"An engrossing romance and a great beach read.”—Marie Hashima Lofton, Bookreporter
California private investigator Kat Vargas lives a lonely life of danger with a painful past. Desperate for rest and relaxation, she leaves the city lights of Long Beach to house sit in Twilight Cove, a tiny beach town.
Having recently found out about the baby he fathered when he was in high school, Ty Chandler has been eager to find her. After he learns about the P.I. in his neighborhood he hires her to find his now nineteen-year-old daughter.
Kat and Ty join forces to hunt for the girl and begin to fall in love. But Kat knows better than to give her heart away. Her tragic past can’t be forgotten.
When she and Ty locate his daughter, Sunny, she’s a cynical outcast, living hand-to-mouth, and caring for her baby. They coax her to Twilight Cove, where Kat becomes convinced Sunny is on the run from some kind of trouble.
A seven-time Romance Writers of America finalist for the RITA Award, Jill Marie Landis also now writes The Tiki Goddess Mysteries (set on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, actor Steve Landis.)
NIGHT. The same old nightmare.
sorrowful sound of wind chimes. The roar of the surf. The tang of salt on the
air. Dense, gray sheets of rain. The shimmering pavement. Tall stalks of
sugarcane bowed by the storm, slick with moisture.
vision blinded by tears, she tries to blink against the light, to comprehend
the blazing glare of headlights aimed straight toward her. The impact. The
screech of metal on metal.
never-ending scream that fills the silence afterward.
AWOKE TANGLED in twisted sheets, sweaty, alone.
shoved back the covers with her good hand, stepped out of bed, and walked
through puddles of morning sunlight streaming through the windows. The
unfamiliar house was cool and silent.
had been a bad idea to agree to house-sit. She could feel it in her bones.
She’d be better off in Long Beach working one-handed. At least her mind would
minute Jake had driven off with Carly and Christopher and their mutt, she
started wondering how in the hell she ever let him convince her to take six
weeks off. The peace and quiet were already driving her nuts.
should have known her nightmares would come with her.
paused by the window. In the distance, the Pacific sparkled like a polished
aquamarine. The summer sun worked diligently to burn off the thin layer of
morning haze that hovered over the tranquil California coastline.
on a sandstone bluff a couple of miles away, the seasonal resort of Twilight
Cove was a tourist stop for summer sojourners searching for old California
with its golden, sun-drenched beaches and small-town atmosphere.
she found the damp chill of the night air still lingered in the shadows though
it was already late morning. The cozy Craftsman-style house Jake was
refurbishing had absorbed his family’s happiness. Photos of Jake, Carly, and
Chris were on display in every room. Carly’s stunning oil paintings, works that
included ghostly white figures set against vibrant local landscapes, adorned
picked up a framed photo of Chris in a baseball uniform and rubbed her thumb
over the glass. It was still hard for her to believe that Jake, of all people,
had a kid. Though she’d never told him so, she envied his newfound happiness,
his pride in Christopher, the love he’d found with Carly.
She set the photo down. Beside it was one of Carly and
Chris walkingalong the beach at Twilight Cove. The love in Carly’s eyes was there for all the world to see, hopeful, fragile—as love
always is—and yet constant.
teased Jake, but deep down she was happy for him. He had a family now.
Something she had once wanted.
crossed the open, casual living-dining room, thinking it was just too damned
ironic that Jake, who’d sworn off romance, had wound up married again and
living on an out-of-the-way road named Lover’s Lane.
tried to flex her injured hand and winced. Getting along with a bulky bandage
was a chore, but she’d already regained some mobility in her thumb and fingers.
time she looked at her left hand, she was reminded of just how far betrayal
could drive a perfectly normal person to commit an irrational act.
was also a brutal reminder of what happened whenever her feelings got in the
way. Whenever she thought with her heart, her head stopped working and she
wound up hurt.
sun was already above the top of the eastern hills behind the house. She
couldn’t wait to make a pot of coffee and stretch out in one of the teak
lounges on the back deck, lift her face to the sun, and make up some of the
sleep she’d lost last night, but just as she reached the kitchen, the front
glanced down at the crumpled knit shorts and tank top she’d slept in, then up
at the clock on the wall. It was later than she thought— already noon.
nearest neighbors were beyond shouting distance. The place was totally isolated.
the bell chimed again.
hesitated. Even with a bum hand, she was confident that she could defend
herself. Still, she was wary. She’d definitely seen too many movies about
fugitives stumbling across isolated homes in the middle of nowhere, heard too
many news stories about home-invasion robberies.
right now she really wished she hadn’t stayed up all night to finish
Edward Cain’s novel An Even Dozen, the serial-murder thriller that
everyone was talking about.
purse was on a chair drawn up beneath the dining table, and as she passed it on her way to the front door, she
slipped out her .380 automatic.
a grip, Vargas. You’re not in L.A. County. It’s probably just a Girl
Scout selling cookies, someone out to save your soul, or the Avon lady.
knows you could use a makeover.
the front door, she glanced out the picture window and spotted a Toyota Land
Cruiser in the driveway. Black, newer model, parked parallel to the house. At
this angle, she couldn’t see the license plate.
stained-glass window set in the front door gave her a mottled glimpse of a
tall, dark-haired man hovering on the other side. His image was blurred by
rippling red, yellow, and green glass. He was alone.
took a deep breath, refusing to let the incident in Seal Beach infect her
courage. She cracked the door open, kept the automatic out of sight. Her
attention was immediately absorbed by the man standing on the opposite side of
shorts, black polo shirt open at the throat. Over six feet, wide shoulders. His
blue eyes stared directly into hers. His lashes were thick, his brow smooth,
his jaw strong. His hair was just as black as hers, close-cropped.
never laid eyes on him in her life, but he was smiling as if actually happyto see her.
was mind-numbingly handsome. Definitely the kind of man she’d sworn off of a
long, long time ago. Her mind was going blank.
opened her mouth to ask what he wanted but all she managed was a very weak,
Great. He’d reduced
her vocabulary to a fractured syllable.
Impossible as it seemed, his smile intensified. "Are you Kat Vargas?”
tried to focus, cleared her throat, and attempted not to stare. "Who wants to
Ty Chandler. You’re a private investigator.”
"I mean, I’m lookingfor a private investigator.”
"Oh, I get it.” She relaxed
and laughed. "Jake put you up to this.”
She could imagine Jake and
Carly playing Cupid. Especially after the "Don’t you want somebody to love? You
better find somebody to love” speech Jake gave her on the drive up.
The man shook his head. "No,
actually. Selma Gibbs at the Plaza Diner suggested I look him up, then she
remembered he was going out of town. She said another P.I. was house-sitting
Kat knew Selma Gibbs. They’d
met two nights ago when the Montgomerys took her to the diner where Carly used
As she stared up at Ty
Chandler, she figured the bad news was that he probably had a wife who was
cheating on him, which meant either his wife was nuts, or that he was no prize
in the husband department.
The usual rush hit her. It was
the same when any prospective client called. She was curious to learn the
details, but she could just hear Jake telling her to send the guy on his way,
reminding her that she was supposed to be relaxing and sorting things out,
deciding what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
"Sorry. I’m on vacation.
You’ll have to find somebody else. I’m sure there are some fine private
investigators in San Luis Obispo.” She kept her tone cool, firm, and waited for
him to leave, but he didn’t look discouraged. In fact, he didn’t look deterred
in the least.
had nothing but good things to say about Jake Montgomery,”he said. "I hoped you’d be willing to help. Can I just come in and explain? It
won’t take long.”
He was very charming.
Certainly friendly enough. And he looked perfectly harmless. But then again,
so had Ted Bundy.
He sighed. Frustration and
disappointment were etched across his face, but he didn’t budge. He obviously
wasn’t going to give up easily. She admired that in a person.
"Look, Ms. Vargas, I’m
desperate. I’ve been searching for somebody on my own, but I keep running into
dead ends.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his khakis and shrugged.
"Just hear me out before you turn me down.”
Surely Selma wouldn’t have
sent a total stranger to her door, let alone a serial murderer.
When she didn’t answer, his
gaze shifted out to the sea and then slowly back to meet her eyes. "If you
can’t take the case, is there anyone you’d recommend?”
a few minutes listening to his story would give her something to do other than
roam through the house wondering how to stay sane while being suffocated by
peace and quiet.
would it hurt to hear him out? Maybe give him some advice?
opened the door a bit wider and with a wave of her hand indicated the two
wooden rockers side by side on the expansive covered porch.
can have a seat out there.”
eyes widened when he caught a glimpse of her gun.
worry. I’ve never shot anyone who didn’t deserve it.” She set the handgun on
the table by the phone and joined him outside. By the time she crossed the
porch, he’d chosen one of the rockers. She leaned against the low porch wall.
couldn’t help but notice that his gaze swept the length of her bare legs before
it slowly traveled up to meet her eyes.
exactly who are you looking for, and why do you think you need to hire a P.I.?”
stopped rocking, leaned forward, and rested his elbows on his knees. "You might
as well sit down. This’ll take a few minutes.”
TY CHANDLER HAD expected someone... well, someone
larger anddefinitely sturdier. A female version of Columbo. Maybe Janet Reno. Certainly
not this petite, exotic, and undeniably sensual young woman in a wafer-thin,
white tank top and wrinkled plaid shorts. The top of her head barely came to
waited as Kat Vargas gave him another slow once-over, maybe, finally, deciding
he wasn’t a serial killer, and slipped into the empty rocker beside him.
shoulder-length, jet-black hair glistened and moved every time she did. A
slight smattering of golden freckles dusted the bridge of her button nose. But
it was her eyes that arrested him most. They sparkled with an unspoken
challenge, as if daring him not to even think about getting close.
watched, unable to look away as she crossed her shapely legs and gingerly
rested her bandaged hand in her lap. Selma Gibbs had explained that Kat was in
town to house-sit and recoup from an injury, but if Selma knew any of the
details, she hadn’t shared them.
the moment the lovely Ms. Vargas opened the door, her expression had remained
guarded. There was an edge to her ready stance, a studied distance broken now
and then by a glimpse of curiosity and a flash of warmth in her eyes.
business had honed his people skills until he thought he could read most of
them like a book, but Kat Vargas wasn’t giving anything away. He wondered if
she was naturally wary, or if her experience as a P.I. had made her that way.
remained silent, patiently waiting for him to begin. Ty shifted, glanced out at
the ocean, trying to decide where to start.
hadn’t driven up Lover’s Lane since high school, and he’d forgotten the
magnificent view that stretched on and on from up here. Between the shore and
the horizon, the deep blue-green ocean was dappled with frothy whitecaps. He
caught himself wondering if the albacore were running.
wasn’t exactly sure where to begin or how much Kat Vargas really needed to
know before he could convince her to help. He started at the beginning.
a few months ago, I lived in Alaska. I moved up there right after high school
and stayed for nineteen years. Eventually I established my own fishing and
hunting camp and grew the business. Three months ago, my mom, who still lived
here in Twilight, called and told me she was dying.”
felt the pain of that phone call again, the shock of the cold reality in his mom’s voice. Barbara Chandler,
assertive, a born leader who was always larger than life, was mortal
prognosis was six weeks. She only lasted three, which in many ways was a
blessing.” He looked out at the ocean again. "Once Mom learned her illness was
terminal, she refused more treatment and began to put her affairs in order.”
was just like Barbara Chandler to want to be in control right up to the end.
She directed while he sorted her personal belongings into boxes and told him to
deliver them to close friends, thrift shops, and the local women’s shelters.
She even had a real estate agent waiting in the wings to
sell the house.She’d taken charge of everything, not because she wanted to spare him, but more
than likely because she didn’t trust him to do it the way she wanted it done.
Kat Vargas sat patiently, listening intently, he could see that she hadn’t
relaxed. She struck him as someone who, like him, didn’t ordinarily like to sit
still, let alone wait around for anything or anyone.
about your dad?” she asked.
died when I was fifteen.” There was nothing more he wanted to tell her about
his dad. Thom Chandler had checked out of their lives a long time before he
my parents are still living—in Hawaii.” She spoke softly, almost as if
thinking out loud.
explained her striking, exotic look. Her golden-brown skin, the slight almond
shape of her eyes.
lucky, then, to have them both.” He saw a flash of unspoken questions in her
eyes—questions of someone who has never lost a parent.
did you get through it?
will I do when it happens?
will life be without them?
her concern had barely blossomed before he watched her hide it. Besides, he
hadn’t come to philosophize. He’d come seeking help.
mom was very driven. Always in control. She’d been active around Twilight Cove
all her life. President of the P.T.A., head of the Booster Club when I was in
high school. She served on the boards for town beautification and the Twilight
Historical Society for years.”
had been standing room only at her memorial. She had lots of friends and
associates, but she had never really communicated with him very well. She was
better at giving orders than listening. Better at running organizations than holding
a family together.
day, weak as she was, she insisted on going to the park to sit in the sun. She wanted to watch people doing
ordinary, everyday things—all the things she’d never be able to do
again. She wanted to watch the kids playing in the park.”
bundled her up and taken her to Plaza Park on the bluff above Twilight Cove.
The sun was shining, the air crystal clear after three days of rain. He’d never
forget that day.
bought ice-cream cones neither of them finished.
a gesture unlike her, she took his hand and told him the secret she’d kept from
him for nineteen years. It wasn’t the kind of last-breath, deathbed revelation
of feature films—nothing as dramatic as that. Just a few words softly spoken on
a sunny afternoon. Words that altered his life forever. Words that left his
world totally shaken.
a father, you know.” Her voice was rough and dry. She’d worn a jewel-toned
caftan, her baldness concealed beneath a garish, orange knit turban. Gulls
screamed as they soared and dove overhead.
a father, you know.”
did you say, Mom?” He had wondered if the medication was affecting her mind.
have a child out in the world somewhere. Amy’s child. And yours.”
Vargas had grown very still. Ty focused on the present, on the attractive
young woman beside him.
mom confessed that my high school sweetheart had been pregnant with my child
when we broke up. Her name was Amy Simmons. She was from the other side of
town, and she ran with a fast crowd, while I hung with the jocks. We dated our
junior and senior years, but my mom never liked her.”
lost their virginity to each other in the back of his Volkswagen van the night
of the homecoming game. Back then, he thought they’d be together forever.
our senior year, Amy got into alcohol and drugs. I was a seventeen-year-old
kid, in love, scared, confused. I couldn’t fight Amy’s addiction for her, so I
broke up with her, hoping that might shake her up enough to make her stop.
ran away with a girlfriend before graduation and moved down to Southern
California, where they met someone who took them to River Ridge, a compound in
the Angeles National Forest. It was a phony drug rehab. They promised success
using New Age techniques.”
shoved his hand through his hair with a sigh. Kat listened intently, showing
went after her, but she refused to come back. My mom was so glad it was over. I
got in my van and headed north and didn’t stop driving until I ended up in
I tried to contact Amy through her parents, but they had moved and I never
heard from them again.”
lost Amy, and for a while lost himself in the wilderness. Then he’d picked up
worked odd jobs, construction on log homes, a guide for outback tours.
Eventually I started Kamp Kodiak, a fishing and hunting camp. I worked my ass
off turning it into a lucrative business. Amy was out of my life for good,
until my mom told me about our child.”
old?” Kat’s smooth, even voice startled him out of his reverie.
just turned thirty-seven.”
lips instantly curved into a half smile. She shook her head and rolled her
"Notyou. How old is your kid?”
have no idea. All I know is that Mrs. Simmons told Mom about the pregnancy
right after I left town. When I’d gone after Amy, she wasn’t showing yet. I had
your mom knew all the time?”
did she wait all these years to tell you? Why would she keep her own grandchild
me, I’ve asked myself that a million times. She knew I’d do whatever it took to
be with Amy. That I’d always be connected to her through our child. My mother
wanted to spare me the heartache of ending up stuck with way more than I could
Vargas leaned toward him. Rested her elbow on the arm of her chair, propped her
chin in her hand. "Could you have handled it?”
have damn well tried. I’d have done something. It was my kid, for
WITH HIS answer, Kat leaned back. She could see that he was emotionally
drained. He rested his head against the chair and slowly set the rocker in
he was an outdoors man was evident in his rugged good looks, his deep tan, the
not unattractive creases at the corners of his eyes that came from squinting
against the sunlight.
filled the rocker, made it seem insubstantial for a man of his height and
build. His gaze slid past her as he focused on the ocean once again, staring
out to sea with such longing that she had a feeling it was the way he’d look at
a woman he hungered for.
contented herself with studying the breadth of his shoulders, the way his polo
shirt clung to his well-defined upper arms like a second skin.
Jake had told her to get out and meet someone interesting.
Ty Chandlerwas that, but he was exactly the kind of guy she wasn’t looking for. Justin
Parker had been handsome, too. Way too handsome. Her former fiancé was the kind
of guy women openly admired.
wasn’t going down that road again.
injured hand began to ache. She lightly rubbed the bandage, working her wrist
back and forth. Chandler suddenly stopped rocking, walked over, and leaned
against the low porch wall.
he noticed the brass wind chimes lying on the railing, he picked them up and
they clattered against one another. It only took him an instant to locate the
empty hook in the ceiling above his head.
me to hang this for you?”
don’t!” Kat realized she had overreacted and softened her tone. "No, thanks.
They were driving me crazy so I took them down.”
set the wind chimes on the rail, went back to the rocker, and sat down. Leaning
forward, he planted his elbows on his knees again and threaded his fingers
together and stared into her eyes.
do you think you can help me?”
"You’re not looking for one of
those little dimpled cherubs on a Pampers commercial, you know. You’re going to
end up with a nineteen-year-old, somebody with baggage—and from what you’ve
told me about the mother, probably plenty of it.
"Mom was on drugs and alcohol.
The kid could have severe physical and/or learning disabilities. Maybe even
followed in her mom’s footsteps.” She tapped her bare foot, speculating. "You
don’t even know if your old girlfriend kept the kid or not. Maybe she gave the
baby up for adoption. Maybe even made a little drug money that way.”
She saw him blanch. "I’m sorry
for having to be so blunt, but you need to know you might be opening a real can
"I’ve thought of that,” he
"All of it?”
He nodded, even more solemn.
"I know it’ll be an adjustment.”
"To say the least.”
"Hey, I’ve been fortunate in
my life. I hate to think there is a child of mine out in the world somewhere
who needs me or what I can give him... or her. I just hope
it’s not too late.”
Their eyes met and Kat found
herself having to look away from the raw emotion on his face.
She doubted a man like Ty
Chandler had been living like a monk since his breakup with a high school
sweetheart. "How does your wife feel about all of this? What about your kids?”
He stopped rocking. "I was
married for a while after moving to Alaska, but it only lasted five years.
Victoria got sick of Alaska and of me devoting so much time to the business. I
wanted to build a life, start a family. She wanted to move home to the East
Coast and go back to college.”
He leaned on the arm of the
chair and continued. "The Chandlers have a long history here in Twilight. We go
back generations. I’m the last of the line. I want to find my child, whatever
that might mean, and share our history.”
"I’ve seen these things go
bad,” she warned, compelled to be totally honest. "Reunions like this aren’t
the same as the ones shown on Oprah or Montel. Not everyone ends
up happily reunited.” She had seen searches like this end in heartache. She
hated getting caught up in anything that had to do with kids.
guardianship and custody battles—those were the cases she’d handed over to Jake
when they’d been working together in Long Beach. She made it her policy to stay
away from anything to do with children because she didn’t have the heart for
Give her a cheating husband to
track down and she was happy, but long-lost kids? She didn’t need to witness
that kind of heartache. It hit too close to home.
will you help me?”
no and send him on his way.
she realized he was getting to her, Kat reminded herself that he didn’t
specifically need her. There were countless P.I.s out there who would be
happy to take his money. He could probably even find his child himself if he
had the patience and knew where to look.
can do this yourself,” she suggested. "You can hook up with a service on the
Internet, run a search, and eventually track down Amy Simmons, if not her
child, maybe in a matter of hours.”
shook his head. "I bought a book on how to find anyone anyplace, and it’s not
as easy as it sounds. I have Amy’s parents’ last known address, but that was a
dead end. I can’t devote round-the-clock time to this because the new owner of
Kamp Kodiak has asked me to stay on until the end of the year and help make the
transition as smooth as possible. I built up a lot of repeat visitors and he
doesn’t want to lose them.”
where do you live now?”
moved back here for good. I’m hoping that Amy’s child... that
our child... is somewhere in California. I run the Kamp
Kodiak website and guest registration from here, but I’ve already had to make
three trips back to Alaska in the past couple of months. So,”—he shrugged—"I’m
anxious as hell, but the search has been slow going. It’s definitely not as
simple as it looks in the book.”
that’s why I make the big bucks.”
she laughed, he realized she was joking and finally smiled again. It was such a
slow, steady smile that it warmed her in places she hadn’t been warm in a long,
Chandler spelled trouble. She felt it in her bones. More specifically, she
felt it in her heart—a heart that, despite her best efforts not to notice, was
letting her know that it hadn’t turned to stone after all.
it was her imagination, but whenever Ty Chandler looked at her, she thought he
might be a little more than interested in something other than her
have to be blind not to be aware of his good lucks, but it was his story and
his desire to find his child that moved her most—but the worst thing she could
do was take his case based on an emotional reaction to his story.
rubbed the bandage on her hand, reminded of what happened the night she let
herself feel sorry for Sandi Kline.
held up her injured hand, waved it back and forth in front of him.
have to use the Internet, and I can’t type right now.”
smile intensified into the eye-crinkling, heart-stirring kind of smile that
made a few lucky actors major box office material.
problem. I took first place in the Twilight High typing contest.”
it was the beautiful June day, or the fact that the sun was shining and the
birds were singing. Maybe her brain wasn’t used to all this pure, smog-free
air. Maybe it was the thought of all the peace and quiet that really scared the
hell out of her. Or the echo of Jake’s words— "You need more in your life
than work, kung fu videos, and one-night stands.”
wished Ty Chandler’s eyes weren’t shining with as much unrelenting hope as
they were warmth.
not lying about the typing, are you?”
shook his head. "Nope. Besides, if I’m part of the search, I won’t have to keep
bugging you about how it’s going.”
absolutely sure you want to do this?” She might very well be asking
herself the same thing about having to work with him.
never been more sure of anything in my whole life.”
wished she could say the same.
when do we get started?” He was up and out of the chair and raring to go.
I say I was taking the case?”
haven’t said you wouldn’t.”
couldn’t help but laugh. "I just got up. I need a shower and a cup of coffee in
the worst way.”
you will take the case?”
my better judgment.”
doubt women weren’t in the habit of turning him down.
looked at her left hand again, a painful reminder of the last time she let her
emotions get wrapped up with a client’s needs and wants. But she was a big
girl, and when it came to protecting her heart, she could be tough as nails if
she had to.
call all the shots,” she warned.
You’re the boss.”
we do anything, I’ll go over my retainer fee.”
He actually looked thrilled to be spending his money.
was going to throw a fit when he found out she’d taken on a client.
about I go get some coffee started?” Ty suggested. "How do you like it?”
and hot.” She didn’t realize how that must have sounded to him until she looked
up and caught him smiling.
think I can handle that.” He stepped aside to let her pass.
just what I’m afraid of.
she walked into the house, she hoped he hadn’t noticed her blush.