Alice Orr.

Key West Heat






Key West Heat
Alice Orr


www.millsandboon.co.uk

To my husband, Jonathan

always my romantic hero To my map artist Ed Vesneske, who is also my dear son To my editor Julianne Moore, a true jewel

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Taylor Loyola BissettA woman drawn to the tropics and to the danger awaiting her there.

Des (Destiny) MaxwellA dashing man who could be the greatest danger of all.

Winona StarlingA Key West psychologist who could be Taylors savior.

Jethro StarlingWinonas very nervous son.

Armand SantosKey West homicide detective.

April Jane CooneyProprietor of the Key Westian guesthouse.

Violetta RamoneWho knows all about Caribbean cookingand the past.

Early RhinelanderTaylors confidant for as far back as she can remember.

Desiree Loyola & Paul Lawrence BissettTaylors late parents.

Pearl & Netta BissettTaylors late aunts.

Madame LeopoldA Key West psychic.


Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Prologue

Des smelled it before he saw it. He was not quite fourteen, but he knew right off what it was: the thing you smell a few blocks away or on the breeze and hope wont come close enough to smart your eyes and chafe your throat. The heavy, old-wood scent of it was almost pleasant at first, like bonfires or leaves burning. But there werent that many falling leaves in Key West, except those ripped from branches by a blasting hurricane. And there was nothing pleasant about the way this made him feel. He held his breath, as if doing that could make the danger on the wind go away by magic, like when a little kid closes his eyes and thinks that makes him invisible.

Pretty soon, Des had to breathe again, and the smoke smell was still there.

The wind was blowing hard. Tonights gale hadnt been upgraded to hurricane from tropical storm yet, but Des guessed it was on the way there. Hed been feeling funny all day. That happens when theres a wild drop on the barometer. Hed taken it in stride the way any real conch would, conchs being native Key Westers. He was even a little bit excited, like when a big adventure is about to hit and you dont know how its going to turn out. He liked that in the movies, but he knew there was a big difference between the screen and life. In real life, adventures could mess you up bad. Still, the lurking storm and rising wind had his heart beating fast all daytill now.

What made his heart beat fast now was fear.

He knew where the smoke smell was coming from. For a moment, he did nothing, not because he was scared, even though he was. He just couldnt believe what was happening. The worst time ever to have a fire is in a high wind. Everybody knows that. The flames blow up twice as fast in a storm, and there was no rain yet. And the smell of smoke was coming from the place he loved best in all the world.

Thinking that got Des started running. In the few seconds of his hesitation, flames had broken through the roof at the back of the tall Victorian perched at the edge of the sea, with so much water so nearby, yet too far away to be of help now. By the time Des reached the veranda steps he could hear the fire, cracking and popping and racing through the long, narrow rooms.

Miss Desiree always left the windows open, especially where they looked out onto the water. That meant the sea wind would be howling inside, feeding the hungry fire and helping it grow. Des caught his breath with a gasp of horror that sucked in more smoke and made him choke. Her room was back there too, where the sea view was best, the loveliest room he had ever been in.

He knew by heart where to find the front staircase, even with his eyes already tearing nearly blind. He took the wide steps two at a time. It occurred to him that the thick, rose-colored carpet would turn into an instant river of fire when the flames reached this part of the house. The only way out after that would be the roof. The back stairwell was sure to be an inferno by now. Des hurried faster against the smoke that wanted to stop his lungs. He would do what had to be done when the time came. He would get her out no matter what. He whispered that promise to himself and to her. Praying he could keep it scared him more even than the smoke and flames.

Then there was a sound, faint against the crack and whoosh of the fire, but Des heard it anyway. Until that moment, he had forgotten there was anyone besides Miss Desiree in the house. Now he remembered the little girl was in here, too. That had to be her crying. It was more a childs sound than a grown womans, so it had to be the little girl. He hesitated another instant. Miss Desiree was along the balustrade in the other direction and all the way to the rear of the house, if she hadnt already gotten herself out. The girl was down the hall to the right from where he now stood and definitely still inside this house that was being rapidly consumed by flame.

He knew he couldnt wait to decide. The fire was gaining ground too fast for that. He ran down the hall toward the crying sound. All the doors along the hallway were closed. Maybe she had heard that you shouldnt open a door in a fire. Even a kid her age might know that. Then, he got to the door with the crying behind it and knew the real reason she hadnt come out. The door was locked, and there was no key in the hole. The childs cries were more strangled now, rasping with smoke like Dess throat. He croaked a reassurance that he would get her out even though he wasnt sure how.

Under the rug, the child rasped from the other side of the door. I think she put the key under the rug.

Des dropped to his knees and pawed at the hallway carpet. The electric lights had gone out. Probably the system had been burned out by the fire. It was too dark to see, and his streaming eyes were useless anyway. Des fought down his terror as he prayed to find a bump under the rough wool nap. When his fingers touched it he almost cried out with joy and relief. He fished the key out and lunged at the door, feeling for the keyhole. The key took two turns to catch, and Des thought he might go crazy from being so scared in the meantime.

Then the door was open, and the little girl had leapt into his arms.

Keep low, he said. Theres not so much smoke near the floor.

If that was true, Des couldnt tell. The smoke was pretty thick everywhere by now. They stumbled and crawled toward the staircase. They had just reached the top of the stairs when, with a roar and a crash, the flames broke through into the hallway at the opposite end from where they had just been. Des saw orange and blue lick up the delicately flowered wallpaper. Then a line of fire shot toward them down the center of the hallway ceiling, like a flaming arrow in a cowboy movie.

The childs high-pitched scream was right next to his ear, and he wanted to tell her to shut up. Instead, he grabbed her arm and pulled her down the stairs, bumping her from one step to another, knowing that if he lost his grip on her she would fall. He also knew that if he didnt drag her this rough way they could lose their race against the flames and be caught in the river of burning carpet he had imagined on his way up these same stairs.

Suddenly, he remembered what his mission had been when he first ran into this house. He had come to save the mother, not the child. He had not thought for even a second that he could lose his own life in the attempt. He had only cared about Miss Desiree. He glanced back toward the stairway and the balustrade to the left toward her room. Flames rimmed the opening to the hallway in that direction. In less than a moment they would spread into a wall of fire across the only way he might possibly reach her.

Des continued his plunge down the stairs with the child in tow. He couldnt afford to hesitate for a second, even though what he was doing could cost the life of the person he loved more than anyone or anything in the world.

She would want you to save her baby, a voice inside him said. She always called the little girl her baby. He knew the voice was speaking truth, whether he wanted to hear it or not.

They had reached the heavy front door. In a flash of premonition, Des saw the etched glass cracking from the heat of the fire and the pale veneer curling into charred blackness. Though none of that had happened yet, he knew it would, and very soon.

Des shoved the door open and dragged himself and the child onto the veranda. Wind was whipping the lime trees that bordered the brick walk from the house to the road. Miss Desiree took such pride in those lime trees. She would hate to see them wracked and bent by the storm, even though she would know they were plenty strong enough to survive.

Des dropped the childs arm, and she fell onto the bricks. He didnt pick her up. The child was safe now. He knew that the mother, unlike her trees, would not survive this night. He heard the sirens in the same moment he came to understand that there was no use running back inside. He would only turn to charring blackness along with the white-painted woodwork and the chintz-covered chairs and all the rest of the bright, beautiful things she loved. She wouldnt want that to happen to him.

Desiree, he whispered because his throat was too raw to scream. Her name was so like his own, Desiree and Destiny, that people said they should have been mother and son. But they werent. She was only the closest thing hed had to a mother since his own mom died before he was old enough to know her.

Des reached down and grabbed the childs arm again and began dragging her along the brick path, getting her away from the house as a second-story window exploded too close above them. He could only move in a crouch now. He was weak from gasping for breath. He felt the hard brick through the soles of his sneakers and then the softer sod as he pulled himself and his burden onto the lawn just inside the gate and the tall fence. He fell to the grass and buried his face in it, surprised that he could smell the greenness through the smoke that filled the wide yard and sooted the flower beds.

Des heard the trucks and the shouts of the men as they dragged heavy hoses down the path to shoot a futile stream of water at the blazing hulk that was already too far gone to save.

It was too late. Too late for her house. Too late for her. Too late for Des, and for the one bright shiny part of his lonely life.

He wrapped his arms around the child who lay sobbing at his side. He needed somebody to hang on to, even this kid hed always been a little jealous of. She sobbed against him as his eyes continued to stream, not only from the smoke and fire this time, but also from tears he wasnt ashamed to cry.

Chapter One

Twenty-four years later

She should have come here long ago. Taylor Loyola Bissett knew that the minute she stepped from the cab. She was out of her element, as her Great-Aunt Pearl would have put it, but that was exactly what Taylor wanted to be. Stay where you know the territory and the territory knows you, her aunt said over and over, like a chant. That way you will always be in tune. Taylor could feel herself out of tune with this place already, and that both frightened and thrilled her.

Her immediate impulse, conditioned by years of Aunt Pearl, was to get back in the cab and escape. But Taylor never did anything on impulse, at least not before today. Besides, all the way from the Key West Airport she had been less than at ease with the driver of this outlandish pink taxi who looked like hed just crawled off skid row. Shed prefer not to drive any further with him, not even back to the airport. She couldnt leave the Keys yet anyway, anymore than she had been able to resist coming in the first place. There was something to be settled for her on this island. Shed been haunted by that feeling for weeks now. She had to find out what it was all about. Maybe then she could put the past, what little she could recall of it, to rest at last.

Taylor climbed out of the cab, dragging her belongings with her. She should have had the driver help with her bags, but he hadnt offered and she hadnt asked. She did stupidly independent things like that sometimes. Her hair was heavy on her neck from the humidity, and tendrils clung to the dampness of her cheeks. By the time she lugged this load up the steps to the guest-house porch, shed be drenched with perspiration, and the Key Westian looked too small to have a bellboy. She stopped to catch her breath and also to try to get a handle on her apprehension.

Everything bad that ever happened to the Bissett family had happened on this island, starting with the day her father, Paul Lawrence Bissett, met Desiree Loyola. He was a young naval officer, fresh from a small town in northern New York State and green as the valley of the St. Lawrence River for which he had been named. She was a pale-eyed beauty who captured the young naval officer without so much as a shot over his bow. He married her and gave her Stormley, a tall, stately house by the sea, as a wedding gift. His maiden aunts did not approve. Netta moved to the Keys to watch out for Paul and his interests, but not even that was enough to prevent disaster. Within a few years, he had deserted both country and family, and his beautiful wife was dead, consumed by the inferno that some said was her deserved end.

After that, Taylor had been taken back to northern New York to be raised by her great-aunt, Pearl Bissett. Netta Bissett remained in Key West. Pearl had passed away two years previously, and now Netta was gone too. During Pearls final illness, she had instructed Taylor to sell off all Bissett holdings on Key West, especially Stormley, after Netta died. Taylor worked full-time managing the Bissett familys considerable north-country interests. Still, lawyers and realtors could have handled the Key West details. That had been Aunt Pearls plan. Taylor wouldnt even have to show up here, where nothing but bad fortune had ever befallen her and those she cared about.

Taylor would have been content to go along with itexcept for the dreams. They began a few months before Pearl died. They came in the hour before dawn and were filled with creatures made of tangled green foliage and smoke. Sometimes Taylor was embraced by these creatures. Other times they pursued her. She awoke with her heart pounding from both terror and fascination, and with the certainty that these images had something to do with this Isle of Bones where she was born.

Leave well enough alone, Aunt Pearl would have said were she still alive. Dont ask for trouble.

But the dreams felt to Taylor as if she already had trouble. Not even her long, soothing talks with Early Rhinelander could erase those shadows from her mind. Early, the dear family friend who had brought her north from the Keys as a toddler with Pearl, had stayed in New York and become Taylors most trusted confidant. Unfortunately, even Early couldnt resolve this restlessness in Taylors spirit. Shed known somehow that only returning to her birthplace could accomplish that. So, here she was, damp and uncomfortable in her too-heavy clothing, standing on the low curbstone of the Key Westian Guest House on Amelia Street.

It was after ten at night. She had taken the last commuter flight from Tampa on the mainland. She wasnt even sure there would be anybody around to check her in at this hour. She should have mentioned the time shed be arriving when she made the reservation. She didnt ordinarily neglect details like that, but her whirlwind decision and departure had been anything but ordinary for her. It occurred to Taylor that there might be a price to be paid for that hastiness.

What looked like a single lamp burned behind the lace curtains of the guest-house door. Maybe she should go up there and see if anybody was available to help carry her bags. She was about to do that when she noticed something peculiar down the block, back along the way the cab had driven.

The streetlights were far apart and shadowed by the thick greenery of tropical trees. The moon was also barely visible through the veil of foliage. Taylor could feel the dark blue of the sky more than she could see it. Still, she was sure she had seen a car being driven slowly along the opposite curb with its headlights off. That car had stopped a few houses from where she stood, and was still there. She couldnt make out who was inside the car from this distance in the near darkness. Why had the car been driven without headlights? Why did the driver just sit there now, without getting out?

Maybe a pair of lovers were lingering for a last kiss in the tropical night. The car appeared to be dark in color, but Taylor couldnt really tell. The shadows here might make anything look dark. Taylor remembered the pink cab. Hadnt she noticed the cabdriver watching her a bit too attentively in his rearview mirror? She strained to make out the contours of the car down the street. Had the cab looked like that? She usually noticed such things. Tonight she had not, another example of not being quite herself in this place.

Maybe the lovers didnt want the neighbors to see them drive up and start kissing in the car, so they turned the headlights off. That scenario was preferable to imagining she was being stalked by a cabdriver. Taylor shook her head in wonder that she was even taking time to contemplate such theories about the simple presence of a parked car. The heat, which her north-country metabolism found so difficult to assimilate in mid-February, must be addling her brain. She bent down to pick up the bigger of her bags in one hand, then balanced it by slinging the smaller duffel over her opposite shoulder along with her purse. She straightened up slowly and was about to turn toward the guesthouse when she saw that the car had begun to move.

It crept along even more slowly than when she had first noticed it coming down the street. For a moment, she wasnt entirely certain the car was moving at all. Then she saw that the gap had widened between the body of the vehicle and the curb. The car was creeping in her direction with its headlights still off, like a dark, crawling hulk in the night. Taylor shuddered, causing the strap of the carryall to slide down her arm, shifting the balance she had so carefully adjusted and pulling her precariously to one side.

Taylor tried to hunch the strap back upward. Rough fabric chafed her neck as her jacket was pulled askew. She could feel her clothes sticking to her everywhere. She longed to drop the bags right here and make a beeline for what she hoped would be the air-conditioned lobby of the guesthouse. But what if that was exactly what the driver of the car wanted her to do? What if he was after her luggage? Shed heard about thieves who prey on tourists in resort areas.

The car was close enough now for Taylor to see it more clearly. It was either dark green or navy blue. She recognized now why she hadnt been able to see inside and still could not. The windows were tinted and opaque from the outside looking in. The wide, blank eye of the windshield made a sinister image as the car continued its slow, steady advance.

This was definitely not the pink taxicab she had taken from the airport. This car was not only darker in color, it was also of much more recent vintage. Its sleek surface glistened like brand-new in the occasional patch of streetlight. Taylors common sense told her that this was not the kind of vehicle likely to be owned by a petty luggage thief. She held tight to her bags anyway and staggered toward the guest-house steps. Meanwhile, her overheated brain registered the fact that the car was picking up speed.

She struggled through the opening in the white picket fence that surrounded the guesthouse. Her suitcase bounced clumsily as she thumped it upward from step to step. She looked over her shoulder to see the car almost at the curb where she had been standing only a moment ago. Her heart jumped, and her right shin bumped sharply against the edge of the top step, almost sending her sprawling across the porch floor. Taylor lunged onto the porch just as the light behind the lace curtain glowed suddenly brighter, and the door opened.

Whats goin on out here? drawled an amused female voice. Youre makin enough noise to wake em up all the way over at City Cemetery.

Im sorry, Taylor gasped as she struggled toward the door, but I have to get inside.

Slow down, honey, the woman in the doorway said. She touched Taylors arm. Heavens sake, youve worked yourself up to a mighty sweat.

Taylor pressed forward, but the tall womans strong grip restrained her.

Whats eatin you, girl?

That car, Taylor blurted out, jerking her head toward the street.

What car might you be referrin to?

Taylor spun around, half expecting to see the dark hulk with its blind, black windows crash through the white pickets and mount the porch steps after her. What she did see made her let the carryall and purse drop to the floor on one side of her and the suitcase plop down on the other. The street appeared even more shadowed in contrast with this lighted porch. The opposite side was lined with frame houses set close to the sidewalk. She could just make out the clusters of bougainvillea tumbling everywhere, from the balconies and along fence tops. But there was no dark car in sight.





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