Dashing heroes set out to protect the women of their dreams as they travel by boat over the Caribbean and the Bahamas, even to a clear lake in Muskoka, where romance–and deception–will take them all into Dangerous Waters.
Bret’s well-ordered life is already off the rails when a lovely but bloody ghost confronts him on a dark, deserted road. Recovering from a recent injury that nearly killed him, he’s convinced his nerves must be in worse shape than he believed if he’s starting to see ghosts.
When Bret steps into the piano lounge, he sees a beauty on the stage, weaving a spell for her audience. Milly’s performance doesn’t suffer, but she’s intensely aware of the stranger’s unwavering gaze on her from the audience.
Bret is convinced Milly is the ghostly, bloody woman he saw on the road. But how can she be?
ISBN: 978-1-925191-46-2 ASIN: B07C82X5HT Word Count: 74, 454
As his headlights sliced through the thick, dark night, Bret rammed the volume control higher. The driving beat of Shania Twain’s defiant taunt rattled the windows of his pickup. The stimulus of loud music pounding on him was what he needed. Tonight’s hospital visit with his father had left him totally drained. Will was not taking the prospect of a lengthy recuperation well.
Forget about that! Give in to the beat! His broad palm smacking the steering wheel in time to the music felt good. Yeah, right Shania! Bret agreed. Not many things impressed him much either!
He turned off the air conditioning and opened his window. Maybe the warm, moist Florida air flowing in and whipping around him would soothe some of the tension out of his muscles.
The quiet blackness of the night and the aggressive musical therapy seemed to be doing the trick but Bret felt the back of his neck tighten again as he approached the abandoned construction site. Resolutely, he kept on thwacking the steering wheel in time to the music. Mind over matter. That’s what he had to concentrate on.
But it didn’t work.
And it hadn’t for almost a week. The moment he hit the property line of the projected retirement community, the temperature in the cab plunged and, no matter what kind of music he was playing on the stereo, the wailing of a saxophone sliced through the air. Piercing and sad, it replaced every other sound. It silenced the rumble of the pickup’s engine and Bret could swear that his own breathing was soundless. The saxophone sang alone…and stopped when he reached the far property line. Once or twice, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of someone walking along the side of the road. A woman he thought. But that was only imagination. He’d allowed himself to be spooked by some kind of freaky radio waves that seemed indigenous to this spot.
Bret speeded up. He shivered. The chill was deep and intense. It didn’t dance on the skin like a cooling breeze but rather began at the marrow of his bones and radiated outwards. This short stretch of road always seemed endless, the piercing wail of the saxophone interminable. He had almost reached the end of the long curve in the road that edged the site when he saw her.
This time she was right in the middle of the road–not twenty feet in front of his truck–a gleaming white figure in the headlight beams. In the split-second that he was able to focus on her, he thought he recognized that slender build and dark hair. Then he was too busy swerving onto the shoulder to avoid hitting her to get a really good look.
But what on earth would Yvette be doing out here?
The moment his wheels skidded and sank into the soft loamy shoulder of the road, Bret flung his door open and leapt out. Vaguely aware that the air was even colder outside the truck, he verified his first impression. It was Yvette, all right. Apparently, she had been in some kind of accident. That was definitely blood on her white jacket and she was missing one shoe. Even from a distance he could see scrapes on her bruised face.
What the hell had happened to her? Her features were so battered that he could barely recognize the pretty Maid of Honor who had smiled at him last week at his cousin’s wedding.
In spite of her limp, Yvette was moving very quickly away down the highway.
“Hey,” he yelled as he began to run after her. “Wait up.”
She turned and looked at him over her shoulder without slowing down a bit. Her pale, serious face was streaked with blood and her dark hair seemed to be matted with it. The last time he had seen her, she had been witty and animated. Her face hadn’t worn that gray, desperate look.
She didn’t seem to recognize him. Bret stopped, not wanting to frighten her further.
Her movement ceased when his did. Her cold, blank stare conveyed nothing.
“It’s Bret,” he called. “I’m not going to hurt you, Yvette.”
She shook her head slowly, then put her hand to her throat. “Danger,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “Please.”
She worked her mouth as if she were trying to say more but could not make the sounds come out. Finally, she croaked, “Warn her.”
The hoarse whisper reached him just before her spotlit figure in its stained and bloody suit vanished.
“Wait.” The word was too late.
The road, brightly lit by the headlights of Bret’s pickup, was completely empty.
When he climbed unsteadily back into the cab of the truck, he found it strangely quiet. Both the sexy country singer and the jazz saxophone were silent. Except for the insistent whispering of the breeze through the long needles of the lanky Australian pines at the side of the road, all he could hear was the pounding of his heart and the sharp intake of his own breath. He growled a disgusted epithet. His body might be almost healed but his nerves were sure shot to hell.
He dragged his fingers through the thatch of blond hair that was longer than it had ever been in his adult life. Well, he wasn’t about to sit here on the weedy shoulder of a deserted road and allow his imagination to get the better of him.
Lord! It was desolate. Where was the endless stream of noisy, smelly semis he usually cursed? The road was always clogged with them, day and night. This emptiness wasn’t natural.
The Bar and Grill that Buzz had inherited it from his uncle was somewhere around here. Buzz had gone on at great length about his plans to make it into “the best damned bar and grill in Florida” as soon as he could leave the service. Well, there would never be a better time for a stiff bourbon with an old buddy. Maybe that would get the icy chill out of his bones.
Who’d believe that Bret, the dependable, unflappable anchor of Greco’s special task force could be spooked like this? And by what? An attractive woman he’d conjured up who had suddenly vanished into the mist? He took a deep breath and turned the key in the ignition. Buzz’s place in Pioneer Grove was about a quarter of an hour away. The pickup moved down the road like a dream.
Thirteen minutes later, he was parked in the next to last parking space in the lot. He hadn’t been out this way since his return but he’d heard that Pioneer Grove was no longer the little down-at the-heels collection of buildings he remembered. It had been razed and resurrected as an upscale retirement community. The results were impressive.
He had expected Buzz to be running a casual blue-collar bar, not a sprawling glass and brick showplace like The Grove. The property he’d inherited from his uncle was a lot more extensive than Buzz had let on. Adjacent to the restaurant, a prosperous-looking strip mall boasted some professional offices, a bank, a Salvatore’s Salon, and a trendy coffee house. The restaurant seemed to be doing great business. Good for Buzz!
Bret pushed open the heavy glass doors and stopped dead in his tracks. He really was losing his mind! Dominating the lobby was a six-foot-tall, glass-framed photograph of Yvette. But this was Yvette as he had never seen her. He figured she must have worn a wig and some strategic padding for this photo because, in it, her dark hair reached her waist and the plunging neckline of her blouse revealed a cleavage that had not been apparent in the bikini she’d worn at Kit’s pool party.
The flash across the picture announced, “Saturday nights in the piano bar, our own Emilienne Pelletier.”
Bret swallowed hard. Pelletier was Yvette’s surname. He hoped to hell she was alive and singing in that bar. But he doubted it.
Milly was not in a singing mood tonight. She was exhausted from lack of sleep and depressed by the black and bloody dreams that plagued her every night for almost a week. Spending her nights struggling with a faceless attacker and fighting for breath as his fingers squeezed the life out of her, was a lousy preparation for singing at the piano bar. Above all, she was desperately worried about her sister. She knew the dreams were somehow connected with Yvette. And Yvette had disappeared.
However, in spite of the dreams, she was going to sing tonight. She owed it to Buzz’s memory to keep up the Saturday night tradition that brought back their regular customers week after week. She checked her reflection in the mirror behind the bar and tucked the formfitting, sleeveless blouse with its plunging neckline into the waistband of her long black skirt and smoothed non-existent wrinkles out of the silky fabric that skimmed her hips. This was the moment that Buzz always used to give her a gentle swat on her bottom.
“Go get ’em, Honey.” She could hear Buzz’s rough voice encouraging her as she made her way to the piano bar.
He had understood the tug-of-war between her love of singing and her aversion to the spotlight. It wasn’t stage fright. She would have been fine performing on the radio. But until she actually began singing to the audience, she was uncomfortable being stared at. Unfortunately, Buzz was gone.
She sat down on the familiar piano bench. She had taken to wearing her long hair parted in the middle so that when she leaned forward to play the introductory notes to her song, the dark veil covered part of her face. In those brief moments before she became totally involved in telling the story of her song, she felt more secure with that silky moving curtain between her and her audience.
Tonight, the bar was packed. Conversation and laughter filled the room. Quite a number of New York accents carried over the softer southern voices. That reassuring murmur of voices sparked the first stirring of excitement. The customers were involved in their conversations and she would have to work hard to entice their attention away. She enjoyed the challenge and the need to intensify her own emotions to reach them. These days, she felt truly alive only when she was making an audience yearn, or cry, or laugh.
On impulse, her fingers began the driving rhythm of That Old Black Magic. The sexy old standard felt right tonight. She let the lyrics sweep her into a dark world of passion and surrender. Her husky voice began to work its own magic to seduce her audience. For these five minutes, she could feel sexy and powerful and involved in a fantasy world far different from her everyday life. She looked at faces around the room. Many of them familiar, most of them turned towards her.
Few of her audience were young, but most were fiercely determined to deny that fact. The women’s animated faces were artfully made up. Diamonds flashed on male and female fingers and earlobes. Heavy gold gleamed dully. Almost without exception, they were watching her now.
Yes, she had them. Men and women alike were succumbing to her spell. The noise level had dropped to almost nothing. Any words that were spoken were soft, intimate. Milly felt a flash of envy for the lucky couples who were sharing that moment. Of course, there were always a few men who gazed at her with lust in their eyes, but that was not the kind of romantic spell she yearned for. For six years, she had been loved and truly cherished. That should be enough for anyone, but the little girl in her–the one who had loved fairy tales–wished for the Old Black Magic that she was singing about. Was it actually possible to be so possessed by a man that you were swept away into a swirling vortex of love?
As if the black magic had conjured him up, a tall, fair-haired man appeared under one of the little recessed lights in the archway that separated the piano bar from the main restaurant.
The spotlight turned his blond hair into a brilliant halo. He was well built and good-looking in a rather conventional way. His hair was thick, his features darkly tanned and regular. But it was the peculiar tension in the way he held his head that caught her attention. And he was staring at her.
There was nothing romantic or even sexual in the way he was staring. He looked startled. He might even, for a split second, have looked afraid. He regained his composure quickly but his eyes did not swerve from her face.
The intensity of his gaze was unsettling. Milly inclined her head and bent a little further over the piano so that her hair screened part of her face again. She decided it was time for a change of mood and launched into an upbeat medley of show tunes.
At the end of the set, Milly left the stage quickly, needing to get away from those penetrating eyes. She smiled and waved at her regulars as she brushed past their tables but didn’t stop to chat as she usually did.
“I’ll be in my office for a few minutes,” she told Stu who was polishing glasses behind the bar. “Call me if you get too busy out here.”
She closed the office door behind her and, feeling a little silly, breathed a sigh of relief. What was the matter with her? Granted, those horrible nightly dreams were making her edgy, but why would she be concerned about one stranger staring at her? She should be used to that. There were always strangers out there on Saturday nights.
It must be that he looked so out of place. Why was this blond Adonis in a bar out here, in the western part of Palm Beach County instead of trolling for women in one of the martini bars in City Place or maybe beach front on Atlantic in Delray?
She missed Buzz. She especially missed his solid, loving presence behind the bar when she sang. He used to tease her about having to beat the men off when she wore her “Tempation outfit”. She sighed again. Buzz used to love to remove those silky blouses… But she mustn’t go there. Buzz was gone.
And Yvette was missing.
“Milly,” Stu’s rough voice came over the intercom. “I have a customer here who wants to talk to you.” It was unlike Stu to interrupt her wind-down break. “He asked for Buzz first,” he added. “Something about being in the service together.”
It said a lot about the kind of man her husband had been that even two years after his death people wanted to pay their respects to his widow. Milly took a deep breath, raised her chin and brushed her hair over her shoulders so that it hung down her back. This was always hard.
It came as no surprise that the man waiting at the bar was the tall, blond stranger. His startling blue eyes seemed to be searching her face.
“You’re really not Yvette! Your eyes are gray! No, they’re green,” he announced with a relieved smile that lit up his face and made his blond good looks anything but conventional. “I saw ‘Emilienne Pelletier’ on the poster in the lobby but I thought maybe Yvette was using another name.”
Hope flared. “You know Yvette?” she demanded. “Have you seen her? Do you know where she is?”
An odd look crossed his face. He paused for a moment, then said, “I don’t know where she is. I haven’t talked with her since my cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks ago.”
She must have made some kind of signal that his mention of the wedding clicked with her. Bret raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “Yvette was maid of honor at Kit’s wedding. You are one of the cousins…?”
“Where are my manners? I’m Bret Thornton. When I saw you at the piano tonight, I thought for a moment you were Yvette.” He extended his hand and added, “You’re Buzz’s wife?”
His warm hand engulfed hers in a firm handshake. In spite of his tanned beach boy good looks, his hard palm told her that he was no stranger to hard work. He did not relinquish her hand immediately and she was oddly reluctant to withdraw hers.
“Yes, I’m Milly. I was married to Buzz,” she said quietly, “but he died almost two years ago.”
“He died?” Bret placed his left hand over their joined hands and gave hers a sympathetic squeeze. She realized how long the contact had gone on and broke it.
“I can’t believe it,” Bret was obviously shaken by the news. “I ran into Buzz when I was in town for the holidays two years ago. He seemed to be in good health and happier than I’d ever seen him.”
“How did you know Buzz?” she asked.
She couldn’t remember Buzz ever mentioning Bret Thornton but the man did seem genuinely upset. At closer quarters she could see that Bret was older than she had first thought. Faint lines around his eyes and mouth showed that he was probably in his mid thirties. And she wondered how he got those odd scars on his neck and jaw.
“We were in the service together.” Bret seemed about to say more but instead withdrew into silence. The closed look that came over his face reminded her of Buzz’s reaction whenever the subject of his connection with that virtually unknown government agency came up.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Milly offered.
“Bourbon on the rocks,” was his terse reply as he nodded his acceptance. “If you don’t mind talking about it, I’d like to know what happened to Buzz.”
Milly made a quick decision. She rarely invited anyone into her office even on business but she wanted to talk to this man. His reaction to her resemblance to her twin sister had been strange to say the least. She needed to find out what he knew about Yvette.
“Stu,” she said to the massive ex-fighter who was hovering a couple of feet away on the other side of the bar, “this is Bret. He was in the service with Buzz a few years back.” Stu offered a large scarred hand which Bret accepted.
“Yeah?” Stu said, obviously waiting to hear more.
“Stu was tending bar here when Buzz bought the bar ten years ago,” Milly said. “He’s been the backbone of the place ever since. And a dear friend.”
Stu’s battered face melted into a smile at her words but his eyes on Bret remained cold and skeptical.
“We’d like drinks in my office,” she told Stu. “Bourbon on the rocks and my usual.” She suspected that she would need the clear head that the club soda and lemon would allow.
Buzz’s scarred old walnut desk dominated the little office. It was a utilitarian room. The leather couch along one wall, an extra wooden captain’s chair, and two filing cabinets filled almost every inch of floor space. She hadn’t redecorated the room since it ceased to be Buzz’s domain. He had loved those garish red tartan curtains and she hadn’t had the heart to replace them.
She was having second thoughts about inviting Bret in here. He exuded a disturbing amount of vitality. Perhaps it was just his size and height that were intimidating in these tight quarters. Even standing five foot seven inches herself, she felt dwarfed by him. She sat in the captain’s chair and gestured towards the couch. She hoped that having him seated below her would give her the psychological advantage.
“Do sit down,” she said.
It took all Bret’s self-control not to run from the room and from this all-too-appealing widow and apparition-look-alike. She was too graphic a reminder of the hallucinations he had come here to try to put out of his mind. He must focus on the differences between the twins. Milly and Yvette weren’t identical twins. The eye color wasn’t the only difference. Milly was a couple of inches shorter and a bit more generously endowed. Their personalities were certainly different. Yvette was talkative and vivacious, while Milly appeared to be quietly serene. And, sexy. He couldn’t leave out sexy after hearing her rendition of that steamy old torch song.
“Emilienne Pelletier.” Bret rolled the words on his tongue. “The name confused me.”
“I use my maiden name when I sing. That’s what I’m known by. Besides,” Her smile lit her whole face. “even Buzz felt that Emilienne Brzezynski would be a bit mind boggling on a poster.”
A man could have a worse goal than earning Milly Brzezynski’s smiles. His mind flashed back to grim, blood-smeared features that were the mirror image of Milly’s.
He forced himself to concentrate on the topic they were here to discuss. Buzz. His death. Death was not a pleasant subject but it was part of the real world.
He assumed a relaxed pose on the leather couch. “So,” he began, “you were going to tell me about Buzz.”
“Buzz was shot in an attempted robbery two years ago New Year’s Eve. He didn’t do what he’d always insisted I should do if someone tried to rob me at gunpoint.” There was still some anger there. “He did press the alarm button without the thieves noticing but he didn’t go along with their demands. When they told him to open the till, he refused and pulled out the handgun that he kept under the bar instead. He wasn’t fast enough.”
Milly’s words might be cut and dried but he could see that she did not utter them easily. Her shadowed gray-green eyes showed how much her loss still affected her.
“I’m sorry. Buzz was a great guy. This doesn’t seem right after all the tight spots he fought his way out of. He took me under his wing when I joined the agency,” Bret offered. “He saved my bacon more than once.”
At that moment, a busty blond wearing a form-fitting tuxedo arrived with their drinks. Stu had added a bottle of bourbon to the tray.
“Just leave the tray on the desk, Eva,” Milly told the woman.
“Sure thing,” the waitress said, flashing a bright smile at Bret as she left the office.
Milly handed him the glass, being careful that their fingers not touch. She didn’t know why but she felt vaguely threatened by Bret Thornton.
“To Buzz,” she said.
Bret raised his glass, then drank deeply. “One of the good guys,” he said. “Did they ever catch the man who shot him?”
“There were two of them. They were tried in Georgia where they were wanted for a couple of other robberies. They’ll be old men before they ever get out of jail.” She made no attempt to keep the satisfaction out of her voice.
“Tell me about Yvette. Were you expecting to see her here?” The words were casual but he sensed an urgency underlying them.
“No,” Bret answered quickly. “The last time I saw her was last Sunday morning on my cousin Kit’s boat. But I was below, working on the engine most of the time and didn’t say more than a few words to her. I haven’t really spoken with her since the wedding.”
“You’re a mechanic? I thought Yvette said that you and your brother worked for some Trade Commission or other. She was bragging about being Maid of Honor with two good-looking and terribly distinguished Best Men.”
Bret fingered the scar on his jaw. “I did. Bart still does. Right now, I’m doing some Security consulting. But I’ve always liked to tinker with engines. Kit asked me to do a tune-up that day. I was sorry not to have a chance to talk to Yvette on Sunday. We were thrown together a lot over the wedding and got along well.” He cleared his throat. “You must know Kit then.”
“I met Kit and her husband years ago.” By her tone of voice, Bret gathered that the experience hadn’t been totally pleasant. “She and Yvette roomed together in college.”
“I didn’t know Kit and Ronald had known each other that long,” Bret said, vainly for a topic of small talk.
“I don’t believe they did,” she said.
Milly looked him for a moment, apparently considering what she was going to say next. Bret had never had so much difficulty maintaining a conversation.
“I won’t keep you,” he said. However, he was reluctant to make the move to leave. It had been years since a woman had intrigued him as much as this one did. “I know you have another appearance at the piano in a few minutes. Thanks for the drink.”
“It was my pleasure,” she said, beginning to rise from her chair. Her thickly lashed pale eyes were definitely anxious.
He did not leave as he should have. He had no business here. Instead, he reached for her hand. Milly gave him a questioning look.
“Warn her!” the hollow whisper echoed in his mind. “Of what?” he countered silently.
His face must have shown his confusion and concern because Milly blinked back tears and blurted, “I haven’t been able to reach Yvette since she left here Sunday morning.”
Bret’s years of masking his emotions in tense situations came to his aid here. He wanted to be open with her. But what could he say? He couldn’t explain why he thought he’d seen Yvette on the road earlier.
“I know she’s been out of touch only six days,” she continued. “But it’s not like her. Ever since Buzz was killed, she calls me two or three times a week. I’m really worried that something’s happened to her.”
Bret tried to think of something reassuring.
“Maybe she decided to take off for a few days and forgot to tell you.”
That was pretty lame.
“Not likely. Yvette was headed back to her office after a two week absence. Right after the wedding, she took our aunt for a five-day cruise out of Lauderdale. Believe me, that’s as much holiday as Yvette can stand.”
“I did get the impression that she loves her work.” Bret remembered the enthusiasm in Yvette’s voice when she said that she and her partner were planning to hire on a junior when she got back to New York.
“She lives for it,” Milly agreed solemnly. “But she does fly down from New York for a day or two a couple of times a year to check on Aunt Florence…and me.” Milly’s voice caught. “She’s a real mother hen.”
“Firstborn twin, I guess,” Bret said. “I know the feeling.”
Lord! Could he possibly sound more fatuous? He wondered how she would react to what he was really thinking. Well, Milly, I saw your sister walking down the highway a couple of hours ago. But I think she’s dead. Why? Because her face was ashy gray, her clothes were covered in blood, and she vanished before my eyes after telling me to warn you.
He would have to add that he was afraid that he had lost his grip on reality. She would give him no argument on that.
“Yvette’s partner expected her to be in the office on Monday morning for an important appointment.” Milly carried on. “I’ve called all her friends in New York. My aunt has called everyone she knows. No one seems to have any idea where Yvette could be.”
“Did you talk to Kit? Yvette might have mentioned something to her.”
“All Kit could tell me was that Yvette was staying overnight at the new airport hotel because she had a seat on the first flight out Monday morning. I checked with the airline. She wasn’t on the morning flight.”
“You’ve made a Missing Person’s report to the police.” It wasn’t a question.
Milly’s gray-green eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “Right after my aunt and I called everyone we could think of.”
Bret was silent for a long moment. He didn’t believe in ghosts. As a matter of fact, he didn’t believe in much. But he knew with a leaden certainty that Milly would never see her sister alive again. And, although it defied all logic and all the rules of common sense, he had a sick feeling that Yvette’s determined spirit wasn’t going to let him opt out of Milly’s doomed search for her.
He nodded slowly. Like it or not, he was going to have to deal with this.
“All right, Milly,” he said, draining the last drops of bourbon from his glass and getting to his feet, “This calls for concerted action and you can’t do it alone. Here’s the plan. I will make arrangements to meet with Kit and Ronald in the morning as early as we can. As far as we know, they were the last people that we know who talked to Yvette on Sunday. If we want to catch them before either of them takes off for the day, you’d better be ready to be picked up at eight. ”
“Why on earth should I?” He was glad to see defiant, angry sparks in her eyes. Indignation was much easier to deal with than incipient tears. “I simply asked you if you had any information about my sister. You didn’t.” Her voice shook with anger. “Where I go from here is none of your business.”
“You need my help,” he informed her firmly, somehow knowing that was the wrong thing to say. Emilienne Brzezynski would resent help. Where did he ever get the idea that she was the more serene of the twins?
“Questioning people was part of my business for a long time, Milly. Kit might have information she doesn’t know she has. She’ll talk to me and tolerate more from me than she would from you or a policeman. Then, after we talk to her and Ronald, we’ll see what we can learn at Yvette’s hotel.”
Milly shot to her feet. “Thank you for your concern,” she bit out through her teeth. “But Yvette is my sister and this is my problem. I’ll make my own inquiries. Please do not bother coming back in the morning.”
“It’s no trouble,” he assured her. Those fascinating eyes were flashing fire. “See you at eight!”
To prevent himself from doing something really stupid like taking her into his arms and assuring her that everything would turn out all right if she would only trust him, Bret turned and made a fast but relatively dignified escape, swiftly closing the door behind him.
He couldn’t make out the words, but whatever she said to his disappearing back was loud enough to echo several times off the heavy oak door.
For the first time that evening, he felt like smiling.