I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas . . .
I stopped across the street from the shabby looking bar and turned off my car. The neon sign across the front read “Tiki Tabu,” and it flickered on and off like a warning. In the silence, the heavy weight of impending disaster tightened my chest. What was I supposed to do now? None of my options looked good, but I’d promised my friend I’d find out what was going on with her husband. Too bad I didn’t know how complicated that would be.
The man I’d been following had pulled into the parking lot behind the bar, and I watched him come around the building to enter through the front door. He looked nothing like Kyle, the handsome Pacific Islander I’d met a few days ago.
Instead of the usual expensive slacks and button-down shirt, he wore torn jeans and a worn leather jacket. With his rough, unshaven face, and strands of dark, wavy hair dancing over his eyes, he looked like a drug dealer, or some other kind of shady character.
So what was he doing here at four in the afternoon? This was such a break from his real life as a guidance counselor at a high school for troubled kids that I could totally understand why my friend had asked for my help. Only, how was I supposed to know if this was part of his job or something worse?
The only way to find out was inside that bar. But, for some reason, I had a hard time getting out of my car. I waited a good five minutes to bolster my courage. Then, with everything screaming at me to stay put, I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Luckily, I’d worn a grey t-shirt with my black jeans and black boots, so I reached into the back seat and grabbed my black leather motorcycle jacket and slipped it on. It was near the end of April, so not too warm to wear it. And from what I’d seen, it would help me blend in with the crowd.
Next, I slung my purse over my shoulder and felt for my trusty stun-flashlight. In my other hand, I kept a tight grip on the small canister of pepper spray attached to my car keys. Knowing I couldn’t put it off any longer, I took a deep breath for courage and hurried across the street.
I hesitated at the door. Then, with my heart pounding, I swallowed my fear and stepped inside. The loud music assaulted my senses, and I squinted in the dark, needing a minute for my eyes to adjust before I could see well enough to find my way.
Taking it all in, my brows rose with surprise to find the place packed with people. At four in the afternoon. Didn’t anyone work around here?
Spotting a couple of empty stools at the bar, I quickly took a seat, wanting to go unnoticed for as long as possible. With the bartender busy, I glanced around the place, hoping to spot my quarry before he spotted me. I couldn’t see Kyle in any of the booths, but there were about four pool tables in the back. Maybe that’s where he was?
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. He was a big, brawny guy, and the white t-shirt he wore stretched tight across his chest and biceps. Along with his earrings and the tattoos all over his arms, his unfriendly scowl brought a spike of unease to my chest.
“Uh… could I get a Diet Coke with lemon?” His gaze narrowed at my non-alcoholic order, and he took in my fresh face and wondered what I was doing there. I didn’t fit in with the usual clientele… at all. I smiled and continued, “Or lime… whatever one’s easier will work, since I like them both.”
His lips drew into a thin line before he shook his head and left to get my drink. From his thoughts, I picked up that he’d noticed me the moment I’d come in and correctly determined that I had no idea what I was doing there. I had to be meeting someone. But who was it, and what did I want with them?
He knew I wasn’t a cop, since a cop would know better than to come in here alone. And even though I tried to pull off the bad-ass look with a motorcycle jacket and boots, I should have at least tried to cover my blond hair to fit in better. Then he hoped I didn’t cause any trouble, because he had a feeling I was in way over my head. With his instincts on high alert, he glanced over at Big Kahuna’s booth, and his lips twisted with dismay. It was too late. Now I was in for it.
Alarmed, I followed his gaze to a huge man who straightened from a slouch in his booth across from the bar. He observed me with narrowed eyes like a wild tiger scenting its prey. I swallowed and noticed several more guys like him throughout the place, all of Polynesian descent. What had I stumbled into now?
Of course, not everyone looked that way, but it made me stand out more than I liked. So what was Kyle’s connection to these guys? I knew he used to play football at the university, and these guys looked like football players. Maybe he was just catching up with old friends? But if that was the case, why all the sneaking around?
In desperation, I glanced toward the back of the room, hoping to spot him. Just then, a man moved his head, leaving me with a clear view of Kyle in earnest conversation with someone in the far-corner booth. With growing unease, I tried to block out the noise and listen to his thoughts so I could get out of there, but I had a hard time getting through. Then the bartender set my drink down in front of me, breaking my concentration. “That’ll be eight dollars,” he said, asking for a higher price than the five he normally charged.
I glanced at the small glass. It was mostly ice and wasn’t even filled to the top. Worse, it didn’t include a lime or a lemon. I pursed my lips before catching his gaze. The mocking challenge in his eyes got my dander up, especially since he was thinking that I should take the hint that I wasn’t welcome and leave before something bad happened to me.
In response, I took a five-dollar bill out of my purse and set it on the counter. His brows rose at my boldness, and he thought I might be tougher than I looked, but not quite tough enough for this crowd. He was probably right, but it still hurt my feelings. Before I lost my nerve, I grabbed my drink and hurried toward Kyle’s table. I knew this might be my only chance to find out what he was up to, even if it gave me away.
END OF TEASER…
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Today began like any other Monday.
The routine of getting my kids off to school was just the same as it had always been, and I found it a little disconcerting to think that I’d just had the adventure of my life in Paris, and now it seemed like I’d never been gone.
We’d gotten home on Friday, so with the weekend to get over my jet-lag, there was no excuse for not going back to my every-day life. It would have been depressing except for the fact that I had something to look forward to. Just thinking about it sent a thrill of excitement through me.
My husband, Chris, had just made partner at his law firm. With that came a few other benefits, one of which was a big raise in pay. On the plane ride home from Paris, Chris had mentioned this to me, along with the news that the house I’d always admired from afar was for sale. Now, there was a real possibility we could afford it.
I’d had my eye on that house ever since we’d moved into the area. It had a certain enchantment about it that fueled my imagi-nation. It was situated on a beautiful, stately, tree-lined street, and was built in the Old Victorian style. It even had a round turret on one side that spanned two floors, and another in the back. A wrap-around porch had recently been added, making it even more inviting.
It wasn’t a huge house, but big enough for our family, and I’d always thought it would be cool to live there. Even better, it was in our neighborhood and school district. So if we did buy it, our kids could stay in their schools and keep their friends.
The only drawback I could see? People moved in and out a lot, so it might need some fixing up, especially the yard. But that also meant the price would be lower, so it could all work out in the end. Chris had called a realtor on Saturday, and I had an appointment to meet him there this afternoon.
This fit into my plans perfectly, since I needed to visit Thrasher Development this morning and have a talk with Uncle Joey. He was the local mob-boss and my employer. And he wasn’t even my real uncle. But since he knew my secret, I was more or less coerced into working for him.
Recently, he’d sent his hit-man, Ramos, to look after me when I’d accompanied a federal agent to Paris on a routine trip. It had turned out to be a heck of a lot more than I’d bargained for. In fact, without Ramos’ help and protection, I’d be dead. The last time I’d talked with Uncle Joey, he wasn’t too happy with me. And since he’d basically saved my life by sending Ramos… again, I owed him big-time, probably for as long as I lived. Or at least until my mind-reading abilities stopped. So far, that hadn’t happened. And deep inside, I hoped it never would.
It had been a whole year since my life changed during a bank robbery at the grocery store while I was shopping for carrots. A bullet wound to my head had changed something in my brain, and now I could hear people’s thoughts. I could hardly believe how fast the time had gone since then.
In fact, reading minds had become so much a part of my identity that I didn’t think I could ever go back to the person I was before. So, even though it might get me out of helping a mob-boss, and keep me out of trouble, and even keep me from getting killed, I’d hate to lose it. How crazy was that?
On the other hand, Uncle Joey was getting older. He had to be over sixty-five. That meant he should retire at some point in the next few years. Maybe by then, he’d let me off the hook. Ha! Who was I kidding? Uncle Joey didn’t seem like the retiring type. He liked power way too much. And barring death, either his or mine, I didn’t think I’d ever be out from under his thumb.
It also worried me a little that the circle of people who actually knew my secret had just widened to include French Inspector Gabriel Dumont. But since I’d helped save a chunk of Paris, he’d readily agreed to keep it to himself.
So, including Uncle Joey, Ramos, my husband, Chris, and Detective Harris, whom I called Dimples, that still added up to only five people, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. Oh wait, there was one more… Kate.
How could I forget her? She was the main reason I got involved with Uncle Joey in the first place. As a new lawyer at Chris’ law firm, she’d set her sights on Chris, even though she knew he was happily married to me. In order to stop her, I’d threatened to expose her ties to the local mob-boss, Joe ‘The Knife’ Manetto, whom she called Uncle Joey.
That’s when it all went wrong, and I had to tell Uncle Joey my secret in order to stay alive. Kate had since been banished to run Uncle Joey’s operations in Seattle, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t pop back up in my life at any time.
Just thinking about her brought a sick feeling to my stomach, but now that she was involved with Alec Passini and his shipping company, I hoped that kept her occupied. Still, I wouldn’t put it past her to ask for my help if she needed it. So, of all the people who knew my secret, Kate was the one I worried about the most. Good thing I had Uncle Joey on my side. Everyone else thought I had ‘premonitions,’ and I needed to make sure it stayed that way.
Now that I was back in the real world, it hit me that I had a lot to worry about, so to alleviate those worries, I decided to change my focus to the possibility of purchasing my dream home. That helped revive me and, with anticipation, I jumped into the shower to get ready for my day.
An hour later, I pulled into the parking garage of Thrasher Development and gathered the special gifts I’d purchased in Paris for Uncle Joey, his secretary and wife, Jackie, and Ramos. I was excited about the gifts I’d bought for Uncle Joey and Jackie, but more than a little nervous about the one I’d bought for Ramos. I mean, what could I possibly give to the man who’d rescued me from a bunch of crazy terrorists?
Not only that, but he’d stuck by my side when he could have easily been blown up. The little Eiffel Tower I’d gotten him seemed kind of silly, but it was also personal. The first time I’d seen it sparkle was the night he’d saved my life and took me there to help settle me down. Now, when I thought of the Eiffel Tower, it was always of that moment standing there with him.
It was bad of me in so many ways, especially considering the kiss. Of course it wasn’t a personal kiss since Gabriel had kissed me too. It was kind of a French thing to celebrate not getting blown up; Joie de Vivre, and all that.
Still, I had to admit that I’d liked it, and that I didn’t feel too guilty about it. That probably made me even more of a bad person, but it’s not like I’d ever do it again. I loved my husband more than I could say, and we had two great kids together. But Ramos was special to me too, and always would be. So giving him the Eiffel Tower was an okay thing to do, right? Still, maybe I should forget about it and just give him the extra chocolates instead. Then I wouldn’t have to worry that I’d crossed some sort of line.
Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t hear him approach and nearly jumped out of my skin. “Wha… what are you doing here?” I clutched the bag of goodies to my chest with a guilty flush.***End of Teaser***