Grace pulled the dozen balloons from the backseat and tied them around
her wrist. Though the wind was nil today, too many childhood memories of watching her birthday balloon twirl off to sea after
an unexpected breeze ripped it out of her hand still haunted her. Back then,
her father would stop her tears by buying her a replacement balloon, but today the balloons were for him--a surprise on his 60th birthday. As was she. Grace had spent the last eight months on an archeological dig in western Belize. Her parents were going to burst with joy when they discovered she’d come home for two weeks.
She stepped out of the car and took a giant whiff of the salt air. Even with her dark sunglasses,
the intensity of the Florida sun made her squint. Not a surprise since most of
her excavation work took place in a cave. She’d have to remember to apply generous amounts of sunscreen while here. Her skin was no longer acclimated to the bright rays of Fort Myers Beach, and she
planned to bask on its sands nonetheless. Ah, the smell of tanning oils, the
cry of the gulls, the fluffy feel of her old feather-top bed, and the sweet flavor of her mother’s rice crispy treats
rolling across her tongue—she was going to sleep like the dead.
She raced up the police station steps. Dad would be rallying the troops into his office about now,
ready to give them his daily exit speech for which he was known and beloved. She
entered his office with her face hidden behind the balloons.
“Grace, is that you?”
Familiar voice, but not Dad’s. Grace moved the colorful bundle and smiled at Charlie Obringer. “Hi.”
Charlie hopped to his feet. “As I live and breathe.”
He grasped her in a warm hug. “You made a wrong turn on the way to your
Grace smiled. “Hut? Our camp’s a little more twenty-first century than that.”
Though not much. She’d known the chief deputy since she was a little girl
and returned his welcoming squeeze.
“Ah, Gracie,” he said. “We don’t see you near enough.”
“Shhh. I want to surprise my dad.”
“Uh oh,” Charlie said, his frown creasing deep lines into his withered cheeks. “I
think the surprise is on you. Your mom’s birthday gift for your dad was a Caribbean cruise.”
“Oh, no!” Grace said. “You’re kidding?”
Charlie shook his head. “They left yesterday.”
Oh my God. “But, they never go anywhere.”
He nodded. “That’s why it was such a surprise.”
Grace squeezed the bridge of her nose. Shit. She never
expected this. “How long’s the cruise?”
“Eight days. How long were you planning to stay?”
“Do you still have your old house key?”
“Yeah, I do.” She pouted. She’d still
get to sleep in her fluffy bed, but there would be no rice crispy treats tonight. Unless she made them herself. She shuddered at the mental image of herself bent over the pan. She had no qualms about spending hours
carefully trickling water over mud-covered artifacts, but thoughts of melting marshmallow into snap, crackle and pop defeated
her. “Guess I’ll be basking in the sun alone until they get
back.” Of course, even the basking would have to wait until tomorrow with the sun setting soon.
Charlie eyed her. “You sure could use some. No offense.”
“None taken,” Grace said, but now aware of her appearance she pushed at the small
pieces of hair that escaped from her braid. She’d never been much of a
girly girl as it was, and her work had removed her further from the beach goddess look folks were accustomed to around here.
With the hard physical work she did, the long legs and ample-enough breasts, she could still rock a bikini well enough. If
you got past the knee scrapes and black and blues. Maybe she’d better spruce up a bit before she sought Brian out as
she planned. Or maybe not. He was her old high school boyfriend, and she hoped
to entice him into embarking in pleasures of the flesh as they had in previous years when she visited. The no-strings-attached rendezvous did her a world of good and she needed her lengthy dry spell to end. Grace adored her male colleagues, but six years and a three excavation sites later,
she’d yet to find an archeologist who was less Fred Flintstone and more Indiana Jones. “Does
Brian Jeffries still work down at the yacht club?” If she couldn’t gratify her sweet tooth, she could gratify
“Far as I know,” he said as he gestured to someone out in the squad room.
Grace didn’t know either of the policemen who came in. The taller of the two had a tattoo snaked around his wrist and the other sported dark hair and a bleached goatee.
Charlie said, “This is Chief Reynolds’ daughter, Grace. Spread the word she’ll be staying at the chief’s house while he’s away. Don’t want her to be mistaken
for a burglar by patrol.”
“Will do,“ the taller one said and turned to Grace. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m
The other one offered his hand. “Ramon. Why the balloons?”
Grace gave them a bob. “They were for my
dad. I didn’t realize my parents had gone away.”
Sully nodded. “We threw a little bon voyage
party for him yesterday. There might be some cake left. Want a piece?”
Grace brightened. “No, but if there’s
rice crispy treats, I’ll have one of those.”
He shook his head. “No, sorry, just regular cake.”
Back to thoughts of Brian. “Well, I’ve taken enough of your time,” she said.
Charlie walked her to the door. “You’re welcome to join Millie and me for dinner.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll just go home and unpack.” In other
words, go engage in pleasures of the flesh. “Maybe another night this week.”
“You name the day. Millie would love to see you.”
Grace got back into her rental and drove to the docks. And, well, well,
well, things were looking up. There was Brian—first person she saw—getting into his jeep.
“Brian!” She waved out the window.
He turned, squinted in her direction.
“It’s me. Grace.”
“Oh, hey,” he said and walked to her car. He looked nice with his hair cut short, and he’d finally
shaved that fuzz he tried to pass off as mustache for so many years. “Didn’t hear you were coming to town.”
“Nobody knew,” she said. “I meant to surprise my dad for his birthday.”
“I think I heard he went on a cruise.”
“Yeah, I know that now.” She smiled and got out of the car. So what that events she planned were out of
sequence. She’d been thinking snack, sleep, sun, sex, but she could rearrange.
“Thought maybe you’d want to catch a bite with me.” She winked. “Or maybe nibble on me.”
He cleared his throat, fidgeted. “Well, I…no, I can’t.”
“You have plans.” She nodded. “I understand.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“That’s okay. I just thought I’d take a shot. Presumptuous of me, I know,” she said. “Maybe
He sucked air through his teeth. “See, the thing is tonight’s my rehearsal.”
“Rehearsal? Rehearsal for what?”
“Oh my God. You’re getting married?” The cosmos had to be playing practical jokes on her.
“Yes, guess you haven’t heard.”
“No. That’s what happens when you live under a rock.” Literally. She managed a laugh. “Well, congratulations,” she said. “Anyone
“Thank you and, no, you wouldn’t know her. She’s a nurse. Works at that clinic they opened in the
old Days Inn.”
“Does she make you happy?” She looked into his eyes for evidence. His eyes didn’t shine with happiness
as much as they shifted in discomfort. Her quick come-on had embarrassed him.
Too much time studying ancient civilizations had affected her modern-day etiquette. “Guess our nibbling days are over,
A blush lit his cheeks. “Yeah.”
She opened her car door, stuffed herself and the balloons still tied to her wrist inside. “They were fun while
He grinned then. “That they were.”
She made her way to her parents’ house and seeing her mother’s collection of garden gnomes lifted her spirits.
Fluffy bed, here I come. She walked
up the cobble stone path to the door. She’d worry about getting her luggage out of the car in the morning. She put the
key in the lock, and the roar of a loud car engine on what had always been such a quiet, residential street startled her. Tires squealed and the crack of a gunfire erupted. A bullet shattered one of the gnomes
and another zinged past her head. Oh, come on! Now she was being shot at too.
She hit the ground and crab-crawled to the back of the house. Once near the pool, she got to her feet and sprinted through
the yards she’d used as a short cut when she was young. She made her way to the beach town’s popular Times Square,
racing through the crowd of tourists, zigzagging around them as best she could.
“Hey!” someone shouted.
Was it someone she’d bumped into shouting in protest or was she being chased?
She ducked into a restaurant and darted to the ladies’ room. A line. There was a freaking line. She leaned against
the wall and tried to catch her breath. Think, Grace, think. What was going on?
Were her parents in danger? Was that why they’d left town? Calling police didn’t seem wise. Not when a bunch of cops were the ones who knew she’d arrived.
She needed to find a safe place to stay until her parents returned. But, even
the seediest of motels flashed the “no vacancy” sign during spring break. What was is it Brian had said about
a new clinic in town? It wouldn’t be that far up Estero Boulevard that
she couldn’t get there by foot. She could fake an illness, seek shelter there for the night.
She made her way to the building at a frantic pace. She hurried inside to the desk.
“Hello, I’m Kelly,” a middle aged nurse welcomed her. “You must be Erica. You’re the
last to arrive.”
Grace wiped sweat off her brow. Her ears buzzed from such silence after the gunfire blasts. Her heart pounded with
“You made it just in time,” the nurse said. “I’m just about to lock the door.”
“Yes, yes,” Grace said. “Please, yes, lock the doors!”
“Relax,” Kelly said. “We don’t bite. We just want you to get a good night’s sleep.”
Grace shook her head. What? What is this place? She looked around the corridor
while the nurse tended to the lock. Finally, her gaze landed on a sign: Sandman’s Sleep Clinic. Sleep clinic. That meant fluffy beds.
“Come on into the lounge,” Kelly said. “Meet your fellow insomniacs.”
Insomniacs? No, no, Grace wanted
to sleep like the dead. But, then again, she didn’t want to be dead.
She walked into the lounge and five sets of wide eyes ogled her.
“This is Erica everyone,” Kelly said and then pointed to each. “Martha, Sonia, Dave, Chester and
“Hi, everyone.” Grace gave them a group wave. Her gaze drifted
to the coffee table and to its tray of snacks. Scones, cookies, and---had she been shot dead and sent to heaven?—a rice
“And,” Kelly continued. “The handsome men in scrubs,
of course, are our sleep scientists. Alexander and Carter.”
Yes, they both had the geeky scientist look Grace knew too well, although the tall one with the tortoise shell eyeglasses
did have a sexy Clark Kent vibe going on.
He neared the coffee table and his hand reached for the tray.
Grace hurdled Kelly’s feet and grabbed his fingers hard. “Take that last rice crispy treat, Clark, and
I swear I’ll break your freaking hand.”
Carter’s lips twitched with amusement. Damn, she was hot. She looked crazy as hell with her big blue eyes wide
with emotion, red cheeks flaring against skin paler than the moon, hair slipping out of a dark brown braid into a tangled
mess, and a dozen balloons strapped around her wrist, but all the insomniacs wore a similar look. Difference was she had a way better rack.
“It’s not Clark,” he said and grabbed the scone he’d
been aiming for with his left hand. She dropped the death grip from the fingers on his right. “It’s Carter. Carter
George.” Normally, he’d offer his hand in greeting, but he wouldn’t want to be redundant He flexed his fingers to get the blood circulating.
“Sorry,” she said. “But, it’s been a bad day.”
She bit off the edge of the rice crispy treat and closed her eyes.
The expression of ecstasy on her face as she savored the treat piqued Carter’s interest. “What’s with the balloons?” he asked. “Do you use them as a focal point to try to
get to sleep?”
“Balloons?” she asked and opened her eyes. She looked startled to see them bopping up and down. “Jesus,
I’m still carrying the balloons.” She untied the string and watched the balloons drift to the ceiling.
Now she looked like she was going to cry. It wouldn’t be unusual
for the sleep deprived. One thing Carter had learned after three weeks at the clinic was how fortunate he was to get a good
Kelly must have noticed her distress too. “Erica,” she said. “How about if I show you to your room?”
She licked the last remnants of the rice crispy treat off her fingers. “Does it have a fluffy bed?”
Kelly was the motherly type and she used a soothing tone. “It’ll be like laying on a marshmallow, sweetie.”
She slipped her hand around Erica’s elbow. “Maybe Carter can come too, so he can get your equipment set up.”
The three of them walked down the hall and into the room.
“Oh!” Erica cried, rushed to the bed and brushed a hand over the cotton sheets.
“Did you bring pajamas?” Kelly asked. “Or anything at
all, for that matter?”
Her chin trembled. “I left my luggage in the car.”
“Ah, well.” Kelly opened the closet door. “We have something right here for you to wear.” She handed her the flimsy hospital gown.
“Thank you,” Erica said and stripped off her clothes.
Whoa. Should Carter turn around?
He didn’t. If he was to pass himself off as a trained medical expert, he needed to fake it was no big deal. But,
that didn’t mean he couldn’t admire the well-toned midriff and the sway of her breasts as she pulled the gown
on over her head. He did turn away to smile. His undercover assignment just got a whole lot more entertaining.
She collapsed onto the bed with a contented sigh.
For three weeks, Carter had been trying to get a lead on who was manufacturing potent synthetic drugs that
had been linked to the clinic and, so far, he hadn’t come up with clue one. As many times as he’d insisted to
the Tampa police chief it was because he was homicide not vice, Commander Lawrence insisted he stay on the case. It was undercover
Carter pulled the equipment over to the bed. “Have you ever had a sleep test done before, Erica?”
“No.” She yawned. “And you can call me by my middle name, Grace. Everybody does.”
“Okay,” he said. “All I’m going to do is put one electrode here.” He put the first on
her forehead. “And, another—“ He stopped. “Grace?”
She was sound asleep.
He pushed her hair off her forehead and put the other electrode on her temple. He said into her ear, “Goodnight,
Gracie.” She didn’t budge.
Insomniac, my ass.
Which meant...dammit...the hottest
woman he’d laid eyes on since his transfer from Philadelphia four months ago was, at the least, a liar, and likely his
first clue. He let out an aggrieved sigh. He was in undercover hell.