The tidy world of schoolteacher Karen Hudson turns upside down as she embarks on a reckless chase from a small town in California to a jungle in Mexico, searching for the truth about the man who has captured her heart. One day after Michael Browning professes his undying love for Karen, he vanishes. Then she learns he is wanted for murder. Stunned and disbelieving, she sets out on a dangerous quest to unravel the mystery, making her the next target for murder.
Michael Borbeau, alias Michael Browning, never intended to mislead Karen, or fall in love for that matter. Only the need to protect his daughter forced him to choose a new town and a new name. Now, the whole mess is threatening to surface, and he must flee to keep his daughter safe.
Will he ever see his beloved Karen again? Will she discover the truth before the killer strikes again? Will she succeed in reuniting with the only man to ever unlock her heart?
Excerpt (Chapter Nine)
By 11 AM Clarice was ready. She had spent the better part of three hours preparing—beginning the moment that Michael and Jeannie exited the front door. Andre Gautier, her twenty-two year old masseur, had arrived at eight sharp and worked her muscles for a good hour. She invited him to handle her as vigorously as he liked. She was going to need it in order to stay relaxed for a long day ahead.
It was a good session. She appreciated the special touches he applied to certain parts of her body, nude under the towels…those long fingers sliding up her legs…the kneading inside her thighs…so close. Oh, it felt so good. Maybe someday she’d use this prince-of-stroking for something else. Right now though, she had more important things on her mind.
After Andre left she slipped into a tub of hot, silken water scented with lavender oil, and soaked for half an hour while listening to the music of Culture Club and Boy George. Her love of Boy George’s music had prompted her to pipe in a quadraphonic sound system in the master bath last year. It had turned bathing into an art form. Now, she could slide her torso below the water line while resting her head on the back of the tub and let his music flow into her soul.
As the CD drummed out the final song, ‘Satan’s Butterfly Ball’, she stepped out of the tub and into the shower where she washed and conditioned her hair, drawing out its considerable sheen. After she dried it and applied her makeup—an extra layer for a special day—she stepped into her new, lime green pantsuit. She tried on a number of earrings and shoes before settling on just the right match for her outfit. A prudent dousing of Terra Nova Gardenia, her favorite French perfume, on her wrists and behind her ears, concluded the ritual. She then moved in front of her antique, beveled dressing mirror and turned around, experimenting with different poses and viewing all the angles. Pleased with the results, she jiggled her bottom. What man could resist? It had taken nearly the entire morning, but, hell, beauty had its price.
She grabbed her purse and headed out the front door, walking in a rapid clip toward the garage, which was separated from the house by a hundred feet. A contemptible structure, she thought as she approached it. Before she married Michael he had commissioned a historical reconstruction company to convert it from a carriage house to a double bay garage while still preserving the character of the building. But who the hell cared about that if you were sprinting out of the house to reach it in the rain or cold?
She made a mental note to call their architect. She would have a new garage built; a big one with four bays that were attached to the house, and then she’d have that moldy old building ripped out of the ground. She had other plans, as well. Oh, yes, she’d just begun her work.
As she pulled out of the garage in her burgundy BMW 760, she spied their gardener, Francisco Quinteros, on a ladder pruning a birch tree near the driveway. She slowed her car to a stop and let the engine idle. He never seemed to be around, even though the work somehow magically got done. Sometimes, she had the feeling that he was trying to avoid her. Probably just lazy. He knew she had tons of great ideas for this yard, and he didn’t want to do the extra work.
Once, she even complained to Michael about it, but he’d told her that Francisco did everything he was asked to do and refused to reprimand him. He had admonished her instead, questioning her ability to work with an ‘even-tempered soul’, who had been gardening for his family for eight years.
Bullshit excuses! Covering up for his laziness. Well, she wasn’t going to let him slip away this time. She tooted her horn and waved at him impatiently. He twisted around on the ladder, looking startled, and squinted into the sun to see her. With a shake of his head, he started climbing down, very slowly. She didn’t have all day, so she honked her horn again. Francisco hopped off the ladder and hurried toward her.
“Si, Senora,” he said, when he reached her window. “Hay una problema?”
“Si, una problema!” Clarice snapped. Yeah, she had a problem, and it was going to be his in a moment. “We need new shrubs by the right corner of the house. I don’t like the ones that are there; they’re too tall. Pull those out, okay? Today. And show me something else to put in its place; showy, with colorful blooms or something. Have a plan for it by tomorrow.” Her eyes leveled at the lawn in front of them. “And I’d like this area near the corner of the lawn landscaped. There’s too much space there. We need another tree, some flowers. Draw up a plan for that as well, will you?”
“Senora, I have three other houses to visit. I cannot possibly do what you ask today. If you give me until next week…”
Clarice glared at him. “That’s the best you can do?” Francisco shrugged. “Well, then get your plan in by next week, but that’s the absolute latest, Francisco. Do you understand me?”
“Si, senora,” Francisco said, taking a step backwards.
Clarice nodded, eased her car into reverse, and backed up. Now that was how to handle the help. Michael should have been there, taking notes. She moved her car into the circular driveway and sped out into the street heading for L’Provence, an exclusive French restaurant in the busy downtown section of Tremont.
Fifteen minutes later, she laughed as she pulled into a parking spot directly in front of it. How perfect. She hopped out of her car and onto the sidewalk, twirling her keys and smiling. I bet my green suit really sets off the red in my hair, she thought, struggling to catch her reflection in the restaurant window. The couple sitting at the table on the other side of the glass waved uncertainly at her, but she didn’t see them. She blew a kiss at her image in the glass, and glanced at her watch. She had ten minutes to work a little magic before Barry arrived.
“Don’t be early,” she had warned him. “A little late is okay, but not early.”
She needed time to make certain she was seen. L’Provence, renovated along with an entire three-block section of the downtown area, stood as a monument to California’s gold rush. The façade, with the top edge cut like a two-dimensional wedding cake, rose up a full story taller than the building itself. A few newly planted trees lined the four-lane road with an occasional street lamp; very few visual obstructions. She congratulated herself on her choice; an excellent place to get noticed.
She scanned the busy street, hoping to see a familiar car. Barry had balked when he heard where they were meeting, wanting to see her at their usual spot, La Casa Alta Restaurant and Hotel, ten miles out-of-town. It was private there, and they were able to meet in secret, but Clarice didn’t want secret any longer. This was her coming out; today was the day! A horn blared off to her side in the street and she whirled around to wave, but it was just some dumb cluck trying to get around traffic.
“Hello, Clarice,” a voice behind her said, coolly. “Waiting for someone?”
Clarice turned to see Laura Dannerly hanging on the arm of that filthy rich husband of hers. Beastly woman! Clarice had been forced to put up with her snooty ways when they served together on the PTA at Tremont Elementary. It had been Clarice’s first and last term on the committee. The one thing she didn’t need was a snob like Laura coming up with a stupid idea a minute, such as raising money with a school auction to buy new playground equipment, or science materials for the teachers…blah-blah-blah. What a boring bitch. Clarice had suggested chartering a yacht for a dinner dance on the San Francisco Bay for the parent community. Now there was and idea, something classy. Laura had nixed it. Too expensive, she had said; wouldn’t make a profit. Hell, did everything have to be about profit? What about just having a good time? As if Laura’s husband, the charming Jonathan Dannerly, couldn’t have bought them their entire dinner dance.
Clarice could only guess what Jonathan was doing with the dowdy Laura, looped on her husband’s arm like an old tire. A man like that…hell, he had so many hundreds of millions…Laura had probably been his mother’s first choice for a bride, or something equally fatal. If only Clarice had met Jonathan first. Oh, the fun they could have traveling around the world to exotic places in their own yacht. And no shortage of jewelry or clothes for the bride of Jonathan Dannerly, either! She knew she could shop better than that dump of a woman who wore every shade of dreary on the color wheel: muddy blue, blah-blah browns gravelly grays. Jonathan had to be so bored with it. What a waste of perfectly good money.
And now this cow wanted to know if she was waiting for someone? Laura Dannerly rarely spoke to her; why bother her now? Most likely she was just jealous. After all, Clarice was looking her killer best: smart, chic, alluring—pretty threatening stuff. She pushed her chest up and out, making sure the cleavage pouring out over her yellow, silk halter-top got noticed.
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied to Laura while swaying her chest in front of Jonathan. She gave him a long look under her lashes. “I’m waiting for someone. I’ve got a date. He’s late, though.” Jonathan Dannerly gave her a pained smile.
“A date with your husband, I presume?” Laura interjected, now gripping her husband’s arm.
“Oh, no, that would be dull. Nope. Not the husband.”
Clarice flashed Jonathan a smile, thinking he was probably wishing he were the one. Laura shifted uncomfortably, looking dismayed. Ha! The bitch’s plan wasn’t working—not only had she failed to make Clarice look foolish, but her husband was eyeing her with a raised brow—no doubt drooling over her considerable assets.
“Oh. Well, I hope you find…whomever,” Laura said. “Good day, then.”
She steered her husband around Clarice and down the sidewalk. As they passed, Clarice wet her lips for Jonathan, who cast her a disbelieving look. The poor man was probably a little dazzled. It happened.
“Hey, Love,” said a deep voice. She whirled around to see Barry Maroney walking toward her, grinning sheepishly. “Hope you haven’t been waiting too long. I didn’t want to be early, you know...like you said.”
“Nah. You’re on time,” Clarice said, studying his approaching frame. He looked just like a big old grizzly bear with his scruffy brown hair and beard. Oh, well, he had other uses.
“Isn’t this just a little…public?” Barry asked, as he reached her.
“Yeah, isn’t it wonderful?” Clarice laughed, and threw her arms around his neck. Barry looked from side to side.
“Are you sure?”
Clarice moved her body against his, thrusting her hips forward as she stood on her tiptoes. “Maybe this will convince you,” she said.
Then in full view of the crowd packed inside L’Provence, cars passing on the street, and several pedestrians walking by, she gave him a long, wet kiss. Almost immediately, she felt Barry succumb, melting into her lips, the way he always did. When she had finished, she plunked her heels down and blinked up at him happily, then led him by the hand through the front door of L’Provence and into the spacious lobby. Every eye inside the restaurant was riveted upon them.