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Two private investigators pretend to be newlyweds in love on a Caribbean honeymoon cruise to catch a killer, but what happens when make-believe feelings turn real?
Former Navy SEAL, Callum McKenzie, struggles to open himself up to love. So, when he books a ticket on a honeymoon cruise for a case, he has to find someone to play the role of doting wife. He hires someone, based on a recommendation from a friend, but when he meets the petite single mother, Callum has misgivings. He’s attracted to her in a way he’s never felt before, but he’s her boss. Can he keep things professional between them and fight his forbidden feelings long enough to solve the case?
A former beat cop, Jessie Arwens, moved back home to Atlanta after losing her husband. All she wants now is to see her son settled in his new school and to start over as a private investigator. An old friend recommends her for a job with a successful local PI and she jumps at the chance to establish herself. When she meets him, she quickly finds herself caught up in their act. But she’s been burned by love before and doesn’t want to risk her son’s happiness by leaping into a new relationship, especially with the man who’s currently paying her wages.
Cruising through the tropical Caribbean, the two of them uncover a nefarious plot and web of lies on their pretend honeymoon. But they soon discover that when it comes to matters of the heart there’s a fine line between make-believe and reality.
Release date: August 10, 2018
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 222
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“Can I get you something?” The server stood with her empty tray, the drinks previously on it having just been given to customers at another small rustic table in the café’s al fresco dining area. One eyebrow arched, she seemed to be toying with a smile.
Callum McKenzie barely noticed any of this. His attention was fixed on a man in the bank across the street, and he only glanced briefly at the server. “Uh … yeah, coﬀee black. Thanks.”
He almost missed her nod, and the look of disap- pointment that flitted across her young, tanned face before she walked back to the kitchen. It registered with a fleeting feeling of surprise, since he had no interest in flirting, and if he’d had the desire, it wouldn’t be with her. She looked barely out of high school, and at thirty Callum preferred women who were his equal, in experience and every other way. He hadn’t found anyone who met those criteria in a long time.
With a quick look around, he lifted his phone, pretending to play with something on the screen while he took a series of photos. His target was suspected of fraud. The man’s boss was Callum’s client, and this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The target was making what he hoped was a deposit, preferably a substantial one in cash.
But he’d have to wait for the police to get involved to find out more on that score. For now he’d settle for photographs that proved he was the one who deposited the money. With the photos, they’d have enough to get law enforcement interested, and hope- fully what they’d uncover would close the case. His lips pursed, he took a few more shots, then slid the phone back into his pocket.
The server placed his coﬀee on the table and he turned to smile at her. He might not be interested in a date, but he didn’t want to be rude. “Thanks.”
She murmured, “You’re welcome” and disap- peared back into the café.
Callum watched his target exit the bank and hurry down the street, his shoulders hunched and his hands pushed deep into his suit pockets, and he smiled. His work was done for now. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his long legs. Being a private investigator paid the bills, and sometimes he even enjoyed it, but he missed the camaraderie of his previous job. Two tours in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL had created bonds of friendship he’d carry with him the rest of his life. PI work, by contrast, was often a lonely business.
He sipped his coﬀee, immediately burning the tip of his tongue. He grimaced and set the cup back on the table, then tugged up the collar of his coat, just as his phone rang. He pulled it out again and put it to his ear. “Hello?”
A woman spoke tentatively. “Is this Callum McKenzie, private investigator?”
He leaned forward in his seat and played with the handle of the coﬀee cup. “It is. Who’s speaking?”
“My name’s Katrina Callahan. I was given your number by a colleague of mine, Tracey Bruce.”
“Of course, I remember Mrs. Bruce.”
“Well, she said you might be able to help me with something.”
“I’d be happy to try Mrs. Callahan.”
Her voice brightened. “Wonderful. Please call me Katrina.”
“Okay Katrina. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
She sighed loudly, hesitated, and then the words tumbled out. “My brother died recently.”
Callum’s brow furrowed. “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Thank you – it was a shock to all of us.” She paused and sniﬄed. “He left his last will and testament in one of his desk drawers, handwritten. It bequeathed everything to his stepson.”
She coughed to clear her throat. “It’s just that he had a substantial estate and we were very close. I knew him as well as anyone. He would never have left everything to that no good…” She finished with another sigh.
He stifled a laugh. “I see. Was the will legal?”
“The court upheld it, but I don’t buy it for a minute. He had another will, written much earlier and filed at his lawyer’s oﬃce. But this newer one was in his handwriting as far as we could tell, and witnessed by a neighbor who happened to be a lawyer. And since it was dated later than the other will, that’s the one the judge relied on.”
Callum nodded. A handwritten holographic will generally superseded any previous testament, and if it was witnessed by an attorney besides, almost any judge would treat it as binding. “Who did he leave his estate to in the former will?”
She paused. “Well, me, and his children from his first marriage, and a few charities as well. Look, I know it sounds like I’m trying to go after his estate. But the fact is, he wanted his biological children and his sister to inherit because we’re family. With this new will, his stepson got everything … yet I’m certain he never thought of him as family.”
“How old is his stepson?” He took another swig of coﬀee and this time the temperature was bearable. His eyes drifted shut for a moment, relishing the flavor.
“Okay. Well, I can look into it for you if you like.” “I would like that very much. The police weren’t interested in anything I had to say. I know everyone just thinks I’m after his money, but it’s not about that. It’s about what he wanted for his estate and I know he’d have wanted his children to have something.”
Callum took Katrina’s details, wrapped up the call, then sat staring oﬀ into the distance for a few minutes, thinking the case through. From what she’d said, the stepson and her brother hadn’t been close, so it didn’t make sense for the young man to inherit everything.
Of course, that was just her view, and he knew nothing about any of the people involved. He’d have to investigate her as well as the stepson to get a better picture of things. But at least he’d get paid for it.
Downing the last of his coﬀee, he set the cup back on its saucer, threw a fiver on the table and stood. After one last glance around the café, he walked toward his truck parked down the street. The white 2007 Chevy Silverado suited his career perfectly, blending easily into the surroundings wherever his investigations took him.
He plucked a flyer oﬀ the windshield with a frown, grateful it was an ad for a local pizza place and not another parking fine. He was becoming more careful where he parked and for how long after receiving three tickets over the past six months. He grunted as he tugged the door open – he was more careful about everything these days.
Careful and cautious – words he never thought he’d use to describe himself. But after everything he and his SEAL team had been through in Afghanistan, he’d learned to assess risk with every step he took. It was why he held back in many areas of his life now. He’d come close to death so many times that he liked to take his time and think things through before he leaped.
The truck growled to life and he pulled out into the light traﬃc typical for midday on an Marietta side street. He knew the main roads would be bumper-to- bumper as always, but he’d lived in the area long enough to know his way around without resorting to the use of major thoroughfares every time. Granted,
outside of Marietta he’d have to stick to the highways – he wasn’t a local yet.
In just over half an hour he was home. Since his business had only one employee himself – he worked from his house. He’d considered renting oﬃce space and hiring a secretary, but decided it was a waste of money given all the time he spent on the road and in the field. Besides, he wasn’t doing so much that he couldn’t answer his own phone and write his own invoices.
As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed his neighbor Tim Holden’s Harley in the driveway next door. The garage door was closed and it wasn’t like Tim to leave his bike out in the weather, so clearly his neighbor was on his way out. As a fireman he came and went at odd hours, and Callum found it impossible to keep up with his schedule.
Callum liked his garage tidy, and as the door rose he made a mental note to sweep it out that weekend – some dry winter leaves had found their way in. In the fall, it was mounds of colorful foliage drifting in on the breeze or stuck to the wheels of his truck; in the summer, fresh-cut grass from using the lawnmower or weed eater. Now in the early spring, he enjoyed his brief period of rest before the hibernating lawn turned green and pushed skyward. Still, after weeks of cold weather, he couldn’t wait for it to warm up.
After sending Katrina Callahan a contract to sign that would oﬃcially make her his client, he spent the next hour researching her, her deceased brother Kyle Callahan and his stepson Alton Meer. He found newspaper articles announcing the engagement of Mr. Kyle Callahan, millionaire businessman from Marietta, Georgia, to a Ms. Susan Meer of Tallahassee, Florida.
After a bit of digging he ascertained that it was Kyle’s second marriage (supporting Katrina’s story) and Susan’s fourth. Kyle had two children from his first marriage, both now in their thirties with children of their own, and she had one from her first, Alton. Kyle and Susan were wed only three years ago, and Susan died a year back.
And yet Kyle had left Alton all his millions despite having two biological children and only being married to Alton’s mother for two years. Was it possible Kyle got so close to an adult stepson – Alton would’ve been 23 when Kyle married his mom – over such a short period of time that he’d write his own biological family out of his will? Possible, yes. Probable, he didn’t think so.
He frowned and ground his teeth, a bad habit. Katrina was right – something stank about the whole thing. She’d asked him to keep things to himself until he knew enough for her to take it further – she didn’t want to put her niece and nephew through any more grief or disappointment. So he couldn’t call them up and ask them about it. He’d have to figure it out on his own. Which suited him fine – he’d gotten used to doing things alone since mustering out of the Navy four years ago. He didn’t always like it, but he was comfortable with it.
One more Google search brought up a few articles and social media accounts he hadn’t seen yet. He should look through them later – his eyesight was starting to blur and he had a headache. Did that mean he was getting old? Perhaps he should get his eyes checked. He frowned, scrolled down the search results and one caught his eye – Alton had posted something on his Facebook page only two hours earlier. He clicked the link:
The Mrs. and I head for the Caribbean in five days. Can’t wait! Royal Duchess True Love’s Cruise, here we come!
He frowned. Who was “the Mrs.” Alton was
referring to? He hadn’t found anything in his searches about Alton getting married. Worse still, it looked as though his target would be out of the country for the next couple of weeks, which would make his investigation virtually impossible. He leaned back in his chair, his thoughts wandering. He’d either have to put Katrina oﬀ until Alton got back, though he could at least ask her about the mystery wife. Or he’d have to find out more about that cruise.
He found the number for the cruise line, called it and drummed his fingers against the desk while it rang. “Hello, Royal Duchess Cruise Lines. How can I help you?” The woman’s voice was artificially chipper. “Hi, my name’s Alton Meer. I’ve booked a cruise with you leaving for the Caribbean in five days – the True Love’s Cruise.”
“Oh yes, that’s a wonderful cruise, Mr. Meer. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time. Hold on a moment, I’ll just look you up … Ah, there you are. Can I get your confirmation number to verify?”
“Oh, no need for that. I just wanted to check on where I’m supposed to meet the boat.”
“The True Love’s Cruise leaves from the Main Ship Channel at the Port of Miami – Gate 6. If you need transportation to get there, please let me know and I can arrange it for you.”
He smiled. “That won’t be necessary, thanks. Actu- ally, I was just wondering if there were any tickets left for the cruise. A buddy of mine wanted to come along and I thought I’d get him a ticket.”
“Yes, Mr. Meer, we have a few rooms still available. But since this is a honeymoon cruise, it’s for newly- weds only. Is your friend a newlywed?”
Well, that was inconvenient. “Uh … no, he’s not.” “I’m sorry. But we do have plenty of other cruises your friend might enjoy.”
“Thanks. I’ll let him know.” Callum hung up, then studied the screen in front of him with narrowed eyes. So the mystery Mrs. was Alton’s new bride and they were headed to the Caribbean for their honeymoon. It was a shame the cruise was for newlyweds only – he’d considered booking himself a ticket and taking the cruise with the Meers to eliminate a couple of weeks’ waiting. He ran his fingers through his hair, yawned, then headed downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea. He drained it in three enormous gulps, then poured himself some more.
A noise outside caught his ear and he wandered out the front door. Tim was there, washing his Hog down with a hose. Nearby sat a green bucket overflowing with suds. Callum waved to him. “Afternoon.”
Tim nodded and smiled, plunging his hand into the bucket. “Good afternoon to you. Whatcha up to?”
Callum sat on the pavement just uphill from the Harley so he wasn’t in a puddle, took another sip of tea and rested his elbows on his knees. “Just taking a break from work.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a day oﬀ today.”
“Your luck. My boss is a real back-breaker – he never lets me have a day oﬀ.” Callum chuckled and cocked one eyebrow.
Tim laughed. “Yeah, I heard about him. I can have a word with him if you like. You really should take a vacation sometime – it’s unhealthy the way you live. One job to the next, no breaks in between.”
Callum grinned. He knew Tim was only half- joking. His friend ribbed him often about his schedule. But working for himself made taking time oﬀ diﬃcult. Ever since he got his PI license, he’d barely been able to keep up with demand. Every happy client referred someone else until he couldn’t fit any more into his schedule. He’d only been able to take Katrina Callahan on because someone else had canceled. He managed it well enough, but hadn’t had a vacation in about three years. “Yeah, I hear you. I promise to take some time soon – it’s just …”
“I know. It’s just busy, and you’re just a workaholic.”
“I’m not a workaholic. But I’m single and none of my friends are anymore.” He stared pointedly at the recently-married Tim, who rolled his eyes. “And I have no one to vacation with. A holiday on my own doesn’t appeal to me, so why not keep working? I like the work – and it keeps me sane.”
“Well, I just want it on the record that I think you need a break. You’re starting to look a bit haggard.”
Tim laughed. “You’re welcome. Hey, I’ll be joining you with that haggard look soon enough, though.”
Callum’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
Tim straightened and tossed the sponge he was wiping down his bike with into the bucket with a splash. “I’ve wanted to tell you for ages, but Molly wouldn’t let me. We’re expecting!”
Callum’s eyes widened. “Wow! Congratulations, man!” He stood, threw his arms around his friend and whacked him on the back. “You’re gonna be a dad – that’s amazing. I’m happy for you both.”
Tim smiled, his eyes gleaming. “Thanks. We’re really excited about it. Actually, I can’t wait. I might have to get rid of this beauty …” He looked at the Hog wistfully. “… and get a minivan or something like that, but I don’t care. It’s worth it.”
Callum chuckled. “I never thought I’d see the day you’d get rid of your Harley.”
Tim shook his head. “Me neither.”
“You know, I might have an idea about a vacation…”
Tim cocked his head. “Oh yeah?”
“Well, it would be a working vacation, but it’s
a Caribbean cruise, so it almost counts, right?”
Tim laughed. “Seriously? Okay, I’ll give you that one. Are you gonna do it?”
“Well, there’s a catch – it’s a couples-only cruise, for newlyweds. So I can’t get a ticket.” He rubbed his chin, suddenly recalling he hadn’t shaved that day. Or the day before.
Tim crossed his arms. “You’re always saying you need help, you’re so busy. Maybe now’s the time to find someone. You could hire another investigator to go with you and pose as your wife. It’d help you get on this cruise, and if you like her, you could see if she’d go in with you for a long-term arrangement,
give you some flexibility in the long run.” He picked up a dry cloth that was draped over the cycle’s handle- bars and began polishing its black paintwork.
Callum frowned and ground his teeth. It wasn’t a bad idea – he did need to bring someone onto his team, had needed to for a long time now. And he’d had plenty of jobs where working with a woman would’ve been a big help. It could be a kind of audi- tion, an extended job interview. The only problem was, he couldn’t think of any female PI in the Atlanta metro area who fit the bill. He’d need to do some research – and quickly with the cruise only five days away.
Jessie Arwens glanced in the rear view mirror, smacking her gum softly, and frowned. Scott stared out the window, a soccer ball held to his side like a teddy bear. She remembered his teddy bear Ed like it was yesterday. He took that thing everywhere with him, dragging it along behind him on the kitchen tiles, one soft arm clenched in his fist.
She swallowed the pain of nostalgia and smacked her gum again with a sigh. Looking back hurt too much. She had to keep her eyes focused on what was ahead, keep moving forward.
“You excited about the first day of school, buddy?” she asked, glancing again at her son’s sweet face. He’d had rounder cheeks when he was six. Something had happened when he turned seven – he became a boy on his way to manhood, not the small creature she’d taught how to walk, or whose hand snuck into hers whenever they went anywhere together. He was growing up.
He shook his head. “Nope. I don’t want to go to a new school. I miss my old friends and Mrs. Thomas. Why couldn’t we stay in Chicago, Mom?”
His eyes misted over as he spoke and she swal- lowed hard around the lump in her throat. “I know it’s hard, buddy, but I promise it’s going to be okay. Before you know it, this school won’t be new anymore. You’ll make friends and have fun – it’ll be great.” She wasn’t sure of that at all, she only hoped. Hope was all she had anymore, and not much of that.
“What if everyone hates me?”
“They could never hate you. And it’s only second grade, buddy. I think everyone’s looking for a friend in second grade. If all else fails, just play with your soccer ball those things attract little boys like flowers do bees.” She chuckled to herself, grateful she had a son. Friendships between boys were so simple – take a ball, kick it, another boy joins in, ba-da-boom, you’ve got yourself a friend. Girls were another matter entirely.
“Okay, Mom.” He stared out the window again, his brown eyes and blonde hair reminding her of his dad. She swallowed again and shook her head. She wasn’t going to think about him today. Today was the start of their new life together in the Atlanta suburbs. No looking back. “I’ll take you in to get started this morning, bud. Then I’ll be back to pick you up when school’s over, okay? We can talk about taking the bus
when you’ve gotten used to things.” He nodded silently.
She frowned. He’d retreated so far into himself since the accident, she sometimes wondered if he’d ever be the carefree, bubbly little chatterbox she remembered.
The sky was overcast and the clouds had a greenish hue she didn’t like. It looked like snow. It even smelled like snow. Of course, before they left the house that morning her mother had shaken her head and declared it wouldn’t snow. She always said that when snow threatened, almost as if she were willing the weather to behave. Still, she should’ve shoved some snow chains into the trunk before she left.
Did her mother even own snow chains? Jessie certainly hadn’t bought any since they moved in with her. She was regretting the oversight now as she stared up into the threatening sky. “Are you warm enough?” she asked Scott, her brow furrowed.
Scott nodded. “Yes, Momma.”
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