The New York Times bestselling Montgomery/Taggert Family series returns with a sizzling romance “packed full of warmth, humor, sensual tension, and exciting adventure” (RT Book Reviews) about a New York businesswoman on the run in Florida after being falsely accused of murder.
A rising star at a Manhattan corporation, Fiona Burkenhalter is a New Yorker through and through and when her boss inexplicably sends her to handle a new account in the Florida Everglades, it may as well be another planet. But this is no ordinary business meeting: Fiona is to join her client on a rustic fishing expedition, accompanied by a guide with the larger-than-life name of Ace Montgomery.
More than a little steamed at this detour from the executive fast track, Fiona never imagined that she’d embarked on the wildest adventure of her life—or that the rough-hewn, undeniably handsome Ace Montgomery from the Southern backwoods would become her closest ally. But hair-raising circumstances pull her deep into trouble from the moment she steps off the plane. Only in the heart of the swamplands could she get lost in a maze of intrigue and become the prime suspect for a shocking murder with Ace as her presumed accomplice. Suddenly, they discover that they have inherited the murder victim’s vast fortune and they are now Florida’s most wanted couple!
Now, with their lives and hearts on the line, they turn up the heat in their desperate search for a killer.
"I refuse to accept it in that condition," Ace said, glaring at the man who was holding out a clipboard and expecting him to sign the acceptance papers.
"Look, mister, I'm just the deliveryman, and nobody said anything about busted crates. So just sign it so I can get out of here."
Ace kept his hands at his side. "Maybe you can't read, but I can," he said. "The fine print on that contract says that once I accept shipment, it's my responsibility. That means that if it's broken, then it's my problem. But if I find out that it's broken before I sign, then it's your problem. Got it?"
For a moment the man stood there opening and closing his mouth. "Do you know what's in that thing?"
"I most certainly do, since I'm the one who ordered it. And paid for it, I might add."
The man still didn't seem to understand. "So let's get it out of here so we can -- "
"No," Ace said. "We open it here and now."
At that the man looked about him pointedly, as though Ace didn't understand exactly where they were. They were in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport. Right now there were only a few porters removing unclaimed bags from the carousels, but any minute the escalator to the left might start delivering a plane full of people. "You want me to uncrate the thing here? Now?" the man said quietly.
"Now," Ace said firmly. "You put it in my truck, it's mine, so I have to pay for it if it's damaged, and I paid too much for it to -- "
"Yeah, yeah," the man said, bored, then turned to a skinny kid standing next to Ace. The kid was wearing the same gray uniform that the guy giving the orders was wearing. "He always like that?"
"Naw, sometimes he's a real pain in the neck."
"I hope you're gettin' paid well."
"Actually..." he began, but a bark from Ace stopped him.
"Tim! You want to get away from that end of the crate? I don't want one of my guys touching it until I see that it's working."
With his back to Ace, the deliveryman grimaced. He was tired and hungry, and worse, he was alone. He'd have to uncrate the damned thing by himself all because of a little dent in one corner. Using a crowbar, he pried up one side of the fifteen-foot-long crate, and there, lying in a bed of Styrofoam pellets was the remote control. With a wicked little smile that he made sure no one saw, he pocketed the control, then kept on uncrating. When he got to the other end, Ace was bent over the opposite end, peering inside, a frown of concentration on his face.
"Psst," the deliveryman said to the kid in the uniform. The label on his pocket said, Tim, Kendrick Park. "Tim," the deliveryman said, then handed him the remote control.
"Is that what -- "
"Quiet," the man ordered. "Don't let him see it."
"Yeah, sure," Tim said, his eyes wide, looking like a kid with the world's biggest Nintendo game in his hands.
"Just don't push the buttons," the deliveryman said, "because the thing will start moving and it'll scare everybody."
"Yeah?" Tim said, somehow managing to open his eyes even wider. But Tim could no more resist the temptation than Adam could. The minute the crate was opened enough to see inside the near end, Tim pushed the buttons -- then was extremely satisfied when a woman behind him gave a yelp of fear.
"It's all right," Ace said to the crowd as he looked at the first of what was probably a planeload of travelers arriving in the baggage claim. "It's not real. It's just a fiberglass alligator sent here from California, and we're checking it for damages."
At his words the fear left their faces, but they showed no signs of moving closer to the baggage carousel. What some of them had just seen was what looked to be the enormous head of an alligator lift out of a wooden crate and snap its jaws at the man who was fearlessly putting his hands into the long box.
When no one so much as moved even an inch in the direction of the luggage, Ace shook his head in exasperation, then turned and snatched the remote from Tim. "Would you help rather than hinder?"
"Sorry, boss," Tim said, but he didn't look sorry. "I couldn't resist it. That thing sure does look real."
"That's why it cost me every penny I had," Ace muttered. "Now get on that end and check its tail. See if there's so much as a scratch."
Now that Ace and Tim had taken over, the deliveryman was leaning against the back wall and using a pocket knife to trim his nails. "So how come you don't have a real alligator?" he asked. "You runnin' out of real ones down here?" He laughed at his own joke. "Too many handbags and shoes?"
Ace had to nearly push a woman aside as she leaned so far over to see inside the crate that she was in the way. "Kendrick Park is a bird sanctuary," he said, as if that explained everything.
When the man looked puzzled, Tim said quietly, "He doesn't like to put things in cages, but alligators draw crowds."
The man pondered that for a minute. "I see. So you thought that if you get a fake alligator you'll get tourists, but ol' Ivan here won't cry crocodile tears
of loneliness. Right?" He was grinning at his little witticism.
When Ace didn't bother to answer, Tim said, "Exactly."
"You about through with your inspection, Mr. Birdman?" the deliveryman asked.
"The damage on the crate is on the bottom. To do a proper inspection, we're going to have to take it out and look at its belly."
"Just what my wife says to me every night," the man said under his breath to Tim, who turned red and choked on his laughter. At the moment his boss didn't look as though he was in the mood for jokes.
"Okay, Tim, get the tail. Careful. I don't want it hurt. Okay," Ace said a moment later as he looked at the huge alligator replica stretched out full length on the floor. "It looks undamaged."
"So you want to sign this now, so I can go get something to eat?"
"All right," Ace said, stretching out his hand; then he took a deep breath before he signed the paper saying the terrifically expensive replica was now his responsibility. For a moment he glanced up at the plane passengers that were now surrounding them. They were silent, tired after their flight from New York, or maybe they were just awed at seeing what they had hoped to see on their trip to Florida. Whatever, they were just standing there watching this free show while suitcases went unnoticed, round and round on the carousel.
"Okay, so let's get him back in his box," Ace said. "Tim, you get the tail, and I'll get the head."
For a moment, Ace hesitated as he tried to figure out how best to get a grip on the beast. In the next second he inserted his hand, then his arm up to his armpit down the alligator's mouth. When a collective "Ooooh" went up from the watching crowd, he smiled. This was going to work, he thought. Over on the other side of the state, Disney was making a fortune with his fake animals, while farms here in Fort Lauderdale were barely able to feed their 450-pound 'gators. And getting ma, pa, and the kids to want to go see a flock of flamingos was a losing proposition -- and he had the empty bank account to prove it.
As Ace and Tim were putting the giant fiberglass alligator back into the box, neither of them saw the inquisitive toddler slip between the suitcases and pick up the remote control that Ace had carefully set on top of his toolbox. The little boy, at eighteen months, just loved to push buttons.
"Bloody hell," Fiona muttered as she disembarked the plane. She'd had a couple of hangovers in her life, mostly while in college, but nothing like this. Not only did her head hurt, but she could feel even the tiny bones in her ankles. She'd fallen asleep on the plane, and the attendant had had to wake her, which made her the last one off the plane.
Dragging her backpack on over her shoulder sent more pain through her. She and the rest of The Five, as they'd dubbed themselves as kids, had stayed out until two a.m., laughing riotously over everything in their lives, but most especially over Fiona's having to go on a fishing trip.
"You?" Jean had said. "I can't imagine you more than two miles from a manicurist." Jean was a sculptor and her hands always looked scraped and worn. But all four of the women knew that Jean didn't need to do anything to make a living; she had a trust fund.
As Fiona walked into the airport, the bright light coming through the huge windows made her hide her eyes while she fumbled in her bag for the sunglasses she'd bought at LaGuardia Airport. In New York they'd seemed so dark she could hardly see through them. But now the glare made them seem like clear glass.
The airport seemed empty as she trudged ahead, her aching head filled with nothing but bad thoughts. How was she going to survive the next three days? Would this man require her to clean fish?
When she stepped onto the escalator leading down to the baggage carousels, the movement almost made her retch. Quickly, she fumbled in her bag for a tissue, then held it to her mouth. Why was she here and what did this man Roy Hudson want with her? And why Florida? And if Florida, why not some nice clean, private beach? Why was he insisting on going into the swamps or whatever to look for --
Because Fiona had a tissue to her mouth and her eyes closed, she had descended the escalator without seeing the silent, watching crowd at the bottom. But when she stepped off, she nearly fell on top of a man with a paunch and not much hair.
"Pardon me," she said in a voice as husky as her brain was feeling.
The man looked up at her and his face softened. "Any time," he said, then stepped aside so she could see what they were all watching.
Later, Fiona said that she didn't think, she just moved. What she saw -- her eyes blinking behind the dark glasses, her mind full of swamps and alligators and the treachery of the state of Florida -- was a man with his arm being eaten off by an enormous alligator. As the alligator started to thrash its tail, then move its head from side to side, the man shouted something incomprehensible as he tried to free himself from the attacking reptile.
In school Fiona had been the girl with the fastest reaction time in any game, whether it was soccer or pickup sticks, and now she lost no time. Next to her was a woman with an airport luggage cart, and on top of it was a pink bowling ball bag with the name Dixie embroidered on it.
Without a thought, Fiona picked up the bag and threw it with all her might at the midsection of the alligator.
She wasn't prepared for what happened next. The alligator exploded! It didn't open its mouth and release its victim. Instead, there was a terrific noise, then the whole nasty green thing seemed to fly into thousands of pieces that went flying around the airport.
While Fiona stood there in stunned silence, the rest of the people in the airport seemed to go crazy. Instantly there was screaming and shouts of, "Bomb, bomb!"; then sirens went off and people started running.
Unmoving, still not understanding what had happened, Fiona removed her sunglasses and looked at what she thought had been an alligator. A man came toward her and there seemed to be a double row of teeth attached to his upper arm. Her eyes were on the oddity of the teeth, but when she looked up at the man to ask why he was wearing teeth, she saw that he was furious and he was coming after her.
Instinctively, Fiona took a step backward, whereupon she tripped over the luggage cart of the woman who had had the bowling ball bag. But now the woman was gone, probably to join all the many people who were screaming and running frantically for the exits.
"Lady, I'm going to kill you," the man said as his hands made for Fiona's neck.
But the alligator teeth, and what looked to be a detached eyeball, slipped down his hands so that both teeth and murderous hands were coming for her throat. Fiona opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
But then, just before the man reached her, two security guards and a boy with red hair grabbed the man, teeth and all, and pulled him away.
"Thank you so much," Fiona said when a third and fourth security guard helped her to stand up. "That man should be locked away. He's a danger to society, and if you don't -- Wait a minute! What do you think you're doing?"
The guard was pulling Fiona's hands behind her back and snapping handcuffs on her wrists. "We're holding you for the police, that's what. The man says you're the one that threw the bomb." She could hardly hear him over the cacophony of the people in the airport, running every which way, screaming names of people they couldn't find.
"Bomb?" she shouted. "I threw a bowling ball bag at an alligator that was eating a man's arm."
"Yeah, right," one of the guards said. "We got alligators crawling all over the airports here in Fort Lauderdale. It entertains the tourists to no end."
"But you can ask -- "
"Save it for the police," the second guard said as the two of them pulled her toward the exit door.
"What about my luggage? You have to call my boss in New York. He can -- "
"Ah. New York," the first guard said as though that explained everything.
Before Fiona could say another word, she was pulled along by the men and led to a car marked Airport Security. Just like on TV, the man shielded her head from getting banged on the top of the doorframe as he forcibly helped her inside the car.
Shaking with fatigue, Fiona sat down on the dirty bedspread and looked at the telephone on the cheap, battered bedside cabinet. The beautiful hotel where she was supposed to stay had canceled her reservation when she didn't show up before six. At first she'd politely tried to explain that she'd been in jail for the last six hours, but when she saw the young female clerk back away as though Fiona were a criminal, she tried threatening. This got her nowhere fast, and the manager soon came out and asked her to leave.
So now she was in what had to be the sleaziest motel in all of Florida. It was four a.m. and she had to meet Roy Hudson in two hours.
With her hands protected with a tissue (because who knew what type of person had used this phone last?), she punched the buttons to call Jeremy.
When his sleepy voice answered, Fiona burst into tears.
"Who is this? Is this a prank call? You'd better speak up!" Jeremy loudly demanded while Fiona tried to get herself together.
"It's me," she managed to whisper. "Oh, Jeremy, I've just had -- "
"Fiona, do you know what time it is? I have to get up and go to work in three hours."
"I haven't been to bed at all. Oh, Jeremy, I've been in jail."
That got his attention, and she could imagine his sitting up and reaching for a cigarette. She waited a moment until she heard his lighter click, then heard him inhale.
"All right, I'm listening," he said in his lawyer voice.
Maybe he didn't like a girlfriend calling him before dawn, but a client in trouble was a whole other matter. After about ten minutes of listening to Fiona's semihysterical telling of her outrageous story, Jeremy interrupted.
"They let you go? No charges?"
"What could they charge me with?" Fiona's voice was rising. "I thought I was saving the man's life. Not that it was worth much. Did I tell you that the ungrateful jerk tried to murder me? I ought to sue him."
"Ah. There's the word. Is he planning to sue you? What about the people at the airport? Did anyone have any accidents during the panic you caused? Heart attacks? Were any ambulances called?"
"Jeremy! Whose side are you on?"
"Yours of course," he said in a tone of dismissal, "but money is money. Did the man say he was going to sue you for destroying his alligator?"
"I don't know. I don't remember. They kept us separated after we got to the police station. Oh, Jeremy, it was so horrible, and I wish you were here to hold me. That man -- "
He cut her off. "Did anyone else mention a lawsuit? What about the airport personnel? You caused mass hysteria, so I doubt if they'll take that lightly."
Fiona ran her hand over her face. There was no longer any hope that she still wore makeup. "Jeremy, I called you as my friend, not as a lawyer."
"Maybe you'll need both, so would you please answer my questions?"
Part of her wanted to be babied, hugged and cuddled as best he could over the telephone, but another part of her was sane and sensible. She took a deep breath. "The woman whose bowling ball bag I used came to the police station and said I had to buy her a new bag. And her ball was dented too."
Jeremy let out smoke so fast he nearly choked. "You dented her bowling ball?"
"Don't start on me," Fiona snapped. "I've heard it all from those horrible policemen. I guess I must have put a lot of my anger into that throw because I hit that...that...thing pretty hard."
"Enough to dent a bowling ball," Jeremy said in wonder. "Remind me never to make you angry at me. So, what did you do about the woman's bag and ball? And, by the way, why didn't you call me from the station?"
"Because they said I wasn't under arrest, that I was their 'guest' until this thing was cleared up, therefore I didn't need any fancy-smancy New York lawyer."
"You need to document this. You might have a case for a lawsuit against them."
"I never want to see them again. I gave the woman a check for three hundred dollars and -- "
"Paid for the ball I dented," Fiona half shouted into the phone. "Isn't that what you just asked me?"
Jeremy didn't speak for a moment. "You want to calm down?"
"How can I calm down? I didn't want to leave Kimberly in the first place; Garrett made me go. Now, there's someone I'd like to sue. He threatened me that if I didn't go on this trip he'd separate me from Kimberly forever. Can he do that?"
"He's your boss," Jeremy said, stubbing out his cigarette. Privately, he thought that it would be a great relief if Fiona were separated from Kimberly. "Look, Fee, honey, I need to get some more sleep. It doesn't sound as though you're in serious trouble, but I'll call a friend of mine down there in the morning and have him call you. I'll have him make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to you." His voice softened. "Now I want you to take a long, hot bath, then get into bed and dream about me."
Finally, Fiona smiled. It seemed that she hadn't smiled in days, maybe even in years. "I'd like that," she said softly, leaning back against the headboard. But the creaky thing almost came off its cheap frame, so she had to sit up quickly to keep from falling, and the movement broke the spell.
"I can't," she said in a little-girl whine. "I have to meet this old man, this Roy Hudson, in just over an hour."
"Can't you call and delay the meeting?"
"It's for" -- she swallowed -- "fishing. You have to go out in the boat very early for fishing. Maybe the slimy little things take afternoon naps; I don't know. But I have to be there very soon."
"All right, calm down. This man Hudson is rich, so I'm sure he'll have a boat with a crew. A yacht probably. Think you could handle a yacht? Have yourself a few drinks? Lie in the sun?"
"Drinking is what got me in this mess in the first place, and sun is not going to touch my skin and make me look sixty at forty, and -- "
"Okay, have it your way. Be miserable if you want to. Just tell me where you'll be, so my friend can reach you."
"I'll be at Kendrick Park until we get on the boat. I think it's a bird sanctuary, and get this, as if I didn't have enough problems, one of the men on the boat is named Ace."
When Jeremy was silent, Fiona spoke again. "You don't think that's funny?"
"Not particularly. What's wrong with that name?"
She thought about telling him of what she and The Five had come up with about the man, but Jeremy liked The Five as much as he liked Kimberly. "I think it might be a woman thing."
"I'm sure it is. Look, honey..."
"Yes, I know, you need your beauty sleep. Did I tell you that when I didn't claim my suitcase, they put it into an incinerator? After all, they'd already had one bomb scare that day, so they didn't need another one. I am here with the clothes on my back and what's in my pack."
Jeremy yawned. "If I know women, that thing is full of everything you need for a week on a deserted island."
Tightening her lips, Fiona glared at the phone. His chauvinistic comment was one of dismissal, and all his care and concern had been about legal matters. He hadn't offered her a word of sympathy for all that she'd been through. So much for a shoulder to cry on! "At least your photo was in the bag that got burned up," she said, then hung up. But the gesture didn't make her feel any better. She had an hour and a half to get ready to meet Roy Hudson.
Jude Deveraux is the author of more than forty New York Times bestsellers, including Moonlight in the Morning, The Scent of Jasmine, Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, Lavender Morning, Return to Summerhouse, and Secrets. To date, there are more than sixty million copies of her books in print worldwide. To learn more, visit JudeDeveraux.com.