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“It’s so peaceful here.” She sighed and angled her head to eye the lights off Key Largo, the first Florida Key once you left the mainland. Barely visible in the distance, the twinkling added romance to the balmy June air. “I love how the moonlight shimmers off the water.”
The sailboat’s soft pitching, gently tossing back and forth in the light breeze, lulled her into swaying along with both the movement and the soft music drifting from below.
“Isn’t it a gorgeous night?” she asked when his gaze followed hers.
“Gorgeous.” His whispered word tickled the back of her neck. Heat spread as he kissed his way to her ear. His tongue circled the outside before his teeth found her lobe and tugged. “And I’m not talking about the scenery.”
“That tickles.” She giggled, purposefully ignoring the sensations, and took another sip of champagne.
“What? You aren’t laughing at my romantic efforts, are you?”
“Sorry.” Her smile turned rueful.
He was really trying, having gone to much effort for this special evening, which had an unexpected and disturbing effect. The warmth from his breath melted more of her resolve to keep him at a distance. And Lord help her, but she couldn’t stop herself from softening toward him.
His strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her against him. She rested her head in that perfect crook between shoulder and arm as his full arousal nestled against her bottom.
They stood on the deck, looking out over the moonlit horizon, and swayed a little more when the beat picked up as a new song played. Time stood still while they rocked back and forth in some kind of backward dance. A dance she had no will to stop.
“It is a perfect night,” she said. “And I do appreciate your attempts at romance.”
Somehow, he could always make her forget his faults. Past grievances evaporated, dissipating in the hidden recesses of her mind. She prayed he had changed. But at this moment, she just didn’t care. She set her champagne flute in one of the cup holders before she intertwined her fingers around his neck and brought him closer.
“So you think making love on a sailboat is romantic?” she asked.
“I’ll let you decide,” he whispered.
Once the soft words were out, their lips met. When they broke apart, she could swear she was floating.
“I’ve had too much to drink.” A burst of laughter rose up. “I’m dizzy.”
“That’s because I’m sweeping you off your feet.”
“Maybe. But kiss me again so I can be sure.”
As commanded, his mouth covered hers, definitely making her dizzier.
Claire Grayson Carter felt the warm sun on her face long before she dared open her eyes. When she finally did squint, brightness invaded and pain shot through her brain. Her eyelids snapped shut.
It took a while before she risked another attempt. This time she used a hand to block out the early morning light and opened her eyes hesitantly while she slowly sat up.
Moaning, she gripped the seat to still the subtle sway of the anchored sailboat. To fend off the offensive rays and to ease her queasy stomach, she bent over with her face in her lap.
“Oh God.” Would the pounding in her head ever stop?
Why did I drink so much? That and the question about where her husband might be were her two most pressing thoughts.
“I should’ve never had that last glass of champagne,” she muttered as another wave of queasiness passed. Please, Lord, Claire prayed, get me through this and I’ll never drink so much again.
With shaky hands, she grabbed hold of the railing until a flush of perspiration passed. Then she pulled herself to her feet, taking deep breaths. Once she felt confident to move again, she raked trembling fingers through her matted hair. Resting her hand on the back of her neck, she scanned the calm seas.
A fish jumped. Its plop distorted the clear water for seconds. Eventually, the ripples fanned out and left the blue-green mirror intact.
Though her nausea had receded, little grenades inside her head hadn’t. One right after the other exploded. She lifted her hand to rub the pain away, and saw red streaks along her arm.
Startled, she glanced down. Dark stains saturated her white silk shirt that hung unbuttoned. When she caught a coppery whiff, the distinct scent of blood, her scalp tingled.
Her heartbeat quickened as she took in the teakwood deck, where a couple of drained champagne bottles and two flutes were strewn about, along with the remnants of a gourmet meal.
She then focused on a red trail that led below. Another cold sensation washed over her despite the heat of the harsh sun. Her lungs seized, and dread rose up instead of air.
“Carl?” She tentatively followed the dark spots that increased in size down the stairs, to the galley and open salon below, where they just stopped in a small dried puddle in front of the stove. “Carl?”
She unlatched the door to the back berth. The bed was undisturbed, and the stowed nylon bags on the teakwood floor were exactly as she’d left them the evening before.
She pivoted and stumbled toward the V-berth as the forty-foot sloop lurched unexpectedly in the water. Gripping the door frame for support, Claire climbed on top of the bed’s rumpled sheets in the center of the tiny room, pushed open the front hatch, and poked her head out.
“Carl?” she yelled at empty space. The quiet stillness of the morning was amplified as her heartbeat pounded in her ears.
Hysteria set in as another wave of nausea rolled over her, lapping at her gut like the sea hitting the beach. She dropped the hatch and had to sit a moment on the edge of the bed until the feeling passed.
The jackhammers in her head weren’t helping matters any. Neither was the fact that she felt weak. The desire to exert any effort had completely deserted her. Through sheer willpower, she mustered forth every bit of energy she possessed and continued her search.
At the door of the head, she halted with her hand on the latch. “Stop! Get a grip.” The sharp verbal reprimand worked like a crutch, and gave her the courage to open the door. Yet when she did, her fear expanded at the sight of a bloody hunting knife on the sink in the small bathroom.
She staggered two steps back, far enough to grab the galley stove, and sank onto the settee cushions next to it. Her gaze landed on the table a few feet away. The chart she’d used the day before still lay open where she’d left it.
Breathe. First one breath, and then another. Breathe.
“Okay . . . okay. Think.” Claire peered unseeing out the window at the water beyond. Why couldn’t she remember?
A few tears escaped and trekked down the sides of her face. Her memory was a blank slate after she and Carl had made love last night. Worse, the events leading up to that moment were blurry.
“Did I drink so much that I blacked out?” After whispering the words, she glanced around the open room. Nothing seemed out of place. Except dried blood.
There had to be a plausible explanation. Maybe Carl had a nosebleed and then took the inflatable to shore for a newspaper, and he just hadn’t returned yet. He probably left her a message on her cell phone.
She jumped up from the coral-colored cushions, and avoiding the blood on the teak floor, rushed up the steps to the deck outside. Seconds later, she lurched toward the stern where her cell phone was stashed. Clutching the lifelines to keep from falling, she reached for her phone and brought it to life. No new messages were on the phone, either via text or on voice mail.
When her gaze flew to the stern, hope deflated as rapidly as an inner tube with holes when she spied their dinghy bobbing in the water. Her attention then moved to the port side. Their diving gear was situated in a straight line, exactly where they’d left it the day before.
She glanced out at the crystal-clear water and spent several minutes thoroughly searching the horizon and the area surrounding the boat. The sun beat on her neck. Birds screeched and fish jumped, disturbing the quiet and indicating a morning coming to life. But no Carl.
“Carl,” she yelled.
Nothing! Claire worked to stop a fresh flow of tears and to push past her immobilizing fear as questions consumed her.
She needed help. Someone had to help her find Carl. She wiped away tears with her blood-soaked shirt, ignoring the implications, and slumped down onto the padded bench to call the police.
Spying the dried blood on her arm, she halted with the phone in midair. What would she say? That she’d woken up alone, all covered in blood, and couldn’t remember?
With no other choice, she punched in 911, closed her eyes, and hoped for the best. “I’d like to report a missing person,” she said to the operator.
After giving the woman specifics and being told someone would be there shortly, she ended the call, praying they would hurry. She’d never dealt with the police before. Considering the circumstances, the thought terrified her.
The quiet pervaded, adding to her isolation and her sense of impending doom.
Unable to simply sit still, she swiped the phone screen and hit a preset number.
“Gwen?” Just hearing her best friend’s voice calmed some of her fears. “Something’s happened. Carl’s not here.”
“What do you mean, he’s not there? Aren’t you on a boat for a romantic weekend?”
“He’s gone. What’s more, there’s blood all over. I can’t remember what happened.”
“Blood? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” she hissed, losing some of her hard-won control.
After blubbering for a drawn-out moment, she wiped her face and pulled herself together. She ran a hand through matted hair and felt what could only be dried blood. After a deep shudder, she inhaled and filled her lungs to capacity.
In a calmer voice, Claire relayed what had had happened since she woke, and finished with, “Gwen, I’m scared. There’s a bloody knife in the head. I’ve called 911. But what if they think I did something? Or worse, what if I did? It’s horrible not remembering anything. What do I tell them when they get here?”
Gwen Anderson remained silent. Claire could almost hear her efficient brain churning. The act brought a small turn to the edges of her lips as the stiffness in her shoulders relaxed. Calling Gwen had been the right thing to do.
Those thoughts stayed in place until Gwen’s next words shot through the phone.
“You should call Crystal.”
“No way. I can’t.” How could Gwen even suggest calling her sister? “I haven’t talked to her in months, and I don’t plan on doing it now.”
“You sound desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“Not that desperate. Think of another solution.”
Claire gazed out the bow of the boat. Sunlight glistened off the azure water as billowy white clouds floated aimlessly on the horizon. None drifted close enough to the sun to darken the morning.
The day looked to be another glorious one in paradise, except she felt as if she’d dropped into hell. Her head still hurt and she could barely think, but she hadn’t lost all her wits. She was in no condition to deal with Crystal right then.
“Claire, she’s an attorney. She can advise you.”
“She’s a divorce attorney, so I don’t see what solutions she’d have in this situation.” She’d rather have a root canal without drugs than talk to her sister, especially if the conversation involved Carl. For as long as Claire could remember, Crystal Grayson had always made Claire feel inadequate, and Crystal’s mocking I told you so invaded her brain now.
“I’m betting she’d know what to do once the police get there.” Gwen was quiet for a moment. “How about if I call her for you?”
“You’d do that?” The anvil of worry on Claire’s shoulders disintegrated. Thank God. She knew she was taking the coward’s way out, but she didn’t care.
“I don’t like her either, but I’ll do it. Sit tight. I’ll call you right back.”
“Thanks, Gwen. I owe you.”
While she waited, Claire paced, holding her hands to keep from fidgeting. Every now and then she’d stop to look out over the water, hoping for . . . what? She snorted. It wasn’t as if Carl was going to rise out of the water after a long swim.
Where in the hell is he?
That sick, coppery scent rose up again, and she gagged.
Seconds later, her cell phone blared. Claire picked up on the second ring after noting Gwen’s number on the caller ID.
“What did she say?”
“She’s calling a friend.”
“She’s really helping me?” The incredulity in her voice rang out loud and clear.
“Yes, Claire. Crystal may be a bitch, but she’s still your sister, for God’s sake.”
Delving into the dynamics of her demented relationship with Crystal wouldn’t help matters, so Claire ignored the comment. “Who’s this friend?”
“Says he’s a good criminal lawyer and will know what to do.”
“Can’t say I’m not relieved.”
“So am I. Listen, I can drive down and be there in an hour or so.”
“No.” Claire sighed and focused on a couple of dolphins frolicking off Solitude’s bow. Every morning about this time, they swam past the sailboat. Her gaze fastened on the pair for a moment. As she watched, her breathing and heartbeat slowed, despite the stench and icky feeling of wearing blood.
“I don’t know what good you’d do,” Claire finally said. “But stick around. Let me talk to this lawyer. If I need moral support, you’ll be the first to know.”
Claire tried to smile at the bit of humor in the one word, but the slight curl of her lips fell far short of an actual smile as she punched the Off button and resumed her pacing.
• • •
“Roberts here,” he said in a groggy voice.
“It’s Crystal Grayson.”
Jason Roberts wiped his face and worked to clear his sleep-fogged mind. Maybe he hadn’t heard correctly. He sat up and leaned against the wooden headboard.
“Yes, and don’t hang up.”
Since their last conversation over a month ago had ended heatedly, he was taken aback with the call and wanted to hang up, but didn’t because he owed her. And one thing he knew about Crystal Grayson. She always collected her debts.
“Okay. You got my attention. So, why’s the famous go-for-the-jugular divorce attorney calling me this early and at home? We don’t go to court till the end of the month. My bill’s paid, and as I recall, I made myself quite clear during our last discussion.”
“Jason, I can’t believe you’re still pouting.”
The exasperation in her voice made Jason sigh and shake his head. The woman on the other end was the most brazen person he’d ever dealt with. Her ballsy approach reached new highs, even when compared with some true dregs of society he’d encountered as a defense attorney over the years.
“Pouting?” He rolled his eyes. “Nice try. You know damn well why I’m surprised you’re calling.”
“Yes, I got that. Guess I’m particularly adept at surprising you.”
“Understatement if ever I heard one.”
“Who knew you were a lawyer with scruples? You have to admit my offer was an interesting one, and you were tempted. I saw it in your eyes.”
“Let’s not go there.” He snorted. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”
“It would’ve been worth it,” she purred, and tossed out a throaty laugh. “After all, a night with me in lieu of my fees seemed quite reasonable.”
“They’ve got a name for that. Did you call to bring it up again, or do you have a purpose?”
Another throaty laugh shot through the phone, irritating him. Claws raking over a metal roof would have been an improvement.
“I do have a purpose. I realized too late I insulted you with my offer, but you said if I ever needed your criminal services, you’d reciprocate. I’m calling in the favor.”
“What is it?” Jason sighed and rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. He didn’t need this shit right now. But he still needed Crystal Grayson. Big time. At least until his divorce was final.
She went above and beyond. Worked her butt off to make sure he shared custody of his two daughters, who were now his life. In an attempt to punish him for having the audacity to require fidelity in his marriage, his soon-to-be ex-wife had threatened to call Seattle home and take his two girls as far away from South Florida as possible. Crystal had effectively stopped not only Elise’s attempt to leave the area, but also her attempt to beggar him as well.
“I’m retaining you for my sister.”
“You have a sister?” He tried to keep the surprise out of his words.
Somehow Jason had never imagined the viperous divorce attorney as a normal person with a family, but he surmised even serial killers had family members somewhere who loved them, so why shouldn’t Crystal?
“She’s my twin. Identical, in fact.”
“There are two of you?” Jason swore under his breath. “God help us.”
“Real funny! But seriously, I got a call from her best friend. She thinks Claire’s in trouble. I don’t know what to think, which is why I called you to check it out.”
He reached for the knob on the nightstand and pulled, but the antique drawer stuck. He’d have to work on that, he thought, yanking harder and almost knocking over the picture of Chloe and Amelia. As he righted it, his gaze hit the chaos of stacked backer board and bags of mortar scattered near his bathroom. He had a full day planned to tear up some ugly green linoleum. Hopefully, talking to Claire wouldn’t take long.
He grabbed a pen and paper from the now-open drawer and began writing.
“What’s her full name?” he asked. “And give me any pertinent information.”
“Claire Carter.” Crystal rattled off her sister’s phone number. “She and her husband were out on their sailboat last night, celebrating. She woke up this morning and found blood all over the place. He’s missing, and she has no memory of what happened.”
“No. The dickhead most likely cut himself shaving for a girlfriend who picked him up after Claire passed out.”
“They sound like a charming couple.”
“It’s not what you think. She’s the good twin, nothing like me.”
He didn’t miss Crystal’s twinge of irritation his comment evoked, but couldn’t stop from adding, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“She’s a lightweight when it comes to alcohol,” Crystal went on, ignoring his taunt. “Also, she has a blind spot when it comes to her bastard husband. Knowing Carl like I do, I’m sure he took advantage of both. Look, personal issues aside, I’m worried. My gut instinct tells me something’s not right. If my sister needs a criminal attorney, I want the best. You said it yourself many times, everyone’s entitled to the best defense possible.”
He couldn’t argue with her logic, he thought, as she relayed more details. Cliché or not, he believed in truth, justice, and the American way, and valued integrity above all else. But having a good lawyer sometimes made all the difference in navigating the justice system.
“Gwen says Claire’s disoriented and doesn’t know what to do. Do you think you can help her?”
“The authorities need to be notified.”
“She’s already called 911.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to her. But that’s all I can do unless she’s charged with a crime. They may suspect foul play, especially with the blood. Might get ugly.”
“Which is why I was hoping you could drive down and scope things out.” She hesitated a heartbeat. “You’re a sailor, right? I’d go myself but I hate boats, and I’m the last person my sister will listen to when it comes to Carl.”
“You want me to drive to Key Largo?” He was unable to keep the shock out of the question, and his voice rose ten decibels. “From Boca Raton? Are you nuts? That’s a four-hour round trip.” What was the woman thinking?
“I understand it’s asking a lot, but I’m really worried,” came her anxious reply. “Carl’s done something; I just know it. Claire needs an objective viewpoint. I’m betting there’s no foul play, at least none involving my sister. She’s too nice, too soft. Too goody-two-shoes.”
Yeah, he mentally snorted. He’d heard it all before. Too many times. It was unlikely this Claire Carter was so lily white. Not after taking into account what he knew about Crystal. He’d bet a week’s pay the two sisters were alike, leaves on the same tree. They were probably very similar in nature, especially when they shared the same genes and probably had the same upbringing.
Jason remained quiet as a gnawing feeling grew in his gut. He shouldn’t get involved in any mess connected with the conniving woman. But he did owe Crystal, and his ex had the girls this week. Eyeing his master bath, he decided he could forgo a day of labor.
“I’ll do it,” he blew out on a resigned sigh. “Then consider my debt paid.”
Jason said his good-byes and punched in Claire Carter’s number, wondering if she’d stabbed her husband in a drunken rampage and woke with convenient amnesia. After listening to Crystal’s description of all the blood, not to mention that the guy sounded like a jerk, he had his doubts about the twin’s innocence. He’d defended numerous clients who’d done plenty worse for less motivation.
“Why me, Lord?” he murmured to himself as a voice interrupted his thoughts. “Mrs. Carter? My name is Jason Roberts. Crystal said you might need my help.”
“Oh, thank God. I don’t know what to do.”
Her genuine dismay set him back a bit. Jason hadn’t expected the utter anguish in her voice. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, the soft sound elicited some kind of recognition.
Yeah, right. Recognition of guilt.
“Calm down,” he said in a soothing voice as he shook off the cynical thoughts. “I’m here to help. Crystal gave me a rundown, but I’d like to hear your version of what happened last night.”
“That’s the problem. I woke up covered in blood, and I don’t remember much.”
“Okay, then we’ll start with what you do remember.”
Jason took notes as he listened, stopping her from time to time to ask clarifying questions. Once he had all the specifics, they agreed she’d pick him up at the marina.
While writing down her directions, he said, “I’m driving from Boca, so it’ll take me a couple of hours.”
She murmured her thanks, and he added, “Outside of briefly explaining to the authorities what happened, don’t answer any questions without me being present. Understand?”
A good offense was a criminal attorney’s first rule of thumb for providing a good defense, if needed. Until he scoped out the situation as promised, she was vulnerable to law enforcement and their intimidation tactics.
“Yes. I understand.”
“I’ll call you when I get close to the marina.”
After he hung up, he rose from the four-poster bed and wove his way around stacks of backer board and boxes of tiles for his ongoing house renovation while slipping out of his boxers. He yanked off his T-shirt and rifled through the bureau for fresh underwear, and grabbed Dockers and a sports shirt from the spacious walk-in closet that used to be a small bedroom.
Contemplating Claire Carter’s story, he headed for the bathroom and turned on the shower before he stepped under the hot water. As warmth seeped into his bones, his mind spun.
What was it about her eerie voice that drew him? He discarded the thought, refusing to believe something so ludicrous. The circumstances surrounding the woman’s situation intrigued him, not the other, and were definitely worth a trip. If anything, he figured he wouldn’t be bored.
Hell, Jason thought while soaping up, he could handle the win-win scenario. He’d clear his debt with the annoying divorce attorney and be entertained in the process.