by Debbie Herbert
Perry’s back. Two words that shook Jet’s world, but not in a good way. She’d returned home from the Poseidon Games two nights ago, exhausted, when her cousin Shelly had broken the news.
Jet sighed as she scanned the bored, impatient crowd packed inside the government services waiting room, its ambiance a curious mixture of sterility and shabbiness. The old building was painted an institutional green and smelled faintly of disinfectant, mold and stale coffee. In the lobby, cheap metal folding chairs were set up in rows.
Outside, the morning rain beat down in gusting sheets. Jet eyed the few people roaming the Main Street, searching for a certain build, that certain shock of brown hair and chiseled profile.
Stop it. You’ll see Perry soon enough. And oh, how she’d make him pay. That rat would get on his knees, by Neptune, and beg her forgiveness before she sent him on his way.
Oh, no. Huge mistake. She shouldn’t have pictured him in that position, those brown eyes staring up at her naked body with hunger. Jet squirmed. Think of something else. She closed her eyes, imagined swimming the warm waters of the Florida Keys and scooping up antique cufflinks and coins sunk by ships hundreds of years ago, like a child picking up dropped marbles on a school playground.
It wasn’t helping. Jet placed a hand over her stomach. Sexual need fierce as a knife wound seared and twisted her guts. Damn, she hated that part of her mermaid nature that intensified sexual hunger. It could be a hindrance if she saw Perry after this meeting as she’d planned. But she had to face him eventually and see what he wanted. She would have to keep her sexual need under control and send him away with the tongue-lashing of the century.
Ugh, tongues lashing. Now she could taste his lips and tongue in her mouth, his long, slow languid kisses that made her frantic with desire in nanoseconds.
There she went again. She was the biggest fool on the planet to pine for Perry’s kisses. He’d been out of prison for weeks. He’d been languishing in a jail cell for the past three years, missing her and regretting his betrayal, he’d have shown up long before now. Forget him, he’d done the unforgiveable.
“Jet Bosarge,” the receptionist called out.
She grabbed her backpack and the man seated across from her frowned. “I’ve been here longer than you,” he grumbled.
She shrugged. “Take it up with them.” Jet marched down the labyrinth hallway until she found a door marked IRS. No one answered her knock, so she opened it and stuck her head in.
The office was tiny and contained an old wooden desk. A metal folding chair, identical to those in the waiting area, was positioned across from it. The IRS could have sprung for better accommodations; it collected enough money to do better than this bare cubbyhole. A cheap, utilitarian clock hung on the wall, its secondhand clicked inconsistently—slow—fast, fast—slow, as if it were spitting out Morse code. She paused, wondering if she were in the right place, until she spotted the nameplate reading Landry Fields.
She dropped her backpack by the chair and stood at the lone rectangular window. Quite a show played outside with the swirling rain pounding the parking lot pavement.
Jet pressed her face against the cool, damp pane. She loved the rain. Loved every pore on her body drenched in raindrops. The only thing better than land-walking on days like this, was swimming undersea during a thunderstorm. She’d swim close to the ocean surface, watching raindrops bounce on top of the water and meld into a white, bubbling cauldron of energy, while underneath, the pull of the tide crested and heaved in response to the wind. And if a rain shower coincided with the night of a full moon, the energy was electric with intensity.
She closed her eyes and touched her palms to the glass, imagined swimming under the rain’s onslaught right now. Her body came alive, prickling with sensation—
“It’s a mess out there, isn’t it?” came a voice, low, rumbling and way too close.
Jet jumped and spun around. Her eyes bored into a pin-striped suit covering a broad chest. Her gaze traveled upward, taking in a strong jaw and ice-blue eyes that pinned her as if she were a trapped butterfly the man wanted to dissect.
“Mr. Fields?” she guessed. Her voice came out a touch squeaky and she cleared her throat.
He extended a hand. “Miss Bosarge?”
His grip was firm and brief, but far from impersonal, at least on her end. Her palm tingled from the contact and she had a wild urge to curl her fingers over his hand and never let go.
Insane. Jet hastily withdrew her hand and crossed her arms over her stomach. Fields gestured to the folding chair, his face reflecting no sign that their contact had affected him at all. “Have a seat.”
She sank into the chair, feeling underdressed. She usually sported black yoga pants, T-shirts and sneakers, perfectly fine for helping Lily at the salon or working out at the gym. In honor of this visit, she had slightly altered her normal attire by wearing jeans, a purple long-sleeved top and a purple and red scarf. Jet wished she’d taken more time with her appearance and played with Lily’s boxes of lotions and potions. At the very least, she could have styled her asymmetrical bob. Oh, well, she had remembered earrings. Maybe her five-carat diamond studs would deflect attention from her plain, unadorned face. Humans seemed to care inordinately about such things.
Under his probing gaze, Jet readjusted the scarf to ensure it completely covered her three-inch gills which extended from the top of the collarbone to her windpipe on each side of her neck. Although the slotted marks in her flesh were faint, she was careful to keep them covered to avoid questions by any observant human. And this guy looked way too sharp. Jet mentally noted to grow her hair out a few more inches so it would be long enough to cover the gills by the time summer arrived when scarves and turtlenecks would appear odd. Since her hair grew an inch a week, it should be plenty long enough at summer’s advent.
Fields pulled out a single file from the front drawer and placed it on the desk’s otherwise bare surface. He opened the file and glanced through it, as if refreshing his memory.
“Your letter stated you only found an irregularity in my tax records,” Jet volunteered.
“Mmm-hmm.” He kept reading, never looking up, even when the printer kicked up an odd whirring sound, as if a hive of angry hornets had swarmed to life. The noise ended as suddenly as it had started.
Jet stifled an exasperated sigh and started swinging one crossed leg. The small room was stifling. The man’s mere presence completely engulfed her senses and she stared at his large hands with the clipped, clean nails. No wedding band, but he wore a ruby ring set in a gold band on his right hand. Some kind of class ring, probably from some elite college. His clothes looked tailored and his facial features bore a patrician vibe. The harsh planes of his face, strong jaw and chilly eyes made him appear stern.
The man certainly didn’t fit in with the shabby surroundings. Jet admired his clean, crisp aura and sniffed discreetly, picking up a lingering scent of soap, as if he’d just showered and dressed. And didn’t that make her squirm. Hell, what was wrong with her today? She didn’t even know this man. News of Perry’s arrival must have unsettled her more than she first suspected.
The silence got on her nerves. “Since when did our town warrant an IRS office?” she asked. “I don’t remember ever seeing one here before.”
His gaze stayed fixed on her file as he answered. “It’s a temporary field office for tax season. We’ll close by the end of May. It’s all part of our agency’s public service.”
Public Service? More like a public nuisance. What was so interesting about her tax records? True, she had bucketloads of money in trust funds, but her inheritance was legit. Her ancestors had always been careful to hire the best attorneys to cover where the real money originated—from expensive undersea trinkets strategically sold in bits and pieces over decades.
He finally gave a small nod and faced her. “I remember viewing your file now. The first thing that caught my attention was the income fluctuation in two of your businesses. Four years ago, you claimed a net annual profit of over fifty thousand dollars with The Pirate’s Chest. The business is still listed as open, yet no more profits have been claimed. Then three years ago, another business of yours, The Mermaid’s Hair Lair, reported steady profits until it shut down last year. For the past six months, you’ve been earning an income solely from the interests and profits of various trust funds and stocks.”
She couldn’t help but notice the slight, contemptuous curve at the corners of his mouth. Jet bristled; it rankled when people assumed she must be some sort of privileged society girl. She’d worked hard to contribute to the Bosarge family fortune with years of physically exhausting and high-risk ventures, reclaiming sea treasure with the rat-bastard Perry Hammonds. Not that she could tell this numbers nerd that particular bit of information. “Is inheriting money against the law? It’s not like I intend to live off the trust fund forever. I’m reopening The Pirate’s Chest. I’ve already obtained a lease on a downtown building and I’m stocking inventory. A big shipment of antique furniture should arrive from Mobile tomorrow.”
The auditor remained unruffled and silent while rain splattered the window, loud as a knocking at the door. The beating rain outside created a cozy sense of intimacy in the small room and Jet fantasized what it would be like to lean over the desk and kiss Mister-All-Business-Man until he lost that aloof self control and had his way with her…Jet shook her head slightly and blinked. This had to stop.
Against her better judgment, she spoke up again, eager to get her mind back on track. “My sister Lily and I jointly owned the salon. She’s taken an extended leave of absence to travel. We might open it again one day, though.” Jet bit the inside of her lip at the white lie. Not likely the beauty shop would reopen; Lily seemed happiest living undersea and using her siren talent to attract mermen.
Fields wasn’t interested. “Okay, moving on. In reviewing your inventory and sales at the antique store, I noted you sold maritime artifacts, some quite rare. Are the manifests for these items on file?”
Jet swallowed. As far as she was concerned, once a ship sank, whatever cargo sank with it became the property of the merfolk. What good was all that treasure sitting at the bottom of the ocean? The sea belonged to the merfolk, not humans, and they could keep it or sell it to dirt dwellers as they chose. But she could hardly tell him that either.
“Of course, I have paperwork,” she said coolly. “I also have an excellent accountant who filed my taxes. Perhaps I should have brought either him or my attorney with me. However, your letter phrased this meeting as discussing an irregularity and not a full-blown audit.”
“You’re always welcome to bring an attorney or accountant. That’s perfectly within your rights as a citizen.” He studied her, no emotion showing in those frozen eyes. His face was stern, his manner stiff and formal. “Moving on to your stock portfolio,” he said, as if she hadn’t voiced a concern. “Over twenty percent of your stock is invested in one company, Gulf Coast Treasures and Salvage, LLC.”
Damn. She and Perry had sold, without papers, plenty of shipwrecked, illegal items to that very company. In return, they were given cash which they used, in part, to purchase stock in the salvage company. Jet kept her mouth shut and merely raised an eyebrow.
The silence between them stretched, but she refused to be the one to break it this time.
“These types of ocean recovery companies are very risky,” Fields continued. “Even if they do find treasure, they must have a profitable way to recover items and bring it up to land using approved archaeological methods. And if all that is accomplished, there’s the thorny issue of who gets a share of the profits—the state, foreign governments, the originating ship’s company, distant heirs of the original property—”
So maybe all this wasn’t about her, she decided with an internal whoosh of relief. It was about the government clamping down on these industries, making sure they got their own profit cuts. A treasure salvage company in Tampa had been in the news recently when it recovered over five hundred million dollars worth of silver and gold coins from a colonial-era wreck near Portugal. Naturally, the Spanish government filed an immediate claim of ownership and refused to pay the company any salvage fee.
Jet hated worrying about pesky ownership issues. The mermaid philosophy of finders/keepers seemed fairer. She was relieved to be out of business with Perry and leave that aspect of her life in the past where it belonged.
“So call me a risk-taker,” she replied with a shrug. “I think it’s a good investment. There are over three million known shipwrecks. It’s a billion-dollar potential industry.” She couldn’t resist showing off a little, and letting him know why she suspected the IRS had a sudden interest in the maritime salvage industry. “Especially since an American salvage company found three billion dollars worth of platinum on a World War II merchant vessel.”
He ignored her mention of the platinum discovery. “But of those millions of shipwrecks, only thirty thousand of them are believed to have valuable lost cargo.”
Jet shrugged again. “Your point?”
“We’re taking a closer look at these companies. You have a huge amount of money invested in Gulf Salvage, a disproportional amount of your assets.”
She surmised it must be difficult for a stodgy man like him to understand people willing to take risky ventures, and suspected the auditor was about to go down a path she didn’t want to follow. Jet stood. “Thanks so much for your concern about my portfolio. Warning taken.”
He rose also and frowned. “Sit down, Miss Bosarge.”
This time his voice had an edge as sharp as a stingray’s barbed stinger. “Only a couple more questions.”
She reluctantly planted her butt back in the cheap chair.
“Are you acquainted with any of the officers of this company?”
Perry had handled all aspects of their treasure sales to Gulf Coast Salvage. She’d checked the company out on the internet and they’d seemed legit. Her accountant had warned her not to put so many eggs in one basket, but he’d also found the company aboveboard. But if it was being investigated and about to go under, she’d better pull out quick.
“How did you hear of them to start with?”
Jet again stood. “They’re large and well-known. I live on the coast and have always been fascinated by treasure. Why wouldn’t I pursue my interest? I haven’t done anything wrong. I may be an incompetent judge in picking stocks,” damn you, Perry, “but that’s it. If you have any more questions, I’d prefer to exercise my right to have an attorney or my accountant present.”
He nodded and rose. “No need to be on the defensive. If I need more information, I’ll get in touch.”
Easy for him not to be upset, he wasn’t the one being drilled. Why did they always have to go after the little guy, anyway? Plenty of hedge fund investors and private equity firms, with tons more money than she’d ever see, had been flocking to invest in increasingly specialized treasure ventures.
Fields walked with her toward the door. “Much success on reopening your antique store. You already have employees hired?” he asked. His previously intense manner, combined with his sharp, wintry eyes, mellowed to a casualness that she suspected was false.
“No. Not yet,” she admitted.
“I see. Well, I wish you much success.”
His body was close to hers. Too close. The soapy, clean smell was strong. Jet swallowed and licked her dry lips. “Thanks.”
She swept around him and into the hallway, inhaling the stale air deeply, ridding her lungs of the auditor’s masculine, clean scent.
Jet whipped around.
“I’ll need to take a look at the manifests for all the items you and your business partner sold to Gulf Savage.”
“All of them?”
His mouth curved upward, but those arctic eyes gleamed with sardonic amusement. “Every last one.”
She frowned. The gleaming teeth made her think of a shark. Perhaps Landry Fields was as lethal on land as a shark was at sea. Only the faintest curling at the ends of his light brown hair ruined the predatory image. “I’ll have my accountant call you and make arrangements to send the paperwork.”
“No need for all that. I’ll drop by your store to collect them, or your home if you prefer.” His smile widened, but she wasn’t fooled by the offhand manner with which he requested the paperwork, or by the way he casually leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed.
Jet scowled back. She most certainly didn’t prefer Landry Fields inside her house. The whole thing reeked of unprofessionalism and an interest that went beyond the norm of an IRS audit. What was his real game? “Give me a couple of days and come by the store. I’ll have theme.”
“Thank you so much for your coop—”
Jet turned and scrambled away before he could finish the insincere thank-you. As if she had a damned choice, as if he wasn’t issuing an order.
The rain outside felt wonderfully fresh and she didn’t bother with an umbrella, unlike the few humans venturing outdoor in the storm. The contact of water on skin somewhat calmed her agitation and Jet smiled ruefully. How desperate was she that a number cruncher like Landry Fields could affect her body so deeply during an IRS audit? The man was probably as passionate as cold pudding and would laugh his ass off if he guessed her errant thoughts.
She lifted her face to the rain one last time before getting in the truck, absorbing moisture as if it were sustenance. The water fortified her. At least Mister Conservative-Government-Man provided a convenient excuse to confront Perry today. Her pride no longer demanded she sit and wait for him to show up again.
Perry was the one with the contacts at Gulf Salvage and had insisted the company provided a perfect cover for selling their stuff without bothering with legal hoopla. Did he personally know the company owners or major stockholders? Did it have a reputation for playing fast and loose with maritime reclamation laws? She had never asked him.
That’s what you got for trusting someone. It always came back to bite you in the ass.
What an unusual woman.
Landry Fields stood at the window, watching Jet Bosarge in the parking lot as she lifted her face skyward, closed her eyes, and smiled. Rain ran down dark eyelashes onto an elegantly sculpted nose, lush lips, and then down her long, pale neck before disappearing in cleavage. The wet purple cotton shirt molded to the curve of her breasts. Abandoning his usual professional detachment and gentlemanly manners, Landry leaned forward against the windowpane, curious if there might be an outline of nipples.
Damn, she was too far away to tell. He ran a hand through his hair, which annoyingly curled at the ends, despite his best efforts to comb it down straight. Bosarge wasn’t easy to peg, and he liked to classify people he interviewed into categories within minutes of meeting them; Con Man, Bad Guy with Attitude, Psychopath, Injured Wife, Slutty Girlfriend, or—more rarely—the Innocent or Unknowing. All part of his job as an FBI agent.
Too soon to know what type of woman he was dealing with. And the sexual tension crackling between them played havoc with his normal analytical observations. It made no sense. He’d never before had chemistry with someone he interviewed and Bosarge was unlike any other woman he found physically attractive. She was dark-haired, tall and athletic, deep-voiced and a bit edgy. His usual type was a petite, curvy blonde with a soft voice and an easy, uncomplicated smile.
The woman jumped in a battered red pickup truck and pulled out much too fast, tires squealing on the wet pavement. The corners of his lips involuntarily tugged upward. What kind of woman wore diamond earrings and drove a beater jalopy? She could easily afford a Rolls-Royce.
Everything about Jet Bosarge was a contradiction. Dark hair and eyes contrasted with pale skin and deep red lips. She dressed casually, as if she’d thrown together an outfit with no thought, but the choppy haircut and diamonds gave an air of natural, feminine elegance. At first, she gave one the impression of an overgrown tomboy with her lean, muscular body, short hair and direct mannerisms. Yet, her long legs and low, throaty voice had distracted him so much, only his considerable willpower allowed him to remain professional during the interview.
He’d studied photographs of the woman, but those cold prints didn’t do her justice. Something about Bosarge in the flesh was vibrant and pulsing with energy. It was as if the rainy day had been nothing but gloomy shades of gray until she’d walked in the office. The effect was akin to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as she tumbled out of the ruined Kansas farmhouse and stepped into an explosively techno-colored alternate universe.
Landry shook his head at the direction of his thoughts. The woman most likely was a thief and a liar. Getting personally involved with her would be inappropriate and potentially damaging to his career. He was here to do a job and at last things were moving. He’d spent a whole week in the bayou doing nothing but watching Perry Hammonds and reviewing, yet again, the case files with which he’d grown sickeningly familiar. Evidently, the suspect had been in a holding pattern like him. Hammonds did nothing but bum around his rental cottage drinking beer and watching television.
If there was one thing he despised more than deceit, it was sloth. Laziness should be one of the top sins; there was no excuse for sloppy living. You might fail, but at least you got up every morning and made your own way in the world. That belief had helped him rise above a childhood of poverty and emotional chaos.
He’d been about to approach Hammonds directly when Bosarge had returned from out of town. Past experience taught him it was always easier to get to the girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend—whatever the status of their relationship happened to be—and dig around for preliminary information.
Bosarge’s records were most unusual. She possessed a staggering family trust fund. The interest alone provided a comfortable living without ever having to dip into the fund’s capital. And every dime she’d earned from selling maritime artifacts with Hammonds had been donated to various ocean-related charities: Save the Dolphins, Save the Whales, Save the Oceans, Save the Manatees.
Could be she was a spoiled princess who got involved with Bad Boy Hammonds for excitement. The philanthropy could be a smokescreen, or a means of assuaging her guilt over stealing. Because it was theft if the collection site was close to shore. That salvage, technically, belonged to the government and the taxpayers. And Hammonds and Bosarge hadn’t owned an expensive vessel with all the bells and whistles needed for deep sea extractions.
Landry picked up the fake tax file and shoved it in a drawer. She’d bought his accountant act hook, line and sinker. The important files were locked in his desk at home. He turned off the printer before opening and checking it for jammed papers. Nothing, appeared wrong, as usual. With a sigh, Landry turned his attention to the clock and reset it to the correct time. He held it to his ear and picked up the slight hum of the battery he’d installed yesterday.
Finished with his afternoon ritual, Landry retrieved a jacket and umbrella. No need to hurry, he knew exactly where she was heading.
Sure enough, ten minutes later he drove past Hammonds’s cottage and spotted her red truck pulling into the driveway, splashing mud like an angry beast. Landry gripped the steering wheel tightly until the cottage was out of sight. He flipped on public radio, trying to lose himself in a news story, but it was no good. He couldn’t help wondering how the post-prison reunion was unfolding between them. No doubt they had once been lovers and not merely business partners. He’d been privy to many pictures of them embracing or kissing onboard the boat they sailed in search of maritime artifacts.
Forget her. He had an investigation and he would concentrate on doing his job. His real focus was on Hammonds. Their past crimes, if they were guilty, were fairly small in the grand scheme of things—he had coworkers covering billion-dollar drug smuggling rings, after all—but the FBI took notice when Hammonds was released early from a South American prison. That early payoff had been financed by one Sylvester Vargas, a known crime figure with a reputation for dabbling in foreign intrigue. Hammonds had wandered aimlessly for weeks until Vargas’s men collected him and put him on a one-way flight back to Alabama. Now Hammonds was back in the states, and the coupling of maritime salvage with foreign investors and criminal activity was a red flag.
The woods grew denser as Landry passed into a less populous area of Bayou La Siryna until he reached home. He climbed the wooden staircase to the humble cottage set up on stilts like many others in the remote bayou.
The plain door gave way with its customary squeak of rusty hinges. Most things eventually corroded in the salt air. If he took up permanent residence, his sleek BMW would have to be traded in for the ubiquitous pickup truck. Seemed Bosarge was onto something after all with her rusted truck.
The smell of lemon and ammonia mixed with brine meant the maid had come by today. He’d used the same one for years. The first time Landry returned to the cottage after Mimi’s death, the scent of musty decay had been depressing, so he had his real estate agent hire someone to clean and air out the rooms before his visits. Now that he’d moved in for the next few weeks, he’d been able to keep the same cleaner.
His grandmother had taken great pride in maintaining the tiny place. The scarred pine floors were always waxed, the air-dried bed sheets were crisp and smelled of the ocean, and the cheap linoleum-tiled kitchen had smelled of cornbread, pecan pies, roasts, or shrimp boils.
Mimi had spoiled him every summer, as if compensating for his shitty life with a careless mom and her string of increasingly sorry boyfriends. His mother’s house was filled with half siblings from stepfathers that came and went, and constant drama from financial pressures. Every new romantic relationship of his mother had created new sets of problems and complications.
Landry placed the car keys on a table in the den and surveyed the interior with satisfaction. Most of the furniture he’d replaced over the years. Mimi’s sofa had been upgraded to a modern leather sectional. He kept what he could. The leather couch was draped with one of her crocheted afghan throws, a patchwork of rainbow colors against a sleek sea of black. Her old wicker rocking chair remained in the same spot. The bathroom, however, had no sentimental value and he’d gutted and expanded it the first year after Mimi’s death.
He hung his suit jacket in the bedroom closet and stepped out of the black leather loafers. Back in the den, he adjusted a glass cat figurine on the battered sideboard. The cleaning company knew his peculiarity for detail and sameness, but they weren’t perfect. His fingers accidentally brushed against a red-sequined coin purse and he recoiled, as if the haunting memories associated with it could transfer into his heart. It had been one of Mimi’s treasured possessions but he had never liked the purse openly displayed. After Mimi’s death, he’d taken it off the sideboard but then wandered about the cottage, unsure of an appropriate resting place for the ghostly memento mori. In the end, Landry had returned it just where Mimi had left it.
After a few more minor tweaks to the figurines display, he slipped open the glass doors and stepped onto the wooden deck.
The scent of salty brine swirled in the early April wind. He inhaled deeply and leaned over the wooden railing. Mimi’s house could best be described as quaint—or ramshackle to be more precise. But here lay its secret charm—the million-dollar view. Located at the bend of one of the bayou’s fingers, Landry could look over the pine and cypress trees hugging the shoreline and see the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico.
A tiny flash of orange darted at the base of a tree.
“I’ll be damned,” Landry muttered. He hurried inside and found the binoculars in the sideboard drawer, rushed back out, then focused in on the orange patch. A ginger tabby nestled in a bed of pine needles. Closer examination revealed a swollen belly. Landry set the binoculars on the rail with a sigh. The feral cat population was alive and thriving. It was a losing battle, but he’d try to entice the mama cat into a trap and do what he could to find the kittens a home.
His eyes scanned the ocean. The waters were calm, a blue-gray sheen with a few scatterings of tame whitecaps.
But despite its calm facade, Landry secretly suspected that beneath its placid surface laid a foreign world teeming with mystery and creatures beyond most humans’ imaginations.
He knew. He’d witnessed it with his own eyes.
No, don’t go there. Landry ran a hand through his hair and dismissed the foolish memories. He’d been a kid. A scared, ridiculous kid with a huge imagination. Nothing more to it. He reentered the cottage and made his way to the kitchen, determined to change the direction of his thoughts. He opened the fridge for a drink. His hand drew back abruptly at the sight of the porcelain cat figurine sitting on the shelf by the soda cans.
The same figurine he’d straightened on the sideboard less than ten minutes ago.
Damn. It was getting worse.
Copyright © 2014 by Debbie Herbert
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
WANT TO READ MORE?