Into the Deep Virginia Smith Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR When Ben Dearinger got hold of a flash drive carrying deadly secrets, the scuba diver did the only thing he could. He buried it–fathoms deep.Now a drug cartel wants the evidence back, and they're willing to threaten Ben's ex-girlfriend Nikki Hoffman to get it. Although Nikki caused him no end of heartache, forgetting her has been impossible, and Ben would risk anything to protect her. But what will he do when he discovers her secret–that he's the father of her child? Ben pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket. Then, with a slow movement, he extended it toward Nikki. “It read ‘Return the article and she will remain safe.’” “She?” A wave of fear raised goose bumps along her arms. “Who is she?” “There is only one she they could mean—you.” “We haven’t seen each other in over two years, Ben. Until this afternoon, we’ve had no contact at all. And that was a coincidence. I don’t know what this is about, but they must mean someone else.” He shook his head. “I don’t think our running into each other was a coincidence at all. I think someone arranged it.” “What is this article they’re talking about, anyway? What’s going on, Ben? Why are you so worried?” Nikki watched a struggle play across his face. Finally, he spoke in a low voice. “I don’t want to involve you any more than you already are. It’s safer if you don’t know.” The memory of being watched crept over her like a wave on the beach. She glanced toward the closed patio curtains again. Was someone out there now? What had Ben done? Who had he run afoul of? VIRGINIA SMITH A lifelong lover of books, Virginia Smith has always enjoyed immersing herself in fiction. In her mid-twenties she wrote her first story and discovered that writing well is harder than it looks; it took many years to produce a book worthy of publication. During the daylight hours she steadily climbed the corporate ladder and stole time to write late at night after the kids were in bed. With the publication of her first novel, she left her twenty-year corporate profession to devote her energy to her passion—writing stories that honor God and bring a smile to the faces of her readers. When she isn’t writing, Ginny and her husband, Ted, enjoy exploring the extremes of nature—skiing in the mountains of Utah, motorcycle riding on the curvy roads of central Kentucky and scuba diving in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Visit her online at www.VirginiaSmith.org. Into the Deep Virginia Smith www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. —Psalms 139:7–8 For Ted, my dive buddy and best friend Acknowledgments I owe a debt of gratitude to many people for helping me with this book. Thanks to author Elizabeth Ludwig (www.elizabethludwig.com) who helped me with the Spanish phrases. Gracias, amiga! The members of the Utah Christian Writers Fellowship are a constant source of encouragement, and never fail to suggest ways to improve the story. You guys are great! My mom, Amy Barkman, proofread the manuscript on short notice. Thanks, Mom! My editor, Tina James, made so many insightful suggestions that resulted in a much stronger book than the one I wrote initially. Thank you for making me a better writer, Tina. My agent, Wendy Lawton, is not only a terrific businesswoman, she’s the most encouraging agent in the industry. Thanks, Wendy. My husband not only helps me scout out new ideas for my books, he’s a terrific dive buddy as well. Ted, I appreciate you more than I can say. And of course, the biggest thanks goes to my “heavenly Dad,” who has showed me the most incredible sights imaginable as I’ve donned scuba gear and traveled Into the Deep. How anyone can view His handiwork and still question His existence is beyond me. CONTENTS PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX EPILOGUE LETTER TO READER QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION PROLOGUE October 13 Mexico At the sight of the morning paper, a lump of ice dropped into Ben Dearinger’s stomach. His brain did a quick translation of the Spanish headline screaming across the front page. LOCAL MAN FOUND DEAD DRUG CONNECTION SUSPECTED Cesar Ramirez, the owner of Blue Waters Scuba Shop and Ben’s boss, tapped the newspaper on the sales counter with a sturdy finger. “I worry about you last night, amigo.” The trademark smile that normally split the man’s darkly tanned face was absent, replaced by a concerned frown. “You hear nothing? No guns?” “No, nothing.” Ben swallowed against a dry throat. “Why? Did it happen nearby?” “S?. Two businesses were vandalized on this road last night.” Cesar pointed southward down the beach. “And the man was killed not a kilometer from here. That way.” His finger switched to point up the beach in the opposite direction. Ben’s brain kicked into overdrive to translate as he scanned the article, searching for the victim’s name. Sergio Perez Rueda. Though bright Mexican sunlight flooded through the dive shop windows, the room darkened as Ben’s head started to spin. He took a backward step and slumped against the wall beside a rack of scuba tanks. Cesar stepped toward Ben, hand outstretched. “What is it, amigo? He was a friend of yours, this Sergio?” Ben scrubbed at his forehead, thoughts whirling. “No. I’ve seen him around, but I barely knew him. He…was here last night.” Ben jerked his head toward the rundown two-room apartment he rented from Cesar at the back of the scuba shop. “For less than five minutes. He came to the door and asked to use the ba?o.” Ben had been sitting on the back porch, watching the sunset over the crystal blue waters when Sergio rounded the corner of the shop. He’d seen how jumpy the guy was, the way he kept glancing over his shoulder. His breath reeked of stale beer. Ben hadn’t wanted to grant the request to use his bathroom, but what could he do? Be rude and tell the guy no? Instead, he’d led him into the tiny apartment and kept a vigilant watch outside the door until he emerged. Ben lowered his voice, hating the question he was about to ask, but knowing he had to. “Should I contact the police, Cesar?” His boss didn’t answer at first. He ducked between the scuba regulator hoses dangling from overhead hooks like rows of rubber snakes. The whites of his eyes nearly disappeared as he narrowed his lids and considered Ben’s question. Ben waited, breath halted in his chest, until finally Cesar shook his head. “No, that is a bad idea. This Sergio, I heard about him. He is involved with bad people.” His voice dropped to a low whisper. “Reynosa, I heard.” A chill zipped down Ben’s spine. The Reynosa drug cartel had gained in strength and prevalence in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in recent years. Their violent reputation had increased with reports of kidnappings and execution-style murders, both within their ranks and among those who opposed them. If the Reynosa cartel was responsible for Sergio’s death, they might not look too kindly on a possible witness. A car door slammed in front of the shop. Cesar’s eyes darted in that direction. “Unless somebody asks, say nothing. That is my advice, amigo.” The first of the tourists scheduled for a morning of scuba diving entered the shop. Ben gave Cesar a single nod, then slipped into the back to begin readying the equipment they’d need to stow on the boat. Though he had nothing but respect for the local police, whispered rumors of foreigners languishing in Mexican prisons had strengthened Ben’s desire to stay below their radar during the three years he’d lived and worked as a dive master in Cozumel. And the Reynosa cartel… He suppressed a shudder. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that Cesar was right. Sergio had gotten himself mixed up with some nasty people, and now he was dead. Nothing Ben did or said could change that. But he was still very much alive, and he intended to stay that way. Still, why had Sergio showed up at his place last night? Maybe it had nothing to do with the Reynosa cartel. Maybe he’d vandalized the two buildings Cesar mentioned and was running to escape the police. On the other hand, surely the news report would have included the detail that a police chase had occurred. No, more likely he’d been running from someone else, someone not necessarily official. Reynosa. Ben shook his head. But then why stop to use his ba?o? It didn’t make sense. Unless… His pulse kicked up a notch as a possible reason occurred to him. With a quick backward glance toward Cesar, he slipped out the rear of the store and into his small apartment. A steady salt-scented ocean breeze filtered through the open window. Standing with his back against the door, he scanned the cramped room that served as bedroom, living room, dining room and with the aid of a microwave and coffee pot, the kitchen. Sergio had carried a canvas bag slung over his shoulder, which he’d taken into the second room of Ben’s apartment, the bathroom. Was he being chased because of something inside the bag? Something he’d stolen? Money? Drugs? Acid surged into Ben’s throat. Whatever it was, would Sergio have tried to stash it somewhere so he wouldn’t be found with it? Ben crossed to the ba?o and scanned the tiny room looking for anything that hadn’t been here yesterday. Clean towels lay more or less folded on exposed shelves in one corner. No medicine chest, so his toothbrush and toiletries rested on the top shelf. The shower stall was a single unit—not possible to hide anything there. In fact, there was no place to conceal an item of any size. I’m imagining things. He didn’t stash anything here. Ben turned to go. As he did, his gaze slid across the toilet. It looked no different. But somehow, he knew. After all, there was no place else within the confines of this cramped room. Moving slowly, he lifted the tank lid. Peered inside. On the surface of the water was a plastic bag. He recognized the waterproof pouch instantly. He and Cesar used a similar one on the scuba boat to keep their valuables, such as cell phones and cash, dry. This pouch was folded slightly to wedge it inside the tank in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the operation of the toilet. He couldn’t immediately identify the item inside the clear vinyl bag. Not the cash or drugs he was expecting, though. Stomach in his throat, Ben lifted the bag out. He tore open the Velcro seal, unfolded the top flap and emptied the contents into his palm. A flash drive. He almost caved in to the impulse that urged, Put it back. Pretend you never saw it. But what if someone from the Reynosa cartel came looking for it? What would they do to him if they found it in his toilet? Ben stared at it, his mind cataloguing a list of possible data that might be stored on this device. It would have to be something big, something worth a man’s life. If it involved the Reynosa cartel, there was no telling. The storage device gripped in his fist, Ben wrestled with his thoughts. One thing was certain. No way could he take this to the police. He’d be signing his own death warrant. And he couldn’t leave it here, either. He had to ditch it, someplace it would never be found. But where? ONE March 22 Key West, Florida Double rows of razor-sharp teeth gleamed wickedly beneath a dead black eye. Nikki Hoffman could almost feel the chilly waters around her, the current pushing her toward powerful jaws…. “You wanna get up close and personal with a shark?” Startled, Nikki tore her attention from the collage of photos tacked to a bulletin board and whirled around. A swimsuit-clad surfer dude, tanned and bare chested, had appeared from a back room of the small shop she’d just entered, apparently alerted to her presence by the jangle of bells on the front door. He flashed a blinding white grin that contained more teeth than the sharks in the underwater pictures she’d been studying. “For a hundred bucks, I can teach you how to scuba dive and take you to a wreck where the sharks hang out.” The grin became a leer. “Private lesson. You’d get my personal attention.” Nikki suppressed a shudder. Sharks gave her the creeps. Especially the ones with two legs and an agenda that had nothing to do with salt water. She’d met plenty like this guy when she had lived in Cozumel. With an effort, she pushed the thought from her mind. She’d made a promise to herself to look forward during this vacation, not backward. That was one promise she intended to keep. “Thanks, but I gave up diving a couple of years ago.” She unzipped the fanny pack that undoubtedly marked her as the tourist she was and fished through the contents. “I have a coupon here for a free sailing excursion.” “Free?” The guy’s shoulders heaved with a laugh. “I don’t think so. The bosses don’t give anything away for free.” “This is Key West Water Adventures, isn’t it?” Nikki glanced around the shop, looking for a sign. “This coupon is for a free excursion of my choice, up to a $100 value.” She pulled out the coupon and placed it on the counter. He examined it without picking it up. Now that she looked at it again, this coupon didn’t resemble the others in the welcome packet she’d received when she checked in to the time-share condo a few hours ago. It was just a black-and-white sheet of paper that might have been printed on a laser printer. But the logo at the top was identical to the one that adorned the sign hanging above the store’s front door. “Yeah, that’s us, but I’ve never—” His gaze fixed on something over Nikki’s shoulder and the confusion cleared from his face. “There’s the boss now. You can ask him.” Nikki turned and looked through the window. The shop lay midway down an L-shaped pier that stretched like a wooden finger into the bay. Beyond it, the mouth of the bay opened out into the blue Atlantic. Sunlight sparkled off the water’s surface, momentarily blinding her. She blinked and caught sight of a boat moving slowly toward the end of the pier. A flag on top waved in the breeze, red with a white diagonal slash. The sight of the rippling silk sent a surprising wave of longing through her, so strong it halted her breath for a few heartbeats. A scuba flag. Those days are long gone. And he’s gone with them. Swallowing back the surge of emotion, she snatched the coupon off the counter. “Thanks, I will.” Outside, the humid heat slapped at her with an open palm. The breeze carried a distinctive odor, a blend of salt and fish as familiar to Nikki as the smell of cookies baking in her mother’s kitchen in Portland. She paused outside the shop and filled her lungs with the scent of the ocean. Many of the slips on the dock were empty, the boat owners probably enjoying this beautiful Friday afternoon. The wooden pier creaked as the remaining boats bobbed gently in the water, rocked by the gentle motion of this inlet. The scuba boat glided to a halt some distance away. She lowered the sunglasses from their resting place on top of her head and made her way toward the pier’s end. When the boat had been secured, two couples climbed onto the dock lugging scuba equipment and beach towels. They laughed and chattered as they shouldered bulky bags and headed in her direction. Music blasted from speakers on the boat. Jimmy Buffett, appropriately enough. “Good dive?” she asked when they approached. “Great dive,” answered one guy with a wide grin. “We saw an eight-foot moray eel.” The girl walking beside him shoved his shoulder. “What a fish story. It was not eight feet long. But what about that school of yellow-striped fish? Does anybody know what kind they were?” Then they were past, their voices carrying to Nikki as she neared the boat. The two men inside had their backs to her as they tidied up the deck. One picked up a weight belt and ducked into the cabin as the song ended. A few seconds later, Jimmy began singing about grapefruit and Juicy Fruit. The second guy straightened and caught sight of her. “Hey, how’s it going?” “Fine.” She spared him a smile. “Are you the owner?” “I’m one of them.” He shielded his eyes with a hand. “What can I do for you?” Nikki extended the coupon toward him. “I dropped by to make a reservation for a sailing excursion with this coupon, but the guy in the shop didn’t seem to know anything about it.” He glanced at it. “You’re staying at the Pelican Resort, right?” “That’s right.” He unhooked a dive tank from its holder, nodding as he spoke. “Someone called and bought a gift certificate over the phone yesterday and had us deliver it to the Pelican. My partner took the call and told me about it. We don’t sell many gift certificates.” Allison. A smile stole across Nikki’s lips at the thought of her generous friend. As if letting Nikki use her family’s time-share at no charge wasn’t a generous enough birthday present. The second man emerged from the cabin carrying a pair of fins. Nikki caught a glimpse of his profile as he crossed the deck in two long strides, then bent to store them beneath the bench. “That must have been my friend,” Nikki told the first man. “So, when can I—” Shock snatched the rest of her question out of her mouth. For a second that lasted a lifetime, her world skidded to a halt. She knew that profile. Ben? Here? Panic slammed her in the stomach, robbing her breath. A single, frenzied thought pulsed in her brain and catapulted her feet into action. I can’t let him see me. She whirled and ran. Even before his mind could fully register her presence, Ben jerked upright, his body reacting to the oh-so-familiar timbre of her voice. Nikki. It had been over two years, but he would recognize the woman running down the dock even if it had been forty. Her long legs, the familiar curve where her shoulders met her slender neck, even the way she ran with her hands pumping at her sides. He dropped the fins, leaped from the boat to the dock and sprinted after her. “Nikki, stop!” She kept running. Ben kicked up his speed, ignoring the startled looks he collected from two men cleaning the morning’s catch on the dock beside their boat. Pain raked his bare feet as they pounded the rough wood. She reached the edge of the pier and hesitated before turning toward town. Just a moment’s hesitation, but it was enough. Ben overtook her before she’d gone five steps in that direction. “Hold up a minute, will you?” He grabbed her arm and jerked them both to a stop, then stood panting and looking down into her face. She’d changed. The smile lines at the corners of her mouth had deepened, and he saw the beginning of creases at the edges of the eyes she kept averted from him. She was a few pounds heavier, but the extra weight only softened the sharp angles he remembered. In Mexico, he’d fallen in love with a carefree girl, but the girl had grown up. Matured. She was a woman now. A beautiful woman. Her shoulders drooped with a nearly imperceptible sigh, and she raised her eyes to meet his. “Hello, Ben.” “Hello?” He vented a sudden surge of anger with a bitter laugh. “That’s all you have to say after two-and-a-half years?” A pause, and then her lips tightened. “I could say let go of me, instead.” Her voice snapped with the spunk he remembered so well. She jerked her arm away, and he realized he’d been gripping her so hard his fingers left red splotches. He started to apologize, but couldn’t force the words out. If anybody owed anyone an apology here, it wasn’t him. She’d packed up and left Cozumel while he was out on a dive. He had come home in the evening to find her clothes gone, the apartment somehow hollow and empty even though all the furniture remained. Her note gave no explanation, just two words—Goodbye. Nikki. He tried to shove his hands in his pockets, realized he was wearing swim trunks, and folded them across his chest instead. “What are you doing in Key West, Nikki?” Her eyes darted around as though searching for an appropriate answer. Then she lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I’m on vacation. Just got in a couple of hours ago. I’m, uh, sorry for running like that. It was a shock. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone I know.” The brief smile she turned on him didn’t reach her eyes. The polite smile of a stranger. She gestured toward his shirt, which bore the logo for Key West Water Adventures. “So, you live here now?” The disappointment that surged through him at her impersonal conversation surprised him. So that’s the way she was going to play out this awkward meeting. Polite. A chance encounter between two former friends. Okay. Fine with him. “Yeah, I moved here a few months ago.” “Still diving, I see.” Was that a reference to their last argument, the one about settling down and becoming responsible? Though the afternoon air was warm, it seemed to Ben he was caught in a bubble of frigid air, one that surrounded him and this stranger he once knew so well. He flipped his hands out, palms up. “Of course. You know me. I can’t give it up.” She tilted her head and the sun glinted off her sunglasses. “I didn’t think you’d ever leave Mexico.” A shudder threatened at the memory of his last fearful days in Cozumel. Ben pushed it away and awarded Nikki a tight smile. He certainly wasn’t going into his reasons for leaving. Not here. Not with her. “The pay’s better here,” he said briefly, then changed the subject. “What about you? Where do you live now?” “I moved back home to Oregon.” Her gaze drifted sideways, as though planning her escape route. “I work for a finance company there.” “Sounds interesting.” Actually, it sounded unutterably boring and normal. But that’s what she said she wanted over two years ago during that last, heated argument. A normal life. He caught a flash of gold from a cross hanging around her neck. So, she hadn’t gotten over her religious phase yet. He hesitated before asking the question that had plagued him periodically over the years. “Are you married? Have kids?” She wrapped her arms around her middle, a clear signal that the question was unwelcome. The muscles in her slender throat moved as she swallowed. “I’m not married, no.” The wave of triumph that surged through him took him by surprise. She hadn’t found everything she’d been looking for when she left, then. His heart suddenly and inexplicably lighter, Ben combed a hand through his hair. “Look, I’ve got to get back and help unload the boat. But how about if I take you to dinner?” For a minute he thought she would agree. She hesitated, her lips parting. Then she closed them again and shook her head. “I, uh, have plans.” “Lunch, then. I’ll get someone to cover the morning dive.” He cocked his head and pasted on the smile that used to melt her resolve. “It’ll give us a chance to catch up. I want to know what’s happening in your life.” For a moment, something darkened her eyes, like a shadow of the feelings they’d once shared. But in the next instant, a door slammed shut in her face. The polite stranger’s smile returned. “Thanks, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She took a backward step. “It was good to see you, though, Ben. Goodbye.” He was still trying to come up with some way to counter her obvious dismissal when she turned and walked away. Quickly, as though she couldn’t wait to get away from him. At least she’d said goodbye in person this time. Nikki’s back burned. She could feel his eyes on her as she hurried away. The clip-clop of her sandals changed tone as she stepped off the wooden dock and onto the street. She didn’t dare glance backward, but her ears strained to hear footsteps coming after her. Would he follow? Please, God, don’t let him follow me. Pain throbbed in her chest, a dull ache that she’d thought was long gone. Just like she thought her feelings for Ben had finally faded. Oh, she’d never forget him, that was a given. How could she, when his face loomed in her mind every day? But she’d really thought she’d gotten over her feelings for him. Or at least, wrapped them up and stored them in the deep recesses of her heart, where they couldn’t hurt her anymore. One look at him, and she knew she’d been lying to herself. Which made it even more important that she get away from him. Her heart was no longer her own. It belonged to Joshua now. And she would never tell Ben about the son he didn’t know existed. TWO A shadow moved just beyond the circle of light that illuminated Nikki’s patio. Her grip on her cell phone tightened. Was someone there? She sat straight up on the chaise longue, eyes searching the darkness, ears straining to hear anything out of place. She heard nothing. Well, crickets and the distant sounds of splashing water and children’s laughter coming from the direction of the resort’s pool. But in the vicinity of her patio, everything was quiet. Peaceful. She forced her spine to relax. “It’s beautiful here, Mom.” She settled back in her chair and continued her conversation. “Palm trees everywhere, and there’s an orange tree in full bloom right outside my patio. You should smell it.” She inhaled the sweet, tropical scent deep into her lungs. Even though the sun had set half an hour ago, the air around her was still deliciously warm. After the harsh winter that had plagued Portland this year, Nikki relished the heat. “I’m glad you’re having a good time, honey.” Her mother’s voice was as warm as the air. “What did you do today?” Nikki’s brain conjured an image, but she pushed it away. She’d struggled all afternoon to avoid thinking about Ben. Her first instinct after seeing him had been to run back here to the condo, repack her belongings and catch the first flight home. She still hadn’t ruled out the possibility, but had finally decided to wait a day or so to make that decision. Tomorrow was her thirtieth birthday, so she might as well spend it as she’d planned, lounging in the sun, sipping chilled pineapple juice and losing herself in a good book. She’d be fine as long as she stayed far away from Key West Water Adventures, and Ben Dearinger. She forced herself to speak normally into the phone. “I took a train tour of the island to get my bearings. Everything’s really laid-back. Cats everywhere, and chickens roaming free on the streets. Joshua would love it.” A pang of regret stabbed at her. Mom’s voice became stern. “Don’t do that. You deserve some time alone. Joshua and I have a big week planned. He’ll be fine.” I know. A tear pooled in the corner of her eye. But I miss him. “What are you planning to do on your birthday?” Mom’s cheery voice refused to let her become morose. She steeled her voice against any quivering. “I’m not sure yet. I brought my passport, in case I can find a cheap day trip down to the Bahamas or something.” She paused, missing her son more than she would have thought possible after only a few hours apart. “Let me talk to him one more time. I want to say good night.” “Just a minute. I’ll get him.” “Thanks. And, Mom?” “Yes?” Nikki swallowed against emotions that threatened to clog her throat. “I really appreciate you keeping him while I’m gone. Thank you.” The voice on the phone softened. “It’s my pleasure to watch my grandson.” A low chuckle. “Of course, I’m going to be worn out by the time you get back. It’s been a long time since I’ve had charge of a two-year-old for a whole week.” A clatter sounded as her mother set the phone down. Nikki heard the music of Joshua’s favorite DVD through the receiver, a cartoon about a race car. She didn’t allow him to watch it before bedtime because it got him too worked up, but apparently the rules at Grandma’s house were lax. Nikki closed her eyes, picturing him in his pj’s, hair still damp from his bath, sprawled on the floor, his brown eyes fixed on the television set. A soft sound interrupted her thoughts. An oddly familiar sound, but out of place. She jerked her eyes open. Her gaze zeroed in on a thick bush with lush, tropical blooms that bordered the private area surrounding her patio. Its branches rustled, though not even the hint of a breeze stirred the leaves on the orange tree in front of it. The hair along her arms prickled. Was someone there? Nikki leaped out of the chair. Muscles tense, she strained to see beyond the patio light, into the shadowy darkness. Everything was still. With an effort, she forced herself to relax. She was imagining things. Or maybe it was a cat. There were plenty of those around. No need to be alarmed. Still, she kept her eyes fixed on the bush as she stepped inside the condo and closed the glass door. A beloved voice piped in her ear. “Mama, Speed Racer go vvvrrrroooooommmmm!” The strange movement forgotten, a swell of love brought a smile to her face. “He did? Tell me about it.” She settled herself on a plush couch cushion and focused on her son’s enthusiastic retelling of the story they’d watched together a gazillion times. But her gaze strayed repeatedly to the patio and the deep shadows beyond the orange tree. Ben steered his bicycle through the front entrance of the Pelican Resort. He’d passed this place lots of times in the five months since he moved to Key West, but he’d never been inside. Lush foliage lined a narrow footpath beneath tall palms and mature trees with Spanish moss dripping from every branch. A half dozen two-story buildings lay scattered around the property in no discernable pattern. The randomness gave the place a casual, relaxed feel, perfect for island vacationers. Ben hopped off the bike and walked it along the path, squinting in the dim light of decorative lanterns to read the letters mounted on the front of each building. According to the records at the dive shop, the gift certificate had been delivered to unit C-1. After a moment’s search, he found building C tucked into a quiet corner at the back of the property. Eight condos in each building, four upstairs and four down. Number one would probably be on the ground floor. A light shone in the window of a corner unit and another in one of the units upstairs. He left the bicycle on the pavement and stepped off the path beneath the thick, low-hanging branches of a tree. Long strands of lacy moss deepened his cover. He leaned against the trunk where he had a good vantage point of the corner of the building and the illuminated downstairs window. With hands that trembled, he pulled the note out of his pocket and clutched it with a fist. Just the feel of the paper sent shivers sliding up his spine. It had been shoved under his apartment door for him to find when he got home from work. The words were proof that his first thoughts this afternoon had been right. Nikki showing up at the pier today had not been a coincidence. Seeing her had given him the shock of his life. It was too much to believe that a woman from his past—his Mexican past—chose Key West for a vacation, and then within hours of arriving, just happened to show up at the shop where he worked. There were a dozen dive shops on the island. Why pick his? Nikki had seemed as surprised to see him as he was to see her. And she hadn’t looked all that pleased, either. Was she in league with the Reynosa cartel? He would never believe that. Was she an unwitting pawn, then? The unsettling questions had plagued him all evening. And then he found the note. He raked a hand through his hair, the uncomfortable lump in the pit of his stomach becoming heavier by the minute. This was the most alarming in a recent series of disturbing incidents. A couple of months ago, he came home to find his apartment had been gone through. Nothing stolen, and nothing obviously out of place, so he’d had no reason to contact the police. But the moment he walked through the door, he’d spied evidence that someone had been there. A kitchen chair slightly skewed. The mattress on his bed almost imperceptibly cockeyed on the frame. The aspirin bottle on a different shelf of the medicine chest. Then a week later, his car was broken into. He almost never drove the thing—nobody on the island did—so he didn’t even realize it until one of his neighbors pointed out the busted window. That time he did call the cops, because he needed the police report for the insurance company. Nothing had come of it, though. Nothing had been taken from inside the car. The investigating officer told him it was probably teenagers, drunk or high and looking for something to hock. After Cozumel, Ben wasn’t so sure. Now he had proof that his paranoia was founded on fact. He snatched a handful of Spanish moss and crushed it with his fist. But what could he do about it? He didn’t like living with this jumpy, paranoid feeling, searching every stranger’s face, wondering if they were on Reynosa’s payroll, but he couldn’t risk going to the police. He’d end up as gator bait, face down in a swamp somewhere. No, it was better to mind his own business until they figured out he was no threat and left him alone. He slid the folded paper between his fingers. That had been the plan for the past few months, anyway. The note changed everything. Upped the ante to a price he couldn’t afford to pay. A movement caught his eye, a dark place in the shadows at the side of Building C. He stiffened, his attention pricked to high alert. Was that shadowy form a person? He stared at the spot, straining his eyes to differentiate between shades of black and blacker in the foliage. Nothing moved. His tense muscles started to relax, but in the next instant, he jerked upright. The bushes rustled, and this time he glimpsed the figure of a man. Just for a second, and then the person was gone, moving quickly away from Building C. He looked as though he’d just come from around the back of that first condo, the one with the light in the window. Thoughts whirled in Ben’s brain. Why would someone sneak through the bushes instead of walking out in the open? Kids on vacation, maybe, playing hide-and-seek? No, the figure had been too tall to be a child. A maintenance man, maybe? At nine o’clock at night? No way. Ben’s mouth went dry. Nikki was in that building, probably in that very condo on the end. Ben couldn’t believe her presence in Key West was a coincidence any more than he believed the man slinking away from her building was just taking a nighttime stroll through the bushes. So either the man had been visiting Nikki openly, or he’d been there for a more sinister reason. His feet sprang into motion before he fully decided to act. He ducked under the tree branches and sprinted toward Building C. In the breezeway, his brain barely had time to register the number 1 on the door before his fist assaulted the wood. He beat the door in tempo with his pounding heart. If anything had happened to Nikki, he’d never forgive himself. THREE Nikki had just pressed the button to end her call when— Boom! Boom! Boom! Startled, her fist tightened around the silent phone as she shrank against the couch cushion. Her gaze flew toward the front door. The uneasy feeling from the patio returned, magnified a hundredfold and swelling even further with every insistent beat on the sturdy wood. Who in the world could it be? She didn’t know a soul in Key West. No one except… “Nikki, are you all right?” That voice, so achingly familiar, echoed inside her like the pounding echoed through the entry hall. Ben. She hugged the phone to her chest. Oh, Joshua, your daddy is here. I so badly want to tell him about you. But I can’t. I won’t. She’d struggled with that decision two-and-a-half years ago, and she’d made the right choice. Ben made no secret of the fact that he never wanted to settle down, never wanted to have a family. If he’d discovered that she was pregnant, he would have “done the right thing.” He would have insisted on marrying her and settling down to help her raise their child. She couldn’t bear to force him to give up the lifestyle he loved and watch the resentment grow deeper in his eyes as each year passed. “Nikki, it’s Ben. Open the door.” Indecision kept her pinned to the sofa. She should have known he would follow her here. If only she hadn’t run into him on the pier. No good could come of a reunion between them. And yet, he was part of her past, an important part. Far more important than he would ever know. She couldn’t deny that seeing him again had awakened memories—and feelings—she’d tried to bury years ago. She stood and crossed the room to stand in front of the door. “What do you want, Ben?” She pitched her voice loud to carry through the thick wood. The incessant pounding ceased. “Thank goodness.” The relief in his voice was obvious. Though why he would sound so relieved to find her at home, she couldn’t imagine. “Let me in, Nikki.” “I—” She placed a hand on the door and closed her eyes while conflicting impulses did battle inside her. Finally, she swallowed. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ben. It’s late. Go home.” “It’s not what you think.” The door handle rattled. “You’ve got to let me in. Please.” Something in his voice weakened her resolve, something she didn’t remember ever hearing in the months they spent together in Cozumel. Was it…fear? After one more moment’s hesitation, she twisted the dead bolt. The lock slid open with a loud click. The door swung inward silently. Her heart launched into a traitorous thundering as she took in the details she’d been afraid to notice this afternoon. The same Ben, yet different. Or was it just that she was accustomed to seeing those lips in miniature, on Joshua’s face? The eyes that swept over her now were the identical green-brown color of her son’s, only with a depth and intensity unknown to a two-year-old. The sturdy jaw. The tiny crease just below the place where his lower lip blended into his chin. Nikki clutched the door handle and hoped he didn’t notice that her grip was the only thing that kept her from wavering on unsteady knees. Ben’s gaze swept the room behind her. “Are you okay?” What an odd question. She glanced over her shoulder to follow his gaze but saw nothing out of place. “Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?” He ignored her question. “May I come in?” He must have seen the hesitation on her face, because he added an insistent, “Please, Nikki. It’s important.” Though alarm Klaxons sounded in her brain, Nikki took a backward step and allowed him to enter. When she closed the door behind him, he leaned past her to twist the dead bolt. She shot him a startled look. “Humor me.” He offered no explanation. She followed him into the living room and watched as he stood in the center of the room to examine it from all angles. He crossed to the patio door and slid a metal locking rod into place at the top of the frame. Nikki hadn’t noticed the locking device when she came inside before. Ben pulled the drawstring to close the curtains, then turned and nodded toward the hallway. “Mind if I take a look in the bedrooms?” Indignant, she opened her mouth to protest, but at the look on his face, closed it again. His lips formed a rigid line, with deep creases at the corners of his mouth. It was fear she’d heard in his voice at the door. She glanced toward the closed patio curtains, and the uneasy feeling she’d experienced earlier returned. She gave permission with a jerk of her head, but remained in the living room. After he’d investigated both bedrooms, he returned. His expression was calmer, a touch more relaxed. The muscles in Nikki’s stomach loosened a fraction. “You want to tell me what this is all about?” He crossed into the kitchen and checked the lock on the window before answering. “I wanted to make sure you were okay, that’s all. You know, a single woman, traveling alone. You can’t be too careful.” The explanation fell lamely into the empty space between them. Nikki folded her arms across her chest and gave him a stern look. The same look she gave Joshua when he was being naughty. Ben’s head fell forward. “Okay, that’s a lie. I—” He swallowed and nodded toward the living area. “Maybe we’d better sit down.” The impulse to refuse died before she could put it into words. In all the months they spent living together in Cozumel, she couldn’t remember ever seeing him wear such a serious expression. Without a word, she retreated across the room and seated herself in the over-stuffed chair on the far side of the sofa. Ben followed and dropped onto the cushion near her. “I looked up where you were staying.” He stared at his hands while he spoke. “When I was outside, trying to decide whether or not to knock on the door, I saw a shadow. Looked like someone sneaking around the corner of this building. I wanted to make sure you were okay.” So, someone had been there, watching her from the darkness beyond the orange tree. Nikki shuddered and rubbed her arms with her hands. “But why were you here at all?” He hesitated, then straightened his long legs to pull a folded piece of paper out of the back pocket of his shorts. A struggle appeared on his face as he unfolded the paper. His eyes moved as he studied it. Then, with a slow movement, he extended it toward her. She took the note. Wrinkles spidered across the paper, as though it had been crushed in a fist. The words, scrawled in blue ink, were in Spanish. Regresa el art?culo y lo seguirà siendo seguro. Though she’d lived in Mexico with Ben for six months, she’d never become fluent in Spanish. And she hadn’t spoken the language at all in the two-and-a-half years since she moved back home. She translated the words slowly. “Return…the article…and…” She glanced up at him. “What does lo seguirà siendo seguro mean?” Ben didn’t meet her gaze. “It says, Return the article and she will stay safe.” “She?” A wave of fear raised goose bumps along her arms. “Who is she?” “There is only one she they could mean.” His hands clenched in a tight knot. “You.” Prickles of alarm inched up her spine. “That’s ridiculous.” He glanced up at the sharp tone in her voice. “We haven’t seen each other in over two years, Ben.” Nikki forced herself to speak calmly. “Until this afternoon, we’ve had no contact at all. And that was a coincidence. I don’t know what this is about, but they must mean someone else. Your girlfriend, maybe.” “I haven’t had a girlfriend since you left Cozumel.” A wave of pleasure warmed her insides at that news, but Nikki ignored it. “Then a friend, or someone you work with.” He shook his head. “I don’t think our running into each other was a coincidence at all. I think someone arranged it. Are you sure you didn’t know I was in Key West?” “I thought you were still in Mexico.” She held his gaze and spoke truthfully. “If I had known you were here, I wouldn’t have come.” Guilt stabbed at her when he winced. She looked away. Brutally cruel words, perhaps, but she had no choice. Their relationship had been severed some time ago, and it must remain that way. “What is this article they’re talking about, anyway?” “Nothing.” “Obviously it’s not nothing if they want it back badly enough to threaten someone over it.” She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t steal anything, did you?” “Of course not.” His hands sliced through the air in an impatient gesture. “That isn’t important. What is important is that someone arranged for you to be here, in Key West, and we need to figure out who did it.” “I told you earlier. I’m here on vacation. A friend from work is letting me use her father’s time-share.” He twisted his lips, clearly not buying the explanation. “Why didn’t your friend come with you?” “Because she hasn’t been with the company long enough to take a vacation, and her father couldn’t find anyone to rent the place this year. She’s letting me use it to celebrate my birthday. And that certificate was a birthday gift. It was a coincidence that the shop she called happened to be the one where you work.” “You came on a vacation for your birthday alone?” The words were heavy with skepticism. “The Nikki I used to know would have gotten a group of friends together to help her celebrate. She would have had people sleeping on the couch and in sleeping bags and even on lawn chairs.” I’m not the Nikki you used to know! She wanted to snap the words, but bit them off. The Nikki he knew had been twenty-seven, fun-loving, without a care in the world. Now she was a thirty-year-old single mother struggling to raise an active two-year-old alone, with no one—except her mother—to help ease the burden of responsibility. She’d lost touch with all her former friends, and she was too busy and too tired to make new ones. Joshua took all her spare time. And he was worth every minute. Nikki rose from the chair and rubbed a chill out of her arms as she crossed to the kitchen. She opened cabinets until she found the one with glasses in it and took down two short ones. The pineapple juice she’d bought at the grocery store earlier was thoroughly chilled now. She wasn’t really thirsty, but she needed to do something with her hands. Ben followed her and perched on a tall chair at the high counter that separated the living area from the kitchen. “Listen, do me a favor, would you? Call your friend. Ask her why she chose Key West Water Adventures for the gift certificate.” Though she wanted to refuse outright, it was a reasonable request. The numbers on the stove clock showed 11:10 p.m. That meant it was only 9:10 p.m. in Portland. Allison would still be up. “Fine. I will.” She plopped a glass of juice on the counter in front of Ben before going for her cell phone. When she returned, he sat staring at the yellow liquid with a contemplative expression. Heat threatened to rise into her face. It was Ben who had gotten her hooked on pineapple juice in Cozumel. Joshua loved it. With jerky gestures, she flipped open her phone and located Allison’s number. The call went to voice mail. “She’s not answering,” Nikki told Ben as she hung up without leaving a message. A frown creased Ben’s brow. “Isn’t that weird? Why wouldn’t a friend take your call?” “It’s Friday night. She’s probably out on a date or something.” She set the phone on the counter and sipped from her juice glass. “I’ll try her again later, but I’m telling you, it’s a useless effort. You may not believe in coincidences, but I do.” He placed an arm on the counter and leaned toward her. “All I know is you showed up at my work after more than two years without a word, and the same day someone shoved a threatening letter under my door. Coincidence or not, I’m staying here tonight.” Now heat did flood her face. “That is so not happening.” When the realization of what he’d just suggested set in, matching red blotches appeared on his tanned cheeks. His gaze dropped, and it took Nikki a moment to realize he was staring at her necklace. She plucked at the chain and held the cross between her fingers. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t mean it like that. This condo has two bedrooms and a couch. I’ll sleep on one of them.” A heavy silence fell between them. The thought of Ben sleeping in the same town would probably have kept her awake all night anyway. To have him in the same condo, on the other side of a door? No. Her fingers tightened on the cross. “What’s going on, Ben? Why are you so worried?” Nikki watched a struggle play across his face. Finally, he spoke in a low voice. “I don’t want to involve you any more than you already are. It’s safer if you don’t know.” The memory of being watched crept over her like a wave washing up on the beach. She glanced toward the closed patio curtains again. Was someone out there now? What had Ben done? Who had he run afoul of? With a jerk, Nikki straightened her spine. It didn’t matter. Ben Dearinger was no longer a part of her life. Whatever trouble he’d gotten into, he could get himself out of. She wanted no part of it. She would leave Key West tomorrow, first thing in the morning, birthday or not. Forget the vacation. Forget the beach. She just wanted to go home, to safety and to Joshua. She picked up his untouched glass and slung the juice in the sink. “You need to leave now.” “Nikki, I—” His protest died in the face of the glare she turned on him. With a resigned sigh that sounded more like a huff, he reached near the telephone for the pen and notepad with the resort’s logo. He jotted a number on the top sheet and shoved it across the counter in her direction. “My cell phone. Call me if you hear anything weird. Even if it’s just the wind blowing.” Though she would never admit it, having his number made her feel a tiny bit better. She followed him to the door. When he’d crossed the threshold, he turned. His mouth opened, then he hesitated as though he changed his mind about whatever he’d been about to say. “Goodbye, Nikki. Lock the door behind me.” Any words she might have said were impossible. Her throat was too tight. She searched his face, memorizing the features she had never forgotten, and then gave a single nod before closing the door. Not only did she lock the dead bolt, she shoved a chair from the dinette set beneath the handle. Then she rummaged in the kitchen drawers for the largest knife she could find. No doubt she wouldn’t get a minute’s sleep tonight. That was okay. She’d sleep on the plane tomorrow, on the way home to Oregon. In the breezeway outside Nikki’s door, Ben waited until he heard the lock click into place. A slivered moon cast white light across the resort grounds, but deep shadows darkened the areas beneath the many trees. He made his way to his bicycle, tense knots in his gut. Nikki hated him. And he had no idea why. No, hate was too strong a word. He hadn’t sensed any strong emotion from her at all, other than an intense desire to get rid of him as soon as possible. Which wasn’t fair. What did he ever do to her? Nothing, except be honest with her. Hadn’t he told her right up front, before she moved into his Cozumel apartment, that he wasn’t interested in a permanent relationship? That if she was looking for a husband, she should return to the States with her friends and leave him to his carefree life in Mexico? He walked the bike over the winding path toward the resort entrance, his mind filled with memories of the pretty blonde tourist who came into the dive shop with her friends. They’d wanted to go snorkeling in Cozumel’s crystal clear waters. The attraction had been instant and mutual. Ben and Nikki spent every minute together for the next week, and when her friends left to go home, she stayed. Quit her job over the phone, had her roommate send her belongings to her mother’s house for storage and slipped easily into the life of a beach bum. His life. Then she started going to that church and all the problems started. Ben reached the main road. He waited for the traffic to pass, then swung his leg over the bar of his bicycle and planted a sandaled foot on the pedal. The bike picked up speed as he pedaled, generating a warm, salt-scented breeze to ruffle his hair. Apparently she hadn’t gotten over her religious phase in the years since she left. She’d clutched that cross like a talisman. Like he was a vampire and she needed protection against him. Which was ridiculous. They might not have parted on the best of terms, but surely she knew he would never hurt her. But apparently, there was someone who would. Sweat broke out on his forehead. The Reynosa drug cartel wouldn’t hesitate to kill if it accomplished their purposes. Even an innocent. Even Nikki. And he would be responsible. He reached a decision. With a quick glance over his shoulder to check for traffic, he executed a U-turn. Even if it meant spending the night beneath one of those moss-covered trees, somebody had to watch out for her, no matter what she said. Because she had no idea who she was dealing with. But he did. FOUR Ben arrived at the dock for work early the next morning. He wedged the front tire of his bicycle through the steel rack at the end of the pier and threaded the bike chain around the frame. A wide yawn took possession of him for a moment, and he was too exhausted to fight it. He’d finally fallen asleep, against his will, sometime after four. An angry resort groundskeeper had mistaken him for a transient and kicked him awake at seven. Though he’d been chased off the resort property, a quick inspection of Nikki’s building showed nothing out of place. At least, the door hadn’t been broken down or anything. He unstrapped his backpack from the bike and shouldered it as he stepped onto the wooden pier, heading for the dive shop. Actually, he felt a little stupid for spending the night there. His fears in the darkness last night seemed unreasonable today with bright sunlight sparkling on the constantly moving waters of the bay. Nikki was probably right. Her being here was a coincidence. More than a million tourists visited Key West each year. Plus, he worked for the biggest water sports shop on the island, and they maintained a top-notch Web site. Anyone wanting to find out about booking an excursion long distance would naturally contact them. But what about that note? Ben’s step faltered as he passed a twenty-two-foot sailboat getting ready to leave the pier. Okay, the note could be explained, too. Somehow the Reynosa people had found out about Nikki’s visit. Or…maybe they’d witnessed the encounter on the pier. He’d long suspected they were keeping close tabs on him. Yeah, that was probably it. They jumped on the opportunity, decided to use her as another scare tactic to force him to act. But there was no way they could know for sure he had the flash drive. They were guessing, hoping to force an admission out of him. The best thing he could do was treat this attempt like the others, and ignore it. As long as he didn’t confirm their guesses, he and Nikki would both be safe. His course of action decided, the confidence returned to Ben’s step as he continued down the pier. Up ahead, he saw activity around the Sally Jane, the larger of the two dive boats owned by Key West Water Adventures. He bypassed the shop and went to the edge of the pier. Tyler, co-owner of the shop and dive master on the Sally Jane, stood in the boat, snapping a diving cylinder into white plastic tank holders. On the dock, a cart with one more cylinder waited nearby. Ben dropped his backpack on the pier and grabbed it. When Tyler turned around, Ben handed the tank into the boat. “Hey, man. You’re here early.” Ben nodded at the nineteen cylinders already secured. “I would have helped if you’d just waited a minute.” “No problem,” Tyler assured him. “I wanted to get a jump on the day. Now that you’re here, could you grab the weight belts? We’ve got eight divers this morning, all renting equipment.” “Sure thing.” Ben scooped up his backpack and tossed it onto the empty metal cart. He started toward the shop, pulling the cart behind him. “Oh, yeah,” Tyler said. “When I came in this morning there was an envelope on the floor. Had your name on it.” Ben stopped. Though the early morning sun was already working overtime to warm the air, a chill cooled his core. He turned. “My name?” Tyler nodded, unconcerned. “Somebody must have shoved it under the door. It’s on the counter.” Without another word, Ben hurried toward the shop. He left the cart in the center of the floor while he scooped up a manila envelope from the edge of the counter. Careful block letters spelled out his name in blue ink. Fingers trembling, Ben bent open the metal clasp and unfolded the flap. A single piece of paper had been slipped inside. A sentence of Spanish scrawled expansively across one side. Tràigalo al Mallory Square en la puesta del sol. The second note in two days, but this one had the unmistakable sound of a demand. Bring it to Mallory Square at sunset. No doubt what it the note referred to. Ben turned the paper over to look at the back side. When he did, his heart skidded to a stop. The door behind him opened. He whirled, and then leaped forward to grip Tyler’s shoulder. “Can you handle the morning dive without me?” He hadn’t meant to shout, but his voice filled the small dive shop. Tyler’s eyebrows arched. “Sure, Ben. I’ll give Jason a call. He can always step in on short notice.” Concern colored his boss’s features. “Is everything all right?” “Yeah. No.” Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve got to go.” He scooped up his backpack and shoved the door open with his shoulder. He stuffed the paper in the pack as he sprinted down the pier toward his bicycle. Nikki’s resort was located near the center of the four-mile-long island. Ben arrived there in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother bringing the bike to a stop before jumping off in front of Building C. By the time the bike hit the side of the building and came to an abrupt halt in a flowering shrub, Ben was already beating a fist against Nikki’s door. “Nikki, it’s Ben.” When she didn’t appear immediately, he pounded the wood harder. “Come on, Nikki. Open the door.” A sound came from inside. A scrape, and then the dead bolt turning. The door opened inward. Nikki stood inside wearing a pair of stretchy sweats and a rumpled T-shirt, a blue coffee mug in one hand. Her lips twisted sideways. “This is becoming a habit, Ben.” Relief washed over him. She was okay. With an effort, he restrained himself from wrapping his arms around her in a protective hug. Instead, he took a step forward. She didn’t move. Her hair, inches from his nose, smelled of soap and flowers. A clean smell, outdoorsy and fresh. “May I come in?” Her head started to shake, but he spoke again quickly, before she could deny him. “Please, Nikki. I need to tell you something important.” Her sigh delivered a whiff of coffee-scented breath before she stepped back. “All right, but I don’t have long.” He brushed past her and edged around a chair in the entry. What in the world? When she closed the door and turned around, she saw him looking at it. “I, uh, propped it under the door handle last night.” A flush colored her cheeks. “You had me pretty spooked.” “Good. You should be.” He entered the condo and plopped his backpack down on the breakfast counter. She went into the kitchen and stood on the other side, watching him with a cautious tilt to her head. “I’d just about convinced myself that you were right, that you being here is nothing more than a coincidence.” No need to mention his night spent outside her door. He slid the pack’s zipper open and pulled out the paper. “Until I found this waiting for me at the dive shop this morning.” Nikki held his gaze as she took the paper. When she looked down, she gasped. Color drained from her face. “It’s a picture of me. This…this was taken last night.” Ben looked at the black-and-white photo. It had been printed on regular paper by a computer printer. Even so, the quality was quite good, not grainy at all. In it, Nikki reclined on a lawn chair, a cell phone held to her ear. Her lips curved into an attractive half smile, and her eyes held a faraway look, her attention focused on whomever was on the other side of that phone. A stab of jealousy surprised Ben. Who commanded her attention so thoroughly? He shook away the question. Behind her in the photograph, the patio door stood open. Through it, he glimpsed familiar-looking furniture. A quick look over his shoulder verified his guess. The picture was taken here, just outside on the patio. “I thought so.” “I…I heard it. The camera.” She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and gave a shaky nod. “I remember hearing a noise that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place what it was. Now I know. It was the sound of a camera taking a picture.” “There’s more.” He took the paper from her and turned it over to let her read the note on the back. Her eyelids narrowed as she translated, then looked up at him. “What are they talking about, Ben? What do you have that these people want?” “Nothing.” His protest met a stony expression. He spread his hands. “Honest, I don’t have it.” He swallowed and lowered his eyes. “I did have it. Briefly. But they don’t know that.” She crossed her arms. “Don’t play games with me, Ben. Just tell me. What is it?” For the span of a few seconds, they indulged in a stareathon that he had no chance of winning. Nikki wasn’t about to back down until he came clean with her. Ben filled his lungs and blew the air out slowly. She had a right to know, especially since she’d been dragged into the situation against her will. He slid the paper toward him and folded it over and over, mostly for something to occupy his hands while he told her about the night Sergio Perez Rueda was killed on a Cozumel beach not far from Ben’s apartment. Then he described how he’d found the flash drive wedged in the tank of his toilet the next morning. Nikki’s eyes widened appreciatively when he told her how he’d discovered that Sergio was a known associate of the Reynosa drug cartel. She had spent enough time in Mexico to know exactly how alarming that was. “And what was on the flash drive?” she asked. He pressed one last fold in the paper and avoided her eyes. “I didn’t look.” A movement forced his gaze upward. She stood with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. “I know you better than that, Ben Dearinger. The curiosity would have driven you nuts. You looked.” He conceded with a dip of his head. She did know him well. “Okay, okay. I looked. But believe me, I wish I hadn’t. The information on that drive was…” He selected a word carefully. “Incriminating.” “To you?” “No. To someone important.” He glanced over his shoulder, toward the empty living room area. A stupid gesture, but he couldn’t help it. If anyone heard what he was about to say, it could be bad. Very bad. He lowered his voice. “Have you ever heard of Senator Adam Webb?” Nikki reeled as though she’d been slapped. She couldn’t have been any more stunned if Ben had told her that Santa Claus had just landed his sleigh on the roof. In fact, she’d believe that more easily than believing that Senator Adam Webb, the man who was daily on the front page of nearly every single newspaper in the country, was somehow involved with the infamous Reynosa drug cartel. “I don’t believe it.” “Yeah, well, it’s true. There was a spreadsheet on the flash drive, and it had two pages.” Ben pulled out one of the high-backed bar stools and slid into it. His forehead wrinkled at a memory. “The first page didn’t make sense. Just row after row of numbers and dates, none of them formatted. One column looked like it could have contained dollar amounts, but the others were too long, just a string of unintelligible numbers. Then I saw the tabs along the bottom of the screen. It said Depîsitos.” “Deposits,” Nikki said. She used spreadsheets at work all the time. She could picture exactly what Ben described. He nodded. “The second sheet was labeled Cuentas. Accounts. At the top of that page were the names and addresses of several offshore banks in the Cayman Islands, each with an electronic routing number. Cayman National Bank. Banco do Estado do Rio Grande do Sul. First Caribbean International Bank. Then beneath each bank were two columns. A name, and a number that corresponded with one of those long numbers on the first sheet.” His fingers sketched invisible lines on the countertop to demonstrate. “So the first sheet contained deposits made to specific bank accounts, and the second sheet identified the bank account’s owner.” Nikki lowered her voice to match his volume. “And Senator Webb’s name was one of them?” “Yeah. That’s what got Sergio killed, Nikki. If anyone finds out that Adam Webb is on Reynosa’s payroll…” He let out a low whistle. He didn’t have to finish his sentence. Nikki’s imagination filled in the details. The famous senator had won his senate seat primarily because of his hard stand against the Mexican drug cartels and his efforts to stamp out their presence in his home state of Texas. He was widely acknowledged as one of the favorite candidates for his party’s bid for the next presidential election. If it became known that Senator Webb was secretly being paid off by one of the most notorious cartels, it would be among the biggest scandals in the history of the country. Proof would certainly send the senator to prison, not to mention wreck his political future and those of many of his highly placed supporters, as well. This was big. Way too big for them. “You’ve got to call the FBI, Ben.” She picked up the phone from the far edge of the counter and scooted it toward him. Ben backed away like the telephone was poisonous. “I don’t think so. I’d rather not get involved with the feds.” Nikki tightened her lips. That was so like Ben, Mr. I-don’t-want-to-get-involved. He hadn’t changed a bit. “You’re already involved. With Reynosa. Personally, I’d prefer the FBI.” “I’ve got it under control,” he insisted. “I just have to convince them that I don’t have that flash drive.” She couldn’t stop a sarcastic comeback. “Yeah, ’cause that’s worked out so well for you up till now.” She studied him more closely. “Why did they follow you to Key West, anyway? They must have some reason to suspect you’ve got that drive if they followed you all the way from Mexico.” He rubbed a hand across his chin. “I wish I knew. I never let on at all. Just played dumb, even when they almost broke my jaw.” Nikki straightened. “They hit you?” He winced. “That’s an understatement. The day after Sergio died, my room was ransacked. Then that night I surprised a couple of men searching the scuba boat. They roughed me up pretty good.” He ducked his head. “That’s when I knew I had to leave Mexico. I hightailed it outta there the next day.” She pursed her lips and watched him. He must have mistaken her silence for an accusation, because he placed his hands flat on the counter and said defensively, “Hey, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. They’d have killed me for sure.” “Oh, I agree. I was just thinking that you leaving so suddenly probably looked suspicious. Either that or you didn’t give a very convincing performance when they were, uh, questioning you.” His shoulders heaved with a soundless laugh. “Trust me. I did my best.” He sounded sincere. If this evidence was important enough to the Reynosa people to beat up Ben and then follow him to Florida, what did that mean for her? Her presence here was a coincidence, of that she was certain. How could it be anything else? But now she had alerted them to her existence. It seemed obvious that someone had seen them together on the pier yesterday and followed her back here, searching for a way to use her to pressure Ben to hand over that information. If they investigated her, it wouldn’t take much to uncover her past relationship with Ben. And if they checked into her life any further, they’d find out that she didn’t live alone. Her blood chilled at the thought. Oh, why didn’t I just stay home, where it’s safe? The idea to celebrate her birthday in the Florida Keys had been hers, though when she first mentioned it to her friend, she’d assumed that Allison would come with her. She’d thought they could split whatever cost was involved in using the place for the week and figured it would be affordable since it belonged to Allison’s father. She’d never dreamed she would be given the use of the condo for free. Even worse, she had almost brought Joshua with her. If she had… Her coffee mug rested on the counter, the contents cold by now. She picked it up just to have something to hold on to. “Maybe you ought to just give them the flash drive.” He shook his head. “I can’t do that. I really don’t have it.” “What did you do, destroy it?” He didn’t answer and wouldn’t look her in the face. Instead, he stared at the snapshot of Nikki from last night, his head bowed over the counter. She studied the top of his head. His hair needed to be trimmed, as always, but the curly, carefree style suited Ben in a way a more conservative cut wouldn’t. She gripped the cool coffee mug to keep her fingers from smoothing down a dark, wavy lock. Joshua’s hair had the same amount of curl. Her throat tightened. If the Reynosa people had moved so quickly to take advantage of her presence in Key West, what would stop them from investigating her? A sick wave of panic threatened. “Ben!” She spoke more sharply than she intended. His head jerked upward. “What did you do with that drive?” He leaned forward and held her gaze. “I left it in Mexico. And I don’t want them to know I ever had it to begin with.” “Then what are you going to do about that?” She dipped her head toward the photo with the note. Ben’s lips became a tight line as he stared at the paper. She watched thoughts play across his face. Then he snatched up the note. “I’m going to meet them at Mallory Square at sunset. I’ll talk to them, explain that I don’t have whatever it is they’re looking for. I’ll convince them this time.” Nikki turned her back on him to dump the cold coffee into the sink. She should follow through with her plan. A phone call last night confirmed that there was a plane leaving the Key West airport at two-twenty this afternoon. The flight was full, but she had put her name on the standby list. If she didn’t get on that one, she’d planned to rent a car and drive to the Miami airport. Anything to get off this island and away from Ben. But now, she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. What if she left and Ben failed to convince the Reynosa cartel that he didn’t have the flash drive? They had followed him from Mexico to Key West. Would they follow her from Key West to Portland? If an ex-girlfriend looked like a good tool for blackmail, a child he didn’t know about would be even better. I can’t lead them to Joshua. She whirled around. “If that’s the plan, then I’m going with you.” She had the satisfaction of seeing his jaw drop. FIVE Mallory Square was packed with people. Nikki hung close to Ben, wishing she could cling to his arm so they wouldn’t get separated. On her train tour yesterday, she had visited the famous pier and snapped a few pictures of the chickens running free in the wide-open area where the nightly sunset celebration occurred. The place had looked big and empty during the day, but now an astounding number of people crowded into the square. A variety of music clashed in a cacophony of sound, both from street musicians and from a nearby bar. Performers of all kinds vied for attention, everything from performing dogs to tightrope walkers to a Houdini wannabe pulling brightly colored scarves seemingly out of thin air. Along the perimeter, rainbow-hued umbrellas arched over handcarts displaying an array of wares for sale. “Is it always this crowded?” she shouted toward Ben. He placed his mouth so close to her ear that she felt his warm breath on her cheek. “Almost always. But Saturday nights are busier than most.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926698&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.