Trouble In Paradise
by Kate Hill
eBook ISBN: 9781301560318
With a marriage of convenience, a pet shark and a shady butler, Grace and R. C. have their work cut out for them, but that gives them the perfect chance to fall in love.
Rural New England
Grace could scarcely believe the filthy drunk sprawled on the table in the bar was the man she’d spent weeks searching for.
She closed her eyes in a brief moment of disbelief before she approached. Scuffed floorboards groaned beneath her booted feet. The stench of booze and smoke hung in the air and she resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose. She stopped in front of his table, folded her arms across her chest and didn’t try to hide her disgust.
The bearded, gray-haired bartender and several rugged patrons stared at her. A couple muttered lewd comments and chuckled. Grace mentally prepared for an attack by at least one of the two-legged swine. The gun hidden beneath her worn leather jacket offered cold comfort and the knife in her boot added back-up. Yet neither weapon made her feel as safe as her knowledge of hand-to-hand combat that she’d put to the test too frequently of late. All to find him.
If not for the rise and fall of his broad back as he breathed, he would have appeared dead. He rested face down on the nicked wooden table, his slack hand curved around the neck of an empty vodka bottle. Dark, wavy hair plastered with grease and heaven knew what else clung to his nape and matted against his scalp. Sweat darkened the back and armpits of his dirt-stained blue shirt. The incredibly long legs stretched beneath the table were covered in faded jeans with a tear in one thigh, revealing lightly tanned flesh roughened by dark hair. The sole of one of his ancient hiking boots had separated from the top, revealing the tip of a thick gray sock.
“I don’t believe it,” Grace muttered, drawing another deep breath of stagnant air. The bar needed a fan–or at least a window. The tiny, dim room felt even hotter than the hundred degree weather outside. She said louder, “R. C. Benson!”
He didn’t move.
Only when she slipped the bottle from his hand did he lift his head. Bloodshot blue eyes, the flesh beneath bruised from hard living, squinted at her and he growled, “Who the hell are you?”
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“Oh damn.” He sat up, winced and pressed a hand to his temple. “Police?”
“May I sit?”
He kicked out the chair across from him and she slid into it.
A skinny waitress with lank blonde hair approached Grace and said, “Two drink minimum.”
“What will it be?”
Grace shot the woman her most dangerous look and said, “Surprise me. Now this is a private conversation.”
The waitress raised her eyes to heaven and turned away, but Benson grabbed her arm. “Bring another bottle when you come.”
“You got it, honey.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Grace snapped. “You can hardly sit up.”
“Lady, I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. So why do you give a damn what I’m drinking?” By the tone of his voice, Grace knew it was a rhetorical question.
“I came because I need your help.”
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Sweat glistened in the hollow of his throat. His shirt was unbuttoned almost to his navel, exposing the lean muscles of his chest and stomach. Grace was surprised that a man who apparently possessed a multitude of health damaging habits was able to retain such a physique. If she hadn’t seen his current state of drunken self-pity, she would have expected physical excellence from this man she’d studied and sought out.
A former Marine who had survived several tours of Vietnam, a modern-day explorer who had traveled the world with archaeology teams, R. C. Benson was a man whose life had often depended on his physical abilities as well as his intellect. Highly educated, he’d spent several years as curator of a famous metropolitan museum. Then he’d turned to a different life–a more dangerous one, similar to his days as a military man and world traveler, but with a less noble purpose. Though R. C. had never been caught and accused, Grace had discovered that he was one of the swiftest, slipperiest grave robbers in the world.
He was tough, greedy, self-serving and known to do just about anything to accomplish unsavory tasks without being caught. In short, he was the best person for the job Grace was about to offer him.
“You need my help?” Benson rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
She noted his hands, in spite of the layers of dirt, were long-fingered and graceful, the veins prominent and the nails short.
“You son of a bitch!” A voice roared from behind Grace, causing her to jump. A wide shadow fell over the table as a tall man with a body of thick muscle and even thicker layers of fat glared at Benson. Tattoos covered his arms, chest and face. An enormous ring of keys jingled from a chain clipped to the loop of his jeans. Gold and silver rings adorned his meaty fists.
“Oh, shit.” Benson sighed and squeezed one eye shut, as if in pain. “This is just not my day. Len, I told you last time to stay away. I’m sick of your stink always floating around wherever I go.”
“You still owe me from that last job in South America!”
“I owe you?” Benson’s lip curled. “You got scared and left the country halfway through the job. If anything, you owe me.”
“I’ve had it with you, Benson. This time, I’m taking what’s mine out of your skinny ass!” Len’s fist plunged downward into Benson’s face. Moving with surprising speed for an inebriate, R. C. rolled out of the way and kicked Len in the knee. The ape bellowed in pain. Several more men–obviously Len’s buddies–dove across the room at Benson. The next moments were a whirlwind of fists, kicks, biting teeth and clawing hands. Benson sent two men crashing into tables, but four more jumped at him. Len struck him across the face with the broken table leg.
Telling herself she was crazy, Grace dove into the fight. She kicked Len and smashed her palm into the nose of one of his companions. Two bouncers joined the brawling group. One grasped Grace’s arm and dragged her toward the door. Benson had regained himself and knocked two more of Len’s companions unconscious while the bouncer hauled the last one toward the door and tossed him out alongside Grace.
“I’m going. I’m going!” Benson slurred, shrugging off the bouncers’ hands.
He stepped out the door, fell down the three wooden steps and landed face first in a patch of brown grass. Spitting dirt, he pushed himself to his knees. Grace took his arm and helped him to his feet. She scolded herself for admiring the hardness of his biceps. No matter how gorgeous the man’s body, he was filthy and pathetic.
“Where are you staying?” she asked. “I’ll drive you home.”
“You think I can’t drive?” His lips twisted in a lopsided grin that changed to a grimace as he touched his swelling face.
“Yes. I don’t think you can drive.”
“Well you’re right.” He staggered and leaned against her. She slid an arm around his waist and braced her hand against his chest. Hot, damp flesh covered his hard pecs. His heartbeat thumped against her palm. Narrowing his eyes, he stared at her. “You’re too pretty for this dump.”
Grace raised her eyes to heaven and sighed, patting his chest. “Let’s just get you to bed.”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until morning.” He lowered his lashes over glazed eyes. “Don’t think the apparatus is working right now.”
Wrinkling her nose, Grace turned her head away from him. “A woman would need a gas mask to go to bed with you right now. You smell like a brewery. Where do you live?”
He squinted and rolled his shoulders. “Cabin Si–No, seven.”
She opened the door of her pickup. R. C. practically fell inside. Once settled, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Grace walked to the driver’s seat, climbed in and started the engine. She glanced at her strange companion who appeared to be asleep already. Then she turned her attention to driving. The truck rolled down the empty road toward the motel several miles north, deeper into the mountains of New England.
Nick’s Motel was a short stretch of shacks with peeling green paint. Insects swarmed around the lanterns fixed above each door labeled with faded gold numbers. Grace parked the truck in front of number seven. In the passenger seat, Benson slept quietly. She hopped to the gravel ground and walked to his side to open the door.
“Hey,” she said, shaking his shoulder.
He mumbled and opened his bleary eyes. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t have a chance to tell you. Careful getting out. I don’t feel like dragging your big butt inside if you fall again.”
“Fall? I’m a mountain goat. In the Corps, I hiked through terrain slippery enough to make skating finks look like dry pavement–all in full gear.” He waved his hand and took a step out of the truck. Luckily he managed to clutch the door before he hit the dirt a second time that night.
Grace slipped his arm around her shoulder as they made their way to the motel. She tried not to grimace as his sweaty armpit dampened the bare flesh of her shoulder. Her black tank top didn’t offer nearly enough protection. “It’s not skating finks, Benson. It’s rinks.”
“That’s what I said.”
“I’m not going to argue with a drunk.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Where’s your key?”
He stopped walking, wobbled a bit, and jerked his thumb toward the door. “You mean to the room?”
“No, to the Tower of London!”
He whistled, blowing alcohol breath in her face. “Testy, aren’t ya?”
Grace shielded her nose and mouth with her hand. “Don’t breathe on me! A person could get drunk just from smelling you! Where’s the key?”
His brow furrowed in thought, he felt the pockets of his jeans. Grinning, he held up a finger, then leaned over, reached into his boot and pulled out the key.
Grace reached for it, but he held it way above his head and well out of her reach. “What’s the magic word?”
Chuckling, he fumbled to insert the key into the lock. “I think I like you.”
“Aren’t I lucky? Give me that.” She took the key from his clumsy fingers and opened the door.
After switching on the light, she glanced around. Strewn with dirty clothes, empty bottles and cans, the room smelled stale. A stained carpet covered the floor. The furnishings included a bed, a night table and a single chair with cigarette-burned cushions. The half-open door across the room revealed a bathroom with a cracked mirror over a rust-stained sink.
“What a shambles,” Grace muttered.
“Home sweet home.” Benson tugged off his shirt and belt. Grace tried not to stare at his broad shoulders and lean chest dusted with dark hair that tapered to a narrow line down his flat abdomen. He flopped onto the bed, not bothering to move the T-shirts and underwear scattered over the mattress beneath him. Benson unbuttoned his jeans and slid the zipper halfway down, exposing a thatch of dark hair that disappeared beneath the denim. He rubbed his heavily bearded jaw. “So who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“I’m not so sure I want anything from you anymore. I was looking for the man I heard was the best in his field, or whatever you call a professional grave robber.”
“What makes you think I’m a grave robber? My business has always been legit.”
“I have my sources. Even though I think they might be crazy. I was told you were a class act–for a criminal, that is.”
“Criminal.” He sighed and closed his eyes.
Again, she thought he’d fallen asleep.
Leave, Grace. Forget you ever met him. Find someone who can really help you.
But she’d wasted precious weeks searching for him and might not have time to find someone else on such short notice.
The photo standing next to a half empty bottle of tequila on his dresser nabbed her attention. She approached and picked it up. A tall, striking man dressed in an impeccable gray pinstripe suit stood beside a teenage boy wearing a concert T-shirt and jeans. The resemblance between the two startled her. Both had clear blue eyes, slightly snubbed noses, and cheekbones a model would envy. Each had wavy hair, the man’s dark brown, almost black, the boy’s lighter and longer, hanging past his shoulders. She fixed on the elder, doubting she’d ever seen a man look so handsome in a suit. The lines of his tall body were strong and perfect, the epitome of masculine grace. He wore a pleasant smile, revealing white teeth and a slight overbite that matched the boy’s.
The sound of Benson’s sleepy voice brought her attention back to him.
She pointed to the picture. “Who are these guys?”
An indiscernible emotion flickered beneath the drunken glaze of his eyes. “The kid was my brother. Eustace.”
“Who’s that with him?”
He looked at her. “Can’t you tell, or do I look that bad now?”
Grace’s eyes widened as she stared at the spotless, attractive man in the picture. Then she turned back to the drunken slob on the bed. “Yes, you look that bad. That was really you?”
He nodded, closing his eyes. “That was a happier day.”
Grace folded her arms across her chest, realizing she had no business asking him anything else, but she was compelled to do so. Before tracking him, she’d learned many facts about R. C. Benson, but meeting the man was revealing a whole other side she never thought existed. “Can I ask you something personal?”
His lips twisted in a humorless smile. “Why stop now?”
“How did your brother die?”
He took so long to answer that she thought he’d either fallen asleep or chosen to ignore her. “He was murdered.”
“He was a good kid who made some really bad decisions. It was probably my fault. All that time I was in Nam, he was living with a friend. As soon as I got back, I tried making a decent home for him. We went on digs together. I got him a job at the museum when I became curator so I could keep a better eye on him. He was a little wild.”
“I wonder where he got that trait from?” Grace smiled as she sat on the edge of the bed, for the first time really interested in what he had to say. “Why was he in your custody? Where were your parents?”
“Killed in a car accident while I was overseas.”
“How was your brother murdered?”
“Nosy, aren’t you?”
“I didn’t mean to–“
“It’s all right. He met some people around the museum who knew he had experience on digs. Eustace and I didn’t always get along. He was at that rebellious age when he thought he knew everything. I dug around for some information about his new acquaintances and learned they were involved in theft, buying and selling antiques and artifacts they had no right to. They were what you call grave robbers. I forbade him to see them. He ran away one night. I chased them halfway around the world. That’s how I got the reputation you’re talking about.”
“You mean as a grave robber?”
“To track one, you have to become one. One night in Asia, Eustace’s body was pulled from a lake.”
“That’s awful.” Grace noted the tightness around his mouth. Though his eyes were closed, sadness, anger and guilt radiated from him like heat. “Did they find his killer?”
“I did. There were three of them.”
“You killed them?”
“One of them is dead, and right now I’m so drunk I won’t deny being involved. The second one I found and should have killed. That’s what makes me so damn sick!”
“That you didn’t kill him?”
“I shouldn’t have let him get to me. It’s not like I’ve never killed before. In Nam it was kill or be killed. I must have lost my guts, all those years as a curator.”
“What stopped you?”
He swallowed and reached for the tequila bottle. She moved it out of his range and placed it on the floor.
Sitting up, Benson opened one eye and glanced toward the night table. “Thought I had a bottle there.”
“Guess you were seeing things.”
“So why didn’t you kill him?”
“His wife and three kids were staring at me like I was some kind of monster. I guess the guy had been walking the straight and narrow for years, but that doesn’t erase what he did.”
“You mean he wasn’t a grave robber any longer?”
Benson shook his head. “Sold insurance. Can you believe the irony?”
Grace placed a hand on his forearm. “You probably did the right thing not killing him, especially in front of his family.”
He didn’t reply. She tugged the clothes from under him and gathered her courage before untying his old leather boots and yanking them off, holding her breath against the smell she knew had to be there. As she covered him with the wadded up sheet at the foot of the bed, she glanced at his sleeping face. If he trimmed his beard, washed his hair and stayed off booze long enough to banish the bags under his eyes, he’d probably look like he had in the photograph with Eustace.
“I wonder what happened to the third man he was after?” she murmured.
“He was killed,” he said in a sleepy voice. “Before I could get to him.”
“Get some sleep, Benson.”
“What did you want me for?”
“I’ll tell you in the morning.”
Grace switched off the light and stepped out of the room.