Another week passed before something big changed. It's not like I hadn't been waiting for something to break, but I was still a little surprised when it happened. We had our first round of college exams. I barely passed mine, but that was no shock.
Keilana, on the other hand, got all A's. I expected her to come home after her last class today, do a little homework, some reading for pleasure, and then we'd scare up a late supper together. It was what we did every night and I'd come to look forward to it.
I know it seems sappy, but I was so proud and happy for her! She'd worked damned hard and it had paid off in spades. I had picked up some wine and flowers at the grocery store in Santa Medina to celebrate her big accomplishment, but when I got back to our cottage after a quick trip to the grocery in Santa Medina, all I found was a worthless note that made me want to tear my hair out by the roots.
Gone out for the evening. Don't wait up. I think there is some leftover shrimp & rice in the fridge. Help yourself
to it all.
"Damn!" I dropped the bag of groceries on the counter in disgust. I couldn't believe that I'd let sloppy sentimentality send me the store for celebration goodies when I should have been watching my quarry. What was wrong with me lately?
I read the note again. She didn't say where she was heading and I wondered what she was hiding and whether it was intentional or just a side effect of her very private personality. A kernel of worry exploded in my belly. Whatever she was doing had to be really bad. If not, why hide it?
Then I thought of Keilana's parking tickets. It was Friday night. Had she driven to San Diego?
It was warm, but rainy, and a staccato of drops bombarded the Jaguar's windshield as I pulled out of the campus parking lot. The car was fabulous, but would stick out like a sore thumb in the part of town where I was heading. Truth be told, I was glad for an excuse to go back to my apartment, if only for a few minutes.
I live on the third floor of an enormous, turn-of-the-century home that had been converted into four separate apartments during WWII. It's close to downtown and I have a private parking space in the alley behind the backyard. I've lived here for more than fifteen years and have seen a couple dozen other tenants come and go in that timeframe. I, however, haven't really had a reason to leave. The rent is reasonable, they allow me to keep Smelly, and I have a lot more privacy than I would in one of those enormous townhouse complexes on the other side of town.
Currently, I was the only resident not collecting Social Security so it was also deathly quiet there. Part of the reason I worked so much and spent so much time at the beach was that it allowed me to be around other people. Living alone can be ... well ... lonely. Not to mention boring as hell.
I pulled up next to my Mustang, a warm fuzzy feeling enveloping me, even though the car was, I fully admit, a heap of junk. But it wasn't just any car. It was my first car. I'd fended off several boyfriends in that car, and when I'd gotten older, given in to several girlfriends there. And even though I was sitting in a gem right now, I was looking forward to sliding behind the wheel of my own vehicle and sinking down into the seat that had perfectly molded to my butt over the years. It was mine and that's what I liked best about it.
But I wasn't going anywhere without the car keys, which were inside my apartment. Large trees shielded me from most of the rain as I trotted up the sandy path that bisected the backyard. As I unlocked the back door, I noticed the white paint on the house looked a little dingy and a few of the shutters were cracked. Why hadn't I seen that before? Had I gotten spoiled after only a few weeks at Madonna Del Mar? I thought of Shauna and frowned. If I believed I might start acting like her, I'd go jump off a bridge somewhere.
I was greeted with a blast of stale air when I opened my apartment door. And despite the rain, I threw open a window. The place was dark and drab compared to my new digs. And it was, I decided with a sigh, too quiet with Smelly gone. I snagged the keys from their usual resting place on my kitchen counter and noticed my answering machine blinking. Three messages.
The first was some dick-weed wanting to know if I wanted to switch my long distance carrier. The next was from my mom. She was wondering whether I was still alive and I made a mental note to call her back the next day. The last message was from Russ, pleading with me to toss him a crumb of information about my case. His workload was light at the moment and I guessed he was about ready to crawl up the walls with nothing to do.
I was just about to call him back when I heard a noise coming from my bathroom. I swallowed hard. Shit! I'd walked in on an intruder. The bum was probably hoping to find some nice prescription drugs in my medicine chest.
I didn't carry a big-ass gun in my purse like TV detectives. I didn't even have a baseball bat. I've always found running in the opposite direction of trouble to be a lot safer than direct confrontation. But tonight, for some reason, I didn't have the urge to flee. I had the urge to stay and fight.
I stood there, on a razor's edge, unsure of exactly what to do. Okay, that's not quite true. I knew what I should do, and I knew what I wanted to do. And as often happens with me, my emotions took control and common sense flew out the window. The thought that some skanky stranger might have pawed my most personal and prized possessions—Granny's locket, my mint condition first issue of Surfing, my collectible Wonder Woman lunch box—was more than I could bear.
Furious and with wild emotions pouring off me like the sparks from a firecracker, I crept over to the bathroom door and hid alongside it. It was mostly dark there and I left the lights off as I waited in the shadows. I heard the toilet flush and envisioned the lid being left up. "Bastard!" I seethed quietly. A nervous sweat beaded on my upper lip.
The door opened and I saw the shadow of a middle-sized man fill the doorway, drying his hands on my towels. He turned and tossed the towel back into the bathroom. Pig! My heart was beating so fast that I couldn't distinguish the beats. Adrenaline sang through my veins, making my limbs shake in anticipation.
I didn't give myself time to think or chicken out. Instead, I let out a primal roar and jumped in front of the door. The man jumped back when he saw me, but not in time to avoid my stunning kick to his groin. He fell to the ground with an inhuman wail, and I reared back to kick him again ... when Smelly scampered out of the bathroom, tromping over the writhing man's head in the process.
Uh-oh. I blinked. "Russ?"
All I heard was groaning.
I flicked on the hall light and there he was, curled up in a ball of misery, cursing me in between his whimpers as he rocked back and forth.
"Russ! Oh, God." I dropped to my knees, petting Smelly with one hand and patting Russ on the back with the other. "I didn't know it was you." I didn't know where to touch him. It wasn't like I could comfort him there. "It was an accident, I swear!"
He bit his lip, a tortured look on his face. "Ugh ... You evil … ugh … damn, ughhhhh, fuckin'-A … Jesus—"
Wow. I'd never seen a human being's face so red.
"I thought you were a burglar!" I cried. "Oh, please don't puke there, okay?" Smelly began to whine and lick Russ's face. Apparently, guys of all species have a special sort of empathy for each other in moments like these.
Russ was finally able to moan, "Do I look like a bu-burglar?"
I sighed, relieved that he'd stopped writhing. "You did in the dark. I didn't know you'd be here. What was I supposed to think?"
He didn't have a good answer for that, but he still managed to pose a very good question. "Since when do you attack burglars, Belinda?" He rolled over on his back and threw one arm over his eyes. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? Are you crazy? What if I'd had a gun or a knife?"
"I-I-I—" I couldn't think of a single reasonable explanation for what I'd just done. "The burglar's butt was on my toilet." I gestured frantically. "I couldn't think straight!"
He laughed even though I could tell it hurt when he did it. "Forget that I asked if you're crazy. I already know the answer."
Another moment passed before he sat up, his face a little pasty.
"Russ, do you need to go the hospital?" I was horrified at the thought that I might have ruptured something that he, and presumably his wife, dearly loved. I'd threatened his balls many times over the years of our friendship, but I never intended to actually crush them.
"No way." He let out a painful breath. "No way am I going to explain to some nurse that my best friend"—he glanced at my T-shirt—"who is wearing pink today, I might add, beat me up."
"Do you want some ice or something?"
"So long as it's in a tall glass of scotch."
I nodded, relieved that I could do anything to help. Russ knew I didn't drink scotch, but I fetched two shockingly cold bottles of Sam Adams from the refrigerator and then hurried back to his side. I slid down the wall to join Russ, who was now sitting up and leaning against the wall in the hall. "What are you doing here anyway?" I passed him a bottle. "Did you and Sarah have another fight?"
"Yeah," his heavy brow furrowed. "A bad one."
I leaned my shoulder against his, and he rested his hand on my knee. Sometimes the best support you can offer a friend doesn't require any words at all.
He took a long pull of beer. "I crashed on your sofa last night and was going to do it again tonight." He inclined his head toward the dog. "Smelly missed you."
"I missed him, too." I petted my mutt again and he instantly rolled over so I could scratch his belly. I happily obliged, a smile blooming on my face.
"Why are you here?" Russ asked, his curiosity showing. We shared that sometimes-maddening trait. It was an occupational hazard. "You're supposed to be at that fancy pants college, aren't you?"
"I'm picking up my car so I can trail Keilana."
Russ snorted. "Good luck. That girl has eyes in the back of her head. Hey, why didn't you just go with her when she left? Isn't that the point of living with her?"
I squirmed a little. "I wasn't invited, okay? She's got a life of her own. But at least I have an idea of where she's gone. Or at least the general vicinity."
He scratched his stubble-covered chin. Apparently being away from the wife means no shaving. "So you're going to go looking for her tonight instead of waiting till she comes home?"
I nodded. "I have to. Whatever it is she's up to, she does away from campus. I'm sure of that. Besides ..." My lips tensed. I hated to admit this for about a million different reasons. "She might never trust me enough to take me wherever it is she goes."
"Can I come too?" He finished off his beer in a few hurried swallows. "I'm ready." He snickered. "I've already been to the bathroom, Mom. I wouldn't go in there for a while, by the way."
Gross. "You can't come with me, Russ."
His eyes widened in disbelief. "Belinda!"
"The answer is no."
It was obvious that he was struggling not to raise his voice. "Why not?"
I knew he had to be bored here. Russ had the attention span of a three-year old and was always full of restless energy. "Keilana already spotted you when you were following her earlier this year. If she sees you with me it'll blow my cover."
"Are you going to let her see you?"
I nearly spit out my drink. "Of course not! I'm not going to get made."
He narrowed his eyes at me.
"I'm going to spy on her and remain hidden. Alone."
He took my bottle from me and stole a sip. "Well ..." He licked the beer from his lips and passed me back the bottle. "If she won't see you, and I'm with you, then she won't see me either, right?"
"Besides, back when I was following her she only saw me from a distance. And I was wearing a hat and dark glasses. I never even got out of the car. No way she could I.D. me after all this time."
I was about to say no again when he added, "Please?"
Shit. I was a sucker for him when he was polite. "Fine. But we need to go now. Can you walk?" I stood up and offered him a hand. Russ is only a few inches taller than me, with a thick neck and muscular body. I had to lean way back to help him to his feet. God, what did his wife feed him?
Wobbly, he stood, then drew in a deep breath and took a tentative step, nodding at the results. "I can walk. And I can sure as hell sit in your car. By the way you owe my injured ‘boys'"—he pointed to his crotch—"a trip to Burger Boy later. And just so you know, I'm getting double of everything."
My face twisted in disgust. "Uck. I'll take you to Burger Boy every time we're together for a month if you swear to never mention your ‘boys' in my presence ever, ever again."
"Deal." He grinned wildly. "Hey, Belinda, have we ever talked about my—"
"Don't even go there, Russ."
There was no single word that could describe this corner of San Diego's southeast side. The locals called the area El Vientre del Diablo. The Devil's Belly. And butted up against El Vientre del Diablo was one of the older parts of the city that had recently been the recipient of millions of dollars of redevelopment funds. It was an area in transition; an eclectic mix of grimy and dilapidated, glitzy and new. Right now, however, we were still in the part that was too salty and dangerous to be a tourist trap.
"God, Russ," I had to flick on my windshield wipers as the rain shifted from a sprinkle to a steady downpour. With twilight's rapid approach, the gray skies had taken on an amethyst hue. "I hope we don't find her hanging out here. But the area where Keilana got all those parking tickets is just few a streets over from here."
I stopped at an intersection so two tranny hookers could cross the street in front of my car. The wind and the rain had caused their once lofty hairstyles to fall into their faces, and they gave me a grateful wave as they scurried across the street, wearing shoes that looked like Dorothy's ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I grimaced. "Is that mascara pooling at their collars?" I mumbled, my eyes scanning both sides of the road for Keilana.
I barely heard his wistful sigh. "They remind me of my wife."
Good grief. Russ's wife is pretty, five feet, two inches tall, blond, and with a cupid-bow mouth. She reminded me of Betty Boop with an attitude.
The hookers had five o'clock shadows, were black, and tall enough to play for the NBA. "The resemblance is uncanny. How does Sarah resist your charm, Russ?"
I felt a twinge of pity for my friend. "Oh, fine. You don't have to sleep on the sofa at my place anymore." I'd always taken Russ in during his times of need. Which were many. But I'd always drawn the line at letting him use my bedroom.
His face lit up. "Really?"
I rolled my eyes at myself. "Yeah. You can have the bed, but only till I get home." I pointed at him. "And take the sheets with you when you leave."
"How long do you think that will that be? Till you come home, I mean."
My lips tensed. I thought of collecting my big paycheck from the Poppenhouses, and then I thought of never seeing Keilana again. I wasn't sure which one of those thoughts made my stomach lurch, but it did. "It won't be long now." I prayed that would be true.
"Are you okay, Belinda? You've been sort of quiet tonight."
I hadn't been quiet at all. I'd told him all about living with Keilana and school and the college life from a new perspective. Then we'd talked for a while about the progress reports I was sending Keilana's father every three days. But he was right about one thing. I'd felt … I don't know … "off" for lack of a better word.
I was never very good at hiding my feelings and I smiled ruefully at Russ. "I'm ... I guess this job is starting to get to me. All the lying and spying. It's a lot easier when you don't know the person whose privacy you're invading."
He gave me a sympathetic look, then turned to glance out his window. "It's just a job. Money in your pocket, ya know? You can't let it tie you into knots. Besides, from what the parents said, the kid is hell on wheels. If someone is spying on her, it's because of her own doing."
My jaw clenched with sudden anger. "That's bullshit! Keilana doesn't deserve what I'm doing to her. Yeah, she can make me crazy and all, but she's also funny and smart and kind. She even laughs when I repeat the lousy jokes you've told me."
My blood pressure was still rising and I didn't try to stop it. "She smiles at me when I do something right in class. And last week, out of the blue, she bought me a quart of my favorite flavor of ice cream and put it in the freezer without saying a word. She's on some campus committee that collects used clothes for women and kids in battered women's shelters. Bet you didn't know that either?"
Russ didn't answer, but his eyes widened a bit.
I was on a roll, the words pouring out of me in an angry stream. "Of course you didn't. Nobody even thinks she'd do something that wasn't all about her. And I used to be just as ignorant. Oh, and she offered to help me pass my impossible fucking classes. For free." I left out the part about her wanting to get me naked since it didn't really didn't help me get my point across.
"I guess I didn't know any that," Russ admitted after a moment of worriedly staring at me. "But you make her sound like some goodie-two-shoes." He lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "I find that hard to believe, even with the way you've blabbered on all night about how great she is."
My mouth opened but no words came out. Had I really blabbered? "I do not blabber. And she's not some lame Girl Scout. But she's not some rotten rich bitch either. I've found out a lot of other good things about her that I'll bet her parents don't even know." I couldn't hide my disgust. It was hard enough hiding my distain in my progress reports I had to submit to the Poppenhouses. "I've been there for weeks and they haven't bothered to call her once."
He shrugged one shoulder. "They told me that she refuses to return their calls."
I slapped the steering wheel with my open hand. "They aren't even trying! They can't just give up. They are the parents. And they are the ones who hired you to spy on her. Of course Keilana is angry. Wouldn't you be?"
A tiny crease appeared between Russ's eyes. "The Poppenhouses aren't giving up on her. If they were, they wouldn't have hired you, Belinda."
I knew that was true even though my sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Poppenhouse diminished everyday I lived with their daughter. Nobody who hasn't been treated badly acted the way Keilana did. Nobody. And since they seemed to be as much to blame as Keilana for their sucky parent/child relationship, I refused to go out of my way to let them off the hook. "The parents probably made matters worse by hiring me. If Keilana ever finds out ..." My heart sped up a little at the mere thought. "She'll never trust them." Or me. "Ever again. And I mean never."
I was all wound up, but I didn't want to argue with Russ, so I forced my shoulders to relax and somehow managed a slow, calming breath. "Look," I said as I glanced sideways. "I've been with Keilana nearly twenty-four seven, she's not a bad person. She's not." My eyes begged him to believe me. I'm not sure why that was suddenly so important to me. It just was.
"And that reminds me"—my tone dared him to disagree—"she's not doing dope!" Oops, I was starting to get all crazy again.
"You think she's hooking?"
A prostitute? I gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white and my hands hurt. I fought back the bitter taste of bile. "No way."
"What's going on with her then? It's gotta be something," Russ said, looking mildly startled by my vehemence.
"I-I—" I just shook my head. "I don't know." A sigh escaped. I was still angry at myself for letting Keilana out of my sight in the first place. "I think she's just a regular, mixed-up young woman, who is really angry with her parents and is as mistrustful of everyone else as she is of them. I'll admit she's got a secret though. Or we wouldn't be driving around in the rain looking for her."
He smiled wickedly. "She won't have the secret for long."
I couldn't help but feel a tingle of anticipation in my belly. The chase was on.
We drove in silence for a few moments before he asked, "Do you think Keilana's attractive?"
"God, yes," I said lot more quickly than I'd intended. I bit my tongue and briefly closed my eyes. Crap.
A relieved-looking smile broke out on Russ's face. "Belinda," he taunted with a chuckle. "You're hot for your roomie!" He slapped his knee, and laughed little louder. "God, you had me worried there for a minute."
"Shut up." There was no way I could deny it and get away with it, so I didn't even bother trying. I wasn't just hot for Keilana. I was long past hot. About now I would fit nicely into the "smoldering piles of ashes" category. There were times when I was sure that everyone around me could see steam rising from my ears and other hotter, wetter body parts of my body as I burned apart from within.
"She drives you to distraction, doesn't she?"
I swallowed my pride. "Yes. Yes. Yes! I can't think anymore because I want her so badly! Happy?"
He clucked his tongue at me. "You do know that Kale Poppenhouse would probably hire a hit man to bury your ass in the Mexican desert if you as much as laid a finger on her, don't you?" His expression turned serious. "You're playing with fire."
"I'm well aware of that, Russ." I smiled a sickly-sweet smile. "But thanks so much for reminding me."
"No problem." He wiped mock sweat from his brow. "For a second I thought you had your head screwed on backwards and had ... . I dunno ... a crush on her or something equally stupid. I should have known you wouldn't go and do something so nuts. Wanting to bang her is dangerous, but completely understandable. Falling for her would be ... well, even you aren't that crazy."
My face heated as I considered his words. Falling for her? Was I? God above, I knew in my heart that I was just that crazy! I stopped for a red light and rubbed my temples with one hand. They were starting to throb.
A crush was way, way worse than just wanting to jump her bones. Sex I could deal with. A case of unrequited puppy love was something that I hadn't had since the eighth grade. And come to think of it, it had ended badly then too.
I wasn't anxious to repeat the experience.
The light turned green and I punched the gas pedal, slamming Russ back against his seat.
"Okay," I said, gripping the steering wheel tightly. "I admit that I'm hot for her."
He smiled smugly as he braced himself in his seat. "I knew it!"
"But that's all you get out of me on the subject. At least for tonight. Oh, and Russ?" I turned my head to face him. "You really need to stop teasing me about this right now."
He blinked. "I do?"
"Yes." I slowed my Mustang down so that I could scan a small parking lot for Keilana's car. "Because now that I know how easy it is to kick you in the balls, I'm much more likely to do it again. At any moment the mood strikes me, as a matter of fact."
He gulped, and amazingly, that shut him up tighter than a clam ... for all of five seconds.
He shook his head and gave me an envious look. "Belinda, you could have more pussy than the Humane Society if you'd only open your eyes to the women around you.
I hung my head. "Jesus, Russ."
"Just don't let it be with a client's daughter."
"Do you always have to be so disgusting?" I wasn't angry that he'd blown off my threat. He usually did.
He let out a low whistle as he shook his head. "I can't blame you for sniffin' after the Poppenhouse kid. There's something sexy as hell about her."
I ground my teeth together. That was the second time he'd called her a "kid" in the last five minutes. "She's twenty-one years old, not twelve." I would have knocked the smirk right off his face if I hadn't been twice as obnoxious about the nineteen-year-old pet groomer's assistant he'd briefly dated a few years ago. She still had braces on her teeth and talked about her senior prom incessantly.
"Okay, okay, she's not jail bait," he allowed good-naturedly. "You're lucky there." Then his jaw dropped the way it always did when he experienced an epiphany that he wasn't particularly happy about. "She's into chicks too?"
Reluctantly, I nodded. Normally, I wouldn't share that sort of personal information about someone, but Keilana was totally out about her sexual orientation and Russ and I always talk about the women in our lives. The ones we've had, and the ones we only dream of having.
"Oh, man!" He couldn't have looked more bereft if I'd told him that his beloved San Diego Chargers were moving to Calcutta. "Isn't that always the way?" he cried. "Dammit all to hell. That blows!"
I flashed him an incredulous look. Why is it that when a guy finds out an attractive woman is a lesbian, he always takes it so personally? As though there will now be a shortage of women and that he, personally, will have to do without. "It's not like you had a chance at her, you pervert!"
He pointed as his chest with his thumb. "Why am I the pervert?"
Thinking of Russ and Keilana together made my blood boil, but I couldn't very well say that. "Because ... umm ... because you're too old for her!"
His dark eyebrows rose. "You just made it very clear that she was a grownup. I'm only four years older than you." He poked me in the shoulder a little harder than necessary. "If I'm a pervert, you're one too."
Shit. Rule number one, perverts who live in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones. "I'm not married and you are." Hah! Take that.
"And I hope to be married for a long time. But that doesn't mean I'm blind." His gaze softened. "Living with her must be torture, huh?"
The lump in my throat rose so unexpectedly that I didn't answer for fear that my voice would crack. The road before us became a little blurrier.
Living with Keilana wasn't torture. It was astonishingly easy. And that made things even harder. What was torture was the knowledge that I was taking the nascent trust and friendship we shared and shredding it to bits on a daily basis with my endless lies and duplicity. I was using her.
I was worse than her parents, who, even though they were the sort who shouldn't have attempted to raise anything more complicated than a fern, were at least acting in part out of concern for their child. I was only in this for the money.
Russ must have noticed the sudden wave of melancholy that washed over me because he turned to face his side window again and gave me a tiny bit of privacy. He rubbed the fog that collected there with the back of his hand and peered out. I wasn't a scum-sucking pile of shit. I was the flea on the scum-sucking pile of shit.
I could tell that Russ wanted to say more on the subject and I wasn't sure what was holding him back. Still, I was grateful for the reprieve. He'd been peppering me with questions about my case and Keilana all night and I'd had about as much of the Curious George routine as I could handle.
A gust of wind shook my Mustang as I turned and rounded a sharp corner. Even in this lousy weather, the street I merged onto was busier than the one we'd just traveled, and pedestrians under umbrellas or baseball hats crowded the sidewalks as they waited to get into various dance clubs and bars. It was a rough and ready, young crowd that included a fair share of partying Marines.
Russ grabbed his enormous bag of cheeseburgers from the backseat. He carefully unwrapped a burger and passed it over to me, taking the time to wrap the paper around it so that I could hold the burger and not drip ketchup down my shirt as I drove. "Thanks," I said quietly.
Then he dug out a burger for himself. "Hey," he said around an enormous bite. He swallowed hastily. "Her BMW is white with a black bra and spoiler, right?"
"Yeah," my head snapped in the direction that he was looking. "I can't ... That might be it!" The headlights of a car in the parking lot illuminated what might be Keilana's car. But the light lasted only a couple of seconds and then it was gone. I swerved into a small, gravel lot that sat between a bar and a dance club. It was a paid lot, but the attendant, who had probably spent most of the evening locked in a tiny booth with a shotgun resting on his lap as he took money, was long gone by now.
The reflection of flashing neon from nearby signs off my wet windshield made it tough to see, but I was certain that the BMW was empty and that Keilana was nowhere in sight. I pulled up right behind what I thought was her car, and gave it another quick glance before I kept right on driving to the back of the parking lot.
There were no empty spots but I managed to fit my Mustang next to the last car in a row, though it meant two of my wheels were resting on the curb. Luckily, it was getting dark fast.
I killed the engine. "I tried, but I couldn't see whether the license plate matched."
"Christ, Belinda, how many white Beemers matching that description do you think are parked on the edge of The Devil's Belly? That's the one. Gotta be."
We both tossed our half-eaten burgers onto the dashboard. A tickle of excitement caused me to stop worrying about how I felt about Keilana and start focusing on why I was here.
"I'm gonna go check the plates just to be sure," I said.
Russ rolled his eyes. Then he nodded and pulled his baseball cap a little lower on his head. "I'll go check the plates. This the number?" He plucked a small, folded piece of paper from my ashtray.
I opened my mouth to protest and he held up a forestalling hand. "Let me," he said. "The girl—"
I glared at him.
"Errr ... I mean, Keilana, is already pissed at her parents. If she makes you, well, you already said it. It'll only make things worse. Not to mention the fact that it's bad to blow things with rich clients." He gave me a chagrined smile that made him look very much like a little boy. "I would know."
I let out an unhappy breath. "Russ—"
Just as he reached for the door handle his cell phone rang. Reluctantly, he dug it out of his pocket, then swallowed hard when he read the illuminated phone number of the caller.
"Go ahead answer it," I urged him. "The BMW will keep. I'm watching it. It's about time you and Sarah made up anyway."
"I don't know what to say to her."
The phone continued to ring.
I sighed. Men. "Answer it and apologize. I'll go check the plates."
"What if I make it worse?" The panic started in his eyes but spread to the rest of him in two seconds flat. "What if she starts to cry? What if—?"
"Just say you're sorry, for fuck's sake!" I grabbed his hands and pushed the phone toward his head. "Answer it. Answer it. Answer it!" If there is one thing I can't stand, it's a ringing phone.
"You talk to her!" And with that he pressed "talk" and thrust the phone in my hands, jumping out of the car before I could grab him.
"You pathetic, stinking coward," I hissed. "Come back ... umm ... hi, Sarah?"
"Is that you, Belinda?" she asked, sounding supremely annoyed.
I guess the plain fact is, nobody likes her husband being such close friends with another woman. Much less a former lover. Even though it worked for Russ and me, I knew it had to look a little unnatural to the rest of the world.
Sara grumbled, "Why isn't Russ, that big chicken, answering his own phone?"
"Huh?" I barely heard what she said. Every ounce of my attention was on Russ as he approached the white BMW. Then to my horror, as if I needed further confirmation of existence of Murphy's Law, I saw someone who looked dangerously like Keilana approaching the parking lot out of Russ's line of vision.
My eyes bugged out of my head. Another woman was with her and they were huddled under a single, large umbrella together. "Oh, fuck me!"
"What is going on, Belinda?" Sarah demanded.
"Russ is sorry he was such an asshole. Gotta go." I pressed a random button on the phone and threw it onto the backseat. Then I climbed into Russ's seat to watch the horror unfold. Russ was crouched down, reading the license plate and Keilana was approaching him from the back. He glanced around, but so much water was pouring off his baseball cap, I doubted he could see more than a few feet.
Keilana was carrying something. A big purse? No, a backpack. Why would she be carrying her backpack away from school? Then I looked closer and realized this wasn't her school backpack, which was bright yellow. This one was dark, black or maybe navy blue.
A few more steps and the other woman came into better focus. It was Billie. I groaned as I clumsily climbed over the front seats and fell head first into the back seat. Like an excited puppy going on a car ride, I all but pressed my face to the glass as I watched.
The women stopped walking for a moment and Keilana glanced up at Billie and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand. Furiously, I rubbed the fog from my window so I could get a better look at them. I had no idea what they were saying, but their body language told me all I needed to know. Ugh.
Another gust of wind shook the car, and I watched as a strong gust tore the paper out of Russ's hand, sending it into the gravel a few feet from him. It instantly stuck to the ground and he tried to peel it up with wet, clumsy fingers. "Get out of there, Russ!" I whispered to myself. "Get out!" He kept fiddling with the paper as Keilana and Billie got closer and closer. "Oh no."
He finally gave up on it and started looking inside the car. He tried the door, and I could see him futilely yanking on the handle. It was locked and he was focusing his attention there and not on his surroundings.
"Shit!" Quietly, I snuck out of my car, blinking the rain back when it poured down my face. I stayed low to the ground as I crept between the parked cars. I had to warn Russ or everything would be ruined. The warm rain plastered my hair to my forehead and my clothes stuck uncomfortably to my body after just a few seconds.
I made it to Russ just ahead of Keilana and Billie. "Go. Get out of here!" I whispered as loudly as I dared.
Russ glanced in the direction I was hiding, confused by the disembodied voice. "Who's there?" He looked harder into the shadows. "Belinda?"
I managed to squeeze out, "Run!" a split second before it was too late.
"That's my car," Keilana said to Russ. Her mouth sounded cottony dry and she and Billie stopped well back from him as Keilana appraised Russ warily.
Like night and day, there stood Billie. Her entire body vibrated. Coiled, she was more than ready for a confrontation. Simply put, she looked like a hellcat with PMS. I was too far away to see it before, but she was also sporting a white bandage on one cheek.
"Can I help you?" Keilana's voice quivered a little as she spoke, betraying her unease.
"Hi," Russ smiled and tried to stick his hands in his pocket, but his wet jeans had sucked themselves to his body and wouldn't cooperate. He ended up awkwardly hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and rocking back on his heels. "I don't need any help. But thanks. My ... uh ... best friend had his BMW stolen last week. We've been looking for it and I thought this might be it." He shrugged. "Guess I was wrong."
I nodded approvingly. A decent cover story.
Russ waggled his fingers at the women. He took a step forward. "Okay, I'll just be going now."
"You were trying to steal her car!" Billie accused, taking a menacing step forward. "You son of a bitch! I saw you looking inside the car and checking the doors. You were going to take it!"
"Billie," Keilana said worriedly, "for God's sake, he was leaving." She spoke through clenched teeth. "Let him go." She tried to restrain Billie without getting too close to Russ herself.
Good girl, I thought. She was smart to be cautious.
"You're mistaken," Russ said calmly. "I was just looking and since it's obviously not my friend's car, I'll be on my way." Once again, he started to walk away.
"Stay right here!" Billie ordered, blocking his path and holding her umbrella out like a sword.
Keilana shivered as the rain suddenly began pelting her.
Billie shook the umbrella at Russ. "I'm calling the cops." She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and then cursed a blue streak when she discovered the battery was dead. In a fit of anger, she threw the phone to the ground, sending shards of plastic into a nearby puddle and against the BMW's bumper.
Even in the wan light, I could see the whites of Keilana's eyes grow. "Jesus, Billie. Calm down," she said. "The guy told us why he was checking out my car. What are you doing?" She put a calming hand on Billie's shoulder. "Let him leave."
Billie's face twisted in rage. "No way." Her eyes drilled holes in Russ as rivulets of water dripped from her chin and cheeks. Her bandage was soaked now and dark with what I guessed was re-hydrating blood. "I'm sick of you bastards making it impossible to park here. I can't stand it!"
Then something inside Billie seemed to snap and she swung her umbrella at Russ over and over, connecting with a few powerful swipes. "You thieving asshole!" Another hit. "You think you can do anything you want?" Smack on the shoulder. "You think you can treat women this way?"
I winced as a particularly vicious blow landed on the top of his head. This really wasn't Russ's day.
"Billie!" Keilana screamed and tried to pull her friend off Russ, who was covering his head with his arms and hands and yelling for Billie to stop.
My hands balled into fists and released. My heart thudding loudly, I pressed my back against the quarter panel of an old Chevy truck, torn. I wanted to help Russ, but that would shoot my cover to hell. Still, he was my best friend. Crap, I whispered internally. I drew in a deep breath to stand and make my presence known when Billie tossed her umbrella aside, reached inside her purse, and pulled out small pistol.
She pointed it right at Russ.
I swear to God I almost had a heart attack. I actually felt my chest seize up. Time stood still and for a fraction of a minute, everyone just stared at each other in shock and horror.
Billie seemed to be just as surprised as everyone else.
I glanced out at the street and although I could see people walking by, I realized that the streetlights were too far away for us to be visible to them.
"Holy shit!" Russ exclaimed, snapping out of his trance. "You're cr-cr-crazy!"
"Don't even think about going anywhere," Billie panted, waving the gun erratically. "Don't even think it!"
Russ, for once in his life, obeyed without comment. He held his hands up as though he was being robbed.
"Okay," Billie handed the gun to a stunned Keilana. "I'm going to that club"—she jerked her head sideways—"to call the cops. You watch him." She sneered in Russ's direction. "Shoot him if he tries to move, all right?"
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! Why did Billie have to get Keilana more involved in this than she already was? But I felt a tiny measure of relief in the belief that Russ would be safer with Keilana holding the gun than Billie.
Still, Russ had to be peeing in his pants because I was fighting the urge myself.
"Okay," Keilana said evenly, her voice eerily calm. "I'll watch him."
A shiver chased its way down my spine and I wondered if I'd made a colossal miscalculation about Russ's chances with Keilana.
"You go call the police," she continued, coolly. "I think there is a pay phone in the very back by the ladies' room."
Billie flipped Russ the bird and took off toward the dance club.
I looked skyward in appeal. Please don't let her shoot me or Russ. Once again I was about to stand when Keilana's shoulders sagged dramatically and she moaned.
She was soaked to the bone and she shuddered a little, even though the rain was warm. "I can't believe this night. I'm so sorry," she promised Russ. "My friend has had a horrible time of it. Some guy pawed her and hurt her pretty badly. I think she's in shock. She's not normally like this."
I don't know if Russ even heard what Keilana was saying. His eyes were trained on the gun in her hands. Keilana saw where he was looking and promptly turned the gun on herself, holding it by the barrel and pointing it at her own chest.
My eyes turned to saucers and for the second time tonight my heart felt like it was going to implode. Was she insane? What was she doing carrying a loaded gun like that?
Keilana smiled reassuringly. "Don't be afraid. It's not a real gun. It's just a very convincing toy. Billie keeps it to scare off the jerks, but she'd never really hurt anyone. See?" She pulled the trigger and both Russ and I both jerked at the movement and muted click.
But there was no gunshot and Keilana was still standing there.
I was so lightheaded with relief that I had to sit back on my heels and breathe deeply to keep from keeling over. For what had to be a full minute, stars danced in front of my eyes, tiny pinpoints of light on a sea of black velvet.
Salt stung my tongue and lips as the rain washed the sweat from my face.
But Russ still looked suspicious of Keilana. God, what more did he want her to do?
Keilana took a step closer to him, approaching him slowly, the way you would a skittish colt ... or someone your friend just beat with an umbrella and then threatened to shoot. "Are you okay?"
Her voice was soothing and warm and I could see Russ's body relax as he unconsciously responded to it. "She didn't hurt you with her umbrella, did she? God, I'm sorry. If she hurt you I can call a doctor or take you to the emergency room. Or—"
"No," Russ interrupted, lowering hands that were still shaking. I think he was finally gathering his wits and, to his credit, he didn't look like he was going to have a stroke anymore.
I was going to be buying him hamburgers for the next hundred years and he wasn't even going to have to ask.
"She scared about ten"—he chuckled somewhat frantically—"no, make that twenty years off my life, but I think I'm okay." He let out a ragged breath and nodded a few times, as if reassuring himself that what he'd just said was true.
"Thank goodness." Keilana's relief was just as evident. "You'd better get going then. I don't care if you were trying to steal my car, you've been through enough tonight."
"But I wasn't—"
Keilana shook her head. "It doesn't matter." She made a shooing motion. "Go before she gets back. And again, I'm really, really sorry." She stepped aside giving Russ a wide berth.
He didn't hesitate; he bolted out of the parking lot faster than I've ever seen him move, and in seconds, the street swallowed him up.
Keilana watched him go, then leaned against the trunk of her car and let her backpack drop gently to the ground. I knew I should be more curious about what was inside it. It was out of place here in The Devil's Belly, and in a case that sorely lacked clues, it was calling to me ... loudly. But even so, all I could really think about was her.
She lifted her face skyward and let the rain pound against it and after a moment she smoothed her long, dark hair back from her face. Her eyes were closed tight, her mouth open, and her throat working as she slowly drank in the water.
The sight was surprisingly erotic and I watched her for a long moment, holding my breath, my heart pounding the entire time.
She scrubbed her face with both hands and I wasn't sure whether she was washing away tears, nervous sweat, or just the incredible stress of the moment. But it seemed to work because it wasn't long before she repositioned herself into a slightly more relaxed stance.
The flashing neon lights made her normally pale skin glow an almost iridescent white, and for the first time tonight the frenzied strains of hard rock music coming from one of clubs eased its way into my consciousness.
Keilana looked almost otherworldly and I felt myself being drawn closer to her as if by magic. If I reached out, I could almost ... almost touch her.
With a soft sigh, she focused on the toy gun in her hands, flipping it over few times as if deciding what to do. I was a little surprised when she dropped it to the ground and gave it a good stomp.
I heard the plastic crack just before Keilana kicked the gun and sent it sliding over the gravel and under a nearby van. I guess she was already too wet to bother coming in out of the rain or picking up the umbrella, so she just sat there on the trunk of her car, her arms wrapped around herself in mute comfort as she waited.
Billie was going to be livid, but I couldn't bring myself to care.
With every fiber of my being I longed to pull Keilana into a fierce embrace. I'd never felt anything as strong in my life and I honestly wasn't sure that I could clamp down on my desire to wrap her in my arms. I was so proud of how she'd handled things and how she'd been kind to Russ, even when she figured him for a thief.
I wanted to press my lips to her wet hair and murmur the sort of things you hear in mushy love songs that make you want to roll your eyes and burst out laughing. I craved the feeling of her warm body against mine and longed to gently stroke her back.
Now that I thought of it, selling my soul seemed like more than a fair price if that's what it took to make her smile again.
And in that instant I knew. Shaken, I plopped down onto the gravel, not even feeling the water I was sitting in. I didn't have a crush of Keilana Poppenhouse. Oh, man, it was so much worse than that.
I was falling in love with her.
When I'm right, I'm right. Billie was pissed when she got back to the car. It seems the police had declined her demand to come arrest someone for looking at Keilana's car, and now, not only had Keilana let the would-be thief escape, but she'd somehow lost Billie's fake gun in the process. Poor Billie.
The women argued vehemently for a few minutes, then, much to my disgust, the fuss ended with Billie bursting into tears and Keilana comforting her with a compassionate hug that went on far too long.
Sometime during the evil embrace, I retreated to the safety of my Mustang, determined not to lose them or the black backpack that Keilana had put into her trunk before leaving. Russ, I told myself, would want me to stick with the case no matter what. And more importantly, I wanted some answers and I was tired of waiting to get them.
I actually had to work hard to keep up with Keilana as she and Billie raced down the wet city streets. My mood had turned brighter and even the rain had shifted from a series of fitful downpours to a gentle sprinkle. Everyone I cared about was okay and even though I couldn't have gotten wetter if I jumped into a swimming pool, the chase was on again.
For the moment, life was good.
I was about three cars behind Keilana at a traffic light and had just taken a big bite of my wilted cheeseburger when Russ's cell phone rang. I decided it was fate that I wouldn't get any dinner tonight and I tossed my burger into the passenger seat. It took some wrangling, but I was able to grab the phone from the back seat before traffic began moving again.
I pressed it to my ear, not needing to look to know who was calling. "Hello, Russ, you unlucky bastard."
"That bitch was crazy!"
"I can't disagree with that." I merged on the 5.
"Did you see what she did?"
"I was only about five feet away from the whole thing, Russ. Of course I saw it." I felt a pang of worry. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said dismissively. "Did you see the backpack?"
I chuckled. "You're like a dog who's been teased with a whiff of a juicy bone."
"And just what are you doing at this very moment?"
I smiled. "Chasing the bone."
"Atta girl. Let me know what you find. I mean it. Don't make me wait too long."
"Will do, Russ. Take a cab back to my place and I'll pay you back for the fare, okay?"
"Don't lose them."
My smile turned feral. "Never."
About fifteen more minutes and Keilana and Billie pulled into the driveway of a surprisingly nice, if tiny, bungalow. Billie's house? I slowly drove past them, then killed my headlights and parked on the street a few houses away.
"Nooo!" I moaned. Keilana was digging in her trunk. "Not the backpack."
"Not the backpack."
Keilana shut her truck and she and Billie headed toward the house.
"Oooooh." I sighed. "There goes the backpack." Well, at least I wouldn't be rooting around our campus cottage for it or picking the lock of Keilana's BMW. I'd be breaking in to that red-haired bitch's house, instead.
The more I thought about that ... the more I liked it.
I decided not to bother stewing outside of Billy's house, in the pathetic hope that Keilana wouldn't decide to stay the night. So I drove back to campus, deep in thought. So much had happened so quickly that my head was still spinning.
It was well after two a.m. by the time I heard Keilana's key slide into the cottage door.
I looked up from the television program I'd been half-watching and tried to pretend not to be relieved to see her. "Hi." She wasn't, of course, carrying the backpack. I couldn't be that lucky.
She smiled weakly at me. "Hi." Then she glanced up at the clock and frowned. "You weren't waiting up for me, were you?" She tossed her keys on a small table near the door. "Didn't you get my note?"
"I got it. I wasn't waiting up for you. I was just watching ... um ..."—I glanced at the TV to see what was on and could only sigh—"an infomercial on Viagra for women." Fuck.
She shook her head and laughed softly. She walked into the bedroom, but continued talking, the words floating over the half wall that separated the two rooms. "What did you do tonight?"
I saw her blouse hit the floor and turned my head. Temptation, thy name is Keilana. "Not much. I met a friend and we drove around San Diego. You?"
There was a long pause.
"You remember my friend Billie?" she finally asked in a quiet voice.
My eyes turned to slits. "Yeah. I remember her."
"We spent the evening together."
"Are you sleeping with her?" I wanted to slap my hand over my mouth. Why, oh why, had I said that out loud?
Keilana poked her head into the living room and looked at me with wide eyes. "What?"
"Uhh ..." It was too late to suck the words back in now. Relentlessly, I picked the sofa, focusing on one teeny spot. "Is she, you know"—I glanced up, sure I looked as foolish as I felt—"your girlfriend?"
Keilana disappeared behind the wall again only to re-emerge a few seconds later wearing an oversized t-shirt and soft cotton boxers that were at least two sizes too big. Why did she always have to look so adorable?
She gave me a look I couldn't decipher. "I'm surprised you asked about Billie. You've made it clear that there can never be anything between you and me." She shrugged one shoulder. "Well, other than friendship." Then she cocked her head to the side like an interested puppy. "Have you changed your mind about that?" There was hopeful lilt to her voice that tempted me like few things in my life had. God was cruel.
"I ... no." It felt like someone was sitting on my chest. "Keilana, we can't ..." Christ, I wanted to die.
She let out a deep breath and joined me on the sofa, but didn't sit too close. "What does that mean? We can't?"
I turned to her and prayed that my heart wasn't showing in every line of my face. "I think you know what it means."
She gave me a small, slightly guilty smile. "You can't blame me for trying."
I began to fidget. I had to change the subject or I was going to lean over and kiss her senseless. "Billie seemed interested in you. I, well, I just wondered if the feeling was mutual?"
She rested her head on the back of the sofa and closed her eyes. "I don't think that's any of your business. In fact, you know, Cadie, I don't think this is how friendship is supposed to go."
I blinked. "Whaddya mean?"
Keilana frowned, but kept her eyes closed. "You're always asking about me, but never telling me about you. Granted, I'm not used to the interest because most people hate me, but—"
"They do not!"
She merely raised an eyebrow at me. "Most people might hate me," she continued blithely, "but I'm pretty sure that real friends know stuff about each other."
"You know"—I waved my hands in the air—"stuff about me." Scintillating comebacks under pressure are my specialty.
"Nothing that matters," she disagreed pointedly.
She was right. God, I hated it when she was right. "Fine, you can ask me something about myself and then it's my turn. Deal?"
She made a sour face. "Just one question?"
There was a hint of challenge in her voice and I found myself unable to resist the bait. "How about three?"
One of her dark eyebrows edged upward again and it was all I could do not to reach out and run my fingertip over it. She hummed a little to herself. "Hmm ... And I can ask anything?"
I swallowed, a million things I did not want her to ask me running through my mind. "Anything."
"In that case I need a minute to think."
I rolled my eyes.
She turned sideways and tucked her feet underneath her. Then she proceeded to take her time about deciding what to say.
My nerves ratcheted up with every passing second, and yet I was surprised to find myself eager to share something about the real me. Even if it was only something small, a tiny bit of reality to assuage my guilt so that I could look her in the eye tomorrow—I sighed inwardly—just before I would work on another snitch report to her parents.
"Okay, is the reason you won't kiss me because you're interested in someone else?"
Whoa. That's not what I expected her to ask. "I ... no. There's no one else. There hasn't been anyone serious in my life for several years now."
"Wow. Years?" she mouthed silently, looking concerned.
Oops. I forgot that I was supposed to be twenty-one years old. I hadn't lived long enough to have too much emotional baggage. I smiled wryly. "Well, maybe it just seems like years. I work too much. Or at least I did before this fall. And I'm alone too much. I surf too much." God, I was starting to depress myself! "And none of those things are very conducive to finding someone special."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously but she didn't say anything.
I licked my lips. "My turn yet?"
She gave me a reluctant nod. "Umm ... I guess."
"Good." I clapped my hands together, not bothering to hide my excitement. I had carte blanche, a nosy person's dream. But that didn't mean I could jump right in with both feet. No, I still had to be careful. If I aroused too much suspicion now, I would just be shooting myself in the foot for later. I nearly asked about Billie, but I decided to try to throw her off guard with another topic completely. "Why does Shauna hate you so much?"
Keilana didn't even hesitate. "Because sophomore year I had an affair with her roommate, who also happens to be her twin sister, and everyone found out about it."
I winced as I thought of this tiny school with all its gossipy cliques. "Oh, man. That sucks." No wonder she was a leper to Shauna and her friends. She'd violated a cardinal rule among the popular girls. She'd done something that showed plainly she wasn't a clone of the other girls. Well, that and eaten pussy.
Tiredly, she rubbed her eyes. "It was the one time I didn't look before I leapt and I've been paying for it ever since. I thought ..." Her jaw worked for a few seconds, but no sound came out. "I was stupid. I thought things would be different on the mainland. And they were. But just not different enough. Everyone has an agenda."
My heart sank.
"And after a while I stopped trying to convince people that I wasn't some sort of deviant predator and just let them think what they want about me."
"Predator?" That seemed a bit harsh. "You're no predator. I've been here for weeks now and I'm still the virgin I was when I got here."
She snorted softly and her mouth shaped a weak grin.
I scooted a little closer and bumped my arm against hers. "So Shauna blames you for her sister's wicked walk on the lesbian wild side, huh?"
"Of course." She mimicked Shauna's voice perfectly. "There aren't any dykes in the very distinguished Brewster family."
I couldn't help but snicker.
In her normal voice she grumbled, "I am a seducer of innocent women, after all. And to hear Shauna tell it, not even the nuns are safe around me."
I wasn't sure that if Keilana really turned on the sex appeal that anyone would be safe. I know I wasn't. The hard part to believe, though, was that she didn't seem to have a sense of how compelling she could be and how much power that gave her. At first I thought her apparent naiveté in this area was some sort of trick. But it wasn't. It was just Keilana.
"It was Shauna's sister, Misty, who seduced me, not the other way around." Her face took on a look that was a combination of anger, hurt, and embarrassment. "And it wasn't even me she was interested in. She wanted a job at the Poppenhouse Cookie headquarters in Honolulu and thought that she could convince me to sweet-talk Daddy into giving her a one-way ticket to her paradise."
My eyebrows rose further. "That's really lousy, Keilana. I'm sorry."
She forced a shrug and looked away. "I lived."
"You sure did. But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt."
She glanced back at me, her eyes holding no secrets and alive with panic. My stomach did a back flip. She needed comfort. She needed a real friend to lean on and tell her that everyone didn't use everyone else, someone she could count on no matter what.
In short, I was the absolute last thing she needed.
"So …" I lightened my voice and did my best not to give into my sudden urge to cry. "Did Shauna's sister get her ticket?"
She looked a little surprised by my question but she began to relax. After thirty seconds or so, the corner of her mouth quirked. "Oh, yeah, she got her ticket punched." Her smile broadened. "And so did I."
Our eyes met and we both dissolved into unexpected laughter over the Keilana's suggestive tone. While she didn't seem to really be upset, there was just the barest hint of poorly-veiled hurt in her smile.
"Well," she said, sighing, suddenly aware at how closely I was watching her. "You sure picked weird questions." An evil twinkle invaded her eyes. "I still have two questions left, but I'm going to save them for when I'm not beat." She yawned.
My eyes saucered and my butt began to levitate off the couch. "That wasn't three questions! That was ..." Then I mentally replayed our conversation and wished I could kick my own ass. "You tricked me, Newman."
Her brows contracted. "Why do you call me that sometimes?"
I covered my face with my hands, and cursed at how easily I'd gotten caught up in our conversation.
"And how did I trick you?" she asked in a voice so reasonable that I wanted to scream. She was teasing me and I knew it.
I glanced up and couldn't help it, I did something I hadn't done since I was six years old. I actually began to pout.
She smiled warmly and reached out very slowly to cup my cheek. I could have moved away. She made sure to give me plenty of time to escape. But I didn't. I wanted her touch as much as I'd wanted anything in my life and I bit back a gasp at the unexpected warmth of long fingers. It was the first time she'd touched me since my ill-fated French lesson that had left me hungry for her for days. My belly twisted all over again with the familiar craving.
"Thanks for making me laugh, Cadie." Her voice was as rich and sweet as honey and I felt it seep into my bones as she spoke. She stroked my check with her thumb. "Up until a few minutes ago, tonight had really sucked."
My tongue refused to work and all I could do was smile back.
She gave my cheek a final pat. "I'm going to take a quick shower to get the smoke out of my hair. I ..." Her eyes dropped to the small space between us. "It ..." She scrunched up her face, smiling just a little. "This is sort of hard. Okay, I just wanted to say that it felt good to tell someone about Misty. I never have." She glanced up, suddenly shy. "Thanks."
And then she was gone.
I sat there staring at the closed bathroom door, wondering how things had gotten away from me so easily. I nearly tripped over the ottoman as I ran to the bathroom. I banged loudly on the bathroom door, hearing a startled, disembodied, "yeah?"
"Will you go to the beach and hang out with me tomorrow? I want to show you something that's really important to me. Please." I held my breath as I waited for her to shoot me down.
Finally, I heard what I was sure was a sigh. "Just the two of us?"
I exhaled, beaming a smile at the door. "Yeah, just us."
"Promise you won't laugh at me?"
Laugh at her? Who would be that rude? "Hell no. I'll take the first opportunity I can to laugh at you."
Playfully, Keilina growled through the bathroom door. "I knew you were going to say that." She opened the door and stuck her head out just far enough that I could see smooth skin, naked shoulders and endless back. I bit back a whimper.
She looked at me with eyes so beautiful and trusting that they broke my heart. "When do we leave?"
I jammed the end of my board into the sand and laughed as Keilana tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing with my spare board. "Here," I took the board from her and rammed it into the ground.
"Don't worry," I said with a smile. "It's not as easy as it looks."
We couldn't very well go to my usual haunt, Huntington Beach. I didn't want someone to call me Belinda in front of Keilana. So we headed to Del Mar. The surfing wasn't as good here, but surfing was a lot like sex. Even when it was bad, it was still better than just about anything else you could do. Besides, this area held a special place in my heart and as silly as it sounded, I wanted to bring Keilana.
We walked a little north of the public beach and found a fairly secluded spot below the low, rocky cliffs at our back.
Keilana tilted her face skyward and spread her arms out wide. "It's still nighttime! What are we doing here at night?"
I blinked. "You haven't been to the beach at sunrise?" How did someone get to be twenty-one years old and never one experience one of the most beautiful sights on the planet?
"There is no sun yet. And"—she shook her head—"well, our main house wasn't right on the water, just the guest quarters."
Oh, that made this even better. A puppy with two peters couldn't have been happier than I was at this moment. "This is the best time to be here!"
She gave me a skeptical look, her eyes a deep shade of violet in the gray, pre-dawn light.
I nudged her gently with my shoulder. "It's magic. You'll see."
Keilana looked around before spreading out a large beach blanket. I bent to help her, sneaking glances at her as we worked. She looked cute in her linen shorts and neatly pressed shirt and I couldn't help but look forward to seeing her in the swimsuit I knew she wore underneath. I was already in my shortie wetsuit and a thin black rash guard. We kicked off our shoes and sat down on the blanket.
It was going to be hot today and a balmy breeze tossed my hair around my face as I threw my feet off the edge of the blanket and dug my heels into the cool sand. The wet, lush smell of the water and vegetation was overwhelming and the salt from the spray stung the back of my tongue. Heaven.
Keilana leaned back on her hands. "Is it always this quiet here?" Only the sound of the surf punctuated her words. We couldn't see or hear another living soul. "Are you sure we're still in Southern California?"
"Ahh ... I'm sure. No screaming kids. No obnoxious punk teenagers. Why do you think I come so early?" I wrinkled my nose. "Later in the day it won't be like this."
She gave me a wry smile. "You, Cadie Blaisdell, are no more a people person than I am."
I gasped in mock horror, clutching my chest. "I'm not that terrible, am I?"
"Ha. Ha." She slapped my arm. "You're not at all shy and you have confidence to burn. So why do you look like you're going to throw up whenever any professor addresses you in class?"
I cringed. "There's a completely logical reason for that look."
"Of course. But it will cost you the second of your three questions to get the answer, Newman."
She bit her bottom lip. "You're still sore about that, huh?"
I merely smiled sweetly, holding her gaze.
She thought for a second. "No deal. I want to know something better than that."
I sighed. Except for Clue, which I still love to play, I've always sucked at games. This was no exception. Keilana, however, seemed to be the type that somehow managed to own Park Place and Boardwalk after only three turns, sending everyone else into the flames of pretend financial ruin.
Suddenly the shadows of Keilana's face looked just a little lighter. A hint of pink and yellow began to invade the atmosphere and I pressed the button to the light on my watch, then looked up at the brightening sky. A big grin split my face. "Okay, pay attention now."
Her eyebrows disappeared behind windblown bangs. "To what?"
"To everything." Just as I said the words, splashes of golden light shot across the water, illuminating the sea and its rolling waves in a divine glow, and the mist from dancing surf began to glitter like millions of radiant crystals infused with light.
"Wow," she breathed reverently, her eyes round. "It's beautiful."
I nodded, my focus trained on a world that was coming to life before my eyes. A sense of utter peace invaded me and I felt more centered than I had in weeks. "My dad used to take me to the beach every Saturday when I was a kid. It was our special time together. He was the one who taught me to surf."
"I ..." Keilana's face took on a faraway expression. "I have no idea what that must have felt like. I'll bet that was nice though."
I swallowed thickly, hurting for everything she'd clearly missed growing up and feeling my simmering anger toward her parents begin to bubble over. My hands shaped weak fists and I had to force myself to speak in a normal tone of voice. "It was nice. My dad worked all the time, but Saturday mornings were ours and it always made me feel special."
I vowed on the spot to phone my folks on Sunday. We hadn't spoken in well over a month and there was no reason for it other than we were all too caught up in our own lives to bother picking up the phone. As much as I hated to admit it, complacency was a two-way street.
More light poured down on the water, transforming it from an inky black, to a steel gray and finally a deep sapphire. In the distance, a small flock of birds came into view and they began swooping down to the sea in search of breakfast.
This time and place was important to me, and I wanted Keilana to understand that. It didn't matter that at any moment I would disappear from her life. What mattered was now ... this very second. "You know, for about five minutes every time I see the sun rise over the water, I'm certain there is a God. It just doesn't seem right that something so breathtaking could be an accident." I stretched out on the blanket, feeling the coolness of the sand soak through into my back. "The rest of the time, I'm not so sure." How's that for knowing something personal, Keilana? That's the real me.
She turned her head and flashed me blinding smile. "Thanks for showing me this. You were right. It does seem sort of magic."
"I knew you'd think so too." I let out a satisfied breath and crossed my legs at the ankle. I looked up and lost myself in the endless sky. It wasn't nearly as blue as her eyes. It should be jealous. I turned my head. "This isn't all I want to show you."
She suddenly looked a little nervous. "It's not?"
I was too excited to sit still any longer "Nope." I jumped to my feet and offered her a hand up. "Let's paddle out and watch the sun coming up from the other direction. We can ride the surf in. You'll love it!"
She gulped so loud it had to be painful, but she reached for my extended hand.
I gripped her hand firmly. "It's easy," I promised, trying to erase the look on her face that had gone from nervous to outright fear in a blink of an eye. "You don't need to stand up on the board or anything. Just float and paddle. I'll show you how."
Stricken, she glanced back at the water, then at me.
Confused, I gentled my voice. "What is it?"
She kicked petulantly at the sand. "You'll laugh."
"Keilana"—I looked her dead in the eyes— "I won't." But she still didn't want to give it up. I squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go. Then I put my hands on my hips. "Okay, I'll start guessing if that's how you want it. You're allergic to salt water?"
"No, huh? Okay, afraid of killer seals or floating debris from a passing cruise ship?"
A tiny smile appeared. "No. Not really."
"Worried about stepping on a fish hook?" I gestured toward the duffle bag I'd brought. "I have an extra pair of water shoes you can borrow."
She groaned a little, her hands twitching nervously. "It's not that simple, Cadie."
"Then what? Seaweed? Fish? Sharks?"
Her eyes popped wide open. "There are sharks here?" she screeched, scrambling back to the very edge of the blanket. Her head began moving like a bobblehead Jesus glued to the dashboard of a fast moving car. "Where? Where?"
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. "They can't get you on land, you know."
I nodded. "Don't worry, if we bump into any sharks, I'll be swimming so fast for shore all you'll see is my wake. So what's the problem?"
"That's the problem." She lowered her voice as if someone might hear her horrible confession. "You'll be swimming. I won't. I can't swim."
I just stared.
She pointed an accusing finger at me, her face turning pink with shame. "You said you wouldn't laugh!"
"I-I-I-" I love it when I sputter like a stalled engine. "Who's laughing?"
She let her hand drop and grumbled, "You can if you want."
I sat back down on the blanket. There would be no surfing today, but suddenly I didn't mind that so much. "Okay," I began slowly. "So we have to change our plans. That's no big deal. Lots of people can't swim." I didn't know any of them, of course. But I'm sure they're out there ... in Alaska or North Dakota or someplace.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner." She turned dismayed eyes out to the water. "We wouldn't have had to drive all the way here. But you wanted to come and I wanted to come with you and ... Well, it's just embarrassing and—"
"Whoa." I held up my hand to stop her rambling. "We're not leaving."
Her head snapped back and her jaw sagged a little. "We're not?"
"Of course not. I can teach you how to swim," I said gamely, only barely resisting the urge to tuck a strand of gently blowing hair behind Keilana's ear. The desire to touch her was getting stronger and stronger and I was growing less and less inclined to fight it. "It's easy. I was swimming before I was walking. If a little baby can do it, how hard could it be?"
She closed her eyes briefly, warring with herself.
I waited, wanting to push her but knowing it could damage our fragile relationship if I did.
"Fine," she finally said, her voice an octave higher than normal. She wasn't kidding. She was terrified.
Guilt assailed me. "Keilana—"
"I'm okay, really." She stripped off her shirt and shorts in record time and stood before me in just her bikini. Her string bikini. She pointed toward my bag. "Can I really borrow those shoes? I think my feet are bigger than yours."
My eyes drank her in and my mouth went bone dry.
She was wearing a sexy little belly button ring that I'd never seen before and the sight of it sent a skitter of unexpected excitement down my spine. Keilana didn't resemble your average Southern California Barbie Doll, which was more than fine by me. For one thing, her breasts were the perfect size, lovely and very real. And then there were her legs. They went on for days. Months maybe.
My heart beat a little faster as I took in her fair skin; it glowed in the morning light, looking as soft and inviting as warm silk. A scattering of a few freckles dotted her upper chest and torso and formed a random pattern down her long lean waist. She took my breath away.
God, I hadn't ever had it this bad!
Keilana glanced down at herself and crossed her arms in front of her. "Something wrong?"
"Hardly." I didn't bother to hide my appreciation as I pointed at her naval. Then I wriggled my eyebrows. "Is that new?"
She moaned a little and nodded. "It was Billie's idea and I wanted to cheer her up so I let her talk me into it. It hurts like a bitch!"
I laid a hand over my own bellybutton in empathy. "Well, it looks good." I grinned. "But you look great." More than great, actually. Please don't let that moisture on the corner of my mouth be drool.
"I've ... um ... put on a few pounds in the past couple of weeks." She laid a hand on her flat stomach, careful to avoid her naval, and smiled tentatively. "I think it's helped."
Dismayed, I moved closer to her. There wasn't a lot I could do for Keilana, but I could do this one small thing. I needed to. She knew that other people found her attractive, but somehow she didn't seem to believe it was true deep down inside. "Keilana, I didn't say that because of a few pounds or a little piece of jewelry. You're beautiful. Don't let some crazy idea your father has make you think differently."
"You're right." Her smile grew and I was delighted when she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and said, "Thank you, Cadie. That means ..." She shook her head a little. "Just thanks."
I did a little happy dance inside, feeling a joy all out of proportion with what I'd done. "You're welcome."
Our eyes met and held and the chemistry we shared flared to life, nearly blinding me. My belly tightened and I tried to think of something other than kissing her. Anything.
I glanced out at the ocean. "Now, how about learning something new? I won't let you drown. You'll be amazed at how simple it is. C'mon," I coaxed gently, seeing her reluctance return with a vengeance.
She gave me a direct look and said, "I'm afraid to put my face in the water or go in any deeper than my knees."
I unzipped my wetsuit. Okay, so teaching her to swim wouldn't be simple. But since when did that stop me?
It took several hours and a dozen aborted attempts, but eventually, we were both standing in chest-deep water. The waves pushed us around a bit, but Keilana was doing her best to keep her footing and not let her fear get the better of her.
Her dark hair was slicked back, wet from several tumbles in the surf. She had some sand on her cheek and water droplets glistened on her chest and chin. "This isn't s-so bad," she stuttered.
I wasn't sure if the statement was meant to convince me or herself.
"You're doing great," I praised, really meaning it. Fear wasn't an easy thing to conquer and Keilana was doing her best to hold her own, despite flashes where it looked as though she might bolt at any minute.
My eyes roamed over her affectionately and I wondered when I'd turned into such a ball of useless mush. I hadn't thought of the case all day. Instead, I'd just enjoyed playing and laughing with this complex, interesting person who was standing in front of me and counting on me to keep her safe.
Keilana's shoulders were starting to turn pink and I gave in to the irresistible impulse to reach out and graze the soft skin with the tips of my fingers. "You need some more sunblock. Are you chilly?"
She shook her head. "I was earlier, but the sun is really hot now."
"The water feels great, doesn't it?" I was wearing just my rash guard and some swimsuit bottoms. I loved the feeling of the water against my skin.
She scraped her tongue against the roof of her mouth, making a face. "But it doesn't taste so hot."
"You're not supposed to drink it," I said wryly.
"I can't help it. I—Whoa!" A big wave shoved us violently toward shore. Keilana screamed and wrapped her arms around my neck as we surged forward.
"Put your feet down. You need to let me go!" I yelled, trying to pry her hands from me, knowing what was coming next. But she was too frightened to do more than grasp me in an iron grip far more powerful than anyone would have guessed she could muster. I coughed, stupidly swallowing a mouthful of salty water myself as I tried to dig my heels in sand. But it was no use. I was off balance and when the tide moved back out, the surge of water swept us both off our feet yanking us backward into water well over our heads.
Keilana panicked, her arms and legs flailing as she wrapped herself around me. "Cadie!" she half-screamed, half-sputtered, in a high-pitched voice that sent a rush of adrenaline tearing through me. Before I could react, we both were dragged beneath water and it took every ounce of my will power not to panic myself and violently force Keilana off of me. I'd been in this situation dozens of times myself, but I'd never had anything but the ocean itself pulling me down.
I circled my arms around Keilana and squeezed hard, quelling some of her desperate flailing, then pushed off the bottom, sending both our heads blasting out of the surf. I opened my eyes to the bright blue sky and we both sucked in deep breaths of air. She began coughing and wildly thrashing as she fought to keep from going under.
"Stop." I pushed her slightly away from me. "Stop!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, and for a split second she froze. I grasped onto her arms and kicked only a few feet toward shore. "It's okay." I let out a shaky breath. "We can stand here, put your feet down."
She coughed a few more times and spat out what had to be a full mouth of seawater. Her face and neck were flushed, then she noticed that we were only a few paces from where we'd been playing all morning. Her cheeks grew even redder. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
"S'okay." I searched out her eyes when she dropped her gaze from mine. "I should have taught you what to do if that happens right off. That's my fault, not yours." And it really was. I'd been too busy having fun to notice that the waves had gotten progressively rougher. "Let's head back to our blanket and just relax for a while."
Her feet seemed to be rooted in the sand and the face that had been pink only a few seconds ago, now looked a little pale. Her fear was hitting home.
I felt horrible. "Are you okay?"
She licked her lips and nodded, doing her best to smile though her chin was trembling. "I'm okay."
I stepped forward and laid my palms on the sides of her face, stroking her cheekbones with my thumbs and glancing up into her eyes. They were vivid, tinged with anxiety and something else.
Neither one of us said anything, but everything about Keilana communicated volumes. I could see her pulse began to pound through the pale skin of her neck and knew her thoughts mirrored mine.
She trailed the backs of her fingers up my throat and over my chin, finally tangling them in my hair as she tugged me closer. "Cadie," she whispered breathily.
My gaze dropped to her lips, full and inviting, and I couldn't stop myself. I didn't want to stop myself. I leaned forward and kissed her, letting my mouth linger and losing myself in the utter sweetness of the moment.
Her hand tightened in my hair and she let out a moan that set my senses ablaze. I deepened the kiss, swirling my tongue around hers, tasting her, and feeling my nipples grow painfully, deliciously hard. We moved forward until our bodies were sliding tightly together all along their lengths. Heat exploded within me and chased away the chill of the water. Her skin was as soft as I'd remembered.
Keilana tenderly traced each of my lips with her tongue, giving the lower lip a gentle suck before kissing me hungrily. It was too much. My control snapped completely, and moaning with abandon, we began to devour each other the way I'd dreamt of doing for weeks.
"Whoo-hoo! Yeah, ladies! Can we play too?"
We were wrenched out of the moment by a couple of young guys carrying boogie boards, their dogs running up and down the beach. The men began to clap and hoot at us and regretfully I pulled away from Keilana. My senses were still reeling as I turned to face the assholes that had spoiled the perfect moment. "Show's over, you pubescent sons of bitches!" I growled, wanting to grab their snickering faces and hold them underwater.
The men hollered and laughed as they moved on up the beach.
They'd broken the spell I was under and the magnitude of what I'd just done crashed over me, more ferocious than any wave I've ever experienced. I'd started something I couldn't finish.
Keilana hadn't moved an inch. She was watching me intently, an utterly open look on her face. I swallowed hard unable to meet her eyes. Oh, God. "Keil—" I had to swallow again before I could finish her name. "Keilana ..." I dared to glance up. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I hoped she could see my honest anguish. "I shouldn't have kissed you."
She blinked slowly, looking as though she wasn't processing what I was saying. "What? What did you just say?"
"Jesus, I'm sorry." I reached out for her arm but she jerked it way. "I'm so sorry. We can't. We—"
Her beautiful face had turned to stone before my eyes. "We can't be that to each other, right? Am I just some big game to you? Someone whose feelings you can screw around with for fun?"
"No!" I scrubbed my wet hair. "You're not a game. This is real." I closed my eyes and paused before ruthlessly adding, "But—"
"But kissing me was some horrible mistake," she ground out, saying the words before I could and stabbing me in the chest with every single one of them.
Tears welled in her eyes and I couldn't bear it.
Just then another wave pushed her forward a few paces from me and she went with it, practically running back to shore.
"Keilana! Wait!" I called, but I stayed where I was. I didn't trust myself to be close to her right now. I didn't trust myself to keep from spilling the beans about everything and dropping to my knees to beg her forgiveness.
She didn't look back at me as she snatched up her blanket, and beach bag. The one with the cars keys in it. She was furious at me and I couldn't blame her.
When she was out of sight, I swam out into the ocean using powerful strokes to take me far from the beach. When I was so far out that the people looked like ants I tilted my head skyward and screamed until my throat was raw. I didn't have a clue about what to do, about what was best for us all, and for the first time I seriously wondered whether I'd be able to complete this job and still keep my sanity.
Loving Keilana was like quicksand. I'd been sucked in before I could stop myself and now I was floundering with no way out.
The best thing I'd ever experienced was killing me.
Another week went by and in all that time Keilana barely spoke to me. Every bit of the warmth that had blossomed in our relationship had evaporated the moment my lips pressed against hers. Well, not with the kissing itself, which was fantastic, but with my rejection of her afterwards. I knew I'd stung her pride and self-esteem. But Keilana wasn't the only one hurting. I didn't want to eat. I didn't want to go to class. I just wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head and make the entire world go away.
Somehow I'd managed to fire off two more reports to the Poppenhouses, the last one recommending that they terminate their surveillance of their daughter. Keilana was attending class and she hadn't gone anywhere but Billie's house or the library after school all week.
If she was in a romantic relationship with Billie, I sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to out her to her parents. And, as much as I hated to admit it, if Billie and Keilana were lovers, it didn't seem to be hurting Keilana at moment. There was no reason, other than the pathetic truth—that I wanted Keilana for myself—to mess up that relationship. Keilana's parents could go to hell if they didn't like it.
A low-level depression had settled over me, but an almost-desperate Russ had convinced me to get off my ass and finish what I'd started. He reminded me that Keilana might still need me. And while I doubted that was really true, I wasn't willing to let her down again.
I'd given up even trying to participate in class, and that had left me plenty of time to do some real detective work. But as with this entire case, the answers I got just led to more questions.
A guy named Jessie Albonianco owned the house where Keilana had left Billie and the black backpack. There was no marriage license or a filing for divorce for Jessie and Billie, but after some digging I found a birth certificate for a Joshua Albonianco, born in 1998. That had to be the Josh that Billie mentioned the night we met. Supposing that was true, that meant Billie's name wasn't Billie at all. The mother on Josh's birth certificate was listed as Hazel Jane Allen.
I'd been able to trace Billie's last place of employment to a bar in Ocean Beach. But it turned out that Billie hadn't worked there for over six months. After that, her employment trail went cold.
Suddenly, Keilana barreled through the front door of our cottage, and with a frown, I closed my case notebook. "Hi."
She gave me a quick nod of acknowledgment but no verbal answer.
She was wearing her workout clothes, her body covered in a thin sheen of perspiration. I'd given up watching her as she worked out. She always did the same thing and she never went anyplace until she'd come home and showered.
Keilana had seen me write in my notebook a time or two before and I'd simply explained it away as a journal. I was surprised when she didn't ask more about it, or exhibit any curiosity at all. But then I remembered that everyone isn't the meddling, prying person that I am.
"So," I said with forced cheerfulness, "what are you doing tonight?" We used to eat dinner together most evenings. We didn't do that anymore.
She didn't even look at me. Instead, she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water.
My temper flared. "You can't ignore me forever, Keilana. You just ... you can't is all." I sat my casebook on the table next to my beer.
She turned and pinned me with a serious look. "I'm not ignoring you, Cadie. I just don't have anything to say to you." She turned back toward the fridge as she took a long drink of water, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand when she was finished.
"Well, I have something to say to you."
Her shoulders stiffened. "Don't you always?"
My jaw tightened. "Listen, Newman, it wasn't just my lips that were doing the kissing! You were there too!"
"But I'm not the one who started it and then immediately wanted to take it back!" she wailed.
That shut me up for several seconds and before I could come up with a suitable response she whirled around to face me.
"You were right, you know," she said softly, now more genuinely sad than angry.
I blinked slowly. "I was?" This was the first time in my life where my being right sounded like a very, very bad thing.
She nodded. "You said that kissing me would be a mistake. That we might not be able to be friends afterward."
A knot formed in my stomach. I didn't like the direction this conversion was going, even though it was the most she'd said to me in days. "That's not exactly what I said."
"I think it's close enough."
Even now, even with her covered in sweat, being difficult, and pissed off at me, I wanted to kiss her, hold her, and tell her how much I cared for her. But my deceit, the enormous pink elephant that would always stand between us, kept me from doing anything at all.
Keilana looked as though she was either going to burst into tears or sock me in the face. I would have preferred the latter. "This last week has sucked," she said plainly, sniffing a few times to control her emotions.
I could have sworn someone was sitting on my chest as I laughed humorlessly. "No kidding."
"Just what is it about me that you find lacking?"
I closed my eyes, unable to look at her. "Aw, Keilana." I sighed. "It's not that. There's nothing I find lacking about you. You're smart, and funny, and pretty." And I'm crazy about you!
"I know you probably think I'm being ridiculous, but it hurts to look at you and know that I want more from you than you want from me. In fact, it makes me feel like shit!"
I jumped to my feet, willing to say anything to make her stop looking at me like I was the female version of a prick tease. "Fucking isn't always the answer."
Her entire body jerked with my words. "I wasn't talking about fucking." She shot me a withering glare. "And you know it. Which is why I don't understand why you're doing this."
"You don't understand," I said quietly. "Things aren't as simple as you think they are." Tell her the truth. Tell her. Tell her, my mind chanted. But I bit my tongue. The fact that I refused to become romantically involved with her was for her own good, whether she knew it or not.
She moved closer to me, not stopping until we stood toe-to-toe. "I do understand!" Her eyes blazed. "I understand that you won't let us be lovers and I can't take us just being friends. So where does that leave us?"
The phone began to ring.
"Leave it," I said, gesturing toward the offended device with my middle finger. "We're not finished talking."
"Talking isn't going to change how I feel."
"Ugh!" My temper snapped. "Everything isn't about you. Must you be such an unreasonable brat?"
Keilana's blue eyes cooled several degrees as she picked up the phone from the kitchen counter. "It's what I do best, remember?"
"Not that again!" I slammed my palm down on the small kitchen table, making it vibrate and ring out loudly. "That bitchy princess act isn't going to work with me," I told her in no uncertain terms. "We're going to keep talking until we come to some sort of an understanding."
Ignoring me, she pressed the phone to her ear. "Hello."
"Oh, hi, Billie." Keilana leaned against the counter, pressing the cool water bottle to her flushed cheek.
"Fuck me," I mumbled, rolling my eyes in disgust. No matter where I tried to go, all roads led to Billie.
Keilana suddenly blanched. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that. I—" Then she saw that I was listening, and with an annoyed look, she marched into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her.
"Fine." I closed my eyes, and rubbed my temples, a helpless feeling enveloping me. "What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?" If I told her the truth she would throw me out and never forgive me. If I continued to lie to her, I would never forgive myself. But that was my cross to bear, wasn't it? I'd sold my soul to the devil, so was it really right that now I was complaining about being in hell?
Deciding the only good thing left in my miserable excuse for a life was my business, I tried to listen to Keilana's conversation through the bathroom door. But she'd lowered her voice. All I could hear was a series of murmurs and finally the sound of the shower going.
Giving the bathroom door a good kick, I gave up. Rapidly approaching my breaking point, I locked my case notebook in my desk, grabbed my cell phone, and headed outside into the fresh evening air.
On the fourth ring, Russ picked up.
"Hey, Belinda!" he greeted, sounding happier than anyone should.
"Hey," I replied tonelessly. "I need your help tonight."
"You do? Excellent! What can I do?"
I looked back at our cottage. The automatic porch lights had just popped on, signaling dusk. The weather, right along with my relationship with Keilana had gotten colder all week. Absently, I rubbed the goose bumps on my arms, wishing I had on long sleeves. "I need you to babysit Keilana while I go see what I can find out about Billie."
"That's the crazy bitch who tried to shoot me, right?"
I didn't remind Russ that the gun had only been a toy and that she really hadn't tried to shoot him. His fear had been real and he'd undoubtedly gotten a lot of mileage out of his adventure with his pals from the office. "Yeah, that's her. I think she's part of whatever Keilana is doing."
"Her drug connection."
"No!" I exploded. "How many times do I have to tell you she's not a junkie?"
"Fine. Take it easy. Even if she's not her drug connection or madam ..."
"Russ," I warned.
"Confronting Billie might be dangerous."
I smiled coldly. "Don't you worry, I can handle Billie." In fact, I was looking forward to the prospect with childish glee.
"If she's not her connection, how does Billie fit into this other than being the Poppenhouse kid's nutcase friend?"
"It's likely that Keilana and Billie ..." I gripped the phone so hard my knuckles hurt. "They're probably sleeping together. And—"
Russ snorted derisively. "Keilana should have better taste."
I couldn't help but smile at that. "Be that as it may, there's something between them. It's more than them being girlfriends." I began moving down the small path toward the fountain, kicking pebbles out of my way as I went. "Call it women's intuition."
There was a small stretch of silence before Russ said, "If that's the case, shouldn't you stay with Keilana? I can case Billie's house. Hell, if she's not there, I'll break in and see if she still has that backpack. Just give me her address."
"No." My lips thinned. "I need to get away from this place tonight. I can't ... I just ..." I let out an unsteady breath. "If I don't get a break from this I'm going to go nuts, Russ. Please."
"I'll be there in twenty minutes."
It was more like forty-five minutes before Russ pulled into the visitor parking section at Madonna Del Mar University. I saw him select a spot, but I stayed where I was, on a well-lit stone bench with a good view of the area.
I called his cell phone. "You're late," I said flatly.
"Hey, don't get grumpy with me. It's not my fault you're in a piss-poor mood. I missed my dinner, I'm missing the Padres playoff game, and my wife wants both of our heads on a platter."
I sighed. "Sorry, Russ. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Neither do I, Belinda. But I'm willing to bet that it's because something happened between you and Keilana."
Sometimes I was surprised at just how perceptive Russ could be. "What makes you think that?"
He chuckled softly. "You haven't gone on and on about her all week."
I scrubbed my chilly arms again, disgusted with myself for being so transparent. "Listen, I don't want to talk about it."
"Belinda, you'll feel better if you do."
"What's going to make me feel better is finishing this fucking case! If nothing breaks by the end of the weekend, I'm outta here. The Poppenhouses can have their money back if they don't like it." Wow. The decision was made that fast. And when I mulled over the words, I found, to my delight, that I meant every single one of them.
"What the hell? How are you going to pay rent on your office and apartment? How are you going to buy Kibble for Smelly if you give back everything you've earned?"
I stood and headed for my car. "When I left Keilana she was in a pair of sweat pants, and reading in bed."
"Don't Belinda me. She's in for the night, Russ. Just make sure she doesn't get out without you following her. I'll pay your normal fee plus overtime."
I heard him let out a frustrated breath. "How are you going to pay me if you give back your fee!"
"I'll find a way." That would mean selling something, but whatever. I was past caring.
"I don't want your money."
I smiled to bitterly to myself. "Sure you do. It's all about the money, isn't it? Just business. You told me so yourself."
I hung up before I could say anymore. It wasn't Russ's fault that my life was such a complicated mess, but I couldn't seem to keep from lashing out at people. I wasn't fit for human company or conversation. Hell, even my dog was lucky to be well away from me. Maybe something would break tonight, or maybe it wouldn't. Either way, a solitary stakeout where I could sit and think was what I needed.
Well, that and a little luck that wasn't all bad.
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