swear it!” The rope loosened and he drew a gasping breath. “Dammit.”
“Find out why. For now, all roads lead to you. If you’re caught, you take the fall. And if you even consider revealing an iota of the nature of our relationship . . .” The rope jerked tight, then loosened once again. “These ropes come in all sizes.”
Fear iced his heart. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you’ll keep your mouth shut, because you’re smart. If you don’t, you’ll watch the people you care about die one by one. This isn’t a game. We’re serious. We will not be caught, no matter what. Do you understand?”
He nodded, trembling so hard he could barely stand. The rope was yanked from his throat, leaving a strip of red, raw skin. He dropped to his hands and knees and heard the gravel crunch as the footsteps moved away. Then like the cowardly dog he was, he threw up.
St. Pete Beach, Saturday, February 27, 6:45 p.m.
Emma shivered. It had been a beautiful day, the warmth welcome after the snow in Cincinnati. But the air cooled quickly as she watched the sun set from the wide balcony outside Crabby Bill’s bar. She pulled on the jacket that went with the dress she’d agonized over for hours. Was it too dressy? She didn’t want to look too dressy. She didn’t want him to get the idea that she’d come to take him up on his seventeen-year-old offer. Was it too casual? She didn’t want that either, didn’t want him to think that this apology was something she just did because she had nothing better to do.
Emma drew a breath and huffed it out on a laugh. She was compulsing, as usual. He’d probably come in khaki pants and a polo shirt like everybody else here. They’d have a relaxed dinner, she’d humble herself in apology, then she’d go home to Cincinnati, her conscience appeased. He’d return to the life he’d built here. He was divorced with a daughter. That’s all she knew. That’s all she’d allowed the PI to tell her.
“Emma?” said a voice she’d recognize if she lived to be a hundred.
It was him. Slowly turning, she caught her first glimpse of him and was glad she’d worn the dress, because he stood behind her in a dark suit with a garishly bright orange tie with green palm trees. She braced her back against the balcony railing and herself for whatever reaction she’d see in his face, praying it wouldn’t be hostility or disdain. She lifted her gaze higher until she’d locked on those blue eyes she remembered so well. When he was young, they’d flash with anger, crinkle with humor, widen with surprise when he learned something new. Now, tiny crow’s feet marked the corners, but the color was still that same vibrant blue. They stared at one another, then the crow’s feet became crinkles as the corners of his mouth tipped up in welcome.
“You look the same,” he said and she rolled her eyes.
“I do not.” She studied him as fully as she dared without giving him the wrong idea. “Neither do you. Your curls are all gone.”
He brushed his large hand over his dark close-cut hair self-consciously. “Curls work better on kids.” He came a few steps closer and took a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger. “You’re a lot blonder,” he said teasingly, his mouth still bent in that little smile, and the air seemed suddenly thicker.
She made herself chuckle. “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible,” she said, quoting their old chemistry teacher, then drew in a surprised breath when he grinned. As a young boy he’d been cute, lanky. Awkward. As a grown man he was no longer lanky, but filled out and muscular. Very attractive. But when he grinned . . . Her heart resumed, at a less than steady beat. Dear Lord, that smile was potent. Or perhaps it was the waves and the palm trees and the lanterns bobbing in the warm gulf breeze.
Or perhaps it’s just the pathetic wishing of a lonely woman
. Maybe Kate was right and she never should
Marlo Williams, Leddy Harper