⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ "Think Stephanie Plum goes to Florida. With Jack Reacher. Highly recommended." —Carmen Amato, bestselling author of the Detective Emilia Cruz police series and 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Enter the series at any book - each is a complete standalone mystery!
Edge-of-your-seat thrills, touches of romance, and plot twists you’ll never see coming—all with USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Amy Vansant’s trademark crackling wit. Once again, the Loggerhead mercenaries will have you reading way past bedtime.
Mason and Shee travel to Palm Beach to confirm the existence of a killer known only as Portia—the name of a spider more clever than a black widow. Portia finds a victim—and someone to set up for his murder—before disappearing with the money and no one the wiser.
Shee befriends their target but plans quickly unravel. A man stabbed to death, mysterious messages, a body washed ashore—all of it a little crazy to fit Portia’s style.
Do they have the wrong killer, or is this another of Portia’s tricks?
Shee and Mason must tap the Loggerhead crew to unravel the crime, but Portia’s web only grows more twisted…and deadly.
Release date: September 27, 2023
Publisher: Vansant Creations
Print pages: 321
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The Girl Who Found Joy
One month ago
Something about her throat.
The length, the curve, the striking whiteness of it. There was something familiar about the dark-haired woman standing at the Palm Beach Art Fest jewelry booth.
Joy Zabić stopped to stare, but not for long.
Someone clipped her shoulder and sent her stumbling forward to keep from falling.
Someone not looking where they were going. Someone sweaty.
She spun to glare at the man, who was laughing with his buddy as they walked away in their khaki shorts and high-end polo shirts.
Money can’t buy class.
She whirled and almost walked into a large man in a soaked black tee shirt holding his palm aloft—the universal symbol for my bad. She showed him a tight smile and allowed her flash of anger to dissipate.
Okay. Moving on.
Joy stood in the sun as the mob split around her—an island in a stream of people. She held her flat palm above her sunglasses, cursed herself for forgetting her visor, and watched the dark-haired woman in the jewelry tent hold a turquoise pendant against her chest.
The woman was attractive, tan, and slim with mid-length dark hair and enough muscle tone that Joy could tell she worked at keeping fit.
She had good taste in jewelry, too.
Joy waited for a gap in the traffic and stepped toward the merchant tent, narrowly avoiding a stout terrier lapping ice cream at the feet of a wailing, smeary-faced toddler.
Tourist-season art fests were like the seventh circle of hell. Jostling in the searing Florida sun left her irritable. She should have made her boyfriend, Liam, come with her so he could experience all the fun.
The woman in the tent was Liam’s type—slight, exotic without feeling foreign, showy with a small-town undertone. Joy could tell she hadn’t been born with money but appreciated it and liked to be near it. She was a fine reproduction sitting amongst the originals, undetected.
“That’s pretty,” Joy said as she slipped into the shade of the jeweler’s tent. She motioned to the necklace.
The dark-haired woman looked at her.
“Isn’t it? I think I might have to pull the trigger.” The corner of her mouth curled in a conspiratorial smirk, making Joy feel like she was in on a secret.
You understand me, it said.
The good looks, the smile—Joy felt the whole package drawing her in.
“It’s got an old-fashioned thing to it without being fuddy-duddy,” Joy said. She winced at the sound of her own words.
Who says fuddy-duddy? What am I—a hundred years old?
But the woman’s eyes widened, and she pointed at her. “Exactly. That’s what I was thinking.” She held it up to admire it again. “I like old things.”
She chuckled, and Joy aped her laughter with a titter of her own.
“Me, too. I was just thinking I should learn how to play mahjong like the old ladies around here.”
The woman sucked in a breath and touched her arm.
“That’s so weird you should say that. I want to learn how to play mahjong, too.”
Joy’s face twitched.
She hadn’t seriously considered learning mahjong. She’d only been making conversation.
Serves me right.
She looked away. “Um—”
“Do you live here? Year-round?” the woman continued, the necklace swinging from her fingers, bouncing to punctuate each question.
Joy nodded. “Yes. Now. Made the move.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “You and everyone else on the planet. I’m Rowan, by the way. Nice to meet you.”
“I hate that everyone is moving here—” Rowan put her flatted palm to the side of her mouth and leaned in to whisper, “—but you seem like one of the good ones.”
The merchant behind the counter finished conversing with another shopper and focused on Rowan. She’d watched the necklace swing as the women talked and probably felt tense, worried the item might disappear into Rowan’s oversized bag.
“Did you want that?” she asked, motioning to the necklace.
Rowan smiled with the light of a thousand suns.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a necklace look more beautiful on me,” she said.
The vendor’s forced smile softened into something more genuine. “I spent a lot of time picking out the perfect larimar—”
“Here you go.” Rowan whipped a credit card from her purse. “You don’t have to box it. I’ll wear it.”
The woman took the card, and Joy glanced over her shoulder, thinking it was time to leave. She watched Rowan struggle to get the necklace’s clasp latched around her neck.
“Let me help,” she said.
Rowan let her take the ends of the necklace.
“Maybe we could learn together,” said Joy as the clasp locked.
“Mahjong. Maybe we could learn together. Do you live close?”
Rowan leaned into the mirror to inspect the necklace and straightened to motion somewhere inland without any real precision. “Not far.”
“I’m in Shoreline Ocean,” said Joy, naming a large and popular community nearby.
Rowan’s eternal smile became more wistful. “I lived there for a while. Bayside, though.”
Joy didn’t ask her why she’d moved.
“Maybe we could go to lunch?” she asked instead.
Waiting for an answer with Rowan’s wide eyes on her, Joy felt locked in her gaze, like a frog in a flashlight beam about to be gigged.
Rowan grinned. “I would love that.”
The vendor returned the credit card and turned to help someone else. Joy noticed a man’s name on the card.
“Are you married?” she asked.
Rowan laughed. “No.” She scanned the counter and then turned to Joy.
“Do you have a pen?”
Joy nodded and searched her purse. When she found one, Rowan took it from her, signed her slip, and then dropped the pen into her own purse. Like a sleight-of-hand magic trick, the pen disappeared, and she produced her cell phone.
“Give me your phone—I’ll add my number to it,” she said.
Joy handed her phone to her new buddy.
Rowan tapped away until her phone rang. She glanced at the screen and nodded with satisfaction.
“Okay, I’ve got your number. I’ll give you a call and give you a date?”
Joy paused, finding it odd she’d suggested lunch, but Rowan was exclusively picking the date.
“Okay,” she said, accepting her phone and fate.
That’s me. Ol’ go-with-the-flow Joy.
Without an additional word, Rowan waltzed out of the tent, waving goodbye before disappearing into the crowd of meandering, sweaty art lovers.
Joy noticed the cherub-faced jeweler behind the counter staring at her.
“Can I help you with anything?” she asked.
Joy shook her head and peered around the edge of the tent. Rowan was gone from sight.
I have a new friend.
It wasn’t a small thing. People underestimated how hard forging new relationships could be.
Making friends as a child was uncomplicated—I’m me. You’re you. Let’s hang out.
As adults, people knew themselves.
They knew why people shouldn’t like them.
Shee awoke to find Mason hovering over her, which seemed sexy until she realized his hands were on her throat.
She grabbed his wrists, and the pressure on her airpipe eased. The snarl on his lips dissipated, and confusion replaced the anger in his otherwise vacant eyes.
“No,” he said.
He threw himself away from her and off the bed with such force he almost toppled. In his hurry, he’d forgotten he only had one leg remaining from the original set. He caught himself on the mattress with one arm as he found balance on his good leg.
“Whoa, easy there, sailor,” said Shee, sitting up. “Find your sea leg.”
He glowered at her. “Very funny.”
Mason’s tall dog, Archie, had scrambled to his feet at the sound of the commotion to peer over the edge of the bed. Shee rubbed the poodle-mutt’s curly head to reassure him the world wasn’t ending.
“It’s okay. Daddy just tried to kill Mommy in her sleep.”
Mason sat on the edge of the bed and hung his head. “It’s not funny, Shee. I could really hurt you.”
“You didn’t. Whoever you’re wrestling in your sleep, you must have lost because you weren’t trying very hard.”
He ran his hand through his hair, and she watched his jaw flex.
“Do you remember what you were dreaming about?” she asked.
“I dreamt you made a joke about my leg.”
She pointed at him. “Ah, see? It is funny.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. It’s not. And no, I don’t remember what I was dreaming about. Not specifically.”
“Are you sure? Is it one of those if I told you, I’d have to kill you things? Oh wait, you already tried—”
He stood. “Okay, enough. We can’t share a bed like this.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s exciting going to sleep at night, not knowing if there’ll be an attempt on my life.”
His frown deepened, and she rose to her knees on the bed to wrap her arms around his broad shoulders.
“I’m sorry. Come here, handsome.”
She pulled him down and adjusted to lay beside him. With a sigh, he placed his head on her chest, and she kissed his hair.
“Next time Doc Ginny comes by, maybe you should talk to her. Maybe make an appointment,” she suggested.
“I don’t need a shrink.”
“Of course you don’t, big tough guy, but maybe she can help, and I won’t have to sleep with the Boston Strangler anymore.”
“Somehow, I doubt you’ll be the first Navy SEAL—retired or otherwise—to go to a psychiatrist. Heck, they should have sent you to one just for wanting to be a SEAL.”
Mason chuckled. “You’re not wrong there.”
“Maybe you need to retire more,” she suggested.
He shifted his head to peer into her eyes.
“What does that mean?”
She shrugged. “You know. You still play soldier with us. With Loggerhead. Maybe you need to fully retire. No more gunplay. Take it easy.”
He scoffed. “And what? Take up golf?” Sitting up, he looked at his watch. “At least I waited until a half-decent hour to murder you. We might as well get up.”
Shee sighed. The topic change didn’t go unnoticed. He didn’t want to talk about real retirement anymore. He’d already be halfway down the elevator and far away from her suggestions if he didn’t need to strap on his prosthetic leg first.
“Time to get up,” she agreed, standing to throw on comfy clothes.
Mason mounted his leg, and the three of them—Shee, Mason, and Archie—took the Loggerhead Inn’s elevator from the third floor to the lobby, an awkward silence hovering between them. As the doors opened, Archie burst out to look for Angelina, the hotel manager, and her miniature Yorkie, Harley.
Harley looked like a chunk of adorable dirt that fell off Archie—so great was the size difference between the dogs—but they’d become best friends.
Mason whistled for his dog and wandered outside, with Archie pushing to lead the way. Shee headed to the kitchen to start the coffee, assuming she’d be the first to arrive.
She was wrong.
She smelled coffee brewing and found Snookie, Angelina’s sister, waiting for the pot to fill. Freshly retired from the FBI, Snookie’d found a place at the Loggerhead, helping her sister streamline their agency.
She wore a thin robe splattered with so many colors and shapes it made Shee’s eyes cross.
“Wow. That robe is a lot for this early in the morning,” she said, holding up a hand to ward it off.
Snookie glanced down. “This is my favorite. You don’t like it?”
“It looks like a circus threw up on it.”
Snookie grunted and poured herself a cup even though the pot hadn’t finished dripping.
“Good morning to you, too,” she said, replacing the pot on the sizzling burner.
They were an hour too early to steal coffee and donuts from the breakroom, where the hotel’s receptionist, Croix, set them out every morning for the hotel guests.
Left to fend for ourselves like animals.
“I want donuts,” moaned Shee. “We’ll have to tell Croix to start getting up earlier.”
She held out her mug so Snookie could pour, and Snookie cocked an eyebrow at it.
“Good luck with that. Get your own.”
Shee chuckled and poured herself her cup.
Snookie sighed. “No one loved those donuts as much as your father. Part of me thinks he turned this place into a hotel to guarantee himself a continental breakfast.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” said Shee. “Turning a mercenary den into a tourist hotel doesn’t make any sense at all without the donuts.”
She smiled at the memory of her father and the insane legacy he’d left her. Occupancy at The Loggerhead Inn was generally at a fifty-fifty tourist-to-mercenary ratio. He’d started the place as a haven for ex-military looking to redeem their souls by doing good.
For a profit, of course.
They didn’t overthrow governments or kill anyone who didn’t deserve it.
That had to count for something.
Her father must have hit a slow patch at some point because suddenly, he had the place operating as a beach hotel for tourists, too. Angelina probably got into his ear, hoping she could slowly wean him from mercenary work to hotel manager.
That never worked out.
They’d recently wrapped a case and were awaiting the next assignment. Hopefully, they’d have something soon to distract Mason before he waterboarded her in his sleep.
“Is Mason around? I wanted to talk to you two about a potential job,” said Snookie.
Shee looked over her mug at the woman.
Speak of the devil.
“Were you reading my mind?”
Snookie nodded. “Always.”
“I’m right here,” said Mason, entering the kitchen.
Funny. As soon as someone whispered there might be work, the retired SEAL Commander magically appeared like an action-starved genie.
He tossed the newspaper on the table. He liked reading a real paper in the morning. Shee teased he was forty-something going on ninety-something but suspected after thirty years in the military, he enjoyed the sheer normalcy of a domestic morning ritual.
It’s not like any of the news was ever any good.
“Get yourself some coffee and take a seat,” said Snookie.
Mason did as he was told. When they were sitting, Snookie took a long sip of her coffee and began.
“You know I’m still moonlighting for the FBI, and as Feds, we’re not allowed to hire private agencies for work.”
“Not officially,” said Shee.
Snookie smirked. “Not officially. But that being said, they’ve got some cases on the periphery they haven’t officially accepted. It’s been mentioned they wouldn’t mind if I checked one out. And by I, I mean you, of course.”
Shee nodded. “I assumed. Whatcha got?”
“Some sort of black widow character they’re calling Portia.”
“They’re calling? They don’t know her real name?”
Snookie shook her head. “That’s the thing. They’ve gathered enough intel to know there’s something there, but no one knows who she is or what she looks like.”
“But they know her name is Portia?” asked Mason.
Snookie chuckled. “No. The story behind the name is actually kind of funny—but let me give you some background first. From what they’ve gathered, this woman hooks up with rich men and drains their bank accounts.”
“That’s original,” muttered Shee.
“This one’s got a twist. She doesn’t marry them—she frames other women for the crime. That’s why getting a clear picture of her is tough.”
Shee scowled. “But the men must know what she looks like? And, presumably, the women she’s framed?”
“Nope. They both disappear—sometimes dead, sometimes missing. Money’s gone, witnesses gone—she moves on, picks a new name, a new hair color, who knows. She travels—they’ve got cases fitting Portia’s profile scattered all over the country. That’s why it took this long for someone to spot a pattern.”
“How did they ever spot a pattern?” asked Shee.
Snookie shrugged. “You kill enough rich guys, and people start to notice.”
“They think she’s here now?”
Snookie nodded. “Palm Beach.”
“Makes sense. Plenty of rich men. What do we have to go on?”
“I’ll get you the file. They have a suspect—her name’s Rowan Riley. No confirmation she’s our gal, but a solid guess. I thought maybe you could be the friend she befriends.”
Shee snorted a laugh. “You mean the one that ends up dead?”
“Right. That one.”
“Anything for me? Can I be the rich guy?” asked Mason.
Shee laughed. A little too hard, maybe. He scowled at her.
“Sorry,” she added.
“I guess anything is possible. Depends on how far along her story arc she’s gotten. She might already have someone lined up for both spots—in which case, you two would fall to straight surveillance.”
“Stakeouts,” muttered Mason. “Fantastic.”
Shee patted his arm. “We’ll try and find you someone to shoot. I promise.”
He side-eyed her and turned his attention to Snookie.
“You said the Portia tag meant something?”
She pointed at him, head bobbing. “Right. The guys at the home office named her Portia. Someone said she’s smarter than the average black widow and actually Googled smartest spider—which happens to be the fringed jumping spider—also known as Portia.”
Mason rolled his eyes. “Anyone who says the FBI isn’t a bunch of nerds...”
Snookie laughed. “Can’t argue with that.”
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