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Read the First 3 Chapters of Tide of Deceit

August 28, 2017

 

 

Tide of Deceit will be released on September 19th. Check out the first 3 chapters. :)

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Cassie

 

“I’m sorry, Ms. Taylor, but I can’t let you through the gate right now.” The guard pauses. I’m not sure if it’s for dramatic effect or because he actually wants me to ask him why I can’t enter. I tilt my head to the side, and he continues, “Your aunt didn’t inform us about your visit, and she isn’t answering her telephone.”

 

The guard is a little under six feet tall with a military build, complete with a crew cut. His business-like expression turns more friendly with a smile, but the way he gazes at me makes a shiver trail down my spine.

 

“That’s impossible. She’s expecting me.”

 

I grab my cell from the passenger seat and check the screen. There’s a text message from my mother but nothing from Aunt Betsy. A sinking feeling pulls downward on my stomach. I suck in a long breath of the warm, heavy air. Florida’s muggy, even in March.

 

This isn’t good. Aunt Betsy didn’t call the guard. She’s the most detail-oriented person I know. Something’s wrong. I pull up her number and hit send. The phone goes straight to voicemail. I stare at the screen in disbelief as the sinking feeling grows.

 

“I’m sure she’ll be in touch soon. It must have slipped her mind.” His eyes narrow. “You’re not local, are you?” I shake my head. “Where are you from?”

 

“Virginia.”

 

“Wow, that’s a long trip.” He throws another smile my way. “My name is Paul, Paul Miller.” He extends his hand. I take it and give Paul’s hand a tentative shake. “May I call you Cassie?”

 

“Um, sure.”

 

But why?

 

“Listen, I’m not supposed to do this, but why don’t you park in the lot over there.” He gestures to the small parking lot located to the right of the neighborhood entrance. “You can wait in here with me until your aunt gets in touch. I’m sure you’re tired from your drive and all, and I’d feel bad if I had to send you away.”

 

Paul’s brown eyes brighten. Maybe he really is just being a nice guy. Still, something about him feels off. The last thing I need right now is to be hit on by the neighborhood rent-a-cop. I’ve never had this level of personal service here. I think I prefer the snooty woman guard I spoke with the last time I was here. I’m pretty sure that if it were up to her, people wouldn’t get into this neighborhood without a body cavity search.

 

I understand why the people who work here feel protective of it. Ocean Oaks certainly is as beautiful as it sounds. The neighborhood is on the ocean with large Spanish oaks and palm trees perfectly placed along the roads and golf course.

 

Paul shifts his weight to his other foot in a not-so-subtle reminder that he’s waiting for my decision.

 

“I wouldn’t want you to get into any trouble, and I’m so tired from my drive.” This is not an exaggeration. I thought I’d be joining Aunt Betsy on her patio for a pitcher of something sweet and alcoholic right about now. She’s been looking forward to my visit for weeks. It was her idea in the first place. She wouldn’t forget to let the gate know I was coming. She doesn’t forget anything. “Would you mind calling her neighbor, Mona?”

 

“Of course.” His put-out expression does not match his accommodating words. “Do you have a last name or an exact address?”

 

A picture of Mona’s laughing face pops into my head, but unfortunately, not her last name. I wrack my brain. I’ve met the woman on several occasions while visiting Aunt Betsy, but I don’t know her really well.

 

Paul turns to his right and nods. Crap. A car has pulled up behind me.

 

“Let’s see, Aunt Betsy lives in apartment 905, so Mona must live in 902.” I say the words with more confidence than I feel. I’ve even been inside Mona’s apartment, but I didn’t pay attention to the number engraved on the little plaque next to their door.

 

Paul walks back to the computer and taps on the keys. He doesn’t pick up the phone. Not good. He turns back towards me. “I’m sorry, but there is not a Mona on record as living in apartment 902.”

 

“903 then?” Is it possible to feel the impatience of the driver of the car waiting behind me?

 

“I’m afraid I can’t let you through the gate until I hear from an owner with explicit instructions to do so. My offer still stands though, if you’d like to hang out in here with me.” He flashes a smile that I’m sure he thinks will make him seem irresistible.

 

It has the opposite effect on me.

 

No thank you. Still, it was kind of Paul to offer, and I don’t want to get on his bad side. So, I lie.

“I do have an errand I need to run,” I say, hoping it will buy me some time. “If I don’t hear from Aunt Betsy by the time I return, would it be okay to stay with you then?”

 

“Sure thing, but hurry back.” He winks—actually winks. What the heck?

 

Am I supposed to wink back? Not gonna happen. I manage a smile instead of rolling my eyes. “I have to open the gate for you to move forward since there’s a car behind you. Please circle around the gate house and exit the premises.”

 

I nod. “Thank you, Paul.”

 

The foam-covered bar moves upward. With a quick smile and wave to Paul, I inch forward through the gate…and keep going.

 

I’m in.

 

Aunt Betsy’s condo building is practically straight ahead beckoning me to get there and get there fast. It’s as if the sinking feeling in my stomach pulls me toward it. I can’t turn around now and exit the premises. Something is wrong. Something has to be wrong. Aunty Betsy doesn’t forget anything.

 

I floor it. The roar of my engine drowns out Paul’s shouts. What is Paul going to do anyway? He’s the only person in the guard shack. He can’t leave it to chase me, can he?

 

I do slow down once I put some distance between me and the front gate. The speed limit along this road is only thirty. It’s meant for a meandering drive through the palm-tree lined lane and for safety, of course. The last thing I need to do is hit a pedestrian or a golf cart carrying golfers from one side of the course to the other.

 

My plan isn’t perfect. As I pull into the parking lot and angle into one of the guest spots, I realize that Paul knows where I’m headed. That’s okay. There are no wailing sirens headed my way. I just need enough time to wake Aunt Betsy, and then she’ll vouch for me. That has to be it. I know she played golf this morning. She probably sat down on the couch and is taking a little cat nap. That’s all it is. Please don’t let me find her unconscious or in need of an ambulance.

 

Still, I don’t want to lose any time. I run to the front entrance of the building and punch her entry code into the keypad. The wrought iron gate opens.

 

I bound past the entry fountain and planter boxes to the elevator and hit the button, thankful that the car is waiting for me there. I watch as the illumination moves from number to number to indicate the floor we’re on. I finally make it to the top floor and cover the distance to Aunt Betsy’s condo at a sprint.

 

And then I slam on the brakes as my heart practically stops beating.

 

Mona stands outside Aunt Betsy’s condo with a sheriff’s deputy—wearing a full-on uniform and everything.

 

This is bad.

 

There’s no mistaking the sadness and confusion in Mona’s expression.

 

No!

 

“What’s happened?” The words that seemed to be stuck in my chest burst out. “Is she…” I can’t finish the sentence as a rush of dizziness washes over me.

 

The deputy drops his notebook and pen and darts for me. He grabs hold of my forearms to stop me, but it’s no use. I fall against him, and I feel his arms move around me.

 

What is happening?

 

Mona jumps towards me. “Oh, no, honey. It’s not that. I’m sure Betsy’s fine.” Her voice isn’t exactly filled with confidence. “It’s just…I don’t know where she is, exactly. I was hoping you had arrived early, and the two of you had gone off somewhere together. I haven’t been able to reach her all day.”

 

I take in Mona’s words. Aunt Betsy isn’t dead. Tears of relief fill my eyes. I close them tighter in the hope that none escape.

 

Aunt Betsy isn’t here though, and she knows I’m coming today. She might be okay though.

She’s probably okay.

 

Please let her be okay and not at the bottom of a water-filled ditch or in a hospital somewhere.

I take a deep breath and release it, letting the air take some of my dizziness with it. Falling apart isn’t going to help me find Aunt Betsy. I open my eyes slowly and take in my surroundings. I’m pressed against a dark green wall. No, that’s not right. It’s hard and unyielding, but it’s warm. I tilt my head up to get a better look.

 

I’m met with the hard chin of a man. His mouth is pressed into a thin line that seems to tighten his entire expression. But his eyes. His dark eyes are a mixture of blue, brown, and gray, all at the same time and so full of concern, I catch my breath.

 

Oh. My. Gosh.

 

I’m in the arms of a complete stranger. Another wave of dizziness crashes over me. He pulls me tighter into his wall of muscle.

 

No.

 

I jump back and away from him. He releases me but keeps one hand on my shoulder. Electricity pools there from my recent almost-fainting spell.

 

Mona places her hand on my other shoulder, and the man’s hand falls away. They both study me closely. Can they see the redness that must be on my cheeks? I can’t make eye contact to find out. This is too embarrassing. I’m not one to faint at bad news. Bad news? Right. The memory comes back, and I look up at Mona.

 

“Aunt Betsy’s missing? Please tell me what’s going on.”

 

Mona squeezes my shoulder. Her brown eyes are full of concern as well.

 

“I think so. I don’t know. When I spoke with Betsy at about five o’clock last night, she mentioned our golf game this morning and that you were coming this evening, of course. She’s been talking about your visit for weeks.”

 

“I think you’re both overreacting.” The deputy speaks, his voice deep and authoritative. I take a cautious look now as he bends down to retrieve his notebook and pen from the floor. “There are numerous explanations for where Ms. Franklin could be.” The words are spoken with caution as if he knows that I might lose it at any second. I take a moment to look at the man standing here who was just holding me in his arms.

 

A rush of heat falls over me this time, and it isn’t just from the embarrassment of what just happened. This man is well over six feet tall with short, dark hair. His muscular arms bulge from his uniform shirt, and there doesn’t appear to be an inch of fat on him.

 

“Cassie, this is Tanner Reid. He’s a Flagler County deputy.”

 

I look away from Tanner and focus on Mona.

 

“You called the police, so you must be really worried about her.”

 

“I am concerned, but at the same time, I’m not sure either. Like I said before, Betsy’s car isn’t in the garage, so I was hoping she was with you. I didn’t feel comfortable calling the sheriff’s office directly. Tanner’s mother, Theresa, is a good friend of mine. Tanner’s here as a favor more than to investigate any criminal activity. He came by on his way home from work.”

 

Tanner holds his hand out to mine for a handshake. I sneak a look at those eyes. He’s watching me, but he doesn’t look like he’s worried I’m going to fall over anymore. I stand taller and firmly grasp his hand. He can’t think I’m some weakling. That is not who I am. I don’t show weakness to anyone but especially not a macho cop. I’ll deal with my worries later, when I’m alone.

 

“Can you put out an APB—is that what it’s called?—for Aunt Betsy’s car? She drives a red Mercedes convertible with a personalized license plate. It can’t be that difficult to spot.”

 

“It’s a 1969 280SL,” Mona adds.

 

“You know the kind of car?”

 

Mona nods. “Betsy loves that car. Her late husband gave it to her for her fortieth birthday. Besides, that’s what the license plate reads. MY69SL. She’s like a force of nature in that car. You can’t miss her.” A tear falls from Mona’s watery eyes.

 

“Look, ladies, I’m sure this is going to be just fine. Ms. Franklin’s a grown woman. There’s no reason to panic because she didn’t show up for a golf game.”

 

“There she is!” We all turn to see security guard Paul and another uniformed man stomping towards us. Geez, I’d forgotten all about my breaking and entering. Paul’s mouth forms a thin line, and his face is tight. He stops next to our group and places his hands on his hips. “Ms. Taylor, you need to come with us immediately, or we’ll call the law.”

 

“What’s this all about?” Tanner asks.

 

Paul scowls at Tanner. “This is none of your business, Reid. Stay out of it.” Paul used his name, so they obviously know each other. Even if that clue hadn’t been given, Paul’s expression and body language is a clear sign that the two men do not get along.

 

Mona’s hands move to her hips as she angles herself between me and Paul. “Well, it is most certainly my business. You are harassing my guest.”

 

Paul’s face flushes. “Your guest, Mrs. Danforth? She told me she was here to see Ms. Franklin.”

Wait a minute.

 

I step around Mona so that I can face Paul directly. “Do you mean to tell me you know Mona, and you wouldn’t call her for me when I asked you to?”

 

“I’m not allowed to share the personal information of our property owners with potential guests.”

 

I feel the heat on my face and see Tanner’s smirk out of the corner of my eye. “I didn’t ask you to tell me Mona’s last name. I asked you to call her, so she could vouch for me. I could have gotten through the gate without all this drama. My aunt is missing. I didn’t have time to wait at the gate while you harassed me, and I don’t have time to stand here and argue with you now.”

 

I step to Aunt Betsy’s condo door and key in the combination. It works, thank goodness. I desperately need to get into her condo to see if there are clues to where she might be. And then I’ll likely be kicked out of the neighborhood. Paul wouldn’t exactly have to call 9-1-1 to alert the law. Tanner’s standing right here.

 

I leave the door open for Mona, hoping she’ll follow me and send Paul and his goon away. I don’t have time to deal with them. I need to find out what the heck is going on with Aunt Betsy.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Tanner

 

Cassie’s spunky. I’ll give her that. She’s a good six inches shorter than Miller and petite. Yet, she was right there, toe to toe with the man, giving him hell, her piercing blue eyes providing the exclamation point to her speech. We all stood there and watched as she marched to the door and into the condo. The woman knows how to make an exit. I like all that energy, and I sure as hell didn’t mind being the one to hold her when she needed a moment to process the news about her aunt.

 

Miller picks up his jaw from where it fell on the floor and stands taller. He flashes me a silent challenge. No need for me to bring the man down any more than he’s already done on his own. Ms. Taylor’s shut-down was enough.

 

Mona turns back toward him. “Let me be very clear. Until further notice, Cassie Taylor is my guest. She will have full entry through the gate.” Mona’s voice is sharp and direct and yet clearly shows her disappointment.

 

Miller is smart enough to keep his arguments to himself. He nods in agreement. “I apologize, Mrs. Danforth. It was a misunderstanding. I was just doing my job.” Miller’s always been overzealous, but in this case, it’s more likely that he kept Cassie captive at the gate to hit on her rather than protect the residents of Ocean Oaks.

 

“Thank you, Paul.” Mona turns and walks toward Ms. Franklin’s open condo door. I follow, but can’t help but look back at Miller, who is clearly about to blow his top. I close the door behind me and turn into the condo.

 

Cassie stands just inside the entry. From her vantage point, she can see the entire living area. It’s quite a large space consisting of a gourmet kitchen, complete with a large granite-topped island, dining area, living room, and an open space containing four club chairs arranged to face each other next to a large, built-in bar.

 

The floors are marble, and the furnishings are expensive. It looks like something from the cover of a home magazine except for the large oil painting of a couple that hangs above the fireplace. This must be Mrs. Franklin and her late husband.

 

Built-in bookshelves line either side of the fireplace. They’re lined with ornate wooden boxes that look a lot like jewelry boxes. Ms. Franklin clearly collects whatever they are.

 

Yet, those things are nothing compared to the view. One entire wall is glass from floor to ceiling, highlighting the view of the beach and ocean beyond. Being on the ninth floor gives the impression that we’re level with the horizon. I suppress the whistle that threatens to leave my mouth.

 

“This isn’t right.” Cassie shakes her head. I study the area again looking for anything out of place.

 

“What isn’t right? The place looks perfectly clean.”

 

“That’s the problem. Aunt Betsy isn’t this neat.”

 

Mona shrugs. “Betsy did mention that her cleaning service came yesterday. She wanted to get the place cleaned up for your visit.”

 

Cassie frowns as if she’s unhappy with the explanation. It makes sense to me. “Has anyone called the hospitals? Maybe she was in a car accident.”

 

Mona raises her hand slightly. “I called the hospital in Flagler earlier this afternoon. I started to really worry when I came back from golfing, and Betsy wasn’t here. I figured that wouldn’t hurt anything, although I felt like an idiot when I made the call. If anything happened around here, that’s where she would have been taken.”

 

Cassie sighs and walks down a short hallway. Mona and I follow and watch in silence as Cassie inspects each room. The two bedrooms and bathrooms are perfectly neat. The laundry room is as well.

 

Cassie returns to the living area and then turns into an alcove that leads to the master bedroom. The wall of windows extends into this room as well. Although I have slept on the beach a number of times and woken up with the sunrise, the view of it from here would be better.

 

The rest of the room looks like you’d expect. A king-sized bed framed by intricate wrought iron, dressers, and lamps. The grandness of the large pieces fits with the rest of the condo furnishings, and it’s as clean as the rest of the rooms.

 

Cassie smiles back from a framed photo on the dresser. I pick it up and study her image. She looks so happy as she laughs at the camera. A pang of something hits me in the gut. It would be so much nicer to see her smiling like this instead of the worry I’ve seen on her face so far.

 

“That’s Aunt Betsy and me.” Cassie walks closer to me. I study the other woman in the photo. She’s roughly in her fifties with short, red hair. She has a petite frame with a thin face and sharp chin. She and Cassie share those same piercing blue eyes. “That picture was taken at my brother Caleb’s wedding last June.”

 

“You look a lot like Mrs. Franklin.”

 

Cassie grimaces. “Would it be okay if you call her Betsy? You saying Mrs. Franklin while wearing your uniform just sounds too official and sad.”

 

“Of course. Let me try again. You and Betsy look a lot alike.”

 

Cassie manages a small smile this time. “Yeah. I take after my dad’s side of the family, the red hair and all.” Cassie flips her ponytail.

 

“It’s a nice red.”

 

Stupid thing to say, but I had to say something. I don’t like seeing this woman upset.

She mumbles her thanks and turns away from me to walk down the hall toward the master bathroom. The room is also perfectly clean. It even smells like bleach. The lush bath towels are hung perfectly on the racks, and there’s not a drop of toothpaste in the sink. Cassie frowns again and heads into the walk-in closet. There’s room enough in there for all three of us to stand.

 

This is not the closet of a fifty-something woman. Other than the fact that it’s neat and tidy, it looks more like the closet of a teenager. A rainbow of Converse sneakers illuminate the room. Brightly colored t-shirts and sweaters are folded neatly and stacked on the shelving.

 

“Betsy’s a colorful woman, isn’t she?”

 

“You have no idea,” Mona answers with a chuckle. “She’s always the most colorful person in a room and not just because of her clothes. She has an incredible energy about her.”

 

“She’s also a complete mess. I’ve never seen her closet so neat.” Cassie looks to Mona for an answer.

 

“Like I said, Betsy told me she was cleaning up for your visit. I know she organized in here because I helped her take four huge bags of clothes to Goodwill last week.”

 

Cassie frowns and heads out of the master suite. This time she turns into a small office. I have to stop cold to avoid walking into her. The closeness provides me with another chance to breathe in her rose scent. I got a nose full of the flower when I was holding her outside. The sweetness of her scent goes with the woman who practically fainted in my arms, not the one who stood her ground with Paul Miller. Mona and I study Cassie as she turns in a circle to check out the room.

 

“What. The. Hell.”

 

Nothing appears out of the ordinary. There’s a wall of windows on this side of the condo as well, but it overlooks the golf course instead of the beach. There’s an L-shaped desk along one wall and some bookcases along the other. A few pieces of opened mail and a small stack of papers are on the desk.

 

“What’s wrong? This room looks just as neat as the rest of the place.”

 

“That’s the problem. This room is never neat. The cleaning people aren’t even allowed in here.” As if to make her point, Cassie wipes her finger along one of the shelves of the bookcase, leaving a clear trail in the dust. The desk, on the other hand, is practically polished. “And look at the white board. It’s completely cleaned.” She gestures to the large white board that hangs behind the desk to emphasize her point.

 

“Maybe it’s like Mona said, she was cleaning up for you.”

 

“Not this room. This is where she works.”

 

Mona’s expression turns grim. “It’s true. Betsy wouldn’t clean her office for Cassie’s visit.”

 

“We should call your forensics team. This could be a crime scene.”

 

I resist the urge to sigh and swallow down my remarks.

 

“What does she do for work?”

 

Cassie looks down at the floor for a beat before looking back at me. “She calls it her work. It’s more of a hobby. She doesn’t gets paid to do it or anything.” My eyebrows raise in question. I can tell this is going to be good. “Aunt Betsy investigates conspiracy theories.”

 

Cassie winces at the last of her words. I choke out a chuckle and smile. “Seriously?”

 

“It’s harmless, and she’s good at it. She makes videos and posts them on the internet. She actually has a lot of followers.”

 

This job is nuts. I thought I’d heard everything, but now I’ve got a wealthy older woman who wears hot pink Converse and makes conspiracy videos for fun. Maybe Cassie can read my mind because she comes back fighting.

 

“I know she sounds like a kook, and in some ways, she is. But she’s the most reliable and punctual person you’ll ever meet. If she missed her golf game this morning, and then my arrival, something is seriously wrong.”

 

Cassie’s eyes are starting to get that glassy, tear-filled look they had when I held her out in the breezeway. I need to say something to Cassie to keep her from crying. Is it possible Betsy could be in some kind of trouble? Sure. But the odds are not likely. I don’t know if it’s the way she felt in my arms outside, or if I’m just becoming soft, but I can’t let her cry.

 

“Look, we can’t get carried away here. Betsy’s car is gone. Maybe something came up, and she’ll be home soon.”

 

“She would have called me. Something is wrong.”

 

I turn my head to avoid looking at Cassie’s pleading eyes. My gaze falls to the stack of papers on the desk. There’s a printed confirmation on top. I pick it up and take a closer look.

 

“I think we have the answer.”

 

Mona speaks first. “What is it?”

 

“It looks like Betsy’s going on a cruise.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Cassie

 

 

“No way.”

 

“Yes way. She has a grand suite booked and paid for on the Grand Caribbean. It sails on Saturday from Port Canaveral.”

 

I snatch the paper from Tanner’s hand and look at it for myself. Mona stands next to me and reads it for herself. “She wouldn’t.”

 

My response, exactly. It’s impossible.

 

“Betsy wouldn’t book a cruise? Maybe she was going to take you as a surprise or maybe she expected you to be gone by Saturday.” Tanner asks.

 

I shake my head. “Aunt Betsy insisted I stay with her for two weeks. Besides, my name isn’t the one listed as her guest. According to this, she’s going with some man named Milton Somers.”

 

Mona gasps as her hand flies to her chest. “Milton Somers? Why would Betsy go on a cruise with that man?”

 

Tanner gives me a Why do you think? look and takes the paper from me. I turn to Mona.

“Do you know Milton Somers? Who is he?”

 

“I’ve met Milton once or twice, but I don’t know him. Milton’s a member of the club, so he lives somewhere in the neighborhood. I’m not sure where. He owns a jewelry store or two in St. Augustine. I wasn’t aware that Betsy knew him either. She’s never mentioned him.”

 

“Maybe he’s Betsy’s secret boyfriend, and the two of them are going away together.” Tanner states the words as if the scenario is an actual possibility.

 

“No. That can’t be true.”

 

“Why not?” Tanner raises his hands in question.

 

“Because Aunt Betsy doesn’t date. Ever. The love of her life was Uncle Percy. She doesn’t want anyone else.” Tanner sighs, puts his hands on his hips, and lets his annoyance ring loud and clear. “This cruise doesn’t leave for a few days. This doesn’t explain where she and Milton are now.”

 

“Why don’t I take you by his house? Maybe they’re there, having some alone time and don’t realize how late it is. It could be as simple as that.”

 

My gut tells me that scenario could never happen. Not with Aunt Betsy, but Tanner’s right to check it out. And although I hear the frustration in his voice, he is nice to offer. “Okay. That would be nice. Mona, would you mind staying here in case Aunt Betsy comes home?”

 

“Of course, honey.” She pats me on my shoulder. “Just let me run home and find Milton’s address in the club directory.”

 

✥✥✥

 

“Are you sure this is it?”

 

I read the address again. 3017 Heron Way. The sun is fading fast, but I can still clearly read the numbers. “Yep. This is the house.”

 

We’re parked at the curb in front of Milton’s very large home. It’s covered in a light brick and is two stories tall. It’s conservative but with a modern edge. The grass is a dark green, and there’s a large, droopy shade tree in the middle of the yard that’s covered in Spanish moss. He has several of those grassy bushes with long, thin leaves that are so popular around here.

 

The house is completely dark except for the landscaping lights, which give the house an eerie glow. The driveway is empty, but there’s a two-car garage that could hide Milton’s car, even if he was home. There’s only one way to find out.

 

I move to open the door but can’t find the handle. “It’s right here.” Tanner leans over my lap and pulls a round latch on the inside of the passenger door, down near my knee. My body tenses at his closeness. I can’t help but notice that he isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Not that I’m looking to date him, but it makes me feel better, considering how good it felt to be in his arms. My mouth goes dry at the memory, as much from feeling his arms around me as the embarrassment of the whole scene. He sits back up and gives me a small smile. “Sorry.”

 

I shrug my shoulders, slide off my seat, and jump down to the street. The ground can be far away sometimes when you’re as short as I am. I exhale a long breath, and Tanner’s suddenly right next to me with his hand at my elbow for support. A sigh escapes me.

“I’m not some frail woman, you know.”

 

He smiles. “I never said you were. You’ve had a tough day though. I just want to be sure you have your footing. That’s all.”

 

“Look, I appreciate that you caught me earlier when I had my almost-fainting spell. I really do. I have no idea where that came from, but I promise you, I don’t have a habit of falling over.”

 

“You were worried about your aunt, and I’m sure we scared you, standing there like that, when you came out of the elevator.” I nod. “It’s okay.”

 

I shrug. I really need a change of subject.

 

“This Jeep is weird.”

 

“Maybe because it isn’t a Jeep.” His tone is full of attitude. “It’s a Defender.”

 

“What’s a Defender?”

 

“It’s made by Land Rover. It’s the vehicle people use to go on safari.”

 

“But it’s bright yellow and in Florida, so it’s likely not going on any safaris anytime soon. Am I right?”

 

He shakes his head, clearly defensive about his not-Jeep. “Probably not, but if the opportunity ever arises, I’m ready to go.”

 

Tanner’s lips curve up into a huge smile, revealing perfect teeth. His whole face brightens, especially those colorful eyes of his. The blue becomes even more prominent.

 

I return the gesture as much as I can muster and turn to walk up the driveway to the front walk. I feel Tanner’s hand on my lower back. I keep my sigh as much on the inside as possible. No matter what I say, he’s going to think of me as some kind of fainting ninny. I will have to set him straight about that at some point, but for now, his hand does feel nice right where it is.

 

Tanner reaches around me and rings the bell. It’s loud enough that we can hear the ding-dong from where we stand on Milton’s front stoop. We wait for a minute or so, but no one comes to the door. I reach out and press the button again. The loud chime echoes again, but the door remains unanswered. My shoulders slump, showing my disappointment.

 

I sigh and move back down the walk to the driveway.

 

“Give me one second,” I say quickly while hurrying around the side of the garage. Jackpot. There are windows there, but as I get closer, I see that they’re covered with blinds, blocking my view of the interior.

 

Tanner doesn’t say a word as I lean down to try to see what I can spot around them—a big fat nothing. We continue our silence as we walk back to his truck. He holds the door open for me. I grab the hold above the seat and the inside door handle and hoist myself into his Defender. Tanner climbs into the driver’s seat in a much more graceful manner.

 

I check my phone again. Nothing from Aunt Betsy or Mona. With a heavy sigh, I close my eyes and let the fresh Florida air wash over me for the short trip back to Aunt Betsy’s condo building. Tanner parks in the visitor spot next to my Honda.

 

My gaze meets Tanner’s. “Sorry this was a wasted trip. I was really hoping Aunt Betsy would be there.”

 

He shrugs. “I know you’re worried, but Betsy’s a grown woman. Just because she didn’t answer the door doesn’t mean she isn’t there. Maybe they were too busy to be interrupted, or maybe they’re out on a date.” I feel my forehead tighten. Tanner chuckles.

 

“This is serious, you know.”

 

His smile fades. “I know. It could be, but I just want you to see this from all angles. The probability of Betsy being in any serious trouble is very low.”

 

My phone buzzes with a text. The familiar sun and palm tree emoticons that I have assigned to Aunt Betsy’s contact name light up my screen.

 

“It’s her!” Hope fills me.

 

Tanner leans over me to read it.

 

Sorry I’m not there with you. Had

something to take care of and hope

to be back soon. Love you.

 

My mouth falls open in astonishment. Tanner’s smiling from ear to ear. I read the message three more times and let the words sink in.

 

Until my brain grasps the truth.

 

“This message isn’t from Aunt Betsy.”

 

“Why would you say that?”

 

“Someone used her phone to send the message, but it’s not from her. Aunt Betsy would never end her message with Love you. We have a thing we do. We always end our phone calls and messages with Love you more. I know you think I’m looking for things to worry about, but I promise you, this text isn’t from Aunt Betsy.”

 

“Why don’t you text her back and see if we get a response? Maybe she’s with Milton, and distracted, and she just forgot to add that ending. I mean, maybe she simply lost track of time, and she’s at Milton’s house right now, too embarrassed to come to the door.”

 

Could this text really be from Aunt Betsy? Tanner’s theory would seem reasonable for anyone else, but Tanner doesn’t know her. He doesn’t know that she’d never be with Milton or any other man. Whatever is going on with this cruise situation doesn’t help my point, but one thing at a time. This text is not from Aunt Betsy.

 

Maybe if I keep it simple and to the point, I’ll learn something.

 

Where are you? When will you be back?

 

My stomach knots as I watch the message send. What does it mean that someone texted me with Aunt Betsy’s phone? Has she been kidnapped?

 

Tanner and I stare at my phone screen and wait for a reply. I can smell the saltiness of the ocean here. I concentrate on that, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. Despite my efforts, I can’t calm down under Tanner’s gaze while waiting for my phone to buzz with a return text.

“What does it mean that they won’t write back? Is someone holding her for ransom?”

 

“If a kidnapper wants a ransom payment, we would likely have been notified by now.”

 

I shake my head. “It’s more likely Milton kidnapped her than she went off with him willingly.”

 

Tanner merely shrugs. “Can’t you put out an APB for her car?” His mouth forms a grim line again. “A silver alert?”

 

“Cassie.” Tanner packs a considerable amount of disappointment into just one word. I just met this man. Who the heck does he think he is?

 

With a huff, I open the door, hop down, and stomp towards the condo building entrance. Tanner runs to catch up with me.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

I stop and glare at him. “I’m going to look for more clues and maybe make some phone calls. I can’t believe Aunt Betsy’s really going on a cruise instead of being here with me, but if she is, maybe she’s staying in a hotel near the port. I have to do something to find her. Standing here arguing with you is a waste of time.”

 

“I’m not trying to be a dick.” Tanner places his hand on my shoulder and gives it a light squeeze. I shrug it off and look him in the eye. “I just don’t want you to get upset. You’ve taken this news really hard, and I don’t want to worry about you.”

 

I don’t bother to repress my sigh. “I don’t need you to worry about me. Despite my earlier display of…weakness, that is not who I am.” I can feel myself speaking the words through my teeth. “I know how serious this situation is, even if you won’t believe me. If I don’t hear from Aunt Betsy tonight, I will be at the police station in the morning. That’s when she didn’t show up for her tee time this morning. That will be twenty-four hours. Can I file a missing person’s report then?”

 

“Sure.” He studies me for a moment, the shadow of the street lamp hiding his eyes. He reaches into his pocket and holds out something for me. “This area is protected by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. I’ll be there in the morning, and I’ll help you however I can.”

 

If Tanner wanted to be helpful, then he would actually be doing something to help me find Aunt Betsy instead of insisting she’s off getting lucky with her imaginary boyfriend. He wouldn’t be treating me like a fragile child. I take the card from him just to end this conversation and walk away.

 

I have things to do.

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