Malina Blair went from rising-star FBI agent to... er...cold-case officer in the backwoods of South Carolina--not exactly a hotbed of action. But when a smuggling investigation leads her to tranquil Palmer's Island, Malina inadvertently discovers one of the region's best-kept secrets: sexy, gorgeous attorney Carr Hamilton.
But even as their chemistry goes from fizzy to red-hot and explosive, Malina wonders if maybe she isn't getting in over her head. After all, she's just visiting--and the island's main attraction is also her prime suspect!
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Carr Hamilton yanked the rope around the dock post, then stepped off his thirty-seven-foot cabin cruiser, The Litigator. As rippling waves of the Intracoastal Waterway lapped against the dock, the moon hung above the marina, a glowing orb casting a cool and mysterious light. The air smelled of sea life and salt.
The gloomy night and deserted dock, plus yet another solitary cruise, had put him in a rare melancholy mood. After securing his boat, he zipped his jacket against the cool March wind and headed across the creaky wooden slats, intending to circumvent the marina bar, where he'd find friends and conversation.
"…coffee is ready for distribution, so don't get jumpy now."
Carr stopped at the familiar voice, delivered in an angry and demanding tone. Coffee distribution? Jack Rafton was an insurance agent. Auto, home, life, et cetera. Mundane stuff really. But a nice guy and good business neighbor.
"This whole thing is getting dicey," another, but unknown, voice whispered harshly.
"Relax, and keep your voices down," said yet a third man.
Carr's low mood vanished. His pulse jumped. He leaped sideways and ducked behind a large storage locker at the dock's edge, realizing he probably hadn't moved so swiftly or stealthily since his days on the Yale fencing team.
"It's late." Jack's voice again. "Locals are all deep into their whiskey and beer by now."
"Let's just make the exchange and get out of here." The second unknown voice.
"You're just pissed I raised my prices," Jack said.
"Whatever," the first unknown man said, his voice deep and raspy. A smoker maybe. "That's between you and the boss. Just give us the stuff."
Carr heard footsteps on the wooden slats, then the creak of a rope tethering a boat.
He risked a glance from behind the post and saw Jack carrying a wooden crate and walking slow, balanced steps on the deck of a ski boat. By the blue and red stripes on the hull, it appeared to be Jack's boat, but it was too dark to make out the name scripted on the side and be certain.
The crate was handed over to one of the two unidentified men, then something was shoved into Jack's hand. All the characters stood in shadow, like the old black-and-white film noirs Carr enjoyed. He half expected to see Humphrey Bogart's strong-jawed profile flash before him.
No hat-and-raincoat-clad detectives appeared, so Carr concentrated on what he could see. The two unknown men scurried away from Jack and the boat. He tried to estimate their height and weight, but knew both were wild guesses based on a comparison of Jack's vital statistics.
Jack transferred the object he'd been given—an envelope maybe?—to his other hand, then, suddenly, he turned in Carr's direction. Fairly certain the angle and the width of the post kept him hidden, Carr didn't move. He barely breathed. Whatever the meeting with the two men meant, Carr knew it wasn't something Jack wanted known by a business acquaintance. The timing as well as the conversation itself spoke to that certainty.
After a few moments, he heard Jack's footsteps receding down the dock. He counted slowly to a hundred before moving and then only to take a quick look. Noting the dock was empty, he shifted from his position.
Puzzling over the discussion he'd heard, he checked his boat to be sure he'd locked the cabin door and secured the rope properly. The exchange had to be a payoff of some kind. The two men had clearly bought something from Jack. But coffee? Why would three men need to meet in the dead of night to buy and sell coffee?
He walked down the dock, stopping as he reached the boat Jack had retrieved the crate from. American Dream was clearly scripted on the hull in bright red letters. Jack's boat, then.
Stooping, Carr glided his hand over the dock's rough wooden planks. Something gritty caressed the tips of his fingers. He brought his hand to his face, inhaling the scent. Coffee.
With the scent, he recalled one significant reason coffee grounds might be placed in a crate, then traded for cash in the dead of night.
Two weeks later
FBI Special Agent Malina Blair glared at the stack of case files on her desk and thought seriously about pulling her pistol from its ever-present side holster and firing at will.
Two computer hacking cases, one suspected drug smuggling and six complaints from helpful citizens who thought they spotted someone from the Most Wanted list hiding out behind the fake designer bags in the straw market.
How far the mighty had fallen.
She recalled fondly the business executive son's kidnapping case she'd closed three years ago. She supposed the son and his loved ones didn't remember the ordeal in a positive light, but the family still sent her a Christmas card every year, thanking her for her sharpshooting skills.
And barely six months ago, she'd led a team in solving a six-year-old bank robbery, taking down the ring of suspects as they attempted to break into the main branch vault of the Bank of America in downtown Washington, D.C.
Good times. Career-making moments.
Formally interviewing Senator Phillip Grammer's son on suspicion of securities and bank fraud hadn't gone quite so well. The powerful politician had stormed into the interview and claimed his son had fallen in with the wrong crowd briefly and that he and the SEC were working out a special process of restitution.
Phil junior was special all right. He'd ratted on three other people—who Malina considered minor players in the deal—and got away scot-free.
While a lovely city, Charleston, South Carolina, wasn't exactly the FBI's hotbed of excitement. Getting back to headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, was imperative, especially since screwing up again was likely to land her reassigned in the desert-to-nowhere field office. Interrogating cacti.
With a sigh, she pulled out the folder about the smuggling case. Her boss had actually dropped this one on her desk that morning. At first, she'd hoped she'd been forgiven for her career-crushing mistake and assigned to the elite team that worked the harbor. With the Port of Charleston being the country's fourth busiest, illicit goods and terrorist threats were a serious possibility.
Unfortunately, the case she'd been assigned was a vague suspicion of drug smuggling based on a two-minute overheard conversation that took place on nearby—and boringly tiny—Palmer's Island. The single witness was an attorney and friend of her boss.
It seemed she had another day of tedium ahead of her.
Scooping up the documents, she headed out of her cubicle and toward the elevator.
"Hey, Malina," Donald, one of her colleagues, called out as she passed his cube. "Gonna work another dog-napping case today?"
She never slowed her brisk stride as she called back, "I'll see if I can fit it in after kicking your ass in combat training this afternoon."
"Again," several others called out helpfully from behind their own cubicle walls.
She lifted her lips in what some people might consider a sneer, but those who knew her recognized it as her version of a smile. She'd only been in the Charleston field office three weeks, and while everyone knew of her setback, most had at least come to respect her skills and determination. Hers was a cautionary tale none of them wanted coming true in their own lives.
Alone in the elevator, she allowed herself the weakness of closing her eyes as frustration overcame her. She should be in a corner office with a view. She should be solving important cases. She should be compiling letters of commendation.
She was good at her job—a few she'd worked with had even called her the best. If only she had tact as steady as her hands and as sure as her roundhouse kick, she'd rise to the top.
Donald hadn't exaggerated. Her first case since arriving at the office had been a literal dog-napping.
The mayor's prize Maltese had gone missing, and a ransom demand had been made. It had taken her all of two minutes in an interview with the dog walker to crack him and the master plot.
The mayor's kids had hugged her; her coworkers had laughed their asses off.
Minutes later, while she drove her government-issue sedan over the bridge to Palmer's Island, she cast a glance at the sun's rays bouncing off the rippling Atlantic waves in the distance. Ahead was Patriot's Point, where the decommissioned aircraft carrier the USS Yorktown had been permanently docked, awaiting the daily flood of tourists eager to explore her proud and massive decks.
The island that was her destination was even smaller than the one where she'd been raised. In fact, Kauai, Hawaii was as different from Palmer's Island as two floating rock and sand masses could be. And yet, they had the same effect—they calmed and soothed as no other person, place or thing had ever managed in her life.
She'd continue to resist her mother's assertion that someday she'd want to return home, but Palmer's Island did force her to remember that her life hadn't always been about ambition, power and politics.
She found the address she was looking for with little effort and pulled into the small sand-and-shell-dotted parking lot beside a large house that had been converted into a quad-plex of offices. A discreet sign announced Tessa Malone, Family Counselor; Jack Rafton, Island Insurance; Charlie McGary, Suncoast Real Estate; and Carr Hamilton, Attorney-at-Law.
Mr. Hamilton's office was on the lower left, across the main hall from the insurance agent, who was the primary focus in the supposed smuggling operation.
The whole case would most certainly turn out to be nothing. Rafton and Hamilton were probably involved in some minor quarrel, and this was the attorney's idea of revenge. Maybe Rafton had cut Hamilton off in traffic or carelessly blocked the driveway with cans on trash day or any number of other ridiculous things that people got worked up over.
For her, this trip was merely another hoop to jump through in order to get her career back on track.
She turned the brass knob on the door to Hamilton's office and entered to find herself in a small but elegant reception area. Malina's footsteps echoed across dark oak hardwood floors as a quick glance took in the emerald curtains, pale gold walls and expensive-looking antique furniture.
A woman with dark brown hair, streaked with silver, sat behind an antique cherry desk. She looked up with a polite smile. "May I help you?"
Malina pulled her badge from her jacket pocket.
"Special Agent Malina Blair. I have an appointment with Mr. Hamilton."
The polite smile never wavered, leading Malina to wonder if the cops came calling frequently or if she was simply unruffled by any visitor. "Of course." She lifted the phone on her desk. "I'll let him know you're here." After a brief conversation, she rose and hung up the phone. "This way, please."
The receptionist/secretary turned away toward the door in the back of the room. Her tailored brown suit showed off her trim figure, just as her matching heels highlighted her confident stride.
Malina had discovered she could glean valuable information about the person in charge by watching subordinates. If that observation held true in this case, she could expect Carr Hamilton to be self-assured, efficient and sophisticated. Not exactly what she'd expected from simple little Palmer's Island.
She followed the receptionist into the office and barely resisted gasping at the man who rose from behind the massive mahogany desk at the back of the room.
He was beautiful.
At a trim six foot two with wide shoulders and narrow hips, his body alone could cause a woman to wax poetic, something Malina never felt moved by but finally understood why others did. He wore an exquisite charcoal suit, and his thick, silky-looking, inky-black hair set off a face sculpted like the statue of an ancient god, even though nothing about him was cold.
In fact, he radiated heat—especially from his dark brown eyes, sharp and intelligent, standing out from that spectacular face, absorbing her from head to toe.
Moving gracefully, he rounded the desk and extended his hand, which was tanned and long fingered, elegant as everything around him. "Thank you for coming, Agent Blair."
Jolted into remembering she was there on a professional mission, she managed a nod as she took his hand. A shock of desire raced up her arm. "Sure thing."
His gaze lingered on her face, and she resisted the urge to pull her hand from his. There was something powerful, even meaningful, about that stare, and she didn't like the sensation that she'd lost control and perspective so quickly. In that moment, she was a woman, not an agent, and that was entirely the wrong tone for this meeting.
"Coffee, Mr. Hamilton?" the receptionist asked from behind Malina.
"Yes, Paige. Thank you. I imagine Agent Blair would prefer the Kona blend."
Paige turned and left the room, presumably to get coffee, and Malina forced herself to both step back from Hamilton's enticing touch and simultaneously hang on to his compelling gaze. "Kona?" she asked.
"You are Hawaiian, aren't you?"
She clenched her back teeth to avoid asking him how he knew her heritage, but he simply nodded in response to the unspoken question.
"I'm good with faces." He extended his hand to one of the club chairs in front of his desk, then returned to his position on the other side, lowering himself into his blood-red leather chair only after she'd done the same. "Also, Sam mentioned you'd grown up on Kauai."
Gorgeous, intelligent and honest. Three very good reasons to get to know a man. Unfortunately, he was part of her professional and not her personal life.
And never the twain shall meet.
She'd seen too many careers wither and die from office bed-hopping. And falling into the wrong bed in the world of politics landed the offenders a one-way ticket to early retirement. No way was she going down that road.
"I understand the SAC is a personal friend," she said, leaning back in the club chair and tucking her neglected libido neatly away.
He nodded. "Special Agent in Charge Samuel Clair-mont." He lifted his lips in a smile that made Malina's heart jump. "He's come a long way from third string on the Yale fencing team."
"I guess you were first-string."
From any other man, that admission would be bragging at best, pretentious at worst. In the capable, elegant hands of Carr Hamilton, it was charming.
Paige returned at that moment with a silver tray, holding a pitcher, mugs and tiny silver spoons.
She set the service on Hamilton's desk, then turned and left the room. As he poured the coffee, Malina took a moment to let her gaze roam the office, noting the dark wood floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with volumes, a few pictures and knickknacks. A wide-screen laptop sat on the left side of his desk. A sideboard served as a bar, displaying cut-crystal glasses and decanters filled with amber liquid.
Class, style and old money permeated the room.
"Cream and sugar?" the man across from her asked.
She almost said yes simply to watch those graceful hands move. "No, thank you."
"Strong coffee for a strong woman."