I think I'll handle this my way."
Jenkins paused, his brow furrowing. "There's something I don't understand about this. You were planning to marry Mcvey's best friend, the guy who drowned in the accident, right?"
Chelsea swallowed hard. Grief stole into her heart. John Stern's death was still hard to accept. "Yes."
"So why all the interest in Mcvey?"
Chelsea had a ready answer for a question she'd asked herself a million times. "Because Devlin was John's best friend and he was supposedly killed, as well. I never believed it. And this" she tapped on the large photo of Devlin "proves I'm right. I think he might know something about John's deathsomething that hasn't come out in the police reports."
"Stern's death was ruled an accident."
"I know, but I'm not convinced."
Jenkins eyed her and rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Listen, I'm going to give you some free advice."
As if she hadn't heard enough from everyone on the planet, she thought.
Jenkins rambled on. "Drop this thing. If your fiance died in an accident, it's over. If there was something else involved, let the police handle it."
"I just want to know why Devlin disappeared," Chelsea replied. And why John died.
"He might have his reasons. Some people who vanish like it that way."
Too bad, Chelsea thought, catching a glimpse of the bearded man in the picture. If this man were truly Devlinand she had begun to believe he washe had a lot to answer for.
Jenkins reached for the door handle just as Chelsea's partner, Sally Bedford, flew into the room, nearly running him over.
"Sorry," she said automatically, then spied Chelsea in the chair. "Oh, God, Chels, I didn't mean to interrupt." Sally was immediately contrite. Her kinky blond hair glistened with raindrops and the shoulders of her raincoat were damp. "It's a downpour out there! I'm soaked to the skin." She shook some of the rain from her hair. "Can you believe itit's nearly June and we're having a rainstorm that won't quit!"
"It's okay, we're through here."
"Good, because I just dashed through the shop and the floor's crawlingand I mean crawlingwith customers." Her boots squished as she walked to a small closet and hung up her coat.
"I'll take care of the customers," Chelsea replied with a quick grin. "You dry off."
"Heywhat's this?" Sally looked at the photographs scattered across the table and her perky face fell. "Oh, no, Chelsea, you're not still trying to find Devlin, are you? Can't you face the fact that he's gone? He and John both?"
Chelsea didn't bother to respond. She gathered up the photographs and stuffed them into Jenkins's manila envelope. "We'll talk about this later," she said over her shoulder as she tucked the envelope into her oversize bag, then shepherded Ned Jenkins back through the store.
Sally was right on one count. The floor was a madhouse. Melissa was busy with two women vying for the latest creation by Marcel De vasia. Three teenage girls fingered the hand-painted jewelry. A harried young woman was trying on hats and another woman in her twenties was eyeing a fuchsia jumpsuit.
Chelsea helped three customers choose accessories to go with the dresses they'd picked out while Carrie manned the shoe department. Melissa sold two De Vasia originals and managed to keep both women happy.
Two more customers strolled in and Sally, revived, emerged from the back room with a ready smile. She sold the jumpsuit and two raincoats within fifteen minutes.
As the afternoon wore on the crowd thinned.
It was well after seven when the last customer, laden with a package containing a silver belt, peach scarf and two pairs of slacks, finally walked out the front door of the store. Sally turned the bolt, lowered a Closed sign, and, sagging against the door, whispered, "Another day at the zoo!"
"Amen." Chelsea straightened the racks while Sally headed for the till to balance out for the day.
Carrie and Melissa had already taken off and the shop, aside from the soft notes of jazz drifting from hidden speakers, was quiet. Chelsea slid out of her pumps.
As Sally added the checks and cash, she grinned, showing off deep dimples. "Well, at least it was a profitable day at the zoo."
"No, that's great," Sally said, slamming the till shut.
Sally and Chelsea had been friends since college and had opened this shop four years before. Located near Ghirardelli Square, the boutique had grown and flourished, become chic and popular enough to expand until it now filled the entire first floor of the old remodeled house. Sally was talking of opening another store, either in Union Square or out of the city entirely in Sonoma, but Chelsea hadn't been able to work up the necessary enthusiasm.
In fact, she could hardly think past the accident that had taken her fiance's life.
"I don't suppose this is a good time to tell you that I'm going to need a few weeks off," Chelsea said as she snapped out the lights.
Sally sighed. "Come onlet's talk." Stuffing the receipts for the day into the bank bag she would drop into the night depository on the way home, she added, "I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
The kitchen had grown dark with the evening. Chelsea flipped on the overhead fixture and Sally grabbed the handle of the glass coffeepot.
Wrinkling her little nose, she swished the dregs of brown liquid down the drain. As she started a fresh pot, she glanced over her shoulder at Chelsea. "Okay," she said, "so now it's later. Out with it. You think you've found Devlin, is that it?"
"I'm not sure," Chelsea admitted, dropping into a chair and retrieving the envelope with Jenkins's photographs from her purse. "But I have to find out."