Authors: Beth Ciotta
Milo shut the door with a quiet click and moved into the cabin behind Gina. Two steps in and he'd navigated half of the room. It wasn't the square footage that surprised him as much as the monochrome decor. The carpet. The bedspreads. The cushion of the lone chair. Pink. The flower arrangement. The nightstand jimmied in between the twin beds. Pink.
Gina flipped her long brown ponytail over her shoulder, clipping Milo in the chin. He was standing
close. Back to him, she snorted her disgust. “Couldn't The Kid book anything lessâ¦”
he expected her to say.
He smiled at that. He should've known. Although the five-foot-eight beauty was all woman, there wasn't a delicate bone in her amazing body. Trained in self-defense and skilled in the art of love, she could seduce and throat-punch a man with equal proficiency. He liked that she could take care of herself. Unlike his ex-wife, Gina didn't need a man to complete her. She didn't hold men up to fairy-tale expectations. She understood Milo's obsession with con artists, a like obsession that had driven her off the force. Gina Valente looked at the world with eyes wide open instead of through rose-tinted glasses. Next time he mated for life, he wanted a lioness, not a lamb.
Gina was a lioness.
She gestured to the beds. “Which one do you want?”
“Take your pick.” Both promised to cramp his six-foot-two frame. Hands on hips, he surveyed the accommodations, noted the limited storage space, the lack of windows. The thirteen-inch television had been shelved in a decorative corner box and suspended from the ceiling. Basic amenities. Given the last-minute booking, cabin selections were slim. Since suites and rooms-with-a-view were completely sold out, they'd had to settle on this interior stateroom.
Gina tossed her handbag on the bed nearest the postage-stamp-size bathroom. “What do you want to bet Ace has a suite?”
“Sucker bet.” Arch always traveled in style and rarely at his own expense.
Gina sank down on the bed, crossed those mile-long legs. “You snore?”
Although they'd worked together before, they'd never shared a room. “No. You?”
“No. But I sometimes talk in my sleep.”
To his knowledge, she'd slept with the enemy on at least two occasions in the line of duty. “Sounds dangerous.”
She smiled coyly as if reading his mind. “In those instances, I usually don't sleep.”
He waited for the boner that never came. Annoyed, he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts, rocked back on his rubber heels. “Thanks for doing this, Gina.”
“Please. Like this is work. Well, technically it is, but it's a lot better than enduring subzero temperatures to bust a Ponzi scheme up in Juno.”
Last month's reverse sting. Milo didn't argue. February in Alaska was brutal.
Her keen brown gaze shifted around the room. “The cabin's nauseating, but the ship's a dream. A hop to the Caribbean? I plan on having fun, Jazzman. You could do with some yourself.” She looked him in the eye, blasted him with a sultry smile. “Fun, that is.”
He recognized flirting. What he couldn't determine was her sincerity. He refrained from comment as she slipped into the bathroom and shut the door. Even if she was interested in a casual slam, it wouldn't happen. Unlike Arch, he didn't mix business with pleasure. Also, although he considered Gina hot, she didn't light his fuse.
Not like the little firecracker he'd spotted down in the Atrium. The first woman to raise his flag in months and he was undercover. He'd looked away almost as soon as he'd noticed her. Who needed the torture? His divorce had been final a year ago. He was a free man. No ties. No obligations. Yet his sex life was freaking pathetic.
Meanwhile, he'd yet to corner his partner. He wanted answers, and they'd better be good. Although this was Arch, so of course he'd plead a convincing defense. Milo would need thigh-high boots to wade through the bullshit. Nothing new. The twist that threw Milo was Arch taking on a case Chameleon had determined dead in the water. This was uncharted territory.
Two weeks ago, HQ had alerted Milo to a beef filed by a Ms. Celia Benson, the granddaughter of Herman Stokes, a senior who'd claimed he'd been bilked in an investment scam. He'd died a month later, but not before filing complaints with a local bunco squad. Unfortunately, the police investigation tanked. Meanwhile, the crook who'd bilked him in the first place sent henchmen to dissuade him from making further complaints. They ended up scaring him to death. Or so Ms. Benson claimed. After a preliminary investigation, Chameleon had rejected the case. No proof. The complaint was based on hearsay and complicated by territorial laws. Bottom line, this scam was out of their jurisdiction. What the hell had possessed Arch to act?
With an unsanctioned player, no less.
The bathroom door opened and Gina reentered, freshly primped.
“I need to locate Arch's cabin.”
She smoothed her hands over her sundress. “I'll corner a steward.” She slinked toward the door. “How
can it be?”
Definite flirting. Shit.
: Fiesta Fandangos are toxic. A mild, fruity drink, the menu had said, with rum the only alcoholic ingredient. One word:
Okay, that's two words, but those suckers are powerful. Pardon my muddled brain. I'd sipped the Fandango at the Atrium bar. It was the second drink, the one Arch had bought me poolside, that went down like water. I refused to let on that I was light-headed. My pride was at stake. No way, no how would I have Arch assuming I was a wimpâ¦or a lush.
I'm a gifted actress. I can do sober. So act I did when, an hour later, a cabin steward showed us to our room. Hanging on Arch to keep my balance wasn't a problem. I was only following directions, conscientious worker that I am. Michael would be so proud.
Yesterday's cynicism welled up, but I pushed it down again. Besides, I was Sugar, not me. And Arch was Charles, an eccentric, potbellied, nearsighted author who'd sipped scotch and conversed sparingly with the bartender while I'd boogied with three energetic senior ladies at the poolside welcoming party. Calypso music and Gavin's promise of a prize for the best mambo dancers had lured us away from our drinks. Since our menfolk didn't want to participate, we'd latched on to each other. I'd partnered with Martha, the same woman I'd seen wearing the balloon hat, who had no sense of rhythm. We didn't win, but we had fun.
Arch had watched the festivities with a crooked smile.
“I need you to be the life of the party, yeah? A social butterfly.”
I guess he was pleased with my efforts. All I could think was, this was just the first day in a week full of contests and activities. My feet hurt. My back hurt. The thought,
I'm too old for this,
crossed my mind and I shuddered.
since we'd left the hotel this morning. I'd performed five hours straight. I was burned. I ask youâhow am I supposed to maintain a vibrant, over-the-top personality for several days, hours at a time? As a lounge singer I'm used to forty minutes on, twenty off. Sure, I've worked harder. High-roller parties and high-stakes slot tournaments are murder. When booked as a dancer or an actress, I've gone as long as two hours without a break.
was a challenge. Challenge is good for the soulâthe soul of body, not the feet. As soon as the steward vamoosed and the cabin door shut, I flopped facedown on the bed and groaned. “Whoever invented high heels should be shot. And as soon as I can figure out how to get even,
are dead meat.”
“Look forward to your efforts, Sunshine.”
I sat up to make a wisecrack and instead said, “Zowie.” The cabin was nothing like I'd imagined. I'd expected confined. Instead, I got spacious. A queen-size bed. Two, no,
rooms. Plus a balcony! TV-VCR, minibar, a love seat and cushy chairs. The entire setup was decorated in muted gold and shades of beige. Classy. I unbuckled the ankle straps, toed off the pain-in-the-foot stilettos and mentally happy-danced around the suite. That's right,
“I, um, wow. This is nice.”
“Charles is accustomed to comfort.”
“I'm a lot like Charles.”
“Filthy rich? Reclusive?”
He smiled then studied his reflection in a vanity mirror, re-knotted his ascot. “I need to go
You settle in. Relax. I'll be back before we set sail, yeah?”
Hard to believe we hadn't even left the dock and I'd already put in a week's work. Ugh. Maybe he was right. Maybe I should rest. Recharge. “Yeah. I mean, okay.” I massaged the ball of my foot. “Where are you going?” It wasn't my business, but curiosity preempted good manners.
Out. Right. I frowned as the door hit him in his admirable ass. In his absence followed silence, and a flutter of anxiety. That desertion thing, I guess.
I twirled my chrysoprase ring, willing tranquility. None came.
Get a grip, Parish
. So I was alone. I could do alone. I'd been alone for months. More than a year, in fact.
Even though I was fuzzy headed, I didn't feel like napping. I'd unpack, but our luggage had yet to arrive. I assured myself Big Red had not been mistakenly delivered to a stranger's room, Big Red was in transit.
I stood and paced. I needed to walk off the Fandango and work out the charley horse cramping my left foot. I could also use a breath mint. I limped to the marble table where I'd ditched my Lucy tote, rooted for my Breath Savers. My cell phone chirped, announcing a new message. I popped a mint in my mouth, plucked the cell from the tote's side pocket. As I connected to voice mail it occurred to me that I'd never listened to Jayne's messages. According to Nicole, she'd left five. Was this the sixth?
Or maybe it was Michael.
The first four were Jayne in frantic
mode. The fifth was Jayne again, only the morning after she knew I'd arrived safely in Florida. After a brief scolding, she turned upbeat.
“I just got a call from my agent and guess who got the spokesperson gig? Uh-huh. Britney. What was she, like, twelve? Whatever. So listen, Evie. I had a mass e-mail from Zippo-the-Clown. Fannie's Flowers is looking for outgoing delivery people who can sing and dance. I know, I know. But it's better than flipping burgers or typing status reports. Think of it as temporary, you know, until something legit comes along. At least you'd still be performing. Think about it, and be sure to e-mail me when you get settled on the ship. Love ya. Bye.”
My knees buckled. Thank goodness a chair was directly beneath my butt. Singing telegrams? That was only a notch above the gorilla gig!
I deleted Jayne's absurdly chipper voice and moved on to message number six.
“Evelyn. It's Mom.”
“I feel your pain. Now I know what it feels like to be betrayed,” she said with a sniff. “Don't bother calling home hoping to speak to Daddy. He doesn't live here anymore.”
End of message.
Panic buzzed in my ears. I signed off, stared at the phone. Dad cheated on Mom? I couldn't imagine. Nor could I imagine him bailing on a forty-three-year marriage. She must've kicked him out.
I could imagine.
I punched speed dial.
A horn blasted.
“Jesus!” I nearly jumped out of my skin, nearly dropped the phone. I pressed it back to my ear, heard a ring andâ¦another blast. More rings. Another blast. That made threeâblasts, not rings.
Mom wasn't answering and I was running out of time. Blast four. Five. Six. Seven. Then a long blast that had me chucking the phone and Mom's crisis. That's assuming the crisis was legit. Probably they'd just had a humdinger fight. Yeah, that was it. Call me the Queen of Denial.
Heart pounding, I zipped around the cabin looking for the life preserver. Our cabin steward had reiterated there'd be a lifeboat drill before we sailed. Mandatory, he'd repeated. Well, duh! As if I didn't want to know what to do, if we sank like the
. Celine Dion trilled in my ear. “Shut.
I scrambled for the life jacket which wasâ¦there! Suspended on a hook in the closet. Got it. Where was Arch? I inspected the bulky, freakishly orange jacket, thinking it looked somewhat like a toilet seat with a box attached. Did the fat black straps latch around your shoulders or waist? I'd drown before figuring out how this thing worked. I'd ask Arch to help me except he wasn't here! Meanwhile, his life jacket hung in the closet. I grabbed it, too. Maybe I'd run into him in the hall.
I buckled on my stilettos, seeing as I had no other available shoes, and rushed across the roomâ
âto read the sign on the back of the door. At least the toxic Fandangos hadn't obliterated my memory.
“Look for the location of your muster station on the back of your door,”
the steward had said. Squinting at the fine print, I located my assigned meeting place and, with a life jacket looped over each arm, dashed out into the hall.
The door slammed behind me. Celine crooned in my earâ¦“My heart will go on and onâ¦” What a painâmy stilettos, not Celine.
I hobbled to the elevator, punched the button and waited, obsessing on the boat going down and my parents breaking up. Several other passengers streamed past me and into a stairwell.
“Not supposed to use the elevator, miss,” one kindly old man reminded me as he pulled a toilet seat flotation device over his graying head.
Right. I limped after the gang then remembered I'd left my purse in the room. What if someone stole it? Not that I suspected anyone on the housekeeping staff would stoop so low, but I've seen those scenarios in movies.
of the passengers would be at a
lifeboat drill. A crafty, dishonest person could easily scarf up a few valuable items.
My ID was in the purse. My
ID. What if my forgetfulness somehow compromised Arch'sâ¦well, whatever it was he was doing for the greater good? I hurried back to my cabin only to realize I'd left something else inside.
The key. The Fiesta Card. The thing I was supposed to have with me at all times!
Screw it. Fear of not knowing what to do in case of an emergency overrode fear of exposing Arch and propelled me toward the stairwell. The Fandangos and stilettos compromised my judgment and speed. Jayne's and Mom's messages buzzed in my ears, heightening my anxiety as I navigated the stairs, two unwieldy life preservers slung over my arms.
I could feel my jaw tightening, and as I breached the last step and burst through a door, my heel caught on something. I opened my mouth to scream,
but my jaw locked.
“Wah ow!” was all I managed as I sailed forward and tackled Tex Aloha.