Authors: Stephanie Bond
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Fiction - Romance, #Non-Classifiable, #Romance - General, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance: Modern, #Romance - Contemporary, #Key West (Fla.), #Valentine's Day
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID
PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
her head vigorously to shoo away the enormous green fly buzzing under the brim of her straw hat. “Oscar, don’t
me the new compiler doesn’t work,” she warned, gripping the receiver of the pay telephone with one hand and juggling a portfolio of documents in the other.
He sighed. “Relax, Frankie—”
“That could delay the project by another eight weeks!” She straightened her sunglasses, then slapped at the fly with a rolled-up flowchart and missed, cursing silently. All these damn insects!
“Which would be career suicide for
“I know, Frankie—”
“Call the president of the software company if you have to, but get that compiler working before I get back to Cincinnati.”
“What?” she snapped.
“How’s the cruise going?”
Frankie sighed and considered telling Oscar the truth—that her cousin’s wedding had been a roaring bore, that she’d been worried sick about missing work, then just plain sick from the constant rocking of the ship—but she didn’t want to pro
long the conversation. “The cruise is fine.” Except for the fact that the Valentine’s Day package passengers had paired off like Noah’s animals…present company excluded.
“I miss you,” he said softly, obviously heedful of office eavesdroppers. “I wish you’d let me go with you on the cruise.”
The inopportune sentimentality ruffled her. The one good thing about the trip was that it gave Frankie time to mull over her co-worker’s gentle pressure to take their friendship a step further. “Oscar, you know it was impossible for both of us to be gone during this project.”
“You’re right.” He agreed so readily that her frustration climbed a notch. “Where are you now?”
She glanced around at strolling sight-seers and street vendors, an explosion of primary colors and exotic odors—and insects. She swatted at the fly again. “Key West.”
“Well, try not to worry about things here. Enjoy yourself, and have a drink for me.”
“I’ll call you at the next port.”
She fought the urge to sigh. “Goodbye, Oscar.” She jammed the phone down, then looked around at the smiling tourists walking arm in arm. Frankie grimaced. Only four more days of Club Cupid. Then she’d be back home supervising the rollout of the inventory prototype. After an entire year of putting the team together, training everyone and agonizing through the system analysis and design, she was stuck on a creaky love boat during the most important phase of the project.
Frankie carefully tidied the papers she’d removed from the portfolio, smoothing the furled edges of the flowchart, trying to squash her burgeoning frustration. She had a promotion riding on the successful presentation of the prototype—it had to be right.
After slipping the folder into the pocket of her black, soft-sided briefcase, she zipped the top and snapped down a covering flap for extra security. The packet of papers she carried—initial design, data flows and countless pages of handwritten notes from numerous meetings—were irreplaceable. She’d kept them with her during the entire cruise and had even stashed the briefcase under a pew during the wedding ceremony.
From another compartment, she withdrew a long menthol cigarette and smoked it down to the filter within two minutes, looking over her shoulder the entire time. She could just picture running into her cousin who’d promptly tattle to her parents. A ridiculous thing for a woman of thirty-two to be worried about, she knew, but she didn’t want or need a run-in with her fretful mother—or her overbearing father. Frankie made a face as she stubbed out the cigarette against the side of a metal trash can, then tossed the butt inside.
She’d quit smoking after the project ended.
After slinging the bag over her shoulder, she checked her watch. The ship sailed at two o’clock, so she had thirty minutes to find souvenirs for her folks.
Frankie pushed the hat back on her head. The sidewalks were packed, the crowd spilling into the narrow street, oozing between parked compacts
and delivery vans. Bicycles appeared to be the favored mode of transportation. A calypso band played on the roof of a single-story building across the street, the singers’ gyrations hemmed in by an ornate wrought-iron railing, their shakers and bongos providing a beat to which the pedestrians’ feet kept time.
If the temperature was one degree, it was one hundred and one. The sun blazed down and the air hung heavy, pungent with the sweet smells of perspiration and incense. The collar of Frankie’s knit shirt clung to her sticky neck despite her having captured her long red wiry hair beneath the straw hat. She took a deep breath and entered the disjointed stream of lookers, buyers and sellers, focusing on making it to the leather-goods stand a few yards away.
“Pretty, pretty,” a mahogany-skinned man crowed, thrusting a strand of beads in her face. She blinked, then smiled and shook her head.
“Handmade sandals!” another man shouted, waving two pairs of canvas shoes. Frankie glanced down at her white feet shod in ancient penny loafers. They looked a little dorky, but they were soft and comfortable. Maybe her mother would appreciate a pair of the cloth shoes, since she stood all day at the restaurant.
Frankie edged closer to the stand, then pointed to the pair she wanted. But as she twisted to reach into her briefcase, a vicious jerk on her shoulder pulled her to the ground. She felt the strap of her briefcase being ripped off her arm. Disbelief rolled over her as her back hit the sidewalk hard, knocking the breath out of her.
She grunted and blinked, tilting her head to look at the retreating purse snatcher from her point of view on the pavement. Only a glimpse of his khaki-green T-shirt was visible as he fought his way through the crowd. Unsuspecting people in his path yelped as he pushed them aside, reminding Frankie that she too had a voice. “Help!” she screamed, struggling to get to her feet with the help of the sandal man. “He stole my purse!”
Outrage spurred her forward and she took off in the direction of the thug, yelling at the top of her lungs and desperately trying to keep him in view. The nimble thief scrambled across the hood of a parked car, darted across the street to the tune of screeching brakes and sprinted down the other side. Despite her best efforts, Frankie followed at a much slower pace, still pointing and yelling, and while many people stopped to look, no one seemed willing to join the chase.
Nearly a block later, the purse snatcher long gone, Frankie stopped, her chest ready to explode from exertion. She yanked off her crooked sunglasses, then held her knees, gasping for breath. Panic sprouted low in her stomach and billowed into her quivering lungs. Quickly she took mental stock of her losses: wallet, cash, traveler’s checks, identification, credit cards, family pictures…and the project documentation. Hot tears of frustration filled her eyes. Frankie shoved a hand through her hair, wryly noting she’d lost her hat, too.
People passed her on all sides, but no one gave her more than a curious glance. In the distance behind her, she heard the growing whine of a siren. With relief, Frankie turned and spotted a police-
woman on a motorcycle threading her way through the crowd. Frankie waved her arms and began yelling before the stout woman wearing Terminator sunglasses had even rolled to a stop. Hurriedly, she described the thief and her purse, then pointed in the direction he had gone. The woman nodded curtly, told Frankie to stay put and sped off.
Frankie glanced at her watch and swore, her apprehension growing. The ship sailed in fifteen minutes, but she
leave without the papers. A passerby handed her the misshapen, trampled hat. She smoothed the torn straw, then twisted her hair and tucked it underneath with shaking hands.
The papers simply could not be lost. Her career flashed before her eyes. She’d taken a job with Ohio Roadmakers right out of college. Developing computer systems for a paving and construction company hadn’t ranked high on her creativity list at the time, but the starting salary had been generous. She’d settled in, worked hard and progressed through several promotions in the past decade. When the inventory project had been approved, Frankie had been delighted to accept the high-visibility assignment. And now…
The green fly was back. She slapped at it viciously with both hands, her anger focused on squashing that infuriating bug, as if the act would solve her immediate problems. Arms flailing wildly, she suddenly realized how foolish she must look and stopped. But no one paid her any mind. Most of the people strolling past seemed to be bound for Rum King’s, a semiopen sidewalk bar
a few steps away where, the sign boasted, the first drink cost only twenty-five cents.
Frankie took a deep, calming breath and rolled her wrist to check the time again. Three minutes left. Should she make a run for the dock and beg the captain not to sail? Or wait for the police officer to return and gamble that the ship would be delayed? Or perhaps her cousin Emily would miss her and hold the ship? Frankie sighed. Fat chance…Emily had eyes only for her new husband, addle-brained Albert—they probably hadn’t come up for air yet. The thought triggered images on which she instantly decided she’d rather not dwell.
She turned in the direction of the dock, then stopped. If the police officer returned with her purse, she needed to be here. And right now its contents were more important than the last leg of a cruise she hadn’t wanted to take in the first place. She brightened a degree. If her bag was recovered, it would be a blessing in disguise because she could fly home early with a good excuse.
Her mind made up, Frankie leaned against a No Panhandling street sign and waited. A few minutes later, she heard the ship’s horn blasting in the distance as it moved away from the dock. Party music crescendoed as the locals bid farewell in the rollicking style of the islands. After a couple of minutes, the aged ship crawled into view as it wallowed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Lifting her hand in a rueful send-off wave, Frankie felt a brief stab of remorse—Emily would have to pack up Frankie’s cabin and take care of her luggage once Frankie contacted the ship. Her
meditating, poem-reading, touchy-feely cousin would probably worry about her being stranded in Key West, but right now Frankie felt more free than she had since the rusty ship had drawn anchor in Miami.
She’d dreaded spending Valentine’s Day alone amongst a boatful of lovestruck couples. Some realities were simply too painful to face—single, with no outstanding prospects at her age…and Oscar didn’t count.
Frankie worked her mouth from side to side. Her job fulfilled her…really it did. Which was why she had to find that darn briefcase.
Apprehension washed over her anew and she muttered a quick prayer under her breath, promising to stop being such a control freak if her prayers were granted. Biting down hard on her bottom lip, Frankie chastised herself—she had no business keeping all those documents to herself in the first place. Throughout the project, she had released only bits and pieces to the team members on an as-needed basis, but she alone had the complete system documentation and minutes of off-site meetings. She hadn’t even kept it on her hard drive at work. In the beginning she had rationalized assembling the private portfolio with the thought that, as project manager, she needed one master set of documents which were always up-to-date. But somewhere along the line, she’d grown possessive of “the Bible” as Oscar had affectionately dubbed the collection of papers. Once their boss caught wind of her stingy—and costly—shortsightedness, she’d be fired for sure.
Where the heck was the police officer? After an
other thirty minutes had expired, between the heat and the anxiety, Frankie felt close to expiring herself. Key West was so tiny, the officer could have canvassed the entire island by now.
Tingling with rising panic and feeling dangerously close to tears, Frankie looked around, her gaze settling on Rum King’s. Fashioned like a Tiki hut, the entire front of the little bar served as a door, open to foot traffic, creating a breezeway to a small patio barely visible on the far side.
She swallowed, thinking how good a drink would feel on her dry throat. Although the bar didn’t at all resemble her parents’ diner, little details of such establishments—music, clusters of tables and chairs, the laughter of other patrons—had always given her a comforting feeling of belonging when she traveled. Frankie walked toward the bar, her steps quickening. If she stood near the doorway, she’d be able to see the police officer when she returned with her purse.
the pale little woman as soon as she entered the room. Between the big, crooked hat with the curly dark red hair sticking out, the large sunglasses and her dusty, preppie outfit, she looked completely ridiculous. He shook his head and continued wiping the bar with a damp cloth.
Sizing her up beneath his lashes, he tried to guess her drink of choice. Surprise darted through him when she removed the glasses and revealed a heart-shaped face, dirt-smudged, but younger than he’d first imagined, and very pretty, even with her eyebrows drawn in a frown. She seemed nervous, looking out into the street every few seconds as she
made her way toward where he stood behind the bar. A tourist, obviously. Probably on parole from an uptight corporate job. Had she become separated from a cruising companion? Imagining a customer’s story had become a favorite pastime. Most tourists’ lives were similar to his own rat-race existence before coming to the island, and were easy to figure out.
Dry martini with an olive, he guessed as she walked tentatively closer. No, she wasn’t that jaded. And she had arresting, clear blue eyes. Long Island iced tea? Her figure was pleasing, with fabulous, well-turned legs, even if they were as white as milk. He clicked his cheek in sudden decision. Definitely mineral water, with a twist of lemon.