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Mai Tais and Mayhem by M.S. Spencer

Mai Tais and Mayhem

by M.S. Spencer

Secret Cravings Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61885-506-0

When Tessa Diamond rescued a baby pufferfish from a hungry gull, her good deed led her into a shady world of smuggling, Russian gangsters, and coded messages, confronting murder, attempted ravishment, parrots, sea turtles and big fish, only to encounter blossoming romances at every turn, including one of her own.

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Chapter One

She watched the old couple head toward the water. The woman, clad in an unbecoming ruffled bathing suit that revealed more than it should of her generous stomach, gestured to the man. “Come” sounded imperiously from the distance. The man, gray-haired but fit, walked hesitatingly toward his wife.
Tessa sniffed. Typical mates of many years—she’s in charge and he acts like a muzzled puppy. Suddenly the man skipped ahead, turned and held his hand out. The woman took it with a dazzling smile, and together they stepped into the water, gazing at each other adoringly.
Shit. True love rears its ugly head. She’d have to start hitting Siesta Key again—at least there the relationships were fleeting and physically based. Screw this eternal love crap.
Our heroine—for that’s who she is, of course—settled into her car and revved the engine. She loved the rumble of a Porsche in top condition—like a thoroughbred stallion snorting and pawing in the starting gate. The euphoria only lasted a minute, dissipating when another couple walked by, whispering, arms entwined, lips nearly touching. Shit.
These last eight months had proved a painful revelation to Tessa. She’d assumed when she decided to move permanently to the Senior Republic of Florida that, due to the preponderance of, shall we say, mature citizens, she wouldn’t be confronted with love, much less romance, on every beachfront. It wasn’t fair. No, not at all. She didn’t need to be reminded of what she lost when George died in the accident. It made no difference that she’d never considered George any more than a friend with benefits. That is, until he died. The acreage he owned in her heart turned out to be much larger than she ever suspected. She missed him every day—missed his chuckle, his scratchy beard, his shock of white hair. She missed his boundless energy, his willingness to try anything. Him and his stupid parasailing. Why couldn’t he just play mahjong like the rest of the old farts his age?
She pulled out of the South Lido County Park and headed toward St. Armand’s Circle. Like that couple at the beach. Ancient fritters for God’s sake—how dare they smooch in public? There’d been less intimacy in that orgy she’d had with the car salesman in Las Vegas. She sped up to beat out a Buick and the tires squealed as she veered onto the Boulevard of the Presidents. “I hate these oldsters,” she said through gritted teeth. “How do they get away with this PDA? Should be an ordinance. Yeah.” Maybe she’d talk to Bertie. The Sarasota police chief should be able to do something. Wasn’t that his job? To keep the peace? She passed the bridal shop on St. Armand’s Circle in front of which a large group milled. Oh. My. God. There’s another gaggle of ‘em. Must be eighty years old if they’re not ninety. She shielded her eyes and almost hit a group of tourists in the crosswalk.
A familiar athletic figure sailed into view and pretended to jump out of her path. “What ho there, young lady. This is supposed to be a pedestrian-friendly circle. Mind telling me where you’re going in such a hurry?”
Thank God it’s not Bertie this time. One more point on my license…Tessa slowed and pulled into an empty space on Fillmore Drive. She rolled the passenger side window down and a gorgeous head of chestnut-colored hair popped through, followed by a grin that couldn’t hide the handsome face of Tessa’s current swain, Dugan Trevally. His rolling BBC vowels tripped elegantly off his tongue. “Perhaps the more pertinent question is, from whence are you speeding, dear girl?”
“Lido Key. Grand opening of the new latrines in Ted Sperling Park.”
Dugan guffawed. “Don’t tell me they made you Grand Marshal?”
Tessa let the jab pass. She was slowly getting used to having enough money to entice non-profits and money-hungry politicians. “Maybe next year. Did you know that John Ringling built Lido Key out of several smaller islands and millions of tons of fill?”
“Of course I do. I make it a point to read historical markers. Best way to acquaint myself with the civilization of my adopted country.”
She snorted. “Right. Anyway, it being an election year, all the city fathers turned up wanting to say a few words and the ceremony lasted two hours. Now I only have fifteen minutes to get up to Anna Maria by five.”
“Lemme guess. Turtle nesters?”
Tessa nodded. “Another meeting. Josiah is becoming a real martinet about this stuff. I fear mutiny is afoot among us galley slaves.”
Dugan laughed. “That’s what you get when you hang out with environmental wackos.”
Tessa kept her agreement to herself. It wouldn’t do to encourage Dugan. He already leaned too far to the politically incorrect. “It’s a good cause, Dugan. We protect dozens of turtle nests every year.”
“Yeah, and pretty soon you’re going to start picking their mates for them.”
She put the car in drive. “Gotta go.”
Dugan made a pouty face. “Come down to F. Scott’s after the meeting. Drinks are on me.”
Tessa laughed. “They’re always on you, sweetie. You own the place!”
She pulled out into the circle as he waved her off and took John Ringling Boulevard toward Longboat Key. Forty minutes later she found a parking space in a strip mall off Marina Drive, cursing the ancient drivers. “Especially that moron who lost her nerve and stopped in the middle of Longboat Pass Bridge.”
She walked into the tiny storefront that served as the headquarters of the Anna Maria Turtle Protection League. A man in the rear pushed back his chair and stood, holding his belly up with one hand and his trousers with the other. He had a sharp pointed nose and faded blue eyes. His rosy face hinted at a lifetime of fast food and beer. His expression hinted at megalomania. “There you are, Tessa. Really, you’re an hour late. You’ve missed the whole meeting.”
Tessa didn’t bother to correct him. Arguing over time would only inflame her already overheated mood.
The other two occupants turned in their chairs. “We were just wrapping up. Where have you been?” The speaker, a mousy little female of about twenty, kept her phone attached to her ear while she experimented with a disapproving frown.
The third person grinned at her and gave a thumbs up. “Congrats, Tessa—you managed to dodge another scintillating lecture by our dear leader. Let me recap for you. Josiah says we’re not getting out early enough, that he’s sure there are hundreds more nests out there we haven’t identified, and that unless we act quickly and decisively, they will soon be trampled by callous human leviathans.”
“I beg your pardon, Angus. I said maybe ten. I found three more false crawls just this morning. Why…”
Tessa left Josiah to bluster and drew her ally aside. “Angus, I am not spending another night on the beach. I need a good eight hours’ sleep for once. It’s been weeks.”
Her companion nodded, his bald head shiny under the dim fluorescent light. “Tell it to the Master, Grasshopper.” He pulled his cardigan closer around his narrow torso. A pair of binoculars dangled around his neck as usual—Tessa often wondered if he slept with them. “I’ll back you up.”
Their tormentor had not yet subsided and, after waiting a judicious length of time, Tessa interrupted the flow with a high-pitched “Josiah!” All eyes turned to her, although Molly still whispered into her phone. Tessa girded her loins. “I…uh…can’t make it tonight.”
She looked to Angus for support. He stretched out his long, thin legs, the knees sticking up like tennis balls under his faded jeans, and crossed his arms over the binoculars. “Me neither, Josiah.”
“You, Pollock? What could you possibly have to do that’s more important than saving an entire species from extinction?”
“That’s just it, Josiah. The turtles that are nesting now are all loggerheads. We haven’t found a single leatherback, green, or Kemp’s ridley nest. Loggerheads aren’t in as much trouble as the other species. More to the point—” he soldiered on despite Josiah’s gasp of horror, “—my Audubon friends claim a red-necked phalarope has been hanging around up at Bean Point. It would be one for my life list.” Tessa reflected that beneath Angus’ benign exterior beat the heart of a lion.
Josiah huffed and blew out his cheeks, looking more than ever like a Frans Hals burgher. “You know as well as I do that even the loggerhead turtles will go the way of the Kemp’s ridleys unless we take a stand now. The other four species are all threatened. If it weren’t for us…” He left the dire consequences of such an event hanging as he usually did, allowing his listeners to indulge in as much guilt as they could muster.
Molly broke the uncomfortable silence. “I can’t come either, Josiah. I’ve got a date.”
Her announcement caught everyone by surprise. “A date? How? Er, I mean…er…” Tessa ground to a sheepish halt.
The girl turned crimson and actually put her phone down. “Hey, it’s not impossible. My sister Kate is setting me up with this guy who’s here for a couple of months. She says he’s very nice.”
“Oh, in that case…” The pause lengthened as everyone tried to think of something nice to say that didn’t cause emotional havoc in the wee thing’s breast.
Josiah searched the faces of his minions, recognized the inevitable, and opened his mouth to speak. “With all this jibber jabber I haven’t had the chance to tell you all that I have an important engagement tonight. I regret that we’ll be unable to perform our beach duties. I still expect to see you all five a.m. sharp on Saturday.” He made a show of gathering up nonexistent papers and stood.
Long experience with Josiah spurred everyone to leave as quickly as possible. Angus held the door for Tessa. “Well done,” he whispered. “So, what are you doing tonight instead of saving the planet?”
With a sinking heart Tessa remembered her promise to Dugan. The turtle nesting season had started more than four months ago and she could count the number of nights she’d had off on her fingers. Josiah goaded them into camping out the night before so they could start marking nests up and down the beaches of Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island before dawn. Rewarding work, but exhausting. Her bones ached. How she longed to hobble home and slip into something comfortable, like a hot bath. “Heading down to St. Armand’s for a drink. You?”
“Taking Mother out.” He grinned. “That sounds pretty strange, doesn’t it? But Mom’s a real pip. She’s got a regular poker group and she’s invited me to watch the big girls play Texas Hold’em.”
Tessa surveyed her friend. Intelligent gray eyes sparkled with humor. His lanky frame towered over her, wrinkled face contrasting with the smooth hairless dome of his head. He must be at least 65. “How old is Mrs. Pollock, Angus?”
“Ageless.” He patted Tessa’s arm. “If I told you you’d know how old I am and never flirt with me again.”
Josiah’s booming voice rose behind them. “I have to lock up, you know.”
“We’re on our way.” Angus nodded at Tessa. “See you tomorrow.”
“Don’t bet your shirt on it.”
He winked. “Not to worry. Mother’s group only plays with matches.”
A couple of hours later, Tessa swiveled on her bar stool to check out the crowd. F. Scott’s tended to attract a lot of families and older folks—not like Tommy Bahama—but it was comfortable, and Tessa couldn’t complain about the price, since Dugan took care of her drinks. She plucked the paper umbrella out of the Mai Tai and sipped.
“So, glad you came instead of vegging out?” Dugan leaned over the bar and gave her a wet, smacking kiss.
“I guess.”
He took a step back. “Whoa, are you breaking up with me?”
She knew he meant it as a joke. After all, no one would break up with the eminent Dugan Trevally. Tessa had to admit he was very good to her—took her sailing on his fifty-foot Pipedream sloop, serenaded her on her birthday, bought her expensive trinkets. The trinkets made little difference to her, since George had left her three million dollars to play with. George. She missed him. Sexy even at sixty, and a hunk. He never stopped moving, never stopped making deals, never took a breath until his last. On bad nights she could still see him plummet from the parasail cradle into the turquoise waters of the gulf. She still heard the ear-splitting smack on the surface as he landed with a belly flop that smashed every organ in his body. George. She didn’t know until after his death that he’d left his fortune to her, including the mansion on Longboat Key.
She accepted a second Mai Tai from Dugan. He watched her drink. “Have I told you you’re beautiful yet today?”
“Twice.” She batted her eyes at him. “You’re welcome to tell me again.”
“All right, but this time I’ll delineate. Let’s see—I love your raven tresses, especially when you put them up so I can kiss your long, elegant neck. I love your alabaster skin—is that from the French or the Scottish side? I love the way those black eyes shoot little silver flashes when you’re angry with me. I love your loooong legs and perfect breasts. But—” he glanced around and came back to whisper, “—most of all, I adore your pussy.”
“Dugan!”
He tossed a wicked grin over his shoulder as he went to help a customer. Tessa watched him walk away. He definitely looked as good going as coming. His wiry, muscular body moved with a panther’s grace, his russet hair curling just over the collar of his fitted Hawaiian shirt. She knew from experience what he could do with that body when he wanted to bring her to the peak of ecstasy. Yet she sensed something ruthless about him that both frightened and excited her. I don’t love him. I don’t even trust him. But he can bed me any time he likes.
She gave him a flirty wave and spun off her stool. Dugan whirled and loped back to her. “You leaving?”
“I’m tired, Dugan. I managed to wangle one night off from the turtle search and I want to spend it in the bath.”
Dugan checked his watch and gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’m obliged to stay till closing. You go get clean and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tessa thanked her stars he didn’t argue and made her way home.
* * * *
“Hey lady, do you know you’re red as a beet? How long have you been lying there?”
Tessa inched her hat up over one eye and stared straight into the belly of what’s called in the comics a hairless beach whale. Her eyes moved up to the chest and then to the face. As suspected, her critic, a recently landed snowbird, if skin the color of chalk were any indication, generously filled out the foreground. She guessed Wisconsin. “I beg your pardon?”
The man hitched up his snazzy board shorts, which Tessa bet had never connected with a surfboard, and gave her a smile as wide as the Platte River. “I said you’d better get some sunscreen on that tummy of yours.”
Tessa surveyed her front. Sure enough, her stomach exhibited signs of overenthusiastic solar rays. She pulled a towel over the offended area and sat up. “Thanks. I just bought my first bikini, and I have to play catch up.”
The man winked at her, almost as though he knew she was joking. He wiped the perspiration off his forehead with one beefy hand and stuck the other one out. “Name’s Phil. Phil Conger.” He gestured toward a group of equally hefty, equally blanched people. “We’re from Nebraska. Lincoln. You live here?”
“I do. Tessa Diamond. You’re down a bit early for the season, aren’t you?”
“Early autumn’s the only time we can get away from our florist shop. No holidays, see?” He chuckled ruefully. “Finally sold the farm, thinking we’d have plenty of time to travel, then Sue set her heart on buying my cousin’s flower business. At least now we can take our vacations at a nicer time of year.” He pointed behind her to a path through the sea oats to the right of her house. “We rented a place across the road. They called it a villa in the brochure.” He grunted. “Bungalow’s a better word. Or shanty.”
“Oh, you mean Pirate’s Landing. It’s a nice little community. You’ll enjoy yourselves. This is a quiet time of year.”
One of the larger women, resplendent in polka dots, shouted something at Phil. His already florid nose took on a scarlet hue. “Oops, best get back to the bride. She might not understand I’m just being friendly to the natives. Coming, Sue!” He leered in an unpracticed way and stomped back to his group.
Next year I’m going north for the winter. Tessa sat up and pulled on her cover-up, grabbed her hat and a plastic bag, and set off up the beach.
Even though she walked the same stretch of shoreline almost every day, it never failed to produce something new—a rare moon snail shell, a herd of brilliant white ibis, their curved orange bills probing for sweet sand crabs, or an osprey soaring overhead, its squeaks and chirps echoing in the Australian pines. Once she’d found a dead seahorse. She’d taken it home, but decided to leave it outside, hoping the breeze would blow the fishy aroma away. The next morning she’d found only a seahorse skeleton on her window sill—and a fat, happy egret standing in the yard.
As she neared the seawall that marked a mile from her house, she noticed a gull playing with something. She advanced toward the bird. He sidestepped her, the object still in his bill. It looked like a large spotted whiffle ball. If he tries to swallow that he’ll choke. She waved her arms and ran at the bird, making loud shoo noises. The startled gull dropped his prize and flew off in a flurry of ruffled feathers. Tessa bent down to study her trophy. Why, it’s some sort of fish! A round, brownish-olive sphere about four inches in diameter, it had tiny spines covering its white belly. She found a large clam shell and scooped the little thing up to get a closer look. A tentative feel told her the spines were not particularly sharp—more like babies’ teeth than a sea urchin. Its protruding eyes faced outward and its round little mouth formed an “O,” displaying four buck teeth. “It looks like Eeyore!” Tessa laughed aloud. Suddenly the sides caved in. She was about to toss it back onto the sand when the sides blew out again. “It’s breathing!” It must still be alive. “But what is it?”
Tessa spent a minute agonizing over whether to throw the thing back in the water or take it with her. The approach of the gull, nonchalantly picking his way across the sand, one eye fastened on what should have been his dinner, made her mind up for her. She walked back down the beach, careful not to drop or touch her find.
She found a bucket by the side of the house, filled it with seawater, and plunked the creature in. It floated, gently bobbing in the water. Five minutes later nothing had changed. Tessa left it by the pool and went into the lanai, fixed herself a seltzer water at the bar and went back to sit by her discovery. Still nothing. She brooded, checking the little ball every so often. Finally, she marched inside, threw on a short denim skirt and a crimson polo, retrieved the bucket, and drove down Gulf of Mexico Drive.
She crossed the bridge over New Pass and turned onto Ken Thompson Parkway. Mote Marine Laboratories and Aquarium lay on the right. The huge parking lot was jam-packed with SUVs and buses. Lines of squealing schoolchildren snaked through the double doors to the aquarium. Tessa headed left to the lab building. At the desk a young woman sporting blonde cornrows and large hoop earrings sat doodling. Tessa plopped the bucket on the counter.
The girl put down her pencil with obvious regret. “May I help you?”
“I hope so. I want to know what this is.”
The girl peered into the bucket. “Toy football?”
“Look again.”
“Hey, it’s got spikes on it! Cool.”
Tessa realized she’d have to find an actual scientist to classify the fish, if that’s what it was. “Is there an ichthyologist here?”
“Uh huh. About ten. Why?”
Patience. “Maybe one of them could help me?”
Tessa cringed inwardly as the girl took out her gum and stuck it under the counter. “I’ll go see.” She went off, leaving Tessa to stare at the portrait of a petite dark-haired woman in scuba gear, surrounded by gaping, teeth-riddled jaws. A small card tacked under it identified her as Eugenie Clark, “The Shark Lady,” Founder of Mote Marine. She picked up a brochure and skimmed it.

 

Mote Marine Laboratory has been a leader in marine research since Eugenie Clark founded it in 1955. Today, we incorporate public outreach as a key part of our mission. Mote is an independent nonprofit organization and has seven centers for marine research, the public Mote Aquarium and an Education Division specializing in public programs for all ages.
Mote employs over 200 scientists and researchers and enjoys the support of over 1400 volunteers.

 

Wow. That’s a lot of volunteers. She’d seen the bevy of mostly senior citizens in turquoise and blue Mote Marine polo shirts and often thought it would be great fun to scurry around the aquarium answering questions and enticing children to touch the rays and sea cucumbers.
Gum Girl returned, trailed by a gangly woman of about fifty, her white gold hair pulled back in a severe bun. She wore thick black glasses that not only hid her glorious green eyes but were a little too large, forcing her to constantly push them back onto the bridge of her nose. When she caught sight of Tessa she stopped short. “Tessa?”
Tessa recognized one of the regular habitués of her beach. “Esther? What are you doing here?”
“I work here.”
“Er…yes. I…um…guess I didn’t know that.”
Esther smiled. “I don’t think it ever came up on our shell hunting excursions. I’m actually the volunteer coordinator here at Mote. Semele tells me you’ve found something interesting. May I have a look at it?”
Tessa tipped the bucket and together they peered into it. The fish had collapsed again and drifted, gently fluttering its fins. Its big, liquid eyes regarded Tessa glumly.
Hmm. It’s some sort of puffer I think, but its markings are quite unusual. It’s rather small, isn’t it? Perhaps a juvenile.” Esther picked up a pencil and poked the little thing. “Still alive I see, but probably not for long.”
Tessa felt an unexpected wave of sadness. “Really? Why not?”
“I’ll bet it hasn’t eaten in a couple of days.”
“Can’t you do anything?”
“I’ll see if Dr. Doolittle’s available, shall I?” At Tessa’s disconsolate face, she relented. “Let me take it back to the biologist on call. At least they can take a stab at identifying it. If it’s exotic it should go into our database.”
“Exotic?”
“I mean, not indigenous to these waters. You did say you found it on the beach?”
“I snatched it from a herring gull. I don’t know where the bird originally picked it up.”
“Most saltwater puffers live in the Pacific. The lab will know if any exist in the Gulf. I’ll give you a call, okay?”
“Okay.” Tessa gave Esther her number, took one last look at the fish, and walked slowly out. Instead of heading to her car, though, she flashed her member card and went through the glass doors to the aquarium. She wandered in the crowded main hall and out toward the shark habitat tank. The cries of the children faded into the distance. A little old lady stood on tiptoe and whispered into Tessa’s ear that the aquarium would close in ten minutes. Tessa nodded but made no move to leave. After a minute the old lady gave up and toddled off. The stingray touch pool drew Tessa. She held her hand under the water and watched the rays swim over and around it, their graceful wings undulating in time with the current, thinking of her little find. Would he survive?
“Do you work here?”
Tessa jumped. A man stood next to her. Distracted by her ruminations on life and death, she at first only gave him a cursory once-over. His trim body and broad shoulders encased in a finely made dark suit hinted at strength. He wore a nametag, but the writing was too small for her to decipher without getting up close and personal with his chest. Once her eyes traveled up to his face, though, she wanted to. Very badly. Talk about hot.
He reminded her of a dream she’d had a few weeks earlier, in which a stranger held her in his arms and crooned a love song. Here in the flesh was her stranger. Dark blond hair feathered with gold, the mysterious tawny eyes of a stalking tiger, gently tanned skin drawn taut over the arched cheekbones, a nose…well, the nose could use some work. It tilted at an odd angle, presumably due to a collision with a blunt instrument sometime in the past. Tessa found it endearing.
“I repeat, do you work here?”
“I…uh…no. I don’t.” She indicated the nametag. “Do you?”
“Technically yes, only not in this building. I’m hoping you can tell me which door I use to get out. I mean, now that the aquarium’s closed.”
“It is? Oh damn.” She checked her watch. Sure enough, the minute hand showed ten minutes after five. “I guess we’d both better leave.”
Together they made a circuit of the doors, finding them all locked. Finally, the door to the gift shop gave to the combined pressure of four hands. Feeling like mischievous children, they crept past the ancient man counting money from the cash register. At the main entrance, her companion grinned at her. “Shall we make a break for it?”
Tessa smiled back and legged it out to the parking lot. She was rooting around in her bag for her keys when he caught up with her. “Hey, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Well, catch your breath first.” She waited, thinking he didn’t seem in very good shape despite his physique. Good. Otherwise he might have been too perfect. She didn’t want any complications in her life right now.
“Sorry,” he puffed. “I guess I haven’t entirely recovered from that bout with pneumonia.”
Damn.
“So, are you going to tell me your name? After all, we’re partners in crime now.”
“Tessa Diamond. And you are?”
“Cameron Mason. At your service.”
“Nice meeting you.” Tessa turned to her car. He cupped her elbow with a big, warm hand.
“Say, Ms. Diamond, can I interest you in a drink?”
“I don’t think…”
“You see, I was supposed to meet with the Lab director at five and he called in sick. Since I live up in Bradenton I really don’t want to schlep all the way back during rush hour. It would be nice to while away some time.” His lips curled in a tentative smile and she knew she’d have to give in. “You’d be doing me a favor. How does Tommy Bahama sound?”
Tessa gazed deep into his eyes, the green and brown intermixing in a steamy jungle of color. She woke up with a start when he touched her elbow again. “Miss Diamond?”
“Uh, sure. That would be fine.” Can you act any lamer, Tessa? But those eyes…
“My car or yours?”
“Er, why don’t I follow you?” She should at least make an attempt at keeping her distance. Anything to get away from that scent of his, a combination of dark rum and cinnamon, Very…tasty.
“Okay. I’m the tropical blue hybrid over there. The one with the I Love Caviar bumper sticker.”
“And I’m…” she stopped.
“The red Porsche. I know.”
Shut up, Tessa.
“See you in five!” Cameron waved and went off to his car.
* * * *
“So, tell me about yourself.” Cameron brought his face close to hers, his olivine-colored eyes bright. A curl of golden hair fell across his forehead, as if inviting her fingers to brush it away. Tessa kept her hands clasped tightly around her cocktail napkin.
“Just a little girl from Little Rock.” Too flip? From his raised eyebrows, she guessed the answer. “Actually, I’m from Virginia. A small town called Ordinary.” Hoping to forestall the inevitable remark, she added, “Really.”
“Surely they called it Special when you lived there?”
Tessa rolled her eyes. Pinhead meets dweeb. Or is it Beavis and Butthead? The waiter set down their drinks. Tessa took the little umbrella out, opened it and twirled it around. After an appreciative sip of the Singapore Sling, she went on. “I only lived there on and off. We moved around a lot when I was growing up. It must have seeped into my blood—the travel urge, I mean—because I spent the ten years after college traipsing around various cities and countries. Finally, about three years ago, I moved back to the DC area to work on the Hill.”
“Capitol Hill? What a small world!”
“You too? Who did you work for?”
“Not who, what. I was professional staff on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. Legislative liaison to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
“Ah, I worked for your rival—Energy and Natural Resources. We were always fighting with your committee over jurisdiction.”
“And yet I’m sure we can become fast friends.”
Tessa examined him with exaggerated care. The odd tilt to his nose gave him an elfin look. His hair glowed in the garish neon light as his generous lips wrapped around the straw to take a long, slow sip of his drink. I can’t breathe. Her whole body listed toward him, longing for a kiss.
“Careful!”
She looked down to see her glass teetering on the edge of the bar. With a lightning quick gesture Cameron reached out and grabbed it. A few drops spilled onto his hand. He licked them off. “‘Waste not, want not,’ as my old babushka used to say.”
Tessa kept her mouth shut while she waited for her veins to stop pumping adrenaline. Why is this guy affecting me so strongly? She had never been particularly interested in romance. Her parents’ miserable marriage had lasted several lifetimes. Forty-seven years of watching her mother give her father the silent treatment for one transgression or another left Tessa with a sour view of wedded bliss. When she was fourteen, she swore an oath on her copy of Emma to avoid marriage at all costs. Instead, she veered into academia, and spent most of her life studying, intrigued by ideas rather than sex. She’d always enjoyed the company of men though, but of more mature men, men she could debate rather than sleep with. Men like George.
George Marlin had come into her life with a shriek of Jaguar tires one rainy Old Town night. An Okie, he managed to meld an old-fashioned work ethic and country ways with a taste for expensive things. He made Tessa feel comfortable and cared for without ever imposing a serious demand on her affections. Early in their relationship, she told him about her vow to remain single. He had responded, “Look at me, Tessa. I’m sixty-two. I have my health, I have enough money to travel anywhere I want and buy whatever I want. Why would I ever need marriage? However, I’d enjoy your company if you’re game.” They’d been inseparable for two years, until the accident that took his life. They never spoke of marriage or commitment again. She had no idea how much she meant to him until the lawyer read his will, leaving her the bulk of his estate.
Cameron’s mellifluous baritone broke into her thoughts. “You were saying you worked on the Hill too?”
“Oh, yes. For a couple of years. It was great fun.”
“And rewarding and exhausting.”
“That too. Anyway, when my friend George died I came down here to live.”
Cameron signaled for two more drinks. “George?”
“Yes, a wonderful guy. Older. But so full of life.”
“So what happened?”
Tessa played for time. It still hurt to tell it out loud. “George loved all kinds of sports—he was a master skeet shooter, sailor, squash player. He excelled at everything he took up. And he could afford to indulge himself.”
“I take it he didn’t lack for filthy lucre?”
“No, although he came by it legally. Anyway, about a year ago, he and I came down here for a short vacation. He’d just bought a house on Longboat Key and wanted me to see it. One day we were in Bradenton Beach and came across a young man offering parasailing rides. George set his heart on going up, but I didn’t have the gumption. So he went alone.” She paused to give the awful image a chance to fade. “He…uh…he got out in the middle of the gulf and started horsing around, waving at me and twisting around in his harness. He must have put too much strain on the cable and it gave way.” Her voice broke. “He fell about eight hundred feet.”
Cameron put a hand on hers. “I’m so sorry.” Despite her grief she couldn’t ignore the tingle his touch set off as it moved up her arm toward her heart. Time slowed even while her pulse raced. An eternity later he took his hand away to pick up his drink. “But…er…if you don’t mind my asking, why are you still here?”
“I didn’t have any reason to stay in Washington after his death. When I learned he’d left me the house, I decided to move down here. I’ve been here eight months, but I haven’t really settled on any particular occupation yet—unless you count volunteering with the turtle nest survey group.”
“Ah—‘Ridley’s Brigade.’” He laughed, then assumed an expression of mock terror. “Please don’t tell me you’re an enviro-nazi?”
Tessa feigned indignation. “Dearie me, no. In fact, my fearless leader thinks I’m much too blasé about the whole thing. And anyway, you worked for Environment and Public Works—you must be the environmentalist.”
“Oh I am. But I love humans too. The bumper sticker on my other car, the Bentley—” he winked at her, “—says I Love Animals—They’re Delicious.”
Tessa giggled. Whenever she looked at Cameron her head swam. The drinks at Tommy Bahama’s were reported to be a little stronger than elsewhere. Yeah, that must be it. “Um, I had better be going. Thanks for the drink.”
He stood up quickly and waved for the check. “My pleasure. I’ll walk you out.”
Alacrity. He jumped up with alacrity. Tessa had the unwelcome sense he could hardly wait to move on.
As they came out of the bar, the balmy tropical breeze enveloped them in a cozy blanket. The sidewalks of St. Armand’s Circle were unusually crowded for a September evening. She knew it would get even worse during the high season, January to March. Once again, she wondered why she stayed in Florida. She hadn’t answered Cameron’s question because she didn’t have a response that made sense. Nowhere else to go I guess. She only counted a few cousins left and they lived in Oregon. Her parents were mercifully gone—her mother told her only death could liberate her from the empty, cold hell she’d lived in. Tessa had—not surprisingly—been an only child.
They walked down the boulevard to the canal. Between the high rises on Lido Beach she caught a glimpse of water sparkling under the moon’s good-natured rays. A light breeze made the palms crackle and a great egret in regal white stalked out of the way with avian disdain. The air felt soft on her skin. It’s really not too bad here though.
“Well, here’s your car. And my card. In case you’re willing to become fast friends after all.”
She wanted to jump into his arms so badly she could feel her heels lift off the ground. Instead, she took the card and, with a forced indifference that rang artificial even in her own ears, said, “That would be nice.”
He saluted and loped off down the sidewalk.
* * * *
“So where have you been, missy?”
“Dugan!” A slight chill touched her bones when she heard his voice in the darkness. Tessa threw her keys on the table and flipped the switch, flooding the glass-enclosed living room with light. Dugan sprawled in an armchair upholstered in pink flamingoes. “You look like the Godfather sitting there. How did you get in?”
“You left the beach door open. Not a good idea, you know. All sorts of riff raff wandering around.”
Her reaction to Dugan’s unexpected presence bothered Tessa. After all, she’d known him for a couple of months now, and had succumbed to his charms more than once. Still, she didn’t like the feeling that he thought he could make himself at home. “You should have called.”
“You’re usually home before this. I figured you were on your way.” Dugan checked, his glass halfway to his lips. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t alarm you.”
“N…no. S’okay. But I’m awfully tired. I had drinks with a friend—”
“You patronized an establishment other than mine?” His eyes crinkled with an icy kind of humor.
“Not by choice.” Why am I making excuses? “Anyway, I have the five a.m. turtle shift and would like to get some sleep. Do you mind?” She indicated the door that led to the pool and beach.
A spasm streaked across his face and was gone in an instant, but not before she recognized it as anger. He stood. “No problem. It’s not as though we had a date. I’ll see myself out.” He went down the steps. At the pool he stopped and looked up at her. “See you tomorrow?”
She cupped her hand to her ear as though she hadn’t heard, and waved back. She knew he didn’t have far to go—his beach house lay about a hundred yards north of hers. Unlike the brilliant white concrete angled walls and blue-tinted floor-to-ceiling windows of her house, his looked like something ripped from the Jersey shore, foundation and all. Corinthian pillars and naked marble statues on every level did not detract from the garish orange stucco and the lurid red tiles. Dugan often threw elaborate parties there, replete with bikini-clad nymphs hanging on hairy men wearing too many gold chains and not enough bathing suit. She had so far been able to avoid them.
She put his glass in the sink and went upstairs to bed. The light on her answering machine blinked. “Tessa? This is Esther. We’ve identified your little fellow. Come down tomorrow—I can’t wait to tell you. It’s a real find.”
Tessa slowly undressed. At least I’ve found a fish, if not the man of my dreams.

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One Response to Mai Tais and Mayhem by M.S. Spencer

  1. Thanks for having me Renee! I hope our readers enjoy this chapter of a fun Sarasota romance.

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