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Separated from her controlling husband, romance author Zoe Swan meets a charismatic art history professor on the beach and begins a torrid affair. But who is he really? By the time Zoe finds out, she’s on the run with her husband, his jewel thief brother, and a priceless painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With the FBI and the murderer in pursuit, the trio heads to Boston. The only way to prove their innocence is to make a deal with the very people who want them dead.









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 Chapter One

The Intruder

 

“Too bad all the perfect shells have tiny creatures living inside,” he said as I watched a crab crawling in his mobile home at the edge of the water. I turned and stared at the man crouching beside me, then stood up. So did he.

“True, but they limit the population of homeless crabs,” I said.

His dazzling smile reminded me of the old toothpaste commercials featuring sparkles bouncing off the model’s teeth. I’d always been a sucker for a great smile. Then he removed his sunglasses, and I looked into the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. They crinkled at the corners in a playful grin and visually undressed me.

I’d noticed him the last few afternoons on my daily walk―who wouldn’t? He was movie star hot.

“Neal,” he said, and offered his hand.

I took it and noticed he wore no wedding ring. “Zoe.”

“Which way are you walking?” he asked.

I pointed to my usual turn-around spot. “To the fishing pier and back.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Sure.” Why not? It’s just a walk. Innocent, right?

We chatted, strolling leisurely instead of my usual quick pace. “So what are you doing in Cherry Grove?” I asked.

“I’m taking a year’s sabbatical to work on my PhD dissertation. Doctor Trainor has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

So his name is Neal Trainor. “Definitely.” I asked him what he taught.

“Art history at Boston University.”

I did a double-take. “Really? Small world. I went to Mass Art.”

“Ha. This really is a small world.”

We continued walking and talking. He knew more about art than any person I’d ever known, and I’d known some pretty knowledgeable art professors.

* * * * *

We met at the same time the next day, then went for drinks and appetizers at a beachfront bar the following day. He spoke Italian to the waiter. I was impressed.

Until then, we’d kept our conversation light, even superficial, but over mussels and calamari, we spilled out our lives as only best friends or total strangers are apt to do. His wife had left him for a younger man, and he’d raised his three young kids by himself. I mentioned I was separated from my husband, David, and had moved to the beach to write my books.

“Published?” he asked.

“Uh-huh.”

Neal leaned forward, clearly interested. “We’ve spent three days talking, and if you mentioned your last name, it got by me. Those mesmerizing gold flecks in your eyes messed with my concentration. Forgive me.”

Mesmerizing gold flecks. What absolutely marvelous bullshit. “I never said. It’s Swan. Zoe Swan.”

“You’re that Zoe?” Neal said. “I’ve read your books, gifts from my daughter. Number-one bestsellers both. Fun, exciting, and very sexy.”

I blushed at his praise. Who knew someone like Neal would read my books? Critics claimed I’d broken new ground, but my stories were only the fantasy of a neglected, forty-something woman. I decided not to mention that my success contributed to the downward slide of my marriage. Of course my situation was more complicated, but no man wants to hear the nitty gritty details.

Neal told me about his children, his students, and his involvement in the Boston arts scene, and he peppered me with questions about my writing life. No one had been that interested in me in a long time. Especially not David.

Neal seemed like a nice guy. And talk about sexy.

Very sexy.

Run like the wind, Zoe, away from the physical pull of this man’s gravity. But I couldn’t. Didn’t want to. He made me feel desirable and more interesting than I ever thought I was. So instead of fleeing, I relaxed and enjoyed his company, reminding myself that my husband initiated our separation when writing took me away from the small advertising agency we’d built over the years. Took me away from his controlling manipulations.

“Maybe we ought to separate for a while until you find out what you want to be when you grow up,” David had said.

I surprised both of us by packing my clothes and moving to our condo at Cherry Grove, north of Myrtle Beach, where the only distractions from writing were the sea birds, graceful and elegant, flying overhead, and my daily walks. David expected me to realize the error of my ways and beg him to take me back. But the new Zoe Swan, filled with a rare feeling of confidence, held firm.

After our walk on the fourth day, Neal rested his hand on the small of my back and guided me through the dunes to his rented beach house with the promise of a nice bottle of wine and a wedge of brie. I didn’t think twice, though I knew what was going to happen.

The house, a well-kept two-story on stilts, sat on an oceanfront piece of property with a huge back deck facing the sea. We climbed the stairs, and he unlocked the door.

“Nice place,” I said. A flash of what I was about to do hit me like a blast of cold air, and I consciously pushed all thoughts of recrimination away.

“I like to enjoy my surroundings,” Neal said.

He ushered me inside the posh great room, and to my delight wasted no time pretending we were there for the wine and cheese. I hadn’t experienced desire like that in, well, forever. Intoxicated by his scent, the way my body felt next to his, I responded, sliding my hands under his shirt, scraping my fingernails down his back, and giggling at his flinch when I tickled his side. He practically ripped off my T-shirt, then visually drank me in from head to toe in the same appreciative way I looked at a beautiful work of art.

“There is nothing more tantalizing than a woman’s magnificent body,” he said.

My heart pounded. I could hear it in my ears, feel it thumping in my chest. “Is that the opinion of an art history professor or a professor in the art of seduction?” My teasing voice belied the quaking inside.

My play on words brought a smile to his lips, and he nuzzled into my neck. Oh, God. I thought I’d collapse right there, limp on the white, luxurious carpet.

“No, it’s the opinion of a man who values a beautiful woman.”

Those words went straight to my heart, bypassing my head. I don’t recall how we wound up in the bedroom with the afternoon sun streaming in through the picture window, warming our bodies, but there we were, a couple of hours later, drenched in sweat and thoroughly exhausted.

The man loved sex, pure and unadulterated―an odd word to describe it, I thought in one flicker of lucidity. He derived as much pleasure in giving as receiving, transitioning seamlessly between positions that David and I had long lost interest in exploring. Never forcing, he easily maneuvered me into sexual adventures I’d almost forgotten, except on the written page. I greedily played the part of the willing student, taking a refresher course from the knowledgeable professor.

Even though Neal would leave the area, and I knew this affair was likely just a blink in my life, the small touches and affections―those tender moments that remind a woman she’s still desirable―clarified how hungry I was for the passion missing in my life. Those moments had become nonexistent in my marriage, which is why I succumbed to the lure of this bronze-skinned Adonis.

I had written scenes like this, had lived them in my imagination. I wanted Neal as much as my love-starved heroine wanted the damaged hero of my last book. Only this wasn’t a book, and for the first time in ages, I wasn’t transposing thoughts onto paper but actually experiencing them with no inhibitions.

“You certainly don’t look like a woman in her forties,” I heard him say in my delirium. “Beautiful breasts, flat stomach, and a damn fine ass.”

Wow. All that. Who knew? I gave the guy credit. His bullshit was improving. Premium stuff. But I didn’t care. I was floating halfway to the moon.

Maybe it was overly dramatic to think I saw the whole universe at its inception when I climaxed―the Big Bang Theory. No pun intended. I loved everyone. I was a flower child of the sixties, a Hare Krishna, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I felt beautiful and sexy and desirable, like the woman I wanted to be. Like the heroine of my novels, with Neal the perfect hero. I vacillated between reality and fantasy, mentally transcribing the encounter into a chapter for a book. I’d fit it in somewhere. Write a whole scene around it. Write the whole goddamn book around it.

We lay next to each other for a long, quiet time before he turned sideways and began caressing the soft flesh of my inner thigh. I wanted to scream from pleasure. Then he started all over again. The man was a recharged battery, the ever-fucking-ready bunny. I expected him to collapse on top of me, but he didn’t. Instead, he burrowed his face into my neck and licked inside my ear.

“I just enjoyed the best sex I’ve had in years,” he murmured. “Youth has nothing on experience.”

I couldn’t speak. Really. My tongue was paralyzed in my mouth. I’d never come twice in such a short time, but I felt as if I could already come again. His touch activated my sexual nerve endings. I wanted more.

Neal ran his palm across his forehead. “I need a shower. I want to be fresh for later.”

I could barely think as he stroked my leg. “Later? What’s later?”

He sat up, kissed my lips, and said, “When we do this again. Tonight.”

I felt the pulsating again and kissed him back.

“Or better still,” he interrupted, “instead of a shower, how about a swim? You can swim, can’t you?”

“Right now, I could sprint across the English Channel.”

While biting my earlobe, he whispered, “I’m not that good.”

You have no idea how good you are. “I have an idea. The island on the other side of the channel is beautiful. It’s low tide now, and the channel is shallow. We can walk the sandbar most of the way, maybe swim a little, but it shouldn’t be over our heads. We can stroll the beach as long as we get back before the tide starts to come in. The channel is rough then. Have you ever been over there?”

“No. Sounds like fun.”

“I’ll run home and change into a suit. Meet you at the point in half an hour.”

“That long?”

“I’ll hurry.”

“Okay.”

I dressed under his watchful eye, and he walked me to the door. “See you then.”

He cupped my ass, pulled me close, and said goodbye with such a passionate kiss, I considered taking off my clothes again and forgetting the swim altogether. Instead, I hustled back to the house to change.

Humming Sheryl Crow’s, All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun, I felt twenty-one again, the age of my first sexual encounter. Writing romantic suspense had inspired all kinds of fantasies, but here I was, involved in a wild, passionate affair and surprisingly guilt free.

Racing up the three flights of stairs, I opened the door into the kitchen, and almost slipped on the tile floor in my rush to get to the bedroom to change. I chose my most flattering bathing suit, dabbed on a fresh coat of lipstick, and confirmed my waterproof mascara hadn’t forsaken me. After an appraising twirl in the mirror, I threw on a cover-up and hurried to the point.

The day was surprisingly warm for September. I expected to see Neal waiting, but he hadn’t yet arrived. I breathed in the smell of the ocean I loved so much and waited.

And waited.

After ten minutes, the afternoon sun still hot enough to burn my shoulders through the cover-up fabric, I decided to walk toward his house. I expected to meet him on the way, but I didn’t. Climbing the path through the dunes, I looked down the street, thinking he might have walked that way instead of on the beach, but I didn’t see him there either. He’d probably taken a call from one of his kids.

Upon arriving at his house, I noted the half-open door at the top of the stairs. I climbed up. “Neal, are you here?” No answer. My skin prickled from the tension wound tightly in the air.

I took one tentative step inside when someone from behind the door slammed it into me with enough force to catapult me onto the wooden deck. A shooting pain stabbed both my shoulder and backside. Footsteps pounded on the stairs, softening as they crossed the grass and disappeared down the street. By the time I crawled to my knees and twisted around, I saw only a nondescript figure in a hooded jogging suit darting toward Ocean Boulevard.

It all happened so fast I couldn’t determine whether the attacker was a man or a woman. I only knew that he or she was in a big hurry. I staggered to my feet, rubbing my shoulder, and called inside. A muffled moan answered. Scared someone else would lurch from behind the door, I gradually pushed until it flattened against the wall and entered cautiously, trying to ignore the limp-causing twinge in my hip.

The place was a mess. Furniture overturned, papers and books tossed everywhere. Neal lay on the floor, bleeding profusely from a nasty gash on the side of his head. I ran over and did what cops do in the movies―placed two fingers on his neck to check for a pulse, which was stupid, considering his deep-throated groans.

“Neal, are you all right?” Stupid again. The man was bleeding, semiconscious, and I was asking if he was all right. I made a mental note not to put that in a book. Good thing art doesn’t always imitate life. “I’m calling nine-one-one.”

He made an attempt to rise and fell back on his elbow. “No, don’t.” His voice was thick and groggy. “The bastard zapped me with a stun gun or something.”

“You’re bleeding. You have to call the police or an ambulance.”

He struggled to sit upright, concern on his face. “Then what, Zoe? There’ll be reporters and cops, and you’ll be involved.”

I hadn’t thought of that. David would find out. “You call then. I won’t be here when they come.”

“And you think that’ll be the end of it? I don’t know how to tell you this, but we haven’t been exactly invisible this week. When the cops start asking questions, the neighbors will crawl out of their channel houses like Palmetto bugs to add their two cents. ‘Oh, that writer woman was over there one afternoon.’ And what’ll you say to that?”

Neal had a point. I’d been in Cherry Grove for a year. The townies knew me by sight if not by name. “Well at least have your head looked at. You may need a few stitches.”

“I’ll be fine.” He rose unsteadily, touched the wound, and stared at his bloody hand.

I dashed into the kitchen and wet a towel, then examined the cut more closely. “It’s not too deep.” I pressed the dampened cloth over the injury.

“Really, I’m okay,” Neal said as he took over pressing the cloth on his head. “I was leaving to meet you and went back inside to grab a beach towel. I left the door open, and before I knew it, he shocked me and whacked me over the head.” Neal checked the bloody towel. “I thought these things didn’t happen here.”

“They don’t. People leave their doors open.”

“I won’t make that mistake again. It’s a good thing you came along.”

“Now I wish I hadn’t waited so long.” I caressed his cheek.

“I’m glad you waited. If you’d come earlier, he might have hurt you too.” He staggered to the desk. “I hope he didn’t take my laptop. All my work is in it.” Making a quick tour of the house, he opened closet doors and checked drawers, still holding the towel against his wound.

“I didn’t see him carrying anything, but he pushed me down, and I never got a good look.”

Neal turned his attention to me. “Oh, Zoe, I’m sorry. I’ve been inconsiderate. Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“Only my dignity and an impending bruise on my damn fine ass.”

Neal smiled and patted my butt.

“Nothing like being pushed to the ground to make you realize what an easy mark you are,” I said. “Makes me sorry I quit tae kwon do.”

“I’d rather suffer a concussion than let anything happen to you.” He wrapped his free arm around me and rubbed my back. “Do you mind if we don’t take that swim?”

“Are you kidding? Of course I don’t mind. You’re sure you don’t want to report this to the police and have your head checked by a doctor?”

“Yes, I’m sure. It doesn’t look like anything’s been stolen, so I’d rather not make a big deal of it. Besides, I couldn’t give them any better description than you. Let’s forget it. Next time, I’ll be more careful. I’m sure this was a one-time fluke. He saw there was nothing to steal. No jewelry or cash. He won’t be back.”

“Your decision,” I said. We straightened the furniture and picked up the loose papers on the floor. “What a mess.” I glanced at Neal holding the towel to his head. “How’s that cut?”

“I’ll be fine.” He pulled the makeshift bandage away. “See, it’s already stopped bleeding.”

“You should sit down for a while. I’ll finish straightening up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll take care of it later. Now, how about a drink? This time it’s medicinal.”

“I hate medicine, but I’ll force myself. One drink, then I’d better go and let you rest.”

“The best laid plans of mice and men, huh?” Neal said.