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Authors: Susan May Warren

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BOOK: Double Trouble
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Maybe she was still asleep, trapped in some sort of a nightmare.

“PJ! It’s Boone. Are you okay?”

She wrestled herself out of her covers and finally hit the floor, steadying her balance on the wooden headboard. She leaned against the door, her voice betraying her. “I’m sleeping! Whatya want?”

“Open up; I have to give you something. Hurry
 
—I have a ride waiting outside.”

She put a hand to her head, and her fingers tangled in the web of snarled hair. “I, uh, don’t think so.”

Silence. She heard jangling, then something hitting the floor. As her gaze traveled down to her painted toes, she saw the glint of a car key as it emerged from under her door. Boone’s fingers pushed it the rest of the way through.

PJ stared at it before picking it up. “What’s this?”

“It’s to the Mustang. I figured you could use a
 
—”

She flung open the door.

Apparently her decision to keep the door shut had been a prudent one because he looked at her, eyebrows raised, his lips tight and holding back a smile. “What happened to you?”

“I never said I was pretty in the morning.”

“You’re always pretty.” He reached out for her hair
 
—his favorite aren’t-you-cute gesture
 
—but she stepped to one side and held up the key.

“The Mustang?” She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Or throw herself into his arms. “But this is your baby.”

He lifted a shoulder, something sweet in his eyes. “It’s probably just as much your car as mine, for as much time as we spent in it.”

He didn’t have to list those times, those moments when she’d sat beside him, her feet propped on the dash, sunglasses over her eyes as she tasted the freedom skimming off the open road. Or the other moments
 
—the ones when she cuddled up next to him in the dark, watching the moon tickle the water of Lake Minnetonka on some secluded beach.

“But you love this car.”

“Yes, I do.”

She let her throat tighten and slipped into his arms, pressing her cheek against his chest. He pulled her against him, touched his chin to her hair. “Just promise me, nothing fancy, Peej. I don’t want to see you on the ten o’clock news chasing down some adulterer in downtown Minneapolis.”

She slapped his arm and stepped back. “Don’t you have bad guys to find?”

“I don’t know why I need to work to find trouble
 
—all I have to do is follow you around.” But he winked as he headed for the stairs. “Tonight, dinner?”

She didn’t have a prayer of turning him down. Wasn’t even sure she wanted to.

Not for dinner, and not, perhaps, his proposal.

A shower slicked away the cling-ons of sleep, and by the time she’d changed into a sleeveless shirt, a pair of cargo capris, and flip-flops, she felt reborn. She put Boone’s key on her key ring
 
—the one with Scooby and the gang
 
—and found Boris in the backyard next to his unplanted potato field, sorting through wrinkled, soft red potatoes. Most had sprouted little green arms and legs like gremlins.

She refrained from mentioning that Connie could probably afford to purchase a couple hundred bushels for the amount of work Boris would put into planting, cultivating, and harvesting his crop.

In the sun next to the goat, Vera lay in a lounger. She lifted her face to the sun, unfazed by the perils of skin cancer.

PJ crouched next to Boris, swinging her keys. He looked up at her and grinned, his teeth shiny in the sun.

“Rabota?”
she asked, having memorized the word for “work” back when she washed dishes for a Russian-language summer camp.

Boris nodded vigorously, motioning to the potatoes.

“No,
nyet
.” PJ shook her head. “You
 
—” she pointed to him, then out at the great beyond
 

“rabota.”

Boris sat back, studying her for a moment. His wide hands, crusted with dirt, were splayed on his knees, and his chest, still broad and tight for a man in his fifties, rose and fell for a long,
silent string of heartbeats. She saw in him, at that moment, the man he’d been back in the home country, serious, even dangerous, able to bring down villains worthy of the Cold War era.

The type of crime solver she wanted to be.

She found a smile for him. What must it be like to have invested in a lifetime of crime fighting, only to discover that in another country, you were only qualified to plant potatoes? or flip burgers?

She could find him something better than that.

“C’mon,” PJ said. “Let’s find some
rabota
.”

* * *

She should have climbed back under the covers.

Four hours later, as the sun hit high stride over the earth, PJ touched her head to Boone’s black steering wheel, wishing the heat might sear from her brain this propensity to make promises she couldn’t keep.

It didn’t help that her job applicant wore a wide-collared, seventies-style silk shirt, a pair of wool pants, no socks with his loafers, and the crowning touch
 
—an oily green tie about as wide as her hand. He said hello like he was clearing his throat, and more than one prospective employer had cringed under his potato-planting grip.

She’d tried Sunsets Supper Club
 
—after all, the owner, Joe, had offered her a job not so long ago, an offer that apparently he still kept on the table
 
—then the local grocery store, meeting an old schoolmate who gave Boris long consideration before realizing he couldn’t read enough English to understand how
to stock the shelves. They swung by the UPS delivery place, but they needed drivers, not loaders, and Boris wouldn’t even enter the fish processing plant. They finally ended up sitting in the convertible at Kellogg beach, watching children play in the sand. She was out of ideas but afraid to return home.

“Want a hot dog?” She spied a vendor with his cart pulled up in the sand. Next to her, Boris had taken off his shoes, rolled up his pant legs, and leaned back in the seat. He especially loved riding with the top down, practically letting his tongue hang out, grinning at her wildly.

She couldn’t help but grin back.

Driving Boone’s Mustang around town did ease the pain somewhat. And made her wonder exactly why he’d loaned her his prized possession.

Okay, so maybe she didn’t have to wonder at all.

She got out, flip-flopped through the sand to the vendor, and scored them two hot dogs with Jeremy’s twenty. Loading them up, she returned and handed one to Boris, who ate it with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old.

She turned and watched the sun sparkle like diamond chips on the water. Motorboats cut through the waves, skiers speeding in their wakes. One did a flip in the air. Once upon a time, she’d been a decent water-skier, doing most of her tricks for Boone, who watched her over his shoulder as he steered.

Always looking out for her, even then. Why hadn’t she seen it earlier? It had probably been lost in the muddle near the end of their relationship, when she’d left town under a smoky cloud of suspicion at his guilty hand. But now, free and clear of the past, she could look at it with some objectivity.

Maybe Boone was right. Maybe they’d always belonged
together: Boone and PJ, facing the wind, side by side in his Mustang. Maybe, in fact, she’d returned home because she’d always known that too.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

The voice startled her, but it wasn’t Boone who sauntered up to her. Jeremy had shaved since she last saw him, and he hid any vestiges of fatigue under a pair of dark sunglasses. Now he glanced at Boris, then at the car. “I didn’t realize you already had wheels.”

“It’s a loaner.” PJ looked behind her and spotted his motorcycle parked in the lot, the helmet on the seat.

“I’ll bet.” Jeremy nodded a greeting to Boris, who had sat up and now gave him a long, solemn look. She would have liked to know what this former cop saw when he looked at Jeremy. Motorcycle, baseball cap on backward . . . a street hood? Perhaps only PJ recognized Jeremy as a man who had once served his country, a man who had deep, maybe even dangerous, secrets in his dark eyes. “I’d like to know what strings came attached.”

“None. Boone’s just helping me out.”

Jeremy said nothing but after a bit gave a small nod. “Well, then maybe this will help too.” He pulled a small white card out of his pocket and handed it over to her.

She took it, read
Rusty’s Real Deals
, and looked at Jeremy. “The place over on Highway 12? Used to be the VW dealership?”

“Yep. Rusty’ll fix you up.”

PJ stared at him. “Fix me up . . . how?”

Jeremy sighed, looked beyond her. “Listen, Prin
 
—PJ. I’m sorry about your car.”

PJ flicked the card between her finger and thumb. Well, well, Mr. Jeremy Kane apologizing? Even after he’d used her for bait to catch an assassin, he hadn’t apologized.

“There’s three grand on deposit there. I know it won’t replace your Bug, but it’s all I had in savings at the moment. See if you can land some wheels.” He glanced at the Mustang. “Today.”

“Jeremy, I can’t take your
 
—”

“It’s the least I can do, PJ. Take it.”

“Listen, Boone said I could have his car for as long as
 
—”

“I’ll see you in the office tomorrow morning. Early. We have a new case.” He patted her shoulder like she might be a teammate. “And it can’t be investigated with . . . that.” He lifted his chin toward the Mustang, then turned and walked back to his bike.

She watched him kick it off the stand. He didn’t look at her as he drove away. But as she turned around, she saw him glance back and she couldn’t help but smile.

CHAPTER
FOUR

PJ remembered the old Volkswagen dealership on Highway 12 as the place of dreams. She’d drive by, eyes glued to the shiny new models perched on the high platform, wondering not only how the cars got up there but what it took to own wheels that packed so much joy in such a small package.

She’d scored her first Bug the summer after she’d turned sixteen, after three months of saving. It was orange and had a rip in the high black driver’s seat, but she’d patched up the vinyl with glue, learned how to wrangle the clutch like a NASCAR driver, and tasted freedom for the first time. How many times she had pointed her car west before she finally made the trek to South Dakota and beyond, she couldn’t count. But when she finally left, she took her love of Bugs with her, trading up as she went.

PJ drove toward the dealership, almost smelling the new-car fragrance. Or, okay, the
artificial
new-car fragrance.

Last time she’d seen the VW place, flags fluttered along the lot, the sun winking off Golfs and Jettas, a shiny round VW sign rising in blue and white like a beacon. Now the sign had been replaced by one heralding Rusty’s Real Deals and looked down on a collection of both the highbrow trade-ins and what seemed every rejected, forlorn car in Hennepin County. PJ pulled the Mustang into the lot, passing high-ticket SUVs on one side and a collection of Ford Fiestas and Kias on the other, and parked next to a white-sided sales building. Beyond the rows of cars, on the other side of the lot, from a long, low building containing two open garage doors emanated the sounds and smells of a machine shop.

She dearly hoped that Rusty whoever-he-was didn’t jump to the hope that she would be trading in the Mustang. If Boone knew she’d taken his baby to a greasy, throwaway car lot, he’d spend the weekend with disinfectant, singing to it in soothing tones.

She heard a “halloow!” as she climbed out of the Mustang. Boris had also exited and began wandering through the lot, looking in car windows, kicking tires. She turned and found a salesman huffing around her car, his thinning hair blowing atop a round face and tiny dark eyes. He stuck out a doughy hand toward her. “Rusty Mulligan, manager.”

“Hey, Rusty, I’m PJ. My boss, Jeremy Kane, said he’d left some money on account with you.”

He smiled at her, not unlike the grin of a rat, toothy and broad. “I got it. If you need any help, give Casey back in the shop a shout.” He nodded toward the black hole of the garage. “I’m headed out for a bit.”

PJ edged her way around the menu of cars, leaving Boris to
wander until she stood at the lip of the shop. The redolence of oil and grease seeped from the shop, and the whine of an air compressor pierced the afternoon. She waited until it snuffed out, then hollered, “Is there a guy named Casey here?”

He appeared from behind an SUV on a lift, a man in oil-soaked coveralls open to the waist, a grimy white T-shirt nearly black where it pocketed his beer belly, and a gimme cap positioned backward on his head. A smudge of grease war-painted his face not unlike the black paint of a football player. In fact, it seemed familiar as he wound up the air hose, hung it on the rack, and ambled toward her. He squinted at her and then spit a wad of chaw off to the side as he came nearer. “Can I help you?”

PJ just stared at him, at the dark stubble under the oil smudges on his face, the smile that curved up one side of his face, as if trying to make up his mind, the look of playful curiosity in his eyes . . .

“Casey . . .
Whitlow
?” She tried to keep her mouth from swinging open. Casey Whitlow, who was a year older than her and had played halfback, rushing for a state record her junior year of high school? Casey Whitlow, who’d had a full head of tousled brown hair back then, the same athlete who’d had a lineup of girls waiting to be his head cheerleader?

Casey Whitlow, who’d asked her to junior prom during her sophomore year?

She’d always found him a decent guy, even if she’d turned him down.

She held out her hand. “Uh, hi, Casey.” She drew off her sunglasses and offered a smile.

He blinked at her a moment, letting his gaze travel over her,
and something lit in his eyes. “PJ Sugar.” Her name curled off his lips like it had taken the form of ribbon candy. “Back from the dead.”

“I was never dead.”

“You were gone ten years. No one heard from you.”

That wasn’t entirely true. She’d kept in touch with her mother. And Connie. But her absence had been long enough to merit rumors of her demise. “Well, I’m back now and looking for a car.”

He cast a glance at the Mustang parked near the hut like a beacon of hope. “Is that
 
—?”

“Yes, it’s Boone’s, and no, I’m not trading it in. My car got totaled this morning, and my employer, Kane Investigations, left a deposit here for me to use. Your boss told me to ask you about a car.”

Comprehension came over his face, a sort of boys’-locker-room look. “I see.”

Clearly Casey still had a one-track mind. Too much time spent with cheerleaders. She skipped over a rebuttal. “Three grand, I believe he said.”

“Well, help yourself, PJ.” His gaze lingered on her as she moved away, and he scuffled out behind her. She heard another spit and splatter.

PJ began wandering through the lot. A few pickups
 
—newer models that had higher price tags. A collection of SUVs, a few hybrids, and an occasional sports car. Nothing, however, in her price range. And especially, no VWs.

“Hunt around in the back of the lot,” Casey suggested, now examining her
 
—er, Boone’s
 
—Mustang.

She followed his gesture and spotted Boris examining a
collection of older model cars. Boris looked up and motioned her toward him.

She let out a low groan. A Crown Victoria. Of course Boris would like it: it matched all the vehicles he saw on late-night television. Coal black and shined up like onyx, it resembled something out of an old FBI show or maybe
Law & Order
. Better yet, whoever had owned it before Rusty’s Real Deals had tricked it out with a couple of dubs on the back wheels that set it up higher and would earn her props should she suddenly decide to cruise the strip.

Oh, Boone would have too much fun if she took home this car. Jeremy, too, probably.

Boris had already looked under the car for damage
 
—or perhaps leaking oil
 
—evidenced by the smear of dirt down one of his shoulders. He thumped the trunk with his open palm as PJ walked up.
“Prekrasnya.”

“Yeah, real pretty, Boris.” She peered in the passenger window at the burgundy velour interior. It looked roomy enough to fit a small bathroom, maybe Boris’s field of potatoes.

Or perhaps her bed, along with all her earthly belongings.

Hey . . . maybe . . .

No, she wasn’t that desperate.

Boris turned to the door, and with some horror, PJ realized he was trying to unlock it.

“Hey!” Casey spit again as he neared them. “What do you think
 
—?”

Boris suddenly opened the door and slid behind the wheel, oohing as he bounced on the plush seat.

Casey skidded to a stop, checked the door, then looked at Boris.

The Russian held up a piece of wire with a neat J on the end and grinned, his gold teeth blinding.

PJ admitted to a moment of admiration for Boris. She’d have to get him to teach her his tricks.

“You don’t just go breaking into cars,” Casey said, an unfamiliar panic in his voice, but Boris seemingly ignored him, running his hands over the shiny black dash.

“What’s his problem? Is he deaf?”

“No, he’s Russian. Doesn’t speak much English, so don’t bother insulting him. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” At least that was what she told herself every time Boris started hurling scary words at her in a rather nasty tone.

Then again, he could possibly just be calling her to dinner.

Opening the passenger door, she slid in beside Boris, who was trying out the seat, sliding it back and forth.

Casey leaned down, talking over Boris in the driver’s seat. “This is a P71
 
—probably used by the Kellogg Police Department. This baby has rear-wheel drive, a V-8 engine, and it’ll take a beating. Plus, if you’ll note, she’s been kicked up a notch
 
—a couple of mag wheels on the back.”

Yeah, that was a real selling point.

She leaned back, stretched out her legs, and let the seat embrace her. Felt the power. Imagined driving this yacht down the streets of Kellogg.

And a Crown Vic would be a thousand times more comfortable during a stakeout, wouldn’t it? She glanced over the seat. Yep, plenty of room in the backseat to camp out. She might even keep a sleeping bag in there.

PJ peered at Casey. “How much?”

Casey smiled, and she recognized it as the one he’d worn for
his adoring fans when he emerged from the locker room after the game. “Well . . .” He gave her a smile. Spit again. The dark chaw landed on the wheel of a tired Camry. “A 1996 Crown Vic
 
—it’s a great deal. Blue book is $4,000 . . . but I’ll give it to you for the 3K that your . . . um, friend gave you
 
—”

“He’s my boss.”

He winked at her. “Right.”

“I don’t know. Boris, what do you think?”

He turned at his name, grinned, nodding.
“Da, da.”

“Who is this guy, anyway?” Casey shot her a frown, lowering his voice.

PJ laid a hand on Boris’s thick shoulder. “My sister’s father-in-law. Used to be a cop, by the way.”

Casey considered him, his eyes running over him slowly. “Really. Can he break kneecaps?”

PJ gave him a look. “Funny.” She shook her head. “Whatever he can do, he’s not a cop here. He can’t even get a job at Walmart.”

“He’s looking for a job?”

Technically,
she
was the one looking for a job. Boris, apparently, was just along for the ride. She shrugged her answer.

“I might have a job for him,” Casey said.

“What’s it going to cost me?”

Casey hung an arm over the door. Grinned. “Well . . .”

“Boone and I are dating, Case.”

“Of course you are. Listen, does this guy have a driver’s license?”

“It’s an international license. So, yes, in a way
 
—”

“Good. Rusty’s lookin’ for a guy with his skills. Tell him to be here tomorrow, 6 p.m.”

Really? She studied Casey for guile on his face. “What will he be doing?”

Casey lifted a shoulder and looked off toward the garage. “Moving cars in the lot, maybe some repo work. It’s sorta like . . . security.”

A security agent
 
—now why hadn’t she thought of that?

Or maybe she had . . . unconsciously.

Maybe everything she did didn’t have to turn into a mess with sirens and blood.

She eased herself out of the car and slammed the door, peering over the top at Casey. “I’ll take it.”

All she needed now were some fuzzy dice.

Boris got to employ his international license as he followed PJ home in the Crown Vic; she wasn’t so brave
 
—or stupid
 
—as to let him drive the Mustang. She couldn’t wait, however, to see Boone’s face when he checked out her new ride.

And how she longed to take it out on that straight stretch on Steven’s Point and see if the Vic really did have its infamous muscle.

She left the Mustang out on the street, and Boris eased in behind her, grinning widely. Employed. Empowered.

See, that’s how it was done.

She entered the house, lured into the kitchen by the smells of home cooking
 
—something frying in onions on the stove and a loaf of bread cooling on the counter. Vera had squeezed herself into tight capris and a low-cut blouse
 
—PJ would have to wean her off soap operas
 
—and was humming as she stirred what looked like, from this side of the room, leeches in pot.

Thankfully PJ would be eating out tonight. With Boone.

Who probably wanted an answer to his proposal. Maybe
sautéed leeches weren’t so . . . No, she had to give the man an answer.

Didn’t she?

At the very least she had to return his car, give him an explanation about the Vic. That would be fun.

After pouring herself a lemonade, she stepped out onto the back porch. The sun was still high enough to cast spindly shadows from the poplar and oak in the corner of the yard. The wind toyed with one of the swings, rustling the fronds of a begonia safely potted on the deck. In the wasteland of Connie’s garden, the goat munched a pile of uprooted peonies.

When had she turned so . . . cautious? She’d spent years following her whims, letting them lead her like a puppy after a bone across the country and finally back home, into Boone’s arms. So why wouldn’t she want to marry Boone? They’d spent their high school years tearing up the streets and beaches of Kellogg, losing themselves in each other’s arms, the laughter of a first love. She knew Boone better than anyone.

And Boone knew her. Knew her past and her fears, knew her scars
 
—even the ones unseen
 
—knew how to make her laugh.

And how to make her cry.

She loved Boone
 
—had probably always loved him, even before they dated. At least since the seventh grade, when he’d climbed onto her bus, slouched in the seat behind her, and quietly mumbled something about going to the winter snow ball. She’d turned him down then. But not again when, three years later, he’d asked her to homecoming.

She wasn’t sure she could turn him down now. Nor if she should. If she were honest with herself, hadn’t she come back to Kellogg for this very reason? Boone?

She held the glass of lemonade to her forehead, letting the sweaty surface chill her.

The phone rang, and she leaped for it before Vera could pick it up. Although, last time the telemarketer on the other end actually hung up on her after hearing the barked Russian.

“PJ?” Boone, and his voice sounded wire tight.

“Hey.”

“I’m sorry
 
—I have to call off our dinner tonight. Something came up. How about tomorrow?”

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