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Redmond Malone had been parked in front of the Windsor Beach Peacock Cafe for a full five minutes. He kept going back and forth, one minute gazing at the oceanwhich glittered invitingly between the buildingsand the next minute glaring at the restaurant, with the blue-and-green-striped awnings and kitschy matching outdoor umbrellas.
So what was it going to be? Hit the gas, find a beach shop that sold surfboards and trunks, and wash his cares away in the Pacific? Or open that shadowy cafe door and scope out the mysterious, adulterous Allison York?
Yeah, right. As if he had any choice.
With a heartfelt, under-the-breath curse, he met his own eyes in the rearview mirror. Note for next time: don't make deathbed promises. First, obviously everyone 's too emotional to think straight when a good friend is dying. And second, promises like that are set in stone. Impossible to renegotiate them when you wake up and realize you've stepped in a big pile of
The thought broke off as, without warning, his parked car lurched forward sharply. Simultaneously, he heard a grating, metallic sound. Harsh, piercing, up close and personal
Aw, hell. He swiveled to look out the back window.
Some jackass in a fat black Rolls Royce just rearended him.
God, could this damned errand get any worse? He yanked the keys from the ignition, shoved open the door and climbed out. Luckily for the blind fool in the Rolls, Red wasn't the yelling, punching kind, or the "ouch, my neck" kind. But the fool had better have insurance.
The other driver was slower to emerge, so Red was almost at the door of the Rolls when it opened. Great. The guy must have been eighty, easy. Suit, tie, pocket kerchief definitely overdressed for early-morning pancakes, so maybe he hadn't been headed to the Peacock Cafe. Maybe the bank down the street.
"You all right, son?" The man's long, seamed face looked worried. He reminded Red of a wood carving of an ancient Chinese philosopher.
"I'm fine. How about you?"
"Nothing broken." The old guy slowly eased out his legs, as if he balanced raw eggs on his knees. Where his hand gripped the door, his fingers trembled on the shiny black paint like long, pale flower petals.
He tilted his chin to see over the huge hood of his own car, all the way down to Red's low-slung Mercedes.
"Oh, dear. That is a shame. I am sorry, young man. I didn't see your little automobile until it was far, far too late."
On a normal day, Red might have been amused by the old-world style. Unfortunately, he, too, had gotten a good look at the rear panel of his SLK 300, which he'd bought only three months ago and still liked better than any woman he'd ever dated. So, yeah. Not amused.
The old man tottered over to the sidewalk and gingerly mounted the curb, balancing himself on the parking meter. Apparently drawn by the sound of the collision, people had started to gather in front of the cafe. A couple of men grimaced when they saw Red's car, but most of the onlookers clustered around the old guy, clucking sympathetically, as if he were the victim.
"Are you okay, Bill? Did you hit your head? Does anything hurt?"
Red might as well have been invisible. Which suited him fine. He dialed the operator on his cell phone. "Windsor Beach Police Department," he said, propping his phone between his shoulder and his ear so that he could search for his insurance card and registration. "Nonemergency."
"No, wait!" A female voice raised itself above the general hubbub of curious gawkers. "Wait. Don't call the police."
He glanced up from his wallet. A young woman had emerged from the crowd and was heading toward him. She wore a blue-and-green-striped uniform, so he assumed she worked at the cafe. She waved her hand vigorously, as if to demonstrate that he absolutely must hang up.
Yeah? He didn't think so.
When he didn't lower the phone, she frowned and moved faster. She reached him two seconds later, while the unanswered call was still ringing against his ear. And ringing. And ringing. For the Windsor Beach police, apparently nonemergency meant no response.
"Please," she said, slightly breathless. She was cute. Mid-twenties, with a chin-length brown bob, freckles and an imploring smile. "Please, hang up. There's no need to involve the police, really." She glanced back toward the sidewalk. "The man who hit you that's Bill Longmire."
"Okay." Red smiled, too. He nodded toward his car. "And that's an eight-thousand-dollar repair."
She gave the Mercedes a cursory look, but Red could tell she didn't think his car was the important point here. Maybe it wasn't, to her. Maybe the old guy was her grandfather, or the grand pooh-bah of Windsor Beach. Red didn't care. The man shouldn't be behind a wheel.
He glanced at her name tag.
Without really thinking, he lowered the phone from his ear. Oh, great.
He'd been so riled by the accident he'd almost lost track of why he was here in the first place. He'd almost forgotten he was on a ridiculous spy mission, trying to find out everything he could about a waitress named Allison York.
Well, James Bond. Meet Allison York.
In his defense, he'd been expecting a home-wrecking sexpot. He had only a few facts about her. She was twenty-seven. She was divorced. And last year she'd given birth to his best friend's baby.
His married best friend.
The one who had died of cancer two months ago. The one who had, even on his deathbed, been terrified that his big mistakethat would be Allison Yorkwould somehow find a way to destroy the loved ones he was leaving behind.
This woman was pretty, but no sexpot. She looked more like the one who would get cast as the sexpot's worried best friend. Skinny, with no-fuss, healthy hair.
A little pale for a California gal. The kind of long neck he always associated with ballet lessons and overpro-tective mothers.
Something was buzzing. He glanced down at his phone, strangely off balance. It was still ringing.
"Please," she said again. "I can explain."
He clicked the end button.
"Thank you." She took a deep breath. "You see, Bill Well, Bill is a good friend of mine. He knows he isn't supposed to drive. He has someone who does that for him. But something must have happened"
"Steve didn't show up, that's what happened." While Red had been gathering his wits, Bill Longmire had apparently decided to join them in the street, his entourage of well-wishers behind him.
Allison slipped her hand under the old man's elbow. "But when Steve is late, you're supposed to wait." She shook his arm gently. "You know that, Bill. Someone could have been hurt."
"Well, no one was." Bill winked one rheumy eye, then reached out his long finger to tap Allison's nose. "Besides, sweetheart, I couldn't wait. You only work until ten today, and no one else ever gets my omelet right."
Red frowned. Was that bony antique actually flirting with this woman who was only a third of his age? His jaw tightened, but Allison didn't seem to find it disgusting. She grinned and, sighing, let her head briefly rest on the old man's shoulder.
"Darn it, Bill," she said with affectionate exasperation. "If you're not careful, you'll be eating your eggs off a hospital tray."
"Allie's right, Bill," someone from the crowd said. A murmur of agreement rumbled through the rest of them.
Red felt his fingers close hard around his cell phone, and he realized he was seriously annoyed. Hooray that Bill Longmire, whoever he was, hadn't killed himself today. But what about Red's car? What about the whiplash he hadn't gotten, but might have?
"Still," he broke in flatly. "We need to call the police. We'll need to report this to our insurance companies."
Allison frowned. Though she lifted her head, she didn't let go of Bill's elbow, as if she were afraid he would topple over without her support. "Surely you two can work out"
"Of course we can," Bill broke in. He extricated his arm, then dug around in his pants pocket. "I don't know how much money I'm carrying." He found a battered old leather wallet. "Let's see"
Great. The guy probably still calculated in 1930s prices, and was going to try to placate him with a pair of limp twenty-dollar bills.
"I'm sorry," Red said, "but I'm afraid I'm going to have to get an estimate"
As if Red hadn't said a word, Bill extended a fat wad of cash. "I've only got about five thousand on me, but if you'll take a check"
"Bill!" Allison batted his hand down. "What are you doing, walking around with that kind of cash?"
"I'm paying the man for the damage." Bill turned his elegant smile Red's way. "I suspect the final costs will be at least twice this," he said. "Mercedes parts don't come cheap. But if you'll accept this as a down payment, Mr ."
The sentence trailed off as he waited for Red to supply his name.
Red thought a minute, then decided it didn't matter. Allison wouldn't connect his name with Victor Wigham. "Malone. Redmond Malone."
The old man nodded. "Mr. Malone. Delighted to meet you. You're not from Windsor Beach, I take it?"
Red shook his head. "San Francisco."
"Oh, yes. Lovely city." Bill extended the money again. "So, as I was saying. You can take this as a down payment, and I will write you a check for another five thousand to cover the rest."
"That's very generous, Mr. Longmire, but I'm afraid"
"Hey, give the guy a break, why don't you?" Two burly men separated from the crowd and flanked Allison, one at each shoulder as if they were hired bodyguards. One spoke through a tight jaw. "He said he'd pay for the damages. Why do you gotta bring in the police?"
Another murmur of agreement moved through the crowd, which clearly had only one mind among them. They inched forward, closing ranks. For a minute, Red felt like the hapless stranger in a horror film who stumbles into Looneyville and spends the rest of the movie running from its spooky townsfolk.
Or maybe he was in the middle of a very strange dream. A dreamyeah, that would be nice. Maybe he wasn't really standing here at all, negotiating with this old man, who was probably insane. Maybe Victor wasn't really dead. Maybe there was no Allison York, no baby, no danger to Victor's grieving family.
"Mr. Malone?" Allison turned her eyes toward him, wordlessly asking for his help. More crazy dream material. Those big bedroom eyes didn't begin to match that girl-next-door face. They were gorgeousround, dewy, lash-fringed. A clear dark honey-brown that looked strangely bottomless.
He almost found himself saying okay. Okay, we'll do this your way.
But that would make him crazier than the old man.
"I'm sorry," he said. He lifted his phone again, ignoring her disappointed frown, as well as the army of Windsor Beach zombies lined up behind her. "I'm afraid I'm still going to have to call the police."
By that afternoon, the story had grown even better in the retelling.
Red was pretty good with impersonations, and by the time he'd finished describing the scene to his older brother Colby, both men were laughing. Red could even picture the accordion-folded rear end on his poor Mercedes without cringing.
The best part? The Windsor Beach policeman everyone had been so afraid to call turned out to be Bill Longmire's pimple-faced great-nephew Larry, who was clearly terrified of the old man. Equally clearly, the kid also had a crush on Allison York and would have flushed his own badge down the toilet if she'd asked him to. For a minute there, Red thought he might end up getting a ticket for upsetting her.
"Hell, Red, this town sounds nuts." Colby glanced around the small store space they'd been inspecting. "Are you sure we want to open a Diamante here?"
Red shrugged. "Crazy people eat pizza, too, don't they?"
This trip to Windsor Beach was doing double duty. He'd set aside the morning to get a glimpse of Allison York, and now he could devote the afternoon to checking out the single storefront that had become available. Scouting new locations for Diamante take-out stores was Red's piece of the family business, and he'd had his eye on swanky, touristy Windsor Beach for months.
He'd been waiting to find the right spot. He thought this might be it. The strip mall was fully occupiedthis vacancy was rare. He'd only found out about it because he had a friend who had a friend. The building had easy access, ample parking and about a thousand bored, hungry rich people within a three-mile radius.
"And the price is right," he said, opening the door to the storage closet. He recoiled as a cloud of vanilla-scented air wafted over him. The Bath Goddess had moved out of the space yesterday. "Damn, we'll have to do something about the stink, though."
Colby, who was the company lawyer and therefore wouldn't get really interested until he got his hands on the lease, had already wandered over to the windows, where sunset-pink was seeping into the western sky.
"Stink?" He tossed a grin over his shoulder. "Oh. I thought that was you."
Red ignored him. As the youngest of three brothers, he was used to being insulted. He poked around some more, though he'd already decided to take the store. He'd put out an SOS to Colby because, after the assault on the Mercedes, he needed a ride home. Not because he needed permission to rent this place.
It had taken him a while to find out where he fit into Diamante, but he had finally carved out his own niche. Nana Lina had long since taken the training wheels off, allowing him to make these acquisition decisions more or less alone. Turned out he had great instincts about real estate.
And he owed it all to his mentor. Victor Wigham.
Which brought him full circle to Allison York. Irritably he kicked a small net full of rose petals into the corner that was functioning as a trash can. What was he supposed to do now? What on earth was he supposed to do about Allison, the waitress with freckled cheeks, a snub nose, and Scheherazade eyes?