Going back to where it all began with my first published romantic suspense novel on the anniversary of its release week four years ago--and one of my favorites--Kiss Me Slowly.
Enjoy the glimpse inside this adrenaline pumping story of second chance romance, conspiracy, and revenge under the Florida Keys' sunny skies.
She laughed as she maneuvered the small boat toward Sanderson Key. She couldn’t count the number of misguided runaway attempts she and Jerry had made to this island when they were kids. They would only get this far before deciding to camp out for the night. Inevitably, their father would find them before too long and haul their butts back home with a stern lecture about respecting the sea and using their common sense, which he was convinced they lacked.
“Um…Grace…did you leave your shorts on the Wanderlust?” His voice sounded strained.
She looked at him, laughter still on her lips. “Why?”
“No reason. Never mind.” He cleared his throat and looked away from her.
“Let me give you some advice, Jon,” she said. “Today is a free day. And maybe tomorrow, too. Come Thursday Jerry will meet us, and you’ll be thrown right back into chaos. There’s nothing you can do right this minute to change any of it, so enjoy this.” She nodded toward the deserted beach.
He said nothing as he jumped from the boat to drag it onto shore.
“With me—here—we can think.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Once you recover—”
“Recover?” He shook his head as he pulled the boat a safe distance from the waves. “I will never be the same. I can’t think. There is too much in my head to think. Numbers I can’t make sense of. Comments that only lead to more questions. Images I don’t understand. A person doesn’t recover from this.”
“Maybe not,” she whispered.
Deciding it was best to leave him to his own thoughts, she left the boat and slid into the water. Her strokes were long and sure, seawater evaporating the tension from her muscles. With a satisfied sigh, she floated on her back, squinting toward a blue sky. This is why she lived near the sea and always would.
She strode from the waves, gaze taking in the towels beneath the shade of a palm tree with the cooler and backpack in between. No sign of Jonathan. Although she understood why he would be jumpy, she liked the temporary peace of his absence.
She stretched onto one of the towels and propped up on her elbows. When he came into view, she indulged in watching him before he noticed.
Head bent, he moved with a slowness that spoke of heavy thoughts. Wet shorts outlined his hips. White sand clung to damp calves. Water shoes protected his battered feet in their bandages. He touched his fingers to the scratches on his chest as if recalling the events of last night. The bandage on his shoulder glared against his tanned skin.
She ached for the sadness he must feel for Ashley. Even though she had known a different side to Ms. Bennett, he hadn’t. He only knew that a woman he had once loved died in a brutal way. She winced at what that must have been like to witness. The fear, the desperation, the confusion...it was a miracle that he walked on this beach.
They could have killed him, too. The thought sobered her. What would that news have been like to hear when her last moments with him had been cold and angry? What would today have been like if he and Ashley had been murdered together? Beyond comprehension, that’s what it would have been like. Unbearable.
She scrubbed her face with an open palm. She had hated him…right? So why was she doing things like sailing him away and going to abandoned houses to find him? She sat up and grabbed the rum punch. Yep. Today was definitely a drinking day.
She didn’t get involved emotionally with men and didn’t indulge in fantasy. She lived in a world of facts and numbers. She lived in a world of control. Even the side business was controlled. Exact.
Or so she had thought until recently.
She sipped the rum punch and watched him pace in the waves. If he had died last night, she would have regretted being so controlled around him, not having that long-overdue fight about him leaving her, and not forgiving him. If he had died, she would have resented her controlled and responsible life.
When he looked up, he hesitated in mid-stride and watched her watching him.
A sense of danger quaked through her entire body and left her breathless. A sense of danger that had nothing to do with embezzlers or murderers…a sense of danger that had more to do with the feelings this man stirred within her…seized her lungs in a vise.
She tore her gaze from him and busied herself with opening the bag of potato chips.
When his long body stretched on the blanket across from her, it took all of her willpower not to touch him and tell him what she had been thinking. But she didn’t. Wouldn’t. Their time together would end soon. She would sail away with her family’s secrets intact. He would either go to jail or rebuild his company. That was that.
“When we get back aboard, I think you should write down everything you remember, from the moment you first noticed the financial discrepancies to last night. That might help remember something, a detail that you’ve overlooked.” She looked out to sea.
Propped on his side, he reached for a handful of chips. “Writing it all down might help.”
“I’ll e-mail it all to Simon, just in case someone is keeping tabs on Jerry.” She smiled but didn’t look at him, did not trust herself to look at him. “See? We’re making progress already. Drinking, sailing and sunshine have helped. Progress.”
“Progress? If you say so.”
He propped his back against the trunk of the palm tree. He sighed as he twisted off the cap of the beer bottle. They sat in companionable silence and listened to the waves.
Sun glistened on the waves lapping against the beach. Images of her parents drifted through her mind. She and Jerry pretending to be pirates on this exact beach. Dad teaching her how to sail on a skiff just off shore. Mom hanging laundry on the deck of the old house on Key Largo so the clothes would smell of sea air. Bonfires on the sand with neighbors joining them for clambakes. And the laughter. There had been plenty of laughter. A long time ago, before tragedy struck blows one right after another.
She refilled her water bottle with rum punch and took a long drink while her gaze scanned the length of the white beach.
“I loved growing up here. Jerry and I used to get ourselves into all kinds of trouble,” she said.
“See? Wild. My memory is accurate.” He returned her smile. “You must have kept your dad on his toes.”
“We did. I always imagined…never mind.” She didn’t want to open that door. She would hide him for a few days, would fantasize about what she wanted to do to him…but she needed to keep the door marked “family” firmly locked. “Let’s keep the focus on you, sailor boy.”
“What did you imagine?”
“Nothing.” She hugged her knees to her chest, the water bottle dangling from her fingertips, and pushed away the dreams of long ago.
“Sitting here I can’t help but think of us as teenagers.” He laughed a little as he mirrored her pose. “Sarah liked to hang out with us at the marina. It’s horrible what happened to her. I don’t blame your dad. I would have killed those boys, too.”
“He didn’t kill them.” She shook her head to rid herself of the image of Sarah’s beaten body, to rid herself of the memory of the countless surgeries her little sister had endured. “You don’t know anything about my father, so do not presume.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Do I look like I want to talk about it?” She looked him in the eye.
“No.” He grinned, which infuriated her more than it should have.
“You’re just like Jerry. Annoying as hell.”
“You curse a lot.”
“Shut up.” She grinned, unable to stay annoyed with a man who looked like he did and made her feel like melted butter on the inside. Dangerous. Definitely.
“You don’t take hints very well.” She gulped down the rum punch and liked being a little bit drunk. “They ran her over after they attacked her. Crushed her lower half. It’s a miracle she’s alive. Bastards.”
He digested that information with a slow nod before speaking. “Like I said, I don’t blame your dad…innocent or otherwise. You all were so tight. You must miss them.”
“I have Jerry.”
“And that’s a tight duo, too. Almost impenetrable. Is there any room for another person in that circle of yours?”
She concentrated at the waves lapping the shore only a few feet away. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears and lodged in her throat.
“You were my first love,” he admitted.
“I used to live for those weekends when I’d get to see you, hear you taunting me from that ugly boat of yours, and when we got more serious I thought you were the one. I never got over you. A guy never forgets his first love.”
“Are you sure you aren’t still drugged?”
“Maybe I feel like a dying man on his deathbed. Give me a break. I’m telling the truth.”
“Truth or not, you walked away.” She rested her chin on her knee. “You walked. Remember that.”
“I’ll never forget.”
“I’ve thought about you over the years, too. Always wondered about you, hoped you were miserable and lonely.” She glanced up at the clouds dotting an otherwise flawless sky. “You were the first boy I ever went all the way with, in case you ever wondered.”
“Me, too.” He touched her shoulder, a light touch, but enough to burn her skin. “I had no idea what the hell I was doing.”
“Yeah, well, we were only seventeen. High school. What did we know about anything? Everything was so intense.” She looked over her shoulder at him.
The sea breeze had dried his hair in crazy disarray. The color of his eyes matched the sea. His various bandages, from his shoulder to his ripped up feet encased in water shoes, only made him more endearing. She refused to look at the scratches on his chest.
“It’s pretty intense right now, too,” he whispered. “I don’t give a damn about what’s right or wrong and I don’t think you really do either.”
“Don’t start thinking you know me or what I’m thinking.”
“Sunday night when you kissed me—”
“We kissed each other.”
“Whatever. I can’t stop thinking about it. And then yesterday morning on the boat. I could have kissed you all day. Wish I would have.” His finger stroked a line down her bare back.
Her gaze focused on his mouth. Her skin shivered where his fingers touched. Sun warmed the back of her neck. And she decided to be honest.
“It would be so easy to say to hell with it all and wrap myself around you.”
“Easy. What a concept,” he said, his gaze locking with hers.
“There are things you don’t understand. Jerry—”
“What does Jerry have to do with whether or not we kiss each other? He’s not here.”
“No.” He put his finger over her lips. “Don’t call me Jonathan. Call me Jon Ryan or sailor boy. Don’t call me Jonathan.”
“You’re bad for me. Very bad for me.”
“You said we had a free day, so let’s just pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Just for today.” His hand curved over her hip, a finger strayed beneath the fabric of the bikini bottom. “And you always liked being bad. Still do, if I’m right.”
“Jon, don’t.” She smoothed her hands down his biceps.
“I know this is wrong. I know I shouldn’t want you so badly. I know we should be working, thinking, keeping our distance, feeling guilty for things out of our control”—his hands moved over the sides of her waist—“yet I cannot stop wanting to be inside you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true. You want me, too. Deny it.”
“Jon.” This wanting burned inside her chest like a hot branding iron. “I want you, too. I want you so badly, but this is insane.”
“What are you really afraid of?” He kissed her shoulder as he untied the strings of the top. “Me? Jerry? The smugglers chasing us? The cops looking for me? All of the above?”
“No.” She kissed the side of his face.
“Then what?” His mouth slid over hers.
Hands fisted in his hair, she opened her mouth to his. Hot. Moist. She knew it was wrong, realized she would miss him, understood they could never last beyond the next two days. Knowing all of that, she no longer gave a damn.
He pushed her to her back, one hand on her breast and the other propped above her head. Their mouths merged in a sweet dance of longing and savoring.
She needed his hands on her body, his mouth on her skin, and him inside of her. His mouth tugged on her breast. Teeth grazed her skin. Passion obliterated thought.
The sound of an outboard motor froze them both. Chest heaving and breath trapped in her throat, she turned her head toward the sound. No one.
He propped himself on his elbows and scanned the beach above her head.
“I heard it, too,” she whispered.
“But where?” He dropped his head against hers for a second before groaning and pushing himself upright.
She hastily tied her top. Instinct cautioned her that danger lurked nearby, that they were not alone. She stared at her boat, noticed the wake moving past the starboard side of the hull, and scrambled to her feet. She jogged toward the beach, shielded her eyes with her hand, and stopped breathing.
A cabin cruiser bobbed in the distance, just far enough out that the name could not be read from shore. A Jet Ski skimmed the waves toward its hull.
“Someone else is here.” Not a stranger, she thought. Not on a Tuesday during the off-season. “What did you bring with you from Ashley’s? Your cell phone? Anything that could be traced?”
“You think this is about…” He shook his head, gaze focused on her face. “Impossible. This is a big ocean. We couldn’t have been followed.”
“Possible. What did you bring on board my boat? Think.” She snapped her gaze back to the Jet Ski.
“They’re tourists who probably came toward shore, saw us together and turned around to give us our privacy. This is not about us.”
“You’re wrong. I know this place. Only locals come here.”
“Then they’re locals. It is not about us, Grace. It can’t be.”
She gathered the belongings as fast as she could move and jogged toward the dinghy.
Tension strained the air. Each pushed a side of the dinghy until they were waist deep. In unison and without a word, they jumped inside and steered back to the Wanderlust.
She chewed the inside of her lip, unable to stop looking at the yacht.
“We left the boat wide open. Stupid.” She wrapped a towel around her torso, body shaking with restrained emotion. “We let our guard down. Stupid.”
“Grace, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”
“It’s true.” She ripped her gaze from the other boat to look at him. “What if someone has followed us? What if they took pictures of us mostly naked on a beach the day after your fiancée was found murdered and you’re supposedly a missing person? Days after I moved money around for you? Motive, Jonathan. They could establish motive, and we could both go down in flames. Motive is the one thing you haven’t had for any of this.”
“Now who’s being paranoid?” A muscle clenched and unclenched in his jaw. “I’m telling you that this is a random tourist. Nothing more.”
“Like the Panama Hat Man was just another tourist?”
“Not the same thing,” he whispered without looking away from her. “Think about this clearly. We sailed at night, saw no one this morning, just wide open ocean…this is a coincidence.”
“No such thing.” She tied off the smaller boat.
“We need to check out the boat.” Ignoring him, she climbed the ladder.
She scanned the deck. Nothing looked out of place, yet she had the nagging feeling of being watched. Scrambling toward the stern, she grabbed her discarded clothing.
Fear drummed in her chest. Motive had been the one thing lacking in Jonathan’s setup. He didn’t need the money, had been out of the country for two years, but…she disappeared for months at a time, they had a proven history together, she had moved the money, they had been seen together in the office Saturday night, her fingerprints were in his house, his blood was in her loft…and then there were the diamonds.
She had touched the diamonds
She retrieved a pair of binoculars from the bench at the stern and faced the yacht.
A pair of binoculars stared back from beneath a Panama hat.
“Jonathan,” she choked out from a throat swollen with panic. “Your tourist is here.”
He grabbed the binoculars from her. His entire body stiffened at the sight of the man looking back at them. “It can’t be.”
“It is. I told you this wasn’t random.”
She jumped through the hatch leading below deck. Nothing looked disturbed, but…how had he found them?
“What should we do?” he asked, moving as quickly as she was through the main cabin looking for anything unusual. “If he followed us, there must be a tracking device on the boat.”
“No, how could he have known you would end up with me?”
“You have the money, Grace.” He grabbed her arm and forced her to look at him. “You made yourself bait. You said it yourself. Maybe they’ve had you all along.”
“Can’t be…” Her voice trailed off. Smitty had loaded the boat with men she had given no attention. “Who are these people?”
“You and I know sailboats, Grace,” he reminded her with a firm shake of her shoulders. “We’ll find whatever it is they’re using to track us.”
“And then what? We’re all alone out here and if we call in the Coast Guard—”
“We’ll figure this out like we’ve figured everything else out and sail at night again. No running lights, no sails until we’re far enough away. You know where to go. You know how to do this.”
“How to do what exactly?” She fought back an unexpected rush of tears. “I have never in my life been hunted like this.”
“Me either.” He smoothed his hands through her hair and pressed his forehead against hers. “We’ll figure this out, my pirate. We will. You never fail, remember? You don’t fail, and neither does your brother.”
She blinked away the tears and struggled to steady her breathing. Looking into his eyes, she knew why she needed to fight.
With a nod, they separated and began searching every inch of the boat. Supplies were taken from cabinets, cushions overturned, closets searched. And then she found it. A cell phone with a barely there signal.
Ashley Bennett’s cell phone with blood smeared across the screen.
“I must have brought it. I don’t remember having it,” he said, sinking against the wall with a defeated expression on his face. “I led them to us. I don’t even remember…”
She dropped the phone as if stung by the blood.
“You’re right.” He covered his eyes with his hands and hung his head. “If someone photographed us…if we’re caught together, then they have a motive for all of it. I went where they knew I would go. It’s all been a setup. Your business card on my desk, you helping me…I led you into a trap.”
She sank against the wall until she sat on the floor. Think, think, think…she thumped her fingers against her forehead.
“How would anyone know you would come to me?” she whispered. “I don’t understand. No one knows our connection. No one.”
He sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the ceiling as if hoping for answers. “Maybe someone does know. Whoever dropped me on the street told me that I knew where to go. I came to you. Maybe I was followed…I was in a daze…I barely knew where I was going myself.”
She dropped her head against the wall and studied his profile. She had wanted him on the beach. What kind of woman did that make her, to want a man she barely knew who was being hunted by bad guys and good guys alike? What kind of woman did it make her that every time she touched him she felt like a teenager in love? What kind of woman did that make her that she still wanted him…even now?
Desperate. Lonely. She squeezed her eyes closed. The worst kind of woman.
“We were stupid to think we had a free day,” she said. “We have work to do. If they are following us—whoever they are—then we need to get busy. For all we know, the Coast Guard could be showing up any minute to arrest us.” On trembling legs, she pushed herself back up the wall.
“You’re right, no time to waste,” he said without looking at her. “I’ll slip the phone overboard and clean up the mess we made.”
“No, don’t toss it overboard, not here. Just make sure it’s turned off, pull out the SIM card, then we’ll destroy it somehow when we’re away from this beach. Secure everything above deck in case we need to move fast. And the guns…you know where I keep them. I cannot believe I’m saying these things.” She grabbed a sweatshirt from her closet and slipped it over the tank top. “I’ll call Jerry on the satellite phone. I don’t care what he says. We need to know what’s happening back in Miami.”
“Miami…right. About the beach…” His hands dropped on her shoulders. Piercing longing ripped through her chest at the contact.
“Jon…I think it’s best if we stop touching each other.” She left him alone in her bedroom and walked toward the galley table.
She ignored him as he moved past her. With a push of a button, the table sank into the floor and reemerged as a desk. Alone, she braced her palms next the computer and blinked back the rush of tears. No time for emotion. No time for indulgence. No time for fantasy. No time.
From the back cover...
Trapped in a set-up that could have him in jail or dead by Monday, Jonathan Alexander trusts no one in his inner circle. It’s Saturday. His only hope is Grace Dupont, the best forensic accountant in Miami. But there’s a glitch with that idea. She’s also his ex-girlfriend who'd rather watch him drown than throw him a life vest. Going to her feels desperate…because he is.
Grace enjoys seeing Jonathan squirm. On your knees boy, she thinks as he pitches for her help. Always a sucker for the dark-haired-blue-eyed boys, she risks her precariously balanced life of secrets to help him. Helping him slaps a target on her back–she’s the key to proving his innocence and that’s a bad, bad thing.
Tangled up in a whirlwind of conspiracy, murder, million dollar money trails and diamond smuggling, Jonathan and Grace flee to the sea to stall for time to prove his innocence. Romance sizzles beneath Florida Keys’ sunshine. Both scoff at happy endings. Both doubt justice. Both know each kiss could be their last.