Vic Fallon has worked on some strange cases since he left the Police force to become a Private Investigator, but when a former lover asks him to look into a bizarre blackmail demand, it’s one for his memoirs. Vic hasn’t seen Ariel Weston since his last trip to Siesta Key, Florida, three years earlier. The end of their affair wasn’t amicable, and Vic swore that the next time he saw Ariel he’d drown her with the nearest Piña Colada. When Ariel gets caught up in a potentially embarrassing sex scandal, she appeals to him for help. Vic reluctantly agrees but finds himself in a real quandary when he realizes they still have feelings for each other.
The case pulls Vic out of his northern Ohio comfort zone to the Sunshine State, where he crosses paths with a corrupt local cop, a famous writer with a taste for booze and women, and a sleazy strip club owner who knows more than he’s letting on. Throw in one very cute Latina who develops a crush on him and the puzzle becomes more complex. Can Vic solve Ariel’s problem before the blackmailer ruins her life? Will Ariel convince Vic to give their failed relationship another chance?
Vic sat on a white plastic chair on the beach at his resort, watching the setting sun. People walking along the water’s edge were silhouetted by the mix of yellow, purple and blue while the evening tide lazily lapped ashore. After his encounters with Bronson and Broussard, Vic had spent the rest of the afternoon doing research on the Internet, but he found it difficult to focus. Part of me wants to solve this puzzle while another part isn’t in a hurry to go back home. Which one will win?
Vic smiled at the memory of their poolside romp the night before and found himself drawing comparisons to the previous times. I shouldn’t do that but it’s hard not to. Ariel still has it—looks, passion and more heat than a kiln. I almost wish she hadn’t dragged me into this. Almost.
He was startled by a familiar smoky voice over his shoulder.
“How did I know this is where I’d find you?”
Vic looked up at Ariel, dressed in a light blue sarong with a floral print. She held a silver bucket filled with long-necked green bottles and had a folded beach blanket draped over her arm. Vic looked her up and down.
“Slumming?” he asked.
Ariel laughed and held out her hand. Vic took it, stood, then walked with her toward the water. When they were within fifty feet of the incoming tide, Ariel spread the blanket on the sand. She set the bucket in the middle, then sat cross-legged and pulled her dress just over her knees. Vic joined her and took two of the Mojito wine coolers from the bucket. He opened them and handed one to Ariel.
“Just like old times,” he commented.
“Remember how we sat out here, staring into the night and talking about who knows what?”
“That who-knows-what covered a lot of things, as I recall.” He took a drink and placed his hand on Ariel’s knee. “What you told me last night. That was tough for you to admit, wasn’t it?”
Ariel smiled shyly and looked down. “Okay, you got me. Let’s talk about something else. What did you do today?”
Vic took a drink. “I ran into a friend of yours this afternoon.”
“A cop named Broussard.”
Ariel took a long swallow of her drink, then cradled the bottle in both hands while looking ahead. “Yeah, I know him.”
“What’s the story with that guy?”
“Former high school football jock who became a cop when he blew his knee and couldn’t get a college scholarship. Pretty good at his job, from what I hear.”
“Uh-huh,” Vic skeptically replied. “Ariel, I’ve been doing this long enough to know a peevish lover when I see one. Broussard’s more protective of you than I am of my mother. Try again.”
Ariel took a deep breath. “Eric Broussard was a mistake. One night before Hal died we had one of our knock-down drag-outs and I stormed out of the house. I went to The Dry Dock to drown my anger and there was Eric.”
“He give you a shoulder to cry on?”
“And a pillow to wake up on. I broke things off after a couple of weeks but he had trouble letting go. Since I became single he’s been sniffing around me like a bloodhound on a manhunt.”
“That explains the third degree he gave me. He can’t stand the idea of someone else sitting in his canoe.”
Ariel laughed and looked at him. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never a canoe.”
Vic smiled. “No offense intended.”
“None taken.” She took a long swallow. “So what’ve you been doing the last three years?”
“I spent the first few months trying to get over you.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Barely. After that I got on with my life. What about you?”
“The same. You may not believe this, but I really had a tough time getting you out of my system. You don’t know how many times I was tempted to pick up the phone and call you, to explain why I did what I did.”
“What stopped you?”
Ariel looked at him. “I figured you’d hang up on me. Was I right?”
Vic glanced down for a moment. “Maybe. Since we’re being up front, there were times I almost called you, too.”
He looked up at her. “I was afraid of what I might say. I was pretty pissed off when I left here and even after time passed I didn’t know if I could be civil toward you. It’s also the reason I never came back here. I think I was afraid I’d run into you and say something I’d regret.”
“I knew you were a hard-ass but I never figured you for the vindictive type. But I think you not calling and telling me what a self-centered bitch I was backs up something I always liked about you.”
“You were always considerate of my feelings. The whole time we were together you didn’t try to control me, you were interested in what I had to say, and you treated me like a person instead of a one-night stand.”
Vic grinned in embarrassment. “Stop it. I treated you the same way I treat everyone.”
“And here I thought it was because I was special.”
Vic gazed dreamily at her. “You are special, Ariel. That’s why I was so attracted to you.”
She gave him a playful smile. “You mean it wasn’t because I was good in bed?”
“Okay, that didn’t hurt your attractiveness factor, but I realized I liked you for what you are.”
“And what’s that?”
Vic paused a moment. “Someone who’d been knocked around by life but didn’t let it get them down. You just got back on your feet and kept punching. It’s a quality I’ve always admired.”
“Thank you.” She drained her bottle and placed it in the bucket. “You want to know what really drew me to you?”
“You were the first person I’d met in a long time who didn’t want something from me because I was loaded. That didn’t impress you and I was pleasantly surprised. What really did it, though, was the night we had an expensive dinner at Ophelia’s on The Bay and you insisted on paying the check, even though I had a tab there. That really told me something about you.”
Vic placed his hand on her knee and rubbed it. “It was worth it. That was the most romantic place I’d been to down here, and I was getting to share the evening with someone very special.” He laughed softly. “Remember the first time we went to the Mar-Vista on Longboat Key? You were meeting me there but the hostess wouldn’t let me wait at the bar because the reservation wasn’t in my name. She treated me like I was a party-crasher trying to get into a Miami Beach club.”
Ariel laughed. “Then when I showed up she almost lost her tan. Remember the look on her face when I asked her if she really needed her job?”
Vic’s laughter subsided. “Yeah, I do. That told me something about the pecking order down here. I guess money really does talk.” He took a swallow before continuing. “Knowing what I do about you, I still can’t see you getting along with that kind of attitude.”
“It’s all part of the little power games people think they have to play to impress everyone. Either you play along or you pick up your marbles and go home.” She reached over and ran her hand along his thigh. “But don’t ever change the way you think.”
She stretched out on the blanket, crossing her feet at the ankles. “What else did you do today?”
“I visited Derrick Bronson to see what light he could shed on things.”
“Did you catch him early enough in the day to get some coherent answers?”
“Yeah, but he couldn’t really tell me anything.”
“You know he bases most of his sleazy characters on people who live down here, don’t you?”
Vic looked at her with raised eyebrows. “No, I didn’t. Anyone ever get legal with him about it?”
“A few people tried but he’s always careful to change enough details so they’re more caricature than character. One of these times, he’s going to get careless and meet an end fitting enough for one of his villains.” Ariel faced Vic and pointed her index finger at him with her thumb in the air like a pistol. “Bang, between the eyes.” She held her finger straight up and blew imaginary smoke from the tip.
Vic laughed. “Okay, which book do you appear in?”
She gave him a shocked look. “You don’t remember the nymphomaniac axe-murderess from Nights Can be Deadly?”
“That was you?” Vic asked in mock surprise. “No wonder I liked that character.”
She leaned over and kissed him. Vic placed his hand under her mane of hair and massaged her neck while thrusting his tongue deep into her mouth. Ariel’s scent was natural and intoxicating, a bit of perfume mixing with her personal chemistry to arouse his senses and libido. The sound of the tide rushing onto the beach provided the perfect background music, bringing back memories of long-ago nights.
He pulled back slightly and peered into her eyes while playing with a strand of her hair. “You still know how to get to me.”
“That goes both ways. In fact, I’m going to let you in on a little secret— I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten to me quite like you do. Does that surprise you?”
“Yeah, it does. Why?”
“When we make love, you’re more interested in making me a part of it.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“A lot of guys make me feel like a spectator. You don’t.” She brushed his cheek. “To the victor go the spoils. Remember when I said that after we made love?”
“Uh-huh. Remember what I called you?”
She giggled. “Love Buns. I always thought it was cute.”
“Know why I called you that?” Ariel shook her head. Vic placed his hand on her ass and gave her a firm squeeze. “Because you have the cutest butt I’ve ever seen. It even looks good when you’re naked.”
She cupped his cheek. “Thank you. Want to take your canoe for a ride?”
“I don’t know, Captain. The water looks rough.”
“Take some Dramamine.” She kissed him again, then whispered in his ear. “Let me be your little plaything tonight. Anything you want to do. Just let your imagination run wild.”
“After last night, I don’t think there’s much imagination left.”
She ran her fingers over his brow. “Last night was make-up sex. Tonight it’s all about making love. You do remember the difference, don’t you?”