He hired her to find his long-lost daughter, not to fall in love.
California private investigator Kat Vargas lives a lonely life of danger with a painful past. Desperate for rest and relaxation, she leaves the city lights of Long Beach to house sit in Twilight Cove, a tiny beach town.
Having recently found out about the baby he fathered when he was in high school, Ty Chandler has been eager to find her. After he learns about the P.I. in his neighborhood he hires her to find his now nineteen-year-old daughter.
Kat and Ty join forces to hunt for the girl and begin to fall in love. But Kat knows better than to give her heart away. Her tragic past can't be forgotten.
When she and Ty locate his daughter, Sunny, she's a cynical outcast, living hand-to-mouth, and caring for her baby. They coax her to Twilight Cove, where Kat becomes convinced Sunny is on the run from some kind of trouble.
Can these damaged loners form a family?
A seven-time Romance Writers of America finalist for the RITA Award, Jill Marie Landis also now writes The Tiki Goddess Mysteries (set on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, actor Steve Landis.)
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By Jill Marie Landis
BelleBooks, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Jill Marie Landis
All rights reserved.
Twilight Cove, California
Five Days Later ...
ANOTHER NIGHT. The same old nightmare.
The sorrowful sound of wind chimes. The roar of the surf. The tang of salt on the air. Dense gray sheets of rain. The shimmering pavement. Tall stalks of sugarcane bowed by the storm, slick with moisture.
Her vision blinded by tears, she tries to blink against the light, to comprehend the blazing glare of headlights aimed straight toward her. The impact. The screech of metal on metal.
The never-ending scream that fills the silence afterward.
KAT AWOKE TANGLED in twisted sheets, sweaty, alone.
She shoved back the covers with her good hand, stepped out of bed, and walked through puddles of morning sunlight streaming through the windows. The unfamiliar house was cool and silent.
It had been a bad idea to agree to house-sit. She could feel it in her bones. She'd be better off in Long Beach working one-handed. At least her mind would be occupied.
The minute Jake had driven off with Carly and Christopher and their mutt, she started wondering how in the hell she ever let him convince her to take six weeks off. The peace and quiet were already driving her nuts.
She should have known her nightmares would come with her.
She paused by the window. In the distance, the Pacific sparkled like a polished aquamarine. The summer sun worked diligently to burn off the thin layer of morning haze that hovered over the tranquil California coastline.
Poised on a sandstone bluff a couple of miles away, the seasonal resort of Twilight Cove was a tourist stop for summer sojourners searching for old California with its golden, sun-drenched beaches and small-town atmosphere.
Downstairs, she found the damp chill of the night air still lingered in the shadows though it was already late morning. The cozy Craftsman-style house Jake was refurbishing had absorbed his family's happiness. Photos of Jake, Carly, and Chris were on display in every room. Carly's stunning oil paintings, works that included ghostly white figures set against vibrant local landscapes, adorned the walls.
Kat picked up a framed photo of Chris in a baseball uniform and rubbed her thumb over the glass. It was still hard for her to believe that Jake, of all people, had a kid. Though she'd never told him so, she envied his newfound happiness, his pride in Christopher, the love he'd found with Carly.
She set the photo down. Beside it was one of Carly and Chris walking along the beach at Twilight Cove. The love in Carly's eyes was there for all the world to see, hopeful, fragile — as love always is — and yet constant.
Kat teased Jake, but deep down she was happy for him. He had a family now. Something she had once wanted.
She crossed the open, casual living-dining room, thinking it was just too damned ironic that Jake, who'd sworn off romance, had wound up married again and living on an out-of-the-way road named Lover's Lane.
She tried to flex her injured hand and winced. Getting along with a bulky bandage was a chore, but she'd already regained some mobility in her thumb and fingers.
Every time she looked at her left hand, she was reminded of just how far betrayal could drive a perfectly normal person to commit an irrational act.
It was also a brutal reminder of what happened whenever her feelings got in the way. Whenever she thought with her heart, her head stopped working and she wound up hurt.
The sun was already above the top of the eastern hills behind the house. She couldn't wait to make a pot of coffee and stretch out in one of the teak lounges on the back deck, lift her face to the sun, and make up some of the sleep she'd lost last night, but just as she reached the kitchen, the front doorbell rang.
She glanced down at the crumpled knit shorts and tank top she'd slept in, then up at the clock on the wall. It was later than she thought — already noon.
Jake's nearest neighbors were beyond shouting distance. The place was totally isolated.
Insistent, the bell chimed again.
She hesitated. Even with a bum hand, she was confident that she could defend herself. Still, she was wary. She'd definitely seen too many movies about fugitives stumbling across isolated homes in the middle of nowhere, heard too many news stories about home-invasion robberies.
And right now she really wished she hadn't stayed up all night to finish Edward Cain's novel An Even Dozen, the serial-murder thriller that everyone was talking about.
Her purse was on a chair drawn up beneath the dining table, and as she passed it on her way to the front door, she slipped out her .380 automatic.
Get a grip, Vargas. You're not in L.A. County. It's probably just a Girl Scout selling cookies, someone out to save your soul, or the Avon lady.
Lord knows you could use a makeover.
Nearing the front door, she glanced out the picture window and spotted a Toyota Land Cruiser in the driveway. Black, newer model, parked parallel to the house. At this angle, she couldn't see the license plate.
The stained-glass window set in the front door gave her a mottled glimpse of a tall, dark-haired man hovering on the other side. His image was blurred by rippling red, yellow, and green glass. He was alone.
Kat took a deep breath, refusing to let the incident in Seal Beach infect her courage. She cracked the door open, kept the automatic out of sight. Her attention was immediately absorbed by the man standing on the opposite side of the threshold.
Khaki shorts, black polo shirt open at the throat. Over six feet, wide shoulders. His blue eyes stared directly into hers. His lashes were thick, his brow smooth, his jaw strong. His hair was just as black as hers, close-cropped.
She'd never laid eyes on him in her life, but he was smiling as if actually happy to see her.
He was mind-numbingly handsome. Definitely the kind of man she'd sworn off of a long, long time ago. Her mind was going blank.
She opened her mouth to ask what he wanted but all she managed was a very weak, embarrassing, "H-hi."
Great. He'd reduced her vocabulary to a fractured syllable.
"Hi." Impossible as it seemed, his smile intensified. "Are you Kat Vargas?"
She tried to focus, cleared her throat, and attempted not to stare. "Who wants to know?"
"I'm Ty Chandler. You're a private investigator."
"I mean, I'm looking for a private investigator."
"Oh, I get it." She relaxed and laughed. "Jake put you up to this."
She could imagine Jake and Carly playing Cupid. Especially after the "Don't you want somebody to love? You better find somebody to love" speech Jake gave her on the drive up.
The man shook his head. "No, actually. Selma Gibbs at the Plaza Diner suggested I look him up, then she remembered he was going out of town. She said another P.I. was house-sitting for him."
Kat knew Selma Gibbs. They'd met two nights ago when the Montgomerys took her to the diner where Carly used to work.
As she stared up at Ty Chandler, she figured the bad news was that he probably had a wife who was cheating on him, which meant either his wife was nuts, or that he was no prize in the husband department.
The usual rush hit her. It was the same when any prospective client called. She was curious to learn the details, but she could just hear Jake telling her to send the guy on his way, reminding her that she was supposed to be relaxing and sorting things out, deciding what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
"Sorry. I'm on vacation. You'll have to find somebody else. I'm sure there are some fine private investigators in San Luis Obispo." She kept her tone cool, firm, and waited for him to leave, but he didn't look discouraged. In fact, he didn't look deterred in the least.
"Selma had nothing but good things to say about Jake Montgomery," he said. "I hoped you'd be willing to help. Can I just come in and explain? It won't take long."
He was very charming. Certainly friendly enough. And he looked perfectly harmless. But then again, so had Ted Bundy.
He sighed. Frustration and disappointment were etched across his face, but he didn't budge. He obviously wasn't going to give up easily. She admired that in a person.
"Look, Ms. Vargas, I'm desperate. I've been searching for somebody on my own, but I keep running into dead ends." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his khakis and shrugged. "Just hear me out before you turn me down."
Surely Selma wouldn't have sent a total stranger to her door, let alone a serial murderer.
When she didn't answer, his gaze shifted out to the sea and then slowly back to meet her eyes. "If you can't take the case, is there anyone you'd recommend?"
Spending a few minutes listening to his story would give her something to do other than roam through the house wondering how to stay sane while being suffocated by peace and quiet.
What would it hurt to hear him out? Maybe give him some advice?
She opened the door a bit wider and with a wave of her hand indicated the two wooden rockers side by side on the expansive covered porch.
"You can have a seat out there."
His eyes widened when he caught a glimpse of her gun.
"Don't worry. I've never shot anyone who didn't deserve it." She set the handgun on the table by the phone and joined him outside. By the time she crossed the porch, he'd chosen one of the rockers. She leaned against the low porch wall.
Kat couldn't help but notice that his gaze swept the length of her bare legs before it slowly traveled up to meet her eyes.
"So, exactly who are you looking for, and why do you think you need to hire a P.I.?"
He stopped rocking, leaned forward, and rested his elbows on his knees. "You might as well sit down. This'll take a few minutes."CHAPTER 2
TY CHANDLER HAD expected someone ... well, someone larger and definitely sturdier. A female version of Columbo. Maybe Janet Reno. Certainly not this petite, exotic, and undeniably sensual young woman in a wafer-thin, white tank top and wrinkled plaid shorts. The top of her head barely came to his chin.
He waited as Kat Vargas gave him another slow once-over, maybe, finally, deciding he wasn't a serial killer, and slipped into the empty rocker beside him.
Her shoulder-length, jet-black hair glistened and moved every time she did. A slight smattering of golden freckles dusted the bridge of her button nose. But it was her eyes that arrested him most. They sparkled with an unspoken challenge, as if daring him not to even think about getting close.
He watched, unable to look away as she crossed her shapely legs and gingerly rested her bandaged hand in her lap. Selma Gibbs had explained that Kat was in town to house-sit and recoup from an injury, but if Selma knew any of the details, she hadn't shared them.
From the moment the lovely Ms. Vargas opened the door, her expression had remained guarded. There was an edge to her ready stance, a studied distance broken now and then by a glimpse of curiosity and a flash of warmth in her eyes.
His business had honed his people skills until he thought he could read most of them like a book, but Kat Vargas wasn't giving anything away. He wondered if she was naturally wary, or if her experience as a P.I. had made her that way.
She remained silent, patiently waiting for him to begin. Ty shifted, glanced out at the ocean, trying to decide where to start.
He hadn't driven up Lover's Lane since high school, and he'd forgotten the magnificent view that stretched on and on from up here. Between the shore and the horizon, the deep blue-green ocean was dappled with frothy whitecaps. He caught himself wondering if the albacore were running.
He wasn't exactly sure where to begin or how much Kat Vargas really needed to know before he could convince her to help. He started at the beginning.
"Until a few months ago, I lived in Alaska. I moved up there right after high school and stayed for nineteen years. Eventually I established my own fishing and hunting camp and grew the business. Three months ago, my mom, who still lived here in Twilight, called and told me she was dying."
He felt the pain of that phone call again, the shock of the cold reality in his mom's voice. Barbara Chandler, assertive, a born leader who was always larger than life, was mortal after all.
"The prognosis was six weeks. She only lasted three, which in many ways was a blessing." He looked out at the ocean again. "Once Mom learned her illness was terminal, she refused more treatment and began to put her affairs in order."
It was just like Barbara Chandler to want to be in control right up to the end. She directed while he sorted her personal belongings into boxes and told him to deliver them to close friends, thrift shops, and the local women's shelters.
She even had a real estate agent waiting in the wings to sell the house. She'd taken charge of everything, not because she wanted to spare him, but more than likely because she didn't trust him to do it the way she wanted it done.
Though Kat Vargas sat patiently, listening intently, he could see that she hadn't relaxed. She struck him as someone who, like him, didn't ordinarily like to sit still, let alone wait around for anything or anyone.
"What about your dad?" she asked.
"He died when I was fifteen." There was nothing more he wanted to tell her about his dad. Thom Chandler had checked out of their lives a long time before he died.
"Both my parents are still living — in Hawaii." She spoke softly, almost as if thinking out loud.
Hawaii. That explained her striking, exotic look. Her golden-brown skin, the slight almond shape of her eyes.
"You're lucky, then, to have them both." He saw a flash of unspoken questions in her eyes — questions of someone who has never lost a parent.
How did you get through it?
What will I do when it happens?
What will life be without them?
But her concern had barely blossomed before he watched her hide it. Besides, he hadn't come to philosophize. He'd come seeking help.
"My mom was very driven. Always in control. She'd been active around Twilight Cove all her life. President of the P.T.A., head of the Booster Club when I was in high school. She served on the boards for town beautification and the Twilight Historical Society for years."
There had been standing room only at her memorial. She had lots of friends and associates, but she had never really communicated with him very well. She was better at giving orders than listening. Better at running organizations than holding a family together.
"One day, weak as she was, she insisted on going to the park to sit in the sun. She wanted to watch people doing ordinary, everyday things — all the things she'd never be able to do again. She wanted to watch the kids playing in the park."
He'd bundled her up and taken her to Plaza Park on the bluff above Twilight Cove. The sun was shining, the air crystal clear after three days of rain. He'd never forget that day.
He bought ice-cream cones neither of them finished.
With a gesture unlike her, she took his hand and told him the secret she'd kept from him for nineteen years. It wasn't the kind of last-breath, deathbed revelation of feature films — nothing as dramatic as that. Just a few words softly spoken on a sunny afternoon. Words that altered his life forever. Words that left his world totally shaken.
"You're a father, you know." Her voice was rough and dry. She'd worn a jewel- toned caftan, her baldness concealed beneath a garish, orange knit turban. Gulls screamed as they soared and dove overhead.
"You're a father, you know."
"What did you say, Mom?" He had wondered if the medication was affecting her mind.
"You have a child out in the world somewhere. Amy's child. And yours."
Kat Vargas had grown very still. Ty focused on the present, on the attractive young woman beside him.
"My mom confessed that my high school sweetheart had been pregnant with my child when we broke up. Her name was Amy Simmons. She was from the other side of town, and she ran with a fast crowd, while I hung with the jocks. We dated our junior and senior years, but my mom never liked her."
They'd lost their virginity to each other in the back of his Volkswagen van the night of the homecoming game. Back then, he thought they'd be together forever.
Excerpted from Heat Wave by Jill Marie Landis. Copyright © 2006 Jill Marie Landis. Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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