The man’s voice continued, “Shot in the line of duty.”
“Nooo…” I heard a woman scream.
Was it me? I couldn’t be sure. The world went dark.
The first time I laid eyes on Creole, he came up the driveway at The Cottages, lean and lethal, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail. Too bad he didn’t stay around long enough to exchange a word of conversation.
“Creole,” I murmured.
He pushed me up against the wall and kicked the front door closed. Tracing a trail with the tip of his tongue down my chin, down my neck, nibbling lightly, sending shivers through my body. Our first kiss. Taking me by surprise, he backed me against the door, pushing my hands above my head, holding them in place while devouring my lips.
I threw my hands out, struggling to ward off… what exactly?
* * *
In the early afternoon, dark clouds had rolled in, bringing a noisy, pounding storm that covered the town of Tarpon Cove at the top of the Florida Keys in fat water drops that beat against the roofs and windows. At one point, the clouds were so low, I was certain I could reach up and touch them, just to see how full they were. Eventually, the rain rolled out over the Gulf, leaving rising temperatures and a taste of humidity hanging in the air.
I glanced sideways as Fabiana Merceau, my best friend and roommate, wiggled out of the house in a black string bikini, setting a tray of drinks at the end of the patio table.
“Stay down there.” I pointed and put the finishing touches on the table settings for four.
The two of us had planned a dinner for our boyfriends—our favorite Mexican foods—and I’d picked up an assortment of beers for the guys.
“We could eat off paper plates.” Fab smirked, handing me a margarita.
“And deprive me of the chance to drag out my collection of dishes? I don’t think so.” I’d chosen the mismatched Fiestaware in assorted beachy colors for tonight’s dinner.
I had inherited the two-story Key West-style house from my aunt Elizabeth. One of my biggest projects had been turning the outdoor patio space that overlooked the pool into an entertainment area for family and friends. Any excuse to eat outside.
Fab clinked the edge of her martini glass against mine. “To friends.”
“You’re up to something.” I narrowed my eyes in an intense stare meant to suck the information out of her brain without having to ask.
“I hate it when you do that. Stop it.” Her lips quirked, so I knew she was on the verge of laughter.
“Cherie.” Didier appeared in the French doors that separated the patio from the living room.
Fab’s boyfriend—Didier, just the one name—was tall, dark, and deliciously naughty. He’d charmed the entire family and was the love of Fab’s life, and he felt the same way. He was also a roommate; the three of us made it work, as we often kept different hours.
Both Fab and I looked up.
He looked straight at me. “Help is coming up the driveway.”
The undercover detective’s name was supposedly Stephan, although Fab and I had never been able to verify that; his attitude about it was “mind your own business.” The moniker of “Help” was one that Fab and I had given him.
Right on cue, the doorbell rang.
“What does that cretin want?” Fab turned up her nose.
“Fabiana,” Didier chastised.
I pushed off the side of the table.
“Stop at the junk drawer and grab your Beretta,” Fab called out.
I shook my head and hurried through the house, opening the door.
“You should be asking who’s there before opening the door,” Help grumped. He appeared disheveled and worn around the edges, as though it had been a tiring few days.
“I already knew it was you.” I motioned. “Come in.”
“Do you mind if we talk out here?” He led me a foot away from the entry, stopping in front of my latest acquisition, a two-tone pink hibiscus.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he said with a solemn air.
I zeroed in on his face, his words filling me with dread, nausea creeping into my stomach. I couldn’t bring myself to snap, “get to the point.” Instead, I stared.
* * *
“Madison Westin, open your damn eyes!” a familiar voice yelled.
I tried to jerk away from a foul odor, but to no avail; the last thing I expected to see was Fab leaning over me, waving a small bottle, her troubled eyes expecting something from me. I didn’t have the energy to ask what.
It took me a moment to realize that I was lying on the daybed. How did I get here? Was I out cold?
Fab threw her arms around me, hugging me tight. “Thank God.”
“What happened?” I tried to shove a pillow under my head. I vaguely remembered the last thing that happened… words… dead and shot. Then understanding… Creole wasn’t going to walk through the door and hold me in his lap and kiss me ever again.
I rolled onto my side, tears coursed down my cheeks. “He promised,” I sobbed. “He promised.”
It was early morning. Creole picked his jeans up off the floor, whispering, “I’ll be back in a couple of days. You behave yourself.” He leaned down and brushed my lips with his.
“No getting hurt,” he promised.
We hooked pinkies.
He zipped up his pants, wiggling his hips, then sat on the bed and pulled me into his arms and kissed me, a kiss that was rough and sweet and possessive. A hungry kiss. It lasted longer than usual, and when his lips pulled away, I moaned.
“Where’s Creole?” I wiped furiously at my face. Fab helped me to a sitting position. “I need to go to him.”
Help stood on the other side of the room. He fidgeted from one foot to the other, briefly making eye contact. “The funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I shook my head, certain I hadn’t heard correctly. “That’s not possible.” Water dripped off the end of my nose. “Why wasn’t I called to handle the arrangements?”
“You’re not his wife or a blood relative. Since Creole didn’t have a next of kin, the department made the arrangements. He was cremated,” Help said to the floor.
Didier crossed the room, sitting down and putting his arm around me. Fab sat on the other side, handing me a tissue.
“Where the hell is the chief?” Didier growled. “Why didn’t he show up for the notification? Do you think this is the way Creole would’ve wanted the woman he loved to find out about his death?”
The Chief of Police in Miami was Creole’s boss and a friend to both of us.
“I don’t know all the details,” Help said, an inscrutable expression on his face. “Three days ago, Creole’s cover was blown. His partner’s too. A shootout ensued, and they both died at the scene.”
“Three days!” Fab shrieked.
“What took so long?” Didier asked. “I’m surprised you showed at all. You draw the short straw?”
“I volunteered.” Help shot Didier a withering glare, but no one believed him. “I thought it would be better coming from someone Madison knows.”
I sniffed and blew my nose, head pounding. My mind filled with thoughts of what Creole would want done. Anger seeped in. I’d rather have heard the news from a stranger. “Creole’s murderer… arrested? Dead? That would be better.”
“This case is being kept under wraps, need-to-know basis, and I’m not on that list,” Help said.
“Where’s the funeral? The time?” I hugged myself for comfort. “I can get there early and take care of any last-minute details.”
“Don’t have the information on me.” Help had one eye on the door, taking a step in that direction. “I’ll… uh… call you.”
“You get the damn information,” Fab exploded. “It better be tonight.”
Didier nodded in agreement.
“I loved him beyond reason,” I whispered, mostly to myself. Tears filled my eyes again; I couldn’t hold them back and didn’t try very hard to keep them from streaming down my face. “I want the funeral information before you step foot off my property,” I choked out, then gulped in some air and continued. “Screw me, and I’ll make the biggest scene at Miami PD headquarters that they’ve ever seen. They can arrest me; I’ll go to court, demand a jury trial, and invite the media.”
I scooted into the space Fab had vacated and curled up in a ball as she followed Help out the door. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight until she got the information. My hundred-year-old, long-haired black cat, Jazz, jumped up next to me. I laid my head on his side. “Dead.” The tears came in a torrent.
* * *