Echoes by Laura K. Curtis is the first romantic suspense in the Harp Security series, in which a travel writer's Caribbean trip to investigate her past collides with the disappearance of a resort owner who looks enough like her to be a sister (available March 17, 2015).
A single photo of herself as an infant on a beach, taken before the date on her birth certificate, throws everything Calliope Pearson knows about herself into question. Hoping to find answers, she takes advantage of her job as a travel writer to make a reservation at the Caribbean island resort in the picture.
Resort security chief Mac Brody distrusts Callie on sight. After all, she looks exactly like his deceitful missing wife, Nikki, who owns half the resort. But when Nikki’s found dead, Mac's facing murder charges, and he’s sure that Callie must hold the key to proving his innocence.
The deeper Callie and Mac dive into the mystery of her past, the more bodies surface. And they’ll have to learn to trust each other, or become victims of a dark danger neither could've imagined….
St. Martin, French West Indies
Nicole Lewis Brody made a beautiful corpse. But then, being long on looks and short on life came with her genes. Her killer chuckled at his own wit even as he forced down the faint acid flavor of panic rising to the back of his throat. He hadn’t planned to kill her just yet. The minute she’d started making noises about trying to find her biological father the end had been inevitable, but he’d hoped to be able to finish her off in a manner that would keep the police out of it, as he had with her mother.
Nikki liked drugs and parties, and he didn’t want to pollute her system more than she’d managed on her own, so an overdose was out of the question. He’d made mistakes early on, corrupted the bodies of his first attempts, and lost any chance of benefit. And he couldn’t kill her from a distance; he’d learned that from earlier attempts as well. He’d had a few ideas about how to proceed, so he’d laid a solid foundation, thank Father in heaven, but he hadn’t settled on a perfect method yet.
And then she’d found a picture of that damned writer, Calliope Pearson, and the situation had become urgent. Panic threatened once more, and he pushed it away. Once complete, he’d never again have to endure that horrible pressure, as if some alien being were eating through his chest while compressing his head. His doctor could stop warning him about acid reflux, too, because he’d be too strong to worry. Even now, in his imperfect state and under threat of discovery, he had come up with a new plan. He could keep this one on ice until he could take what he needed. He’d been in her basement plenty of times, and admired her chest freezer, but he couldn’t very well leave her in her own home. Too many variables, too much potential for disaster. Plus, tonight he was free to move her, and that might not be the case again for some time.
He duct-taped her ankles together and wrapped them in a cashmere stole from her closet. He was going to have to drag her down the hall, and he didn’t want to leave scuff marks on the polished wooden floors. There could be no signs of struggle should the gendarmes choose to visit.
He hefted her, feeling the strain in his back, his arms. Damn. He couldn’t afford to cripple himself here. The bitch was heavy for being so skinny. He hadn’t had to move any of the others, and the logistics of the situation gave him pause. He dropped her to the floor, her head landing on the woven cotton area rug with a dull thud, and reconsidered his plan. Maybe he should return her clothes to their drawers, her suitcases to the closet, and leave her for her husband to find, as had been his original design.
After all, there were still a few others out there who could help him, though he’d thinned the herd by more than half.
The idea of watching the ants scuttle around after finding this one’s dead body brought a thin smile to his lips, as it had the moment he’d conceived it. Hell, Nikki Lewis owned half the hotel where Calliope Pearson was planning to stay; maybe management would shut the place down for a couple of weeks for a proper mourning period. Talk about two birds with one stone. Even if the resort stayed open, he had an associate who could probably get rid of Pearson before she ever set foot on the island. He’d call the man in the morning and put him to work.
But the timing concerned him. If he could rely on his connection to rid him of the final difficult woman in his life, he could leave this one to rot where she lay. But what if the man failed? They had only a week, so he had to plan for all contingencies, and if Pearson did make it to St. Martin, her appearance would raise questions he’d prefer Nicole’s corpse not be available to answer.
And then, he was almost sure Nikki had what he needed. He’d caught her breath, her soul, when he’d strangled her, but he hadn’t finished with her body. He had neither the time nor the instruments to complete the process, and he couldn’t just leave his future lying in a heap on her own living room floor.
Without a body, and with her toiletries and jewelry missing, people would likely believe Nicole had simply taken a long vacation, postponing— if not entirely eliminating— any investigation, which would make his life easier.
Unfortunately, her husband was unlikely to let such an explanation stand for long. Aidan Macmillan Brody was another little complication, another rock Nicole had tossed into the smooth waters of his life. If she’d chosen anyone but an ex- cop to marry, he could have framed her husband and been done with it. But pointing a finger at a cop, even an American cop, even a former American cop, was a risky proposition. No, as much of a pain in the ass as removing her corpse might be, having Nicole disappear was safer and smarter.
Once again, he lifted the bitch’s upper body and began dragging her toward the kitchen.
Heat and humidity knocked Callie Pearson back a step as she ventured out of the modern, well- cooled terminal building at Princess Juliana airport on the Dutch side of the island of Sint Maarten. She’d spent the previous week at a hiking resort in Scotland, and even after two days at home in New York, the island’s late- afternoon temperature came as a shock. August was hardly the ideal time to visit the Caribbean, being brutally hot as well as smack in the middle of hurricane season, but it was the only time she could get a reservation at Paradis de la Mer, the exclusive, five-star resort she hoped held answers to her own past.
A rickety van doing double duty as a Heineken delivery truck took her to the rental-car lot, where she got her first taste of “island time.” Although only one man preceded her in line, it was a full half hour before she was under way, her little Toyota plugging valiantly along despite an engine obviously overtaxed by the air-conditioning system. After a few minutes, she cranked open the driver’s side window, letting in the scent of the island. With the vents off, the car picked up speed.
Her route wound through the Dutch side of the island, down a rutted, potholed road bisecting the desolate ghost town of a once- elegant property. In her research, she’d found pictures of the place before Hurricane Luis in 1995, when it had been the largest of Sint Maarten’s many resorts, but the damage had been extreme and the owners had absconded with the insurance money, leaving a blighted and rotting landscape.
Past the permanently open gate marking the property’s exit, however, the island’s lush beauty reasserted itself, and she was so fascinated by the view that—even having studied every map she could find—Callie missed the Paradis’s entrance at first. The e-mail confirmation she’d received had instructed her to begin looking for it on the left soon after she passed from the Dutch to the French side of the island, but it hadn’t mentioned the lack of demarcation between the two.
A small stone marker at the foot of what appeared to be a private road said merely “Paradis,” startling a small laugh out of her. Clearly the hotel’s owners didn’t lack for arrogance. She turned carefully up the narrow lane, hugging the edge as it wound toward the sea in a series of blind S- curves. A couple hundred feet up the drive, just before a turnoff to the right that seemed to lead to an even narrower road, a guard stepped out of a tree- shaded gatehouse and waved her down. He gave her a decidedly peculiar look, examined her ID, then stepped back inside and reached for the phone. The call lasted less than a minute, but his frown deepened and he shook his head before he raised the heavy metal pole serving as a barrier and pointed straight ahead.
Callie drove through slowly, flicking glances backward at the guard as she did. He had checked her driver’s license against a clipboard, leading her to assume he had a list of guests and approved visitors, but if she hadn’t been on it, he hadn’t said so. Could he tell, just by looking, that she was more than a simple travel writer looking for a story? A little shiver ran up her spine as she realized he hadn’t closed the gate. Instead, he stood in the center of the road, speaking into a walkie- talkie she hadn’t noticed when she drove up and watching her as she parked and approached the sprawling mansion of a hotel.
A plump woman standing behind a mahogany desk just inside the entrance greeted Callie with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. And those eyes didn’t blink. She never even looked down at the reservation book open on the desk. Callie resisted the urge to look down and see whether she’d spilled something on her clothes.
“Madame Pearson. Welcome to Paradis de la Mer.”
“Thank you. And please, call me Callie.”
“I am Claudine.” The woman paused as if debating what to say next. “I see you have suitcases. Let me call Ben to take them upstairs for you.”
“That would be great.”
But the woman didn’t pick up the phone on her desk. Instead, her gaze shifted over Callie’s shoulder.
“Christ,” said a deep voice to her left, tinged with accusation beneath the distinctive thickness of the American southeast, “where did Nikki find you?”
“Excuse me?” Callie turned to give the stranger a piece of her mind but momentarily lost her train of thought. The man was too close, too big. He stood with his back to the door, so that her first impression was of an impenetrable void rimmed in bright light. Closer examination proved no more comforting.
A gun rode in a holster threaded onto his belt, a silent, matte black threat. In a separate holster, the man wore a walkie-talkie, which probably meant the gate guard had called him. But why? What threat could she possibly pose? Ragged ebony hair and stubble the same color contrasted with an almost military posture, and a vicious, ropy scar running from just above one cold, green eye down his cheek and angling toward the corner of his mouth gave the harsh planes of his face a dangerous cast. But the worn jeans covering his slim hips and molded to his muscular thighs were presentable, and the charcoal gray T- shirt stretched across his broad shoulders sported a Paradis de la Mer logo embroidered in red and gold over his heart. He belonged. Still, Callie took an involuntary step back, which brought her up against the desk without placing nearly enough space between the newcomer and herself.
“Maybe it’s a coincidence,” said Claudine in French.
“Not on your life,” said the stranger. “This is one of Nikki’s games. She found a fatter, plainer version of herself and brought her to stay here while we were all worried sick.”
Callie balled her hands into fists at her sides and gritted her teeth against the words of outrage threatening to pour forth. She’d decided long before her arrival her purposes would be better served by pretending to speak only English. Sure, she could stand to lose five or ten pounds, but she wasn’t fat. And she’d never cultivated a dramatic appearance because it didn’t fit her lifestyle. Middle of the road, that was her: average height; average weight for her height; medium length, medium brown hair; and perfectly happy with her position smack in the center of the bell curve, thank you very much.
Breathing in for four beats and out for eight, she achieved a modicum of control. The byplay had been quick, so much so it wouldn’t have been offensive to someone who didn’t understand the content. Whatever was going on, it couldn’t be related to a riddle almost three decades old, so her best bet was to continue on as planned.
“Is this how you welcome all your guests? Speaking to one another instead of to them? It’s a wonder St. Martin dares call itself ‘the friendly island.’”
The man ignored the touch of sarcasm she’d allowed to creep into her words. Instead of taking the easy out and backing off, pretending the exchange was meaningless, he moved even closer. “Do you have a sister, Miss Pearson?”
Never let them see you sweat. It was the defining rule by which her father taught her to live. She drew herself up and gave him her best superior glare. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no. Maybe I just have one of those faces. People often think they know me.”
“Not likely. You have fairly distinctive features. And you share them with Nicole Lewis.” Those jade eyes, opaque, shadowed, and unreadable, pinned her like a specimen fastened to a display board. “Or, more accurately, Nicole Lewis Brody. My wife.”
Nicole Lewis, half owner of the Paradis? Nicole Lewis, his wife? Not some casual acquaintance with a vague resemblance, then. The slight sheen of sweat Callie had acquired on the drive from the airport cooled abruptly, leaving goose bumps in its wake. She’d come to St. Martin to solve a mystery, but she hadn’t anticipated being forced to dive into a second one.
“I don’t know what to say.”
The man snorted in disbelief.
“Mac.” The woman came out from behind the desk, shaking her head, then addressed Callie. “I am terribly sorry. Mac is our head of security. His wife, one of the resort’s owners, vanished nine days ago. We are all distressed by her disappearance.”
“Naturally,” Callie replied. “And if I could help you, I would. But I don’t know her. I recognize the name, of course, because when she and her brother inherited the Paradis, the trade papers had articles front to back. But I don’t think there were any pictures. I had no idea we looked alike. And I’ve been out of touch for the last week; I didn’t even realize she was missing.”
Copyright © 2015 Laura K. Curtis
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Laura K. Curtis lives in Westchester, NY, with her husband and two madcap Irish Terriers who’ve taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill. She can also be found at Women of Mystery and on Twitter.